Monday, November 13, 2017

Whatever happened to the City of Trenton's Resident Employment Initiative?

Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson not only rates a failing grade with regards to the management and reporting of his campaign finances (3 years of past due filings) and his Moving Trenton Together private foundation, he’s earns a big fat zero for his Trenton Resident Employment Initiative.

In September of 2014 Trenton City Council passed ordinance 14-42 and created the Trenton Employment Commission. This was done to support the administration’s new policy of seeking at least 25% local employment by contractors on government funded/sponsored projects. The Trenton Employment Commission was to be comprised of the Mayor or his/her designee, a representative from the City Council, a representative from a labor union and four residents of Trenton (the labor rep and the four residents to be appointed by the Mayor).

The stated purpose of the commission is to "meet monthly to oversee the implementation, enforcement and monitoring of the Trenton Resident Employment Policy."

The ordinance was introduced by the Council President (we assume on behalf of the Administration) in August of 2014 just over a month after Jackson took office. The introduction and the adoption by council a month later were both unanimous.

It wasn’t until 13 months after the adoption of the ordinance that the city council approved resolution 15-463, a one year, $50,000 contract with Hill Consultants LLC to coordinate and implement the Trenton Resident Employment Initiative. Hill Consultants was the only respondent to the city’s RFP.

Not surprising for Trenton’s local government, there was some controversy at the time. The contract was pulled from consideration in July of 2015 because ofquestions from the city overseers at the Department of Community Affairs. 

When the resolution awarding the contract finally came before council in October of 2015, mention was made of the fact that Charles Hill, the consulting firm’s principal, had contributed $500 to Eric Jackson’s campaign in 2013. While this did not violate the city’s Pay-to-Play law, it was enough to make South Ward councilman George Muschal vote against the contract. {And it should be remembered that we cannot tell if Mr. Hill made any subsequent contributions to Eric Jackson’s campaign because of the latter’s failure to file reports for the past three years}. North Ward councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson abstained from voting.

It has been two years since Hill Consultants was retained. What has happened since?

Very little, it seems.

Records obtained via OPRA request from the city show that $23,000 of the approved $50,000 was paid to Hill Consultants between December 2015 and June 2016. After May of 2016, Hill Consultants stopped billing the city. There is no documentation as to why and very little in the way of work product to show for the time and money spent.

And when asked, the city replied that the Employment Commission never met nor was anyone even appointed to serve on it.

As noted above, Hill Consultants was the only respondent to the city’s RFP for the Trenton Employment Policy coordinator. The firm’s principal, Charles Hill, is credited with “over 10 years of experience in both the government, not for profit and private sector” in the documents included in the proposal to the city.

Reading through the proposal and researching the firm reveals a couple of ironies. First, Hill Consultants lists an office address in Trenton. According to forms included in the proposal, Charles Hill lists an out of state home address. In a form required under the very initiative he was being hired to coordinate, each contractor or subcontractor must report to the city the number of Trenton residents hired. In this case, none. Not that it was required but the consultant hired to coordinate this local employment initiative was himself not a city resident at the time he was awarded the contract!

The proposal also states that Hill Consultants is a subsidiary of Falcon Ventures, a private equity firm. The website for Falcon lists the same West State Street address as Hill Consultants. New Jersey business records show that in July of 2016 Hill Consultants lost its business status for failure to fileannual reports for two consecutive years. (Sound familiar to anyone?) FalconVentures and Falcon Investments (all part of the series of companies created by Charles Hill) lost their business registration status in June of this year. 

That’s right, the non-resident business consultant failed to file and not just for the consultant company but for the other LLC’s he was a part of. More irony.
An aside: During our records search we also discovered Trenton Partners for (Economic) Development was formed between Charles Hill, Anthony Stewart and Carmen Melendez (she of Tony Mack fame) in February of 2009. That company has also had its business status revoked for failure to file annual reports. And its IRS tax exempt status. The pattern continues.

Next we looked at the invoices submitted to the city by Charles Hill for his services. There are six of them, one for each month, November 2015 through April 2016.

Most of the items listed are for meetings or conference calls with Diana Rogers, the director of Housing and Economic Development for the city. There is one, one hour meeting with Mayor Jackson. There are several blocks of time charged for “Meeting with Hill Consulting Team”, which is a little odd because as far as we can tell, Hill Consultants is a one person shop. (Hill billed time for meeting with himself?)

There is rarely any comment about subject or topics discussed at these meeting or in these phone calls and when there is it simply states something like “discuss Resident Employment Tasks”.  Well, isn’t that rather evident since that was what Hill was hired for?  What about the meat of those meetings; what tasks, specifically, were discussed?

In the invoice marked April 2016, submitted for work performed in March of that year, there is finally some time marked for creating work product. Specifically, 10 hours were billed for the development of a Section 3 conflict of interest policy and 30 hours for an overview and presentation for the commission.

We took a look at the conflict of interest document and it seemed pretty straight forward, boiler plate type language that had been formatted to fit into what we presume to be the Trenton city code book style. A quick Google search turned up various links to similar conflict of interest forms. It sure didn’t take us any 10 hours to do that. A good cut, paste and format session would probably take no more than two hours, three tops.

The work claimed for the overview and presentation to the commission is really intriguing. First of all, we had already established that the commission was never formed and thus never met. Fifteen hours to create the never used powerpoint presentation seems a little high to us.

There are was another combined 10 hours charged for working on FAQ and flow chart attachments to the HUD Section 3 guidelines. Again, seems a little high but what do we know. Maybe Hill is a slow, methodical worker.

What did raise some concerns was the five hours of “Meetings with Community Groups”. There are no specifics given for these meetings. No dates, times, or attendance lists were provided. How does anyone even know if these meetings actually occurred or not? Wouldn’t a prudent steward of public money require and retain back up for auditing purposes?

The invoice labeled May 2016 for hours worked in April also includes mention of meetings with local contractors and community organizations plus development of an outreach document.  We received no example of the document from the city. Again there was no proof that any meetings were held, when they were held, or who attended.

We reached out to noted local contractor Tracey Syphax to see if he had been contacted or made aware of any meetings. His response was that he had no interaction with the consultant nor was he aware of any local contractor who benefited from this program.

We also inquired of John Harmon who leads the Trenton-based African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey if he had any contact with Hill or the city with regards to this local employment initiative. His response mirrored Tracey Syphax’s; No contact.

In amongst the papers we did receive from the city was an agenda for an April14, 2016 meeting of the Section 3 Local Hiring Commission. Again, when we followed up with the city we were told the commission was never formed and no meetings were ever held.

Another irregularity we caught was with the purchase orders submitted by Housing and Economic Director Diana Rogers requesting payment to Hill. The first PO was numbered 16-04659 and was for the December 2015 invoice (hours worked in November). The items in the PO pretty much match the invoice. Then Ms. Rogers appears to get lazy or sloppy or both.

The January PO, and all subsequent ones, use the same number of 16-05251. In fact she uses the exact same PO, with Hill’s verification signature dated in January, 2016, just adding handwritten notes telling what month it was for, what the amount being billed that month is, and then the check number that was issued to pay it. We’re not certified municipal comptrollers or finance directors but this doesn’t appear to be the best, cleanest record keeping.

Do they city’s auditors ever catch any of this stuff?

Where is the city council in all of this. Seven of them passed the ordinance creating the commission that was never formed; the commission one of their own was supposed to sit on. Are they not the least bit curious as to what happened to the commission?

Five of them voted to hire the consultant for $50,000 for a year. He billed the city for almost half of that with little to show. Six months later, he was gone. Aren’t they the least bit concerned about what happened?

And what about the Department of Community Affairs? They had concerns at the outset, did they not think it prudent to check back with the city to see how things were progressing? Or maybe their leaving it for the incoming administration of Governor-elect Phil Murphy to sort out. It's announced that incoming Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver will head up the DCA, maybe she can straighten this mess out.

Regardless, it’s yet another failure for the city; another plan of Jackson’s that was never fully executed.


Anonymous said...

The conflict of interest policy reads a lot like this one:

Old Mill Hill said...

There are many, all quite similar, available on the internet. That's why we question the amount of time billed by Hill Consultants for that item.