Wednesday, September 21, 2016

See something, say something?

EDITED: 4:41 pm 9/21/16

On Tuesday, September 20, 2016, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson convened a press event to denounce the recent wave of violent crime that has washed over New Jersey’s capital city. During the course of the presentation attended by various levels of state, county and local officials, a broad based approach to combating the violence.

As Greg Wright wrote in the Times:

“Clergy members, law enforcement officials, local and state politicians and others - including state Attorney General Christopher Porrino - then took turns outlining what their organization or agency would do to about the recent shootings and how to prevent future ones.”

“Nearly every speaker called on the community members to join the leaders in the push, calling for a cultural shift within the communities where citizens see crimes occur but don't report them.”

On the same day, news reports revealed that an investigation had been launched into allegations that a Trenton Police K9 Officer had sex with a prostitute, in a TPD facility while on duty.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that other K9 Officers may have had knowledge of the incident. If that is true, it sort of negates the request from the Mayor, Police Director Ernest Parrey and other officials for the community to report crimes they are witness to.

The relationship between any law enforcement agency, especially a local police department, and the community it is sworn to protect and serve is based upon mutual respect for each other and the laws that govern us all.

The recent high profile incidents of police involved fatal shootings has weakened the community police partnership. Trust in local departments is flagging…whether deserved or not.

While Trenton has thus far escaped any of the incidents like those in Charlotte or Tulsa or Baton Rouge, etc., the trust between the people and the police is not as strong as it should be.

While an incident of an officer having sex with a prostitute while on duty isn’t the most heinous of crimes, it is an indication to some that the police think they are above the rules.

And even though it is one officer, it reflects poorly on the entire department. To John or Jane Q. Public, it’s not a matter of “one bad apple”, but rather the whole bushel basket is assumed to be spoiled and riddled with worms.

Compounding this is the allegation that other officers were aware of the situation and did not report it. If that proves to be true, it just adds to the public perception that the police have double standards for behavior…one for themselves, one for the rest of us.

Now let’s be clear…our experience has shown that the majority of Trenton’s police officers are hardworking individuals who are proud to wear the badge and truly work to serve all they encounter. In any organization there will be those whose performance falls below the acceptable standard.

When an officer does something that is wrong it is incumbent upon those around the individuals to not turn their heads and look the other way. Rather, they need to report it. It is also up to managers to deal with the problem appropriately, definitively and swiftly.

Too often we have heard past and present TPD officers calling out members of the public or public officials for bad behavior. Why should they remain silent when it comes to one of their own?

There was a somewhat muffled outcry from some members of the department when a police academy cadet was dismissed for cheating and then allowed to re-enter a subsequent academy class. Why would they choose to look the other way when a veteran officer breaks the law?

Allowing the “bad apples” to do as they wish undermines the community-police partnership. It tears at the already shredded fabric of faith the people are asked to place in the police. Weakening that relationship puts both parties at higher risk for more serious confrontations down the road.

If, at the completion of the investigation, the allegations prove to be true, the officer must suffer the appropriate consequences. And, should it be proven that others knew of the situation and did nothing about reporting it, they must be punished as well.

If you see something, say something applies to both sides of the thin blue line.

We have just learned that the officer being investigated for the alleged dalliance with the prostitute has taken his own life. His actions with the woman were absolutely wrong but this is very sad. Perhaps if, instead of turning a blind eye, his colleagues had spoken up this sad turn of events could have been avoided. 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Friends with benefits

This past week it came to light that the New Jersey Attorney General's Office was investigating the  non-profit Friends of Mercer County Parks. The investigation centers on allegations of "official misconduct, corruption of public resources and theft by extortion".

Let's be clear from the very this point NO ONE HAS BEEN PROVEN GUILTY OF ANYTHING. The story will be told over time as the investigation is concluded and charges brought or dismissed.

That said, there are issues here. Serious issues.

Let's start by looking at what a "Friends of "organization is and why it can be beneficial.

Non-profits that are NOT a part of local or state government have a little more leeway in raising funds and dispersing them to aid in a public institution's mission. Think about Friends of your local public library. They are able to take on fundraising tasks and then put the money back into the operation of the library so things can be done that would otherwise be restricted by budgetary concerns.

Works the same with parks.

It costs a lot to develop, improve and maintain public recreation areas. Use fees can help defray some of the costs but they have to be kept reasonable. Government budgets have to always be mindful of the tax burden on the residents.

A "Friends of" group can legitimately raise additional funds to augment those that come from the county budget. This can be for specific items; maybe the creation of a dog park within a park or a nature trail that identifies the various flora to be found there. Maybe the "Friends" group wants to hold a specific event or series of events; concerts, outdoor film screenings and the like, but there is no money in the budget for those kinds of things. Great!

If a group of committed volunteers want to properly organize, raise money and lend a hand in promoting the use of pubic facilities, we're all for it. 

Problems arise, however, when the non-profits are too closely aligned with/tied to the government entity they are supposed to support.

In the matter before us, we have a "non-profit" group that is made up essentially of employees of the very entity being supported. Despite the claims of public officials about transparency and such, the optics are not good.

The parks commission, while semi-autonomous, is still recognized as a duly chartered public entity and as such is subject to the rules of governing local government entity. From purchasing, to public records and the conduct of public meetings, the commission must follow the same rules as a governing body like the town council or county freeholders.

The "Friends of" group, however, (if properly created and operated) is a private entity that is not subject to the same rules regarding public records or sunshine laws.

When you have a group that is so closely tied the government entity it purports to support, as in the case of the Friends of Mercer County Parks, it just plain looks bad.

Most non-profits are overseen by a board of trustees that volunteer their time. This group was made up of parks employees. This begs the question of whether or not they did "Friends of" work on County time (paid for by the taxpayers). If so, were they not "stealing" from the county coffers?

Wouldn't a better approach have been to solicit trustees and members from a cross-section of the county population. Let them decide how and when to raise funds and when and how to disburse the funds raised? They can work in partnership with but completely independent of the Parks Commission and its staff. There should be no cross over.

No public employee of any agency should hold a voting seat on the board of any non-profit "Friends" group. And they certainly should not have any control over monies raised or disbursed by that group.

Even if, and it is a significant "if", there turns out to be no wrongdoing, the potential for abuse of the non-profit "Friends of" group by the Park Commission members and Executive Director has to be  recognized. The only way to eliminate that abuse is to distance the organization from the parks commission, parks staff, etc. 

And if it means the county cannot continue to produce concerts and events at the parks, that's fine. That isn't the county's job anyway. Government should provide and maintain the facilities, not program them.

If there is truly a need for a "Friends of " the county parks organization, then let it come from the populace and NOT be a captive to the administration.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A "snowmad's" observation

A note to our readers: We've relocated our base of operations east of the capital city into Hamilton Township, hence the title change suggested by one waggish friend several weeks back. (We'll work on an improved header in the weeks to come. Hopefully one that will work for the mobile version of the blog as well).

While some might think this move has placed Trenton squarely in our rear view mirror, we prefer to see it as offering a wider, possibly higher definition perspective. Since we are still property tax paying residents of a neighboring township, we feel we can still add to the discussion by, for and about Trenton and its role in Mercer County. As Father used to say, "As goes Trenton, so goes the townships around it."


Last weekend's major snowfall has provided the opportunity to observe and compare how various adjacent municipalities handled the issue of clearing the streets of abnormally high amounts of snow. It also allows for a comparison of the public's response to same.

Social media has been on fire with commentary about the various towns' efforts to deal with the snow. The local papers have picked up on it as well. The Times ran this story comparing Ewing and Trenton's approach to clearing one stretch of road that runs through both. They also ran a story about Trenton residents frustrated with the city's snow removal efforts.

Trenton is a centuries old town that was laid out and developed before the advent and dominance of the automobile. Her horse and buggy era neighborhoods have difficulty accommodating enough parking for the multitudes of personal vehicles under the best of conditions. Dump a couple of feet of snow on the streets and it quickly makes a mess of things.

The City has to clear the snow, obviously starting with the main thoroughfares and working down through the secondary and tertiary roads and onto the alleys and such. A big problem, as any urban homeowner will tell you, is where to put the snow removed from the streets and sidewalks.

Self-centered idiots who clear the walks in front of their homes and/or dig out their parked cars, trucks and SUVs by throwing the snow INTO THE STREET should be cited and punished. They are not helping themselves let alone anyone else by adding to the snow clogged streets. They are just making it harder for the city to plow everyone out.

On the other side of the coin, the city must have a better, more effective plan in place for snow removal. You would think that a Mayor who had previously served as the Public Works Director would be better able to direct and manage the city's clean up efforts. How could it be that no one thought about clearing the City Hall parking lot until it was time for the workers to show up on Monday?

Open communication with the residents about the progress in clearing the streets might help to cut down on some of the complaints. Perhaps the snow removal plan should have some benchmarks that can be used for all to measure the municipality's effectiveness in getting the streets cleared of snow.
(All snow emergency routes completely cleared within 8 hours of the cessation of snowfall; all secondary roads cleared 12 hours later; etc.)

Hamilton runs an application called "Snow Plow Sal" that is supposed to show where plows are operating at any given time as well as tell users when they can expect their street to be plowed. We saw several complaints posted about untouched streets where the app indicated plowing had been done. We didn't investigate the claims (we stayed off of the roads as much as possible during and immediately after the storm so the plows could do their thing.)  It seems as though there were some "errors" in the data provided. Or maybe it was the interpretation of the data. If a plow had made a pass on the street but the snow wasn't removed all the way down to the pavement, was the street considered "done"?

Again, it was a lot of snow. Even with Hamilton's generally larger, less congested streets, it is hard to make that volume of frozen precipitation disappear overnight. Were the public's expectations met? It doesn't seems so. Were those expectations realistic? That's a good question.

And what about the citizens? How well did they cope with this?

Our past experience in Trenton was that only about half of the residents and property owners (including the City itself) adequately cleared their sidewalks as per city ordinance. This made walking tricky at best. As mentioned above, those that did often threw the snow into the streets adding to the burden the plows had to clear away.

In Hamilton there are still some properties where the sidewalks haven't been cleared but not as many proportionately as we used to see in the city. Interesting to us were the homes where the driveways and walks to the front door were snow and ice free within hours of the end of the storm while the sidewalks along the frontage were left untouched. So, it wasn't a matter of someone too old or ill to get the shoveling done.

City or township, the unusual circumstances of the storm did bring out the good in a lot of people. Stories of neighbors helping neighbors dig out cars, get walks cleared, etc. were also posted online and published in the papers. The Trentonian's Jeff Edelstein even did a column on his personal experience with "a helper".

We, too, were the beneficiaries of good neighbors who brought their snow blower over to clear the driveway and knock down the "plow wall" that had been kicked across the driveway curb cut.