“This Is a Daily Process”

That’s a quote from City of Trenton Director of Housing and Economic Development Diana Rogers, as included in an article by Cristina Rojas in today’s Trenton Times, describing the loss of over $3.3 Million Dollars in future funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This loss, first reported in this space on May 31, will come in the form of a Voluntary Grant Reduction (VGR) of $1.1 Million for each of the next three years, reimbursing the Federal Government for funds improperly spent by the City during the prior administrations of former mayors Douglas Palmer and Tony Mack.

Today’s Times article revisits much of the same material that you may have read here over the last few weeks. Ms. Rojas acknowledges that her article is based on the same documents I received from HUD in May as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request I filed with the agency. Today’s article dwells entirely on the $3.3 Million VGR request, and did not mention an additional $2.4 Million in unused federal funds from the fiscal years of 2007-2017 that was written off by the City as unspendable.

Ms. Rogers spoke at length to the Times about the subject, adding as new information that this past May HUD representatives visited the City for a “monitoring visit,” the first since 2014. At that earlier meeting, and another in 2010, HUD’s inspection and auditing discovered the problems which resulted in disallowing the $3.3 Million in improper expenses.

A report detailing findings from this latest visit should be sent to the City in the near future. At that point we expect to find out the answer to the questions I asked on June 8. Whereas all of the disallowed expenses at issue now predate the current Eric Jackson Administration, this most recent monitoring visit will examine the last three years of the City’s management of more recent Federal funding. I wrote:

[W]hat fresh problems might a new monitoring visit uncover? What new grant problems might be lurking in our financial books, waiting to be uncovered?

Can this Administration assure us there aren’t any?

Could we believe such assurances?

We will find out the answers in the near future, it seems.

For her part, Director Rogers looks forward to a pretty clean report.She told the Times that the City has been cleaning up its act for the last few years:

[C]hanges have included keeping better records, requiring more documents to back up costs, providing subrecipients with additional training and manuals and working more closely with the finance department to reconcile accounts.

Consultants have also been brought on to help the three-member staff develop and submit the annual and five-year plans, do environmental reviews, visit properties for the housing rehabilitation program and work with contractors.

“This is a daily process,” Rogers said. “This is not something that we’re sitting back and just kind of letting go. … If you were to look at files now versus previous files, it’s a world of difference in terms of the amount of documentation we maintain now to support the dollars that are being spent.”

I hope that the Director’s optimism is well-founded. I hope this latest monitoring visit finds no new problems, and only progress toward finally resolving old ones.

And I am glad that Ms. Rogers spoke on the record with the Times. After initially requesting a meeting with me to discuss my findings, she failed to respond further after I asked to record any such conversation, for the record.

I am disappointed, however, in one voice NOT heard at all over the last several weeks since this problem came to light. Just as he remained silent for over a year on the matter of the aftermath of the Innovative Payroll Services (IPS) theft in 2015 of nearly $5 Million Dollars of City Money, Mayor Eric Jackson has said not one word on the long-running problems the City has had with HUD and other Federal agencies. He hasn’t explained to the people of the City what the Federal designation of Trenton as a “High Risk Grantee of Federal Funds” has meant to the way the City has administered its programs and services since we were tagged with that label in 2015.

Mayor Jackson has shown over the last few weeks that he is happy to appear in public to share good news, even when it’s not of his making, such as when he appeared with Governor Christie to announce new state funding for Trenton’s parks, or when he again appeared with the Governor to announce state funding to demolish several vacant and crumbling City-owned houses and buildings. When there is good, photogenic news to share, Eric Jackson is all over it.

But when the news is bad, Eric Jackson is nowhere to be found.

Since the IPS scandal broke, the Mayor ignored several requests, made in this space and via direct email, for him to explain what actions were being taken to ensure that such theft by city contractors could never happen again. He maintained radio silence up until the day he was directly asked, face-to-face, at a neighborhood meeting, and finally could no longer duck the question.

I am glad that Director Rogers went on the record, on behalf of the Administration, to explain the HUD problems. But I think that voice in the Times should have been Mayor Jackson’s, not one of his Directors.

And I think the Administration should have informed Trenton’s citizens of this kind of problem much earlier, on their own, before being pressed by revelations made by the press and by one lone blogger. My emails to the City asking for comment and answers on the HUD matter, responded to by Director Rogers, were also addressed to Mr. Jackson. I haven’t received one reply from him. And that’s been his SOP for the last three years.

In two instances now, one involving a theft of FIVE MILLION DOLLARS, and one involving paying back THREE MILLION DOLLARS, Eric Jackson hasn’t said a word. If he won’t talk about problems worth this kind of big money, what will he talk about?

Keep these things in mind over the next several months. We have city elections again next Spring, and movement is already under way for what will be some interesting campaigns. I suspect that the recent “good news” announcements over the last weeks – especially by a Governor who has hardly given a shit for this town for over seven years – might be conveniently timed to give a early pre-election boost to Mr. Jackson’s re-election fortunes.

Keep this in mind, as you decide if Mr. Jackson’s record over the last three years will lead you to lend your support to him for another four.

I’ve already decided. In my humble opinion, a man who will only claim the spotlight to share in the good news or the accomplishments of others, and who then shuns it in the aftermath of bad news to avoid accountability, is providing Poor Leadership to the people of this City. There are simply no other words for it.

Claiming credit for Good News – and owning up to the Bad – is also part of the “Daily Process” of government. The one goes with the other, in equal measure. Or, it should. We don’t see that from this guy.

Based on these last three years, Mr. Jackson has not earned another term as Trenton’s mayor.

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