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Casting Lots

Brothers and Sisters, today’s lesson is from Matthew, Chapter 27, Verses 35 and 36:

“And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there.”

I offer this story, which is told in each of the four Christian Gospels, not to preach a religious tale during this Holy Week, but a political one. This story shows how, even in ancient times, it has been the practice of those in power to rob the poor and helpless under the guise of law. In the Gospel, we read how in the course of carrying out the legally sanctioned execution of Jesus of Nazareth, soldiers and centurions wearing the uniform of Rome found the chance to make a couple of denarii off the poor guy hanging on the cross above them, while doing their official duty.

So it has ever been throughout history. Those with a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence – one of the definitions of a state – also use that power to make a little money on the side. Perfectly legally, of course. The uniforms and flags may have changed, but the basic dynamic has not. There are always opportunities for personal gain, even from the poorest and powerless.

In the present day, many of these legal thieves wear suits and ties. Such as this morning’s example, Trenton Law Director David Minchello and his new partners at the law firm of DeCotiis Fitzpatrick and Cole. We heard the news yesterday that Mr. Minchello, who earns a fulltime salary of $105,384 as Trenton’s City Attorney and the head of the Law Department, has become a partner at the Teaneck-based firm with an office in Princeton. According to the account by Jenna Pizzi in this morning’s Trenton Times, Minchello intends to keep his position as the City Attorney as he takes up his partnership at his new firm.

The article is silent on whether Minchello will also keep his other municipal jobs. According to The Times, he “is also the city solicitor in Plainfield, special council (sic) for Burlington City, and a municipal prosecutor for North Plainfield.” He is quite the busy man.

Despite the fact that Trenton’s City Ordinances state that “Department heads [such as Minchello] shall devote full time as required for the proper and efficient discharge of the duties of their respective offices,” he cannot help but be a part-time Director. He will also likely claim that, as a partner of a private firm, he will not be subject to the various financial disclosure and ethics laws applicable to other, real fulltime City Directors and employees.

Which will probably be a good thing for him, since he might otherwise face some embarrassing questions about his role in landing a contract for legal services to be provided to the City of Trenton by his new firm DeCotiis Fitzpatrick. This was approved back in November, and surely had to be a factor in his favor when he was involved in his employment conversations with DeCotiis. The contract is only for $80,000, small change as far as these things go.But the firm won the contract for legal services even though its hourly rate was bid at $175, much higher than the $140 charged the city by Ruderman Glickman, the firm that previously had the work that is now to go to Minchello’s new friends.

That should have been enough to raise suspicions of whether this contract was properly awarded to DeCotiis. The added fact that city spokesman Michael Walker confirmed for the Times that the eventual contracted hourly rate was negotiated down to “only”$150 raises all kinds of doubts about how fair, open, honest and transparent this whole bid process was.

The contract is likely to expand greatly if his new firm will now bill the City for Minchello’s (part-time) services as City Attorney. The firm will no doubt take on other city business, and this may be the first step in the wholesale privatization of Trenton’s Law Department.

About his new arrangement, Michello tells the Times, “It is perfectly legal.” It probably is.

The NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which gave its blessing to the deal, went further. “We see no conflicts or ethics violation,” DCA rep Tammori Petty told the Times by email.

Mayor Eric “ZT” Jackson had no comment on the matter. As you will recall, Jackson brought Mr. Minchello to Trenton, allowing him to pad his resume further as he sought the next step in his career, his new gig at DeCotiis. Since Petty told the Times that DCA had “an honest conversation with the mayor” about the matter, we can presume despite his silence that he is hunky-dorey with his pal’s new gig.

Of course Jackson is ok with it. So far in his Administration, he hasn’t seen a questionable situation he hasn’t liked.

Of course DCA doesn’t mind the deal: it has only a minimal expectation that this arrangement will not cost cost any more to the city.”

However, this whole thing stinks. We well know how this Administration and the last play fast and loose with the City’s money, especially with regard to outside legal services. Just recall the names  Long Marmero and Cooper Levenson for a refresher course.

The prospect of a privatized City Attorney is one that should greatly concern Trenton’s citizens. The possibility that the situation may be entirely legal does not excuse it or make it right. We’ve seen too many recent examples of “legal” actions that will likely only have the effect of impoverishing this city even further. They are all “legal,” but they are all robbery.

We see public school districts in Trenton, and throughout the state facing critical financial cutbacks, layoffs and school closings, in large measure because so many taxpayer revenues are being diverted to funding private charter schools, many of whom are commercial enterprises.

We see a new law passed in New Jersey which makes future sales of public water systems to private industry without public approval much easier to accomplish.

And we have witnessed the award of Billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to corporations in New Jersey whose benefits to anyone other than corporate managers and shareholders are questionable.

Today’s news about David Minchello should be considered in the light of all of these developments. Corporations are people, my friend, but lately corporate people seem to be doing very, very well, at the expense of flesh-and-blood real people.

And the poorest people are doing the worst. In the midst of their misery, as the authors of the Gospels and the authors of today’s news remind us, there have been and will always be those who will seek to swoop in and cast lots for the spoils. Even when – especially when – they have the cover of law to do so.

Trenton’s City Council will meet in Executive Session tonight to discuss Mr. Minchello and this deal. I would hope that Council do the right thing and vote to block the deal. The meeting will be closed to the public, though.

But it might be possible for you to stand outside the doors of their meeting room and listen. If you hear the sounds of shaking dice, be afraid.

casting-lots

It's Only Second Down. Why is City Council Punting?

After last night’s closed door session to discuss the matter of ex-Police Trainee Angel Perez, Trenton’s City Council will consider a resolution at tomorrow’s session to refer the matter to the City’s Ethics Board.

While declining to speak about the substance of what was discussed in executive session, several Council members did talk about their rationale in punting this case to the Board. According to At-Large Member Phyllis Holly-Ward as reported in today’s Trenton Times article by Jenna Pizzi, “Holly-Ward said because the ethics board is made of representatives from different political parties, it removes the cloud of politics to determine if there was any wrongdoing or nepotism when Perez was placed in a police job despite the cheating.” That sentiment was seconded by North Ward’s rep Marge Caldwell- Wilson, who is quoted in today’s Trentonian’s piece by David Foster and Penny Ray, “I think the ethics commission is the best route to take the politics out of it.”

This strikes me as an odd stance to take. This sort of matter is precisely why we have an elected City Council. To investigate the actions of city employees, especially those of senior officials such as Acting Director Ernest Parrey, for their propriety and adherence to city and state policies and laws. Their role is inherently political. That’s not a curse word, by the way! Politics is their job. Punting the matter to the Ethics Board is, to a certain extent, an abdication of responsibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the Ethics Board has some jurisdiction here. Section 2 c. of the City’s Code of Ethics states that “No local government officer shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself or others.” That is certainly at issue here, with the suggestion that Acting Director Parrey, in his placement of Mr. Perez in a civilian job with the Police Department until he can “recycle” through the Mercer County Police Academy, has given Mr. Perez an “unwarranted privilege or advantage.” The Board can look at that issue and examine whether Mr. Parrey and Chief of Staff Frances Blanco, whose son-in-law Mr. Perez is, have acted within the Code’s constraints.

But there are other matters, political matters, that the Board of Ethics cannot investigate and which Council should pursue. For instance, Mr. Perez’s current, civilian position. Was this an approved, vacant budgeted position that Perez was hired to fill? Was that position opening properly publicized? Were there other applicants for the position? Was any former laid-off City employee on the approved Recall List given any opportunity to apply? Was the hiring of Mr. Perez approved by the NJ Department of Community Affairs? Perez’s salary was going to be paid through the Federal COPS grant; his removal from the Academy pretty much voided that. How is this position to be paid now? On the regular City Budget? Is it covered?

Mr. Parrey’s decision to hire Mr. Perez now has to be viewed along with some other questionable actions the Director has recently taken. The Trentonian’s LA Parker reported on Sunday that Parrey has plans to reorganize his department, which include the promotion of several current lieutenants to the rank of Captain. Plans that several members of Council expressed no knowledge of to Mr. Parker. Plans that might actually be inappropriate for a manager to implement who is still an “Acting” Director, given the inherent uncertainty of Mr. Parrey’s future tenure.

Seems to be quite a list of questions and topics for Mr. Parrey that he should address. In public session. Before City Council.

I hope that, if Council votes tomorrow to refer some of this issue to the Ethics Board, they resolve to pick up the rest of the matter for themselves to resolve. I’m a little disappointed that Council seems to be ducking their responsibility to provide oversight for the City’s business.  It’s too early in their term for Council to punt their responsibility to others.

Mr. Parrey Has Some Explaining to Do

As emailed to members of Trenton’s City Council this morning:

Good Morning, Council Members -

In connection with your scheduled Executive Session tomorrow to consider the matter of Mr. Angel Perez, please note the attached.

Acting Police Director Parrey has over the last few weeks made multiple public comments denying special treatment for Mr. Perez after his removal for cause from the Mercer County Police Academy. Among those comments are those made to a reporter for the Trentonian which were included in a story published by that paper on February 12:

Parrey told The Trentonian that Perez’s actions were not egregious enough to warrant outright termination. Parrey said he felt Perez deserved a second chance, so he is working in the records section and will have to complete academy training with the next scheduled class. Parrey also said this is not the first time a recruit was allowed to recycle through the police academy after being removed once before.

Perez’s actions “did not rise to the level of termination,” Parrey said.

“He made a mistake and he apologized for his mistake,” Parrey said. “He was punished by being removed during the latter portion of the academy and he’ll have to recycle through the police academy all over again with his peers watching. When his peers walk tomorrow, he won’t be there.”

When asked whether he was influenced by Blanco or Mayor Eric Jackson to allow Perez to recycle through the academy, Parrey said “No.”

“It wasn’t preferential treatment towards Mr. Perez considering we did not hire the Chief-of-Staff’s daughter for the same class,” Parrey said. “We’ve had recruits (in the past) who were unable to complete certain components of the academy and they too were recycled.”

The emphasis on certain phrases are mine.

Director Parrey’s position on the matter are contradicted by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. Attached is a letter dated February 23, 2015 and received by me over the weekend as a swift, timely, complete and helpful response to an Open Public Records Act request I filed with Mercer County on February 19. I had requested any records from the County that would show how many other police recruits had been recycled through the Academy after violations such as Mr. Perez’, as Director Parrey indicated was not uncommon.

The key phrase in the letter written by First Assistant Prosecutor (now Acting County Prosecutor) Angelo J. Onofri is this:

“Since its inception, there has not been a recruit in the Basic Course for Police Officers classes who has been dismissed for a Class A violation and was then readmitted.”

A “Class A violation” is one that carries with it a penalty of 15 demerits for a first violation. In the Academy Rules and Regulations, 15 demerits will trigger a disciplinary process that will lead to dismissal. Further, for an incident of cheating – the kind of incident attributed to Mr. Perez, the Rules are strict and clear.

Rule 3-6: “Any incidence of cheating or an attempt to cheat, on any examination, notebook, quiz, etc., shall be grounds for immediate, permanent removal of the trainee from the Academy. This type of conduct shall be considered a violation of professional responsibility/demeanor. A Class “A” offense.

Council Members, in light of the letter from the County Prosecutor, and the Academy’s own rules, I would ask you to include this information as part of your examination of the issue tomorrow. Please examine Director Parrey on how he reconciles his actions and statements on the matter regarding special treatment for Mr. Perez with what is both the clear policy of the Police Academy, and a history of consistent application of that policy since the Academy’s inception.

I would also ask the Council to explore the financial implications of Mr. Perez’ training. Since he was cashiered from the Academy prior to his graduation, I would expect that the costs of his incomplete training would not be chargeable to the City’s Department of Justice COPS grant. With those costs being picked up by the City, have the costs been properly budgeted?

Regarding the civilian position in the Police Department being filled by Mr. Perez, was that position an authorized vacant position included in the FY 2015 budget? Was the position properly posted and publicized? If so, were other former City employees on the authorized Recall List given opportunity to interview for the position?

Thank you for your attention in this matter.

Sincerely,

Kevin Moriarty

The letter from Prosecutor Onofri has my home address on it, which is why
 I will not post it here or link to it. Here's a screengrab of the text:

MCPO 2-23-15

What Part of Permanent Do They Not Understand?

There’s a whole lot of bullshit in this morning’s Trentonian, coming out of the mouths of both Trenton’s Mayor “ZT” (for “Zero Tolerance”) Jackson, and “Acting” Police Director Ernest Parrey, Jr.

In separate articles in this morning’s Trentonian, both men continue to defend the actions of Director Parrey in hiring Angel Perez to work in a civilian capacity for the Trenton Police Department. Perez, son-in-law of Mayor ZT’s Chief of Staff Francis Blanco, was hired after being removed from the Mercer County Police Academy for cheating. It is his familial relationship to Ms. Blanco that has raised questions about special treatment being given Mr. Perez that would not be provided other police cadets in similar situations.

For his part, Mr. Parrey continues to claim there’s nothing to see here, please move along. In an article by Penny Ray for the Trentonian, the Acting Director makes a very weak case for his actions. Referring to Rule 3-6 of the Mercer Academy’s Rules and Regulations, which calls for “immediate, permanent removal” of a recruit for any incidence of cheating or attempt to cheat, “Parrey said the rules and regulations pertain only to the police academy and not to the police department. Therefore, Parrey said, his decision to allow Perez to work in the records section and recycle through the next police academy class is within the confines of the regulations.”

The Director believes Mr. Perez has been punished enough. “’He lost 15 weeks of the police academy, he was seven weeks away from his graduation date, and now he has to go to the back of the class,’ Parrey said. ‘That’s punishment. Should he be punished more severely than another recruit?’”

Director Parrey entirely misses the point. Should Mr. Perez be “punished more severely than another recruit”? Of course not.

But Rule 3-6 is very explicit that cheating is not tolerated, and “shall be grounds for immediate, permanent removal of the trainee from from the Academy.” Mr. Perez was removed immediately, but Parrey seems to think he does not deserve permanent exclusion.

Why? What part of “permanent” does Mr. Parrey not understand? Why should Mr. Perez be punished less severely than another recruit in the same position?

I have written to officials at both the Mercer Police Academy and to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, asking them to confirm or deny Parrey’s contention that others have received the same treatment as Mr. Perez is being offered. Namely, how many other cadets expelled for cheating of other Class “A” (i.e. those offenses incurring enough demerits to require expulsion) violations have been allowed to re-enroll in later classes? I have also filed an Open Public Records Act request with Mercer County to get statistics on these occasions. I don’t want or need any personal details from anyone else. I just think we need to know if Mr. Parrey is correct, if cheaters are routinely re-cycled through the Mercer County Police Academy in violation of explicit rules to the contrary, and hired as active police officers in Trenton, Mercer County or elsewhere in New Jersey.

In today’s Trentonian article by David Foster, Mayor ZT also denies any preferential treatment was given Perez. “I want to make sure we don’t do preferential treatment… I sit here before you or any resident and say I’m confident that is not why the recommendation was made. I know within myself we would have done it with any of the other 20-something young adults in that class.

The Mayor did not reference the Academy rules as Mr. Parrey did when talking to Penny Ray. But it’s possible that Mr. ZT was not aware of the rules under which the police trainees serve. Perhaps this is some more “stuff” the Mayor is talking about when he told Mr. Foster ““I don’t know that stuff and they don’t tell me that stuff.”

So, Mr. Mayor, knowing now about the Academy rules, can you say that offering a chance to “recycle” through the Academy after being cashiered for cheating is really something you would do for “any of the other 20-something young adults in that class”?

What part of “permanent” do YOU not understand?

Mayor ZT’s strong belief in offering people a second chance is admirable. In many, many circumstances and situations, offering someone a second chance after they’ve made a mistake is a mark of grace, and of charity. We are all of us sinners, and it’s good to know redemption is possible.

And yet, on the specific occasion we are talking about here, a police trainee was caught in an act of cheating. With some details of the actual cheating being revealed to us today, there is no one saying that Angel Perez did not cheat. In his position as a police recruit, it was 100% crystal-clear to him, and his instructors, and his classmates, what the consequences of such an act of cheating would be. “Immediate, permanent removal.”

This morning, both Mr. Perez and Mayor ZT continue to pretend that this explicit, unambiguous provision for punishment either does not exist, or does not matter.

What does that say to the other cadets of that class, who graduated last week with honor, without cheating? What will they think, in a year or two or more, when Mr. Perez is assigned to duty alongside them?

What does this say to other, non-familially connected, employees of the City of Trenton? If you have connections, they have your back – whatever you do?

What does this say to the citizens of Trenton, many of whom voted for Mr. Jackson because he promised, he pledged, he vowed [Emphasis mine -KM],

The mayor must make it clear to every employee working for the city and its independent agencies that there is zero tolerance for corruption, personal enrichment or dishonesty.

That politicians will say anything, make any promise, offer any commitment to get elected, only to feel free to ignore all that once safely in office?

Because that’s sure what this sounds like. And that’s why it’s nothing but bullshit.

“Immediate, Permanent Removal”

The Mercer County Police Academy features an online link to its “Rules and Regulations for Trainees.” The cover note from School Director Albert Paglione is dated October 1, 2007. It is not a new document.

The intent of this document, as stated by Director Paglione, is “to assist in the administration of the school and to help to maintain proper morale and discipline.” This is a serious matter for the Director of the Academy, as one would entirely expect. On Page 3 of the manual is a stern statement that “Any violation of these Rules and Regulations will result in the issuance of demerits, which will result in disciplinary action, which may range from a reprimand to suspension and recommendation for dismissal.”

Rule 3-6 reads in its entirety,

Any incidence of cheating or an attempt to cheat, on any examination, notebook, quiz, etc., shall be grounds for immediate, permanent removal of the trainee from the Academy. This type of conduct shall be considered a violation of professional responsibility / demeanor. A Class “A” Offense.

A Class “A” Offense is elsewhere defined as one that incurs 15 Demerits for the first violation. Upon the 15th demerit accumulated, for whatever reasons, a Trainee is immediately suspended from classes and recommended for dismissal. According to the Manual, the only Class “A” offenses are related to misuse of alcohol or any use of illegal drugs, as well as violations of firearms and weapons rules.

And, as we read above, Cheating.

For the last few days, Acting Police Director Ernest Parrey, Jr. has defended his decision to “recycle” a Trainee removed from the Academy six weeks ago for cheating and give him a civilian job in the Trenton Police Department  records section until he can re-enter the Academy with the next new class. “It was a stupid, foolish mistake by a young man so far into the process,” Parrey said to the Trenton Times. “He has apologized profusely. We brought him in here like we have done with many others and based on his performance here, he will recycle through academy.”

Director Parrey denies that this second chance he has offered the trainee has anything to do with the fact that the young man in question is Angel Perez, son-in-law of Trenton Chief of Staff Francis Blanco. He denied the accusation of preferential treatment, rather bizarrely in my opinion, by pointing to the failure to admit Blanco’s daughter to the Academy. “If I was going to show preferential treatment, you’d think I’d do it with the daughter, not the son-in-law,” he also told the Times.

In light of the fact that there is an explicit Rule for Police Academy trainees that calls for “immediate, permanent removal” from the Academy for ANY incidence of cheating or even AN ATTEMPT to cheat, Mr. Parrey’s decision to grant Mr. Perez a second chance looks even more like political favoritism than it did yesterday.

Director Parrey has said for the record that “Perez’s actions ‘did not rise to the level of termination,’” as reported in the Trentonian on Thursday. We know now that they did, according to the Academy’s own Rules and Regulations. What Mr. Parrey needs now is to put his decision regarding Mr. Perez in wider context. The Director told the Trentonian “this is not the first time a recruit was allowed to recycle through the police academy after being removed once before.”

Does that mean that other recruits have been allowed to “recycle” through the Academy after explicit violations of Rule 3-6?

Does that mean that other recruits have been allowed to “recycle” through the Academy after other Class “A” violations, such as the ones regarding drugs or weapons offenses?

If so, when and how many? If not, why is Mr. Perez allowed this treatment?

And, based on either situation – if there are other “recycled” trainees or police officers on the job in spite of Class “A” offenses during Academy training, or if Mr. Perez is the only one – is Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson still OK with this?

Zero Intolerance

I knew at the time that Eric Jackson’s pledge on Ethics in March of last year was little more than campaign bombast, and I haven’t been disappointed.

Recall his promise, as proclaimed in a March 3 2014 op-ed piece in the Trenton Times that he would be a mayor who would ruthlessly and consistently practice “zero tolerance for corruption, personal enrichment or dishonesty.” Mr. Jackson did not include the word “nepotism” in that specific formula, but he rails against “cronyism” and “personal gain” elsewhere in the column, so I feel safe in including it by inference.

Recall again Mr. Jackson’s affirmation that “the next mayor has to lead by example. Municipal government is only as strong, ethical and transparent as its leader. The mayor must make it clear to every employee working for the city and its independent agencies that there is zero tolerance for corruption, personal enrichment or dishonesty.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

It’s a long, long way from that promise to the reality of “He questioned if I was comfortable with the decision I made and I said I was.”

The “I” in that preceding quote is “Acting” Police Director Ernest Parrey, Jr. The decision Mr. Parrey refers to is the one made to remove a cadet from the Trenton Police Academy for cheating on an exam and placing him in a non-uniform job in the Police Department records section until he can be “recycled” in Mr. Parrey’s term for the next scheduled cadet class. The recruit in question is one Angel Perez, son-in-law to Mr. Jackson’s chief of staff Francis Blanco.

According to the Trentonian article by Penny Ray, “Parrey said he felt Perez deserved a second chance… [and] this is not the first time a recruit was allowed to recycle through the police academy after being removed once before.” However, the treatment accorded Mr. Perez was revealed at the same time that it was disclosed that another recruit in the same Academy class as his was dismissed outright on the day before her scheduled graduation, allegedly for lying on her police department application.

Mr. Parrey defends his decision to dismiss Ameera Blake by telling Keith Brown of the Trenton Times, “There were some things in her background that she did not divulge that would have serious implications with regard to police department. There were associates of hers that were of a very, very questionable background.”

And yet, of Mr. Perez and his cheating, Mr. Parrey says in the same article, “It was a stupid, foolish mistake by a young man so far into the process. He has apologized profusely. We brought him in here like we have done with many others and based on his performance here, he will recycle through academy.”

Huh. I think we need to hear more about these two decisions from Mr. Parrey. Regarding the “things in her background that she did not divulge,” was Ms. Blake also given the same opportunity as Mr. Perez to “apologize profusely”?  Was Ms. Blake not also allowed “a stupid, foolish mistake by a young woman”? Why was she also not provided, one day before her scheduled graduation, a chance to “recycle”?

Mr. Parrey may have very good, very legitimate and very defensible reasons for the two very different decision paths he took with these two individuals. But I think he needs to be more transparent and more forthright about them.

I think we also need to hear more from Mr. Parrey about those “many others” he seemed to indicate have had occasion to “recycle” through the Police Academy by first passing through civilian jobs in the Police Department. How many, precisely, have there been? What kind of trespasses have been deserving of second chances? How many “recycled” officers are currently serving on Trenton’s Police force?

And, perhaps most importantly, how many individuals have been recycled following cheating or other ethical lapses since the “Zero Tolerance” Administration of Eric Jackson took office? And, of those, how many have personal connections to Administration officials?

Mayor Jackson needs also to explain the curiously passive role he played in this instance. Mr. Parrey has admitted that “I told the mayor after I made the decision” to recycle Mr. Perez through the records section. Mr. Jackson was OK with not knowing there was a situation until after it was over?

According to Mr. Parrey, after hearing the details of the situation, “He questioned if I was comfortable with the decision I made and I said I was.”

That’s it? That’s all he said?

That’s “leading by example?”

That’s “making it clear to every city employee that there is zero tolerance for dishonesty “?

I don’t think so.

If Mayor Jackson were the same man as Candidate Jackson, he would have thanked Mr. Parrey for his decisions, but explained that Mr. Perez would have to be treated in the same fashion as Ms. Blake. Cheating on an Academy exam is an action of personal dishonesty that will not be tolerated in the City of Trenton.

Mayor Jackson would also have explained to his Chief of Staff that he was sorry to have to do so, but he would have to dismiss Mr. Perez in the furtherance of a “zero tolerance” policy proclaimed a year ago.

But that is precisely what we have not seen. Instead, Mr. Parrey vainly attempts to defend his decision as an ethical choice. “He said Perez is not the first person to be given a second chance to attend the police academy and said he had previously declined to give Blanco’s daughter a spot in the 2015 cadet class when she applied. ‘If I was going to show preferential treatment, you’d think I’d do it with the daughter, not the son-in-law,’ Parrey said.”

You know, that’s not really a persuasive argument. All that suggests is that he refused the female applicant, and gave a second chance to a man. He’s not doing himself any favors here. I’d drop that argument if I was him!

In any case, “Perez is not the first person to be given a second chance” is in no way an acceptable criterion for a Police Director to use in a self-described “Zero Tolerance” environment.

On the other hand, I can’t really blame Mr. Parrey too much, if the only response he got from his Mayor was, “If you’re OK with this, so am I.”

Candidate Jackson proclaimed last year that “our city can be great again. Together, we can get guns off of our streets to reduce violent crime, bring more jobs and economic development to our city and improve our public schools — but only if our citizens and those who want to invest in our communities believe they have an honest leader at City Hall who will put the people’s interests ahead of personal interests.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

I agree with him on that. The trouble is, Mr. Jackson by his actions and inactions continues to show us that he is precisely not that kind of a leader.

But Hey! if he’s OK with this, so should we be. Right? Right?

This is Why...

… Small Things can actually provide Big Lessons.

In a piece earlier this morning, I reported that the City did provide me some material at the end of yesterday about the Official Trenton City Christmas tree to substantiate statements made on the record by Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson earlier this week. Material that the City claimed did not exist when it replied to my December Open Public Records Act request.

Among that material disclosed yesterday was a graphic for an advertisement which the City claimed to have appeared in the Trenton Times in October. I also said I was looking to verify that claim.

This afternoon, Jenna Pizzi of the Trenton Times confirmed for me that the advertisement did in fact appear in the Times in five of their October issues.

The Times charged the city $270 for the five ad placements. The charge was approved by the City of Trenton by means of a city Purchase Order, # R5-01959 in that amount.

Since the ads appeared, the City has been billed, but as of today that bill remains Unpaid.

Let’s review, shall we?

The City of Trenton cut down one of its own trees, a strapping 40-year old Norway Spruce – I’ve been talking about him so much, I feel he needs a name of his own. I will call him Sven – as the Mayorally-described “Best Option” to provide a holiday tree. Because, according to the Mayor, there was no money to buy one, and no one was stepping to donate an adequate tree.

Before that, the City committed to spend $270 to advertise for a donation. Hundreds of dollars the City presumably doesn’t have, not to actually buy a tree or decorations, but to advertise.

But, the City hasn’t actually spent that money, because they are so far stiffing the Trenton Times for the bill from back in October!

And, it took the City of Trenton one entire month to officially notify me, with the legally-required response to my OPRA request -  that they had NO PUBLIC RECORDS about the matter.

But in the last 24 hours, the City has found an ad graphic and two photographs. And a local city reporter tells me about an Official Trenton Purchase Order that exists somewhere, supposedly. I wonder what else will be revealed?

I’ve asked the City, again, if there is Anything Else they’d like to get off their chest.

Have I covered everything?

Now, why exactly do you think I have so many doubts and concerns about this Administration?

Go Set a Straw Man

The conversation started out about Trees. We have now apparently moved on to Straw Men.

In this morning’s Trentonian the perpetually confused LA Parker, speaking no doubt for many who don’t quite understand the principles at issue here, thinks that we’ve talked enough about the raid on Trenton’s Franklin Park in December which liberated a perfectly healthy, 40-year old, 35-foot Norway Spruce tree for temporary use of about 3 weeks as the official 2014 Christmas tree in from of City Hall, on its way to be mulched.

At the very end of a long, rambling piece that drew mostly on several strong childhood memories associated with trees (Hey! do you think LA heard the news about Harper Lee’s new novel? Sure sounds like somebody dusted off their copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” yesterday ), Scout, uh, Mr. Parker concludes with what he surely intended to be a statement that would put an end to all this tree talk. “There is not a tree alive, no birch, pine, poplar, spruce, maple, oak, chestnut, or ash with more significance than human life.”

Of course, a tree is not worth a human life. Duh!

The thing is, LA, no one has been saying that. Not Lisa Kasabach, head of “Trees for Trenton,” quoted today by Mr. Parker and last week in the Times as being critical of the city’s act of arboricide. And not any of the unnamed “others” (whoever THEY may be…) who, how did LA put it? Oh, yeah, “blurted out their disappointment” over the incident.

Mr. Parker also tries to put the matter in context by saying “[T]his is not the end of the world nor is this tree issue more important than education, public safety, drug addiction, or myriad Trenton problems.”

And that is another straw man. Parker is falsely attributing outrageous claims to his opponents, which makes him sound much more reasonable when he knocks those claims, the straw man, down.

But the thing of it is, No one is saying any of this!

No one, that is, other than Mr. Parker.

There are certainly other issues facing the city. I’ve written about a few over the years. Not one of them precludes saying anything about any others.

For instance, when Mr. Parker wrote about the new Cadwalader Park tennis facility as being a great and valuable addition to the city, did anyone say “a tennis court is not more important than education, public safety, drug addiction, or myriad Trenton problems”?

Nope.

Or when he headlined “Trenton High should be able to save the clock tower,” who wrote in response, “There is not a clock tower alive, no big hand, no little hand, clock face, big bell, springs, gears or counterweights with more significance than a human life”?

Nobody.

So, for Mr. Parker to wag his finger at Ms. Kasabach and … the Others… about this, he’s picking the wrong target and using the wrong tools.

As so often happens with him, he actually made a point that got to the heart of the matter. However, not realizing what he’d done, he blithely ran right past it and didn’t return for the rest of his piece. He wrote, “While city officials acted inappropriately, this unfortunate extraction can be remedied with a replacement tree and an apology.”

And that, in a nutshell, is exactly the point. Trouble is, so far, we haven’t seen anything approaching an apology. Which, you know, kind of requires ad admission that the original action was somehow, sorta, WRONG. That mistakes were made. Policies not followed. Laws possibly broken. An apology, we are nowhere near.

Instead:

City spokesman Michael Walker said Jackson is a supporter of tree planting and would be willing to join Trees for Trenton and other neighborhood associations to plant trees.”

I care about trees,” Jackson said. “I know their importance to us and I want to make sure we preserve them. I’m always willing to partner with community organizations to make sure we do what is best for the public good. Next time we’ll have more time to work with those who are interested in helping us get the appropriate tree for the city. Once the weather clears up, I would love to meet the community (in Franklin Park) and plant a new tree.”

“We only had two (offers) and they were not feasible for our use,” Jackson said.

So, the Public Works Department decided to use one from Franklin Park, and the decision to cut down the tree was 100 percent within the confines of the law, Jackson said.

And, an OPRA request that I filed responded to with Bupkus.

Not even an “Oops” has been forthcoming.

Yes, Mr. Parker, “this unfortunate extraction can [go a long way towards] be[ing] remedied with a replacement tree and an apology.” Notice that slight editing. Whereas a swift apology and an offer to replace the tree would have been enough to put this issue behind them – and, really, what could have conceivably kept them from doing that when the issue first arose?? – the stubborn and furtive statements and behavior exhibited by the Administration since now require a fuller response. After all, as Harper Lee once wrote, “Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.”

To their credit, City Hall is finally starting to show some life. I wrote yesterday that my December 8 OPRA request for information was closed on January 5 when I was told the City had Not One Piece of information on this in their files. I emailed the Clerk’s Office yesterday, and used Mayor Jackson’s own statements as strongly suggesting there had to be information on which he was basing his statements. I sent that note at 11:34 yesterday. At 3:56, a little over four hours later, I started to receive information that couldn’t be found after one month.

Hey, it’s a start.

Mayor Jackson claimed that advertisements were placed. The city sent a PDF graphic that is claimed ran as an ad in the Times in October. I am seeking to verify this.

Mayor Jackson also claimed that those ads generated two candidates: “one tree was inadequate, Mayor Eric Jackson said, and it was difficult to access the other one,” according to the press account. I was sent two photographs, with no other explanation or description other than a title. Here they are. This is “Bordentown.”

Bordentown

This is “Hightstown”

Hightstown

These look like perfectly lovely, “Ho, Ho, Ho”-worthy candidates. I’d like to know how come these were deemed inadequate.

I’m glad the City is starting to become a little more forthcoming with information. It’s a good start.

Alas, Brave Little Norway Spruce. We Hardly Knew Ye!

george-washington

“I care about trees, Father” young George said. “I know their importance to us and I want to make sure we preserve them. I’m always willing to partner with parents or other authority to make sure we do what is best for the public good. Next time I’ll have more time to work with those who are interested in helping me get the appropriate tree. Once the weather clears up, I would love to meet the community (here in Virginia’s Stafford County) and plant a new tree.” – Get thee from my sight, you wretched boy, cried his father in transports,  before I smack thee; enraged am I, George, that you killed my tree; further that you have wounded me me for it a thousand fold, by showing no hint of remorse or contrition. Such an act of vandalism in my son, is a heart-sickness of more pain than a thousand blows of your hatchet, though laced with iodine, and their stripes of purest lye.

I’m sorry to see that Mayor Jackson just does not get it. The Mayor is still defending the City’s misbegotten decision to harvest a perfectly healthy, 40-year (that’s 4 decades! 2 score!)  old, 35-foot publicly owned Norway Spruce tree from the City’s Franklin Park in December for a couple of weeks’ service as Trenton’s Official 2014 City Hall Christmas Tree.

After 40 years of bothering no one in Franklin Park, innocently making oxygen, providing shade and sequestering about one ton of carbon dioxide, our brave Norway Spruce has now been unceremoniously mulched, its 2000 pounds of carbon released into our overburdened atmosphere. Since we are in the dead of winter, we can’t really even hope that the new mulch created by the tree’s passing is sustaining the life of other trees, shrubs, and bushes.

Our plucky little Spruce likely lies unmarked, and unlamented in some local landfill.

Thanks for caring, Mayor Jackson!

All sarcasm aside, I am still upset at the way this entire affair has unwound, and the lengths to which the Administration – and now the Mayor, on record – discount their mistakes and dismiss their failures as trivial in comparison to the great affairs of the City that they are managing. Please, regard how I believe this incident is a perfect lesson – writ large and small – about First, how NOT to first plan and conduct public action; and Second, how NOT to deflect, demur and cover up when coming under criticism after the fact.

In the matter of the first question, I’ve written about this several times already, both last year and this. I will just re-state that the matter of holiday celebrations and decorations are nice and all, but hardly essential civic functions. Especially in a city as broke as Trenton. I do not believe that providing City Hall and other public property with seasonal decorations is a legitimate use of federal funding (which was used last year to buy a tree) or property held and protected by our officials in Indefinite and Permanent Trust for our citizens.

If Mayor Jackson and Council would like holiday decorations, fine. Find donations for them. If those aren’t sufficient, they should dig into their own campaign funds for them. It’s a definitely permitted use of such funds. Spread among 7 Council members and 1 Mayor, how much are we talking about?

And if no funds can be found, then let’s make do with a few wreaths, perhaps some lights, and perhaps some tinsel. That will be fine. After all, the real Holiday Spirit is in our hearts, we’re told. Right???

We don’t NEED a TREE to have the HOLIDAYS!!

OK??

Next, How NOT to cover up after the fact.

Is “cover up” a strong term? It is, but it is appropriate here. When the tree first went up at City Hall, I filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for any and all documentation connected with, among other things,  the attempt to find a tree by donation, and assurances that the harvest of the tree in Franklin Park was performed legally, in accordance with City Ordinances.

It took from December 8 until January 5 for the City to reply to my OPRA request. On that date, the City Clerk’s office replied that there was nothing on file with the City about this. No documentation, no emails, no permits, nada. So, nothing was furnished to me to satisfy the OPRA request. I thought that unlikely at the time, but didn’t have the chance to follow that up until now.

This morning, in a Trentonian article by Penny Ray, Mayor Eric Jackson was interviewed about the matter. Mr. Ray writes, “The mayor’s office said the city placed advertisements for a 2014 holiday tree donation, but there were few offers: one tree was inadequate, Mayor Eric Jackson said, and it was difficult to access the other one.  ‘We only had two (offers) and they were not feasible for our use,’ Jackson said.

That statement has my attention. Advertisements were placed? Offers were received? Two of them? Tell me more.

The City in its official OPRA reply told me they had nothing to show me. According to their official reply, there are no advertisements to show me. No offers for donated trees came in to describe to me.

Which answer is correct? Were there ads, or not? Were there two offers for donated trees, or not? Where I sit, the Mayor and the City’s OPRA response cannot both be correct? Who is wrong?

In my OPRA request, I asked for all documentation that would show and describe the process by which the Franklin Park tree was harvested. Specifically I wanted to see how the city determined that the appropriate city laws were complied with. Along with the rest of my OPRA filing, I got nothing in response to this request.

“So,: Mr. Ray writes, today, “the Public Works Department decided to use one from Franklin Park, and the decision to cut down the tree was 100 percent within the confines of the law, Jackson said.”

How is he so sure? Mr. Jackson is not a lawyer, any more than his unlamented predecessor was. That being the case, how is the Mayor so certain the cutting decision was “100 percent within the confines of the law”?

Who told him that it was? And how?

According to the OPRA response I got, there were no emails or memoes, no phone logs or other notes having ANYTHING TO DO with cutting down this tree.

So, HOW can Mayor Jackson be SO sure?

I’d like to know the reasoning behind this, because the discussion of the city’s Tree ordinance in Mr. Ray’s article bears little resemblance to the ordinance I read.

She writes,

But some people believe the administration should have held a public hearing to receive feedback from citizens about whether the tree should be cut down. Those residents cite a subsection of the city’s code regulating the removal of trees that says “no tree shall be removed prior to the posting of a notice that a public hearing may be requested to determine whether removal of the tree is necessary to protect the health, safety or welfare of the residents.”

But that passage pertains to the removal of trees that endanger the public’s safety, and the tree removed from Franklin Park posed no danger at all, according to people interviewed for this story. So, what should the city have done?

Well, in my reading of the ordinance, imminent threat to public safety is one way that trees may be removed from public property without an open process. Public safety can be given as a reason at a public hearing requesting the tree’s removal and, it seems to me, about the only criterion that can normally be used to grant permission to harvest a tree.  Section 287-4 B. (2) says that the Open Space Advisory Board needs to conduct a hearing to discuss and approve a request to cull a tree. It seems to me, unless there is a public safety reason to do so, the tree stays put according to City law.

In any case, approval has to be provided by the Advisory Board. Which did not happen in this case.

So, what should the City have done, as Mr. Ray asks? Followed the damned law! Held a hearing!!

But, hey! I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know for a certainty what the law is or whether it was followed in this case. The City replied to me that it had nothing at all to show me about this process.

But today, Mayor Jackson is absolutely certain that his actions were “100 percent within the confines of the law.”

Oh, yeah? Show me.

In light of the mayor’s statements on record, I sent an email this morning to the City Clerk as well as others in the Administration who were included on the City’s official OPRA response to me. I have asked them to reconcile their determination that nothing exists on file with the City with the Mayor’s allusion today to advertisements, offers of donation and legal conclusions. I’ll let you know what I hear.

I hope that after all this, you have an idea why I am focusing right now on what is really a small issue in relation to everything else this City and its people face.

In my mind, a series of poor decisions were made, and actions taken that resulted in the unwarranted destruction of city property.

These decisions were made and actions were taken. in my opinion, in disregard for the law.

When an attempt was to secure information about how this happened, a legal OPRA request was stonewalled and ignored.

This morning, the Mayor offers a defense of his actions that seems at odds with information provided by others in the City, alluding to documents and judgments the City denies having.

Yeah, this is a small matter. But the whole way they’ve gone about it – before, during and after – make me think this is Standard Operating Procedure for them. If they cannot be trusted to handle the small things correctly, openly, legally; then how in the world can we trust them with the Big Things?

If the City can use this instance as an occasion to improve its communications; rededicate itself to full legal and ethical compliance with ordinances and proper procedure; and start to come clean with citizens about its actions; then maybe, just maybe, our plucky little Christmas Spruce 2014 will not have died in vain.

Making it Easier to Steal Public Water

Former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer unintentionally hit the nail on the head in his comment made to the Trenton Times this morning. In a piece by Jenna Pizzi about the two most expensive local referenda (sorry, headline writers: 3rd Declension Nominative Plural forms end in -a, not -s) in New Jersey History, Palmer referred to the 2010 Trenton Water Works Vote. In that ballot measure, Trenton voters voted 4-1 against selling suburban assets belonging to the Trenton Water Works. An astroturf “Committee” in favor of the measure spent a whopping $1,200,000 for their 20% vote share, against a citizen’s group expenditure of $13,000 for their 80%.

For Mayor Palmer, this lop-sided, David & Goliath battle taught an important lesson, saying “It [the vote] also shows that money in and of itself isn’t always the deciding factor when you have people in a grassroots way involved in the issue.”

That’s a frightening statement for those many involved in politics. Money, NOT the deciding factor??? A couple of citizens with $13,000 beating big corporations spending $1.2 Million? In the world created by the “Citizens United” decision, where corporate money has been given status as First Amendment protected speech, that is a heretical notion that cannot be allowed to stand!

This may be the main reason that since the 2010 failure of the Trenton sale, the main action on the issue of municipal water ownership in New Jersey has taken place mostly out of public view, in the New Jersey Statehouse.

Legislation has been written, and it has worked its way through the legislature to forestall future grassroots efforts, and make it much more difficult – if not outright impossible – for citizen opposition leading to voter referenda over water utility sales and privatization in Trenton and elsewhere in New Jersey.

If it becomes much more difficult for voters to force a public referendum, that will level the playing field for those companies and interests who covet public assets but whose massive reserves of cash can no longer be depended on to deliver their desired results inside voting booths.

Governor Christie has on his desk (and will surely sign) the 2014 “Water Infrastructure Protection Act” (A3628/S2412), passed overwhelmingly in December by large bi-partisan majorities of the Legislature (our local Senator and Assembly members thankfully voted against it). In the words of the official legislative statement accompanying the bill, this new law “authorizes municipalities to long-term lease or sell their water assets, without any referendum, if an emergent condition exists” [Emphasis mine - KM]. The full text of the bill can be found here.

If a municipality states that an emergency exists with the existing water service, a process can begin that can lead in very short order to a local council vote and state approval and certification to authorize a sale or long-term lease, with minimal public input other than one open hearing. A public effort in opposition would have only a very short time, [EDITED] only 20 days after such certification, to circulate a petition to gain enough signatures – 15% of the number of voters from the preceding state election – to force a referendum.

“Emergency” is broadly defined within the law.  Long-term violations or deficiencies in water quality count as emergencies. So does long-term neglect to properly maintain, repair and upgrade facilities and equipment. It’s not hard to think of situations where cash-strapped towns could,hypothetically, starve a water works of investment, maintenance and manpower for years, saving some money in the process, then claim that the inevitable breakdowns have created an emergency that only a private buyer with deep pockets could fix.

It’s not hard at all, is it?

If Trenton’s voters had not decisively defeated that million dollar effort four years ago, I seriously doubt that the Water Infrastructure Protection Act would not today be sitting on the Governor’s desk awaiting signature.  David beat Goliath, so the effort shifted to try to ensure David wouldn’t get another shot in the future.

Despite the mismanagement of the last few years, I still believe the Trenton Water Works is a valuable public asset, and should remain so. I consider the new state law as little other than a legislated attempt to make the democratic process more difficult for regular citizens, and easier for those who might seek to acquire public assets, at bargain prices, for private gain. This law just makes it easier to steal public water.

I don’t know how this may play in the rest of the state. But here in Trenton, the memory of the 2009-2010 water sale is still fresh. I would hope that any administration and council contemplating a quick and easy asset sale to provide a future short-term budget fix might keep in mind the 80-20 drubbing that the last proposal received, and choose to avoid a repeat of 2010.

It happened once. It could happen again.