… Small Things can actually provide Big Lessons.
In a piece earlier this morning, I reported that the City did provide me some material at the end of yesterday about the Official Trenton City Christmas tree to substantiate statements made on the record by Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson earlier this week. Material that the City claimed did not exist when it replied to my December Open Public Records Act request.
Among that material disclosed yesterday was a graphic for an advertisement which the City claimed to have appeared in the Trenton Times in October. I also said I was looking to verify that claim.
This afternoon, Jenna Pizzi of the Trenton Times confirmed for me that the advertisement did in fact appear in the Times in five of their October issues.
The Times charged the city $270 for the five ad placements. The charge was approved by the City of Trenton by means of a city Purchase Order, # R5-01959 in that amount.
Since the ads appeared, the City has been billed, but as of today that bill remains Unpaid.
Let’s review, shall we?
The City of Trenton cut down one of its own trees, a strapping 40-year old Norway Spruce – I’ve been talking about him so much, I feel he needs a name of his own. I will call him Sven – as the Mayorally-described “Best Option” to provide a holiday tree. Because, according to the Mayor, there was no money to buy one, and no one was stepping to donate an adequate tree.
Before that, the City committed to spend $270 to advertise for a donation. Hundreds of dollars the City presumably doesn’t have, not to actually buy a tree or decorations, but to advertise.
But, the City hasn’t actually spent that money, because they are so far stiffing the Trenton Times for the bill from back in October!
And, it took the City of Trenton one entire month to officially notify me, with the legally-required response to my OPRA request - that they had NO PUBLIC RECORDS about the matter.
But in the last 24 hours, the City has found an ad graphic and two photographs. And a local city reporter tells me about an Official Trenton Purchase Order that exists somewhere, supposedly. I wonder what else will be revealed?
I’ve asked the City, again, if there is Anything Else they’d like to get off their chest.
Have I covered everything?
Now, why exactly do you think I have so many doubts and concerns about this Administration?
The conversation started out about Trees. We have now apparently moved on to Straw Men.
In this morning’s Trentonian the perpetually confused LA Parker, speaking no doubt for many who don’t quite understand the principles at issue here, thinks that we’ve talked enough about the raid on Trenton’s Franklin Park in December which liberated a perfectly healthy, 40-year old, 35-foot Norway Spruce tree for temporary use of about 3 weeks as the official 2014 Christmas tree in from of City Hall, on its way to be mulched.
At the very end of a long, rambling piece that drew mostly on several strong childhood memories associated with trees (Hey! do you think LA heard the news about Harper Lee’s new novel? Sure sounds like somebody dusted off their copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” yesterday ), Scout, uh, Mr. Parker concludes with what he surely intended to be a statement that would put an end to all this tree talk. “There is not a tree alive, no birch, pine, poplar, spruce, maple, oak, chestnut, or ash with more significance than human life.”
Of course, a tree is not worth a human life. Duh!
The thing is, LA, no one has been saying that. Not Lisa Kasabach, head of “Trees for Trenton,” quoted today by Mr. Parker and last week in the Times as being critical of the city’s act of arboricide. And not any of the unnamed “others” (whoever THEY may be…) who, how did LA put it? Oh, yeah, “blurted out their disappointment” over the incident.
Mr. Parker also tries to put the matter in context by saying “[T]his is not the end of the world nor is this tree issue more important than education, public safety, drug addiction, or myriad Trenton problems.”
And that is another straw man. Parker is falsely attributing outrageous claims to his opponents, which makes him sound much more reasonable when he knocks those claims, the straw man, down.
But the thing of it is, No one is saying any of this!
No one, that is, other than Mr. Parker.
There are certainly other issues facing the city. I’ve written about a few over the years. Not one of them precludes saying anything about any others.
For instance, when Mr. Parker wrote about the new Cadwalader Park tennis facility as being a great and valuable addition to the city, did anyone say “a tennis court is not more important than education, public safety, drug addiction, or myriad Trenton problems”?
Or when he headlined “Trenton High should be able to save the clock tower,” who wrote in response, “There is not a clock tower alive, no big hand, no little hand, clock face, big bell, springs, gears or counterweights with more significance than a human life”?
So, for Mr. Parker to wag his finger at Ms. Kasabach and … the Others… about this, he’s picking the wrong target and using the wrong tools.
As so often happens with him, he actually made a point that got to the heart of the matter. However, not realizing what he’d done, he blithely ran right past it and didn’t return for the rest of his piece. He wrote, “While city officials acted inappropriately, this unfortunate extraction can be remedied with a replacement tree and an apology.”
And that, in a nutshell, is exactly the point. Trouble is, so far, we haven’t seen anything approaching an apology. Which, you know, kind of requires ad admission that the original action was somehow, sorta, WRONG. That mistakes were made. Policies not followed. Laws possibly broken. An apology, we are nowhere near.
“City spokesman Michael Walker said Jackson is a supporter of tree planting and would be willing to join Trees for Trenton and other neighborhood associations to plant trees.”
“I care about trees,” Jackson said. “I know their importance to us and I want to make sure we preserve them. I’m always willing to partner with community organizations to make sure we do what is best for the public good. Next time we’ll have more time to work with those who are interested in helping us get the appropriate tree for the city. Once the weather clears up, I would love to meet the community (in Franklin Park) and plant a new tree.”
“We only had two (offers) and they were not feasible for our use,” Jackson said.
So, the Public Works Department decided to use one from Franklin Park, and the decision to cut down the tree was 100 percent within the confines of the law, Jackson said.
And, an OPRA request that I filed responded to with Bupkus.
Not even an “Oops” has been forthcoming.
Yes, Mr. Parker, “this unfortunate extraction can [go a long way towards] be[ing] remedied with a replacement tree and an apology.” Notice that slight editing. Whereas a swift apology and an offer to replace the tree would have been enough to put this issue behind them – and, really, what could have conceivably kept them from doing that when the issue first arose?? – the stubborn and furtive statements and behavior exhibited by the Administration since now require a fuller response. After all, as Harper Lee once wrote, “Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.”
To their credit, City Hall is finally starting to show some life. I wrote yesterday that my December 8 OPRA request for information was closed on January 5 when I was told the City had Not One Piece of information on this in their files. I emailed the Clerk’s Office yesterday, and used Mayor Jackson’s own statements as strongly suggesting there had to be information on which he was basing his statements. I sent that note at 11:34 yesterday. At 3:56, a little over four hours later, I started to receive information that couldn’t be found after one month.
Hey, it’s a start.
Mayor Jackson claimed that advertisements were placed. The city sent a PDF graphic that is claimed ran as an ad in the Times in October. I am seeking to verify this.
Mayor Jackson also claimed that those ads generated two candidates: “one tree was inadequate, Mayor Eric Jackson said, and it was difficult to access the other one,” according to the press account. I was sent two photographs, with no other explanation or description other than a title. Here they are. This is “Bordentown.”
This is “Hightstown”
These look like perfectly lovely, “Ho, Ho, Ho”-worthy candidates. I’d like to know how come these were deemed inadequate.
I’m glad the City is starting to become a little more forthcoming with information. It’s a good start.
“I care about trees, Father” young George said. “I know their importance to us and I want to make sure we preserve them. I’m always willing to partner with parents or other authority to make sure we do what is best for the public good. Next time I’ll have more time to work with those who are interested in helping me get the appropriate tree. Once the weather clears up, I would love to meet the community (here in Virginia’s Stafford County) and plant a new tree.” – Get thee from my sight, you wretched boy, cried his father in transports, before I smack thee; enraged am I, George, that you killed my tree; further that you have wounded me me for it a thousand fold, by showing no hint of remorse or contrition. Such an act of vandalism in my son, is a heart-sickness of more pain than a thousand blows of your hatchet, though laced with iodine, and their stripes of purest lye.
I’m sorry to see that Mayor Jackson just does not get it. The Mayor is still defending the City’s misbegotten decision to harvest a perfectly healthy, 40-year (that’s 4 decades! 2 score!) old, 35-foot publicly owned Norway Spruce tree from the City’s Franklin Park in December for a couple of weeks’ service as Trenton’s Official 2014 City Hall Christmas Tree.
After 40 years of bothering no one in Franklin Park, innocently making oxygen, providing shade and sequestering about one ton of carbon dioxide, our brave Norway Spruce has now been unceremoniously mulched, its 2000 pounds of carbon released into our overburdened atmosphere. Since we are in the dead of winter, we can’t really even hope that the new mulch created by the tree’s passing is sustaining the life of other trees, shrubs, and bushes.
Our plucky little Spruce likely lies unmarked, and unlamented in some local landfill.
Thanks for caring, Mayor Jackson!
All sarcasm aside, I am still upset at the way this entire affair has unwound, and the lengths to which the Administration – and now the Mayor, on record – discount their mistakes and dismiss their failures as trivial in comparison to the great affairs of the City that they are managing. Please, regard how I believe this incident is a perfect lesson – writ large and small – about First, how NOT to first plan and conduct public action; and Second, how NOT to deflect, demur and cover up when coming under criticism after the fact.
In the matter of the first question, I’ve written about this several times already, both last year and this. I will just re-state that the matter of holiday celebrations and decorations are nice and all, but hardly essential civic functions. Especially in a city as broke as Trenton. I do not believe that providing City Hall and other public property with seasonal decorations is a legitimate use of federal funding (which was used last year to buy a tree) or property held and protected by our officials in Indefinite and Permanent Trust for our citizens.
If Mayor Jackson and Council would like holiday decorations, fine. Find donations for them. If those aren’t sufficient, they should dig into their own campaign funds for them. It’s a definitely permitted use of such funds. Spread among 7 Council members and 1 Mayor, how much are we talking about?
And if no funds can be found, then let’s make do with a few wreaths, perhaps some lights, and perhaps some tinsel. That will be fine. After all, the real Holiday Spirit is in our hearts, we’re told. Right???
We don’t NEED a TREE to have the HOLIDAYS!!
Next, How NOT to cover up after the fact.
Is “cover up” a strong term? It is, but it is appropriate here. When the tree first went up at City Hall, I filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for any and all documentation connected with, among other things, the attempt to find a tree by donation, and assurances that the harvest of the tree in Franklin Park was performed legally, in accordance with City Ordinances.
It took from December 8 until January 5 for the City to reply to my OPRA request. On that date, the City Clerk’s office replied that there was nothing on file with the City about this. No documentation, no emails, no permits, nada. So, nothing was furnished to me to satisfy the OPRA request. I thought that unlikely at the time, but didn’t have the chance to follow that up until now.
This morning, in a Trentonian article by Penny Ray, Mayor Eric Jackson was interviewed about the matter. Mr. Ray writes, “The mayor’s office said the city placed advertisements for a 2014 holiday tree donation, but there were few offers: one tree was inadequate, Mayor Eric Jackson said, and it was difficult to access the other one. ‘We only had two (offers) and they were not feasible for our use,’ Jackson said.
That statement has my attention. Advertisements were placed? Offers were received? Two of them? Tell me more.
The City in its official OPRA reply told me they had nothing to show me. According to their official reply, there are no advertisements to show me. No offers for donated trees came in to describe to me.
Which answer is correct? Were there ads, or not? Were there two offers for donated trees, or not? Where I sit, the Mayor and the City’s OPRA response cannot both be correct? Who is wrong?
In my OPRA request, I asked for all documentation that would show and describe the process by which the Franklin Park tree was harvested. Specifically I wanted to see how the city determined that the appropriate city laws were complied with. Along with the rest of my OPRA filing, I got nothing in response to this request.
“So,: Mr. Ray writes, today, “the Public Works Department decided to use one from Franklin Park, and the decision to cut down the tree was 100 percent within the confines of the law, Jackson said.”
How is he so sure? Mr. Jackson is not a lawyer, any more than his unlamented predecessor was. That being the case, how is the Mayor so certain the cutting decision was “100 percent within the confines of the law”?
Who told him that it was? And how?
According to the OPRA response I got, there were no emails or memoes, no phone logs or other notes having ANYTHING TO DO with cutting down this tree.
So, HOW can Mayor Jackson be SO sure?
I’d like to know the reasoning behind this, because the discussion of the city’s Tree ordinance in Mr. Ray’s article bears little resemblance to the ordinance I read.
But some people believe the administration should have held a public hearing to receive feedback from citizens about whether the tree should be cut down. Those residents cite a subsection of the city’s code regulating the removal of trees that says “no tree shall be removed prior to the posting of a notice that a public hearing may be requested to determine whether removal of the tree is necessary to protect the health, safety or welfare of the residents.”
But that passage pertains to the removal of trees that endanger the public’s safety, and the tree removed from Franklin Park posed no danger at all, according to people interviewed for this story. So, what should the city have done?
Well, in my reading of the ordinance, imminent threat to public safety is one way that trees may be removed from public property without an open process. Public safety can be given as a reason at a public hearing requesting the tree’s removal and, it seems to me, about the only criterion that can normally be used to grant permission to harvest a tree. Section 287-4 B. (2) says that the Open Space Advisory Board needs to conduct a hearing to discuss and approve a request to cull a tree. It seems to me, unless there is a public safety reason to do so, the tree stays put according to City law.
In any case, approval has to be provided by the Advisory Board. Which did not happen in this case.
So, what should the City have done, as Mr. Ray asks? Followed the damned law! Held a hearing!!
But, hey! I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know for a certainty what the law is or whether it was followed in this case. The City replied to me that it had nothing at all to show me about this process.
But today, Mayor Jackson is absolutely certain that his actions were “100 percent within the confines of the law.”
Oh, yeah? Show me.
In light of the mayor’s statements on record, I sent an email this morning to the City Clerk as well as others in the Administration who were included on the City’s official OPRA response to me. I have asked them to reconcile their determination that nothing exists on file with the City with the Mayor’s allusion today to advertisements, offers of donation and legal conclusions. I’ll let you know what I hear.
I hope that after all this, you have an idea why I am focusing right now on what is really a small issue in relation to everything else this City and its people face.
In my mind, a series of poor decisions were made, and actions taken that resulted in the unwarranted destruction of city property.
These decisions were made and actions were taken. in my opinion, in disregard for the law.
When an attempt was to secure information about how this happened, a legal OPRA request was stonewalled and ignored.
This morning, the Mayor offers a defense of his actions that seems at odds with information provided by others in the City, alluding to documents and judgments the City denies having.
Yeah, this is a small matter. But the whole way they’ve gone about it – before, during and after – make me think this is Standard Operating Procedure for them. If they cannot be trusted to handle the small things correctly, openly, legally; then how in the world can we trust them with the Big Things?
If the City can use this instance as an occasion to improve its communications; rededicate itself to full legal and ethical compliance with ordinances and proper procedure; and start to come clean with citizens about its actions; then maybe, just maybe, our plucky little Christmas Spruce 2014 will not have died in vain.
Former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer unintentionally hit the nail on the head in his comment made to the Trenton Times this morning. In a piece by Jenna Pizzi about the two most expensive local referenda (sorry, headline writers: 3rd Declension Nominative Plural forms end in -a, not -s) in New Jersey History, Palmer referred to the 2010 Trenton Water Works Vote. In that ballot measure, Trenton voters voted 4-1 against selling suburban assets belonging to the Trenton Water Works. An astroturf “Committee” in favor of the measure spent a whopping $1,200,000 for their 20% vote share, against a citizen’s group expenditure of $13,000 for their 80%.
For Mayor Palmer, this lop-sided, David & Goliath battle taught an important lesson, saying “It [the vote] also shows that money in and of itself isn’t always the deciding factor when you have people in a grassroots way involved in the issue.”
That’s a frightening statement for those many involved in politics. Money, NOT the deciding factor??? A couple of citizens with $13,000 beating big corporations spending $1.2 Million? In the world created by the “Citizens United” decision, where corporate money has been given status as First Amendment protected speech, that is a heretical notion that cannot be allowed to stand!
This may be the main reason that since the 2010 failure of the Trenton sale, the main action on the issue of municipal water ownership in New Jersey has taken place mostly out of public view, in the New Jersey Statehouse.
Legislation has been written, and it has worked its way through the legislature to forestall future grassroots efforts, and make it much more difficult – if not outright impossible – for citizen opposition leading to voter referenda over water utility sales and privatization in Trenton and elsewhere in New Jersey.
If it becomes much more difficult for voters to force a public referendum, that will level the playing field for those companies and interests who covet public assets but whose massive reserves of cash can no longer be depended on to deliver their desired results inside voting booths.
Governor Christie has on his desk (and will surely sign) the 2014 “Water Infrastructure Protection Act” (A3628/S2412), passed overwhelmingly in December by large bi-partisan majorities of the Legislature (our local Senator and Assembly members thankfully voted against it). In the words of the official legislative statement accompanying the bill, this new law “authorizes municipalities to long-term lease or sell their water assets, without any referendum, if an emergent condition exists” [Emphasis mine - KM]. The full text of the bill can be found here.
If a municipality states that an emergency exists with the existing water service, a process can begin that can lead in very short order to a local council vote and state approval and certification to authorize a sale or long-term lease, with minimal public input other than one open hearing. A public effort in opposition would have only a very short time, [EDITED] only 20 days after such certification, to circulate a petition to gain enough signatures – 15% of the number of voters from the preceding state election – to force a referendum.
“Emergency” is broadly defined within the law. Long-term violations or deficiencies in water quality count as emergencies. So does long-term neglect to properly maintain, repair and upgrade facilities and equipment. It’s not hard to think of situations where cash-strapped towns could,hypothetically, starve a water works of investment, maintenance and manpower for years, saving some money in the process, then claim that the inevitable breakdowns have created an emergency that only a private buyer with deep pockets could fix.
It’s not hard at all, is it?
If Trenton’s voters had not decisively defeated that million dollar effort four years ago, I seriously doubt that the Water Infrastructure Protection Act would today be sitting on the Governor’s desk awaiting signature. David beat Goliath, so the effort shifted to try to ensure David wouldn’t get another shot in the future.
Despite the mismanagement of the last few years, I still believe the Trenton Water Works is a valuable public asset, and should remain so. I consider the new state law as little other than a legislated attempt to make the democratic process more difficult for regular citizens, and easier for those who might seek to acquire public assets, at bargain prices, for private gain. This law just makes it easier to steal public water.
I don’t know how this may play in the rest of the state. But here in Trenton, the memory of the 2009-2010 water sale is still fresh. I would hope that any administration and council contemplating a quick and easy asset sale to provide a future short-term budget fix might keep in mind the 80-20 drubbing that the last proposal received, and choose to avoid a repeat of 2010.
It happened once. It could happen again.
18th Century Version, probably around Stafford County, Virginia:
George, said his father, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden? This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”–Run to my arms, you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.
21st Century Version, Trenton, NJ:
Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson presided over the official lighting of the city’s Christmas tree on the front steps of City Hall Friday evening.
The 35-foot Norway spruce did not travel far to become the City Hall’s official tree. It was cut down from Franklin Park and brought to City Hall on Nov. 18, said city spokesman Michael Walker.
Earlier this year the city reached out to residents in search of someone willing to donate an acceptable tree to the city, but the search was ultimately unsuccessful, so they turned to the city’s parks for a tree tall enough to fit the bill, Walker said.
For the second year running, the City of Trenton seems to have had problems with its official City Hall Christmas tree. And although in the grand scheme of things Trentonian this may be a fairly small matter, I offer it as a cautionary example of the damage that continues to be done – in our name – by those who govern this town.
Last Holiday Season, if you recall, in the last discontented winter of the Mack Administration, it looked for a while that a cash-strapped Trenton would do without a tree to grace the front steps on the State Street entrance of City Hall. However the Administration, blessed by City Council, used $450 in Federal Community Development funds to purchase a nice, 20-foot Norway spruce.
I didn’t think that this wasn’t a very productive use of a Federal grant, and suggested that members of Council should each pitch in a few bucks, instead. In the spirit of the Holidays, you know? Take a little of the burden off the taxpayer, you know? To put my money where my mouth was, I along with a few other Trentonians got the ball rolling by sending a few donations to the City.
The ball didn’t roll very far, as it turned out. To my knowledge not one member of Council made any effort to match our donations. In fact, one member actually got indignant at the very suggestion. Anyway, last year’s Christmas spirit was made possible by a generous grant of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ho, Ho, Ho!
This year, for its first Christmas, the Jackson Administration wanted to make sure they had a tree for City Hall. The Times quoted City Spokesperson Michael Walker as saying they looked for someone to donate a tree. That wasn’t successful, so they just cut one down from the city’s Franklin Park. With some ornaments, some lights, presto! Christmas spirit! The tree Lighting made for a nice photo opportunity, and the pictures that ran in the paper are awful pretty.
But now, the holiday season is over. After standing for a month, the tree started coming down yesterday. WPVI-6 got some footage and soundbites from the city crew working in the frigid temperatures we’ve been having. The nice photos will now go into a photo morgue and city archives. The tree will be off to an unknown fate, probably involving a wood chipper and the word “mulch.” About the only thing that will live on past this one month is the stump in the ground where a beautiful, living, healthy 35-foot publicly-owned piece of our outdoor heritage used to thrive.
A Christmas tree is a thing of beauty for a short while, but a stump is forever.
That’s why most people – at least the ones who live in houses on their own lot or property – end up buying their natural Christmas trees from vendors who get their trees from tree farms. Cutting down a tree on one’s own property isn’t something that can be sustained for very long, after all. Most people can easily grasp that fact. The City of Trenton can’t.
City trees, on public park property, should not be seen as a resource that can be harvested for purposes as fleeting or as temporary as a single holiday season. Call me naive, but I don’t think that Franklin Park, or any city Park, should be looked at as a tree farm.
Oddly enough, the Trenton City Code thinks the very same thing. Trenton’s City Ordinances has a lot to say about trees in this town, those that grown on private property as well as those that grow on Public Property. Chapter 287, in fact, is all about Trees. One of the things that our Ordinances insist upon is that trees on public property cannot be easily removed. Language in Section 4B, speaking about trees on Public Property, states that “no tree shall be removed prior to the posting of a notice that a public hearing may be requested to determine whether removal of the tree is necessary to protect the health, safety, or welfare of the residents of the City. [Emphasis mine - KM]” There’s other language that’s relevant, but that’s the key section.
The intent of the city’s laws is clear: trees are valuable, they are protected, and they are definitely not to be harvested for any reason but risk of imminent danger to the City’s residents. For sure, no exception is carved out to allow for use as an “official” Christmas tree.
The city Ordinance is serious about this. It provides that violations of its terms can result in pretty serious punishment. Namely, one or more of the following: a fine of up to $2,000; up to 90 days in the County Jail; and/or up to 90 days of Community Service.
Serious stuff. Definitely not, “Ho, Ho, Ho.” Very “No, No, No!”
So, how did the City choose to raid one of its own parks to cull a hardy Trenton survivor to provide a mere 4 weeks of Comfort & Joy?
I don’t know.
I tried to find out. I filed an Open Public Records Act request on December 8 to get information on the process that was used to select the tree. I specifically asked for documentation showing that the city complied with the requirements of Chapter 287. Like the parts mentioning “posting of a notice,” “hearings,” determining whether the proposed removal is “necessary to protect” Trentonians.
The City’s response came, after some delay, on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps I should not have buried the lede until now, but I am sure you won’t be surprised to read that the response I got from the City was – Nothing. Nada. Zip.
The City cannot tell me, or more likely will not tell me, how this tree was selected or harvested. The City can’t or won’t tell me who was approached to donate for the tree, as Mr. Walker told the press. The City can’t even tell me who donated to last year’s tree. Hello! I can show you my canceled check!!
If you are reading this, you likely: a) are not surprised I got blown off by the City; b) are pretty sure the City did not follow any of the laws regarding Public Property and are attempting to cover up possible liability by one or more persons to avoid possible punishment; and c) do not regard assets and resources belonging to the citizens of Trenton as subject to being casually used, consumed, harvested, destroyed.
And this brings me back to the story of Mr. Washington as told (possibly apocryphally) by Parson Weems., When the young George committed violence against a valuable cherry tree, he ‘fessed up to his father. His father was prouder of the honesty and courageousness shown by his son when he took responsibility for his actions, than he was of the offense itself. This fable has come down to us for more than two centuries, as a lesson about the character of the man called Father of the Nation.
Contrast that, for a moment, with the Administration of the City of Trenton. The City was presented with a request for information, with an unstated but implied suggestion that the festive Holiday Spruce adorning the exterior of City Hall perhaps perhaps may have, in fact, been procured in violation of City laws. Information that we are entitled to have.
Instead of volunteering whatever information and documents it has, even if that information may reveal mistakes or deliberate wrongdoing, The City is clamming up. “We know nothing, we have nothing, we did nothing wrong.”
So, what does that tell you about the character of these guys?
Happy New Year!
As e-mailed 9-25-14:
Dear Mayor Jackson:
For much of the last three months, I have been mostly cautiously optimistic that your new administration is making a promising start to unwinding the massive damage to the City of Trenton and its local government sustained over the last four years. You’ve started to rehabilitate the City’s reputation. It has a long, long way to go, but I’ve generally feel encouraged.
However, amid the many positive signs of progress – the mostly drama-free appointment of department directors and senior staff, early success in winning key grants to help restore the town’s public safety departments, a transition report that lays out an ambitious agenda for your team, mending relationships with Trenton’s neighbors in the County and the State – I still find too many frequent nagging indications that much of the Same Old Business As Usual is back in effect. These are troubling to me, and threaten to undermine a lot of your early progress. Specifically, I refer to the ongoing leftover baggage from your campaign finances that I have been bothered with for months.
Contributions to your campaign from the ICE PAC Political Action Committee and its close association with the Long Marmero law firm raised questions of conflicts of interest and violations of the spirit if not the letter of the city’s Pay-to-Play (P2P) Ordinance in the first weeks of your administration.
The donation to your campaign was specifically cited by the Executive Director of the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) in his call to strengthen New Jersey’s statewide P2P legislation. In his August 14 article in PolitickerNJ.com, ELEC’s Jeff Brindle sees the need for new legislation to “offset some of the increasing influence of independent groups over our electoral system…[and] help to dispel the confusion that often reigns at the local level of politics as evidenced by the situation in Trenton.”
So, to outside but knowledgeable observers we still have a “situation in Trenton!” And unfortunately, for the many signs of forward movement, there is still some leftover baggage from your campaign that, unless corrected, will continue to suggest we will have a “situation” here for some time to come.
Baggage such as we read in today’s Trenton Times. In Jenna Pizzi’s story about the reconstitution and first meeting of the “Mayor’s Economic Advisory Council,” Ms. Pizzi reports that one of the members of this Council is former Senator Robert Torricelli. Mr. Torricelli generously contributed to your mayoral campaign. There is nothing wrong with that by itself.
But Mr. Torricelli’s total contributions exceed the legal minimum allowed under state ELEC law. Unless and until your campaign returns the excess amount – $1,000 – I do not believe it is appropriate for Mr. Torricelli to sit on your Council or any public body of the City of Trenton.
This should not be news to you. I wrote in this space back in April that Mr. Torricelli had, under his own name as well as that of his Woodrose Development LLC, donated to your campaign a total of $3,600, whereas the legal maximum permitted is only $2,600. I wrote on April 22, “Since the maximum donation allowable from any one individual for a campaign is $2600, Mr. Torricelli has exceeded the legal maximum by $1000. Mr. Jackson now has to refund an excess of $1000.”
I reported those numbers based on disclosures made by your campaign’s own ELEC reporting, should there be any doubt of the accuracy of that number.
However, from April 22 to today, as evidenced by your subsequent filings with ELEC, your campaign has failed to return the excess contribution as state law would require. You have not even acknowledged a problem with the excess contribution.
I don’t know why you have not yet done so. But if, as I would hope and expect, you want to focus on the early positive steps you and your Administration have been taking, you should swiftly take action which would help to get rid of much of the baggage carried over from your campaign.
Continuing to ignore this problem – as you have since April – you may risk clouding the productive things you are doing, and help perpetuate a feeling that despite the publicly visible forward motion there is still a “situation in Trenton” under the surface.
Whenever you do things like hold on to that excess money and let Mr. Torricelli sit on your Council, you do a disservice to Trenton’s citizens, and allow a perception that the bad old ethically suspect days are not all behind us.
I don’t want that. I can’t believe you want that either.
The Administration of Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson made a good move yesterday. Mr. Jackson now needs to make another.
A resolution to grant a $20,000 contract for legal services to the law firm of Long Marmero & Associates LLP has been pulled from tonight’s session of Trenton’s City Council, due to serious allegations of ethical violations on the part of the firm, allegations filed by the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) of the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Those allegations are serious enough that I can’t see the City moving forward with this contract proposal. That deal is Dead on Arrival.
The Administration pulled the resolution from tonight’s Council agenda after New Jersey blogger John Paff yesterday brought to light the complaint filed against the firm by the state on February 19 of this year. This filing alleges that a non-attorney administrator working for the firm spent over a 3-year period (2009-2012) nearly $200,000 of client trust account funds – funds which by law must be used only for client-related purposes – to pay other expenses for the firm. This included nearly $70,000 to cover bank account overdrafts (which is pretty remarkable!), a $27,000 payment to firm name partner Douglas Long, and $35K to cover a company payroll.
The firm responded in May with a formal brief filed with the state Supreme Court’s Ethics Committee in May, and the next step will be a hearing on the matter by the Committee. As of this morning, I have no knowledge that one has been scheduled.
In a separate statement reported this morning by Jenna Pizzi in her article for the Trenton Times, Mr. Marmero tried to minimize the severity of these charges, describing them as “several instances of bookkeeping in the past that did not meet technical requirements.”
Despite Mr. Marmero’s attempt to dismiss this as a “bookkeeping” problem, this is all serious stuff, which could lead to several sanctions against the firm, up to and including disbarment. A quick perusal of disciplinary actions taken by the OAE over the last several years readily demonstrates that. Mr. Marmero is whistling past the graveyard if he thinks that repeated trust account violations over three years are just failures to meet “technical requirements.”
The City absolutely correctly concluded that a law firm currently tainted as it is by these charges should not represent the City of Trenton in any new legal matters, and was justified in pulling the resolution. I applaud that action by the City’s Law Department.
It is now up to Mayor Jackson to take the next logical step. During his campaign this Spring, Mr. Jackson’s election fund accepted a February 25 donation of $8,200 made by “ICE PAC,” a political action committee formally known as “Initiate Civic Empowerment,” an entity very closely – in my mind, too closely – associated with Long Marmero. Albert Marmero, the firm’s other name partner, was Treasurer of the PAC for several years, yielding that position to another Long marmero employee. The address for the PAC is the same as the firm. Based on the available evidence, ICE PAC exists primarily as the political action arm of the Long Marmero firm.
The payment to Mr. Jackson – the maximum allowed by State Law – was made less than one week after the OAE filed its complaint. Although no Long Marmero firm funds were included in the contribution, the close association of the law firm’s principals and employees with the PAC surely taints it. He should return the PAC money.
Mr. Jackson should also return $2,600 he received from the Bridgeton Democratic Organization in February. This organization made the contribution to the Jackson campaign mere days after receiving a donation in the exact same amount from ICE PAC. Since the finances of the Bridgeton group are murky – having failed to submit required quarterly reporting to the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission since 2008 – it is impossible to feel comfortable about this donation as well. I noted last month that the timing and sequence of donations from ICE PAC to Bridgeton to Jackson seemed too convenient to be coincidental. And that was before yesterday’s revelation of the state ethics complaint.
Both of these transactions have looked strange to me since April. The murkiness and the aroma have only increased since then. It’s not going to look any better any time soon. The Jackson Administration made a good move yesterday to cut ties with the Long Marmero firm. The Jackson Campaign needs to make a clean break as well. These two donations need to be returned ASAP.
I’ve repeatedly criticized Mr. Jackson and his campaign for this and other problems that the candidate, now Mayor, stubbornly refused to address. Despite some encouraging action and rhetoric coming out of City Hall from the still new Administration and its friends in county, state and federal government, incidents like these will cloud the Administration’s efforts if they continue to linger and are ignored until revelations like yesterday’s come into the light.
I also frequently quote Mr. Jackson’s own words on these matters, because they are true on their own, and because Mr. Jackson publicly and clearly set a high bar for his expectations for himself in office, and all those of his administration.
In March of this year, in the midst of the mayoral campaign, Candidate Jackson wrote, “[T]he next mayor has to lead by example. Municipal government is only as strong, ethical and transparent as its leader. The mayor must make it clear to every employee working for the city and its independent agencies that there is zero tolerance for corruption, personal enrichment or dishonesty.”
Mr. Jackson has an opportunity today to lead by example. He needs to show us what zero tolerance means to him.
He needs to return these two tainted donations.
A version of my Tuesday post on the loopholes in Trenton’s Pay-to-Play Ordinance has been published as an opinion piece in this morning’s Trenton Times. Thanks to the editors of The Times for recognizing the importance of this issue, and for giving me space in their print edition today.
The opinion piece was written and submitted before last night’s news that the proposed legal services contract with the Long Marmero & Associates law firm, as well as another proposal from the firm of Eric M. Bernstein & Associates, have been withdrawn from consideration at tonight’s City Council meeting, at the request of the NJ Department of Community Services (DCA). DCA asked to review the two contracts, likely as a result of the questions that have been raised about the relationship between Long Marmero and the ICE PAC Political Action Committee.
ICE PAC earlier this year made a donation to the Eric Jackson campaign on February 20 this year, Check #1056 in the amount of $8,200, the maximum allowable under state law. The Treasurer of ICE PAC is Albert Marmero, a name partner of the firm. The PAC’s address is the same as the Long Marmero firm. Eric Bernstein has been a contributor to ICE PAC for the last three years, according to records filed by the Committee with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Mr. Marmero and David Minchello, Trenton’s Law Director, deny that these matters violate Trenton’s city ordinance, and are perfectly legal due to provisions in the city’s law that are effectively loopholes.
Still, DCA asked to review the situation, suspending these two proposed legal contracts, while allowing others tonight to be considered by Council. Director Minchello doesn’t see this move as a roadblock. In today’s Trenton Times article by Jenna Pizzi, Mr. Minchello is quoted as saying, “‘We hope to receive the approval of the DCA’… The additional review, he said, is ‘just in an abundance of caution.’”
Mr. Minchello should be prepared to wait a while for the result of that review. It’s likely to involve some investigation by ELEC on a couple of other ICE PAC-related transactions involving the Jackson campaign.
Back in April, in a piece discussing what I considered to be several puzzling items in Mr. Jackson’s campaign finances, I noticed a contribution from the “Bridgeton Democratic Organization” to Jackson’s campaign, in the amount of $2,600, on February 25 of this year, as can be seen on the Jackson ELEC report for the first three months of this year, filed on April 14 and available here.
I didn’t have a clue then, and still don’t, about what interest a municipal Democratic Committee in Cumberland County would possibly have in Trenton’s non-partisan mayoral election that would lead them to make such a large donation.
At the time I wrote that, I couldn’t look any further into that transaction, both because ICE PAC had not filed any of the legally-required reports with ELEC since 2012, and the Bridgeton Democratic Organization had not filed any ELEC reports since 2008.
One June 3, though, ICE PAC filed all their late reports with ELEC, one day after I wrote another column about the connections between the PAC and Long Marmero. On the report for the first quarter of 2014, which can be seen here, the $8,200 contribution to Eric Jackson on February 20is disclosed on Page 14.
As is, remarkably, a February 20 contribution, Check # 1057 in the amount of $2,600 to… the Bridgeton Democratic Organization.
The notation for that contribution, appearing right next to that to Jackson, is “Primary, Cumberland.” It’s impossible to cross-check that with the financial records of the Bridgeton Organization because, as I have mentioned, they haven’t filed any reports with the state since 2008.
Can it be coincidental that on the very same day that ICE PAC writes Check #1056 – for the maximum legal amount – to Jackson for Mayor, ICE PAC writes another check – #1057 – to the Bridgeton Democrats for $2600; and that organization sends a donation – in the exact same amount - to the Jackson campaign, five days later?
Sure, it might be a coincidence.
But this kind of “coincidence” payment from a contributor to a Trenton Mayoral campaign using a PAC as the conduit is what got Cooper Levenson in trouble in 2010, when that law firm – up for a legal contract with the Mack Administration – donated $7,200 to the “Partners for Progress” PAC, and that PAC made a contribution in the identical amount to Tony Mack’s campaign.
Since the Bridgeton group hasn’t filed any reports in a half dozen years, this will not be easily or quickly resolved.
With the records that are publicly available as of today, a picture is being drawn which strongly suggests that, apart from whatever the determination is made about ICE PAC and Long Marmero’s compliance with Trenton’s Pay-to-Play law, ICE PAC may have wheeled a separate contribution to the Jackson campaign that would have illegally exceeded the maximum amount allowable under New Jersey election law.
Cronyism and corruption. These are not words that should ever be associated with public service and yet, too often, they are.
Politicians elected by their fellow citizens to improve the quality of life for their constituents too often end up taking advantage of their office for personal gain.
Taxpayers who believe their hard-earned money is going toward improving schools, roads and public safety instead learn that it is being spent to line the pockets of the connected few.
It does not have to be this way.
As New Jersey’s capital city, Trenton must be a beacon to the rest of the state based on our diversity, the strength of our residents and the industry of our neighbors.
The next mayor of Trenton will not only have to clean up the mess left to him or her, but will have to restore the faith and trust Trentonians have rightly lost in their municipal government…
I should have written all of the above in quotes. By not doing so, you might have imagined that I wrote this.
Sorry about any misunderstanding!
These words are actually from Candidate Eric Jackson, published as an op-ed in the Trenton Times, waaaaaay back in March when he was telling voters that this city needed a leader with “zero tolerance for corruption,” and that he was that leader.
Re-reading the op-ed, I keep looking for an asterisk after “zero tolerance,” but I can’t find it. Because this morning, it sure does look like the intent of Mr. Jackson’s bold declaration is that “zero tolerance” sure means “zero tolerance, *(unless there is a legal loophole the size of Texas available).”
Yesterday, I pointed out that the folks who run a Political Action Committee (PAC) that wrote a check for $8200 to Eric Jackson’s mayoral campaign in February – including the same guy who probably signed the check – were in line to get a $20,000 legal services contract from the City of Trenton, through their law firm. To me, this seemed like a pretty clear-cut violation of the City’s Pay-to-Play Ordinance (P2P), posing a conflict of interest that to me would require under the terms of that law refusal of the contract by our City Council.
Actually, in a way the guy who signed the check agrees with me. “I think it is a perceived conflict,” Albert Marmero told Jenna Pizzi of the Times in today’s article. Mr. Marmero is the Treasurer of the “Initiate Civic Empowerment” PAC (ICE PAC), as well as a name partner of the law firm Long Marmero & Associates, up for a new $20,000 contract with the City.
But, according to Marmero, it’s only the perception of a conflict or violation, not a real one. Since none of the law firm’s actual funds went into the PAC during a time period that would fall under our city’s P2P law, it is entirely legal for his law firm to be eligible for this new contract.
Trenton’s new Law Director, David Minchello, himself a personal contributor to Mr. Jackson’s campaign, agrees. As does Heather Taylor, a spokesperson for the Citizens Campaign, the organization who provided the language for the P2P ordinance that was presented to, and approved by, Trenton’s voters in 2006. In the Times article today, Ms. Taylor characterizes the circumstance under which this kind of arrangement can be considered legal a “loophole” in the law. A loophole attributable to the fact that “Since the ordinance was passed in 2006, the scope and range of PACs in the state’s political landscape has changed,” according to Ms. Taylor as reported in the Times.
Taylor and Citizens Campaign hold out a “solution” to this situation, offering “new legislation is available to citizens or elected officials who want to propose an update to the law.”
Closing this loophole would be a good thing. Because it is madness to me that individuals who wear one hat to operate a PAC, and who select recipients for what can be sizable contributions – $8,200 in the case of Eric Jackson, the maximum permitted by NJ state law – and who sign checks for those sizable contributions can also be eligible for contracts from those recipients when wearing another corporate hat, at the same address no less!
That’s not the situation that I foresaw when I voted for this law in 2006. I can’t imagine other voters had the same situation in mind, either.
So where do we go from here? With everyone acknowledging this situation is due to a loophole, we can seek to tighten it up. Trenton’s City Council can take this up and easily amend the law, using Citizens Campaign’s new model language as a starting point. If Council fails to do so, citizens can do what we did in 2006, and get a new, tighter law on the books.
In fact, it might be better if we as citizens do it ourselves, and not rely on Council or the Administration to do what’s right. Because, as citizens, we must take ownership of our government and not leave it up to others to do.
I forgot to use quotations again!! That part about “as citizens, we must take ownership of our government and not leave it up to others to do?” That was Eric Jackson again, from his March op-ed.
Oh. By the way, elsewhere in that same op-ed, he described “some immediate steps Trenton’s next mayor can take on Day One to help restore the public trust;” namely, “I believe the first act of business must be to create the position of independent inspector general.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
I didn’t think much of the idea at the time (still don’t;), but hey! it was Mr. Jackson’s idea. We are now on Day 36, not Day One. Still no Inspector General, hmmm??
Candidate Jackson also favored “preserving strong anti-pay-to-play regulations.”
Here’s the perfect opportunity to strengthen them, Mayor Jackson!
What do you say? Up for it?
Mayor Eric Jackson is quoted in yesterday’s Trenton Times article by Jenna Pizzi saying that his Administration has “hit the ground running” during its first thirty days in office. Several new department directors have been hired; town hall meetings have been held around each of the wards, beginning what should be a regular dialog between citizens and City; and expressions of good will and support have poured in from around the state as everyone pulls for Trenton to climb out of the deep hole it is in.
There haven’t been a great deal of concrete actions taken, nor expressions of any new policies the Administration will pursue. But no one minds that for now. The Mayor says “We are laying the groundwork for a lot of things to come soon.” He is, quite appropriately, somewhat cautious in his approach during his first weeks in office. Trenton’s government is pretty much at rock bottom after four years of absolute hell.
One of the voices raised to support the new mayor and his team, quoted ion Ms. Pizzi’s article, is William Guhl, whose long and distinguished career in NJ municipal and state government lends his words a lot of credibility. He thinks that the new administration has already achieved a great success: “Certainly what the new mayor has done with his appointments and his demeanor and his commitment is restore confidence in the city administration.”
Confidence in the city’s administration. We need that desperately in Trenton, and I am heartily glad that we are making progress in earning that confidence back.
In the context of this sense of initial accomplishment, and in the atmosphere of all this good will and good wishes, that I have to say I find it unfortunate that there is still some baggage from the mayor’s campaign that threatens to dull some of the luster of the mayor’s new administration.
Last week, in another Times article by Jenna Pizzi, she reported a couple of questionable new campaign finance items revealed in the mayor’s post-election reporting filed with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). These items include what was noticed by Ms. Pizzi as contributions apparently exceeding the legal limit from a Newark law firm to Mr. Jackson; and what appeared to be either a duplicate contribution from the NJ Education Association, which would also exceed the legal limit, or what may have been a clerical error on the part of the Jackson campaign treasurer in recording a duplicate entry for the same legal contribution. As of the date of Ms. Pizzi’s article, it was not entirely clear which was the case. Upon being notified by The Times of these problems, a campaign spokesperson told Ms. Pizzi it would “amend the report” to ELEC if necessary.
The Jackson campaign had a number of reporting problems with ELEC throughout the entire 2014 election, some of these problems extending back to the mayor’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign. As Ms. Pizzi’s article reports, these new items indicate that these problems are not yet over for the Jackson campaign. The Times article did not discuss a few other matters that are unresolved in Mr. Jackson’s campaign financing that at the very least will cause additional embarrassment to his campaign. One of these unresolved matters is likely to impact official City business.
Back in April, I wrote about a number of contributions to Mr. Jackson’s campaign from former US Senator turned real estate investor Robert Torricelli, in his own name as well as his Woodrose Properties LLC that in the aggregate exceeded the legal maximum for such contributions by $1000. Since none of the Jackson campaign’s recent ELEC reporting, nor Ms. Pizzi’s article last week, indicate that this excess contribution was returned to Mr. Torricelli, one can only assume that this still needs to be addressed by the Jackson campaign.
The other matter involves the Woodbury law firm of Long Marmero & Associates LLP, and a Political Action Committee (PAC) closely associated with the firm, Initiate Civic Empowerment, a/k/a “ICE PAC.”
ICE PAC first drew my attention in April, when I noted a contribution from the PAC to Mr. Jackson of $8200, the legal maximum. At the time, I could find no ELEC report from this PAC stating the source of their funding and contributions, which I found troubling. I discussed the PAC again in early June, during the Trenton mayoral runoff, when I saw that the Long Marmero firm was under contract to the City of Trenton as one of many outside law firms working for the City. I suggested that the contribution from ICE PAC, whose Treasurer is Albert Marmero one of the name partners of Long Marmero, might represent a violation of Trenton’s municipal Pay-to-Play Ordinance. As it turned out, the work done for Trenton by the law firm was completed prior to the donation made to Mr. Jackson’s campaign. So there was no apparent pay-t0-play violation, at that time.
As it turns out, on June 3 – one day after I wrote my column questioning that contract – ICE PAC Treasurer/Long Marmero Treasurer Albert Marmero filed several financial reports with ELEC, including this one for the first quarter of 2014 which reports their contribution to Mr. Jackson’s campaign.
As of this week, it looks like we have a new situation. On the Docket for City Council’s scheduled session this Thursday August 7, proposed Council Resolution 14-490 calls for a new contract in the amount of $20,000 to be awarded to Long Marmero for “professional legal services regarding general municipal and defense litigation matters” on behalf of the City of Trenton.
By the fact that the closely-associated ICE PAC contributed $8200 to Mayor Jackson’s campaign only six months ago, I believe it is clearly the case that Long Marmero cannot be considered currently eligible to provide professional services to the City of Trenton under the terms of its Pay-to-Play Ordinance. Accordingly, Council must decline to grant this contract.
At $20,000, this is not a huge contract by any means. However, the City made a professional judgment on the merits of the firm’s professional qualifications that Long Marmero was best suited to provide the specific legal services for which the City would like to hire them, and it may be impossible to do so because of their PAC’s support of the mayor’s campaign. Remember, it was on these same grounds that Trenton’s City Attorney Marc McKithen canceled the Cooper Levenson law firm’s contract in 2011.
This puts us now into a situation where the internal conduct of the mayor’s campaign is now impacting the conduct of the City’s affairs. I expect Council to address this during Thursday’s meeting.
One can only hope that this will be an isolated instance as the new administration continues to establish itself, and that there will be no further instances of campaign business complicating city business. Otherwise, the Jackson Administration may find it difficult to continue its “running” pace if it is weighed down by campaign baggage.