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Pulling a Fast One?

The current membership of Trenton’s City Council met for its final session last Thursday, June 21. The Agenda and Docket was pretty fat, chock full of last-minute items requiring action before new Council members and a new Mayor are sworn in this coming Sunday.

One item was not listed on the Agenda and Docket. It was walked into Thursday’s session without adequate public notice. It was Resolution #18-456, which proposed to grant a three-year contract, with options to be extended for a 4th and 5th year, for $1.2 Million Dollars to a Moorestown company called Parkeon Inc. for “parking meters and kiosks” and ancillary items and services to go along with the new parking hardware.

By itself, the last-minute inclusion of a Million Dollar-plus contract in the final Council session of this Council and this Administration should have sent up some red flags among the Council members. Since I didn’t attend the meeting, I don’t know if any of the members expressed any objections or asked any questions during the meeting. I emailed each member yesterday afternoon asking about this Resolution, and asked if there were any special emergency circumstances or other factors which required immediate action on this last-minute proposal. As of 4:00 this afternoon I have received no responses from any member.

Now, it should be said that, as far as I can tell, including a last-minute agenda item without adequate public notice isn’t illegal. Under the NJ Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), N.J.S.A. 10:4-8 d., “Adequate Notice” is defined in part as “written advance notice of at least 48 hours, giving the time, date, location and, to the extent known, the agenda of any regular, special or rescheduled meeting, which notice shall accurately state whether formal action may or may not be taken” [Emphasis mine - KM]. That qualifier on the agenda – “to the extent known” – leaves a very large loophole for an Administration and Council to drive a truck through. Last-minute stuff happens. It just does. And not just in Trenton.

Even though I haven’t heard back from any Council members, it looks as if this last-minute Resolution for $1.2 Million didn’t seem to bother any of them at all. The Resolution was passed unanimously, 6-0, Member Phyllis Holly-Ward being absent. I asked City Clerk Dwayne Harris yesterday for a copy of the Resolution and the support materials provided to Council last week. The Clerk sent it to me, and it is available at the link provided above.

After looking at the Resolution, and other documents on the City website in connection with this proposal, I think Council should actually taken a closer look at this deal. In fact, I think they should have shot it down. Better yet, the Administration should not have submitted this to Council last week. At all.

If this Resolution and the contract with Parkeon have not been signed by outgoing Mayor Eric Jackson, they will be well advised to put this whole thing on hold, and let the new Council and Administration evaluate and deal with this matter. Properly.

A little background.

Anyone who’s looked to park in Trenton’s downtown knows that it’s pretty screwed up down there, and has been for years. Meters are frequently broken, and enforcement by the City is inconsistent, allowing state workers to park all day in curbside spots meant for short-term use only. Neighborhood merchants, as represented by the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) have long been upset that potential customers are not giving them their business because they can’t find nearby parking.

This is not a new issue. At least as far back as 2013, the State Department of Community Affairs (DCA) made it a condition for receiving that year’s Transitional Aid Award of $25.4 Million “that the city work with the Trenton Parking Authority and a parking consultant to come up with a new plan, due July 1, to boost enforcement and collection of parking fees,” in the words of a Trenton Times (remember them?) article of the time. I also commented on the issue back then.

However, the City blew off that deadline. The State allowed the Transitional Aid money to go through.  And nothing has pretty much happened in the intervening five years.

Well, not exactly nothing. The “plan” we owed DCA back in 2013 was actually written, and published in 2015. However, nothing came of that plan. Spokesperson for the Jackson Administration Michael Walker told the Times in March 2015, “‘We haven’t had a chance to really look at it,’ Trenton spokesman Michael Walker said, declining to comment on the specific findings or recommendations.”

The City never apparently “had a chance to really look at it,” because yet ANOTHER study was done, resulting in ANOTHER plan published in January 2017.  This version actually led to a real result.

The City issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) that resulted in 6 bids, which were opened on June 1, 2017. For reasons that I haven’t been able to find out as of this morning, none of those bids were accepted. The City re-posted another RFP, and that led to another round of six bids opened on February 1 of this year. Three of these vendors had also bid last year. And it was one of those three, Parkeon Inc, that the City chose as its recommended vendor and presented to Council last week.

In this post today, I won’t get into the substance of each proposal. I won’t address the qualifications of the company, Parkeon, that the Administration recommended. There may be occasion to do that in the future.

I think the way the City conducted its evaluation is fatally flawed. That’s what I’m talking about in this piece.

The first thing that jumps out is the fact that these proposals were opened by the City on February 1. It wasn’t until June 21 that the City made its recommendation to Council? What happened here?

It’s not at all clear from the documentation that’s available. The text of the Resolution states that Council authorized bidding for Parking services back in 2017, and it mentions that six proposals were opened on February 1, 2018. The Resolution does not mention the first round of bids in 2017, and it is silent on why the first round was rejected.

The Resolution also cites the NJ Local Purchasing Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:11-4.4, as the authority under which the City can enter into this kind of proposal and contract.

However, the Resolution fails to mention a relevant section of the Purchasing Law, 40A:11-4.5 e., which states “Award of a contract shall be made by resolution of the governing body of the contracting unit within 60 days of the receipt of the proposals, except that the proposals of any vendors who consent thereto, may, at the request of the contracting unit, be held for consideration for such longer period as may be agreed” [Emphasis mine - KM].

According to this provision, the City had until April 1 to award the contract. In the text of the Resolution, there is no mention of any reason for the delay until June 21. Neither is there any indication that any or all of the six vendors who submitted proposals consented to any delay.

On the face of it, this should have been reason enough for Council to reject this Resolution. Instead, as mentioned above, Council approved this, unanimously.

I wrote above that the Trenton Downtown Association has for years been involved with the City on this issue, since their concerns about the lack of available parking for customers directly affects their businesses and personal livelihoods. They were taken by total surprise that the City moved on this issue last week, which was not what they had been told. In an email sent yesterday to TDA Board members, local realtor Anne LaBate wrote,

At our meeting last Tuesday [June 19] we discussed the on-going interest on the TDA in being involved as the City moves toward a decision on upgraded parking meters. The TDA Parking Committee had requested that we be included in seeing demonstrations of the technology being considered.  That has not happened thus far.

Folks who were in attendance will recall that we were told that this matter was not on the City Council Docket for Thursday’s meeting which would be the last meeting during this Council’s term and so this would be dealt with under the next administration.

In fact, a resolution was walked in to the Council meeting at the last minute and it was voted on with the council accepting the recommendation of the administration. It apparently calls for a $1.2 million expenditure.  The Council voted unanimously to approve the contract.

I think we might want to consider a communication from TDA to the mayor and council, asking them to hold off until the downtown business community have been able to participate in a qualitative way in this process.  Individuals and business owners can certainly, on our own, communicate with our elected officials. [Emphasis mine - KM]

TDA seems to have been under the specific impression that what the Administration and Council did on June 21, would not have been done. In a phone conversation this afternoon, the Chairman of the TDA Board, Willard Stanback confirmed to me that the June 21 vote to award the contract to Parkeon was entirely unexpected.

For several months, a committee of TDA members had been working with DPW Director Cherry and his department colleagues to discuss the ongoing process. The City had even shared the six proposals received with TDA Executive Director Tom Gilmore. Mr. Stanback told me he had no knowledge of why the first, 2017, round of proposals had been rejected. However, as late as May 30, in a meeting with Mr. Cherry, the City gave TDA no hint that the current contract process would move to conclusion by the end of June.

Mr. Stanback was taken by surprise on hearing of the June 21 vote. He said he called City Clerk Harris on Friday morning. According to Mr. Stanback, Clerk Harris initially didn’t even know a vote on the matter had been taken the night before. In fact, says Mr. Stanback, “No one I spoke to at City Hall knew what had happened until after the fact. ”

But wait, there’s more! The way the City conducted its evaluation of the six proposals looks also to be seriously flawed, at least based on the available documentation.

The Department of Public Works, which would supervise this contract and currently headed by Director Merkle Cherry, assigned three Evaluators to score each of the proposals:

  • Alexis Durlacher, Trenton PD
  • Anthony Santora, Principal Traffic Analyst, Dept of Public Works
  • Colin Cherry, Management Assistant, Admin Department, and son of DPW Director Cherry

There are problems with Colin Cherry’s score sheets.

First, there is the potential conflict of Interest with the Director’s Son scoring proposals for his father’s department. Regardless of anything else, if a losing bidder or bidders felt they should have scored better, they can always bring a nepotism charge in support of any complaint or litigation. I don’t know how far that would go, but it’s a situation that could easily have been avoided by using another person to evaluate the proposals.

More important is that Cherry’s scoring sheets are wacky. He clearly did not pay attention to the instructions. This is supposed to be a weighted score sheet, with four categories being assigned 25% of the overall weight. Each category was to be assigned scores from 1 to 10, with the maximum score possible in each category being 2.5. A perfect score for a vendor’s proposal would be 10.

Here’s an example of a correct scoring sheet, from Ms. Durlacher (Page 9 of the Resolution):

durlacher1

Pretty simple and straightforward stuff, right?

Well, look at Cherry’s scoresheets (Pages 22-27). His category scores range from a low of 10 up a high of 25. His total scores range from 13.75 up to 23.5. Here’s one of them:

cherry1

These scoresheets should have been thrown out. When you read “Score 0-10 (10 is High),” how can you give a 25??

I don’t know whether the scoring process would be considered tainted if only two evaluators – instead of three – submitted valid sheets. The Local Purchasing Law is silent on the specific evaluation process to be used. But again, if I were one of the losing bidders, I’d be pretty upset that these scoresheets would have been used to evaluate the proposals.

This is troubling on several counts:

  • As I mentioned above, the City would be vulnerable to litigation filed by any of the losing bidders.
  • That a Management Assistant of several years tenure could screw up the simple math of these sheets is troubling.
  • That no one else in Purchasing or Public Works noticed these flawed scoresheets before submitting them to Council is troubling.
  • That the BA didn’t notice these flawed score sheets before submitting them to Council is troubling.
  • That no Council member noticed the flawed sheets is troubling.
  • That Council agreed to take action on this on Thursday without adequate notice is troubling.
  • That all proposals were submitted back in February, and rushed through Council – without objection – is troubling.
  • That there is no attempt in the documentation to acknowledge that this Resolution was offered much later than the 60-day time limit authorized by State law, is troubling.
  • That these proposals were received in February and no one reached out to TDA about them, is troubling.
  • And, as mentioned above, that the screwed-up scoresheets were submitted by the Public Works Director’s son is troubling.

This is yet one more fuckup by this outgoing Administration and Council. Based on what is available in the public record, it sure looks to me like the City was just trying to pull a fast one in getting this fatally flawed proposal process completed and get a contract signed and on the books before the end of this week and the end of their term.

What we don’t know is why.

And we don’t know why this Council signed off on this Resolution without any opposition. Their last act in office was to rubber stamp this very sketchy proposal this Administration slid in under the wire. The only returning Council Members, George Muschal and Marge Caldwell-Wilson, ought to have known better.

But you know what? That’s really not that important right now.

What is important is that – despite the unanimous approval by the outgoing Council – this deal be stopped, at least for the time being, until the fatal flaws in the evaluation and execution of this proposal can be reviewed and fixed by the new Council and Mayor.

Eric Jackson should let this deal die along with his term in office.

2 comments to Pulling a Fast One?

  • Richard Hunter

    Kevin:

    Thank you for this. This is even more screwed up than I could have imagined. Concur 100% with what you are asking for here. No way should this contract go forward without a thorough review by the incoming City administration.

    Richard Hunter
    Hunter Research
    120 West State Street
    Trenton, NJ 08608
    TDA Board member and TDA parking committee member

  • Stanback Willard Alonzo

    Thanks for your inquiry and observations, Kevin. I for one do not know the future of the contract awarded, but do know that TDA intends to work collaborative with the new administration – not just on this issue (parking), but on every issue that may, in any form or fashion, have an impact upon the landlords, businesses, workers, residents and visitors of our downtown. There’s quite a lot that can be done and a large percentage of those activities / actions should be done.

    Willard Alonzo Stanback
    TDA Board Chair and
    Downtown Property Owner