As sent from Trenton City Hall:
For use in case you see any City workers in any of our public parks this Fall:
Yesterday evening, I was one of about a half-dozen citizens speaking on the matter of the proposed Trenton Salary Raise Ordinance. All spoke against the proposal, including myself. Most spoke on behalf of themselves. Paul Mitsis also spoke on behalf of the Glen Afton Civic Association. Most spoke well. One, Daryl Brooks, spoke incomprehensibly, of how when Donald Trump is elected President towns like Trenton will be governed well, He also self-promoted a new TV show he will be on. SMDH, my friends. SMDH.
None spoke in favor. Despite the clear expression of public sentiment on the matter, which apparently fell on deaf ears, the Clowncil voted to approve the First Reading of the matter.
Second Reading, which will include a public hearing on the ordinance, is scheduled to take place at their September 15 meeting.
This is Trenton. I’m sure a lot will happen between now and then to provide further context for this proposal. This being Trenton, I doubt much of it will be good.
My comments, as delivered, are below.
It seems Rudy Giuliani isn’t the only one with a highly selective memory. At least Rudy conveniently forgot something that happened 15 years ago. Eric forgot this small matter from only six months ago!
If, as has been said, the Secret to Comedy is Timing, then those folks down at City Hall should rename their digs the Trenton Friars Club. Because they have some exquisitely-timed jokes scheduled for this coming Thursday night’s session – or should I say set? – at City Council.
I refer to this agenda item, the last scheduled docket item of of the evening:
That’s right. Along with their brethren at the Mercer County Board of Freeholders, Trenton’s Council will deliberate raises for themselves as well as Mayor Eric Jackson, his chief of Staff, the City’s Municipal Judges, and Department Directors.
Before talking about this Trenton raise proposal, a few lines about Mercer County, to compare and contrast the City’s plan. At the beginning of this year, the Freeholders voted for themselves, County Executive Brian Hughes and several department directors a raise of 4%, retroactive a full year to January 1, 2015. I had problems with that proposal and shared my opinion with the Freeholders at the time. You may be interested to know I received not one reply to my note. So much for constituent communication. Whatever.
This morning, we read that the Freeholders will vote this Thursday, barely seven months later to award themselves, as well again as County Exec Hughes and some department directors an additional 2 percent bump, once again retroactive but this time only to January 1 of this year 2016. The two actions represent then a total six percent increase over 2 years, an average 3 %.
Compared to Trenton’s plan, the County comes off as models of fiscal rectitude. Attached to the text of Ordinance 16-50, helpfully provided by Jim Carlucci – thanks, Jim! – is a memo by City Business Administrator Terry McEwen outlining the proposed salaries for the city’s officials over the next three years. They are generous increases.
For Mayor Eric Jackson, BA McEwen, Department Directors, and Judges, the proposed salary bumps are stated as 3.3% this year (retroactive to January 1; I suppose some in City Hall have watched what the County does!), then a big jump of 5.8% in 2017, and a more reasonable (compared to 2017, that is) adjustment of only 5.6% for 2018. The cumulative increase is 15.5% for all of these officials, or around 5.2% on average. This is well above the Freeholders’ measly 3% annual raise over 2 years.
Councilmembers will do almost as well as the Administration. For their part-time positions, the increase for 2016 is proposed to be a whopping 12.5% compared to last year, with the subsequent bumps for 2017 and 2018 only 1.1% each year.
However, the big winner out of this proposal is Francis Blanco, Mayor Jackson’s Chief of Staff. Ms. Blanco is set to receive increases over the next few years totaling 19.68%, or 6.56% on average per year. Sweet!
All of these proposed increases should be looked at against the general economic background of the last few years, when inflation and cost of living increases have been hovering around the 1%-2% range. Any wage increases in that range can be considered simply keeping up with inflation. I believe this is the general range that the City of Trenton has been seeking in some of their labor negotiations for new union contracts.
Wage increases above the rate of inflation are generally considered merit increases. I would then feel very comfortable in saying that the increases being sought by the Jackson Administration for themselves constitutes merit increases. And that is hilarious.
To be fair, these proposed increases are not as outrageous as those proposed by Tony Mack a couple of years ago, but they are still pretty funny.
So, you may ask, what’s so amusing about this proposal? It’s all in the timing! Coincidentally, this Salary Ordinance is included in the same docket that has several other items that show Trenton is no better off, and no better able to afford merit raises for his elected and appointed officials now than it was 4 years ago.
Let’s take a look!
Thursday’s Council Meeting will also include several other docket items of interest. For instance, this one:
Hmm, pending litigation? About the de3velopment at the former Champale factory site? What’s that about? Since this is to be discussed in Executive Session, we may not hear any details about it. Then again, we might. Later on the agenda is this item:
Looks like this matter is actually pretty far along, and as usual, the City is paying to settle the matter. How much? I expect we’ll find out. Trenton often settles, and always pays. Googling the phrase “Trenton Council settles” returns quite a list. Here’s Page One of the results. Spoiler alert: one of these items doesn’t belong to Trenton. NJ. Everything else, sadly, does.
You get the picture. Trenton Gets Sued, We Pay The Dude!
But wait! There’s more:
We all know what Hotel is located at 1 West Lafayette Street. Five months after we read of ongoing financial problems at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, problems that included a balance of unpaid property taxes to the City of $632,510 and unpaid sewer and water charges of $28K, we see that a Tax Sale Certificate for the hotel property may be assigned. This generally, but not always, is an action that takes place as part of a foreclosure action. What does this all mean for the formerly City-owned hotel, for which the City is still responsible of millions of dollars in annual debt service? I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound good. Is it possible that one of the largest, if not the largest, privately-owned property, as well as commercial employer, is in danger of closing, again? Will this jeopardize the future possibility of collecting the assessed annual $1.9 Million in property taxes the place is supposed to pay? Will this be another multi-million dollar hole to fill in the City’s Budget?
The above are just the items that are on the Council’s docket along with the proposal for the salary raises. This also should be looked at in the context of a number of other incidents over the recent past that must call into question the management skills of this Administration.
For instance, just this month we’ve seen the problems associated with the contracts to operate the City’s public swimming pools. This year, the City managed to attract only two proposals to run the pools this summer. The City hired the low bidder, USA Management, but fired them half way into the season. The City then turned to the other remaining bidder, the Trenton YMCA, to take over the contract until the end of the summer. This mishigas, I wrote last month, ended up costing the City, as these things usually do: “It looks like we are on track to be spending about: 65% more than the original USA contract amount; 20% more than the Y’s bid this year; 42% more than the Y’s 2015 contract; and about 50% more than the Y’s 2014 contract.”
Don’t forget a City contracting process that resulted in the award of the City’s Information Technology contract to a little-known and little-qualified company that was the third most-expensive out of 12 proposals received.
Last, but certainly not least, the same City Administration that saw Five Million Dollars of payroll tax money swindled right from under its collective nose, and which so far has refused to say if it has taken any action to prevent a future similar occurrence, now wants to give itself a raise.
For a job well done, no doubt.
THAT’s what I find so funny about this!
Recent history before this week’s Council meeting shows how many bad decisions this Administration has made – and continue to make – and how arrogantly they have refused to take any actions to either replace the personnel responsible or fix broken policies and procedures. That no one has been fired in City Hall for the Payroll theft is still mind-boggling to me. That many of the Administrators and Directors are still employed who ignored multiple warnings and red flags is an ongoing scandal that no one in the City is willing to face up to.
And they pick this week to ask for raises, when Council’s docket for Thursday nicely demonstrates we are still drunkenly spending money like we’re literally made of the stuff.
That’s just hysterical! Who writes all their material? They are comedy geniuses!
Too bad the joke is on us.
I’ve been aware of the activities being conducted under the banner of the Trenton250 Project. This is the City of Trenton-led effort to involve local residents, property and business owners, planning experts and officials, and other stakeholders in a long-range Master Plan to re-develop the City over the next several decades in advance of Trenton’s Sestercentennial (I had to look it up) in 2042.
I’ve been aware of it, but not very conscious of it. Over the last several months, the Project has convened many public meetings and issued several documents and surveys in advance of its efforts. Sorry to say, I will admit, I’ve missed all of them.
This week, a neighbor of mine and current member of the Trenton Planning Board, David Peiffer, alerted me to an impending deadline of this coming Monday, August 15, for members of the public to submit formal comment to Jeffrey Wilkerson in the City’s planning department on the many draft documents posted for review since mid-July.
David directed my attention to a specific document, the “Housing Report Brief” that can be found via a link on this page. Upon reading the section that David pointed out to me, I was moved to send a letter to Mr. Wilkerson. You can read more below, but the gist of the specific draft proposal I read would involve designating the ENTIRE expanse of the City of Trenton as an “Area in Need of Rehabilitation.” That is, the ENTIRE City would be designated for redevelopment and eligible for a range of measures that, up until now, only specific areas in one of the city’s many, many, many legally-defined redevelopment areas could qualify for. Among other things, this would mean the entirety of the City of Trenton would be formally considered “a blighted area.”
So, you may ask yourself if (like me) you are a property owner in a neighborhood that you don’t consider to be “blighted” in the least, what does that kind of label mean to my property value?
That’s a good, question, and one that I asked of Mr. Wilkerson. Read on, below.
If you have a chance this weekend, please take a look at some of these draft proposals and, if you see something odd or potentially bad, or innovative and potentially wonderful, send a note by Monday, August 15, to Jeffrey Wilkerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks again to David Peiffer for bringing this to my attention!
As emailed, August 12, 2016:
City of Trenton
319 East State Street
Dear Mr. Wilkerson:
I would like to commend you and your colleagues who have been working on the Trenton250 planning process. It has been, to date, a thoughtful effort at looking ahead at the City’s future in ways that incorporate the participation of expert opinion, professionals in and out of the City, and the public. Having served as a member of the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for 12 years, and having participated on the taskforce which previously revised Trenton’s Land Use Ordinance, I am personally familiar with many of the issues involved, and appreciate the value you place on the importance of public transparency and participation.
Today, I will reserve my comments to one part of the Housing Report brief I find troubling, as it has been presented in this draft. As the Trenton250 effort proceeds to the next phase, I look forward to expanded discussion on this matter, and further background. On Page 5, in your section titled “Develop Tool Kit to Improve Housing Conditions,” I read this:
I am concerned to read of an action that would so designate the entire city as needing rehabilitation as it is defined in the state’s authorizing legislation. There are many, many, many areas of the city, as discussed elsewhere in your Draft, that are the locations of specific redevelopment plans, many of extremely ancient vintage. I understand the appeal of an approach that holds out the prospect of reducing much of the complexity of neighborhood redevelopment. But I do wonder if such a wide, shotgun-style approach is suitable for neighborhoods not in redevelopment zones and not in need of the kind of rehabilitation envisioned by the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL).
Of the several criteria defined in NJSA Title 40A:12A-5, there are many areas of the city, such as the Cadwalader Heights neighborhood in which I reside and own property, that don’t honestly meet any of them. There are no buildings that are substandard and unsafe; no abandoned industrial buildings; none that are “detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community;” and so on. As a property owner, I must frankly say that I am concerned about the future value of my property and my neighborhood when it becomes designated by city ordinance as an Area in Need of Rehabilitation.
Trenton has difficulty enough attracting new citizens, investors and property owners. I moved to the City nearly 20 years ago because I and my family fell in love with our house and our neighborhood. We knew nothing about the City when we first started looking here. I can guarantee you that if we were prospective homeowners from outside the City or State looking today on Realtor.com or Zillow.com, and we saw a notation on a listing to the effect that “the property is located in the Trenton Area in Need of Rehabilitation,” and found out that such Area encompassed the entire City and is legally considered a “blighted area,” well, we would pass over the entire City without a second thought. Regardless of the beauty of a specific house or neighborhood, such a designation will affect the value of that house and neighborhood.
Speaking as a property owner, what will that do to the value of my investment? I look forward with great anticipation to hearing more about this matter during the next phase of your planning process. I imagine my fellow residential property owners in Cadwalader Heights will, too, as no doubt those in the rest of on the City.
Speaking as a former member of the Zoning Board, I read Title 40A:12-6 as a description of a process under which the determination of such Areas in Need of Development is to be done in a very deliberate and careful fashion, to be supported, in the words of the statute, by “substantial evidence” (40A:12A-6 b.(5)). I fail to see how such care and deliberation – and “substantial evidence” – could possibly be provided for every area in the City.
Since the LRHL was authorized in 1992, I will ask that the next phase of the Trenton250 process include case studies of the actual experience municipalities in New Jersey have had with this law, with special attention given to case studies of municipalities that have defined their entire towns as Rehabilitation Areas.
I also read in your Draft, in the same section quoted above, that the City would be allowed under the LRHL to “Exercise all the redevelopment powers EXCEPT acquiring private property by eminent domain.” In my reading of the law, in Title 40A:12A-6, the use of Eminent Domain is an explicitly authorized option to a municipality. It is most definitely NOT prohibited:
There are many other references in the legislation to the power of Eminent Domain as something that can indeed by invoked by a municipality as part of its tool kit. I understand that would the intention of the City, at the present time, to avoid the use of this power, but the implication in your Draft that this is outright prohibited is, in my reading of these provisions, incorrect.
This poses, in my opinion, another problem to the proposal to designate the entire City to be a zone to fall under the terms of this law. Although we may be able to depend on the levels of professionalism and integrity of the current Administration and Council to forswear the use of eminent domain, I remain unconvinced of the likelihood this would remain the case in the future. As long as the law allows it, it must be considered a real, however distant, possibility that it would be used, on some basis, in Trenton.
This represents to me another serious defect in the draft proposal to designate the entire City of Trenton as an Area in Need of Rehabilitation under the New Jersey Local Redevelopment and Housing Law.
I will conclude these comments on this note. Once again, I thank you and your colleagues on the Trenton250 planning process to this point. I look forward to the next phase of the project, and to further clarification of the points I’ve made today.
Was this supposed to make us feel better?
The water is getting murkier in the matter of the management of the City of Trenton’s public swimming pools. Last week, the Jackson Administration recommended to City Council, and Council unanimously approved, that the City and USA Management part ways at the end of July. USA is the Georgia-based company that was one of only two bidders for Trenton’s business. The other bidder was the YMCA of Trenton, which had managed the city’s pools for the 2014 and 2015 summer seasons. As of August 1, the “Y” will once more manage the pools until their mid-September closure.
Michael Walker attempted to ease the minds of Trenton’s residents about the financial stability of the City in its dealings with the issue of the pools last week. Ironically, questions about the shaky finances, or at least the accounting functions of the City were raised by Trenton YMCA Executivce Director and former City Recreation Director Sam Frisby. Last week, he explained to the Times that City Hall just kind of shuts down for much of July:
So, Frisby’s quote didn’t do much to shore up Mr. Walker’s claim that this was “never about financial difficulties.” Oops. Also, last week Walker himself was quoted in local press accounts as saying that the problems were in fact, about money:
So, which is it, Mr. Walker? Did the City part ways because USA Management “grossly underbid the contract” (an admittedly bizarre excuse for anyone who’s ever had any kind of business contract – if you underbid and your work costs more than you planned, you eat the extra costs) or was it because of USA’s performance? I am confused. I am also scratching my head about the “we will not burden [city residents] with additional costs to enjoy [the pools], because that’s exactly what we are ending up doing.
The original contract with USA, we were told last week, was $185,188. Pro-rating that sum for the approximately six weeks they provided their services, I estimate they cost us about $90,000, which includes a $41,000 payment to USA last week that had been overdue by two weeks. The new contract with the Y for the remainder of the summer is reported to cost $158,160. PLUS, in a week-ending report by Cristina Rojas in the Trenton Times, we were also told “In its termination letter, the city said that, all told, it had to incur at least $58,523.40 in additional costs because of the company’s ‘mismanagement.’ ” This “mismanagement” referring to the alleged failure of USA to be “responsible for the payment of all employment taxes and social security taxes related to the employment of said personnel.” (Now, where have I heard THAT before? Hmmm… It’ll come to me)
Taking all those numbers together, I come up with a figure approximating $307,000. To put that number in some perspective, according to Ms.Rojas, “[The YMCA's] total bid [for this summer] cost had been $256,487. Last year, its contract was for $216,761 and in 2014, $205,515.
If Michael Walker wanted to assure us that “we will not burden [city residents] with additional costs to enjoy” the pools this summer, he kind of failed. It looks like we are on track to be spending about:
How fucked up is that?
In the same July 22 Times article referenced above, in which Michael Walker attempted to tell the City’s side of the conflict with USA Management, Trenton’s Business Administrator Terry McEwen provided additional detail that, if true, frankly paints a picture of the City’s total inability to manage its contractor efficiently. Again, according to Cristina Rojas in the Times:
Sheesh, this all sounds to me that this vendor was entirely out of control! If the City can not properly monitor the performance of its contractor on compliance with the basic terms and conditions of the service contract, then what good are they? Because this sounds like the City is claiming that USA didn’t pay any attention to some of the most basic elements of this contract: namely, staffing levels, security, and the proper employment status of its hires. The City effectively let USA call its own shots, if we are to believe Mr. McEwen.
If that is in fact true, this is indeed a failure of the City’s ability to manage its contractors. That this may be indeed a true tale can be seen in the way that the City is letting the successor to USA – the Trenton YMCA - impose its own terms in how it will deal with the City’s contract, in contravention to the City’s specifications.
For example, one of the City’s complaints about USA’s performance is that whereas the City requires 1 lifeguard for every 60 swimmers, USA ignored that requirement and provided half that number. Well, the YMCA also ignores that requirement, providing DOUBLE the number of lifeguards that the City requires, and charges the City for the extra manpower. In his proposal to the City, Sam Frisby “wrote that they had a full staff in the mornings when there could be as many as 60 to 100 campers brought in. The bid required one lifeguard for every 60 swimmers, but the YMCA’s standard ratio is 30-to-1.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
Similarly, the YMCA proposal ignored the City’s specified hours for operating staff. In the same YMCA proposal, “CEO Sam Frisby said an extra hour per day was calculated for unit costs than what was called for since they knew from experience that the first hour was often spent cleaning up from people who broke in at night.” Rather than postpone opening the pools in question later in the day to allow that kind of clean-up, which is what one would expect a contractor to do if he were limited in his resources, he just unilaterally included “an extra hour per day” over and above the specifications laid out by the city, and passed those extra costs along to the City.
Those are among the reasons, I suppose, that the Y’s cost proposals grew by 25% in just two years. The City literally allows the YMCA to write its own deal. The specifications and terms in the City’s Request for Proposals (RFP) are, I guess, looked at as being more a point of departure to be added on to than a description of strict limits and constraints.
So, let’s summarize, shall we. The City of Trenton claims it was being jerked around by a vendor that failed to provide the minimum level of service it promised to in its reply to the City’s RFP. Its solution is to bring in a vendor who, in its proposals, jerks the City around by providing MORE services than the City asked for it to do, and charges the City handsomely to do so.
Got it? OK, then.
I will finish this piece by repeating what I said last week. This episode with the City’s contracts for management of its pools proves that nothing has changed in Trenton. Its purchasing and contracting procedures are broken. Since it allowed the theft of more than $5 Million Dollars by another poorly-managed vendor – without making any transparent, public, significant changes to its management structure and procedures – the Administration of Eric Jackson still fails to provide competent management and oversight of its contractors, and the City simply continues to pay and pay, and pay. It’s losing precious money, of course. It’s also losing something infinitely more valuable. It’s losing trust.
Trenton’s public swimming pools are in the news this week, and not in a good way. Last night, City Council ratified the recommendation by the Eric Jackson Administration to cancel the contract between Trenton and USA Management, a Georgia- based company that had been awarded the management deal for the pools this summer. Although the pools had been open for only around 4 weeks this season, the City had already fallen two weeks behind in its payments to USA, and the company could no longer float (sorry) their payroll expenses until Trenton paid its bills. The Company requested to be let out if its contract, and the City agreed. Taking over for the remainder of the summer will be the Trenton YMCA, which managed the pools in 2014 and 2015. The “Y” was the only other organization to bid for this contract. Its proposal was about 40% more expensive than USA’s.
Add one more disgruntled business to the list of those unhappy with their experience working with this town. In the flurry of media articles over the last few days, LA Parker of the Trentonian reported that USA had provided to him a recording of a phone call, allegedly from Trenton’s recreation director Fiah Gussin. Parker reports the recording as saying, “I was calling in regards to not speaking to the media in regards to what’s happening here in the city of Trenton with our pool program.” Mr. Parker calls that recording, if it is from Ms. Gussin, an attempt at a cover-up. I won’t disagree.
Why might the City’s Rec Director want to cover up “what’s happening here?” Why might USA be disgruntled and unhappy about their experience with the City of Trenton? Apart, that is, from not getting paid, which is plenty reason enough to me.
Thankfully for us, USA ignored this alleged advice in regards to not speaking in regards to what’s happening. A spokesperson for the company spoke to Cristina Rojas of the Trenton Times, who suggested that their company had been set up by the City. Elle Anderson of USA told Ms. Rojas, “We did get a source that had communicated that (the city) had no intention of paying us and that we were considered their budget relief so they could let us go and pick up with the YMCA who they wanted to use in the first place, but could not afford,”We did get a source that had communicated that (the city) had no intention of paying us and that we were considered their budget relief so they could let us go and pick up with the YMCA who they wanted to use in the first place, but could not afford.” That’s quite the allegation, for which Ms. Anderson offered no proof. But the Trenton “Y” will be running the pools from August 1 to September 12, for the reported sum of $158,160. This amount is only slightly less than the amount that USA had agreed to take to manage the pools for the entire summer.
Trenton once again is resolving its problems the way it always seems to: by spending its way out of them.
Why are the “Y’s services so much more expensive than the vendor it is replacing. According to Mr. Frisby, his workers provide more services than USA. As reported by Ms. Rojas, “The bid required one lifeguard for every 60 swimmers, but the YMCA’s standard ratio is 30-to-1.” So, despite what the City asks for in its Request for Proposal, the YMCA wants to provide twice as many staffers, whether the pools need them or not. “The YMCA’s standard ratio” apparently counts for more than the city’s specifications, I guess.
For another example, as quoted at the top of his piece, the Y crews spend time each morning cleaning up from unauthorized overnight use, when people “come in around midnight and party,” in Mr. Frisby’s words.
This troubles me a lot, and hasn’t yet come up in any of the news pieces I’ve read so far, not addressed by anyone in the City, the two vendors involved, or by the reporters. Mr. Frisby acknowledges this late-night activity as a matter of fact. It seems to be pretty regular all over town, and very well tolerated and accepted. It’s even built into the schedule, when pool crews “come in to repair the fences, clean up the condoms, beer bottles and other stuff and then get ready to open up the pool.” (So much for “When the pool area looks better, people treat it better,” by the way.)
What happens when something goes wrong? What happens when someone gets hurt? What happens when a midnight partier gets drunk, falls into a pool and drowns? What happens when someone gets assaulted, sexually or otherwise? Who is responsible? Who is liable?
Remember that in 2010, a 3-year-old drowned in a Trenton public pool. Four years later, the City settled with his family for $1.5 Million, admitting that the lifeguard on duty at the time of the accident had been distracted. That sad incident happened during regular public hours, with trained and certified lifeguards on duty. Who is liable for an incident that might happen during an overnight “party,” when the pool’s managers – and the City?? – have full knowledge that such parties happen on a regular basis? Not only does Mr. Frisby not seem to describe any actions to the press that he and the Y take to prevent such partying, he charges the City of Trenton a premium to clean up after overnight parties on a regular basis.
Does that sound right to you? Mr. Frisby admits he openly condones and accepts potentially dangerous breaking and entering on City property on a regular basis. On the strength of that statement alone, I think the YMCA has disqualified itself from being considered a responsible manager of public facilities on the City’s behalf. It’s probably to much to ask for the City to cancel the new contract with the Y and look for yet another vendor, but it’s certainly reasonable to ban the organization from any future contracts such as this one until it demonstrates a commitment to safety and security of the sites it manages.
This is all pretty upsetting. There are a lot of issues here to address, and as usual in this town, nothing will likely be done. Until something shocking and tragic happens. We can’t say we weren’t warned.
I’m surprised to hear about this sort of thing happening, with new problems the City is experiencing with its purchasing, contracting and accounting processes. It doesn’t seem that much has changed since all of the substantial management changes and business procedure upgrades implemented since the City was swindled out of $5 Million by its payroll vendor Innovative Payroll Services last year.
Oh, that’s right! Silly me! There have been no management changes nor business procedure upgrades since IPS ripped us off last year!!
So, in other words, same old, same old in the City of Trenton. Six years running, and no sign of any change in the future.
We have been here before, as a nation. As victims of this nation’s original sin, we will be here again. What we, as a civil society, choose to do now will determine how bad the next time will be.
Around 225 persons will have been murdered in the United States this week. Each of them had their stories ended too soon, violently and for no good reasons. Each and every one of those lives were treasured by their families and loved ones, their losses keenly felt by them but by few others. We hear about most of them, if at all, only in passing. Seconds of video over a local newsperson’s shoulder. A few lines in the news section of a local newspaper, a few more on the obituary page.
There are only three things that they all have in common with each other. They will no longer grace us with their continued presence, their passions, their souls. Their number will continue to rise. And they will pass and eventually be forgotten with the rest. As a nation, we have come to accept a butcher’s bill of 12,000 homicides each year as normal. We are numb, most of the time. I am, at least. There are too many, too often.
This week, seven of those 200 deaths have shocked me as few others have. One was in Baton Rouge, one in a Minneapolis suburb, and five in Dallas. I am of an age where to hear the words “snipers” “shots fired” “Dallas ” and “Dealey Plaza” together in news reports chills me to the bone. All of these deaths are shocking.
Earlier in the week, we saw yet more sets of cellphone videos showing African American men shot at close range by white American police officers. According to the Washington Post, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are two of over 500 people shot and killed by police officers so far in 2016. So far, this year is on track to match the year 2015, when 990 citizens lost their lives. Of that number, 258 – a little over a quarter – were black, while the majority, 494, were white. However, blacks are shot and killed by police at a rate disproportionate to their numbers, and often in highly questionable circumstances and frequently by police officers with work histories of violent and prejudicial actions against African Americans. That many of these questionable slayings are, upon investigation, not prosecuted as criminal offenses or, if they are prosecuted, do not lead to convictions, can’t be contested. This is what has been happening in America.
For the decade from 2005 to 2015, of the roughly 1000 annual police-related killings, only an average of five officers per year faced charges; in 2015 that number was 18. Fewer still are convicted. According to reporting in the Huffington Post, over that same decade, the average number of convictions for murder or manslaughter per year is one. For 2014 and 2015, that number was zero.
Confronted frequently with images and video such as we’ve seen this week from Louisiana and Minnesota – and the dozens before that in the last year – compounded with the facts of the numbers, is it any wonder that African Americans feel especially vulnerable to death by police, deaths for which there will likely be no accountability? I don’t think so. Which goes a long way to explain the mass of protests, demonstrations and organizing around the country known collectively as Black Lives Matter. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are promised to us in our national Declaration of Independence as inalienable rights endowed on all of us by the Creator. I don’t begrudge the black community for feeling that the first of these might be kind of tenuous whenever they deal with law enforcement. Of course, most daily interactions between police and citizens end, if not always well in the case of those arrested, peacefully.
In the grand scheme of things, in the hundreds of millions of daily interactions we have in this country, most people are law abiding, as most law officers are professional, well-trained and honest in dealing with citizens. But it’s out at the margins, at the bleeding edge, where people can get killed.
Dallas shows us that. A peaceful demonstration in Dallas last night turned into chaos, as at least one gunman and perhaps more assassinated five police officers and wounded several more. Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Omar Cannon, Misty McBride, and Jesus Retana were killed, allegedly by a former US Army Reservist, if current news reports hold up, quoted by the Dallas Police Chief as having “told police he was ‘upset at white people. “The suspect stated that he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”
Dallas is still reeling, as the city tries to cope with last night’s shock. The families of officers killed and wounded should be in our thoughts and prayers, as they should be with the families in Baton Rouge and Minnesota coping with the loss of their loved ones. In this, Dallas takes the place in our heart that Orlando filled such a short while ago. Who will be next?
It’s impossible to look at the events this week outside the context of America’s original sin of historical and ongoing racism towards African Americans. The problem predates by a century and a half the independence of this country under the principles of the Declaration, mentioned above, that still remain aspirations for many of our citizens, and not guarantees. After weeks such as this, tempers are raw, racial tensions are high, and we must grieve.
It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to react to the murders this week as proving we are in a new spiral of racially-motivated violence and reprisals, especially focused on police. There is, for example, no “war on cops,” as irresponsibly charged today by Executive Director William Johnson of the National Association of Police Organizations. Policing is an inherently dangerous profession, and always has been. But historical trends over the last 85 years, since the Great Depression, have shown significant decreases in police line-of-duty fatalities. Those decreases, as reported last year in the Washington Post, are in several categories: absolute numbers, fatalities per capita of population and per capita of police officers. Graphs in that report show a major spike in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, but since around 1975, the numbers have shown major improvements. Over the last few years, police deaths have been at low numbers not seen since the 1950’s, when the US population was half what it is now. Mr. Johnson said on Fox News today, “It’s a war on cops. And the Obama administration is the Neville Chamberlain of this war.” But that doesn’t make it so.
In fact, it would also be wrong, irresponsibly so, to call political violence against police as being exclusively or even largely racially motivated by revenge-seeking blacks. Remember that eight federal law enforcement agents – along with 163 others – were assassinated by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in 1995’s Murrah Office Building bombing in Oklahoma City. And it is Cliven Bundy, his two sons and two others who are under Federal indictment for “launching a ‘massive armed assault’ on federal officials, gaining hundreds of followers by spreading lies on the Internet, and encouraging their supporters to take sniper positions on highway bridges above government agents, unarmed adults and children.” In that last incident described in the quote, around 50 federal law enforcement agents were literally under the sights of up to 200 “patriot militia” members, looking for a fight, and ready to kill police. That that day did not turn out as bloody or worse than Dallas last night is only due to the fortitude of the federal agents on the scene, who deliberately avoided any actions that could have turned that day tragic.
As these incidents show, if there is in fact a war against cops, long-running and ideologically intense, it’s almost – but not entirely – directed mainly against the Federal government and its law enforcement agents. And it’s on the part of “Patriot Movements” such as those associated with McVeigh, Nichols, and the Bundys, and many of the 998 anti-government groups identified this year by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It would most definitely not be waged by Black Lives Matter.
So what can be done, after we mourn our dead this week, and dread the next ones to die?
Well, perhaps one place to start is the one suggested by Nancy Tourneau in the Washington Monthly yesterday. As incidents far afield as Louisiana, Minnesota, Texas, and South Carolina show, ours are national problems. Our pain is felt across the country, the blood spilled is spilled from sea to shining sea, and new graves are dug in all 50 states. Tourneau suggests a national approach:
It’s a tall order. And one that will take time, and hard work, and good will. After a week such as this one has been, the latter may be in short supply. But it’s the only way that I can think of to make an honest effort to ensure that the anguish caused by these seven deaths this week is not cruelly repeated, again and again and again, into our shared future.
Over the six-year (!) life of this space, I’ve found myself being critical of the way the City of Trenton has been governed, more often than not.
No, seriously. I know it’s a shock. I have found on a pretty regular basis that much of what the City has done or failed to do in the last half dozen years has been poorly conceived, executed, managed, and communicated. Time and money have been squandered, momentum toward stabilizing and re-building this place blunted or reversed, and trust and confidence in the ability of this town to manage its own affairs evaporated.
But when the City does something right, something perhaps very small in the grand scheme of things but yet fundamental to the promise that someday, somehow, the folks who are entrusted to govern this city might get their heads out of their asses, well then I have to stand up and take notice. Such an action took place a few weeks ago, when the Administration of Mayor Eric Jackson announced its selections of grant recipients for federal US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds awarded by the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.
In the recent past, such as during the plague years of 2010-2014, CDBG funds were treated as slush funds by the City. For example, in 2013, without the approval of City Council, Tony Mack spent $200,000 of funds to support his mis-begotten zombie libraries, the “Mayor’s Learning Centers” opened on some of the sites of the neighborhood branches of the Trenton Public Library closed in 2010. That same year, then-Business Administrator Sam Hutchinson was called out for charging the fulltime salary of one of his staffers, $38,000 plus fringes, to the city’s CDBG grant, in violation of federal guidelines. Finally, also in 2013, the Administration used $450 of CDBG money to pay for the annual City Hall Christmas tree.
As is my wont, I took the Administration to task for the latter two of these ill-considered use of federal CDBG monies, both Mr. Hutchinson’s foibles and (perhaps a little more enthusiastically!) the Xmas tree debacle.
So, with those instances as background, I am encouraged that the Jackson Administration is taking its stewardship of these CDBG federal funds more seriously than its predecessor did. At least by the most recent instance.
In its June 2 meeting, City Council deliberated the Administration’s recommendations to award $553,797 of funds from its fiscal year 2016-2017 CDBG program to local non-profit service groups for a total of 11 projects. These numbers represented a small portion of what had been proposed to the city. According to Cristina Rojas’ report for the Trenton Times, “42 applications requesting a total of $1.7 million were submitted.” Clearly, not every application from every group was going to be funded. Three out of every four submitting organizations were going to be disappointed, guaranteed.
One of those groups, Meals On Wheels of Mercer County, was quite disappointed, and very vocally and publicly so. Upon being rejected for funding for the second year in a row, Executive Director Sasa Olessi Montano called shenanigans. Ms. Rojas quoted Ms. Montano telling City Council, “(The mayor) has chosen to blatantly disregard the needs of the homebound adults in Trenton … for reasons that at this point can only be described as a political agenda perhaps. We will make sure that, come election time, they will not forget that their city has abandoned them.”
Ms. Montano that evening failed to substantiate her charge of “a political agenda perhaps,” at least as reported in Ms. Rojas account. But her position was supported by at least a few members of City Council. As quoted in the Times, “‘This is not about Meals on Wheels; this is about somebody not liking Sasa Montano,’ Councilwoman Phyllis Holly-Ward said. ‘She spoke up, she embarrassed people and it has been decided that she will never get funding.’” Although less conspiratorially-minded than Ms. Holly-Ward’s comments, Members George Muschal and Marge Caldwell-Wilson also spoke in support of the failed Meals on Wheels application.
At the Council meeting, the Administration’s acting Director of Housing and Economic Development Diana Rogers defended the City’s decision to deny the Meals on Wheels application, instead awarding $10,000 to the other applicant in the “Nutrition” category of grants, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK). Referring to the evaluation and scoring process used to rank all of the proposals, the Times reported “They [Meals on Wheels] and Trenton Area Soup Kitchen were the only two applicants in the “nutrition” category. Neither scored above 70, but because the city felt it was an important category, $10,000 was awarded to TASK, which had the higher score between the two.”
Although I was unfamiliar with the two organizations involved or with their specific applications, the charges of political favoritism in the competitive evaluation and scoring process rang some bells with me. Over the last several months, in the instances of the awards of city contracts for its information technology services and – more notoriously – its payroll services, the city’s management of these services has to me been anything by objective and above-board. I found severe problems with the evaluation and scoring process that led last fall to the selection of the under-qualified and over-priced FCC Consulting Services for the City’s IT work. And, even though the contract process happened much earlier, initially back in 2009, the process by which the City awarded its payroll contract to the criminal enterprise Innovative Payroll Services (IPS) was badly flawed.
So, reading Ms. Rojas’ account of the charges raised by Ms. Olessi Montano, I was skeptical that the City had acted professionally and ethically in its treatment of the Meals on Wheels application. In the Times account, neither Ms. Rojas nor the Council Members quoted referred to actual applications submitted by both organizations. Perhaps there, I thought, the allegations of political favoritism and political vendetta made by Ms. Olessi Montano and Ms. Holly-Ward might be substantiated.
I have to admit, I was wrong. As a layman, looking at the actual proposals from both Meals on Wheels and TASK, I have to say I find the latter’s proposal to be stronger and more cost-competitive.
First off, I was surprised and pleased to find out, as directed by a City staffer, to find that all of the applications for the City’s CDBG funding were publicly available online. I didn’t have to file an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to pry the relevant files out of the City’s grasp, as I had to research the IPS boondoggle. All of the applications can be found at this link. Meals on Wheels’ submission is here, and TASK’s, here. Although the actual scoring sheets used to rank the two applications are not online (as far as I can tell), the differences between the two proposals is stark.
Using two crucial criteria, that of individuals benefited by the proposal and cost per individual benefited, the Meals on Wheels application is much less competitive relative to TASK’s:
That comparison alone would have led me to select TASK over Meals on Wheels. With dollars enough to support only 1 out of every 4 applicants generally and only 1 out of these two specific applications, the bigger bang for the buck is clearly provided by TASK. For a dollar request 1 1/2 times that of TASK’s, Meals on Wheels proposed to support only 3 dozen Trentonians, just about 1% of those proposed by TASK. Now it is true that TASK was awarded an amount that was half its request, so its actual impact will be less, and the numbers referenced above may change somewhat. But I think it is a safe assumption to say that the scale of TASK’s funded activities will likely still be substantially greater per dollar, and reach more Trentonians, than those that would have been undertaken by Meals on Wheels for more money.
TASK’s application also suggests a broader and more robust range of activities throughout the course of the grant year that would be supported by the City’s CDBG funding. TASK’s Project Timeline (excerpted from their application) shows this:
Here is Meals on Wheels:
Elsewhere in their proposals, both institutions describe their activities and their mission to under-served residents of the city in extensive and persuasive detail. I find it unfortunate that both institutions were unwittingly set in competition with each other, but that was the inescapable result of a process that had too many applications chasing too many dollars. In that environment, the application from Meals on Wheels was simply, sadly, too expensive and served too few individuals compared to TASK’s. And that’s what the decision-making process boiled down to.
Both organizations are vitally important to the residents of Trenton, and do crucial work to improve the daily lives of its citizens. But at least as suggested by these two proposals when set side by side, I believe the City made the right call by granting the award of its limited resources to TASK and not Meals on Wheels. The City’s evaluation process, at least in this instance, was professionally and ethically managed. Politics, or a personal vendetta against Sasa Olessi Montano, had little or nothing to do with it, at least as substantiated by the actual proposals themselves.
By publishing those allegations of political favoritism without reporting the actual content of the two proposals, both the Times and, in a similar account by David Foster, the Trentonian failed to supply the needed context to this issue, and instead just served to politicize the CDBG process. Lord knows, in the past – and who knows, perhaps again in the future – CDBG monies have been ripe for politicization and municipal abuse in the City of Trenton. But not this time, looks like.
This time, at least, I think the City of Trenton got it right. For a change.
I’m tired of bringing this up, again and again. But, it’s still relevant, each and every time.
In 2014 Eric Jackson was elected Mayor of Trenton in very large measure because he promised to be the Anti-Tony-Mack. Whereas Mack was ethically and morally-challenged to the point of criminal prosecution and conviction, Jackson presented himself as Mr. Squeaky Clean, Mr. Ethics, Mr. “Zero Tolerance” as described in a Trenton Times opinion piece published during the spring election:
Remember? Good Times! Good Times!
I will not take long to make my point today. I will simply say that if Mr. Jackson truly, sincerely meant what he wrote in 2014, he would recognize that the appointment of his sister to a well-paying position at the Trenton Housing Authority, a position for which she appears to have neither relevant experience nor training, just does not look or smell right. It’s a situation that sends off a strong perception of nepotism, a perception that Mr. Jackson would have been better off to avoid.
In today’s article by David Foster in the Trentonian, Mr. Jackson denies he had anything to do with the decision to hire his sister:
Taking him at his own word, Mr. Jackson is just a “hands-off guy,” I guess.
Just as he was “hands-off” during the process that saw the son-in-law of his Chief of Staff reinstated as a police cadet – an action without precedent – after being expelled for cheating.
Just as he was “hands-off” during the process that led to the award of Trenton’s Information Technology contract to an inexperienced vendor working out a private residence that was the 3rd MOST expensive out of 12 companies that bid on the contract.
Just as he was “hands-off” in the aftermath of the $5 Million Dollar rip-off of the City by its former payroll service. To be fair, everyone in his Administration from City Comptroller Janet Schoenhaar on up has been “hands-off” of this one. “Hands-off” during the months when the IRS and State of New Jersey were sending up multiple red flags that something was wrong, and “hands-off” in the aftermath of the theft, when it appears that nothing is going on in City Hall to make sure that no similar crime happens again. No one has been held accountable. No administrative changes of policies and procedures have been introduced. No results of a supposed audit have been released or even spoken of. Everyone is very, very “hands-off” on this one.
And still very “hands-off” when it comes to his own election finances. The last quarterly financial report required by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) was submitted by Mr. Jackson in October of 2014, for the period ending September 30 of that year. The Mayor is now about 18 months behind on his legally-mandated reporting.
Mr. Jackson is pretty “hands-off” on a lot of things, it looks like. Kind of begs the question: When, exactly, is he “hands-on?”
Going back – as I often do – to his March 2014 “Zero Tolerance” op-ed, I still agree with Mr. Jackson on this one point:
If that is Mr. Jackson’s self-described yardstick, then just how “strong, ethical and transparent” is Trenton’s municipal government?
Not damned much at all.