Wednesday, June 06, 2018

For what it's worth

Entry edited to clarify actual title holder of the property in question

"I must stress that this is very much a personal, not a political decision," Jackson said at the podium outside his City Hall office.
"I still believe I have much to contribute to Trenton's rebirth, but I believe my contributions will be greater outside the halls of City Hall and the mayor's office," he said. "I am grateful, eternally grateful to every resident for entrusting me with the responsibility of being mayor."
So said outgoing Trenton Mayor, Eric Jackson in Kevin Shea's Times article on January 26 of this year. 
Well, we guess Jackson forgot to add "from outside of Trenton" to his statement.
Looks as though Jackson, like his one time employer and mentor, Doug Palmer, is ready to pack up and leave town once out of office. The soon-to-be former Mayor's Melrose Avenue home in the city's Villa Park neighborhood is on the market for $205,000.

Public records indicate that the house was purchased in 2007 by Denise Johnson, presumably, the now Mrs. Jackson, for $235,000. 

Good luck getting that price.

And goodbye, Mr. Mayor.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


It's the little things that matter

On Thursday, March 8, Mayoral Candidate and current At Large Councilman Alex Bethea opened his Campaign Headquarters at 201 Mulberry Street.

This seemed like an odd decision.

Mulberry Street is in the far northeast corner of the city. It's busy but not what we would consider a main artery and certainly not centrally located. In our long experience with Trenton municipal elections, Mayoral Campaign Headquarters were normally situated somewhere in or very nearby downtown, not some two miles away.

If the location isn't odd enough, here's another tidbit. Mr. Bethea chose a building where the landlord has been cited for various code violations.  As recently as March 6, the property owner was issued summonses for violating the city housing code.

From documents obtained via OPRA request from the city, it appears as though an inspection was conducted by the city on March 5, 2018. At that time, the 2nd floor apartment was found to be occupied but there were no certificates of occupancy on file. The property also had a new electrical service that no permits had been issued for; and there were a variety of other violations.

And this isn't the only time the property owner has been cited. Back in July of 2017...just last summer...the city sent a letter instructing the property owner to remove the high vegetation and junk from the property.

One other thing we noticed when reviewing the documents...the non-occupant owner registration form shows the owner as an individual, Ms. Peggy Bellamy. However, public records indicate that the property is actually owned by her LLC, B & S Properties. Ms. Bellamy either failed to register the property correctly OR to record the transfer of title to from her LLC to her name. (And we won't comment on the couple of tax liens that have been issued on the of which may still be active)

Good choice for a campaign headquarters, councilman.

Indicative of your thought processes.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"And this ordinance has been properly adopted."

Edited on February 22 to include the response from the Municipal Clerk (see end of post)

Or has it?

At the January 16, 2018 meeting of Trenton's city council Ordinance 17-80 was up for it's second reading and public hearing. There were only four members of council present when the ordinance came up and the vote was three to one in favor. (Audio here)
Trenton's Municipal Clerk, Dwayne Harris, can clearly be heard saying after the vote, "And this ordinance has been properly adopted."  (Audio here)

Except that is wasn't.

The exact same ordinance came up for reintroduction (first reading) on Thursday, February 15. How can this be?


From the moment that it first appeared on the council docket in early December of 2017, we argued against giving Mr. Torricelli more tax breaks for his project. Not surprisingly, the ordinance passed first reading at the December 7 meeting. The council members voting in favor of the introduction of Ordinance 17-80 were Mr. Bethea, Ms. Caldwell-Wilson, Mr. Chester, Mr. Harrison, and Ms. Reynolds-Jackson. Ms. Holly-Ward and Mr. Muschal were apparently absent as no vote was recorded from either of them.

The second reading was postponed from December 21 and rescheduled for January.

At the January 16 meeting, the ordinance was brought up for it's second reading. According to the audio (provided courtesy of Kevin Moriarty) of the meeting, there was no one present who wished to speak on the matter so the public hearing portion was closed. The ordinance was then brought forth for a vote. Council members Caldwell-Wilson, Chester and Holly-Ward voted in favor of granting the 10 year tax abatement. Councilman Muschal voted against. Council members Bethea, Harrison and Reynolds-Jackson were absent.  The Clerk declared the ordinance adopted.

A couple of weeks later, we started hearing murmurings that something was up and the ordinance hadn't passed. Then, sure enough, Kevin Moriarty spotted an item on the docket for February 15.

How could this be?

We submitted an Open Public Records request to the municipal clerk asking for the ordinance, its effective date, any communications regarding why it may not have gone into effect, minutes of the meeting where it was adopted, etc.

What we got back was a copy of the ordinance with a large stamp across the front page noting that it had failed to be adopted on January 16.

While we received a copy of the minutes of the December 7 meeting at which Ordinance 17-80 was introduced, were not provided with the minutes of the January 16 meeting because (per the Deputy Clerk's note) they "have not been prepared."

We asked for information on exactly why the ordinance failed on January 16. Trenton's Municipal Clerk, Dwayne Harris, sent along the following information regarding why the ordinance was NOT adopted on January 16:
"Ordinance 17-80 failed upon second reading because it failed to obtain the affirmative vote of a majority of all the members of the council, which would be four, as required by NJSA 40:69A-180." 

For those interested, here's the relevant part of the cited statute:

40:69A-180. Rules of procedure; quorum; ordinances and resolutions; presiding officer; compensation
(a) Council shall determine its own rules of procedure, not inconsistent with ordinance or statute. A majority of the whole number of members of the council shall constitute a quorum, but no ordinance shall be adopted by the council without the affirmative vote of a majority of all the members of the council. 

The key phrase being "but no ordinance shall be adopted by the council without the affirmative vote of a majority of all members of the council".

On January 16, only four members were present for the vote. Three of them voted in the affirmative, one against. Three is less than a majority of the total membership of the governing body. The ordinance was therefore not adopted.

Mr. Harris notified Council of his error on January 17th and made a public announcement during the February 15th council meeting.

It's probably all moot as the matter will likely succeed in its second go around. But Trenton again experiences a procedural fail.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Just in time, the scene has changed

Yesterday, we took a snapshot of the current field of candidates running for elected office in Trenton's May Municipal Elections and who had run previously. We gave a quick review of their filings with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission to spot any areas of concern. 

Taking off from there, Kevin Moriarty yesterday looked a little more closely at some of the reporting errors he saw in forms filed by mayoral candidate Paul Perez.

Today, the picture has changed ever so slightly. It appears as though the rumblings are true and Councilman At Large Duncan Harrison, Jr. will be announcing his run for mayor this weekend.

The news of this announcement sent us right back to the NJ ELEC website to see what, if any, new filings had shown up since we last checked. Indeed, we found that Mr. Harrison had opened up a reporting channel for his new campaign for mayor this year by filing his D-1 designating his campaign treasurer and a depository for his funds.

OOPS!  It looks as though Harrison is using the same depository (bank account) for his newly formed mayoral campaign committee as he used for his Council At Large campaign.  Now, we may be getting down to splitting hairs here, but we don't think that is allowable. It certainly isn't desirable.

The NJ ELEC Compliance Manual for Candidates and Committees states on page 9:
 C. Candidates for Two Different Offices
An individual who is a candidate for two or more offices in an election is required to establish separate candidate committees, or separate joint candidates committees, or both, for each office sought, and establish separate campaign depositories. {our emphasis}

Now, we realize that there must be quite a bit of activity going on in the Harrison camp as they switch gears from running for council to running for mayor. An entirely new set of paperwork must be filed, a new set of signed petitions collected and all with just a couple of weeks to go before the filing deadline. It is possible that the use of the same account number for the new depository was a mistake. Or maybe Mr. Harrison and his Treasurer were't aware of the separate depository rule.

As we noted yesterday, Mr. Harrison has not technically closed out his 2014 Council At Large election reports but he did appear to accurately report the left over funds as the starting balance of his 2018 council run. He will now need to properly close the reporting on both the 2014 and 2018 accounts as he begins the reporting on his 2018 mayoral run. Until he does that, it is our contention that he has two open committees for different offices (even though state law precludes him from actually running for election to both offices) and thus needs to have separate bank accounts.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Is past performance indicative of future results?

Four years ago, then mayoral candidate Eric Jackson's campaign reporting irregularities were being pointed out. At that time, Jackson had failed to file his ELEC reports for the time period between the end of his 2010 campaign and the start of his 2014 run for office. It wasn't until it became a campaign issue that candidate Jackson played catch up and filed the back reports.

Unfortunately, his compliance was short lived. After winning the 2014 run off against Paul Perez, the newly elected mayor soon fell behind in his reporting. Even though he's been repeatedly reminded publicly, mostly by Kevin Moriarty through his blog, Jackson has continued to ignore the reporting requirements. As things turned out, non-compliance and lack of follow through are the hallmarks of Jackson's one term in office.

Looking ahead to this years municipal elections, we decided to review the ELEC filings of those candidates who have run before to see how compliant they are with the requirements. Sadly, it appears that some of the candidates are just as negligent as Jackson.

Let's start with some background. On page 48 of the Compliance Manual for Candidates you can find this chart.

It breaks things down pretty clearly as to what spending amount triggers which required forms to be filed. (For the sake of this article, when we say "candidate" we are speaking of a candidate for city council or mayor.}
  1. A candidate spending nothing must still file an A-1 form. 
  2. A candidate spending up to $5,100 (note: the amount of this threshold has risen over the last couple of cycles) must file the A-1 and a D-1. Other forms may be required.
  3. A candidate spending more than $5,100 must file the D-1 and the R-1. Other forms may be required. 

In this review we are most concerned with the A-1, D-1 and R-1 forms. (NOTE: the forms for each candidate that are referenced can be found in a folder at this link or via the NJ ELEC website's searchable database.)

The A-1 form is a candidate's certification that the amount spent on the campaign will be $0 or not more than the threshold of $5,100. Any amount of money spent on a campaign (or even on pre-election or "testing the waters" activities) must be paid from a campaign account. Even if a candidate only spends his or her own money, they must open a campaign account, deposit the money in it and make all campaign related expenditures from it.

When a candidate creates a committee and opens a treasury (bank account), the D-1 form is filed. Records of all contributions and expenditures must be maintained. While the designated Treasurer or deputy treasurer of a campaign committee is required to make and maintain written records of all funds received and expended, it is the responsibility of the candidate to insure that proper record keeping and reporting are done. In other words, a candidate is not without blame for poorly maintained or improperly reported records or missing filings.

The R-1 form is used to detail contributions and expenditures on a quarterly and cumulative basis for those

Campaign reporting is done by election cycle. Page 10 of the manual explains it this way: For reporting purposes and for the purpose of computing contribution limits, an “election” begins with the receipt of the first contribution or the making of the first expenditure and concludes on the 17th day following the election.

At the end of an election cycle, the candidate is supposed to zero out their accounts and file a finalized report with ELEC. If there are funds leftover, the candidate is supposed to roll them over into the next election cycle, thus filing any required forms and quarterly reports until such a time as the funds are spent down, the account zeroed out and a final report filed. (See pages 12 - 13 of the candidate reporting manual)

Executive Summary

Looking over the field of candidates, we see that five of the announced mayoral candidates have run for municipal office before: Alex Bethea, Darren Green, Annette Lartigue, Paul Perez and Walker Worthy. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora obviously has run for office before and currently maintains his reporting for his Assembly campaigns as well as having filed a D-1 for his Mayoral campaign.

Lartigue and Worthy each had a little a money left, but stopped filing reports. Perez had money left in his 2014 account that has not been accounted for in his 2018  reports so far. Bethea and Gusciora are basically up to date, although Bethea seems to be missing some pages on his initial report for the 2018 election. Green had filed an A-1 in 2010 certifying he would spend under the then threshold of $4000 and we assume he spent what he had raised and closed the account. (The ELEC manual is not clear on how that kind of situation should be handled. As concerned citizens, we would prefer a candidate file a final R-1 closing the depository just to be clear.)

Three of the candidates for council at large have run before: Sherwood Brown, incumbent Duncan Harrison and Lee Ingram.

Mr. Brown closed out his 2014 depository and has filed nothing for the 2018 cycle as yet. Harrison did not formally close out his 2014 filings but he did carry the balance forward into his reporting for 2018.  Ingram filed an A-1 certification in 2014 and no D-1. That would indicate that he never opened a campaign depository and thus spent $0 on his campaign. That is unusual but possible. He has filed a D-1 this time, an indication he plans to raise and spend at least a little money.

The four incumbent ward council persons are were all running again: Marge Caldwell Wilson, George Muschal, Verlina Reynolds Jackson, and Zac Chester. (As we were preparing this report, Verlina Reynolds Jackson was tapped to fill the Assembly seat vacated by Liz Muoio. Because of the prohibition of dual office holding, Verlina has to resign her council seat. This DOES NOT exempt her from having to file the reports correctly.)

Marge Caldwell-Wilson's 2014 accounts were properly closed. Her initial R-1 for 2018 has errors. George Muschal's filings are complete and up to date. Reynolds Jackson's last 2014 report showed a balance that is less than the starting balance of her first 2018 report. There is no recorded carry over from a prior campaign. Zac Chester's balance in his last 2014 report is the same as his starting balance in his 2018 report but, again, they don't show it as being carried over from a prior campaign.


Sitting councilman at large Alex Bethea filed his final report for his council reporting on 1/17/18. The filing only contains the last page and shows a balance of $2,999.56  He has not filed a new D1 for the 2018 election cycle. His treasurer, his wife Gloria, did note on the summary page the correct starting balance for the new cycle and that it was transferred from a prior election. Not perfect but at least there is an accounting of some sort for the funds.

Candidate Darren Green last ran for a council at large seat in 2010. He filed an A-1 form certifying he would not spend over the reporting threshold ($4,000 at that time). He has filed a D-1 for the current election cycle.

Assemblyman Gusciora has a zero balance in his Assembly campaign committee and filed his new D-1 for the 2019 primary (the next election cycle for that seat). He has also filed his D-1 for the mayoral campaign in Trenton.

Former West Ward councilwoman Annette Horton Lartigue ran for Mayor in 2010. Her last report on file is from June of that year and shows a balance of $3,527.01. It was not marked as a final filing and there have been no subsequent quarterly reports filed detailing what has happened with that money. She has filed her D-1 for the 2018 Mayoral race but doesn't show a bank account or name a treasurer yet.

Paul Perez lost the runoff election to Eric Jackson in June of 2014. He last filed a report for that campaign account in July 11 of that year and showed a balance of  $1,421.49. It was not marked as his final report. Perez filed his D-1 and two R-1s for the 2018 mayoral run in October of 2017. He has a new treasurer and a new campaign account at a different branch of the same bank.

The first Perez R-1 for the 2018 election cycle does not indicate what happened to the prior balance of $1,421.49. The new reporting starts with a $200.00 contribution on the first page and shows no money transferred from the prior election. On the Schedule A, it shows that the $200 was a cash contribution from the candidate dated May 15 of last year, presumably to open the bank account.

The manual states that contributions must be deposited in the campaign depository within 10 days of receipt. (Page 17). If the money was received and deposited in May, there should have been a D-1 filed within 10 days of the receipt of the contribution and an R-1 filed by July 15. On the summary page it states that the starting balance was zero and that the only money received was the $200. This leaves open the question of "what happened to the $1,421.49 in the old account?"

Rounding out the mayoral candidates is Walker Worthy. Worthy also ran for mayor in 2014. The last report his campaign filed was on January 14, 2016. It showed a balance in the account of $384.00 and was not marked as his final report. Nothing has been filed since, which is a little disheartening considering the candidate is the Deputy County Clerk and should know better.

Council At Large

Sherwood Brown ran for the West Ward seat in 2014. He filed his final report for that election cycle in June of that year and had a zero balance. He has yet to file anything with NJ ELEC for the 2018 election cycle.

Duncan Harrison is an incumbent at large council member. His report filed in November of 2017 showed a balance of $2,331.19 in his campaign depository and the R-1 was not marked as final. His February 2, 2018 filing did not indicate any carry over from the prior campaign in the proper places but it did show the starting balance the same as the ending balance of the previous report so at least the funds were somewhat accounted for. Harrison has also filed for an auxiliary campaign depository, perhaps related to his rumored consideration to change his mind and run for mayor instead of council at large.

Lee Ingram ran for an at large seat on council in 2014. He filed an A-1 certifying he would spend less than the $4,500 quarterly reporting threshold for the election. He never filed a D-1 designating a treasurer or a depository. This indicates he spent no money on his campaign or, if he did, he didn't understand the filing requirement of the D-1. He has filed a D-1 for the 2018 election.

Ward Council

North Ward councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson has changed treasurers with each election cycle. Her 2014 election cycle reporting was wrapped up on June 22, 2016 with a final report showing a zero balance. Her D-1 for the 2018 election cycle was filed in July of 2016 but her first quarterly report that cycle doesn't appear to have been filed until October of 2017.

That report shows one deposit of $200.00 but it doesn't give any indication of who contributed or when. The line where one would report any transfer from a prior campaign shows zero on both the first and last pages. On the final page, it is stated that there was an opening balance of $4594.54 and the $200 contribution. There are two disbursements reported totaling $3,168.49. When you subtract those disbursements from the $4,794.54 on hand, the remaining balance should be $1,626.05. However, the report shows an ending balance of $3,368.49. It appears as though the Treasurer erroneously added the deposited contribution to the disbursement total.

Long-time South Ward councilman George Muschal is unique in that he and his wife completely fund his campaign themselves. He filed an A-1 in July, 2009 certifying that he would not spend over the then threshold of $4,000 and thus he doesn't have to report back on the details of any expenditures. Technically, he could probably just file a new A-1 with each election cycle and be done with it. Instead, he files quarterly R-1s showing his cash on hand...more than is required.

As noted above, Verlina Reynolds Jackson will be leaving her East Ward council seat a few months early to move to the NJ Assembly representing the 15th district. The last report she filed for the 2014 election cycle was in May of that year. She showed a balance of $2,085.05 and it was not marked as her final report for that cycle. The next report she filed was in October of 2014 and it was marked for the 2018 election cycle. She did not indicate any money carried over from the prior election cycle on the report but she noted a starting balance of $3,418.35, $660.17 in expenditures and a closing balance of $2,758.68. We're not sure why, but Reynolds Jackson filed successive D-1s for the 2018 election cycle.

Council President and West Ward councilman Zac Chester has left the date of the election cycle of some reports. His last 2014 R-1 appears to have been filed in July of 2017. It was not marked final and it showed a balance of $3,038.19. His next R-1, filed in October of 2017, was marked for the 2018 election cycle. It's staring balance was the same $3,038.19 but there was no indication of money carried over from a prior election.

If you've made it this far through this exercise, we applaud you.  You have shown more diligence than some of the candidates.

It is disturbing to us that individuals seeking positions of responsibility and oversight for the budget of the city of Trenton seem to have trouble with reporting their own campaign finances.  Any of the errors and omissions outlined above are rectifiable by the filing of amended or missing reports. 

Voters have to ask themselves if they want to or should support candidates who don't seem to have a problem failing to get the details of campaign reporting correct, if they bother to file at all.

As recent history has shown us, the inability and/or unwillingness of those seeking (and in many cases, holding) public office to pay attention and adhere to the reporting requirements might just be an indicator of poor performance on the job.
Caveat emptor!

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Pessimistically Optimistic

Yesterday, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced they had issued an Administrative Consent Order regarding the Trenton Water Works. The ACO outlines definitive steps and deadlines for improvements, operations, and staffing of the water utility. Failure to meet the deadlines will leave the city open to fines.

The troubles at TWW have been well documented by Kevin Moriarty and the local press. In the past week the governing bodies of both Trenton and Hamilton have had special presentations/discussions about the ongoing issues. Yet there still seems to be a lot of misinformation out there. (Some of which is due to the city of Trenton's inability and/or unwillingness to communicate clearly with the TWW customer base as well as public officials in the towns served by the utility).

We heard more than one public official say that would like transparency with regards to the budget of the Trenton Water Works. Well, the water budget is available on line as part of the City of Trenton budget. Unfortunately, some of the numbers are not readable because, for space reasons the cells are not large enough to contain the entire sum. However, the key information is there, especially the amount of the anticipated and realized surpluses each year.

With a realized surplus of $12 million for fiscal year 2017, it is obvious that there is money available for staffing, maintenance and improvements.

There is confusion about the city's residency requirement for employees. Let's be real clear right and here and now, the residency ordinance was amended in October of 2014 to allow a "waiver for exceptional persons". 
Chapter 2. AdministrationArticle XVI. Officers and Employees ...
§ 2-95. Residence requirements; exception; waiver. D. Waiver for exceptional persons. Whenever the hiring authority of the City of Trenton shall determine that there are certain specific positions and employments requiring special talents or skills which are necessary for the operations of the City of Trenton and which are not likely to be found among the residents of the City, such positions or employments so determined shall be filled without reference to residency. This provision shall be used for positions or employments for (1) officers that are subject to the advice and consent of the City Council and (2) positions requiring persons with scientific or technical licenses or certifications required by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey Division of Community Affairs or any other state governing agency.
[Amended 10-2-2014 by Ord. No. 14-33]
It is obvious that the intent of the amendment was to allow the city to hire form outside of the city the licensed individuals necessary for the proper operation of the TWW. And, it was done in the first few months of the failed Jackson administration.

If the residency waiver was in effect, why have so many technical positions been left unfilled?

One answer, based upon the testimony heard at last week's Trenton city council meeting, was that the city was bad about responding to/following up with applicants. One individual stated she never heard back from the city; not even a "thank you, no" letter. Nothing!

The administration offered the excuse that the salaries being offered "were not competitive". Well, if you are operating the utility with a surplus but your salaries are not competitive, maybe you should increase those salaries. Is it that hard?

A third issue is that, until recently, the advertising of the vacancies seemed to be sparse and sporadic at best. We heard that open positions were not currently posted on the city website and a suggestion to hang a "Now Hiring" banner on the filtration plant ignored. You aren't going to get many applicants if they don't know there are openings.

Taken altogether, it appears less that the city was unable to hire people and more like it didn't put any real effort into hiring people.

The ACO has set benchmarks for hiring critical personnel and recent contracts issued to Wade Trim for contract employees to fill some of the vacancies are a start. With increased staffing of professionals, we would expect to see a return to normal, proper operations.

Timely notification of customers about events potentially affecting have been another complaint heard over and over. The DEP has recognized that TWW's Emergency Action Plan is deficient and is demanding it be updated to eliminate those deficiencies. In a February 7 article in the Trentonian, Hamilton mayor, Kelly Yaede, complained that TWW still has up to 24 hours to notify customers.
“The neighboring municipalities should receive the notification within 60 minutes,” the Hamilton mayor said. “When you’re dealing a public health crisis, particularly dealing with quality drinking water, notification is key. In this day and age of social media, getting information out quickly, timliness is imperative.”
As we pointed out in a previous entry, that is the maximum time that Federal regulations for a Tier 1 (Immediate Notice) event to be communicated to the customers. We have to assume that the new policies and procedures to be adopted by TWW aren't going to tell employees to wait the full day before notification. We'd expect something along the lines of "should be notified as soon as possible but not more than 24 hours after an event occurred."

While many are still dubious about the ability of Trenton to professionally manage the utility, the ACO lays out a pretty straightforward road map of what needs to be done and by one. To help keep things on course, TWW must file monthly progress reports with DEP until all items have been completed. The reports are due to be submitted on the last day of each month, unless said date falls on a weekend. In that case, the reports are due on the first business day of the new month. There are fines for each day the reports are late. A prior ACO required "quarterly progress reports" be we are not sure if any were filed.

To help restore confidence in TWW, we believe it would be best if the city made those reports public at the time of submission to DEP. In this way, the customers and all of the public officials can track progress along with the DEP. If things get off track, public pressure can be brought to bear and the situation corrected sooner rather than later.

We feel this new ACO is both a positive first step and a last chance warning for TWW, Trenton's governing body and mayor now and going forward.

We're pessimistically optimistic

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

It's gonna be interesting...

Trenton's Municipal Elections are scheduled for Tuesday, May 8, 2018. As with the last few election cycles, it looks like the makings for a full three-ring circus. For sure, the sideshows have started arriving and setting up shop.

Managing an election from the city side is no easy task. It falls to the Municipal Clerk's office to see that candidates who meet qualifications such as residency and voter registration complete the proper paperwork. Those who make that first cut are then issued petitions to be signed by registered voters in the district (ward or city wide) that the candidate wishes to represent.

Those petitions have to be turned into the clerk for certification and counting. Each petition has to match the voter registration lists. Since voters can only sign one petition for each office (except Council At Large, where each voter can sign up to three petitions) the lists have to be cross checked for duplicates. (First petition in, counts. Subsequent ones do not).

It's a lot of work.

But, sometimes, the Clerk's office doesn't do much to help itself. We should all remember the screw up in 2014 when then clerk Richard Kachmar used the wrong formula to calculate the number of required petitions for each office, resulting in a lower threshold. We're sure the current clerk and staff are being extremely careful this time around.

Or are they.

Every couple of weeks since January, we've requested copies of the candidate registration forms from the clerk's office. This has been an attempt to keep up with the entrants in this year's horse race.

Here are the links to the certificates we have obtained so far:
First batch, second batch, third batch, Gusciora (omitted from third batch by clerk's office)   

The form lists the name of the candidate; their address; office sought; number of petitions issued (usually a few over the required amount); deadline for turning the petitions in. This year, that deadline is 4 pm on Monday, March 5.
Imagine our surprise when we reviewed Mayoral Candidate Reed Gusciora's form and noted the stated deadline read, "4:00 pm, Monday March 6, 2018."

This sent us back to all the other registration forms we'd received so far. All of them read correctly, Monday March 5, except one. That was for Council At Large candidate Elvin Montero. 

Now, it is a silly little mistake, but...this form is (or should be) a template. In fact, it was, per the date in the lower left corner, created in February of 2010. So it has been used for three election cycles. Why hasn't the deadline date been "fixed" in the current template so that this kind of mistake doesn't have a chance of occurring? (Considering the issues that the Trenton Water Works seems to have with templates for their advisories...maybe it is a city hall custom?)

We've noticed one other little glitch in candidate documentation coming out of the clerk's office. Kevin Moriarty received a listing of candidates and the amount of petitions they had turned in so far, Assemblyman Gusciora was noted as running for the West Ward Council seat rather than Mayor.

's going to be an interesting few months, folks.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Water this, water that.

“Water this, water that,” City of Trenton spokesman Michael Walker said in response to an email query about Trenton Water Works from the Post.
So reports Rob Anthes in a very good article in the February edition of the Hamilton Post. Anthes highlights the recent issues at Trenton's water utility that serves some quarter of a million people in Mercer County.

This past Thursday night Trenton's Public Works Director, Merkle Cherry, and key members of the TWW staff presented an update for the city council. The hope was that the city's governing body and the public alike would come out of that meeting with a fuller understanding of what the situation actually is at the water utility.

Unfortunately, that presentation came up woefully short. Kevin Moriarty blogged about the meeting on Friday. Basically, it consisted of a brief power point presentation, a Q & A between members of the council and the water works team, and then public comment.

It lasted 3.5 hours (council then had to go on to their regular business afterwards) and what was learned was that Mr. Cherry has a less than firm grasp on the operations of TWW. We also learned that some of the long time staff who work day to day in the utility don't have a much better grasp of how things work there than Cherry does. That was a huge disappointment. 

The lack of investment in the utility and the lack of staff definitely contributes to the marked increase in citations of non-compliance issued by DEP. That's certain. The lack of communication... effective, timely communication... between the city/TWW and its customers is the one thing that came up time and time again during the discourse.

One of the big complaints has been the length of time between when an "event" occurs and the public is notified. City representatives have continually sworn that they were delayed in issuing notices because they were waiting for DEP to approve the language in the advisories before sending them out.

Strangely, in the same breath, there is always mention of  "templates" that exist for the notices.

It's hard to fathom how, if there is an existing template for, say, a boil water advisory, there has to be approval from a state agency before the notice can be sent out. That sort of defeats the whole purpose of having a template, doesn't it?

Curious about this, we spent some time wading around in the DEP website. There is a lot of information available to the public there. Granted, you might have to be a bit of a nerd or wonk to delve into this stuff, but it is there for the curious. 

The following is based upon a couple of hours of browsing, following links, reading and, yes, THINKING about how one handles events that adversely effect the quality of water service. We are not licensed plant operators; we have not taken any classes in water supply operations or management. We're just reasonably intelligent parties interested in what the process is; how it is supposed to work; and trying to figure why it seems to continually break down when it comes to TWW. 

If we miss something or make faulty statements and anyone can point us to accurate information countering our incorrect assumptions, we welcome the correction. We're trying to educate ourselves and our readers as to what is the right way to handle these things. 

Water quality regulation and enforcement in New Jersey falls under the Department of Environmental Protection, division of Water Supply and Geoscience.  From the division's page, there are various links under "Drinking Water Systems; Emergencies & Security. There's a lot of information available to anyone who wants to poke around awhile. 

As stated right on the page, a water utility has to report an emergency to DEP within six (6) hours. There is a 24 hour hotline just for such purposes. There are also required follow ups with the engineering office during normal work hours and a form that must be completed an emailed to DEP.

The incident form includes a section about notifications on the second page.   

The first question asked is "Has the appropriate water use advisory been issued?"  Now, if this form is what is used to record and track an incident with DEP and DEP must be notified within six hours of the event, doesn't it seem likely that there is an expectation that notifications to the public, et al were made sooner rather than later?

There are links on the page to templates for various advisories pertaining to water main breaks. The templates are right there in a very user friendly form (Microsoft Word). The utility just has to fill in the event specific information and distribute.

But what about non-water main break related events?

Further down on the page are links to "Water Use Advisory Information".
Within that grouping is a link to a 166 page document that is a clearly written and organized EPA Drinking Water Advisory Comprehensive Toolbox. It is filled with very good, common sense ideas about how to prepare for, execute and follow up on the issuing of an event advisory. The document includes fill-in-the-blank templates, in English and Spanish. The document is so comprehensive that after reading it we feel confident that we could effectively execute the issuing of an advisory. Certainly, if anyone from TWW and/or the City of Trenton had there would not be the continual issues with fumbled notifications.

There are other resources on that section of the page. The three main types of advisories are described:
  • Advisories:
    • Boil Water Advisory: Advises customers to boil the water before drinking, cooking, and other potable water uses due to the potential for the water supply to be contaminated with disease-causing microorganisms.
    • Do Not Drink Advisory: Advises customers not to use the water supply for potable purposes and only advocates its use for sanitary and fire-fighting needs.
    • Do Not Use Advisory: Advises customers not to use the water supply for any purpose, including sanitary and fire-fighting needs.
There are also more links to templates and handbooks:
Obviously, there is a wealth of material available to help a water supply system effectively communicate about any event that adversely affects the potability of the water.

Earlier on we established that NJ DEP must be notified within six (6) hours of an event. Diving deeper into the subject we discovered EPA guidelines (linked to from the DEP site, so we assume these are the operative standards in New Jersey) for three levels of notifications.

You'll note that in Tier 1 (Immediate Notice) events water suppliers have 24 hours to notify {our emphasis} people who may drink the water.  TWENTY FOUR HOURS!

That seems like a long time. We assume because the guidelines are applicable to systems of all sizes in densely populated areas as well as sparsely populated ones, the federal standards are somewhat generous.  We also assume that common sense dictates system operators would get the notice out as soon as possible, well within the 24 hour deadline.

We feel it is important to note here that at no time has TWW made the argument that their delayed notifications have fallen within the allowable 24 hour time period. Rather, they keep falling back on the excuse of having to wait for DEP approval of the text and/or translation into Spanish...EVEN THOUGH TEMPLATES FOR BOTH EXIST AND ARE AVAILABLE!  In addition, for all of our fishing in the rules and regulations we have yet to land any evidence that DEP requires approval of the verbiage of advisories prior to them being released.

We have also found, repeated, reference to the 10 items that must be included in an advisory:
Notices must contain:
  • A description of the violation that occurred, including the contaminant(s) of concern, and  the contaminant level(s);
  • When the violation or situation occurred;
  • The potential health effects (including standard required language);
  • The population at risk, including subpopulations vulnerable if exposed to the contaminant in their drinking water;
  • Whether alternate water supplies need to be used;
  • What the water system is doing to correct the problem;
  • Actions consumers can take;
  • When the system expects a resolution to the problem;
  • How to contact the water system for more information; and
  • Language encouraging broader distribution of the notice.
Anyone with basic English composition skills and the required information at hand should be able to craft an acceptable advisory notice in less than hour without a template. With a template, the notice should be ready for distribution within minutes. Not hours. No external approvals required!

From what we have found, it is readily apparent that the failures of TWW to notify customers in a timely manner originate internally. Whether it is due to the acknowledged shortage of qualified staff, management indifference or both doesn't really matter.

What does matter is that they are failing to execute critical responsibilities. Instead of pointing fingers to outside agencies, they need to look at their own processes and procedures and fix them. Immediately.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Deja Vu All Over Again

Trenton mayor Eric Jackson made it official yesterday. He will not run for a second term.

We weren't even going to post about this somewhat anticlimactic announcement from the failed first term mayor. His tenure in office has been marked by failures and missteps on a regular basis. After being literally missing in action for at least a month and not having filed his paperwork to run in May's municipal election three weeks into January the announcement came as no surprise to Trenton city hall watchers.

If you are really interested, you read Jackson's statement as posted on the city website here. 

The key parts of Jackson's statement are that he's done what he set out to do in office and that he making this decision was personal, not political.
And so today, after four years of hard work, four years of renewed energy and vibrancy, four years of reform, four years of growth and four years of positive transformation, I am here to announce that my work as mayor is complete and that I will not seek a second term as mayor.
As with my decision to run for mayor, I made this decision after great consideration. And I must stress that this is very much a personal, not political, decision. I still believe I have much to contribute to Trenton’s rebirth, but I now believe that my contributions will be greater outside of City Hall than from the Mayor’s Office. I am grateful to every resident for entrusting me with the responsibility of leading our city and very proud of all we’ve accomplished together. Now that the City has been restored to fiscal stability and put on a path to economic prosperity and greater public safety for all residents, I will look forward to continuing that work.
Jackson was often labeled "Palmer 2.0" or "Palmer Lite" by detractors. A reference to the 20 year mayor under whom Jackson served as Director of Public Works. The image of a clone administration was enhanced somewhat by Jackson's choice to fill his cabinet with other former-Palmer administration stalwarts.

Even in announcing his decision to not run again, Jackson echoed what Doug had said just over 8 years ago. On December 9, 2009, we posted this in response to Doug's announcement that he wouldn't run again:
Citing a decision made in concert with family and a desire to leave on his own terms (not get voted out), Palmer stated he was comfortable with the accomplishments of his 19+ years in office.
Palmer vowed to continue working hard during the last seven months of his term and hand his successor a Trenton in better shape than what it was in 1990. He clicked off some of his notable achievements: lowered crime rate, increased housing/home ownership opportunities, economic development.
 There is one other similarity between the two.

Their decision to not run again made a lot of people happy.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Another strike against Jackson

It's not funny anymore.

The situation with Trenton Water Works is bad, but the issue of poor communication from the administration of Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson is way out of control.

The latter compounds the former.

Today, Trenton's water utility experienced another issue with poor quality resulting in a boil water advisory for customers in Trenton and parts of Ewing and Hamilton.

It was the NJ DEP who called for the boil water advisory and who, ultimately, got the word out. Trenton's communication mechanism was apparently paralyzed by the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

As word spread, first on social media, then via newspaper articles posted online, then a notice sent out by the Hamilton Township municipal government, there was nothing from the City of Trenton.

No robocalls, although several had been sent out reminding residents of no trash pick up today.
No posting on the city website until way after the fact.

This begs the question, yet again, #WheresEric?

The problems with the utility have been well documented elsewhere. It is unfathomable that a man who spent a good chunk of his career with responsibility, first as Public Works Director and later as Mayor, of the TWW couldn't get a handle on the issues even a little bit.

There have been problems with staffing for years and Trenton's residency requirement for employees was often cited as a problem. In 2014, Trenton's city council passed amendments to the ordinance that allowed the city hire from outside the city boundaries if need be. Still, TWW has been cited as being woefully understaffed.

Trenton was ordered to make cover and make other improvements to its reservoir. The money is there, yet the work has not been done.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, citing the city's continued failure to properly staff and manage the utility, told them to move ahead with contracting for an outside operator to take over.

That hasn't been done.

With each repeated failure of the water treatment plant, customers wait for information and advisories from the city. And wait. And wait.

The mayor is an "experienced" government officer who sold himself to voters as someone who could "hit the ground running" and successfully handle the running of Trenton. He's brought back lots of equally "experienced" city hall veterans as division and department directors. And he has well paid public information officer. Yet Jackson and company are incredibly tight-lipped when there's a problem with the drinking water supply (or missing employment tax funds or any other negative issue). If team Jackson communicates anything at all, it is late and lacking pertinent details.

Just look at today's notices posted on three municipal websites about the water issues:

Here's Ewing's notice to residents:

Hamilton posted this one:

And Trenton, finally...well after the fact...put up this very spartan announcement. 

Finally, just a mere 12 hours after first becoming aware of the problem, the city of Trenton utilized its robocall system to contact TWW customers.

It certainly shows that the first term mayor and his hand chosen team are not up to the task of running a water utility or a city; and certainly not both.

How can the mayor say he's working on economic development when he can't communicate? How can he claim to be making Trenton a better place to work and live when he can't safeguard the water supply? How can anyone feel good about investing in, moving a business to or residing in a city run by a bunch of mute misfits?

It remains to be seen if Jackson is going to run for a second term. As of a week ago, he had not filed his campaign paperwork. And we know he hasn't kept up with his finance reports from the 2014 campaign.

If he does run, there isn't a single voter in Trenton who should give up his or her vote to this failed mayor.

If he doesn't run let us hope he isn't given an appointment in the administration of incoming governor Phil Murphy. We can't think of any one less qualified for a continued government paycheck.

And, if Jackson doesn't run, voters would be well advised to not vote for any candidate or slate that gets a Jackson endorsement.

Eric E. Jackson has failed Trenton and it is time for the voters to fail him.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Where's Eric?

In the kerfuffle surrounding last week's notice to Trenton Water Works rate payers that there had yet again been issues with the quality of the water, Trenton's Mayor was absent. Sure, there was the official notice about the high rate of haloacetic acid 5 (dated December 26, 2017 but not slated for release until January 5, 2018. Huh?!?!?). But where was Eric Jackson?

As the 2018 Municipal Election season (aka "silly season") ramps up, we acquired a list of campaign registration sheets from Trenton's Municipal Clerk. Among the 18 people who have filed to run in the May election, there are four challengers for the Mayor's seat. But where is Eric?

We started asking around. Nobody has really seen or directly heard from the mayor in a couple of weeks. He didn't hold a Christmas party for his (still NON-tax exempt) foundation, Moving Trenton Together.

He still hasn't turned in any of the missing quarterly NJ ELEC finance reports for the past three years.

Where is Eric Jackson?

One tidbit we did turn up. Apparently, Mayor Jackson's health hasn't been great. And for that, we are truly sorry. At this time, we have unverified reports that Jackson had some issues with blood clots, possibly in his legs. This is no laughing matter and is reported to have resulted in the Mayor being hospitalized at Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell. And if it is not the first occurrence of this condition, how well is it being managed?

First and foremost, we hope that Mayor Eric Jackson recovers from this serious medical condition and continues to do what needs to be done to ensure there are no future setbacks.

However, if he has really been out of commission, did he notify the city council? Did he hand over day to day authority to a deputy or acting mayor?

With all of the issues the capital city is experiencing, shouldn't the public be entitled to know if the mayor duly elected to serve them is incapacitated? Should he decide to file his paperwork and run again in this spring's election, wouldn't it be good to know if he is healthy enough to serve the full term?

And, lastly, what does it say about the man's performance in office thus far if he can be out of commission, hospitalized, and no one knows or asks...

...Where's Eric?