Trenton. Where Good Ideas Get Ruined.

Over the last several years, there’s been a lot to laugh at in Trenton, New Jersey. The things that have happened here; the words that have been said; the people that say them; have all provided us all a lot of smiles, chuckles, titters, and outright guffaws. Most of the time the humor is only appreciated by those of us who live or work here , but there are occasions when we cause the world to laugh.

Although, it has to be said, on those occasions the world is more often laughing at us than with us.

Because of all that enjoyment we’ve unwittingly provided to the world at our expense it was more than a little gratifying to see an event last year that, for one short and sun-shiny day at least, gave the planet a chance to smile and laugh (and dab at our lips and cheeks with napkins) at something in Trenton that was nothing but fun. I speak, of course, of May 24, 2014, the day Trenton celebrated Pork Roll.

As a transplant to this town, and as a non-native New Jerseyan, I will admit that, apart from the occasional taste of the stuff – I do like it – I can’t say I’ve ever gotten excited about pork roll. I didn’t go to last year’s festival, and was pretty non-committal about this year’s events. But I was more than pleased that there WAS such an event produced last year. It was a great idea, and it was pulled off with a great deal of enthusiasm.

It was far more popular than the planners ever thought it would be. There were the usual growing pains experienced by many similar events: not enough food ordered for the numbers of people who showed up, physical space too small for the crowds who showed, long lines for food and beverage throughout the day. But, by all accounts and any measure, the day was a smashing success. Those who attended had a great time, as the 46(!) pictures attached to this account in the Trenton Times of May 24 last year prove that. People ate, they drank, they had fun. In Trenton. Fantastic. As the headline in the Times  suggested, this day was intended to be the first of many. The “Inaugural” festival to create the mold for many years to come.It was a great day for Trenton. A day that had nothing to do with any of the other craziness that this town is too well known for. A day when the only thing to worry about was if the pork roll would run out before you got to the front of the line.

A completely and entirely Fantastic and Fun day, in other words. Even though I didn’t go last year, I looked forward to this year’s event, and beyond. For once, I thought, Trenton had come up with an idea that was so unique, so much fun, and so basically uncomplicated, that nothing and no one could screw it up.

Now, as I said above, I didn’t attend last year’s event, I don’t know any part of the behind-the-scenes drama about the falling-out that led to the creation of two rival events, to be held at two separate locations on the very same day this year. My initial, uninformed take on it, shared by many in this town I talked to, was that this kind of development, and the publicity it created, could be a good thing. Two dueling festivals in different parts of town on the same day might actually create more buzz and draw bigger crowds than last year’s. Heck, there’s even been talk of a Vegan Pork Roll Festival, if you can conceive such a thing, being planned for the same day!

Trenton seemed to be on the verge of a renaissance fueled by processed meats. Let a thousand pork roll festivals blossom!!

Well, once again, Trenton showed me that there is no good thing that can’t get screwed up. In this case, by a falling out among the two main organizers that has led over the last 12 months, first, to the prospect of two separate and competing festivals on the same day this year. And most recently this week, to the threat of legal action by one against the other.

This latest development became public on the pages of Facebook yesterday, and has been taken up by the local media this morning in both the Times and Trentonian. The wire services will no doubt pick this up today, and I have every expectation that the rest of the world will soon be chuckling at our most recent foibles.

Which to me is one damn shame. Because it will be further proof that this town is full of fuck-ups. Because it will show that it doesn’t take long for a good idea, even a relatively small (in the cosmic sense of things), light-hearted and affectionate idea like a local food festival can get screwed up by ego, greed and small-mindedness.

From where I sit, as a bystander, I have to look at the actions taken this week by Scott Miller and shake my head. He is the person who retained a lawyer to send a “cease-and-desist” letter to TC Nelson. Both were the principal organizers of last year’s event. The inspiration for the event seems to have been Miller’s. The venue was Nelson’s very successful Trenton Social restaurant. Both organized and produced the event in 2014, and apparently had a falling-out over the last year. Mr. Miller retained a lawyer to send a threatening letter to Mr. Nelson, accusing him of violating Miller’s “intellectual property rights, including the trademark and copyrights attached as Exhibit A.” Mr. Nelson, quite understandably, is upset, and he took to his Facebook page yesterday to vent his anger at his former associate.

The “Exhibit A” mentioned in the cease-and-desist letter is as of now unavailable for examination. But it is possible to examine applications for Trademarks, in an attempt to satisfy one’s curiosity about the validity of some of these claims. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the government agency that grants trademarks, part of the “intellectual property” claimed by Mr. Miller. That office maintains something called the “Trademark Electronic Search System,” a searchable database for registrations applied for and granted by the office. A cursory search of the term “Pork Roll” returns some very interesting results.

An application by Mr. Miller’s company “Pork Roll Productions” was indeed filed with the USPTO, on March 26 of this year. A summary of the application can be seen here. There is a lot of information here, in his attempt to claim the phrase “pork roll festival” as a registered Trademark. Let me point out just a few key notes.

The application claims the “First Use Anywhere Date” of “At least as early as 3/15/2014,” which sounds about right for an event first held last May.

But in answer to an item that says “SECTION 2(f) Claim of Acquired Distinctiveness, based on Use” Miller’s  application states “The mark has become distinctive of the goods/services through the applicant’s substantially exclusive and continuous use in commerce that the U.S. Congress may lawfully regulate for at least the five years immediately before the date of this statement. [Emphasis mine - KM]”

Five years? Really? Seems to me that, if one of the requirements of getting an exclusive trademark for a phrase is five years of “exclusive and continuous use” then a statement that it has only been in use since 2014 makes the application about 4 years premature. Another statement about the status of Mr. Miller’s application says that his March 2015 application will not even be assigned to an internal USPTO attorney for review and approval three months after the application, or June of this year at the earliest. At that time, I would guess that the assigned review attorney will ask Mr. Miller about the discrepancy between his statement about “at least five years” of usage before a “first use” in 2014.

Seems to me that Mr. Miller’s cease-and-desist letter is nothing more than a bad-faith attempt to force Mr. Nelson (and, perhaps, the Vegans, too!) to cancel his competing festival, based on a very very dubious claim of exclusive intellectual property rights.

Shame on Scott Miller. Shame on him for turning what started out as a great idea turned into a great little event inspired by local Trenton pride – a little kooky yes, but isn’t Trenton more than a little kooky? – and trying to squeeze out everyone else who helped turn the event from an idea into a reality.In the process, he seriously risks the good will to this event that he AND TC Nelson earned last year.

Nothing will draw people to a street festival – and, really, that’s what this is, a great local street festival – like the promise of a few hours of fun, good food and drink, and good times. And nothing will keep them away like the smell of greed.

If Scott Miller has any common sense left in him, he should apologize to TC Nelson today for his stupid and ill-considered letter this week, and for what sounds like months of pig-headed selfish behavior leading up to it. He has a short window of time to that, before news of his bone-headed greed spreads more widely and spoils a good thing for everyone.

It would be a shame if one of the nicest things to come out of this town in years gets ruined by Scott Miller’s petty spite.

Lip Service

You know that old puzzle? “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I won’t worry with that one right now, but I will suggest a variation on that question to ask in Trenton, NJ: “If a street fight breaks out, and there’s no smartphone to record it, does anyone pay attention?”

The answer to that one, apparently, is “No!”

A very nasty fight broke out this week at Trenton’s Greg Grant Park. Two young girls, 16- and 17-year-old sisters were, in the words of the Trenton Times’ Kevin Shea, “punched, kicked and stomped by a crowd of people in Greg Grant Park in Trenton on Monday while onlookers videoed the melee and urged more violence… During the brawl, Lajahia Cooke was struck in the right ear with a brick, causing a wound that required 15 stitches to close, she said. Destiny Cooke lost a chunk of hair, leaving a bald spot. At various points in the attack, both women were held down while others throw punches and kick the teens.”

As I said, nasty. There are several unanswered questions about the fight that are as of this morning unanswered. The identity of the attackers is under investigation by Trenton Police, and the role of the Police is also at issue. A spokesperson for TPD confirms there were officers on the scene, having been sent there after police received a 911 call about the fight.What they did or did not do at the scene is being examined.

Although the fight took place this past Monday, it did not rise to public notice until some cellphone video started appearing on Wednesday. Local press started appearing online that day, and in print yesterday. The story also picked up some attention further afield, with TV stations in Philadelphia and New York running stories on the fight.

All this attention focusing on Trenton led to a public appearance by Mayor Eric Jackson yesterday. A news conference was held at Greg Grant Park headed up by the mayor, backed up by several members of City Council, senior Police officers, and community members.  A piece in The Times by Jenna Pizzi and Keith Brown describe the mayor as “visibly angry,” and that comes across in the video clip embedded in the online piece.

The mayor had strong words to say yesterday. “I will use the full power of my office to bring those responsible to justice.
We are better than that as a city and we are better than that as people. We will not tolerate this kind of behavior in our city… This type of meaningless violence, no matter how it begins, will not be tolerated in the City of Trenton.”

Yes, strong words. But they are hollow and empty. Hollow and empty because we Do Tolerate behavior like this. The fight in the park this week was indeed horrible, and the injuries suffered by the Clarke sisters shocking; I wish them a quick recovery. That no one in the crowd stepped in to help the girls or attempt to stop the assault is sickening.

But I do not believe, for one minute, that this incident would have received this kind of attention had not the video of the incident not been posted online and picked up by the media. I don’t believe the Mayor and the Council members would have appeared at a press conference yesterday if the morning newspapers hadn’t covered the story. The assault and near riot occurred Monday. The Mayor spoke only yesterday. What happened in the meantime? The media got interested, locally and then in the region.

Am I being cynical?

Where was the outrage over this fight?

Or this one?

Did I miss the press conference about this?

Was there “visible anger” after viewing this video?

If you search for “Trenton fight” on YouTube, you’ll find these and many more videos. Some are recent, some are several years old. This sort of stuff happens in Trenton all the time. We do tolerate this, Mr. Jackson! This is all meaningless violence, and it is not uncommon.

The Clarke sisters were brutally beaten by a crowd after having done nothing wrong, and that makes this incident in my mind worse than the others. But that many of the people in these other videos were in many cases willing participants does nothing to excuse them and those incidents.They are, all of them, nasty and unacceptable.

That a lot of people choose to record video of these fights and attacks rather than take any action to help or defuse a situation means that too many look at these fights more as entertainment than as serious assaults or worse.

We do tolerate these, far too much. And we have, for far too long. And in making this entertainment, we do more than tolerate it. We are complicit in it. We encourage it.

That’s why when I see and hear Mr. Jackson express his outrage, I see and hear Lip Service. Cheap Theater.

When I see Council Members stand behind him, I see Council members who’ve been in office for close to five years now, and who’ve done Nothing in their time.

When I hear the bold proclamation, “We will not tolerate this kind of behavior in our city,” I say “Yeah, right. Until the next time. And only if someone records video.”

Today In Irony...

[Community activist and former Trenton City Council 2010 candidate Juan] Martinez also worked on the campaign of current Mayor Eric Jackson, but not on any of the mayor’s campaign contribution filings.

“Totally separate and apart,” Jackson said. The mayor said he hopes that elected officials and those involved in elections will pay close attention to the stringent rules of ELEC [NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission].

“As elected officials we have to do our very best to stay within the boundaries,” Jackson said.  – Trenton Times, April 7, 2015

Which begs the obvious question. Is this your “very best”, Mayor Jackson?

Newly elected Mayor Eric Jackson collected about $88,000 in the final days leading up to the June 10 election, including some donations that were over the allowed limit, according to a post-election report his campaign filed with the state last week.                              – Trenton Times, July 25, 2014

And this:

Eric Jackson has shown his opponent the money, albeit four years after the fact.

A day after challenger Jim Golden asked his supporters to tweet Jackson “Where’s the money?” from his 2010 election campaign, the mayoral candidate filed amendments with the state…

Jackson had $23,770.94 remaining in his 2010 war chest before filing documents for the 2014 election, according to his April 30, 2010 campaign report. None of that money was carried over or reported how it was spent until last week…

In his amendments filed on April 1 [2-14], Jackson disclosed last quarter bills for his 2010 campaign…

“We did file the amended report and they got filed to ELEC late,” said Jackson, who is currently the Plainfield director of Public Works and Urban Development. “I take full responsibility for that.” – Trentonian, April 10, 2014

And this:

Although he has raised the most money by far in the race to be Trenton’s next chief executive, mayoral hopeful Eric Jackson has received several questionable campaign donations, according to reports filed with the state.

The Jackson campaign accepted nearly $2,000 in cash donations in December, but in reporting the money to the state the donors were never divulged, a violation of the state’s election reporting rules. “All cash contributions you would need disclosure,” said Joe Donohue, deputy director of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). “No donations are supposed to be anonymous,” he said. – Trenton Times, March 4, 2014

AND this:

Back in April, I wrote about a number of contributions to Mr. Jackson’s campaign from former US Senator turned real estate investor Robert Torricelli, in his own name as well as his Woodrose Properties LLC that in the aggregate exceeded the legal maximum for such contributions by $1000. Since none of the Jackson campaign’s recent ELEC reporting, nor Ms. Pizzi’s article last week, indicate that this excess contribution was returned to Mr. Torricelli, one can only assume that this still needs to be addressed by the Jackson campaign.  - “And Another Thing,” August 4, 2014

This last item seems to have prodded the Jackson campaign into action. From an ELEC report filed on November 28, 2014 we can see this notation of a check written to reimburse a contributor only three days after this space reminded him:

jackson refund

It’s more than a little ironic to read Mayor “ZT” Jackson quoted in today’s newspaper about the importance of compliance with NJ campaign funding and reporting rules, when Mr. Jackson’s campaigns in 2010 and 2014 were notorious for both their tardiness, mistakes and violations. Mr. Jackson would be well advised to put his own house in order before he should feel comfortable in commenting on the foibles of other candidates such as Mr. Martinez.

For starters, the 11/28 report cited just above, covering the 3rd Quarter (July-September) of 2014 is the last one on file with ELEC. Mr. Jackson is currently three months late with a report that was due on January 15 of this year, which should have included activity for the 4th Quarter (October-December) of 2014. His next report, for the 1st Quarter of 2015 is due next Wednesday. Will he make it on time? Stay tuned.

And there are still a few land mines buried in his past ELEC reporting that may come back to haunt Mr. Jackson. I refer to the ICE PAC/Bridgeton Democratic Organization connection that I’ve been talking about for a year now. Both of those contributions, which taken together exceed the maximum allowed by the state, are still on Mr. Jackson’s campaign books as far as I can tell.

It’s all well and good for Mayor “ZT” Jackson to say, “As elected officials we have to do our very best to stay within the boundaries,” but his own campaigns show he is all too willing to draw outside the lines.

One Step Forward

I applaud the decision announced by Mayor Eric Jackson, announced at last night’s meeting of City Council, to end the City’s contract with the law firm DeCotiis Fitzpatrick & Cole. This is the firm that Trenton’s “full time” City Attorney David Minchello joined as partner while also intending to remain in his City position, a move that became public only this past Monday. The Mayor denied there was any problem with the proposed arrangement with Mr. Minchello and his new firm. “I want to have this on record that there is nothing illegal or unethical about the practice that we are under,” he told Council, as quoted in the Times article this morning by Jenna Pizzi.

Your comment is noted for the record, Mr. Mayor. But, come on! Really? Nothing unethical?

The Times article, does not mention, nor does the Trentonian article by David Foster,  Mr. Minchello’s intentions for the other municipal “clients” he is also currently serving. Mr. Foster did remind his readers, “In addition to leading Trenton’s law department, Minchello is Plainfield’s city solicitor, special counsel in Burlington, and North Plainfield’s municipal prosecutor.” How Mr. Minchello will juggle all of these civic duties AND his new partnership AND work full time as Trenton’s Law Director – as City Ordinance requires – is one of the many loose ends that remain to be tied up.

We still deserve a fuller explanation of the contracting process by which DeCotiis won its $80,000 legal services contract. We know that DeCotiis was not the lowest bidder, with an hourly rate proposed of $175, compared to Rudermann Glickman’s – the firm replaced by DeCotiis – rate of $140. Also, that $175 rate was reduced to $150 hourly before the contract was signed, suggesting that discussions and negotiations were carried on between DeCotiis and the City after their proposal had been tendered and opened. This sounds like this contracting process was something less than fair, open, and transparent.

I think Mr. Minchello also needs to provide a chronology of the events of the last several months. We know that DeCotiis was awarded the City contract in November, and that Mr. Minchello announced his partnership this past Monday, March 30. What we don’t know is when Mr. Minchello started to talk to the firm about coming on board there. We don’t know when Mr. Minchello spoke to Mayor Jackson about his plans, and we don’t when the City talked to the NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA) about the proposed arrangement.We don’t even know how widely known was the fact that Mr. Minchello was working for three other towns at the same time he was our Law Director.

To me, those are vitally important facts to bring into the open before I can agree with Mr. Jackson’s claim that there is nothing unethical here. To simply assert that everything is OK without knowing the chronology is just not credible.

What we do know is that, prior to Monday, several if not all members of City Council – who Minchello formally represents as City Attorney – were totally in the dark about the situation. At-Large Member Phyllis Holly-Ward, according to Jenna Pizzi, “she read about Minchello’s new position in the news, rather than hearing about it from him before the decision was made. ‘It is almost a lack of respect,’ Holly-Ward said.”

“Almost.” Councilwoman, you are being kind. You were dissed, Big Time!

Her colleagues apparently agreed with that sentiment, voting unanimously last night to hire special counsel specifically to represent them.  As quoted in the Trentonian North Ward Member Marge Caldwell Wilson said, “If we’re discussing this issue [Minchello's appointment] , I don’t believe that Mr. Minchello should be our counsel. I think someone else should be here representing us.”

Another member is quoted as being troubled by Mr. Minchello’s arrangement. The Times writes, “Councilman Alex Bethea agreed saying now that Minchello is a partner, they city attorney now has a financial interest in the DeCotiis firm. ‘You can’t separate the two,’ Bethea said. ‘To me that is a slippery slope.’

Do you realize what you just read? Do you?


Mayor Jackson, if EVEN ALEX BETHEA can be roused from his torpor to be bothered by a situation, you gotta know it’s a real problem!

The Administration tried to sell this deal as one that would save money. We’ll save on not paying Minchello’s fringe benefits, we were told. Well, with the prospect now of new outside counsel for City Council, so much for that big idea! We’ll no doubt end up paying more more money for this arrangement than we would have with a full time City Attorney who is actually Full Time for Trenton.

I will say that Mr. Minchello’s new partners are being gracious about this turn of events. The Times quotes a statement from the firm that alludes to Trenton’s past and current problems and sensitivities to a situation like this. “Unfortunately the city is in a difficult situation of addressing perception over substance. We fully appreciate their situation and understand their need to act cautiously.” As I wrote above, we don’t yet know enough to agree that this is a matter of “addressing perception over substance.” But DeCotiis understands our need to act cautiously, and I appreciate that.

As I do appreciate Mr. Jackson’s decision and announcement yesterday. As reluctantly and begrudgingly he may have come to take this action, it was the right one to take. It’s a major step forward for the Mayor’s pledge made last year to operate his mayoralty and his Administration with “Zero Tolerance” for unethical actions and appearances.

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 parable 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.


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.


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?