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Why We Can't Have Nice Things - Chapter 735

So, I’d heard that during the last City Council meeting on December 7, Council President and West Ward Member Zachary Chester had called out a member of the public sitting in the Council Chamber, for posting on social media during the meeting about the proceedings. That struck me as very odd.  Any kind of observation like that by any member of Council, not to mention the Presiding Member, sounds very inappropriate to do.

It also strikes me as very impolitic, since such a comment about someone posting on social media during a Council meeting would mean that the Council member making that comment… had to be reading social media during a Council meeting. Which is kind of, oh I don’t know, not what a Council member is supposed to be doing during a Council meeting! Especially the member who is presiding over that same meeting.

I’ll discuss this more below. For now, let me just say that yes, Council President Chester did indeed call out – not by name, however, not directly – a member of the public for making social media comments. How about that.

I was able to confirm that happenstance because I had received, as the result of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, a copy of the audio recording made by the City Clerk’s office of that meeting. And to find the time in the session when Mr. Chester had made his social comment, I listened to the whole session.

Oh, boy.

You can listen as well, if you like. I have posted the recording at this link.  Much of the first part of the meeting was devoted to Public Comment about the proposed Ordinance, #17-80, to grant a 10-year property tax abatement to a property owned by a company owned by real estate developer and disgraced former US Senator Robert Torricelli. This proposal has received some amount of attention, and was the subject of universally negative comments by the public at the December 7 meeting. Despite this, Council unanimously (5-0, with members Holly-Ward and Muschal not present) to approve the proposal in first reading. Council will review for second reading and final approval at its next regular meeting, this coming Thursday at 5:30 PM.

In listening to the rest of the Council session, I came across the following exchange, which I have transcribed from the audiotape. At the closing stage of the meetings, Civic Comments, two-term At-Large Member and declared candidate for Mayor Alex Bethea made this request (at 59:00 Minutes, if you’d care to listen):

“I only have one comment tonight, and that’s what’s going on with our water. I see stuff in the paper I didn’t read but I’ve been getting phone calls. The water is turning color, and it’s not good for human consumption, as well as taking baths and cooking. Can anyone give me an update on the status of our water here in the City of Trenton?”

First, a comment. This guy has been a Council member for close to eight years. He’s now running for Mayor. This meeting was held on December 7, many days after this space broke news about how the severe understaffing issues at the Trenton Water Works has led to takeover threats from the State. Also many days after the local newspapers started reported this story.

And Bethea hasn’t read any of the “stuff in the paper?” Really? Probably one of the most crucial current problems staring the City of Trenton in the face, and he hasn’t read anything about it? And he is seeking “anyone” to give him the information he hasn’t bothered to obtain himself?

This, by itself, should be enough to disqualify the man from any future elected position in the City. Alex Bethea has long had a (well-deserved, in my opinion) reputation of being under-informed, incurious, and generally not equipped for the duties of a Councilman. If anyone was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that he would up his game when running for Mayor of Trenton, this should pop that bubble. The man is clueless and entirely incapable of elected public office. Of course, I thought that about another  guy a few years ago, and he’s now President.

To reply to Mr. Bethea’s question, Public Works Director Merkle Cherry stepped up to the podium. His response:

“The City of Trenton continues to provide safe, high quality water. There is no truth to any rumor or statement that the water is not fit for consumption. As we know, the Trenton Water Works has some challenges. They were identified.  As you would do with any problem, you do an assessment, you identify the problem, you develop strategies to address the problem, and then you execute those strategies.”

I like the recitation of his four-stage Problem Resolution process. It’s well-suited to be used in any situation, in any business, in any industry. It’s also empty of any specific information. For one thing, by the evening of December 7, it had been abundantly clear that The Problem afflicting the Water Works is the fact that it only employs “one-third of the staff needed to operate the system,” in the exact words of the State’s Environmental Protection Director, Bob Martin.

Seems like no one in the City – not Director Cherry, nor his boss Mayor Eric Jackson, nor anyone on Council – has really, truly even done an honest assessment of that problem. Let alone “develop strategies to address the problem.” Otherwise, we would not be in the position of developing emergency plans to turn over operation and management of the Water Works to outside contractors!

Director Cherry went on to describe the most recent water problem to receive public attention, the purplish discoloration spotted by some customers on Sunday, December 3:

“The most recent one, regarding the discoloration of a substance that’s a point of entry treatment substance which is basically used to control the color and taste of the water. The staff identified what the problem was, it was contained in a fairly finite area, and they took the proper steps. And if you read the papers, one of the things that was right, the representative from the Department of Environmental Protection indicated such. It was not something that was unusual, it’s happened in other places before, and it was dealt with properly. “

Missing from this response are a lot of things. For example, a specific identification of the substance in question, identified in the Trentonian as potassium permanganate. Director Cherry should also have explained in more detail just what happened to cause this discoloration. He should also have described just how “it was dealt with properly,” as well as what measures were being taken to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

You know, “strategies to address the problem,” and specific action to “execute those strategies.”

I suppose that Director Cherry wasn’t that concerned about the whole matter, because he dismissed it as “not something that was unusual, it’s happened in other places.”

Perhaps. But coming right on the heels of the news about the perilous state of the Water Works, Director Cherry and the Administration in which he serves, should have used the occasion of the first regular Council meeting since the news broke to do more to make people feel safe.

Not this Administration. Steady as she goes, is Merkle Cherry’s, and Eric Jackson’s response.

After Mr. Cherry spoke, Mr. Chester added a comment, to express his feelings on the Water situation. At 1:05 on the tape, Council President Chester said,

“My concern with the water, and this is an ongoing problem with the City of Trenton, and that is communication. That’s our problem, is communication.”

That’s right. Communication. TWW is staffed at only 1/3 what’s required. It’s experienced several instances of interrupted service this year. The patience of the State has run out, and we are in the process of losing functional control of the Water Works, and Mr. Chester is concerned about… communication.

“But from our end, we have to put out the right information. We have to do that. And it can’t be five hours  from when someone put something on Facebook. Because Facebook moves like this  [tapping noises]. And we’re always caught,  at the tail end, trying to play catchup. But by that time, all the naysayers are saying everything they want to say. And when our statement comes out… So we need a better way of communicating with the residents of the City.”

To be sure, the City is horrible at communicating with its residents and customers elsewhere in Mercer County. But Communication is hardly the most important part of the problem with Trenton’s Water.

This exchange – and I really do suggest you listen yourselves to this – proves yet again how we have gotten to this state, where we will likely lose the Trenton Water Works as a City of Trenton owned-and-operated asset. This is why we can’t have nice things.

To pick up where I started this piece: it was during these comments of Mr. Chester that he talked about social media:

“And there has to be a way, that when we have an issue, something is put together that is put out to the community, so that the community knows what’s going on. Based on, and we’re in this social media age, and there’s another thing I’m going to address on social media, someone sat right here tonight, and put out misinformation on social media. Just tonight. But, so when I was made aware there was purple in the water was when my Council colleague reached out to everyone.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

So Mr., Chester, apart from reading Facebook while running his Council meeting, also apparently believes that what this unnamed citizen was writing was “disinformation.” I’m at least glad he didn’t call it “fake news,” although the charge is identical. And just as wrong.

To finish, some unsolicited advice to Council and the Administration.

Please pay some attention to the Water Works. It is too late to keep operations and management with the City, but please try to find a good company to run it in such a way that won’t cause our rates to skyrocket. On top of this year’s property tax hikes, that wouldn’t be cool.

Focus on communication, by all means yes. But, better to focus on the substance of what you communicate! In this case, assurances that our water is safe and that past problems will not repeat.

Don’t accuse your citizens of “disinformation,” Council members. You sound like the City’s Director of Communications.

And, Mr. Chester? Try to stay off Facebook during your meetings. Or at least don’t admit to it in open session.

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