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You First, Mr. Jackson!!

What a remarkable op-ed in this morning’s Trenton Times by mayoral candidate Eric Jackson!

The title of the piece is “Trenton needs leader with ‘zero tolerance for corruption’” and lays out several objectives and standards that a new mayoral administration – presumably that of Eric Jackson’s – will pursue. But the piece is amazing in that it seems to have been written in a vacuum. There are NO references to any people, issues, and events experienced in the City of Trenton over the last four years! The article is misinformed and ignorant of current city laws and systems already in place to provide for the ethical conduct of Trenton’s city government. And the article is ironically silent on Mr. Jackson’s own ethical lapses.

Where to start? How about at the beginning? The piece opens by proclaiming, “Cronyism and corruption. These are not words that should ever be associated with public service and yet, too often, they are. Politicians elected by their fellow citizens to improve the quality of life for their constituents too often end up taking advantage of their office for personal gain. Taxpayers who believe their hard-earned money is going toward improving schools, roads and public safety instead learn that it is being spent to line the pockets of the connected few.”

Do Tell!! Are there any particular examples you have in mind, sir? We don’t know. Less than one week after the convicted felon serving as the previous mayor was ejected from office by a Superior Court Judge, the name of Tony Mack appears nowhere in this piece. In fact, no names appear in this piece, at all!

I find that pretty striking. The opening paragraphs in this piece read as something so abstract, so hypothetical, so conditional, an uniformed reader would have no trouble believing this article described just about any community anywhere in the United States. Even the one bland description of “the mess” left to the new mayor could have been spoken by any candidate in any jurisdiction, at any time, arguing his or her candidacy.

This blandness and lack of specificity extends to Mr. Jackson’s prescriptions for “cleaning up” the undescribed “mess.”

Mr. Jackson wants to create a new position of “independent inspector general.” We read that this new person  will “have full and unfettered authority to investigate corruption, fraud and dishonest practices throughout city government” in all agencies and departments.

Why? We are never told. In an environment where a level of oversight of the city – imperfect and inconsistent, yes, but it is a fact of life, which Mr. Jackson fails to even acknowledge, let alone discuss – by the State’s Department of Community Affairs, why would we need a new Inspector General?

Mr. Jackson does not say. To him, this important first step apparently speaks for himself, since he says no more about this.

Next, Mr. Jackson proclaims “Second, the mayor and council must adopt a strong ethics code that will be binding for all elected and appointed officials.”

Good Idea! A very good one! In fact, so good we already have one!!!

Here is the Ethics Code of the City of Trenton, as adopted by the Trenton Ethics Board in November 2013, a body that was created by Ordinance in August 2012, and whose members were appointed in August 2013.

Isn’t it odd that a mayoral candidate in 2014, running on a strong platform of ethical reform, would not know that of the current existence of an ethics code, or apparently of the Trenton Ethics Board?

Yes it is. Very odd, indeed.

The absence of any references to any specific ethical lapses, or any specific individuals  during previous Trenton Administrations – note the plural, here!!! – critically weakens the argument of this piece. Without acknowledging where the lapses have been, it is impossible for a reader to judge if Mr. Jackson’s prescriptions, bland and redundant as they are, will work. Or, whether existing systems and mechanisms already available to us might be more effective.

Let me describe one specific example, something that eludes Mr. Jackson in his op-ed today.  One of the main failures of the Mack Administration, and one of the main opportunities for corruption was in contracts oversight and administration. Remember, for instance, “Cooper Levenson,” “Five Star Auto Detailing,” and  “SR Development“? Mr. Jackson doesn’t.

Contracting and purchasing has been the opportunity for much of the corruption in government, and not only in Trenton. Seems to me that, as I suggested three years ago, that the City may want to actually constitute the “Board of Review” that is already contained in our Ordinances (here it is) to review decisions of the city’s purchasing agent and hear appeals from bidders who may feel their experience was tainted or unfair.

This Board, consisting of two citizens and a City Council member, is already on our books and ready to go. I think that this may be a significant improvement to the honest administration of city purchasing. We should give it a shot.

Does Mr. Jackson? I don’t think he is even aware of its existence.

It is bad enough that a leading mayoral candidate such as Eric Jackson can reveal such shocking ignorance of Trenton’s current municipal structure, and can be so lazy in a major op-ed piece as to speak in vague generalities without reference to ANYTHING that has happened over the last several years.

But for him to go on and state as his central premise “Most important, the next mayor has to lead by example. Municipal government is only as strong, ethical and transparent as its leader. The mayor must make it clear to every employee working for the city and its independent agencies that there is zero tolerance for corruption, personal enrichment or dishonesty.” [Emphasis mine - KM.]

A few weeks ago I asked, “So let me ask: Mr. Jackson, in the context of today’s news story about an apparent Pay-to-Play violation in your campaign [by City Bond Counsel McManimon Scotland Baumann LLC] , what exactly do you mean by ‘zero tolerance?’”

Jackson replied in a way, on Feb 25, by denying he had a problem. “’This issue is really not with my camp,’ Jackson said Monday. ‘I feel as a candidate I want every vendor who supports me to be within the boundaries of our local pay-to-play policies.’  Jackson said his campaign will “absolutely” return the donation if requested by McManimon’s firm. ‘We have a check on standby ready so we don’t hold up the process,’ he said.”[Emphasis mine - KM]

So, “zero tolerance” actually means “some tolerance,” and a tainted contribution will be returned only if the donor asks for a refund?!?!?!?

Sounds like a pretty relaxed attitude to me. Same with Mr. Jackson’s acceptance last week of an endorsement by the Reverend Johnny Vaughan, one of a large group of Trenton clergy who publicly backed Mr. Jackson last week. Apparently this group – whose endorsement was apparently given without any other mayoral candidate having an opportunity to seek it – didn’t have a problem with including Mr. Vaughan in their number, and neither did Mr. Jackson have a problem with accepting it. Mr. Vaughan, about whom I wrote two weeks ago, accepted a patronage job working in the Mack Administration in its early years, a $40,000 per year job that has attracted criticism for being a no-show job with no defined job functions or responsibilities.

Mr. Jackson’s acceptance of Mr. Vaughan’s support, despite his policy of “zero tolerance for corruption, personal enrichment or dishonesty” has picked up some more attention in the media, as in this Sunday piece by LA Parker in the Trentonian. Glad you picked up on this, LA.

But these two instances are relatively minor in the overall context of Eric Jackson’s mayoral campaign. His candidacy is based primarily on his resume of public service, including several years in Trenton as Director of Public Works in the Administration of Doug Palmer. As such, there are many open questions and concerns that Mr. Jackson and his campaign have failed to address. On the basis of today’s fact-and-name-free op-ed, he apparently has no intention of addressing them on his own.

This is not acceptable, if he expects to be seriously considered as a leading candidate to lead this city away from the wreckage of the previous Mayoral Administrations of Tony Mack and Doug Palmer.

This morning, he writes, “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.”

You challenge us to “take responsibility” and “take ownership,” sir?

You first!

Rather than re-cover the same territory, let me extensively quote from a December 2013 piece. Since none of the questions have been answered, and all are still highly relevant, why not?

Jackson claims that he attempted to discipline the corrupt [at Trenton Water Works] internally. In today’s article, Alex Zdan writes, “Jackson put together a discipline hearing, where he was expecting testimony [against convicted felon and Mack brother Stanley Davis] from witnesses who never materialized. ‘We had the attorneys there, ready to take it to administrative law and the witnesses did not want to come forward,’ Jackson said.

This internal approach to solving the problems at the Water Works has been described by Eric Jackson a few other times in the last few weeks. Giving testimony last week at an Office of Administrative Law trial involving two Water Works employees,  he said he implemented policy changes that reduced massive overtime charges, the padding of which was a principal method of stealing from the Water Works.

And two weeks ago another article in which Alex Zdan reported that a Grand Jury in 2011 had looked into allegations of corruption and theft at the Water Works both during Mack’s term and before – that is, during Jackson’s tenure under Mayor Palmer. In that article, Jackson again described and defended his actions: “Jackson said he had received some information that employees [such as Davis] 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.”

According to this December 11 article by Mr. Zdan, there were many serious problems at the Water Works over the years. In addition to payroll padding, there were several thefts of equipment including incidents in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2008. A lot of incidents.

Mr. Jackson’s response each time, as stated in these three separate news accounts? Investigations, disciplinary hearings and administrative findings. All internal.

What I would like to know, after all these stories, is whether Mr. Jackson ever called in the Trenton Police or talked to county prosecutors about this rampant corruption?

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 [was] 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?

For me, if Eric Jackson cannot show that he at some point in his tenure brought in law enforcement to investigate the situation at TWW, that will sink his candidacy. He cannot be seriously considered as a potential Mayor if he allowed a culture of corruption to survive unchecked at the utility without trying to call in the cops.

6 comments to You First, Mr. Jackson!!

  • James

    Your diligence, tenacity, and integrity is impressive. With every week, a story, an op-ed, a communication seems to come out that just screams EJ is going to drag us back to where we’ve been (where this city belongs?) and progress will continue to elude us and glide over.

    I wish we were enough to put you in office, Kevin. However, hopefully we’re enough to at least do better than EJ.

  • Kevin

    Thanks, James!

  • Hi Kevin:

    Thank you do much for this….

    It is sad how short our collective memory is in the community. That’s part of the reason why so much of this gets by the average citizen. Thanks for helping to remind us.

    One other important fact … In 2010, Eirc Jackson was convinced that the best course of action was to sell TWW to American Water.
    I wonder if elected whether the sale would make it on to his ‘to do’ list.

    Christine

  • Robert Chilson

    The campaign donation must be withdrawn by the contributor, otherwise the candidate, by default, admits he knew or knows the campaign donation was inappropriate. It’s a legality.

  • Robert Chilson

    Also it appears the law says the donation cannot be reimbursed or must be reimbursed by 30-days…after the election, although from what I understand, EJ’s camp is trying to reimburse the lawyer sooner, but you know this stuff so why am I bothering…I’m just a blogger who complains and does nothing, according to L.A.