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Getting the Basics Right

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.

You know?

—–Original Message—–
From: Michael Walker <mwalker@trentonnj.org>
To: Accela <Accela@trentonnj.org>; Ada Medina <amedina@trentonnj.org>; Adaly Hernandez <ahernandez@trentonnj.org>; Adrienne Hart <ahart@trentonnj.org>; Akil Muse <amuse@trentonnj.org>; Alex Bethea <abethea@trentonnj.org>; Alfred Scott, Jr. <ascott@trentonnj.org>; Alise ninaltowski <aninaltowski@trentonnj.org>; Allan Zaretsky <azaretsky@trentonnj.org>; Alphonso Jones <ajones@trentonnj.org>; Andre Trott <atrott@trentonnj.org>; Andrea Martinez-Mejia <amartinez-mejia@trentonnj.org>; Andrea Orbe-Martinez <aorbe-martinez@trentonnj.org>; Andres Lomi <alomi@trentonnj.org>; Andrew Bobbitt <abobbitt@trentonnj.org>; Anthony Jackson <ajackson@trentonnj.org>; Anthony Roberts <aroberts@trentonnj.org>; Anthony Santora <asantora@trentonnj.org>; Arthur K. McCall <amccall@trentonnj.org>; auctionproperties <auctionproperties@trentonnj.org>; Audrey Lane <alane@trentonnj.org>; Augustin DeJesus <adejesus@trentonnj.org>; Augustine Tackacs <atackacs@trentonnj.org>; Ayana Abdul-Raheem <aabdul-raheem@trentonnj.org>; Barbara Gholston <bgholston@trentonnj.org>; Barbara Hodgdon <bhodgdon@trentonnj.org>; Barbara Thompson <bthompson@trentonnj.org>; Barry Colicelli <bcolicelli@trentonnj.org>; Battalion Chiefs <battchiefstfd@trentonnj.org>; Ben Brown <bbrown@trentonnj.org>; Betsy Nieves <bnieves@trentonnj.org>; Bill Hasling <bhasling@trentonnj.org>; Bill McGlaughlin <bmcglaughlin@trentonnj.org>; Billie Hayes <bhayes@trentonnj.org>; Bob Ilegieuno <bilegieuno@trentonnj.org>; Bob Tokarcik <btokarcik@trentonnj.org>; Bob Trivett <btrivett@trentonnj.org>; Brandon Wilkins <bwilkins@trentonnj.org>; Brenda Hardy <bhardy@trentonnj.org>; Brenda Nazario-Abarca <bnazario-abarca@trentonnj.org>; Brenda Seigle <bseigle@trentonnj.org>; Brian K. Brown <bkbrown@trentonnj.org>; Cameisha Caldwell <ccaldwell@trentonnj.org>; Camille L. Cromartie <ccromartie@trentonnj.org>; Capucine O’Neal <caoneal@trentonnj.org>; Carlos Medina <cmedina@trentonnj.org>; Carmen Belford <cbelford@trentonnj.org>; Carmen Davis <cdavis@trentonnj.org>; Carmen Maldonado <cmaldonado@trentonnj.org>; Carmen Melendez <cmelendez@trentonnj.org>; Carol Diamonde <cdiamonde@trentonnj.org>; Carol Thame <cthame@trentonnj.org>; Carolyn Brooks <cbrooks@trentonnj.org>; Caryl M. Amana <camana@trentonnj.org>; Cesar Lugo <clugo@trentonnj.org>; Ch Admin <chadmin@trentonnj.org>; Chandler Threadgill <cthreadgill@trentonnj.org>; Charles Hall <chall@trentonnj.org>; Charles Owens <cowens@trentonnj.org>; Charles Webb <cwebb@trentonnj.org>; Cheryl Ciesla <cciesla@trentonnj.org>; Cheryl Jablonski <cjablonski@trentonnj.org>; Cheryl White <cwhite@trentonnj.org>; Chiefsoffice <Chiefsoffice@trentonnj.org>; Chikia Robinson <crobinson@trentonnj.org>; Christina Codispoti <ccodispoti@trentonnj.org>; Chuck Shelingoski <cshelingoski@trentonnj.org>; City Broadcast <cotbroadcast@trentonnj.org>; City Council <ccouncil@trentonnj.org>; Cityclerks <Cityclerks@trentonnj.org>; Claire Halliday <challiday@trentonnj.org>; Clare Scott <cscott@trentonnj.org>; Cleveland Thompson <cthompson@trentonnj.org>; Client Schedule <clientschedule@trentonnj.org>; Clifford Rawls <crawls@trentonnj.org>; Coleen Sheppard <csheppard@trentonnj.org>; Colin Cherry <ccherry@trentonnj.org>; Connie McCoy <cmccoy@trentonnj.org>; Connie O’Neal <coneal@trentonnj.org>; Cordelia Staton <cstaton@trentonnj.org>; Courts <Courts@trentonnj.org>; customer.service.tmc@trentonnj.org <customer.service.tmctrentonnj.org@trentonnj.org>; Cynthia Graham <cgraham@trentonnj.org>; Cynthia Stephens <cstephens@trentonnj.org>; Danea Dutton <ddutton@trentonnj.org>; Daniel Roach <droach@trentonnj.org>; Danielle London <dlondon@trentonnj.org>; Danielle Preston <dpreston@trentonnj.org>; Danny Filipowicz <dfilipowicz@trentonnj.org>; Darlene Herring <dherring@trentonnj.org>; Darshelle Miles <dmiles@trentonnj.org>; Dashawn Cribb <dcribb@trentonnj.org>; Dave Test <davetest@trentonnj.org>; David Ashcraft <dashcraft@trentonnj.org>; David L. 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Rawls <kkrawls@trentonnj.org>; Kathleen McFadden <kmcfadden@trentonnj.org>; Kathy McBride <kmcbride@trentonnj.org>; Katina Smith <kmsmith@trentonnj.org>; Kelle McMillan <kmcmillan@trentonnj.org>; Kellee Davis <kdavis@trentonnj.org>; Ken Ninaltowski <kninaltowski@trentonnj.org>; Kenneth Bullock <kbullock@trentonnj.org>; Kevin Burkman <kburkman@trentonnj.org>; Kevin Kurtz <kkurtz@trentonnj.org>; Kevin Smith <ksmith@trentonnj.org>; Kim McCray <kmccray@trentonnj.org>; Kim Muse <kmuse@trentonnj.org>; Kimberley M. Wilson <kwilson@trentonnj.org>; Kimberly Hendrick <khendrick@trentonnj.org>; Kimberly Porter <kporter@trentonnj.org>; Kristian Richardson <krichardson@trentonnj.org>; Laray Thomas <lthomas@trentonnj.org>; Lashonne Phillips <lphillips@trentonnj.org>; Latisha Paden <lpaden@trentonnj.org>; Lauren J. 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Hazell <mhazell@trentonnj.org>; Marge Caldwell-Wilson <mcaldwell-wilson@trentonnj.org>; Margie Midura <mmidura@trentonnj.org>; Maria Hernandez-Torres <mhernandez-torres@trentonnj.org>; Maria Caraballo <mcaraballo@trentonnj.org>; Maria Heater <mheater@trentonnj.org>; Maricarmen Barrientos <mbarrientos@trentonnj.org>; Marilyn Maldonado <mmaldonado@trentonnj.org>; Marisol Ramos <mramos@trentonnj.org>; Maritza Aguero <maguero@trentonnj.org>; Mark A. Salerno <msalerno@trentonnj.org>; Mark Giallella <mgiallella@trentonnj.org>; Mark Long <mlong@trentonnj.org>; Mark Robotin <mrobotin@trentonnj.org>; Marquita D. Rolling <mrolling@trentonnj.org>; Martin Moore <mmoore@trentonnj.org>; Mary Chestnut <mchestnut@trentonnj.org>; Mary Henry <mhenry@trentonnj.org>; MaryAnn Ezewuiro <mezewuiro@trentonnj.org>; Marycelis Garcia <mgarcia@trentonnj.org>; Matilda Armah <marmah@trentonnj.org>; Matthew Cantor <mcantor@trentonnj.org>; Mattie Cramer <mcramer@trentonnj.org>; Mayor Intern <mintern@trentonnj.org>; MayorsOffice <mayorsoffice@trentonnj.org>; Meraj Fatima <mfatima@trentonnj.org>; Meter Dispatcher <mdispatcher@trentonnj.org>; Michael Morris <mmorris@trentonnj.org>; Michael S. Ingram <mingram@trentonnj.org>; Michael Walker <mwalker@trentonnj.org>; Michelle Figueroa <mfigueroa@trentonnj.org>; Mike Castiello <mcastiello@trentonnj.org>; Mike Welsh <mwelsh@trentonnj.org>; Mirian Vargas <mvargas@trentonnj.org>; MIS <MIS@trentonnj.org>; Moises Martinez <mmartinez@trentonnj.org>; Monique King-Viehland <mking-viehland@trentonnj.org>; Myongja Lee <mlee@trentonnj.org>; Nakia T. 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Sent: Fri, Oct 23, 2015 9:39 am
Subject: Trenton Mayor Eric E. Jackson’s 2015 State of the City Address

2 comments to Getting the Basics Right

  • Ed W

    I am still looking for clarification after reading the following from the article.

    “The questionable costs have either been accounted for or repaid and a corrective action plan has been submitted and is awaiting review.”

    does this mean that federal monies have been replaced (repaid) with city of Trenton taxpayer monies? It looks to me that 186k has been stolen and rather than doing a criminal investigation its being covered up with city of Trenton taxpayer monies, and where would one find this accounting.

  • Kevin

    Ed – without further information, it would appear that “costs have been accounted for” means that the City and the DoJ discussed some items further, and the Feds allowed the expenses to be charged against the grants. “Repaid” would mean, yes indeed, disallowed expenses were reimbursed to the Feds using other City funds.

    In either instance, I don’t think that criminal charges are at issue here. Many of the over-budget or out-of-scope expenses were billed via invoice and approved for payment by Council. That may likely have been wrong and dumb, but not criminal. Sigh.