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Down The Drain

On Tuesday of this week, the Trentonian – the only one of the two newspapers in town that still prints news about Trenton – published a story about an Ordinance that Trenton City Council was due to discuss and consider for 1st Reading at its meeting last night. The Ordinance, #18-24, according to the piece by David Foster, “would require residents to place leaves and grass clippings in a trash can, bucket, bag or container to prevent the yard waste from entering the street or storm drain. If a resident does not obey, they can be fined up to $2,000.”

That got my attention. I live on a property graced and cursed by a LOT of trees. Each year, from August until December, those trees drop an ungodly amount of dead deciuduous matter, which I blow and rake to both curbs (I live on a big corner lot in the West Ward), several times throughout the fall. From there, the City Public Works periodically vacuums them up, as they do all over the city according to a published schedule that the City more or less follows. The prospect, for me as well as many other property owners in the West Ward and elsewhere in the City, of having to deal with a veritable mini-mountain of leaves by bagging them or facing a $2,000 for each violation kind of grabbed my attention.

I went to Council last night and spoke about the proposed Ordinance. My comments are below. On the face of it, and compared to other matters that the City deals with, this seemed like a small, insignificant matter. But, as often happens with anything to do with Trenton, pulling on the little string of this Ordinance unraveled a much bigger ball of municipal yarn. First, my comments. I’ll then relate what came after.

I would like to speak tonight about Proposed Ordinance #18-24, which would establish requirements for the proper handling of Yard Waste.

I am here tonight neither to support nor oppose it, not yet, but to ask several questions.

Namely, why is this needed at the present time? The language of the Ordinance states that this measure is required by New Jersey Administrative Code 7:14A-25.6 to adhere to the requirements of a “Tier A Municipal Stormwater General Permit,” and that “said permit requires the adoption and enforcement of an ordinance to establish requirements for the proper handling of yard waste in the City of Trenton.”

I ask for further information about this because a reading of NJAC 7:14A-25.6 does not contain any reference to “yard waste,” nor to “leaves” nor to “grass clippings,” which is how your Ordinance tonight defines yard waste.

Further, NJAC 7:14A-25.6 refers back to the subsection of the Administrative code discussing the Tier A Municipal Stormwater General  Permit., NJAC 7:14A-24.2. In that particular subsection, Paragraph 9c reads, “The following stormwater discharges are exempt from the requirement to obtain a NJPDES permit” and goes on in subparagraph 9 c 3 to state that some of those exempt discharges are  “Stormwater DGW that are from municipal separate storm sewers, residential areas (including residential streets, parking lots, easements, and open space, commercial areas other than areas of high pollutant loading” as defined elsewhere in the code.”

That sounds like it describes the entire city of Trenton!

So, from this layman’s reading of the legislation on which Ordinance 18-24 relies for its justification, I don’t see where there is a mandate to require the kinds of new restrictions that are under consideration tonight. Can Council please tell me if I’ve missed the relevant mandatory language requiring these measures? I would appreciate it.

So, I will ask again why this Ordinance is needed at the present time? Specifically, I ask why will there be a new requirement to bag ALL yard waste? This will be an onerous obligation to several homeowners, including myself, who annually have to deal with an inundation of leaves from curbside trees, many of which were planted not by previous owners of the property  but by the City of Trenton.

On top of the recent property revaluation that added thousands of dollars to my annual property tax bill, and on top of the ceiling on the deductibility of state and local taxes no in effect thanks to the United States Government, such as it is these days, I cannot but help but consider this proposed ordinance a new tax imposed on me and my neighbors in the West Ward who also have many trees on their property and who have also been screwed by the recent revaluation. Because in all likelihood, I will not be physically able to keep up with all the leaf production on my property, which starts in August,  not tapering off until December, and picking up again in the spring. I will probably have to hire a lawn service to bag leaves, a much more tedious manual; process than the lawn cutting they do for me and many in the Ward right now. The cost of that additional service will be to me nothing less than another tax.

Another question I have is, why will the City require bagged leaves? Looking at two other municipalities in New Jersey, Clifton and Hamilton, I read the following:

From Clifton (261-40):

Sweeping, raking, blowing or otherwise placing yard waste that is not containerized at the curb or along the street is ***allowed during the seven days prior to a scheduled and announced collection and shall not be placed closer than 10 feet from any storm drain inlet.***

Hamilton (420-28B) has similar language:

Leaves that are not placed in containers described in Subsection A above shall be placed at the curb or pavement edge no more than seven days prior to scheduled collection and no closer than 10 feet from any storm drain inlet.

So, I ask this question as well: Why are open leaf collection – only at specified times tied to scheduled collections-allowed in Hamilton and Clifton, but not in Trenton?

I also ask why the Proposed fine for Violations is so high, at up to $2000 per occurrence. The City’s current Stormwater Ordinance, Chapter 254, allows fines up to $1000 per occurrence, and that is for major violations on “major developments” in the City. Tonight you want to fine homeowners twice that for not bagging leaves?

In the State Code, Section 7:14A-25-6(b) says, “The permittee [the City] shall, at a minimum, comply with applicable state and local public notice requirements when providing for public participation in the development  and implementation of the permittee’s stormwater program. This measure tonight appears to be one of the steps being taken to implement this program. Can you describe the process by which the public participated in its development? I don’t recall any announcements in connection with this initiative.

Also, language in the State statute refers to several deadline dates in 2004 for various actions to be taken. Why has this been delayed until now?

I only became aware of this proposal yesterday, when I read about it in the newspaper. I have heard that yesterday was the first time that some in the Administration, including those who have responsibility for the Department that would be responsible for collection of the yard waste this Ordinance covers. I have not been able to do much research on this matter, but should be able to do better by the second reading, with the additional information I look forward to receiving from Council.

Thank you.

After I spoke, City resident Charlie Leeder also spoke against the proposed Ordinance, stating his belief that this measure would violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, something I hadn’t considered. He told Council that by not including any language in the bill allowing for reasonable accommodations to those disabled and elderly residents physically unable to bag their yard waste, this bill would violate federal law.

After Mr. Leeder’s comments and mine, Council asked Public Works Director Merkle Cherry to answer some of their own questions as well as those raised by us. As is often the case with Mr. Cherry, he seemed to be unprepared and ill-equipped to explain and defend this proposal.

He started off by saying that this Yard Waste Ordinance was one of three measures presented to Council last night. The others were #18-21, “Prohibiting Illicit Connections to the storm sewer system” and #18-23, “Prohibiting the Spilling, Dumping, or Disposal of Materials Other Than Stormwater” to the storm sewers. Those other two measures were passed last night for First Reading, Second Reading and final action scheduled for May 6.

Director Cherry explained how all three of these measures were actually required to comply with US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules, not the State regulations mentioned in the language of the ordinance itself. Well, this kind of confused everyone in the room, especially since Mr. Cherry couldn’t explain what the EPA actually required, and couldn’t say exactly would happen as a result of this proposal were it to pass.

Council President Zachary Chester asked Mr. Cherry if the City would actually discontinue the current practice of vacuuming leaves in the neighborhoods. Mr. Cherry stumbled through an answer that seemed to say both that vacuuming would continue and that it wouldn’t.

Council asked Mr. Cherry what the impact of this proposal would be on Public Works manpower, since the mechanized process of vacuuming loose leaves would be replaced by manual wrangling and disposal of hundreds upon hundreds of separate bags and other containers.Mr. Cherry answered that he thought that, at the very least overtime would jump. He told Council that he should have more information by the time that Council had its Second Reading of the bill prior to approval.

Since Mr. Cherry’s answers were not very informative, and that what he did say seemed to indicate that this whole subject was a bigger and more complicated matter than the very short and poorly-drafted Ordinance indicated, Council seemed disinclined to pass this measure for First Reading at all last night.

It took a few times for Council to get across to Mr. Cherry that this Ordinance as drafted wasn’t going anywhere last night. A motion was made to table the Ordinance – postpone it for further review and re-drafting. It was seconded and passed unanimously.

A little bit later, at another opportunity for public comment, I added to my comments that the Ordinance was very poorly drafted, drawing their attention to the fact that although the first page and a half of the measure discussed and defined things like “yard waste” and “containers,” in the section that actually defined the actions to be prohibited by the new law (Section III) the language seemed copied from another Ordinance, #18-23. This language prohibited “The spilling, dumping, or disposal of materials other than stormwater.” Not a single word in this section about leaves, yard waste or bags. This was very sloppily drafted and edited not at all.

This was a very overly long story, I will admit, showing how this Administration – even now – struggles and fails with seemingly the simplest and least complicated of tasks. In short, they screwed up trying to do something about piles of leaves. I think it’s very likely that had Mr. Leeder and I not made our comments to draw attention to this item, it would have passed unanimously, as the other two related proposals did.

This experience demonstrated to me once again how critically important it is for the public to pay attention to what its local officials are doing and speak up to them. Because way, way too often, they just do not know what they are doing.

I can’t wait for them to be gone.

Talking a Lot, but What Are They Saying?

All seven Trenton mayoral candidates appeared on the same dais yesterday, in a town hall event produced by The Trentonian, and held at the downtown campus of Mercer County Community College. It was billed as “a debate,” but like most events labeled that way, it really wasn’t. Limited by the rather confusing and frustrating format, candidates were allowed one minute opening statements, and one minute answers to questions addressed at random to no more than two or three candidates at a time. One round of questions allowed the candidates only single word yes-or-no answers. There were no opportunities for the candidates to address each other, and none of them chose to even reference

So, if you are of a mind that all of Trenton’s issues can be boiled down to 60-second soundbites, you would have been in your element yesterday. If, however, you may have hoped against hope that the format would allow a little more substance, you’d have been disappointed.

The event was both streamed live on the website of the Trentonian; it was also recorded, and can be found posted in today’s online version of the Trentonian story on the event. I won’t discuss what each candidate was asked yesterday, nor their answers. A summary of that can be read in the Trentonian, and you can see the whole thing on video. One tip, though: the video runs 2:49:43, but the actual event doesn’t begin until the 1:10:00 mark.

There were two main issues I had wanted to hear discussed in at least some detail, but I was disappointed that they were both raised – by audience questions, not by the event moderators – only close to the end of the event. As a result, these two topics were only addressed by one candidate each.

The first question was, as I discussed in my last post, the crisis at the Trenton Water Works (TWW). One candidate mentioned clean water as a priority in his opening remarks, but the issue was not raised again until very late in the process. Unfortunately, the question went to two-term At Large Council member Alex Bethea. At 2:36:20, Mr. Bethea was asked for his policy proposals to deal with questions about the water quality and administrative leadership at TWW and its riverside filtration plant. I will quote his entire answer here. Remember as you read this, or even better watch this, that this answer was given by a man who has been a member of Trenton City Council for eight years, and an educator for many decades before that!

We’ve had some issues with our water situation over at the plant, and it’s still unclear about who, what, when. But let me say this. Our water situation is very serious, and I will take that very serious. And we will have top quality water as we used to have before this debacle became apparent. And we will change that.

Now, one of the things that we can do is reach out to the high school, and we can fill those so-called “vacancies.” And we should have had them filled twenty years ago. We’re a little late getting to the party. But, we can do this! And we have to make sure our residents are a part of the solution. And we can do this.

And I don’t see a problem with getting in, assessing that situation, and correcting it within the first 90 days. Thank you.

Got that? All of the problems of the Water Works – all of the Quality violations, the late projects that have led to no fewer than three Administrative Consent Orders and now two contracts with third-party engineering firms to provide several licensed operating personnel – you know, the “who, what, when” – can be solved in the first ninety days of a Bethea Administration. Kids right out of high school can fill these “so-called vacancies.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Alex Bethea, talking out of his ass for eight solid years. And the Trenton Education Association gave this fool their endorsement?!?! Probably because they figure they could get anything they want from him! The rest of us, though, should be very afraid to think Alex Bethea could end up the latest in the recent line of mayors including Doug Palmer, Tony Mack and Eric Jackson.

The other issue that barely got any attention was that of the city’s local property tax burden and the recent tax revaluation of residential and commercial properties. No questions asked by the moderators directly referenced this problem. The closest the moderators came was a question posed to Walker Worthy, Paul Perez and Annette Lartigue. They were asked how they would spur more small business in Trenton. Not, mind you, support small businesses that were already here and struggling. Nope, they were asked, at 1:31:00 how they would bring in new small businesses.

It wasn’t until the end of the session that we returned – however very briefly – to any discussion of property taxes. Another audience-written question, at 2:37:38, asked Assemblyman Reed Gusciora how he would finance his agenda. He initially answered, “Go to the government.” He described himself as a new mayor who would not have to be introduced the new Governor, Lieutenant Governor, or head of the NJ Department  of Environmental Protection, having worked with them, or endorsed them, for a long time. And then, for the only time anyone went there during this event, he said,

We just went through a revaluation. There were some losers and some winners. But the State has to kick in [additional revenues]. Fifty percent of Trenton is tax-exempt properties, and unless they make up for that, we’re going to have to go back to our own residents.

And that was it, folks. An issue that affects everyone who lives or works here has, throughout the entire election cycle so far, has been discussed about one-tenth as much as the pending legalization of marijuana. Disappointing is the very, very mildest word that could be used here. I am disappointed in all of the mayoral candidates to address this with the attention the matter deserves.

Remember, the process that Mr. Gusciora described as producing “some losers and some winners” saw thousands of commercial and residential property owners getting revaluations that doubled and tripled their taxes. At the other extreme, many other residential properties were revalued at reductions of 60% to 80%, with massive tax reductions. The geographic impact of these changes were highly localized, with West Ward neighborhoods such as Hiltonia, Glen Afton and Berkeley Square getting much higher tax bills and East and South Ward neighborhoods getting smaller ones.

Back in January of 2017, when the first revaluation results became available, I speculated about what the citywide impact might be:

Who in the world will buy Trenton property at anything close to current market prices that come with a property tax burden so astronomically high? We already are burdened with some of the highest property taxes in New Jersey, and the value we get for those high taxes is abysmally low. If these tax valuations stand, sale prices for many neighborhoods in town will collapse. This will probably result in increases in foreclosures and abandonment in neighborhoods that – so far – have managed to avoid too many of either.

We are now starting to see some of the initial impact of that revaluation reflected in the Trenton Real Estate market. I have the good fortune to be married to one of the leading residential real estate agents in New Jersey. Judy has provided me with some  current information about current residential properties (single-family homes) offered for sale, as well as closings, for the first three months of 2018. She has data for Condos as well, but since only only a handful of those show up in the data, and are economically insignificant, I have not included them.

First let’s look at properties offered for sale as of the end of March, as compiled in the TREND MultiListing Service.

active in March

We see here a total of 350 active properties for sale in the City, their total value (not seen here) totaling $29.1 Million Dollars, the vast majority of them offered for under $100,000. That’s where the sales have been happening as well. Here’s a table of settled (sold) properties in the City for the first three months of 2018.

settled YTD

This table shows 118 properties, totaling $7.094 Million (not seen on the chart), were settled in the first quarter of 2018. Here again, the large majority of properties sold were valued at $100,000 and under.

In fact, the sales activity for the lower-priced properties far outpaced those in the higher range. As a percentage of properties being offered, the number of settled properties under $100K is 40% of those offered for sale. The comparable rate for houses over $100K is less than half, 18%.

According to Judy, the following is a key piece of information, showing how the purchases were financed.

financing

Of the 118 properties sold so far in 2018, by far the largest of them – 87 – were purchased for Cash, as opposed to the other main sources of financing – Conventional mortgages, Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Administration, or Other.

According to Judy Moriarty, a Cash Purchase is one mark of a real estate investor purchasing the property, not an owner-occupant.

What’s the conclusion here? Based on the data so far, it looks like the most active sector of residential Trenton Real Estate sales is in those houses whose value are under $100,000. Those residences are largely in areas that benefited greatly by the lower assessments made last year, and their lower tax bills.

These houses are selling at roughly double the rate of more expensive houses. And their method of financing suggests they are being sold to investors who, in Trenton, typically have operated them as rental properties.

To the extent that any of them spoke about such things yesterday, the candidates were uniformly opposed to more outside property investors taking more control of Trenton’s residential market, creating more renters and crowding out owner-occupants.

Yet, the very policies and actions taken by the City over the last four years – chief among them the disastrous revaluation – are making this trend worse, and more likely into the future. We are now seeing this in the data.

If you, as Judy and I do, own a property worth more than $100,000, you’re basically SOL. You’ll have one hell of a time selling it, in large part – I speculate here, but base it on the data – to the greatly increased property tax bill, and the poor value of the services we get for our money.

In December of last year, I wrote – and presented to Council – that a homeowner with a residence in Trenton worth about $210,000 will get socked with a tax bill of $10,000. In other cities, the burden is a lot lighter on homeowners. In New York City, for example, you wouldn’t pay a tax bill that high unless your property was worth $almost $850K. Even here in New Jersey, your house in Newark would have to be worth $468K before your tax bill would be five figures.

Heavily owner-occupied neighborhoods such as Hiltonia, Glen Afton and Berkeley Square are, in short, getting screwed. So, to hear a candidate yesterday say, as Reed Gusciora (an owner living in Hiltonia, by the way) did, that if the State doesn’t significantly assist the City of Trenton by upping its fair share of payments in lieu of taxes, “we’re going to have to go back to our own residents,” with greater taxation.

At some point, homeowners in those neighborhoods will start walking away from their properties. They won’t sell at amounts their owners will need to recoup to break even, and price cuts will be forced by what new buyers there may be, to offset the crushing tax burdens.

Have we heard ANYTHING about that yet, at length, by our candidates for Mayor. Nope, not nearly enough. This is likely the only chance we’ll have to be heard on this matter for the next four years. Perhaps during the inevitable  run-off election we can get the final two candidates to talk about this?

For longer than sixty seconds, maybe??

Is Anyone Going To Talk About Water?

trenton 4-12

The picture above is from the front page of the City of Trenton’s official website, as sceencapped at 4:30PM this afternoon. This “News and Announcements” section headlines the Twenty Most Important Things that the City wanted its citizens and the rest of the world to know over the last 90 days or so.

You will note that of this list of the Twenty Most Important Things, no fewer than Ten – Half – concern the Trenton Water Works (TWW) and the water supplied by this utility to the City and much of Mercer County. The other Ten notices cover everything else.

Trenton’s Water Works and its problems continue, seemingly unabated. As recently as this week, the City sent out two new service notices to the utility’s customers, only one of which (for some reason)  you can see from the City’s News and Announcement page.

So, why is it that  since the beginning of the year up until today, NONE of the seven individuals running for Mayor see fit to discuss, or even mention as far as I can tell, the crisis at the Water Works?

Take a look at the policy and issues pages of each candidate. You won’t see anything. If any of them have addressed the issue at any forum or town hall, they haven’t followed up to formalize a position or ideas on their websites. The Trentonian’s copy-and-paste “Election Rumblings” haven’t carried any campaign press release on the subject. The only public officials who seem to talk about the Water Works are outside the City.

The present conditions and future prospects of the Water Works is a top-priority issue for the next Mayor and Council of Trenton. The City is now bound to an Administrative Consent Order, signed in February with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection as the third in a series going back to 2009, obligating the City to do a LOT of things to safeguard our drinking water over the next several years.

The City failed to observe the first two. Will we have any better luck with this one? What do the candidates think about this? What can they tell us, not only the residents of the City, but the tens of thousands of customers in the rest of Mercer County who have a vital personal interest in the result of this upcoming election?

All the candidates talk about the need to revitalize neighborhoods and attract economic development. Do none of the candidates see how anything they intend to do in this City requires clean drinking water and dependable infrastructure to provide it?

We can’t do squat without water.

Is anybody going to talk about this? Anyone?

Check out the websites below. See that there’s nothing anywhere about the Water Works. Ask the candidates at every remaining public event between now and May 8, “Why don’t you talk about our water?”

Alex Bethea

Darren Green

Reed Gusciora

Duncan Harrison

Annette Lartigue

Paul Perez

Walker Worthy

This is an issue that is as close as your kitchen sink. Why is no one running for Mayor talking about it?

By And Another Thing

UPDATE BELOW

This election season, Trenton voters seeking to become or stay informed about local election goings-on are at a severe disadvantage. Our two local newspapers, on which Trentonians have traditionally looked for information, are taking two very different approaches to covering this campaign season.

The Trenton Times, by and large, is ignoring the election. In fact, they seem to be ignoring most things in Trenton not sports-related. Perhaps if our candidates wore jerseys and hats??

The Trentonian, on the other hand, is providing a lot of coverage, on or pretty close to a daily basis. The trouble is, it’s pretty near impossible to figure out who writes their reports. Because of that, a reader cannot know whether an article is reported news or campaign propaganda.

For the last several weeeks, the Trentonian has been featuring a frequent column called “Trenton Election Rumblings” and consist of mostly short vignettes, policy announcements, or news about individual campaigns and candidates, mostly the mayoral ones. The pieces are never bylined – attributed – to specific Trentonian writers or editorial staff. That’s the first warning sign that there may be something up with these. If you browse the “Trenton Elections” page of the paper’s website, you can see that these “Rumblings” are variously credited to “Trentonian Staff,” or “TRENTONIAN STAFF REPORT,” or “For the Trentonian.”

What do these various bylines tell us? Who knows! The newspaper doesn’t provide any explanation for these various credits, frankly making it difficult for the casual reader to evaluate what it is they are reading. Is this a report story based on actual research and reporting by a Trentonian writer? Or is this simply a press release written by a specific campaign, with who knows how much spin, slant, exaggeration or outright lies baked in? There’s no real way to tell, and the Trentonian doesn’t help the reader in not providing any notes or disclaimers.

Unfortunately, there’s no common journalistic industry standard for credits and attribution. This link will take you to a piece on the website of the Poynter Institute, a well-respected journalism school in Tampa, Florida, in which several newspaper editors from around the country describe how their papers and news services handle their policies for things like Bylines (authorship attribution), Datelines, and the like. They’re all roughly similar, with some variations on a theme.

I like Caesar Andrews description of the policy used by the Gannett News Service. For him and his colleagues, Bylines go to the reporter or reporters who contribute significantly to story. Other credits may be used when someone else participates in gathering the news.” [Emphasis in the original.]

OK, that seems pretty clear and uncomplicated. Let’s apply it to “Election Rumblings.” In an installment I’ve already described, from March 16, Councilmember and mayoral candidate Duncan Harrison is extensively quoted on the occasion of the passage by Council of his proposal to allow Trenton citizens and customers to use credit and debit cards to pay for City services and charges. Except, as you know from reading this space, all that Council actually approved was the method by which vendor proposals for those services would be sought and evaluated.

That article included several remarkable claims, not in quotes, so not directly attributed to the candidate. By not being in quotes, the author – in this case “By TRENTONIAN STAFF REPORT” is implicitly presenting these claims as reported fact. Take this one sample:

Accepting credit and debit card payments will cost the city nothing and will make it more convenient for Trentonians to pay bills and fees. It will also expand the city’s budget by making it easier for those who live outside Trenton to pay their bills and fees on time.

There’s nothing in that quote to indicate that these features of credit card processing are only wishes by the Councilman, that don’t yet appear in any actual proposal by potential vendors, let alone features specified by an actual negotiated, signed, approved contract. There may never be an adopted proposal, and even if there is one – eventually – iot may not feature all of these items. To be frank, these are only Wild-Assed Campaign Promises, nothing more. But the Trentonian, by placing it in its newspaper with no individual byline and no disclaimer of any kind, lends this its journalistic endorsement.

So, who wrote this? The Trentonian, or the campaign? You can’t tell! There is simply no way to know just who has “participated” in gathering this “news.”

Take a more recent example. This one “By Trentonian Staff,” datelined yesterday at 5:22 PM. The piece leads off, “The campaign headquarters of Mayoral Candidate Walker Worthy Jr. has been burglarized three times in recent weeks. The incidents took place the night of March 29, Easter Weekend and April 5. The campaign filed police reports and is in the process of purchasing surveillance cameras.” The article goes on to include a lengthy quote, actually more of a lengthy statement, by the candidate, and finishes with the advisory, “For more information about Worthy and his campaign, visit” followed by the URL of his campaign.

This piece frankly reads like a press release written by the campaign, and published by The Trentonian verbatim and without any effort by the paper to verify the claims made with any other sources, including Trenton Police.

A HUGE clue to this is this line: “When Trenton Police complete their investigation, Worthy intends to share the information publicly.”

So, The Trentonian will rely on a Candidate to directly provide to the newspaper further information from the Police!

That’s not how this is supposed to work!!! A real news article, written by a real reporter, would include lines such as, “When contacted the Trentonian, a Trenton police spokesperson had no further information but promised to provide it,” or “This reporter visited Worthy campaign headquarters and saw evidence of forced entry.”

You know? THAT is what reporting reads like. “Election Rumblings” reads like unfiltered, unedited campaign propaganda.

What has really been going on at Walker Worthy campaign headquarters? I don’t know, because I do not trust one word in this article.

You shouldn’t either.

When you come to this page (Thank you!), you know who writes it. There’s no vague byline like “By ‘And Another Thing.’” My name is on my website, and I stand by what I write. That’s the standard I hold myself to.

That’s the standard you should hold our local “professional” media to, as well.

It’s sad that the Trenton Times seems to be largely Missing In Action during this election season. The sole remaining daily reporting this election in detail, The Trentonian, by default needs to work to a higher journalistic standard. It should openly disclose the sources of the “Election Rumblings,” whether the work of a specific staff individual, or of a partisan campaign office. It should explain the meanings of their various bylines.

In the absence of those things, you simply cannot trust what you read in this newspaper when it reports on Trenton’s candidates and campaigns.

- By Kevin Moriarty

UPDATE: 2:30 PM, 11 April 2018

Thanks to reader Dennis Waters, the Walker Worthy piece in the Trentonian discussed above, bylined “By Trentonian Staff” has been found. It can be read on the website newjerseyglobe.com, and the Worthy campaign spokesperson Dan Knitzer is listed as the Contact. Presumably Mr. Knitzer or a colleague actually wrote this piece.

Folks, it’s the exact same article published in the Trentonian and bylined “By Trentonian Staff.”

At a time when legitimate journalism is being unfairly attacked as “Fake News,” it’s very disheartening to see an actual example of it.

Shame on the Trentonian!

Darren Green Is Not Entertained. That's a Good Thing for Trenton

There may not be a more unconventional mayoral candidate in Trenton this election cycle, than Darren “Freedom” Green.

There may not be a mayoral candidate who knows more intimately about how government – at all levels – in Trenton fails so much for so many in this city, than Darren Green.

There may not be a mayoral candidate known by first name by as many people of this city, than Darren Green.

There may not be a mayoral candidate as underestimated this election cycle, than Darren Green.

He is, I think, worth a closer look by voters.

I first met Mr. Green when he was an At-Large candidate for City Council in 2010, the same year I ran in the West Ward. He had made it to the June run-off, whereas I was eliminated in the initial round that May. I was impressed by his quiet intensity and granular knowledge of life in Trenton for many of its citizens. After that election, and after the 2014 election in which he did not stand as a candidate, Darren – almost alone among most of Trenton’s candidates, from whom we hear and see only every four years – has walked the walk, and continued to talk the talk. He’s been a presence at Council and other community meetings, and on social media.

He was an early and vocal supporter of the movement to recall Tony Mack – which again distinguishes him from all of the other mayoral candidates. Writing on her blog at the time that the recall movement fell short, recall committee member and now former Trenton resident Christine Ott wrote about Mr. Green’s work on that effort, “Darren Freedom Green is just pure decency and compassion, and I might just have to make a Darren Freedom Green Action Figure to keep with me at all times for inspiration.”

His professional background does not suggest that he comes with the requisite experience I’ve been seeking from other candidates. He’s not served, as far as I know, in any management capacity in an organization similar in size and complexity to the City. One of his positions over the last several years was as a special aide worker for the Trenton School District, a job I only know about by the fact that his departure from the job in 2014 after his salary (along with other in similar positions)was reduced was reported in the Trenton Times. His website does not include detailed discussions of his previous career.

Were he to somehow find a path to election as Mayor this Spring, I think he would end up being overly dependent on hiring a staff,  Department directors and other personnel and board appointees whose knowledge of the technical nuts and bolts of their jobs would likely far exceed Mr. Green’s. I think that would be the case for him much more than for the other candidates this season. The rest of his website is similarly lacking detailed exposition of the issues he identifies as well as his prescribed solutions.

And yet, his knowledge of and feel for the issues is personal and dead on. For instance, on a page discussing the crisis in vacant and abandoned buildings and the many pressures on the many small business owners to make a living, he introduces us to one of these businessowners. He tells us about Leroy Nevius and the properties he owns. He tells us,

Last year the City of Trenton did a property revaluation and Mr. Nevius’ tax bill increased by thousands. I know our City needs revenue, but I am, and have always been for sensible, socially responsible development. What type of administration provides a 10 year tax break to a millionaire politician who lives outside the City (the owner of the Starbucks property), but brings the hammer down on small business owners who have lived here their whole lives? Not the administration I would support. Not the administration you should support.

I have to tell you, I read that and I nod my head in approval. Do I think that Mr. Green has the right experience and toolset to take the kinds of action and make the kinds of changes that would help Leroy Nevius, and those like him? I don’t know, but I don’t see many other people asking for votes this season talking about either the horrible revaluation this City went through last year, OR the City’s scandalous record in handing out tax abatements like candy to those who least need them while ignoring those like Mr. Nevius.

His Issues page is brief and cursory in both diagnosis and prescription. In that respect, he shares with Councilman Alex Bethea. Yet for the last eight years at least, he has been much more detailed, much more consistent and – above all – much more coherent than Mr. Bethea.

And Mr. Green uses words such as “bold” and “revolutionary” on his website and in his speech almost as much as Councilman Duncan Harrison does.

Regarding Mr. Harrison, I said the other day that the only “revolution” Trenton might be ripe for would be a French one. From my rather removed, privileged and distant online perch, whose experience of Trenton is surely much, much different than many if not most of the people who are born, grow up and live here having gone through city schools and whose experience with city services is more frequent, necessary and unpleasant and frustrating than mine; from my perspective if, similar to the French people in 1789, Trenton were to put forth an authentic voice to speak and work for the disenfranchised and powerless, I think that person would look and sound a lot like Darren Green. He’s been to more funerals and celebrations in this town – as a friend – than most other candidates and officeholders, I would speculate.

On another of his website pages, he says – and I will quote that in its entirety:

During last night’s NAACP Town Hall Forum, I was asked about my thoughts on the two new “entertainment districts” being proposed for our City. My response was clear. Money comes into Trenton, but rarely ends up benefiting Trentonians. Councilman Harrison said he supported these districts, and the creation of others across the City — but my position is that until we have full accountability for how our money is being spent; until we have rules in place that prioritize the training, hiring, and contracting of TRENTON residents, I will never be for any of these developments.

The State announced on Fountain Ave last year that it was giving Trenton 11.5 MILLION to demolish up to 500 abandoned buildings. This picture was taken only days ago, a few feet away from where Governor Christie and our current Mayor made their announcement. Things have only gotten worse. Do you see what I’m talking about when I say accountability? Real people going through real things are going to feel this. We don’t need to be sold dreams about some entertainment district. We borrowed millions to build a new hotel and look where that has gotten us?

I am not entertained. I am enraged that our kids continue to deal with the trauma of blight and abandonment when they walk outside, while people in power pull the wool over our eyes as they quietly enrich their friends using our tax dollars. Trenton FIRST or no deal. Simple.

I have to tell you, “I am not entertained?” I love that! I cannot think of any other candidate this year who has earned the right to channel Russell Crowe in what passes for Trenton’s poor excuse for a gladiator arena. I think we’re the better for having him run this year.

I don’t know what Mr. Green’s electoral chances will be in May. I wouldn’t think that his campaign is as adequately funded as many of his opponents. I don’t see any “Green (or ‘Free’) for Mayor” signs around town, another sign that his effort is being run on a shoestring. On the other hand, he doesn’t have any of the huge, annoying, Baconator-sized billboards-on-lawns that Walker Worthy is planting around town, and that’s a good thing. We’ll learn more about that, and other candidates’ efforts, later this week, when the Election Law Enforcement Commission starts to post the required 28-day campaign financial reports due tomorrow.

As mentioned above, his unconventional background and skillset may not at this point provide him with all of the tools he would need to be the effective Executive this town has desperately needed for way too long.  He may not have what it takes to do the job.

But I will predict that – based on the resonance to his message, the many, many people in Trenton who have long known him, and know him to be direct, honest, passionate, consistent and committed – he will finish higher than at least half the field. Darren Green is definitely a wild card.

His presence alone in this race is classing it up. He is saying things, and taking positions that – even though his background may not be the most conventional – few others this year are taking.

Even if he is not successful in May, or June, he will continue to be a strong voice in this city. Whoever is elected Mayor, if it’s not Mr. Green, will be well advised to find a spot for him where he will have certainly earned a chance to serve the City and the people he loves.

If We Had Ham, We Could Make a Ham Sandwich, If We Had Bread

I don’t know why it is, but during this political season I find myself most annoyed by the pitch being made by the mayoral campaign of one-term At-Large Council member Duncan Harrison. It might be due to my reactions to his increasingly overwrought and buoyant campaign promises and rhetoric. With every new press release and newspaper article – he’s definitely playing The Trentonian like a violin, as they post breathless “articles” that seem like word-for-word transcriptions of Harrison releases and conversations, without any vetting or fact-checking – it seems that he is both over-promising what can be delivered during one four-year mayoral and Council term, and under-delivering in terms of his experience and qualifications.

This space first discussed one of his campaign pronouncements a few weeks ago, when he tried to spin a rather mundane and routine action taken by Council – to prefer one kind of bidding over another in seeking to allow the City to process credit and debit cards for several types of business transactions – into a revelatory game-changing accomplishment. Listen to how he described this vote’s impact on the city: “This is an important change that will move Trenton into the 21st Century and help us build a bright, new future for our city.”

I still shake my head every time I read that.

He was just getting started. The Biography page on his website leads off by describing him as “the new leader Trenton needs. He has the experience we need to fix the challenges Trenton faces, but also recognizes the strength, creativity, and innovative spirit that define our city. Duncan understands what Trenton needs right now, but he also sees what our city can become, and he has the skills we need to build a vibrant, new Trenton – a real Trenton renaissance.”

I don’t know how you over-promise more than that. A Trenton renaissance? Seriously? His “vision” strikes me as the kind of wishful thinking expressed in the line “If we had ham, we could make a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.” He knows where he wants to go, but doesn’t seem to be aware of all the steps on the path to get there.

Let’s review – very briefly – what’s happened over the last four years in Trenton, during the time that Mr. Harrison has been serving on City Council, while consistently and dependably providing his vote for the failed Eric Jackson Administration. I know I repeat myself here, but I feel the disastrous experience in Trenton of these last four years taints every elected official in the City and every senior appointed manager, and that tarnished record can’t be repeated often enough in this election to suit me.

One of the City’s own vendors stole $5 Million Dollars in payroll tax funds. This happened under the noses of all of the City’s financial management. In its aftermath, the Mayor and his Administration refused to talk about both how this was allowed to happen and what actions they were taking to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. Ever since that theft, I haven’t heard any Council members – including Mr. Harrison – calling for Accountability.

The City of Trenton in 2015 was labeled by the US Government “a high-risk grantee of Federal funds.” The actions leading to this designation mostly preceded the Jackson Administration and Mr. Harrison’s Council years. But a couple of years later, in 2017, the City agreed with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to give back over $3 Million in grant funding because after three years the Jackson Administration had failed to fulfill pledges it made to improve its administrative processes and procedures. Again, hardly a peep from Council about this.

Over the last four years, the Trenton Water Works continued to decline, leading to a record number of fines and violations and raising frequent concerns from customers and public officials around Mercer County about the quality and safety of its drinking water, due in large measure to the significant under-staffing of the Utility. This Administration and this Council bears all the responsibility for four years of drift, neglect, and lax oversight.

And, as described just yesterday, City Council – with Mr. Harrison’s votes – approved several contracts for goods and services that at best could be called mis-guided, and at worst wasteful and inappropriate. Please remember, again, the Information Technology contract from Hell, the public swimming pools contract, and the property reassessment contract. This last one resulted in wildly inconsistent property revaluations that vastly increased the property tax burden – doubling and tripling the local property tax burden for many home and business owners, while slashing many others.

If you search for Duncan Harrison’s name in connection with any objections or disagreements with any of the above, I predict you will find few results. In fact, Trenton’s Council has had a reputation for many years of being a rubber stamp for whichever Administration has then been in office. The last four years have been no different. During these last four years, Duncan Harrison has been one of the dependable rubber stamp votes that enabled the Jackson Administration to take so many of their misbegotten actions.

Even this Administration’s and Council’s own initiatives had trouble getting done. In November of last year, Jim Carlucci posted two informative pieces narrating the sad fate of the Local Employment Initiative, and its stillborn Trenton Employment Commission. Undertaken with much fanfare (and Harrison’s vote) in 2014, this initiative was abandoned after only one year. Money approved by Council to pay the consultant hired to prepare plans and studies wasn’t fully paid. No study or reporting was delivered and a Commission intended to help expand career training and hiring of local employees was never formed. Despite Mr. Carlucci raising the matter months ago, there’s only been silence from Council. As on so many other occasions!

The record of this Council for its term is entirely undistinguished, frankly disastrous. As a member of the voting majority, he has to own his share of that record. Which does not recommend his promotion to the Mayor’s Office.

Part of Harrison’s pitch is the professional experience and record he’s had as the Associate Executive Director of the Union Industrial Home (UIH) here in Trenton. I’m sure he does outstanding work there, but his is an organization with an annual budget under $2 Million, only 1% of the City of Trenton’s, according to the most recent tax return I could find for the organization, for 2016. On that return as well as earlier ones in 2014 and 2015, on Page 7, is a listing by name of UIH’s “Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees.” Mr. Harrison does not appear on this list. Serving in middle management of a small community non-profit really doesn’t suggest the relevant training at this point to run a complex organization like Trenton’s government.

It’s too bad, actually. I like him personally, he has a real feel for people – good in a politician -  and is full of energy. I think he has the makings of a good and productive Council member, the last four years notwithstanding. I think he has the potential and talent to develop as an independent voice on Council, representing and responsive to Trenton’s voters, and acting as a true check and balance on the Executive. Instead, he’s convinced himself – or been convinced – that he’s ready after four years as an Administration yes-man and a community middle manager to take on the massive dysfunction that is the City of Trenton. A shame.

I think, frankly, he fell in with the “wrong crowd” on Council. He and Zachary Chester and former member Verlina Reynolds-Jackson were consistently supportive of the Jackson Administration. Along with the less-consistent (in so many other ways) Alex Bethea, they all backed the Administration, for better or for worse.

Along with Chester and Reynolds Jackson, I think that Mr. Harrison’s downfall was his going along to get along. They didn’t rock the boat in Trenton, and they didn’t go against the program, in the expectation perhaps that such loyalty would be later rewarded. In Ms. Reynolds-Jackson’s case, her entirely undistinguished career on Trenton’s Council was rewarded by a significant bump upstairs to first being the Chair of the Mercer County Democratic Committee, and then to the appointment by that Committee to serve the remaining term in the State Assembly of former member Elizabeth Muoio, now NJ’s State Treasurer. In Mr. Harrison’s case, his reward for loyal and dependable service is the support he is receiving for his mayoral campaign. He benefits from much of the same support that would have lined up behind Eric Jackson, had he decided to run for a second term.

That support apparently includes some of the same campaign consultants who have worked on past New Jersey campaigns including US Senator Cory Booker, Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, and the NJ Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee. A few weeks ago, in The Trentonian, one Marc Matzen was identified as Harrison’s “campaign manager.” Matzen is one of the Principals in a political consulting firm called FiftyOne Percent. I’m sure that the services of a firm such as that don’t come cheaply.

It’s possible that Mr. Matzen may be volunteering his services to Harrison’s campaign, since the gentleman lives in Trenton. However, along with the services being provided to the mayoral campaign of Walker Worthy by Vision Media Marketing of Secaucus, whose Dan Knitzer was quoted this week defending Worthy from anonymous charges of personal financial problems, his presence is a sign that at least these two mayoral campaigns enjoy significant support and resources from outside the City, from many of the same sources that supported Eric Jackson and Tony Mack previously. Past performance does not predict future results, but it is worth noting by Trenton voters.

I’m guessing that his consultants have been advising Mr. Harrison to stake out as his own distinctive territory by branding himself as the “Vision” candidate, offering his proposals with as many synonyms of “bold,” “vision,” “innovative” and “revolutionary” as he can cram into a press release. Sometimes, as in his Credit Card victory lap, it doesn’t really work. And it seems to me that the only “Revolution” Trenton is primed for is a French one. Because after the last four years as briefly recounted above, it sure feels that Trenton needs to re-learn how to make itself work again, well before it can ever think of either Mr. Harrison’s “Revolution” or his “Renaissance.” I wrote just a few days ago about Mr. Harrison’s rhetoric compared with some of his more prosaic and grounded opponents, and don’t need to revisit that further.

I will just finish by citing one of Duncan Harrison’s more specific proposals as evidence that he may want to tone down some of the exuberance in his proposals order to concentrate some on their nuts and bolts, because there’s a lot missing there.

Take his proposal on neighborhood revitalization, offered this week. As part of his plan, Harrison proposes to re-open the four neighborhood branches of the Trenton Free Public Library that closed and have been allowed to rot since 2010. As reported in the Trentonian this week, Harrison intends “Reopening community library branches by partnering with library management, City Council, and the State to procure capital funding and state library bond funding.”

It’s a very laudable objective. But the reason that the branches closed in 2010 wasn’t due to a lack of capital funds. It was due to the lack of Operating Funds, and a reduction in the City’s subsidy of the Library System. In 2010, the Mack Administration cut the Library’s budget by $1 Million. The remaining budget of $2.1 Million was not enough to keep the four branches open. The Library Director at the time estimated the minimum operating budget needed to keep the branches open for only four hours a day five days a week was $845,000. In 2010 dollars. The City didn’t have it then. That amount will surely have grown by now.

Flash forward to 2018. The FY 2018 budget approved by Mr. Harrison and his Council colleagues appropriated $2 Million Dollars to operate the Main Library downtown. The state-mandated minimum Library tax revenue for the Library is only $786,000. The remaining $1,214 Million comes from the City’s main operating budget.

Does Mr. Harrison think the City can afford another $845,000, plus inflation? If so, why didn’t he didn’t propose this before now?

Even Harrison’s proposal to “procure capital funding and state library bond funding” – money to build and/or repair the buildings and physical property – raises questions. Last November, New Jersey voters statewide approved a ballot measure to raise $125 Million in bond revenue to be used to support capital grants to communities for local public libraries such as Trenton. We can certainly apply for a piece of that funding, as Mr. Harrison proposes. By all means.

However, those State grants would fund only 50% of a local project. Towns and cities would be responsible for raising the remaining 50%, as well as, of course, the operating monies.

Does Mr. Harrison think the City can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital monies, as well as another Million or so in operating monies? If so, why hasn’t this been done before this? Why hasn’t he sought to do this before now? Perhaps because he wasn’t running for Mayor before this year.

The same vague lack of specificity tied with a blithe assumption that details will take care of themselves informs much of the rest of his neighborhoods plan. Again, according to the Trentonian, the plan includes “Revitalizing abandoned buildings and holding landlords accountable by working with the Housing and Economic Development department to secure grant funding for neighborhood improvement projects, creating a marketing package to attract colleges and corporations to Trenton, and enforcing a graduating fine system for landlords who put their tenants at risk by violating housing laws.”

D’oh, why hasn’t this occurred to anyone before now? Hey, Duncan Harrison’s proposals aren’t as thin as, say, Alex Bethea’s. But they are detailed enough and optimistic enough to raise voters’ expectations unfairly. He thinks a lot can be done in only four years to transform a City that has trouble getting snow off City streets. His proposals have merit, but they lack the sense that Harrison knows how to actualize them. Ideas without resources are dreams. Dreams are definitely worth having, but after Tony Mack and Eric Jackson we need prose not poetry.

The truest sentiment attributed to Duncan Harrison is at the end of that Trentonian article. “Harrison knows City Hall has let Trentonians down.”

Yes, it surely has.

As much as I like him, as Mayor he would also let us down. Trenton can’t take another failed mayor,


It's Time to Be Responsible

Each time I want to write about what the various and sundry candidates for election in five weeks actually propose to do if they’re elected, the current elected officials go off and do something new to show why we need a clean slate of new people. We’re already going to get a new Mayor; I think it’s also time to do a clean sweep of every member of City Council, and try again. How much worse could an entirely new crowd do? Not much.

Case in point: Trenton’s City Council has screwed up what should have been a routine contracting process. The Trentonian reported yesterday about the ruckus surrounding a contract awarded by the City to Cole Media for public relations work for the City. This firm raised some eyebrows back in September, when Council first approved a $50,000 contract with them for public relations work done for the outgoing one-term Mayor Eric Jackson, due to the fact that, as reported by Kevin Shea of the Trenton Times back when the Times reported actual news about Trenton and not simply local sports scores – but I digress – “Although not the lowest bid, Cole Media won the contract after being evaluated by a bid committee.”

That evaluation, and the committee’s decision, has been called into question by one of the other firms, the EFK Group of Trenton, which submitted one of the losing proposals for the contract. I won’t recap the substance of the current mess, leaving you to click on the links above for those details.

I want to point out what I think what should be the main point here. Isaac Avilucea reports in his Trentonian piece, “City council last year approved a resolution for a $50,000 payout to Cole Media to do PR work for Jackson, according to news reports. The city didn’t explain at the time why it needed the services, and it wasn’t immediately clear what work contributions Cole Media has made to the city.”

I’ll say that again: it is not at all clear what work Cole did for the City to have earned its $50,000. And now the City has struck another deal with the firm.

What is objectionable about this is that Council – and the public  – has  no way of evaluating what connections other than their contracts Cole Media - and every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years – has with Eric Jackson.

Because the outgoing one-term Mayor has failed to file any of the legally-required quarterly campaign finance reports since October of 2014, it is impossible to know if Cole Media – or every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years - has made financial contributions to Eric Jackson which in turn benefit them by getting lucrative contracts from the City.

Now, I realize this is entirely unfair to Cole Media – and every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years - but Mayor Jackson has single-handedly created the current situation. Because of his ongoing failure to file his reports and identify the funds coming to him during his entire term, companies like Cole Media – and every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years - are now under a cloud of suspicion every time they do business with the City.

In the case of Cole Media and EFK, the allegations made by one of the losing bidders has put this one deal under the spotlight. We’ll have to see how that unwinds over the next couple of weeks or months, and whether this matter ends up in court.

However, this won’t be the last time this happens. A big part of the legacy that Eric Jackson leaves behind is that, for the next several years, whenever the City proposes a contract with a company like Cole Media – and every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years - we will wonder if they got their foot in the door to get a piece of the City’s business because of donations made to Eric Jackson between 2014 and 2018.

And we won’t know. Because Eric Jackson has failed in his legal obligations to report, and failed to fulfill his promises to voters four years ago to be The Ethics Mayor.

You know, when Tony Mack left office, we all had a pretty good idea that most of his dirty laundry and dirty deals had been publicly revealed, courtesy of the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office for New Jersey.

We can’t say that about Eric Jackson. Although there’s been no suggestion publicly made of criminal behavior, it’s now unfortunately impossible for him – or anyone else in City Hall today – to credibly deny that there hasn’t been any.

There are two lessons I think we can learn here, and I hope we learn them in time for Election Day.

First, we are seeing the damage done – even long after they leave office – to the way the City does its business when the campaign finances of its Mayor are shrouded in secrecy in violation of New Jersey law. We can’t afford another Eric Jackson again!

That means that any candidate for the office of Mayor who demonstrates they either can not or will not comply with the law with their campaign reporting should not be trusted with the office, no matter how otherwise compelling their qualifications or campaign platforms. I’m looking at you, Paul Perez.

And, second. For the last four years, we’ve seen time after time that the City – Administration and Council – has very. very serious problems with its purchasing and contracting process. Not only has it screwed up the Cole Media deals, the City has also made a mess of – for example – its Information Technology contract, its public swimming pools contract, its property reassessment contract, and, most infamously, its payroll service contract. You’ll recall with this last deal that the City continued to renew its contract with Innovative Payroll Services even while IPS was stealing Five Million Dollars from the City.

What can be done to clean this situation up? Well, for a start, I would just absolutely love it if one or more current Mayoral and Council candidates pledged that he or she would make a great start by ensuring that they would follow the law.

What do I mean by this? Trenton already has in its City Code a built-in check and balance on the city’s purchasing process, and it has NEVER used it.

It’s called The Board of Review. It’s on the books in Section 2-74 of the City’s Ordinances. The language of the complete Ordinance can be found here. I’ll just quote a few key lines:

Section 2-74 D.Appeals

In such cases where a prospective bidder desires to appeal the decision of the Purchasing Agent with respect to a particular public works or public contract previously advertised and desires to have a review and decision by the Board prior to the time for submission of bids on the contract, the request shall be filed not less than five days prior to the final date for the submission of bids, and the Board shall hold a hearing and act upon the request not less than two days prior to the date fixed for the next opening of bids on such public works or contract. The request for any such expedited review shall state with specificity the need for an accelerated review stating the time and subject matter of the impending bid. Such accelerated review shall also be available to any person who receives notice of disqualification or notice of potential rejection pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:11-32 following the opening of bids and prior to the award of contracts.

This Board would not have authority throughout the entire bidding process. It’s not designed to have board input after the actual award of contracts, for instance. But it does allow a mechanism for bidders prior to that point, who might feel the purchasing process has been “fixed” or otherwise stacked against them, to have their voices heard by an independent body not beholden to the current Powers That Be. Also, if the Administration in office knew that much of their work would be subject to Board review, I think one could argue that the very existence of a Board of Review would have a pretty mighty deterrent effect.

By the way, the Board would consist, per the Ordinance, of “one member of the City Council to be designated by motion of the City Council and two citizens of the City to be designated by motion of the City Council.”

Might any of the purchasing disasters of the last four years have been avoided if there were such a Board in place? I can’t really say.

What I can say is that we have not had a Board of Review and we have had all of these disasters over the four years. And I can say that Trenton City Ordinance requires such a Board to be in existence. And the City has ignored this mandate for years.

I think that does explain, in part, the situation we have now. I am tired of it happening again, and again.

I’ve written about this before, as far back as 2011. Here, and here. I think it’s well past time to comply with the law and convene this Board.

So, any Mayoral and Council candidates or managers reading, what do you think? Who will go on the record as saying,

“It’s time to stop tolerating purchasing disasters. It’s Time to comply with the Law. It’s Time to give the Public the Check and Balance the Law provides. It’s Time to be Responsible. “



Alex Bethea's Got Nothing

Since Election Day is now less than five weeks away, I think it’s time to start focusing on the issues, don’t you? Trenton has a lot of problems, big and small, and it’s appropriate now to get an idea of how the candidates intend to deal with them. In fact, it’s important to know what issues they even identify as important, and note the ones they don’t. First up, the candidate with the least to offer, therefore the quickest to dismiss.

On his campaign website, Alex Bethea has a page titled “On the Issues.” Here’s a screengrab:

bethea

Let me save you some time this morning. There’s no need to go to this page to look at the details of his Five Point Plan.

There aren’t any. There are no further links out of this page. None.

This is The Plan.

However, there is more! Elsewhere on the website, under “News,” there is a link to a YouTube video, 5 Minutes and 51 seconds in length, wherein Mr. Bethea does discuss his 5-point plan in detail. Well, at least a little more detail. It’s still pretty thin. I’ll summarize his proposals.

Bethea doesn’t actually get to his “Plan” until 2:09 into the video. The first portion of the piece is devoted to personal biography.

Public Safety – At the 2:09 mark, Mr. Bethea tells us he believes in community policing. He promises to deploy officers on street patrol. This will help to narrow the disconnect between the police and the community. He also promises to make it more attractive to police officers to make the city they patrol their home, with a mix of tax incentives and no-interest loans to officers to help them afford to buy homes in Trenton.

Bethea provides no detail as to how he would make this possible. He doesn’t describe how TPD would have to deploy its force in order to put cops on foot patrol. Neither does he offer any estimates to the city of the cost of his “tax incentives” and “no-interest loans.”

This discussion on Public Safety takes all of 1 minute and 5 seconds.

Education – He’s the “Education Candidate,” he starts to tell us at 3:14, due to the years he’s spent with the Trenton School District as a teacher and administrator. He intends to focus on the early student years, from Kindergarten to 3rd Grade. Early on, he promises a “thorough assessment of what each child needs,” adjusting the curriculum accordingly. Here again, he provides no sense of the resources needed to provide individualized student assessments and curricula. He doesn’t describe how his proposals differ from the current status quo, and he doesn’t explain how a Mayor of Trenton can have much influence on schools. The City provides directly only a small portion of the system’s funds. And the only role that a Mayor typically plays is in the appointment of School Board members.

Education is checked off in one minute flat.

Housing and Economic Development – At 4:14, Bethea tackles this huge problem for the city. Bethea’s vision for Development extends only so far as the “thousands and thousands of boarded-up and abandoned houses in our city.” As Mayor, Bethea will “take an aggressive approach to revitalize those houses and get them back on the tax rolls.” Having disposed of that topic in all of 20 seconds, Mr. Bethea assures us that this accomplishment alone will accomplish his next goal.

Property Taxes – The revitalization of these thousands and thousands of homes – no mention or discussion of local businesses or commercial properties crushed by the 2017 reassessment Councilman Bethea endorsed, sorry – will by themselves achieve his goal of “stabilizing” property taxes. He doesn’t explain what he means by “Stabilization.” Keep them at current rates throughout his term? Roll them back? Keep any increases to a minimum? We don’t know, because he devotes only four seconds to this topic.

Employment – Mr. Bethea apparently believes that getting all of those thousands of houses back on the tax rolls will provide a windfall for the city under his Administration, because “at the same time” (4:38 in) that he is “stabilizing” property taxes, he will be able to pay for an ambitious Apprenticeship program for Trenton’s unemployed residents, providing opportunities for training in trades such as Plumbing, Roofing, Carpentry, and Electrics. Again, he provides no details or numbers, which would have been awfully hard to do in the ten seconds he allots for the topic.

And that’s it. Mr. Bethea describes his Five Point Plan in well under three minutes of video. He takes another half-minute to wrap up, characterizing the plan he’s just presented as “aggressive,” which will lead to a return of the “glory days” in Trenton.

There’s not much else to say about this video, and Alex Bethea. I watched and summarized his “Issues” video so you won’t have to.

It’s been long clear from his eight years on Council that Alex Bethea was unprepared for the job. He’s often uninformed about the matters that come before him in Council. I’m not a regular attendee at Council sessions, but there has not been a one that I’ve been sitting in Council Chambers when a lot of time is spent by someone – whether the City Clerk, the Business Administrator or other Administration official, or his Council President – explains in very simple words and concepts the substance of the matter before him.

He has been an ineffective member of City Council for eight years. It’s hard to watch that video knowing that this man has been on the governing body of this city for over 93 months. He’s been involved in eight years of city budgets, contracts, grants, and ordinances, among other things. You don’t see ANY of that in this video.

He has no idea of the issues facing the next Mayor, and clearly has no idea of what kinds of solutions are needed. He has no business being Trenton’s next Mayor. Thankfully, I don’t actually believe that there really is much chance of that happening.

Since running for Mayor ruled out any re-election campaign for his current position, the next Council will definitely not include Alex Bethea. That by itself should vastly improve the effectiveness and productivity of that body no matter who the other six members are.

Everyone in the Mud Pile!

Readers of this space may recall that a few weeks ago, I hearkened back to the 2014 season, when eventual mayoral election third-place finisher and still current Deputy Mercer County Clerk Walker Worthy, Junior (a very important distinction to make, as it turns out), held a press event outside the personal residence of one of his opponents, eventual winner and now outgoing Mayor Eric Jackson. The sole purpose for that event was to fling mud on Mr. Jackson by publicizing several personal financial problems Mr. Jackson had experienced over the previous several years. In the words of a Trenton Times article of the time,

Among the issues Worthy raised during a press conference yesterday were a bankruptcy filing, a foreclosure, state tax liens and a judgment for a debt to his college alma mater…  Jackson filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in December 1996 and the bankruptcy was discharged a short time later in March 1997. [Emphasis mine- KM]

What goes around often does indeed come around. This week, Mr. Worthy is shocked – shocked!! – that charges of similar personal problems  of Worthy’s have been publicized. This time the charges are anonymous, made on a Facebook page with no attribution. A piece in today’s Trentonian by Isaac Avilucea reports, “The post outlined Worthy Jr. was subject to five default judgments for debt associated with credit cards, student loans, auto financing, and condo association fees.” Worthy angrily denied all of the charges on another Facebook page quoted by Mr. Avilucea, writing “This politically motivated slander posted by the ‘Stay Informed Trenton, NJ’ Facebook group is not only absolutely false, it is also extremely offensive.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

Worthy claimed that the Facebook post confused debts accruing to his father, Walker Worthy, Senior, with those anonymously attributed to him. A spokesperson for Worthy also criticized the anonymous authors of the Facebook post for bringing up old debts over 20 years old, saying that such financial problems were “in no way relevant to his financial status as of now.”

I will assume that this spokesperson wasn’t associated with Worthy’s campaign four years ago, because Worthy – personally, remember! – went off on Jackson over alleged bankruptcies filed 18 and 14 years prior.

Worthy’s accusations against Jackson in 2014 didn’t get much mileage. That story, and probably Worthy’s chances of winning that election, faded away soon after. The original charges were not substantiated, and there was no further press attention. Worthy’s reputation as a dirty campaigner, however, lingered well after and was brought up by the Trentonian in today’s piece.

One big difference between the accusations four years ago and now? According to the Trentonian, despite Worthy’s denial that the accusations were “absolutely false,” the Trentonian reports “The Trentonian has uncovered that a majority of the debts brought to light actually belonged to Worthy Jr., while at least one other cited on the list was debunked as debt that belonged to his dad.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

I write about this not because I think our city’s elections should be dominated by charges of personal problems and difficulties, but because this incident reveals Worthy as a hypocrite. The same candidate who in 2014 said – in front of Eric Jackson’s home – “We must hold our elected leaders to a higher standard and they must demonstrate they are worthy of the voters’ trust” is incapable of recognizing how ironic it is to now be held to the very same “higher standard” he called down on an opponent. Karma’s a bitch, indeed.

Today’s reporting in the Trentonian shows Worthy’s “absolutely false” statement to be, frankly, a crock.

Worthy, in my opinion, added to the hypocrisy of his response when he cloaked his self-righteous outrage in religion. “[I]t is especially disgusting that during this holy week that should be spent with family and in worship, this vile filth is instead being circulated in our city.”

Please. Just. Don’t.

I also want to say that I am really, really sick and tired of all of the anonymous Facebook pages and assumed false identities that have sprung up this season with the sole purpose of trolling other candidacies and praise their favorites. I despise those on social media who won’t use their own names when making charges of doubtful authenticity or of outright lies. I even object to truthful charges, anonymously made. It’s often the case that trolls will ration out some true tales with their lies, which has the effect of muddying the waters and casting doubt on truth as well with fiction. As one who takes some care to report factual information truthfully, I can say that writing under one’s own name rather than an alias allows readers and other audiences to make their own judgements on what they read and hear, based in part on the reputation for care and honesty of the writer. Anonymous or pseudonymous writers have no true reputation. They have no dependability. And, to this guy at least, no honor. I won’t link to those pages, I won’t name them here, and I will usually avoid mentioning them entirely. The only exception, as in this case, is when those posts themselves, for good or worse, make news and lead to legitimate news coverage.

I’d like to think that after this incident they’ll cease, or just slow down, but that ship has sailed long, long ago. And not just in Trenton. If there’s any upside to all this mud, at least it’s probably safe to say that this is all locally-sourced mud, manufactured only in Trenton and certain other NJ townships such as Hamilton or Secaucus. Not St. Petersburg, Moscow, or any other place names in the Cyrillic alphabet. We don’t rate those, thank goodness!

Finally. On March 15, I wrote in this space,

I’m not quite ready to write off Walker Worthy’s campaign just quite yet. However, so far all he has done is wrap himself up with the party “machine” – remember, his word! – and throw mud at his opponents.

He has an opportunity now to become competitive, if he starts to present serious ideas, proposals and policies that would have a chance to help this city out of its mess.

But the window on that kind of opportunity is closing fast. If, after the Machine and the Mud we’ve seen so far, all he offers is more Mush, I think he’ll be done.

I wouldn’t exactly call the Trentonian’s debunking of Worthy’s denial, and the confirmation of several personal financial problems in his background – the same ones he claimed in 2014 disqualifed Eric Jackson – “Mush.” It’s more like boomeranging Mud, but I think the effect will be the same.

He’s done.

Starbucks Versus Dunkin Donuts

Back in May of 2017, when the Starbucks coffee chain announced plans to open its very first (and only) store in New Jersey’s capital city, you’d have been forgiven if you got the impression that this move would single-handedly bootstrap downtown Trenton into a new Renaissance. Everyone associated with the project claimed a piece of the good news, and basked in the reflected glory of all the Venti Mochas that would start flowing from the place that November.

Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson set the tone: “Starbucks will be a welcome addition as we continue revitalizing our downtown business corridor. Through this store’s unique model of investing in local contractors, suppliers and youth, Starbucks is stepping up and investing in our community in a way that will open up exciting opportunities for all. We hope more businesses will appreciate Trenton’s resurgence as we work together to drive economic development locally.”

The City’s Congressional representative Bonnie Watson Coleman claimed her piece of this landmark accomplishment: “About a year ago, I was on a Congressional Delegation in Seattle where I had the opportunity to visit  Starbucks’ headquarters. While I was there, I mentioned to every person I interacted with, including Howard Schultz, (then CEO of Starbucks) how New Jersey’s capital city didn’t have a Starbucks. Earlier this month, Trenton did not just welcome a run-of-the-mill Starbucks, but a specialized facility that is going to invest in our community and help build the future. Young men and women will be able to work there and be provided with management training to go off into other areas of our state and country and run their own stores.”

Don’t get me wrong. Starbucks is a fine addition to our downtown. It’s a clean, modern and pleasant store, offering a good product line, doing brisk business 13 hours a day, 7 days a week. Glad to have it.

But here’s the thing, to me. Starbucks presence , for all of the grandiose rhetoric of the people quoted above - “investing in our community in a way that will open up exciting opportunities for all” Really, Mayor Jackson?? - is only one store. The company waited until 2017 to announce it was moving to Trenton to “help build the future,” and make some money doing it.

Let’s compare Starbucks with its more plebian and working class competitor, Dunkin Donuts.

No one has claimed that the double DD will “build the future,” or “open up exciting opportunities for all.” The coffee is only ok and the food menu could never be described as part of a healthy or even trendy lifestyle, in the way that the colossus from Seattle is seen.

But, I want to argue, Dunkin Donuts represents a more important presence to Trenton’s economy. For one thing, it’s been a much bigger presence for much longer, and likely employs far more residents of the city and contributes more in property taxes to the town. Our elected officials and city machers should be shouting praise for the chain from the rooftops as much as they shower Starbucks with overblown compliments.

Why am I so up on Dunkin? Because within the city limits of Trenton there are no fewer than nine -count them, nine – stores logoed with the orange and purple. Many are open 24 hours. There’s one Drive-through store, in the West Ward. You can grab a coffee and donut in the Train Station on your way out of town. Their sizes are Small, Medium, Large and Extra Large. And they all offer (with varying degrees of reliability) free WiFi.

Dig it!

Yeah, for sure Dunkin Donuts isn’t nearly as sexy as Starbucks. There’s no comparison between the corporate auras of the two caffeine providers. But, as far as Trenton is  concerned, to me DD is by far the better, and for much, much longer, corporate neighbor in the city, contributing much more to Trenton’s economy than Starbucks ever will, even though it will hardly ever get any official love from any officials, at any level of government. Our elected and appointed leaders have long preferred the big, bold transformative projects that never seem to transform anything. Hotels, stadiums, nursing schools and now Starbucks. The bigger, the better.

What’s my point to all this? We are in the middle of another city election. It’s known as “Silly Season,” for all the inflated promises and rhetoric that come from many candidates, as they try to stake out positions and personas that distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.

Allow me to compare and contrast the “Starbucks” candidates to the “Dunkin Donuts” candidates.

On the one hand, this season’s wild and overblown promises are coming from current At-Large Councilman Duncan (no relation) Harrison. When he announced his candidacy for Mayor, he did so with the grandest of rhetoric: “I am running for Mayor because it is time for a new Trenton revolution…A revolution that will take place in our homes, in our families, and in conversations with our neighbors. That will take place on our streets, in our parks, and at our schools. A Trenton revolution that will bring a bright new future to our city, because it will start and it will thrive in each and every one of us.”

A revolution? In Trenton? Seriously? I get that Mr. Harrison, who by many measurements is among the least qualified of the mayoral candidates, needs to amp up his campaign rhetoric. His own website summarizes his pitch this way: “It is time for a leader with a vision for a bright, new Trenton and the leadership skills to make that vision a reality.”

What is his vision? What are his leadership skills? His is definitely the Starbucks candidacy. Promise the world, say “vision” and “bold” a lot, and soft-pedal his lack of experience. “Big” and “Bold” have been for too long code words for projects destined to bankrupt us. No, thanks. Not this year.

Mr. Harrision means well, but I don’t see quite the leader he does. I was in attendance at City Council on February 1, when Mr. Harrison took the lead on what has promised as a major hearing on the Trenton Water Works on February 1. I’ve written about this session, and won’t re-visit it here. I will only say that the list of 12 questions that Councilman Harrison asked the Administration were mostly softball, avoiding most of the serious issues well known by then to the public. He also allowed the Administration to offer a presentation – still on the City website – which failed to include basic information such as organizational charts and financial statements for the Water Works. It was good enough for the Councilman, it seemed, as well as the rest of his colleagues. This event had been intended by Harrison as a major showcase for his “leadership” and “vision.” I frankly did not see much of either at that Council session.

His transformational and revolutionary rhetoric extends to his fundraising appeals. In one note, his vision sees “a city that will once again be the center of innovation and industry.” He doesn’t provide any details on how a Harrison Administration will transform Trenton into the next Cupertino. But he does proudly point to one achievement from his single City Council term that he claims qualifies him for the Mayor’s Chair: “Most importantly, as a member of the budget committee, I helped turn Trenton’s deficit into a surplus for the first time in years and put in place safeguards to keep our budget balanced.” [Emphasis in the original - KM]

Mr. Harrison is oblivious here to the irony of proudly pointing to the City of Trenton’s budget surplus as a positive, considering the way we’ve earned it. Trenton’s paper “surplus” over each of the last few fiscal years is an accomplishment made mostly if not entirely possible by starving the Trenton Water Works of needed employees, capital infrastructure spending, and competitive salaries for those few employees left on the payroll. The City’s recent surpluses come from the Water Works, a fact that the rest of Mercer County and the State now strongly resents and seeks to repair. It’s really not something that Mr. Harrison should really be proud of, you know? But that’s about the best shot he’s able to take, at least right now.

Now let’s briefly contrast Mr. Harrison’s pitch to those I see as the “Dunkin Donuts” candidates for Mayor.

Last week, The Trentonian posted a series of 3-minute videos shot with each of the mayoral candidates. Darren Green and Paul Perez both independently spoke of what I find to be the most important – and most realistic – task the next Trenton Mayor will face.

PAUL PEREZ (from 1:12): In order to bring private investment back into the city, you must demonstrate we are fiscally responsible… If we can’t get ourselves together when it comes to governing, we’re not going to lure anyone into the City. We have to be responsible in demonstrating to them that we can count our money, we can provide services, we can clean our city, we can keep it safe. And we can start to close the achievement gap in this city. If we don’t do that, private industry is not going to be a friend to Trenton.

DARREN GREEN (from 1:55): The first thing we need to do is clean up internally. Begin to bring competent, qualified and committed persons who are invested in the excellence of Trenton itself, where each department is running like an efficient and effective machine. Once people externally see that internally we’ve got our act together,  they’ll begin to be drawn here.

Those are not sexy statements. They aren’t “bold” or “decisive.” The only “vision” they’re based on is a common dream of basic municipal competence.

How badly have we waited to hear that kind of approach over the last 8 years, and longer?

I might be reading way too much into those single, short sound bites. But Mr. Perez and Mr. Green both implicitly, to me, admit that the ability of city government to act as rainmakers or matchmakers in bringing in big, splashy, sexy marquee projects intended as economic game-changers, is really very, very limited. Especially for a city in the condition that Trenton is. The private sector has the resources to invest, but will not go to a town that is the shit show we’ve become.

The best we can hope for – and based on the last decade, it’s no small task by itself! – is to become, at its most basic level, competent. Well-managed. Well-motivated. Well led. That approach, successfully implemented, might draw not only new private investment as Mr. Perez and Mr. Green believe, but new residents. If we can run it well, They Will Come.

I hope to hear more from these two, and all the other candidates for Council as well as for Mayor, along these lines. I don’t want to hear any more promises of “revolution” and “bright new futures.” What I want, what I think Trenton needs right now, is boring, dependable, basic competence. I want to see more of that from our more serious candidates this Spring.

Starbucks is nice, and I’m glad we have one, finally.

But, make no mistake, Dunkin Donuts has been much more of a presence in Trenton. It contributes more to our local economy in town and employees more people than the new guy in town. Heck, it’s been more LOYAL to Trenton for years.

Trenton runs on Dunkin. I hope our candidates – and voters – pay attention.