My attention was drawn the other day to a headline on Salon.com. “An Urban Island of Batsh*t Crazy.” Hey, I thought. Someone’s writing about Trenton! I clicked on the link, and was rather surprised to find out the article was actually about Bridgeport, Connecticut, instead. You know what? This other post-industrial Northeast city of 147,000 is pretty screwed up, in ways that might even lead jaded Trentonians think, “Wow, I’m sure glad I’m not stuck in a place like Bridgeport!” I’m telling you! Check it out for yourself.
Reading the article got me thinking that it is helpful to hear about other towns and cities from time to time. To read about different localities tackle some of the same problems we experience on the Delaware, and hear other viewpoints may help expand our minds and help us become open to new approaches and solutions, or at the very least help us to validate and our own perspectives. It’s in that spirit that I thought to chat with an outside voice. Someone with limited firsthand knowledge of Trenton, perhaps, but someone whose long experience, keen perception and quick wit has endowed him with a wisdom that surely has much to offer us in our small burg.
I spoke to Sam Clemens, an experienced journalist who has reported for a number of newspapers throughout his career, including the Hannibal (MO) Journal, the Virginia City (NV) Territorial Enterprise, the Sacramento Union, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Buffalo Express. He’s also done some freelance writing under an assumed name. He was gracious enough to share a few moments, and thoughts.
Mr. Clemens, thanks so much for agreeing to chat about Trenton! I want to start by giving you a little context. We are in the second year of the Eric Jackson Administration. When the man ran for Mayor, he made a major promise that his term in office would be distinguished by the highest ethical principles. Sixteen months in, he and his colleagues have, well, fallen kind of short on that promise.What do you think of such high promises being so easily set aside?
Principles aren’t of much account, anyway, except at election time. After that you hang them up to let them season.
I hear you! That certainly appears to be what’s happened around Trenton. Take this whole IT contract business. It seemed to me when the news broke that there was something really wrong about the way the City’s managed to work the bidding process around so that their preferred company won Trenton’s business. A Superior Court judge agreed, and ordered City Council last week to halt the award of a contract until a pair of lawsuits are resolved. A lawyer for the City calls the lawsuits “frivolous,” by the way.
Lawyers are like other people–fools on the average; but it is easier for an ass to succeed in that trade than any other.
The City is adamant that this very small firm, FCC Consulting Services, is the best qualified for the business, even though the company works out of a private house, is a single proprietorship, and not much experience. Compared to the other 11 companies which bid for the City’s business, this is really a case of the underdog winning out over larger companies with more resources.
Let your sympathies and your compassion be always with the under dog in the fight–this is magnanimity; but bet on the other one–this is business.
That about sums it up. But all last week, we read several articles in which the City’s Business Administrator and Law Director kept insisting that FCC’s was the “overall best proposal,” when the evidence doesn’t really support that.
Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.
The Administration seems to have entirely forgotten what happened five years ago. The City first tried then to ditch the current vendor and replace it with a new one of doubtful ability.
It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.
Man, you’re right about that! This Administration is repeating a lot of the mistakes made during the Tony Mack years. But so is Trenton’s City Council. Six of the seven current members were on Council during the Mack years. The seventh could read a newspaper. They seem to be entirely clueless about how to do their jobs.
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of [Council]. But I repeat myself.
Oooh, that’s harsh.
Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a [Council]man can.
You’re not holding back today. Why do you have such a low opinion of Council?
All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity.
Well, at least you aren’t singling out Trenton’s City Council for your disapproval. But you are right about them. They do tend to go with the flow. Or, whoever provides the strongest flow at the time, who is usually the Mayor and his folks.
We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going, and then go with the drove.
That pretty much describes Council from last week. On one matter, a symbolic resolution asking the New Jersey Legislature to introduce legislation that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, only one member moved for a motion to approve. Four other members didn’t utter a single word, pro or con, on the matter. They all sat mute, not an expression on their face like they were waiting for a bus. Two other Councilmembers conveniently left before the matter came up. One later said she was sick and had to leave, but she reportedly spent some time talking to different people before leaving City Hall. Ill, or just “allergic” to talking about Marijuana? It was hard to tell.
…the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes.
Well, some of those words were in fact used that night. It wasn’t a very courageous moment for Council, at all.
It is curious–curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare… There are not enough morally brave men in stock. We are out of moral-courage material.
As you said at the beginning of our conversation, it seems like the only time we really hear any ideas or principles from these guys is at election time.
If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times.
Unfortunately. What really bugs me, with Council as well as the Administration, is that they often just seem like so many fools.
Let us be thankful for the fools; but for them the rest of us could not succeed… I reckon we are all fools. Born so, no doubt.
But, I know we’re not alone in that. Every city and every town has its share, right?
If you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don’t tell them he’s a damned fool, they’ll never find out.
As a journalist, what advice would you have for our elected and appointed public servants?
We ought never to do wrong when people are looking.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? This is a time when local journalism – at least the traditional kind of newspapers, radio and television – is on the wane. It’s harder to depend on local reporting to inform citizens. How are we to keep informed – and keep our local government honest?
[E]very citizen of the republic ought to consider himself an unofficial policeman, and keep unsalaried watch and ward over the laws and their execution.
Do you think there is a role for regular citizens, to make their voice heard when they disagree with the direction of their government?
The citizen who thinks he sees that the commonwealth’s political clothes are worn out, and yet holds his peace and does not agitate for a new suit, is disloyal; he is a traitor.
I agree. But there is a lot of resistance in this town to any kind of criticism.
Arguments have no chance against petrified training; they wear it as little as the waves wear a cliff.
But it’s really exasperating when you see the exact same mistakes being made over and over.
Concerning the difference between man and the jackass: some observers hold that there isn’t any. But this wrongs the jackass.
Yeah, but sometimes it makes me angry to see so much going on, and so little learning from past mistakes!
That happens, sometimes, I’ll admit. Mr. Clemens, don’t you get a little worn out occasionally, from all the foolishness you see everywhere you look?
If all the fools in this world should die, lordly God how lonely I should be.
Surely, you jest!
Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His work must be contemplated with respect.
Thanks for the taking the time to chat, Mr. Clemens. One of these days, we need to see you in Trenton.
Ten or twelve years ago I was surprised and shocked to receive from England — from the Internal Revenue Office — a tax-bill of £48 — an income-tax bill, levied on my English copyrights. I was shocked, but it was not all shock. I was flattered as well as shocked; flattered to be formally taken notice of by a foreign government. It seemed to kind of introduce me into the family of nations; seemed — well, it seemed to sort of recognize me as one of the Friendly Powers — not on a large scale, of course — not like Russia and China and those, but on a — well, on a secondary scale — New Jersey.
I attended last night’s meeting of City Council, with the intention of delivering remarks on the matter of the FCC Consulting contract. Before I had a chance to do so, while the Members were in Executive Session to discuss the lawsuits (yes, plural. ADPC filed a second suit on Wednesday) brought against the city by spurned Information Technology vendor ADPC, news spread through Council Chambers that Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson had issued a temporary restraining order last evening to block Council from voting on a new contract. According to Cristina Rojas of the Times,
The judge said she was most concerned with the evaluation process, more so than the other technical issues and connections that ADPC had raised.
“It’s clear that there was bad blood between the city and this entity,” she said. “Did that mean they weren’t given a fair share? I don’t know, but I’m not convinced on the basis of the materials that I have seen that the evaluation process was on an even playing field.”
Thank you, Judge Jacobson, for agreeing with what I in this space and others, such as Jim Carlucci have been saying all week since this matter has come up. The entire bid process was irregular, fatally flawed and unfair. So far, the taxpayers of Trenton have avoided another ripoff, but No Thanks to the Administration of the City of Trenton, nor to City Council. Once again, a judge has to intervene and be the only person in authority to exhibit any measure of common sense.
Judge Jacobson, you’ll recall, was the one to finally peel Tony Mack’s fingers off his desk chair last year and shit-can him from office nearly three weeks after his Federal conviction. For some reason, some Judicial Providence has given her the sad penance of having to clean up after Trenton’s frequent messes. Her work is not yet done. Too bad for her.
I ended up delivering my remarks to Council anyway, as did a few other citizens and Joe Harris, the president of ADPC (he also answers to the name “Plaintiff”). None spoke in favor of FCC.
It will be interesting – and not in a good way – to see what happens next. I’d been hearing through the day and into the evening that the situation in Trenton’s IT world this week has not been good. Without any kind of orderly and staged transition to the new vendor FCC, many systems are either not working or under-performing. I heard specifically that Accounts Payable hasn’t been able to output a check run to pay the City’s bills this week.
According to the Times, FCC would continue to work on the City’s IT for the foreseeable future, though it is unclear on what basis that would take place. It’s also unclear whether any overtime being incurred on the job – and if checks are not being printed, you can bet the IT guy (guys? We don’t know!) is not leaving at 4:30 – is being billed at $125 per person per hour, per FCC’s “winning” bid, or not being charged, under the old ADPC contract terms. Either way, the meter is running. Ka-ching!
During his statement, Joe Harris offered that ADPC is willing to come back in to help solve the current mess. He cautioned, though, that after turning over the system – including keys and passwords – to FCC last weekend, he could not vouch for the systems’ continued integrity. Oh, boy.
We will have to wait to see what happens next. In the short run, FCC may continue in place. That won’t last long. The writing is on the wall: the Judge has given a strong signal that this entire purchasing process will have to junked, and started over. Given what is now known about FCC Consulting and its principal’s financial history, they will not be considered a serious contender in any future bidding round – if it is conducted correctly, that is.
After it was clear that no action would be taken on the FCC matter, I and several others stayed around for much of the rest of the session. There were many other matters on the night’s docket, but the one matter that attracted the most attention, and which generated the most comments during the session, both pro and con, was Resolution 15-694, a Resolution which would have recorded Trenton’s support for State Legislative action to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana for adults. This was a purely symbolic measure. No action would have been unilaterally taken by the City to legalize or decriminalize the stuff within city limits. The only effect of this resolution, had it passed, would have been to record Trenton as the second town in New Jersey, after Asbury Park, to support a path for the matter to be taken up by the Legislature.
Now, everyone knows that drugs, both legal and not, are a particular plague to the City of Trenton. From alcohol to marijuana to heroin and likely everything in between, they are everywhere and being abused by Trentonians and out-of-towners alike. I’d hazard to say that illegal drugs represent the largest private industry in the city, and probably is responsible for the employment of more Trentonians than any legitimate business in town. It certainly is a fact that that illegal drugs is the Number One public safety issue driving the City’s crime rate, violent and non-violent alike.Drug paraphernalia litter our streets. Drug customers and the suppliers do business in front of our homes, or they take over abandoned buildings to conduct their trade. If you live or work in Trenton, Drugs are everywhere, every day.
I offer that background as context to the proposition that if you live or work in Trenton, you have an opinion about drugs. You may hate them, you may buy them. You may feel that law enforcement should spend more resources cracking down on suburban customers rather than suppliers (who are quickly replaced by competitors whenever arrests are made). Or you may feel, as many witnesses stated last night, that after 50 years of “The War on Drugs” the nation consumes more illegal drugs than ever, and it’s time to try something different. You may be in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing and regulating marijuana, as 28 states and many cities in the US have done to some extent.
Whatever you opinion, you are likely not neutral on the subject. Few people are. Few people in Trenton even could be!
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to six citizens in Trenton who have no opinion – nothing to say, no ideas to offer, no personal anecdotes, no defense of the current system, not one word – on the topic of legalizing Marijuana in the State of New Jersey:
City Council Member Alex Bethea
City Council Member Duncan Harrison
City Council Member Phyllis Holly-Ward
City Council Member George Muschal
City Council Member Verlina Reynolds-Jackson
City Council Member and Council President Zachary “Slugger” Chester
(That’s a group picture of the distinguished Members at the top of this page.)
Before the matter of Resolution 15-694 came up last night for a vote, Members Harrison and Holly-Ward left the Chambers for the night. They did so without comment. Even though they left before a vote, and therefore could not have voted, considering the public attention being paid to the topic and the number of people in the Chamber who were there to speak on the matter and listen to Council’s response, it might have been expected to have heard them say something like, “Mr. President, unfortunately I do have to leave before consideration of the matter before the vote. But here are my feelings and my position on the topic.” But no, off they went. Without a word.
When City Clerk Richard Kachmar called for a motion to bring the Resolution to a roll call vote, Member Marge Caldwell-Wilson made the motion. The Clerk called for a second, and was met with silence. Not a word was spoken by the other 4 members. There was no second for the motion, so there would be none. Ms. Caldwell-Wilson then moved to table or postpone the matter, and again no one seconded. With no second to take any kind of action, the resolution died. Ms. Caldwell-Wilson, clearly upset, left the meeting.
After other business was concluded, Public Comment was opened. I addressed the Members of Council, the few who were left, and told them they were elected to do the Public’s business. Pro or con, they are on Council to take a stance. To refuse to do so, to sit in utter silence when action is called for, is an act of political cowardice. I then left Council Chambers. I didn’t hear any word of response from the Council dais as I left. I didn’t expect any.
There’s not a lot more to say here. I can’t attend Council meetings that often, so I haven’t seen for a while how dysfunctional this body has become. I’ve read news reports and I’ve heard other firsthand stories from people about how frequently – and without stated cause – Members abstain from difficult votes, or miss sessions altogether to duck having to be put on the record regarding politically difficult or inconvenient matters. I know they do this a lot. But I didn’t seen it happen in front of me until last night. I was angry and disgusted.
Six of these Members were elected five years ago, and served during the Mack years. Early on in that Administration, the Mayor and his cronies intimidated and cowed those Council members, and they were useless for the remainder of his term. I had hoped for an improvement with a new Mayor and one new addition to their number. But I am disappointed. I guess once you’ve lost your moral backbone, like the real thing it doesn’t grow back.
This week, after the FCC matter and after watching Council take up a monastic vow of silence last night, I feel particularly ill-served by Trenton’s leadership.Council has let us down.The Mayor, his Business Administrator, his Legal Director, and all of those City staff who were responsible for the IT fiasco, have let us down.
It’s time for a gut check, Council!
It’s time for a gut check, Mayor Jackson!
What the hell are you here for?
If you can’t handle the small shit – and one symbolic resolution and one IT contract really is Small Shit – How The Hell can you even start to handle the Really Important Stuff?
No, really! Even before the news yesterday about the legal troubles facing Trenton Business Administrator Terry McEwen, I was thinking about the movie “Class Action,” the 1991 release directed by Michael Apted, starring the always wonderful Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as father-and-daughter lawyers on opposite sides of a contentious class-action lawsuit. It’s long been a favorite of mine largely it’s because it was shot in my hometown of San Francisco. As such, it features all the usual scenic money shots of The City that you always see on screen. But it also features scenes shot in some lesser-known and less featured spots (Hey, it’s Beach Chalet! Look, it’s Mission Dolores!) as well as some local celebrities (Mayor Art Agnos! Dan Hicks, with the original Hot Licks!!), which are nice little Easter Eggs for folks like me who lived there back in the day.
Otherwise, “Class Action” (the movie, not the civil securities fraud lawsuit filed in Federal Court against 6D Global Technologies in which BA McEwen [as a member of the company's Board of Directors] was named as one of several defendants, and which also included arrests on criminal charges of the Founder/CEO and others in the company although not Mr. McEwen) is a pleasant but otherwise routine courtroom drama that follows the usual formula you know so well. Scrappy, firebrand lawyer represents Ordinary Working People suing a Big Bad Car Company for building cars that blow up. It’s pretty evocative of the period in which it was shot, featuring the Big Cellphones and Bigger Shoulder Pads that ruled the world at the time.
The plot thread regarding the lawsuit follows a fairly routine path, with Hackman going nowhere fast in his lawsuit (and in the broken relationship with his daughter Mastrantonio) until a key piece of evidence is found, a Smoking Gun that proves his case, and leads the Evil Carmaker to admit defeat (and also leads to Father-Daughter reconciliation. The resolution proves that The L:ttle Guy can win, and (more dubiously) that Lawyers Have Hearts.
Of course, the Smoking Gun is found in the last reel, after much drama, and almost but not quite by accident. That’s the formula for courtroom fiction. There’s no dramatic arc if the Smoking Gun is never found, and no drama if it’s found in the first five minutes of the film.
But Real Life isn’t often like that. In our notably litigious society, many suits are brought that have no real validity to them (Hello, Barry Collicelli!). And many are brought whose outcomes are glaringly obvious from the day they are brought (See “ADPC vs. City of Trenton,” 2010-2011), you have to wonder why some defendants even bother to put up a fight at all. Well, I suppose lawyers have to eat.
Trenton’s City Council should keep this in mind today and this evening, as they meet to consider what is likely the next ADPC versus Trenton lawsuit. A civil lawsuit seems to be where we are going, as the result of the latest fuckup by the City in its clumsy attempt to replace ADPC, the vendor which has been supplying supervision and operational oversight of Trenton’s Information Technology assets and operations for nearl 30 years, with a company called FCC Consulting, a small single-proprietorship whose cost proposal for a three-year contract was the 3rd most expensive out of 12 bidders.
The docket for this evening’s Council meeting was revised yesterday to include a new Item V, an Executive Session to discuss “Pending Litigation – ADPC.” I don’t have any information about this, but it seems that the president of the company, Joe Harris, who has been railing for days about how poorly ADPC has been treated by the City, is once again taking Trenton to court as he did 4 years ago. He won then, and he is on track to whip the City’s ass again if he has in fact decided to sue.
In fact, I think his case will be easier to prove in 2015 than in 2011 because in this Real Life case, unlike a Hollywood story, the Smoking Gun is in plain view. I see what is a likely Smoking Gun, with the Seal of the City of Trenton all over it. It’s the City’s own Request for Proposals document. #CC2015-06, the Re-Advertised version of the original document issued earlier in the summer (NOTE: I will post a link to the document once I can upload it. In the meantime, I will post an excerpt as a screengrab). UPDATE:Here’s the link.
There is a document included with the RFP package sent out to all parties interested in bidding for the Trenton IT contract called “Information System Audit for the Assessment of Technical Support Services for the City of Trenton Information System – June 23, 2015.” This document provides a narrative background to the history and status of Trenton’s IT infrastructure, and provides a rough inventory of all the City’s hardware and software assets throughout every City working location. The document intends to provide a snapshot of the City’s current status so an interested company can prepare a complete and accurate proposal to take over the operation, should they win the competition.
On Page 1 of this document, there is a description of how the City’s IT management has broken down. Here’s the money quote:
And there it is, your Smoking Gun. If ADPC wants to show a Judge and Jury that they were railroaded out of town and unfairly judged for their performance, they will have to do little more than point to this document. The City of Trenton openly admits that its Business Administrator and Department/Division Directors “were and continue to be unaware of the IT resources available of plans proposed by the contractor (ADPC) even though they have met with no less than six Business Administrators over the past five years to present the long range plan for Information Technology in the City.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
This is astonishing.
Once more, with feeling: “They [ADPC] last presented this plan in July 2014 and it was received and then never discussed or even rebuked, as was the case since 2010.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
Listen. This is the kind of assertion that a plaintiff’s attorney includes in their brief, as a hypothesis they have the burden of proving in court by a preponderance of evidence. This can take months and require a mind-numbing mountain of technical documents that need to be translated into easily-digestible bites by expert witnesses.
That won’t need to happen in the sequel “ADPC vs. Trenton II: A Good Day to Sue Hard.” This will be one short story. ADPC’s attorney’s just have to show up and say something like,
“Your Honor, our clients tried for five years to get direction from the City of Trenton regarding their work. They tried, and tried, and tried, and tried. With no fewer than six Business Administrators they tried, and over a period of five years tried. They kept submitting plans and proposals, and they never got a single reply, not even to reject the plans.
“Your Honor, to prove this we introduce Plaintiff’s Exhibit A, the package issued by the City of Trenton to all the parties that were invited to replace my client. In their own words, Your Honor, they have openly admitted this to the world.”
At this point, I was going to pile on the arguments against the City proceeding to install FCC Consulting to replace ADPC. But I don’t think I even have to go into how the rest of the RFP violates NJ State Purchasing guidelines for the way it laid out the weighted Evaluation Criteria by which all of the proposals were judged.
I won’t have to go into the very shaky financial history of FCC Consulting and its principal. It won’t be necessary to refer to the many business suspensions or court-ordered Judgments filed against F.C. Carothers and his several LLC’s over the last decade, the most recent one being only one year ago, or of personal bankruptcy nearly a decade ago.
No, I don’t need to make any further arguments, because the City’s already given up the game.
If I were a member of Trenton’s City Council in Executive Session tonight, the first question – the ONLY question – I would ask the Administration would be, “How do we cut our losses and get out of this?”
Trenton is screwed. Better to admit this now than wait for the inevitable ruling by a court. In this movie, there’s no suspense.
Oh, those long ago days of optimism and innocence. Whatever happened to them?
I know, I keep coming back to this op-ed piece by then-candidate Eric Jackson during last year’s mayoral race. But why not? Mr. Jackson was very bold, emphatic – and very specific – on how he was the best candidate for rescuing Trenton from the ethical morass of corruption into which it had sunk after the four-year purgatory of the Tony Mack Administration.
Turns out that in office, Mr. Jackson has not lived up to this promise. In his first months in office, the Mayor had to deal with some lingering questions concerning his campaign financing and reporting. which indirectly led in September 2014 to the cancellation of a proposed contract with the City of Trenton for a South Jersey law firm one of whose principals had made a major donation to the Mayor’s campaign, after ethical violations by that firm were alleged. The Mayor cleaned up his reporting act for a while, catching up on several overdue finance reports to the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) and returned a contribution to former US Senator turned Trenton developer Robert Torricelli that had exceeded contribution limits.
But that conscientiousness has kind of dropped off. He last filed an ELEC report on November 26, 2014, for the quarter ending September 30 of last year. He has missed four subsequent deadlines for reporting, and is now a full year behind.
Mr. Jackson exhibited an odd passivity in the controversy that sprang up in February of this year, when his Police Director Ernest Parrey exerted unusual interest in making sure that a Trenton Police cadet expelled from Mercer County’s Police Academy for cheating was readmitted in violation of the Academy’s own rules. That the cadet in question was the son-in-law of Mr. Jackson’s chief of staff, and that his “recycling” was clearly special treatment didn’t bother Mr. Jackson. The Mayor’s involvement apparently went no further than a quick discussion with Mr. Parrey. According to the Director, “He (the Mayor) questioned if I was comfortable with the decision I made and I said I was.”
That, appaprently, was that. Nothing to see here, let’s move along.
And Mr. Jackson was just fine when it came to public attention that his supposedly “fulltime” Law Director for the City of Trenton was simultaneously “Plainfield’s city solicitor, special counsel in Burlington, and North Plainfield’s municipal prosecutor.” Oh, AND he became a full partner of another NJ law firm doing business under a contract with the City of Trenton that he had been instrumental in landing for the firm.Mayor Jackson said he’d gone over all that and got permission from the State. “They (the State) found it to be legal and ethical. In our discussion on Tuesday, we discussed numerous municipalities working under the same arrangement.”
However, after a few days in the public light, the Mayor terminated the City’s contract with the law firm, DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick and Cole, and Mr. Minchello left at least one of his jobs, the one in Trenton’s City Hall, and went to his partnership at DeCotiis.
Despite his strong stance as a candidate, and his pledge of “Zero Tolerance” toward even the perception of corruption, Eric Jackson has shown a sad and repeated tendency to be myopic when faced with actual occasions of the “cronyism and corruption” he condemned in the Times.
It’s no wonder to me, then, that Mr. Jackson is silent in the middle of what strongly appears to be another instance of special treatment being shown to a potential vendor. I speak of course of the process under way by which the City of Trenton is bending backwards to make sure a small company, working out of a private, rented residence in Columbus, is awarded the contract to manage the city’s Information Technology assets and processes, even though this company’s bid is more expensive than 9 out of the 12 companies which submitted bids to the City. Much more expensive, in many cases hundreds of thousands of dollars per year more expensive.
And, to top it all, in spite of the fact that City Council hasn’t yet approved the contract – it’s to hear the matter tomorrow – the Jackson Administration installed this new company as its new vendor this past Monday morning.It will have been on the job for almost an entire week, without authorization.
A done deal, in the eyes of the Administration, no matter what Council may do. Or, to put it less delicately, Council be damned!
The company in question, FCC Consulting Services, appears to be a sole proprietorship owned by Frederick C. Carothers. As described here yesterday, FCC’s proposal for IT services was selected over 11 other companies, even though its bid was more expensive than three-quarters of the field. It’s not clear why that should be the case, since the size of the company would not lead one to think its cost basis and overhead would be that pricy. The experience of the company and its capability is not apparent from looking at its website. Still and all, the City’s (current) Law Director had no hesitation in telling Cristina Rojas of the Times that the large “Bid price is not the defining criteria [for awarding the city's contract],” McKithen said. “It’s one of many factors that we consider, but we’re looking at the overall best proposal.” What makes this the “best proposal” is still unclear, but we are hearing more today about some of the steps the City has taken over the last couple of months to seemingly ensure that FCC’s was the last proposal standing.
David Foster tells us this morning in the Trentonian that the current bid process is actually the second one undertaken by Trenton in the last couple of months. Foster quotes Jerry Harris, the president of ADPC, the company that had been the City’s vendor for close to 30 years before being dropped in favor of FCC, as saying the reason the first round was abandoned by the city was because FCC’s proposal “had a fatal flaw” that would have resulted in being disqualified. Rather than let that happen, the implication is that the City scheduled a second bidding round to give FCC a second chance.
That’s a serious charge. From the Trentonian’s account, it is hard to draw a conclusion. What kind of evidence is available to shed more light on this?
In the published minutes for City Council’s meeting on September 3, one can read that the matter of the bid process was discussed by Council and the City’s Business Administrator. Jerry Harris spoke before Council as well, asking them to reject all of the proposals because of a badly flawed process. Several Council members complained about a lack of transparency from the Administration surrounding the entire process. The discussion, as summarized in the Minutes, seems quite convoluted and it is unclear exactly what actions are being recommended, and why.
(A DIGRESSION: There was an item on Council’s agenda, Resolution 15-561, which proposed rejecting all of the proposals submitted in the first bidding round. The only action recorded in the Minutes was a motion to table, that is postpone, that Resolution. The vote to table the motion was actually defeated, 1-6. To me that means that the proposals from the first round were never formally and legally rejected. It’s probably moot now, but this is more proof that Trenton’s Council is often confused as it goes about its business!)
The summary sheet prepared by the City’s Purchasing Department is a little more clear. Similar to the one I referred to yesterday, this sheet itemizes the proposals from the 7 companies which bid in that round. All 7, plus 5 more firms, bid in the second round.I’ve excerpted that sheet below, and added up the total 3-year base price for each vendor, not including any numbers for Emergency Overtime.
Notice two things here. First, out of the seven firms which bid, FCC is the most expensive, in both their base price AND emergency hourly rate. And in the line indicating any Fatal Flaw in the application, the entry “NONE” is written for FCC.
Curious. A small, less-experienced firm is the most expensive out of a field of 7 in the first round, the 3rd most out of a field of 12 in the second, and it STILL ends up getting the contract.
We read more about the process in today’s Trentonian. The 9/3 Council minutes state that “Ms. [Member-at-Large Phyllis] Holly-Ward addressed the issue of the possibility of Council members observing the RFP process without a vote which was suggested by the Law Department. Mr. McEwen agreed.” David Foster reports “that never occurred.” The process of reviewing the proposals was handled by a committee of five City employees. The Committee winnowed the field of 12 companies down to 3 for further review and presentations. Those three were FCC, the most expensive at $2,403,964 per year; ADPC, at $2,349,000; and Ryan Consulting, at $1,704.000.
One more step the committee took was to hire an outside consultant to vet all 12 proposals. According to the Trentonian, that outside consultant – who was paid for only two hours of work – was a Rider University Associate Professor of computer science. Foster reports that the professor “gave a stamp of approval” to FCC’s application, but no further information is given in the piece about what that meant. How much of an evaluation could he have conducted in 2 hours?
However – and this is where the waters get even darker and murkier in this matter – both the principal of FCC, Fredereck Corothers, and BA Terry McEwen, are trustees of Rider University, where Associate (presumably un-tenured) Professor J. Drew Procaccino works.
I’m not suggesting that there is necessarily anything unseemly about this connection. But I am disappointed that the purchasing committee did not make an effort to avoid creating the awkward situation this has become. Mr. Harris has taken up the Rider connection and is swinging it for all it’s worth in the papers. He is likely to also do so in the courts. And if there isn’t anything actually improper about this Rider connection, it is helping to focus more attention on this whole matter. Who knows what else may come out of this?
Well, actually, I do. A little bit. I am finding out more information about Mr. Corothers and FCC, as well as prior entities owned by him over the last several years and their business status, that concerns me quite a bit. The more I find out, the less credible I judge the City’s defense of this process to be. Let’s review. Briefly. Honest!
FCC is one of 7 companies that bids for the City’s business in a first round of proposals this summer. It submitted what is without question the most expensive proposal. It is also, arguably, a fatally flawed proposal.
That round of proposals is junked. A second round is held, this time generating 12 proposals. FCC’s is the third most expensive. In a process that BA McEwen had agreed in public session to include City Council members in deliberations – after Council members complained about the lack of transparency in this first bid round – FCC is selected without any Council participation, and before Council even awards a contract to the company starts work!
This process included the proposals of three companies. Over the three-year life of the contract, FCC will cost Trenton and NJ taxpayers nearly $164,892 MORE than ADPC, and $2,099,892 MORE than Ryan Consulting, the other two finalists.
The company that has won this bid operates out of a rented personal residence, without the kind of visible, costly overhead that would justify higher costs than its competitors.
The principal of the company that has won this bid sits on the same university Board as the City’s Business Administrator.
A consultant hired by the City to vet these proposals is an Associate Professor at the same university.
The previous vendor, who has worked for the City for nearly 30 years – and who brought and won a lawsuit against the City 4 years ago on almost identical grounds – charges “Collusion” and other improprieties.
Huh. Any wonder why this whole matter seems suspicious?
This matter has become one more item to add to the list of very questionable actions taken so far by the Jackson Administration, in spite of Eric Jackson’s adamant insistence that his would be The Ethical Administration.
In March 2014, he wrote,
I am challenging all of our residents to take responsibility for our community, to help me clean up City Hall and to root out corruption. As citizens, we must take ownership of our government and not leave it up to others to do.
City Hall belongs to each one of us who lives in this city — the homeowner, the renter, the senior citizen and the young parent.
He also wrote,
Change begins with each one of us, and it is coming to Trenton.
Change may yet be coming.
Based on this deal, though, it’s still a long way off.
I don’t know what it is about the City of Trenton and its Information Technology Services. The City just can’t seem to figure out how to manage IT services, specifically the purchasing and contracting process by which Trenton hires its vendors. We seem to be right back in the exact same spot we were almost five years ago, with a murky and troublesome contracting process resulting in the current vendor being jettisoned for a more expensive company – compared to other bids the City received, MUCH more expensive – of unknown capability. Here we go again.
Both the Trenton Times and the Trentonian today feature stories that report that a new company, FCC Consulting Services of Columbus, took over the maintenance and operation of the City’s IT infrastructure yesterday, from the previous vendor of nearly 30 years, ADPC Inc. of Princeton.
There are just a few problems with the way this rolled out. First, the contract granting FCC the City’s business has not yet been approved by City Council. Council is set to deliberate the matter this coming Thursday. And second, of the 12 companies that submitted proposals for the City’s business, FCC was not the low bidder. In fact, it was the third-most expensive proposal, coming in as even more expensive than the previous vendor ADPC.
How can this be?
You may be excused for a sense of deja vu. Back in early 2011, the Mack Administration attempted to deep-six ADPC’s contract, in favor of a company called Lynx Technology. This attempt turned into a big mess, which resulted in several lawsuits and a judge’s ruling that the City’s contract process had been fatally flawed. In the words of Judge Linda Feinberg talking about the City’s process, “this is sloppy, and this bid, if properly evaluated in the first place, would not have made it to council for a vote one time, let alone two times.” Neither the Admnistration, nor City Council, came out well in that misadventure. For more background on the earlier IT Mess, you can go here, or here, or here. You’ll get the idea.
This time around, the City is saying all kinds of things in order to justify putting FCC in place before Council has a chance to weigh in on the matter. Acting Law Director Marc McKithen told the Times that FCC had to start because the old contract with ADPC expired on October 31. “”There was no way for either firm [ADPC or FCC] to be extended without a contract and this is the first opportunity the city has to get approval from council. Was it better to go with the old firm with no contract or the new firm with no contract? That is a choice the administration had to make.”
Mr. McKithen seems to have, perhaps conveniently ignored the fact that during the great Lynx mishigas four years ago, Council authorized an extension to ADPC’s contract while a new bid process sorted itself out. This time around, I don’t know why the Administration could not have gone to Council earlier with a request to approve a new contract before the old one expired, or simply have extended the old one until Council could have decided the matter. It seems to me the City was in a great big rush to put FCC in place as the new vendor.
I don’t know why. It’s not as if FCC will save the City a lot of money. In fact, as referenced above, FCC was the third-highest bid out of 12 companies who submitted proposals. And that’s on the 3-year base price alone, not including hourly charges for emergency calls. FCC’s hourly rate is the highest that any of the 12 firms quoted. Many of the 12 weren’t even going to charge an hourly rate for emergency service calls.
So, at least Trenton should expect some first-class service from this company for the price, right? After all, according to Mr. McKithen and Business Administrator Terry McEwen, it’s not entirely about the money. As described in Cristina Rojas’ piece for the Times, “McEwen and McKithen said that cost was one of many factors that were considered in making a decision, including technical skill sets, experience and level of management. ‘Bid price is not the defining criteria,’ McKithen said. ‘It’s one of many factors that we consider, but we’re looking at the overall best proposal.’ ”
Let’s look, then, at some of the “many factors” Mr. McKithen says have to be considered. Let’s look at FCC Consulting Services. The address listed on the company’s website is that of a private house in Columbus, NJ. The principal of the company, Frederick C. Carothers, is the only person listed as the Management Team. Listed as Clients are AT&T, Toys R Us, Trenton Educational Development Corporation, Community Response, YWCA of Trenton, Shiloh Baptist Church, and ESP Pharmaceuticals. Apart from AT&T & Toys R Us – and the presence of those companies invites the question of how much of their business FCC actually has – the other clients are small entities.
Looking over the company’s website leads me to question why an apparently very small firm, operating it seems out of the proverbial garage, can submit a proposal significantly more expensive than 9 other competitors, and win a contract. The firm does not seem to be encumbered with a huge overhead. Its expertise – as evidenced by its client list – does not obviously show proven ability to handle the needs of small municipalities. Why did they get the gig from Trenton?
Let’s look briefly at the other 11 bidders. I’ve ranked them below, in order of the amount of their base proposal, and how their bids compared with FCC’s winning proposal, as a percentage of FCC’s bid. I’ve also included some notes about their businesses: sample clients, where they are listed, or some notes about the size of the company when clients are not listed. Below this table are links to each of the other 11 bidders, including ADPC.
Take a look at some of these websites. Take a look at their client lists. Take a look at the corporate presence of these companies. Do you see anything in FCC that is worth paying a premium of $300,000, or $400,000, or nearly $750,000 for? Do you think companies that provide services to cities such as Dallas, Detroit, or Philadelphia would have problems with Trenton? Is it conceivable that a company that is under contract to the US Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security could handle the City of Trenton, at $700,000 less than FCC’s rate?
FCC’s bid is much more expensive than many of the other bids, and it is not entirely obvious that the quality of service would be better. It is not obvious at all how FCC stacks up in the “many factors” other than cost that Mr. McKithen has considered. It’s not obvious what makes FCC’s the “overall best proposal.”
David Foster’s article in the Trentonian today reports some of the background to this bid process. It does not inspire confidence, to be frank. The article quotes at length a rep from ADPC, Joseph Harris, who alleges that the bid process was manipulated to allow FCC to rise to the top of the rankings, over the course of two separate Proposal processes. I can’t evaluate Mr. Harris’ claims of “collusion” on the part of City officials to award the contract to FCC.
But the historical record of the last time that the City attempted to squeeze ADPC out of its contract with the City, in favor of the then-preferred Lynx, would tend to support Harris’ claims.
The fact that FCC has been installed in place without Council’s approval – and apparently without the involvement of a Council committee that was supposed to evaluate the competing proposals, according to Members George Muschal and Marge Caldwell-Wilson, as reported by Mr. Foster – would tend to support Mr. Harris’ claims.
Allegations by Harris of personal connections, via shared board memberships and prior work done for other organizations, of FCC’s principal Carothers with Trenton officials including Business Administrator McEwen and Council Member Zach Chester, don’t on their face support Mr. Harris claims. But they do bear further discussion.
The bottom line is that the Administration went out of its way to push a current vendor out of its business contract with the City, in favor of a company of unproven ability and resources, whose proposal was significantly higher than 9 out of 12 other companies.
Last week, Mayor Eric Jackson gave his annual “State of the City” Address before a packed audience in Trenton’s City Hall. His message was mostly upbeat, and rightfully so, as he promoted some of the accomplishments and initiatives under way by him and his Administration during its first year in office. The City has indeed made some measurable progress in several important areas, as it could almost not help but do so after the forty four years in the wilderness we experienced before Mr. Jackson took office.
In areas such as Public Safety, commercial development, housing, and public-private partnerships, Mr. Jackson had a positive story to tell, and he wasn’t shy about telling it. The address, featuring seven uses of the word “I” in the first four paragraphs, leaves one with a guarded sense of optimism about the city’s future. It’s not the end of the city’s problems. Not even the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. But it’s a start.
Mr. Jackson’s address gave us a little optimism for the future. Unfortunately, news this week shows us that the City, and Mr. Jackson’s administration, still has a lot to do in order to secure smooth progress in the present.
In his address, the Mayor cited as major accomplishments the successful award of several Federal grants to advance many of the City’s crucial mission programs and departments. Among those awards mentioned by the Mayor was a $1.5 Million COPS grant allowing the hiring of a dozen new police officers, and a $2.5 Million grant “to provide 250 permanent housing units to homeless people in need.”As the City is not able to be self-sufficient financially, such support from the Federal and State governments is essential to keeping the City’s lights on, figuratively.
Such continued support from the Federal government is in jeopardy, we read this morning. In today’s Trenton Times, Cristina Rojas reports that “The U.S. Justice Department last month notified Trenton that it was listing the city as a high-risk grantee of federal funds after it has been slow to address a recent audit’s recommendations.”[Emphasis mine - KM]
The audit in question was described in this space on October 1. The report, prepared by the Audit Division of the Justice Department (DOJ) in October of last year, found several irregularities and failures in the administration and reporting of several grants made by DOJ for the City’s YouthStat program between 2009 and 2014, spanning the previous Administrations of mayors Doug Palmer and Tony Mack. I won’t repeat the descriptions of those failures, but will cut to the chase and repeat that in a letter to DOJ last September, the City’s Business Administrator Terry McEwen admitted the city’s faults in the past, and promised to address them.
The City pleaded that a “lack of personnel was a substantial contributing factor to the various deficiencies found in the audit.” DOJ accepted that argument, and even expanded on that issue in its report: “In addition, Trenton has endured substantial turnover within several departments that affected several areas of our audit. According to Trenton officials, between 2008 and 2014, 10 different people have held the title of Trenton’s Business Administrator. Within Trenton’s Finance Department, there have been three different Finance Directors between March 2007 and March 2012. Since March 2012, the Finance Director position has been vacant and the current Trenton Chief Financial Officer has been managing the Finance Department. In addition, according to a Trenton Police Detective, there have been eight different Police Directors from 2008 through 2014.”
DOJ pointed out serious issues last year, but basically cut Trenton a little slack.
That slack, and the Justice Department’s patience, has apparently run out. Designating Trenton as “a high-risk grantee of federal funds” is a serious move, due to the slowness in addressing the audit’s recommendations from a year ago. The Times reports this morning that “Business Administrator Terry McEwen on Friday said the city has been working to address the audit findings for the better part of the last 15 months. The questionable costs have either been accounted for or repaid and a corrective action plan has been submitted and is awaiting review. ‘We’re in close contact with DOJ and we have good communication with them now,’ he said. ‘We have to continue to show them that we’re moving things in the right direction.’ ”
But not apparently fast enough. The City may indeed be working to address the audit findings, but not quickly enough. And, unlike during the years of the 2010-2014 Hunger Games, there has been no game of Musical Chairs in the Business Administrator’s Office, nor in the Finance Department, nor in the Police Department. The (for Trenton, anyway) remarkable stability in the leadership of these departments did not result in a timely and progressive cure of the faults outlined in the DOJ audit report. And after 15 months of patience, the DOJ called Trenton out on the way it was dragging its heels.
It’s not clear this morning from Ms. Rojas’ article just what would need to be done to get Trenton off of DOJ’s shit list. Nor is it clear what, or who, has hindered the City from addressing the DOJ audit’s recommendations for over a year. What is clear is that the Jackson Administration – for all of the bold vision and tentative progress outlined in last week’s State of the City Address – still has basic, and significant, problems with many of the day-to-day Basics of running the City’s government. And that is the case even without the excuse of the Musical Chairs and the frequent personnel turnover we saw during the Hunger Games.
Being labeled “a high-risk grantee of federal funds” should be a wake-up call for Mr. Jackson and his Administration to get their act together. We should hear from Mr. Jackson what he – with I would hope as frequent a use of the first person singular pronoun as he used in the State of the City Address – and his Administration will do, and when they will do it, to get back in the good graces of the Federal funders on whom the City relies upon for so much of its funding.
As one other little demonstration of the City’s apparent difficulty in getting the Basics right, I give you the City’s master internal email address list. Below is the address list used by the City’s Communications Director Michael Walker to send out a copy of the Mayor’s State of the City Address. In his cover note, Mr. Walker said that “People are paying attention to the intentional and inspirational renaissance of New Jersey’s capital city.” Intentional renaissance? As opposed to an Accidental one?
Anyway, the City’s mailing list could really stand to be updated, I would suggest. I’ve highlighted some of the many names that I recognized as being no longer in the City’s employ. A little housekeeping to maintain this list would be in order, I would suggest, as one small but necessary demonstration of competence in the Basics.
Otherwise, it’s kinda hard for me to really believe Mr. Jackson’s claim that he and his Administration are taking Trenton to the future when they continue to include folks like Anthony Roberts, Harold Hall, Lauren Ira, Nate Jones, and – yes! – Tony Mack- on their active mailing list.
“They’re coming at me full force now. You just can’t make this stuff up. I have it on good authority that a member of Mack’s administration contacted police to dig up any dirt that they can find on me… [Mayor Mack is] desperate and willing to do almost anything to keep me from speaking my mind… What’s next? Is somebody going to drive by and shoot up my place?… I never thought that it could get this bad. But we’re not going to take this. I’m not going to allow the mayor or his brother [to] intimidate me.”
That was 2010. When Councilmember Muschal served briefly as Trenton’s Acting Mayor in the spring of 2014, he conducted his own covert extra-judicial investigations of several of the City’s Department Directors and heads of city agencies.
But rather than assigning Trenton’s Police Department or any other law enforcement agency – or a brother – he hired, on the City’s payroll, a private investigator to “dig up any dirt” on “then-police Director Ralph Rivera Jr., fire Director Qareeb Bashir, then-law Director Caryl Amana, then-Business Administrator Sam Hutchinson and Lois Krause, who oversaw the YouthStat program once run by Colicelli,” as reported by David Foster in today’s Trentonian edition.
As Mr. Muschal would say, “You just can’t make this stuff up.”
The revelation that Mr. Muschal ran his own local version of Richard Nixon’s “Plumbers” became known yesterday as part of a lawsuit filed by Mr. Colicelli against the City of Trenton, alleging that he was illegally fired as a “whistleblower” after submitting a report about one of his targets, former YouthStat coordinator Krause, to the new Eric Jackson Administration in September of last year. In the account written by Cristina Rojas for today’s Trenton Times, Colicelli’s lawyer for this current lawsuit is quoted as saying, “He [Colicelli] pointed out things that were illegal and improper and ultimately, he paid the price for it by losing his job.” Among the allegations of improper activities supposedly reported to the Jackson Administration, Colicelli “allegedly found that $76,000 in funds had been wasted and federal funds were frozen multiple times after Krause failed to submit reports or properly administrate the funds.”
This was in connection with the city’s YouthStat anti-gang and youth mentorship program. Ms. Krause managed the program from March 2011 until abut a year later. Colicelli himself started the program for the City for the Doug Palmer Administration in 2009, and ran it until his contract was not renewed by City Council at the end of 2010. So he was very knowledgeable about this program when he was asked by “Acting” Mayor Muschal to investigate Ms. Krause, among all his other targets.
That’s not to say Colicelli was a disinterested observer. The brief history of the program described above omits some very complicated chapters in the history of the YouthStat program. After his contract was not renewed and Krause was hired, Colicelli sued the City in May of 2011, claiming that hiring Krause over him was improper. That suit was withdrawn by Colicelli before it came to trial. So bad blood between Colicelli and the City of Trenton perhaps would have given a reasonable person some doubt about the wisdom of hiring Colicelli as a gumshoe to investigate the City of Trenton.
But not George Muschal. Under the guise of a Special Assistant to the Mayor, Colicelli ran his part-time intelligence operation from March to September of 2014.
I won’t comment on Colicelli’s investigation of Directors Rivera, Bashir or Amana. I will address Mr. Muschal’s behavior below. But I do want to present some information that should seriously call into question Mr. Colicelli’s findings about Ms. Krause.
According to Rojas’ Times account, Colicelli “allegedly found that $76,000 in funds had been wasted and federal funds were frozen multiple times after Krause failed to submit reports or properly administrate the funds.” In this particular instance, Mr. Colicelli conveniently omits serious charges of mismanagement of the city’s YouthStat program while under Barry Colicelli’s tenure, made by the US Department of Justice.
In October 2014, the DoJ released a report called “Audit of the Office of Justice Programs Grants to Trenton, New Jersey.” This audit (the existence of which I thank Jim Carlucci for letting me know), spanning the period from 2008 to 2013, found significant problems with the administration of each of the several grants made to the City of Trenton during that time, including YouthStat funds. In the Executive Summary of that report, the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Audit Division states,
“We determined [that the City of Trenton] was not in full compliance with the award conditions in some of the areas tested, and we identified $253,380 in dollar-related findings, approximately 15 percent of Trenton’s total award funding received of $1,718,047 through November, 2013. The audit questioned $176,915 in unallowable expenditures, $128,566 in unsupported expenditures, $5,502 in unreasonable expenditures; and identified $63,444 in federal funds to better use.”
In addition to the dollars involved, the DoJ auditors found significant systemic failures in the City’s administration of these grants, in areas of internal controls, contract and expense monitoring, reporting, and overall performance. These failings should make any Trentonian aware of how reliant the City is on Federal COPS and SAFER grants to payroll our Police and Fire Departments extremely nervous. If we screwed up these Youthstat grants, I doubt that we’ve been extremely conscientious about those bigger grant programs! I’m just sayin.
Back to YouthStat.
Now, not all of the unallowable and inappropriate expenses itemized above was for Youth Stat, and not all of that refers to Mr. Colicelli’s tenure. But a lot of it was. For instance, this is a table from the report showing expenses for Mr. Colicelli’s own contract as program Coordinator for his first two years.
This chart shows that in the first two years of the contract, $33,599 of contract payments and $3,387 of mileage reimbursements to Mr. Colicelli himself are considered Unallowable by the Feds.
Similarly, the DoJ report itemizes nearly $25,000 in expenditures to program contractor A Better Way as “unallowable, unsupported, and unreasonable.” The report does not give a timeframe for those payments, but since A Better Way has been part of the YouthStat program since its inception, it’s safe to assume that Mr. Colicelli was around during at least some of those.
Ditto with the claim that “federal funds were frozen multiple times after Krause failed to submit reports,” as claimed by Colicelli and his lawyer. Another chart from the DoJ audit shows that Trenton is a serial offender when it comes to late or missing reports. From 2009 to 2013, here’s the record:
Again, not all of these reports are for YouthStat. And not all of these are attributable to Mr. Colicelli. But Colicelli was more than willing to point the finger at Lois Krause in his investigation for “federal funds [that] were frozen multiple times after Krause failed to submit reports,” then he should be willing to accept some responsibility for late or missing reports under his watch.
For its part, the DoJ Auditors do acknowledge that part of the reason for Trenton’s miserable record on its grants administration is the tremendous upheavals that the City’s been living with for the last several years. The report mentions the significant layoffs in all departments that the City has endured. And this brief recitation surely understates the drama we’ve lived through:
“In addition, Trenton has endured substantial turnover within several departments that affected several areas of our audit. According to Trenton officials, between 2008 and 2014, 10 different people have held the title of Trenton’s Business Administrator. Within Trenton’s Finance Department, there have been three different Finance Directors between March 2007 and March 2012. Since March 2012, the Finance Director position has been vacant and the current Trenton Chief Financial Officer has been managing the Finance Department. In addition, according to a Trenton Police Detective, there have been eight different Police Directors from 2008 through 2014.”
The Department of Justice did not hold back in making its very serious charges of grant mismanagement. But the auditors did acknowledge the extraordinary environment in which this mess took place. In his report about his investigations, as alleged in his lawsuit, Barry Colicelli was quick to assess personal blame and even criminality to several of Trenton’s managers and department heads.
It remains to be seen what the result of many of these charges will be. Like many of Colicelli’s actions before now, this lawsuit too may be dropped. This suit may go to trial and the charges may be either proven or disproven. Or the City may settle before anyone sees the inside of a courtroom.
Reading the report of the Justice Department’s auditors as context, I think it is safe to say that Colicelli’s charges, at least as they relate to Lois Krause and her work for the City on the YouthStat program, may be highly suspect. They smell like they are highly selective, ignoring Colicelli’s own decidedly mixed record on the very same program. His “whistleblowing” report, at least as it may apply to Ms. Krause, may represent no more than payback from someone with a serious ax to grind.
Which in my mind leads me to be highly skeptical about ALL of the allegations being made by Colicell in this lawsuit. We won’t know for sure until much more is revealed, but it is reasonable to suggest that whatever “dirt” he may have found on Krause and Directors Bashir, Amana and Rivera may be dirt he delivered to meet the previously expressed expectation of his client, “Acting” Mayor Muschal.
Which brings me back to the Councilman. Whatever he was thinking when he hired Colicelli, under the cover of an Assistant to the Mayor title, as a Trenton “Plumber” – instead of bringing his suspicions to the City’s Police Department, OR County Prosecutor, OR State Attorney General, OR Federal authorities – he displayed extraordinarily poor judgment. I don’t think it too much to say he vindictively and aggressively pursued these investigations as personal vendettas. We recall he dragged the City into an unnecessary and costly legal tangle in Spring 2014 as he tried to fire Qareeb Bashir from his job as Trenton’s Fire Director. At the time I called Muschal’s actions Madness, but at least I thought he was pursuing his goals by legal and appropriate means.
I can’t say that now. With the revelation that George Muschal used his temporary, appointed position as acting mayor to conduct his own private covert investigation of several city directors, I have to conclude that George Muschal massively violated the public trust with his actions. He has certainly killed any chance he may have at any higher elected or appointed public position.
The shoe is on the other foot now for Mr. Muschal. As noted at the top of this (long!) piece, when he thought he was the subject of a covert investigation by Trenton’s Chief Executive, he was rightfully and publicly indignant. When he found himself, by accident, in the Mayor’s chair himself, he did not hesitate to conduct a covert, improper investigation of several of his employees, and on the City’s dime to boot.
That’s vindictive. That’s paranoid. That’s wrong. He needs to be held accountable for this.
I honestly don’t know how he can continue in his current position on Council. He has certainly lost my trust.
My advice to the members of Trenton’s City Council: Shut Up Already!
Nothing you are saying, or not saying, is helping. In fact, every time you open your mouths and try to clarify, or support, or defend, you only succeed in being yet more offensive, and digging yourselves in deeper. You are also showing that you have horrible political instincts, and have learned nothing in your five years on the job. Just Stop!
I’m talking, of course, about the unfortunate mess in City Council Chambers. In case you missed the video, here is a clip:
This should have been a one-day local story. “Trenton Tempers Boil in steamy August Heat” could have been the theme. The shocking loss of decorum in Chambers should have been apologized for by all parties that night, or the morning following. The whole thing would have embarrassing, but it would have blown over. We’ve seen behavior nearly as bad before, and it always blows over. But, no. The members of this Council have an almost unerring instinct to make themselves look as bad as they can, as long as they can. We are on track now to keep this story alive until the end of next week, ensuring that what could have been forgotten in a day will have a life of at least two weeks, and probably longer. And, although it’s now a story that’s running statewide, at least we can be thankful it hasn’t gone national or global. Yet. That kind of attention is usually paid to Trenton on matters only relating to toilet paper or Tony Mack. But I repeat myself.
Of course, I realize I am doing my part in prolonging this story myself. But mine is only a small role. The main players in this unhappy incident are far more to blame. Here’s how.
South Ward George Muschal provoked the outbreak of hostilities during Thursday’s session, by making an open accusation that West Ward Member and Council President Zachary Chester’s aide “made phones [sic] calls to have these prominent individuals who are highly respected in the community to come in and manufacture stories pertaining to me in order to put me in a bad light.” This was the statement that apparently lit the fuse that set the meeting on an explosive course.
You’d think Mr. Chester and the rest of Council would have been better prepared to respond to this kind of accusation short of rushing the South Ward Councilman. Mr. Muschal has a long history of making incendiary comments and charges in Council meetings, after all, the effect of which is to dilute his more credible accusations and make it difficult to distinguish them from ones which are, well, less so.
It’s no one’s fault but Mr. Muschal’s, for example, that Googling the phrase “George Muschal dog masturbation” returns some actual results. I’m not kidding.
I’ll leave that one right there. But that is a perfect illustration of how Mr. Chester should have been prepared with a response to Muschal’s charge of personal attack. But he didn’t.
Mr. Chester responded to the charge by angrily responding, first with words then with rising from his chair to confront Mr. Muschal. This resolved, in the words of the Trenton Times’ reporter Cristina Rojas, when “Council members then had to hold the two back from getting into a physical fight.”
For being the one to turn this battle of words into a physical confrontation, Mr. Chester has to bear sole blame. His action last Thursday night, on its own, represents a shocking break of decorum, and perhaps an irreparable loss of his leadership stature. His behavior since then takes the “perhaps” out of my feeling.
After Thursday’s Council meeting, Mr. Chester posted on his personal Facebook page a note which began, “I had a momentary lapse in judgement after being accused of violating the public trust. I overreacted and plan to formally apologize before my colleagues and the general public at our next City Council meeting [on September 3]. There is one thing I want to make clear though. I will vigorously defend myself against unfounded accusations.” Far from an apology, he only promised to apologize. A full two weeks after the incident. Also, as of yesterday, he has reportedly made no attempt to reach out individually to his colleagues to speak with them to explain his actions.
That’s not behavior that I find remotely acceptable. I cannot think of any comparable setting, personal or professional, in which an intention to address one’s own actions so long after the fact would be thought proper. Had this been an office or workfloor environment between colleagues, management would have had all parties down to HR for action immediately afterwards. Had this been a playground of school cafeteria fight (which this most closely resembles), everyone would have been off to the principal. But to wait another week for the next act in this melodrama, which may not even be the final one? What’s up with that?
The main point is, regardless of its truth Mr. Chester allowed a verbal accusation to provoke him to a physical response. That is shocking and unacceptable in an elected official. Sharp elbows are part of the game. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, and all that. Mr. Chester’s actions, and his response since Thursday, fall short on every level. Personal, professional and political. It will be hard to forget this.
Another member of Council is doing her part to keep this story alive, to no obvious benefit, but with the absolutely unwarranted and un-called-for added ingredient of adding gender politics and sexual violence to the mix. First in a “News Advisory” released on Tuesday evening, then in a press conference yesterday in Council Chambers, At Large Member Phyllis Holly-Ward alleged that she sustained physical and emotional injuries during Thursday’s fracas, and felt the urge to publicly inform the world of those injuries. Ms. Holly-Ward alleged physical pain and bruising in her legs as a result of the physical altercation, resulting from her chair (between Councilmembers Muschal and Chester) being pushed into the Council dais when Chester rushed Muschal. She then took the whole matter further.
In Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman’s Trentonian article today, Holly-Ward went on to say,
“As a woman, even though I was hurt in the incident, truthfully, it was not easy to come here and stand up in this male-dominated industry of politics and tell the truth about a man who has done wrong,” Holly-Ward said during her press conference.
She said the incident has allowed her to understand the fear that comes from “a woman who has been raped by a man and is afraid to speak out, but I had to,” Holly-Ward said. “This is not about taking up or covering up our friends in politics; it’s about standing up for what’s right.”
That’s crossing a line, Councilwoman. There is no justification for comparing your situation to that of a raped woman. You were a bystander during those proceedings, not the object of aggression and sexual battery. I can understand you were scared, and outraged, and offended, even violated to some extent. But there are some terms and charges that are not used lightly and loosely by a person in public office. Rape is definitely one of them. Rape is a crime that emotionally and intimately impacts all women, even if only indirectly. At the same time, it indicts and accuses all men, also if only indirectly. We see too, too many instances in our society of its violence and hate. It is a powerful, highly charged word. You dishonor all victims of this horrible crime when you use the word indiscriminately. You accuse all men of being potential virtual rapists, and you distort the meaning of what happened in Council last week. For shame!
Was Mr. Muschal at fault to bring up his provocative charge in Council without proof? Yes. Was Mr. Chester at fault for responding angrily? Yes. Was Mr. Chester at fault for turning the argument into a physical confrontation? Yes, again. And also for his inadequate and clumsy response to date. But it is Councilwoman Holly-Ward who has turned this sad and farcical situation into something very different and mean with her casual and inappropriate use of one of the most incendiary words in the English language. That is nothing short of disgraceful for a public official, in my personal opinion.
No one on Trenton’s City Council, even those who unwittingly played boxing referees last Thursday, comes out of this incident looking good. It is a sad, sad display of immaturity and shocking lack of self-control.
Council members Muschal, Chester and Holly-Ward owe their Council colleagues and the citizens of Trenton immediate, public and visible apologies.
And then, they need to shut up and get back to work.
Police say the tip they received was in regards to a single employee engaged in drug activity. But a Trenton Water Works employee who asked to remain anonymous said “numerous people” who work at the Water Filtration Plant not only use drugs at work, but also deal drugs out of the facility. The employee also said supervisors at the plant have known about the drug activity for quite some time.
“They know who gets high around here and no one does anything about it,” the employee said. “It’s been happening for at least two years and it’s being swept under the rug. It’s not right.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
A single Trenton Water Works (TWW) employee was arrested Tuesday evening on charges of marijuana possession. According to the unnamed TWW employee quoted above in Penny Ray’s Trentonian piece, Rashawn Davis is not the only person at the vitally important municipal utility dirty with drugs. “Numerous people” not only use at work, but also deal. This is not an insignificant matter. TWW provides drinking water for over 200,000 people in Trenton and several surrounding Mercer County townships. The integrity of employees who work in such a public utility should be very high: the safety of our water depends on it.
However, according to City Hall spokesperson Michael Walker, this is not important enough of an issue for him or his mayor to provide comment to local media. Using the all-purpose response made popular during the Mack Administration, Mr. Walker “declined to comment, stating that it is the city’s policy not to comment on personnel matters.”
This is not simply a “personnel matter,” Mr. Walker. It is a public safety matter. Should allegations of widespread drug usage by employees were to be made against any random water utility anywhere in the US, public or private,I expect that the response by management and law enforcement would be strong and immediate. Not in Trenton, though.
Had Michael Walker, or his boss, been sufficiently sensitive to the matter, either or both would have rushed to the local press with a statement to the effect that the arrest of one employee for drug possession proves how seriously the Administration considers the safe operation of TWW to be for all customers. Allegations of further abuse by employees would be fully investigated. During this time of investigation, of course the City would not be able to comment in any greater detail about any individual under investigation, but the City would assure all its customers of the complete integrity and safety of Trenton’s tap water and fire hydrant supply.
But we have not heard that from Mr. Walker, or Mayor ZT. Which would be kind of surprising coming from any administration of any American city. From Mr. Jackson, though, the lack of response can be seen in the context of his professional history with TWW, a history that suggests a somewhat casual approach to employee honesty and integrity.
Eric Jackson served from 2001 to 2010 as Trenton’s Director of Public Works under former mayor Doug Palmer, a portfolio that included responsibility over the Water Works. During a grand jury investigation in 2010 that eventually led to the indictments (and later convictions) for theft of Tony Mack’s brother Stanley “Muscles” Davis and two other TWW employees, testimony was given about several instances of equipment theft and other corruption within TWW covering a period from 2001 to 2010, this period of time covering Mr. Jackson’s tenure.
When details about the 2010 grand jury’s investigation were reported to the public, Mr. Jackson defended his management of the utility by describing a process of investigation and discipline that was conducted internally by Public Works – a process that notably excluded participation by law enforcement. As one might expect by the absence of any police or prosecutor involvement at the time, there really wasn’t much to show for Mr. Jackson’s efforts. Which Mr. Jackson admitted to reporter Alex Zdan, then of the Trenton Times, in an article published in December, 2013:
Now a candidate for mayor, Jackson said Monday that several employees were disciplined for theft during his time at the public works department, which oversees the Water Works.
“Did we get them all? No,” Jackson said. “Is there more work to do? Absolutely.”
Jackson said he had received some information that employees were hooking up water to customers without authorization, but did not obtain enough information to make a case against anyone.
“There were allegations we investigated, but not corroborated,” Jackson said.
As director, Jackson said, he inherited staff and procedures, but worked to increase accountability even as some of the employees tried to counter with other ways to perform illicit activity.
“The reality is, you always have people who think they’re smarter than what you want to do,” Jackson said.
The public record of that time period shows that although allegations of criminal activity were frequent during the years of 2001 to 2010 during Mr. Jackson’s management of the Trenton Water Works, the arrest and prosecution of Stanley Davis did not take place until well after Eric Jackson had left the Public Works department. In December of 2013, I wrote a piece noting this, and asked several questions of then-candidate Jackson at the beginning of his successful campaign to be elected as Trenton’s mayor:
We know that there was criminal activity at the Water Works; that’s why Muscles Davis is serving time. Equipment was walking away, and individuals were falsifying time cards. Did any of this lead Mr. Jackson to involve law enforcement? If not, why not? Why did the only criminal prosecutions stemming from corruption at the Water Works occur after Palmer and Jackson left City Hall, if the situation was similar back then?
I think we also need to Mr. Jackson to explain what other measures he put in place to reduce problems at the Water Works. We read he cut down on overtime abuse. Were additional security cameras installed to control equipment walking away? Were inventory controls and equipment sign-out procedures revamped? Did TWW management exert more effective oversight of their staff?
While we are at it, why did maintenance of the suburban assets of TWW allowed to slip in the run-up to the 2010 referendum, and why were so many staff openings for service technicians left open during that period, leaving the Water Works short-handed as the Mack Administration started up?
I concluded that piece as follows: “Every new revelation of past corruption, and waste, and theft that precedes the Mack years hurts the City’s case for its future stewardship of much of Mercer County’s water supply for its residents.”
I still believe in that conclusion, made even more relevant in light of the new revelation of misbehavior alleged of Rashawn Davis, and of the allegation of further, current abuse and corruption within TWW as made by the unnamed employee quoted in the Trentonian.
The stakes for the future of Trenton’s Water Works are even higher now than they have been over the last few years. New legislation is now on the books that makes it far easier than in the past for publicly-owned water systems in New Jersey such as TWW’s to be sold off to commercial water companies without public approval.
For all of the reasons above, that’s why the response so far from Michael Walker and Mayor Jackson to the allegations of drug abuse at Trenton’s Water Works is so insufficient and unsatisfying. Mr. Jackson’s prior history of passivity when faced with corruption at TWW while Director of Public Works requires a more assertive response now. The threat to the safety of our water supply demands reassurances of safety to TWW’s Mercer County customers. And some demonstration of managerial responsibility and competence is necessary to argue in favor of continued public ownership of this valuable asset during this time when the danger of privatization is just way too high.
This isn’t just a “personnel matter,” Mr. Walker and Mayor Jackson. It’s time to say much more, and do much more. We’ve been in this place before. We know how this can end. We need you to do better for us this time.
I don’t usually write much about issues outside the borders of the city of Trenton. Sometimes, I touch upon matters encompassing greater Mercer County, and even more rarely the entirety of the State of New Jersey. I don’t often feel confident or competent enough to offer any thoughts about topics of national interest. I’m making an exception today. Excuse me in advance for wading into things beyond my ken.
It’s been an extraordinary week in America, one that started by an act of terror born from the ancient racial hatred that has been this nation’s original sin since a century before its founding, and which troubles us and holds us back to this day. It finished on Friday, with two separate yet related acts of hope, healing and progress in themselves, and which also strike me as perfect metaphors for how this country – in fits and starts – manages to find its way forward.
At this time last weekend I, like most Americans, was reeling from the murders of nine people at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17. This was a premeditated and deliberate act of political terror that was specifically intended to set off further acts of racially-motivated violence. We know this because the alleged assassin wrote what’s been described as a “manifesto” laying out his objectives for his crime, motivated by a deep-seated hatred for African Americans, Jews, and Hispanics.
Although Dylan Roof’s personal and political history and associations are not yet fully known, his ideas and motivations are not his alone. His extremism is shared by many, too many, people. Although by no means mainstream opinions, they are also neither rare nor new. This article by Laura Miller in Salon.com this week describes troubling links between the ideas contained in Roof’s “manifesto” and those spread by the fringe movement known as “Christian Identity” It’s very troubling to me that there are Americans moved to commit this kind of political terror in furtherance of a sick ideology and theology that seeks to deny fellow Americans their human dignity and even, as we saw in Charleston, their lives. It was pretty hard to endure a week of news stories about Charleston and its aftermath, hard to contemplate this latest in a long, long line of outrages stretching not only as far back as we can see but threatening to continue long into our common futures. Not a happy prospect, indeed.
That’s why I was pretty well primed, I suppose, for the news out of the Supreme Court yesterday. By a slim majority, 5 to 4 (close is good enough not only in horseshoes and hand grenades, but in SCOTUS decisions, too), the Court ruled that the institution of marriage is one that belongs to all Americans. I was very pleased in the substance of the decision, feeling it was entirely fair and overdue. But I was also very happy to read Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion on behalf of himself and his four concurring colleagues, and understand the basis of his reasoning in the case known as Obergefell v. Hodges.
To this layman, the legal underpinnings and case law citations included in Kennedy’s opinion seem sound; however, I can’t comment any more on that. I have read commentary by several legal scholars who deem the Court’s reasoning sound, and that is good enough for me. What I find thrilling and hopeful from yesterday’s decision is that much of its underlying power comes from an interpretation of American, and indeed human, history, and a conception of human freedom I very much agree with. That conception is based on the underlying premise that Freedom and Justice are concepts which, although eternal at their hearts, change and grow with changes and growth in the human condition. Justice Kennedy says,
The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the rights of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal structure, a claim to liberty must be addressed.
What a wonderful and powerful formulation this is. The Constitution and its provisions were designed to protect “the rights of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.” As we gain new insights into ever new and varied meanings, freedom and liberty does not always come easily. “A claim to liberty” must be made, and crucially in our system, “must be addressed.”
Friday’s ruling was the culmination of a textbook example as to how such claims are addressed. In courtrooms and legislatures around the country, for a period of over twenty years, a process full of dialog, argument, engagement, litigation and referenda was undertaken that created momentum that led to this landmark. It was a process that went forward, and back, and it was an entirely peaceful process. The history of how marriage equality has become the law of the land will become a textbook example for decades to come of how to create a revolution in American law.
And yet, even a Supreme Court Justice acknowledges that such revolutions do not come to pass entirely in courts or the halls of government. In many crucial ways, this revolution was ratified in these places, but they were not born there. Earlier in his opinion, Kennedy says, speaking of the ways that new ideas and attitudes about the institution of marriage have come to the mainstream,
These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage. Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests, and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.
And, to make sure that we are keenly aware that behind the vague, generic concept of “pleas and protests” are the actual stories of individuals and families who are directly affected by the legal matter at hand. People whose lives will be intimately and irrevocably changed by the resulting rulings. Justice Kennedy tells the stories of James Obergefell and John Arthur, April DeBoer and Jayne Rouse, and Army Reserve First Sergeant First Class Ijipe DeKoe and Thomas Kastura.
These are the people whose claim to liberty was addressed. And, as the result of a 20-year process the result of which was unthinkable even just a little while ago, we learned that the meaning of liberty – in this immediate matter of the institution of marriage – could be expanded to include Every American.
Is this a great country, or what?
Of course, there are many who do not agree or accept the result and the implications of Friday’s ruling. Four members of the Supreme Court wrote individual dissents stating their opposition to the reasoning and principles of the majority. They were joined by many in public life, including several announced presidential candidates.
Although I am sure that many of these opponents disagree with the outcome of this case on sincerely held grounds of principle, I find it difficult to believe that the four dissenting Justices and many who agree with them object to the Court granting human dignity and equal consideration under law to fellow American citizens of flesh and blood, and yet had no problem five years ago with granting that same dignity and personhood to… corporations!
To paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts from his dissent, Just who do they think they are?
This isn’t the end of this particular story, of course. There is still strong opposition, some of it genuinely principled as I mentioned, but a lot of purely opportunistic pandering. That sort of thing will never go away in this country as long as someone thinks they can get a couple of votes or make a couple of dollars by opportunistic pandering. That, in my opinion, will be forever.
But I feel happier and more confident in this country by knowing that, at least on occasion, we can recognize that Freedom and Liberty are not static and unchanging things bequeathed to us over two centuries ago. They live, and breathe, and learn, and expand – as we are given new insights to know their new meanings.
I heard distinct echoes and emphases of these same ideas in the extraordinary words of President Obama on Friday, in his remarkably profound and moving eulogy in South Carolina for one of those lost at Emanuel Church, Pastor and South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney.
I can’t, and won’t attempt, to summarize the whole of Mr. Obama’s words. I will, first, refer you to watch his entire eulogy (well worth 36 minutes and 46 seconds, trust me!), or at least to read the transcript. Theodore Roosevelt once famously called the Presidency “a bully pulpit,” and a pulpit it was in Charleston on Friday. Barack Obama preached.
The main theme of the President’s remarks was Grace: the gift – should we choose to freely accept it – of finding in vile, wicked and violent acts the potential for hope, and learning, and healing. From the actions of a murderer whose clear intent was to spread hate and fear and discord, it is possible – not assured, but only possible – to draw strength, resolve, and even forgiveness. This potential power to produce such a contradictory result in the face of despair and pain Mr. Obama calls nothing less than Divine, a gift of a loving Providence. The gift of Grace:
According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — (applause) — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.
As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.
For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge — including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise — as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.
Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong. It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.
But I don’t think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.
Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system — and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias; that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.
Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American — by doing that, we express God’s grace.
Justice Kennedy didn’t use the word, but I think he says the same thing here. In the American legal and political tradition, we have on many occasions in our history been Graced with the ability to “learn” new meanings of liberty and freedom through “new insights,” and to address many claims to extend the benefits and blessings of that liberty and freedom and human dignity ever wider. We have been fortunate – lucky, maybe? blessed? – that so many of these claims are met peacefully, as we saw on Friday. How can this not be called Grace, as Mr. Obama told us? When the Supreme Court says, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” that is simply another way of saying, “I was blind, but now I see.”
President Obama reminded us that we are not so lucky to learn all of our lessons in peace. In fact some lessons, such as those that spring from the bottomless well of undying racial hatred that has been part of our history, are taught at fearsome cost in blood and lives. Yet we may still learn from those lessons, if we are so Graced. Amazing, indeed.
In one day, our Supreme Court and our President both drew on two strong and ancient traditions in this to teach us that we have the capacity – if we choose to accept the gift – not to be trapped by our past. We can more perfect our Union, and ourselves. It’s not a gift that is always given to us. It’s certainly not one that is given uniquely to this nation alone. And it is by no means given to all of us (I’m looking at you, Rick Santorum!).
But I feel to my bones that we in the United States of America were given the gift of Grace, twice, on Friday. After this week, did we ever need it!