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Notes From a Debacle

I attended Trenton’s City Council meeting last night, intending to speak in opposition to proposed Ordinance 18-1, a measure to appropriate $6 Million Dollars in capital funding to buy equipment and pay for other infrastructure-related improvements for the troubled Trenton Water Works (TWW). This proposal was scheduled for the First Reading. If approved at First Reading, ordinances are then scheduled for a Second Reading and Public Hearing at a later date. This two-step process is intended to ensure that proposals to be made into law (an Ordinance) are thoroughly examined and debated by Council, and provides for adequate public input at the Public Hearing.

As it happened, before the meeting was opened to public comment, Council President and West Ward Member Zachary Chester called for a motion to introduce the proposed Ordinance. No one spoke. There were only four members in attendance at that time – besides Mr. Chester were Marge Caldwell Wilson, Phyllis Holly-Ward, and George Muschal; Alex Bethea would join slightly later – but none offered a motion. Without such a motion, the Ordinance died. For now.

Since it was not defeated, simply not introduced, a similar measure could be introduced successfully at a later time. That being the case, I proceeded to read my prepared remarks anyway, to get my opposition noted for the record. I will post those remarks separately. I need to discuss what took place at last night’s meeting first.

One of my arguments was that for Council to fund now any list of capital projects prepared by the current TWW management might conflict with the priorities of any new management that might be installed at the insistence of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  This is the state agency responsible for overseeing local water utilities in the state, which has been sharply critical of the operation of TWW for years, leading last week to threats by the Department’s outgoing commissioner Bob Martin of a lawsuit if the City did not comply with its demand to turn over management of the Water Works to an outside contractor. As of the beginning of this week, it sure did look like the State would force the City’s hand on giving up control of the Water Works, especially after the rash of several water safety violations affecting TWW’s 225,000 customers in Trenton and county-wide.TWW was cited for a total of 12 violations in 2017 alone, and a total of 16 for the entirety of the term of Mayor Eric Jackson to date.

My concern on this matter was confirmed somewhat by a reading of the actual Ordinance, a copy of which was made available inside Council Chambers, and is available here. According to several documents released to me by DEP in December after I filed an Open Public Records Act last fall, and confirmed as recently as January 5 by Commissioner Martin as reported by Kevin Shea in the Trenton Times, a major capital priority for the State has been repeatedly ignored by the City since at least 2008. As Mr. Shea writes, “In yet another reminder, Martin said the city is far behind and failed to make progress on a January 2014 administrative order to cover the utility’s open-air reservoir in North Trenton.” This reservoir upgrade would, among other things, allow the Water Works to avoid such drastic measures as the system-wide conservation order issued two days ago and still in effect. DEP has been pestering the City to get the Reservoir covered over three different mayoral Administrations. It is that important to them.

As seen in the Ordinance, the City has a vastly different shopping list. Among the items listed in the Ordinance are the following: “the acquisition and installation of water meters, the upgrading and enhancement of computer equipment, the provision of engineering services including general engineering services and engineering services for the Mercerville Tank and the Super Pulsator, interior improvements to the Cortland Street Building [TWW's headquarters], GIS and web design, the acquisition and installation of fire hydrants throughout the City, repairs to various water mains, the acquisition of a building for cold patch and salt, various distribution parking lot improvements and paving, and the acquisition of a mechanical sweeper.”

This capital list is remarkable for a few reasons: none of the cited purposes has anything to do with the Reservoir cover project, subject of “a January 2014 administrative order” as mentioned in the January 5 DEP letter; and it is heavily Trenton-centric, with few obvious improvements for the Mercer County customers outside Trenton’s City limits (other than the Mercerville tank).

This list and this Ordinance seem purpose-made to drive both the State Environmental Protection folks and our neighboring Township customers batshit crazy. The Reservoir project would benefit Trenton almost exclusively, too, but it at least has been mandated by the State (and Federal government, too, although I have not received any documents from the State or the City to document this) for close to a decade.

After the business of the Council was completed, the floor was opened to comments by the Councilmembers. They all spoke about the Water Works.

I took notes during the meeting, and live-blogged some of them. But I cannot do justice to the comments I heard until I receive the audio recording. I’ll be able to properly post the audio and transcribe the remarks of all five Councilmembers who were at the meeting.

For now I will characterize the mood of the meeting as outright defiant, and frankly denialist . They all defended the current TWW management and the Administration, frequently singling out for praise Public Works Director Merkle Cherry and Acting TWW Superintendent Sean Semple by name.

They for the most part refused to accept that the state of the Water situation was as dire as the press and the State made it out to be. The members, especially Mr. Chester, were anxious to pin personal blame on now-former Governor Chris Christie for ramping up the situation to crisis mode. According to the members, this was a deliberate attempt on the part of the State top force Trenton to cede control of the Water Works in favor of shadowy, unnamed friends of Mr. Christie.

The conversation was capped by a motion, passed unanimously, for the City to prepare a letter to the State asking for a full investigation of the problems in the Water Works, an effort to separate fact from fiction, and find out exactly what is going on.

To me, this conversation was more than a bit surreal. This motion to ask the State to investigate the Water Works ignores the fact that the State has, in fact, investigated the Water Works several times over the last few years. So have consultants hired and reportable to the City and the Water Works. Council spoke and acted last night as if none of these had happened.

They ignored the report prepared by the City’s consultants Hatch Mott McDonald in 2014, copies of which were requested several times by the State:

dep 8-28-14

They ignored the report delivered in August of last year, written after a Boil Water incident that June:

mott 8-11-17

They ignored this letter from the State dated July 21, 2017, about that same Boil Water incident, which detailed 10 very specific steps TWW had agreed to take as a result of that violation. The City also agreed to follow up on those items “in a detailed report that is to be submitted to this Bureau within fifteen (15) days of receipt of this correspondence.” Needless to say, the City failed to submit such a report.

dep 7-21-17

They ignored this letter of November 3, in which the State reiterates that the City agreed to bring in an outside contractor to run the Water Works on an emergency basis. It was the City’s failure to comply with this agreement by January 5 that led the outgoing Commissioner Martin to write his angry letter.

dep 11-3-17

In short, in their discussion last night, and their unanimous decision to ask the State to prepare a “report,” Trenton’s City Council willfully ignored the last four years – at least! – of history. They are essentially asking for a Reset for their relations with the State, looking for a fresh start with the new Murphy Administration. They believe that all the fault with the Water Works is due to the State and the Stars, and not ourselves, and that all will become well now. There was also a very heavy dose of railing against the Administration’s internal critics, among whom numbers yours truly. A lot of if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us and how-can-we-prevail-against-outside-forces-if we-are-not-internally-united talk. Much of this kind of talk is only to be expected. But there were uglier undertones in some of the comments that were new, and uncalled-for.

That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much. Council was truly delusional last night.

The way ahead is not going to be as easy as Trenton’s Councillors think, mainly because of the 225,000 customers cited by Commissioner Martin, nearly 150,000 of them live outside the City, in parts of Lawrence, Ewing, Hamilton and Hopewell Townships. They’ve received the Lead Notices, the Boil Water Advisories, the Discoloration notes, and the Conservation Orders, and they are pissed. They are pretty convinced that most of the problems lie in Trenton, and are due primarily to chronic understaffing at the Water Works for the better part of a decade. The Murphy Administration represents them, too, and they will not be so amenable to letting Trenton skate out from under its obligations. They won’t think another “report” is needed to figure out what’s going on.

What’s next? Council has scheduled their February 1 meeting to be devoted to an extended discussion of the Water Works, inviting representatives from the State as well as TWW management to make presentations and open to questions from customers, which should include those from outside Trenton. The time is tentatively 5:30 PM, the same as usual. It’s bound to be some evening.

After Council had adjourned, Public Works Director Merkle Cherry, the subject of much of my criticism lately, came up to speak to me. He graciously invited me to make an appointment with him to hear the City’s side of the current situation.

I’d be glad to, I told him. But hasn’t the situation with the State gotten to the point where it might be too late to talk about the City’s “side?”

No, he replied. He didn’t think that this path we are going down with the State will end up with Trenton losing control. Since he came in a year and a half ago, TWW had made a lot of progress, and the problems the State was talking about were overblown.

Let me ask you one question before we go, I said. Of the 12 violations TWW was cited for in 2017, how many did he think were illegitmate?

He took some time to answer me. Well, he said, they were all legitimate. But, he assured me, they were the sort of problems that every water system, even the best regarded, run into now and then.We shook each hands and we left Council Chambers. I intend to follow up on Mr. Cherry’s offer to chat, although I will insist it be on the record.

The sort of problems every water system run into every now and then? Even the best ones?

Perhaps. But 12 times in one year?

Now, I don’t attend every Council meeting. But I have attended several over more than a dozen years. Many have been non-productive acts of political theater, mainly during the Tony Mack years, and especially when the Felonious Former Occupant of Trenton’s Mayor’s Office himself participated. There were many times where I wondered how in the world Trenton could function as well as it has. as barely as it had.

But I have never seen a meeting like last night. There was other business attended to, of course – by the way, the 10-year Tax Abatement for a property owned by Robert Torricelli was approved, 3-1, with George Muschal the sole vote against – but the overall tone was dominated by the situation at the Water Works.

And Council, to a one, was in denial about the severity of the problem. They were overly optimistic about the City’s future prospects, and more than willing to apportion most of the blame for TWW’s current state to the former Christie Administration, especially the former Governor himself; leaving plenty to spare to the Administration’s many critics.

To be continued, without a doubt! What happens next is sure to be interesting. I’m not sure how much will be good for the City of Trenton, its taxpayers, and the customers of its Water Works.

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