Trenton as a Fixer Upper

To a certain degree, trying to market the city of Trenton as a place for potential economic and business opportunity is a lot like trying to sell an old house in need of a lot of repair and restoration work. You talk about a great past, solid foundations and “great bones.” You point to nearby houses in great shape, talk about a terrific neighborhood and great location. You emphasize what a fantastic bargain it is, and the potential that can be realized with a modest additional investment, a lot of elbow grease, and a little time.  Yeah, a lot of this kind of pitch is hype. But a lot of people who are into fixer uppers, or places like Trenton, appreciate the hype. They share the vision of a future after the investment, the elbow grease, and the time. They relish the challenge, which makes the eventual payoff – financial and emotional – all the sweeter.

The thing is, you have to know the difference between hype and hallucination. Any old four-bedroom center-hall Colonial is not going to become Buckingham Palace. Most real estate agents know this. I’m not sure the City of Trenton does. Because some of the statements coming out from City Hall these days are so fanciful and so unrealistic to the point where they cloud the legitimate forward progress that genuinely seems to be stirring  here. And local press so eager to breathlessly and un-critically print these more fantastic claims do their readers no service in trying to figure out what’s really happening.

Take today’s Trentonian story by Penny Ray. The headline reads, “Former Bell Building to become mixed-use retail and residential property, expected to boost Trenton economy.” The project referred to in the headline does not even get mentioned until the 10th paragraph of the piece. Altogether, it merits only two paragraphs in the entire piece. What comes in the nine paragraphs before and the eleven after is little more than uncritical reportage of all the great things that are under way in Trenton that the current City Administration is claiming credit for. A lot of these claims stretch the City’s marketing attempts well past normal, boosterish hype and into the realm of hallucination. That strains the Administration’s credibility, and that of the Trentonian which  printed what is really just an extended press release.

The City’s Director of Housing and Economic Development, Monique King-Viehland, is quoted extensively in this article, in what Mr. Ray describes as a “recent interview,” apparently not one specifically about the Bell Building development mentioned in the headline. Ms. King-Viehland in turn refers to the findings contained in a city-wide Market Study dated Fall 2014 commissioned by the City of Trenton and performed by an outside research firm.

The main conclusion of this study is that, with Trenton’s population of over 80,000, there is enough disposable income available to be spent inside of the city limits to support much more economic activity in this town than is currently the case. According to this study, more than $40 Million dollars are being spent by city residents outside of Trenton on goods and services such as gas, groceries, shoes, health and personal care. This excess $40 Million, called “leakage,” is enough, according to Ms. King-Viehland, for her to claim, ““We have enough leakage in the community that there’s about 55,000 to 170,000 square feet of retail space that can be supported by the city of Trenton.”

That’s a very bold claim, indeed. According to Ms. Viehland, this study provides the numbers to support some further very specific goals.

King-Viehland said the city can support a grocery store in the West Ward as well as Downtown. She also said the city could support clothing stores and other businesses that sell the typical items found at big-box retailers such as Target.

“People are getting all of those things outside of the city,” King-Viehland said. “People are also obtaining services from lawyers, doctors, accountants and yoga instructors outside of the city of Trenton.”

This background mentioned in the article is the context, then, for the news about the Bell Building in downtown Trenton. Mr. Ray reports,

The former Bell Telephone building located at 216 East State Street is scheduled to be renovated into a mixed-use property with a retail store on the first floor and residential lofts on the upper six floors…  The mayor’s office said there is already a retail tenant lined up to lease the property, but city officials declined to release the name of the tenant. Ajax declined to comment because the project is in its infancy.

“The first floor is going to be 12,000 square feet of retail and the upper six floors will be 85 units of residential market rate loft apartments,” King-Viehland said. “We’ve always had a strong office market in the city, but this is significant because we’re talking about increasing retail, which is one of the five pillars of our citywide market study. It’s also significant because it increases walkability in the city, which is very important to us downtown. We want to fill storefronts, not with office, but with retail from a walkability perspective.”

Having disposed of the news about the Bell Building in those two paragraphs, Mr. Ray and Ms. King-Viehland then talk about some other wonderful things going on in Trenton.

On Thursday, New Jersey Association of Realtors will break ground on the site of their new headquarters at 10 Hamilton Avenue, which will be a 20,000 square-foot mixed-use building, expected to be completed next year. The building will host the NJ Realtors staff on floors two and three, and the ground floor will be leased out as retail, restaurant or office space.

“They had been looking at the city for some time, but they weren’t able to purchase the land necessary to build their building,” King-Viehland said. “We helped them facilitate that purchase. Their $9 million project will bring about 80 jobs into the city.”

That’s the second time in Jackson’s 11-month tenure that his administration has helped jumpstart a stagnant project that will bring jobs into the city.

By this point in the article, the fantasy quotient (or, less charitably, the bullshit) is running real high, and does Mr. Ray, the Trentonian, Ms. King-Viehland or the Jackson Administration no favors. There’s a lot here that needs a little unpacking.

In reverse order: the “stagnant project” that the Administration helped “jump-start”? The NJ Realtors (NJAR) project was announced back in January 2013 by Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, in his annual “State of the County” address. This project, according to NJAR at the time, was facilitated by the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), and involved the sale of County-owned land. It was an accomplishment announced by the County 18 months before the Jackson Administration took office.

In fact, the City of Trenton’s role seems to have been more one of obstruction rather than “jumpstarting a stganant project.” In order to build a parking lot for the NJAR building, the project needed the city to vacate the right of way on an unused street called Conovers Alley. The County offered $1 (that’s $1 – One Dollar) for the alley. In June of last year, City Council balked at the price, holding out for $250. That impasse was settled, for $250, in September. This week, the NJAR construction project finally breaks ground.

If Ms. King-Viehland and Mr. Ray consider the City’s action on this project a “jump start,” remind me to look elsewhere when my battery’s dead. Or, God forbid, if I ever need a defibrilator.

Also, it seems to me that the City is leaning a little bit too much on the potential suggested by this Market Study, and ignoring Trenton’s actual experience on the ground. We read today that the Bell Building will offer 12,000 square feet of retail space, for which there is at least one signed, unnamed tenant. This may put a dent in the “55,000 to 170,000 square feet” of potential space we are “leaking” to other towns. But what about the thousands of square feet of retail space in the Broad Street Bank Building that’s been vacant for the near ten years since that property was rehabilitated? What about all of the other retail and commercial spaces shuttered and closed all over downtown Trenton? If there is so much “leakage,” why do so many buildings lie vacant and abandoned, and why do so many of the attempts to open stores downtown fail?

Ms. King-Viehland uses the Market Study to assert that the “city can support a grocery store in the West Ward as well as Downtown.” Then why did a grocery store on a Hermitage Avenue site in the West Ward fail more than six years ago, after two different operators? The same site, incidentally, for which the City of Trenton paid almost $700,000 in back rent back in 2012 after an ill-considered plan to use the site as a municipal courthouse. And why has the Ward’s only other grocery store on Pennington Avenue struggled to stay open, after a few changes in operators at that location?

And how can Ms. King-Viehland say “We’ve always had a strong office market in the city,” when so many buildings, even several right in the heart of downtown, have so much vacant space, such as the 39,521 square feet in this one modern building alone. A lot of the narrative in Trenton for the last several years has been of office closings and downsizings, so it is more than disingenuous to say something like “We’ve always had a strong office market in the city;” it’s positively batty.

As I said up top, a certain amount of hype is understandable, whether you’re selling a fixer upper, or a broken-down city. I get that. But this Administration is crossing the line from hype to hallucination. They are taking credit for actions not theirs, they are promoting a lot of their plans and aspirations based on a Market Study whose findings in many cases simply do not align with current conditions on the ground nor with recent actual history. And they are being aided and abetted by a local press too willing to print good news at the cost of accuracy and critical journalism.

I am encouraged by the news about the Bell Building, and the potential represented by some of the other projects on the drawing boards for the next few years. Any of them individually, and all of them collectively, suggest that this fixer upper on the banks of the Delaware may have some life in it yet, and that it is capable of drawing in folks with money, elbow grease, and time. Good Luck to them, and Good Luck to us all.

But, please, let’s be a little more real about things. OK?

Seven Phases of Project Planning

Phase I – Inspiration

“The Meadowlands Xanadu project is expected to generate 20,000 permanent jobs in New Jersey – translating into $1.24 billion in personal income annually – and 19,000 construction and related jobs – equal to $1.17 billion in annual personal income. The project is estimated to produce $133 million annually in state and local tax revenue.”  – BusinessWire, December 3, 2003

Phase II – Entanglement

“The project had been scheduled to open [March 2009], but that date was pushed back indefinitely in March amid news that project lender Xanadu Mezz Holdings — an affiliate of Lehman Brothers — had stopped funding its share of construction costs… Xanadu then sued the Lehman affiliate, seeking $11 million immediately and $25 million overall. A Xanadu attorney wrote in court papers that failure to produce the promised funds would put Xanadu ‘at grave risk of failure…’

“[NJ Sports Authority Carl] Goldberg said that ‘the likelihood of a facility this far along in its completion not being finished and not opening is de minimus,’ Goldberg said. ‘It will be finished and it will open.’”  –, March 3, 2009

Phase III – Panic

“Because of the legal battle and the construction delay, Real Capital Analytics, a research company that tracks real estate investments, has listed Meadowlands Xanadu as the largest of $9.2 billion worth of troubled assets in the New York area. But Dan Fasulo, a managing director of the research group, said he did not think the center would be suspended indefinitely. ‘In my opinion, the project is too big to fail at this point and will be completed,’ he said.” – New York Times, May 19, 2009

Phase IV – Search for the Guilty Ones

“[Billionaire Developer Steve] Ross is expected to announce soon that he has assembled the $500 million to $700 million in new investment needed to complete the project — though the grand opening probably would not happen before mid-2011.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, whose district encompasses the Meadowlands Sports Complex, said the name change did not surprise him. ‘I think the success of the Ross companies, from what I’ve read, is to re-brand the product if it has struggled,’ Sarlo said. ‘The timing here is great for the potential of jobs here, given the difficult economic times…’

“The long-stalled project has been called Xanadu since the fall of 2002, when now-defunct Mills Corp. launched a bid that beat out five rivals as the Sports and Exposition Authority board’s selection for a Meadowlands arena-site redevelopment project.

“Colony Capital took over the project from Mills in 2006, but the project ran into serious financial problems in March 2009, and little work has been done since then. The exterior, however, is nearly finished, aside from revisions to the much-criticized color scheme. “  –, May 14, 2010

Phase V – Punishment of the Innocent

“So yeah, the place is a barrel of laughs, except that it has already cost New Jersey taxpayers $1 billion in financing, tax breaks and highway improvements.” –, May 4, 2011

Phase VI – Prizes, Awards and Promotions for the Uninvolved

“An executive for the developer of the American Dream Meadowlands project said Wednesday that work at the site would begin early in March and that the long-delayed entertainment and shopping destination would open at the Meadowlands Sports Complex by autumn 2014.

“In an informal appearance before the Bergen County Improvement Authority, Tony Armlin said crews would begin working before the complicated financing for the project was in place. Armlin, the project director for the Triple Five company, said he expected the financial structure — involving both public and private sources — would be completed by May.

“Armlin told the board that the BCIA would be asked to serve as a “conduit” issuer for $400 million in bonds backed by tax incentives sought by the developer from the state and the borough of East Rutherford, the host community for the complex.

“He said the bonds would be offered to investors on a ‘non-recourse’ basis and would pose ‘no risk’ to the county, the borough or the state.

“‘The bond purchasers will take on the risk, and they will be aware of that before they buy them,’ Armlin said.” –, February 21, 2013

Phase VII – Burning the Evidence and Burying the Bodies

“More than three years after Governor Christie came to the Meadowlands Sports Complex to trumpet a new vision for the stalled Xanadu shopping and entertainment project, he returned on Monday to unveil revised plans with officials from Triple Five, the new developer of the revamped project now dubbed American Dream Meadowlands.

“The latest announcement came with plenty of new details, including a revised opening date target of fall 2016; the unveiling of a planned 20-story “drop ride” billed as the world’s tallest; and renderings of the proposed 639,000-square-foot indoor amusement park and water park that will feature 80-foot-high glass walls that allow drivers on nearby highways to see in — and park revelers to see out…

“Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, criticized the state’s endorsement of a $390 million grant from the Economic Development Authority that he described as ‘the largest business tax subsidy New Jersey has ever awarded.’

“Triple Five spokesman Alan Marcus said that the grant poses ‘no risk to taxpayers’ because no money is put out up front by the state. The developer gets the tax savings only if the project is completed, and then only via a portion of tax revenues refunded for a limited time frame, he added.” –, April 28, 2014

So, New Jersey, after all of that, what have we learned???

Phase I – Inspiration

“EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—Developers and elected officials ratcheted up demands on Wednesday for a statewide referendum to expand gambling to the northern part of the state, a display of public pressure timed to coincide with the unveiling of a proposed $1 billion Hard Rock Casino in the Meadowlands.

“The casino would feature 5,000 slot machines and 200 tables for gambling, along with a giant guitar that operators said could be visible from Manhattan. It would be located west of New York City, adjacent to MetLife Stadium, where the New York Giants and New York Jets play.

“‘We are not looking to build slots in a box,’ said Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, while releasing the proposal at Meadowlands Racetrack. ‘We believe this will compete with anything in the world.’

“Operators projected the casino could initially generate at least $400 million in annual tax revenue and create 5,000 jobs. Its doors could open by next summer or early 2017, they said.” – Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2015

What have we learned? Nothing. Not one damned thing.

A Casino in Mercer County Makes No Sense

During last year’s Trenton mayoral election, I was surprised and mystified when candidate Walker Worthy, seemingly out of nowhere, proposed bringing a casino to the city to jump start development here. I thought it was a horrible idea for the City, and wrote two pieces in March 2014 criticizing it. This morning, Worthy’s campaign proposal seems less mysterious as we read that Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, too, reveals himself as a fan of putting a casino in our neighborhood.

I can imagine the conversation between Brian Hughes and Walker Worthy last year going something like this:

HUGHES:  “Walker, you need a Big Idea to distinguish yourself from the other candidates. A Big Idea that will catch fire. A Big Idea that will bring jobs and revenues to the City. A Win-Win for everyone.”

WORTHY: “Terrific plan! How about a Hotel?”

HUGHES: “No, it’s been done. Didn’t work.”

WORTHY: “How about a stadium? Or an Arena?”

HUGHES: “No. No.”

WORTHY: “I have it! A monorail!!!”

HUGHES: “No, none of those. Listen to me. Trenton needs… A CASINO!!!

It’s still a horrible idea.

My objections to Walker Worthy’s proposal last year were two-fold: first, I thought that the oversaturation of gaming establishments in the Northeast over the previous few years suggested that one more casino might not be successful as a business. Second, I highlighted the conclusions of a group of scholars who had studied the social, economic and health impact of casinos on the communities in which they are located, and their citizens. Among the 31 conclusions made in this 2013 paper:

Some states are propping up failing casinos.

Over time, casino expansion within a state and in nearby states can create a downward economic spiral of market saturation, sluggish state revenues, and failing casinos, marked by an ever-growing competition in which each state tries to lure other states’ citizens into its casinos.

State sponsorship of casinos is a policy contributing to patterns of inequality in America.

Over the last year, we in New Jersey have only seen more evidence of casino failure. Governor Chris Christie’s nearly quarter-billion dollar state investment (thankfully not all spent) in the Revel casino itself failed to keep the place open. And three other Atlantic City casinos also closed their doors in the last year. AC has lost one-third of its casino industry in the blink of an eye. And the other eight are struggling.

Despite this disaster, there are efforts afoot to open more casinos elsewhere in New Jersey, possibly in Jersey City and/or the Meadowlands. And NJ isn’t alone, as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maryland are also getting in on the action. What are their prospects? One New Jersey State Senator quoted by the Associated Press in an article on the industry just last week offered his opinion:

“We’re at a point where we’re just moving money around,” said Chris Brown, a New Jersey state senator from near Atlantic City, who opposes a plan to extend casino gambling to other parts of the state. “All you’re doing is cannibalizing the market you already have.”

It was apparent last year, during the mayoral election, that proposing a casino for Trenton was a non-starter. One year along, it’s even more obvious. That’s why it is so disappointing to read Mercer County Exec Hughes saying things like,

It’s too early to tell whether a casino would make sense for Mercer County. But something that could be a revenue generator and job creator is worth taking a look at. The Capital County should be included in the conversation…

If casinos are going to be permitted in areas of New Jersey outside of Atlantic City, why not consider Mercer too? For example, we know from our ballpark how appealing a waterfront location can be and there’s waterfront real estate in the Capital City that’s ripe for development.

Mr. Hughes, it’s NOT too early to tell. A casino in Mercer County makes no sense. If you stop talking for a while, and listen, you will hear the only people in New Jersey and much of the rest of the Northeast talking about opening new casinos are politicians such as yourself, and the developers whose contributions support your campaigns, blinded by illusory prospects of “new jobs” and “tax revenues.”

The folks who are actually in the gambling business, such as Ed Sutor, the Delaware Downs casino president quoted in last week’s AP article, are saying that an expansion plan being discussed by politicians in his state “makes no sense:”

New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland — the entire market is down. That is, friends, saturation. You’re just moving money around. You bring in a new operator and the money just moves around and the entire market doesn’t go up.

Listen to the man! Talking about more casinos in New Jersey makes no sense!

Talking about a Mercer County casino MAKES NO SENSE, Mr. Hughes!!

It’s ironic to read an article such as today’s Times piece today. It’s Primary Election Day in New Jersey today, which I’ve already written about over the last few days. Today. Brian Hughes is running unopposed for re-nomination as the Democratic candidate for County Executive this November. If Mr. Hughes has any more development plans or re-election promises to offer as pointless as a Mercer casino, voters may come to regret that he ran for re-election with no primary opposition.

On Being a Trenton Democrat in the 15th LD

I had originally planned to conclude my piece yesterday, on the inadequacy of the “Dan Toto for Assembly” campaign, with my feelings about the other Democratic candidates for Assembly in Tuesday’s party primary election. However I decided that my emphasis on the SSNB (Same Shit, New Box) theme, directed as it was against the masquerading “Democrat” Toto might also unfairly tarnish the campaigns of the two incumbents running with the official endorsement of the Mercer Democratic Committee, Assembly members Reed Gusciora and Elizabeth Maher Muoio. Also, a too-brief mention of the two at the end of my long screed against Mr. Toto might come off too much as damning those two with faint praise. That would not have been my intention.

I’ve found, by personal experience with both Assembly members, Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio to be intelligent, effective, and compassionate legislators. I intend to vote for Reed and Liz, and endorse their nomination and election in the fall, for the reasons I will explain below. But my endorsement comes with some reservations.

Over the last several years, Reed Gusciora has often been responsive to issues here in Trenton, and I’ve found him on many occasions to be sympathetic and productive. When legislative boundaries in New Jersey were re-drawn after the most recent federal Census, I welcomed him to Trenton in 2011 after re-districting excluded the town of his previous residence, Princeton. I referenced the assistance he rendered to local neighbors of Trenton’s Carteret Arms apartment building when PSE&G had shut off power to the common areas of the large building due to non-payment of electric bills by the previous owners. After I reached out to him, Reed intervened with PSE&G to get the power turned on, and also arranged a press conference at the West Ward State Street building with his legislative colleagues Senator Shirley Turner and then-Assemblywoman and now Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. On behalf of the residents of the building, he drew attention to their plight and helped get the job done and the lights back on.

Before that, Reed and I worked together on the short-lived, massively unsuccessful, but terribly enjoyable 2008 NJ “Draft Al Gore for President” movement. It wasn’t exactly a “shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches together” experience, since we were firing the equivalent of pop-guns in those trenches, but it was enough to show me that he and I felt the same way on many public issues, then and since.

He’s been a busy and effective legislator with sponsorship of and effort behind a large number and diverse variety of legislation, as reader Joey Biscotti reminded me yesterday. In defense of Trenton’s interests, he and his former colleague Watson Coleman voted against last year’s deceptively-named “Water Infrastructure Protection Act,” although the two of them (along with Senator Turner) were sadly on the losing end of that vote. That act, which makes it far too easy for local municipalities to sell publicly-owned water utilities to private companies without public approval, is now on the books as NJ law. I feel confident that Reed Gusciora would defend Trenton’s interests if any effort is made to threaten the city’s ownership of its Water Works.

I’ve known and worked with Liz Muoio since she was a Mercer County Freeholder and chair of the local Mercer County Democratic Committee, and found her to be dedicated to the principles of the Democratic Party. She’s only been in the State Assembly since January, appointed to fill the unexpired term of Ms. Watson Coleman after her November 2014 election to the US House. But in that short time, I have seen her as a very responsive and active representative.

Back in March, I wrote to her via her official NJ Assembly e-mailbox, to ask her to support A3580, a bill introduced to the Assembly’s current session last September. Briefly (and I could go on about this, but I promise to be short!), this bill would ban in New Jersey the sale and distribution of Powdered Alcohol, a newly-developed (and legalized by the federal government) product which goes by the trade name of “Palcohol.” I wrote to her and expressed my opinion that Trenton, and New Jersey,  have enough problems with legal and illegal substances to have to contend with a new form of intoxicating substance that is so concealable, easily trafficked and inherently ripe for abuse as powdered booze.

Liz Muoio wrote back to me the very next day, and promised to support the bill as a co-sponsor, and to support the measure. This she quickly did, joining among others Assembly Members Paul “No Relation” Moriarty and Craig “No Relation” (my mother’s side of the family) Coughlin, who were two of the bill’s Primary Sponsors.

A3580 was reported out of the Assembly’s Law & Public Safety Committee earlier this month, and I hope it moves along to full passage in the Assembly, with Liz Muoio’s support, and the State Senate, where Shirley Turner is a Primary Sponsor of the companion bill.

I believe Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio are fine legislators, and I endorse them for election, at this coming Tuesday’s election and in the November general election.

And yet, I do so with some reservations. I still carry more than a bit of a grudge against both – along with the other principal leaders of the County Democratic organization, both officeholders and other leaders – for their near complete silence and inaction during the excesses of the mayoral administration of the disgraced convicted Federal felon Tony Mack from 2010 to 2014. During a time when the citizens of Trenton suffered under the missteps, excesses, and criminality of Mack and his associates, there were few to none words of criticism forthcoming from Democratic leaders – including Mr. Gusciora and Ms. Muoio – which might have been helpful in providing a moderating influence on the bastards, and which would certainly provided moral support to those few of us who were vocal and active in opposition to Mack during those chaotic days and years.

Even when the actions of these assholes endangered citizens outside of Trenton’s borders into greater Mercer County, there was little criticism. As early as October of 2010, when screwups at the Trenton Water Works led to the interruption of water service to thousands of TWW customers in the County, criticism was restrained. County Executive Brian Hughes was mightily dissed by Tony Mack at that time, when Mack failed to attend an emergency meeting that Hughes convened for the mayors of Trenton and the surrounding affected towns. Apart from being a personal insult to the County Executive, Mack’s wretched behavior should have brought down a torrent of criticism from not only Hughes, but Mack’s former colleagues on the County Board of Freeholders and other Democratic leaders on the County and even State level held their peace. Why, I still don’t know.

But no. Then and after for nearly four full years, criticisms of Trenton’s administration and moral support of its beleaguered citizenry was sadly absent. It was keenly felt and sorely missed by many of us, and not forgotten.

I must recognize the considerable tangible support provided during that time by Mercer County’s leadership. The significant application of resources and manpower from the County Sheriff’s Office during the time when Trenton’s Police Department had been crippled by layoffs, budget reductions and active opposition by Mayor Mack, support that continues to the present day, was and is invaluable and greatly appreciated. I just wish that help would have been accompanied by actions – or even just rhetoric – that might have helped us get rid of the bastard earlier.

That it took the United States Department of Justice, and the US Attorney’s Office, and the FBI, to get rid of Tony Mack, after nearly four years of “Hear No Evil, See No Evil and Speak No Evil” from local public figures will be a long-lasting mark against the local Democratic leadership of Mercer County. And that includes Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio, who then as now served in positions of local leadership and moral authority.

In a wider context, even before the dreary Mack days, there’s been long dissatisfaction on the part of local residents with the Democratic leadership in the County. Trenton has long been a city that has consistently delivered strong blocs of Democratic voters to local and statewide candidates. In return, though, people here have long felt not very well served by those candidates after their elections.

After decades of solid Democratic support from Trenton, the city shows little improvement and little apparent return from that support. And several constituencies in the City such as members of the  local Hispanic Community have long felt unrepresented by the local party, as their numbers have greatly increased with little to no apparent increase in their influence in local party affairs.

That dissatisfaction has, among other ways, manifested itself in support for “insurgent” election challenges such as Dan Toto’s, which is getting some traction among several Trenton Democrats. Whereas I believe there is a certain amount of legitimacy in the criticisms of the County leadership, I believe support of Mr. Toto is a bad, bad tactical choice for these disgruntled local Democrats. After all, to paraphrase Robert Bolt’s line for Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, “it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Dan Toto??”

Oftentimes, efforts taken on behalf of the State and County’s Democratic leadership, however well intentioned, miss the mark. Huge and expensive projects such as the Ballpark, the Arena and the Hotel failed to provide the sparks for further development in Trenton that were originally hoped. And measures such as 2013’s “NJ Economic Opportunity Act,” passed with a lot of Democratic legislative support (including co-sponsorship by Reed Gusciora) will actively negatively impact Trenton’s local finances for years to come, a prediction that Mr. Gusciora told me he shared, unfortunately after the bill had become law. A pledge made to me by Mr. Gusciora to improve that Act and mitigate the potential for damage to Trenton has not yet resulted in any legislative action to do so. But I remain hopeful.

On a local tactical level, I’ve been often disappointed in actions taken by the Democratic leadership. Last year’s support given to the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of Walker Worthy, a competent local official having unfortunately zero experience and record on local city issues, came off as tone deaf to other more credible candidacies, and was resented by a lot of locals, including me. And support for other candidates in several other races often seemed unfairly preferential, rude and manipulative. This is New Jersey, though, and local party politics is often a contact sport. To some extent, hardball politics has to be expected, but they often do leave a long-lasting aftertaste.

Yes, county and state Democrats have not always been responsive to the concerns of Trenton’s Democratic constituents. But I have and will continue to support candidates like Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio. I share their priorities and trust their abilities, and the overall goals of the Democratic Party.

Another reason to support them is the hopelessness and cluelessness of their opponents. In the 15th District, one of the Republican candidates for Assembly, a former colleague of mine on the Trenton Zoning Board (and whose judgment and experience on that Board I greatly respected) is running on standard boilerplate Tea Party-esque policy positions that I believe to be totally discredited as not only ineffective, but positively damaging to our state and national economies and culture. At least on the local level of NJ’s 15th District, Republican philosophy is empty and bankrupt, another reason I find to support Democratic candidates like Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio. There is no reason for a Trentonian this year to vote for a New Jersey Republican.

To me, being a loyal Trenton Democrat in the 15th in 2015 is a complicated matter. I give you that. On balance, though, I feel confident enough in the candidacies of Tuesday’s Regular Democratic slate, including Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio, to endorse them for election.

The polls are open on Tuesday from 6AM to 8PM. Go vote.

There's New. There's Fresh. And Then There's The Same Old Shit in a New Box

Watching the final several episodes of the AMC tv series “Mad Men” over the last few weeks led me to ponder, among other matters, the great role of Marketing and Advertising in our daily lives. For most of the 20th Century, and so far into the 21st, American culture has created an art form in the way it can turn into a commodity just about any one or anything, and do its damndest to sell the heck out of it. “Mad Men” showed us the ways in which Madison Avenue tried to persuade us to buy cigarettes, cars, air travel, potato chips, and slide projectors. An oft-recurring undertheme was how the same methods of hard- and soft-selling were turned into selling us lifestyles, wars, and political candidates. “Mad Men” often showed us subtly what we’ve also been hearing and seeing for close to the last 50 years, at least since author Joe McGinniss explicitly compared the 1968 election campaign of Richard Nixon to selling a pack of cigarettes.

Then, as now, the challenge for the ad man, the Mad Man – and the average consumer – is to know the difference between trying to sell what is genuinely New, honestly Fresh, or simply The Same Old Shit in a New Box.

Which brings me to Dan Toto.

Dan Toto is a candidate in this coming Tuesday’s primary election for the Democratic nomination to be one of the 15th District’s (which includes Trenton) two state Assembly members. He is running to unseat either of the incumbents, Reed Gusciora, or Elizabeth Maher Muoio. The incumbents received the endorsement of the Mercer County Democratic Committee members at its convention a few months ago. Mr. Toto did not receive the Committee’s endorsement, that rejection being the basis on which he is focusing his campaign strategy and approach.

Dan Toto is running as an “outsider” against the “insiders” of an allegedly corrupt Mercer County political machine. On the front page of his website he says,

Dan Toto is running for NJ Assemblyman because our leadership in Mercer County has been nothing but disappointing. The county ‘machine’ hasn’t delivered on their promises. In our district, the unemployment rate in areas like Trenton is nearly 50% higher than the state and national averages, and many in the district go to bed hungry every night. Our career-politician representatives have been unable to deliver results on growing our economy, bringing more jobs to our district, and reforming our education system.

He is running, he says, ” so that YOU can have a true Democrat in the State House.” And yet, on his Facebook page today, he encourages non-party-affiliated voters to register as Democrats on Tuesday, just to vote for him. Then they can change their registration BACK to non-affilated on the very same day!


It seems Mr. Toto wants to be a “true” Democrat in the State House, but is relying on appealing to “false” Democrats to get there. He strikes me as being as much of a true Democrat as Joe McGinniss’ Lucky Strike Nixon. His campaign and his candidacy is a fraud. Let’s look at him a little more closely, shall we?

His supporters play up his theme of the insurgent Democrat running against a rotten party machine. In a Letter to the Editor published in yesterday’s Trenton Times, Victor Palinczar claims “there’s a difference between ‘legally corrupt’ and ‘morally corrupt.’ Dan Toto’s [campaign] mailer emphasizes the moral corruption in Mercer County.” He then goes on to cite a litany of “moral” corruption for which many of the mean old Mercer Machine Democrats are responsible.

It’s an odd argument to make, “moral” versus “legal” corruption. Because it positively screams out an invitation to examine Mr. Toto’s past recent association with the latter type – that is “legal” corruption – here in Trenton. Of course, by that I mean Toto’s past association with Tony Mack.

Mr. Palinczar’s Letter to the Times was in fact a response to another Letter published earlier this week in the Times, in which Trenton resident and long-time politically active Mercer Democratic leader Jeffrey Laurenti politely suggested that Emperor Toto was wearing no clothes:

The one critique in his recent mailer introducing himself to Democratic primary voters is not of Christie, but of Mercer County’s “corrupt” Democratic Party. Hmm. The only two political leaders charged with corruption in this county in recent memory have been Hamilton’s disgraced mayor John Bencivengo, who must be credited to the Republican camp, and Trenton’s feckless Tony Mack, whom the Democratic committee ousted from the freeholder board in 2008.

However, Mayor Mack’s campaign manager was … Dan Toto. If “corruption” is the reason for his campaign, he risks the reproach in the book of Job: “Your own mouth condemns you.” I wonder whether he can perhaps offer more convincing substance.

Toto’s association with Mack was not limited to running his 2010 campaign. You may recall that Mr. Toto was also involved in an attempt to get in on the Mack Administration patronage job money train.

In December 2010, Mayor Mack attempted to award a contract to Toto as the city’s Youthstat Coordinator coordinating Trenton’s policy on gang-related issues without City Council approval. Here’s a piece I wrote at the time, offered in lieu of the Trentonian article or Mack Administration press release I reference in the piece, and which no longer appear to be available online. In the piece I quote Mack as saying Mr. Toto was appointed immediately as of 12/4/2010 “on an interim basis subject to council approval but will start right away in a paid role.”

Mack’s attempt to hire Toto came to a sputtering stop after a very contentious City Council meeting, in which an earlier Mack campaign manager criticized Toto. In the Times account of 12/15/2010 by Meir Rinde,

As the mayor watched from his seat nearby, Jerrell Blakely, who served as Mack’s campaign manager at the start of his mayoral run last year, stood at the podium at last night’s city council meeting and accused his former boss of incompetence and cronyism. He pointed out that Mack recently selected a friend, Dan Toto, as the city’s Youthstat coordinator, an anti-gang position.

“Today, I’m here to implore the council to not vote for Danny Toto,” Blakely said. “He has no experience in gang fighting, anywhere. The only reason that Danny Toto is even being considered for this position is because of his relationship with the mayor.”

That’s the last Trenton saw of Dan Toto, until last year when he managed the mayoral campaign of then-Council member Kathy McBride. Trentonians will remember Ms. McBride’s campaign for two things. First, her continued refusal to participate in candidate forums or debates with the other mayoral wanna-bes, based on a strategy that her appeal was to low-information voters who did not care about debates. This campaign strategy, implemented by her manager Mr. Toto, resulted in the second memorable point about Kathy McBride’s 2014 mayoral campaign: her last-place finish in the field of 6.

Dan Toto may have experience and qualifications that may actually recommend him as a candidate for Tuesday’s election. I don’t know; I haven’t heard much about them, and what I have heard is truly unremarkable,

But I do know that anyone with a long record of close association with the likes of Tony Mack – he of the conclusively demonstrated “legal” variety of Mercer County corruption – and Kathy “Blue Waffle” McBride has no business claiming the mantle of Outside Reformer, True Democrat, or whatever other label he’s trying to pin on himself.

“Dan Toto for Assembly” isn’t New. It isn’t Fresh. It’s just more of the Same Old Shit in a New Box.

Trenton. Where Good Ideas Get Ruined.

Over the last several years, there’s been a lot to laugh at in Trenton, New Jersey. The things that have happened here; the words that have been said; the people that say them; have all provided us all a lot of smiles, chuckles, titters, and outright guffaws. Most of the time the humor is only appreciated by those of us who live or work here , but there are occasions when we cause the world to laugh.

Although, it has to be said, on those occasions the world is more often laughing at us than with us.

Because of all that enjoyment we’ve unwittingly provided to the world at our expense it was more than a little gratifying to see an event last year that, for one short and sun-shiny day at least, gave the planet a chance to smile and laugh (and dab at our lips and cheeks with napkins) at something in Trenton that was nothing but fun. I speak, of course, of May 24, 2014, the day Trenton celebrated Pork Roll.

As a transplant to this town, and as a non-native New Jerseyan, I will admit that, apart from the occasional taste of the stuff – I do like it – I can’t say I’ve ever gotten excited about pork roll. I didn’t go to last year’s festival, and was pretty non-committal about this year’s events. But I was more than pleased that there WAS such an event produced last year. It was a great idea, and it was pulled off with a great deal of enthusiasm.

It was far more popular than the planners ever thought it would be. There were the usual growing pains experienced by many similar events: not enough food ordered for the numbers of people who showed up, physical space too small for the crowds who showed, long lines for food and beverage throughout the day. But, by all accounts and any measure, the day was a smashing success. Those who attended had a great time, as the 46(!) pictures attached to this account in the Trenton Times of May 24 last year prove that. People ate, they drank, they had fun. In Trenton. Fantastic. As the headline in the Times  suggested, this day was intended to be the first of many. The “Inaugural” festival to create the mold for many years to come.It was a great day for Trenton. A day that had nothing to do with any of the other craziness that this town is too well known for. A day when the only thing to worry about was if the pork roll would run out before you got to the front of the line.

A completely and entirely Fantastic and Fun day, in other words. Even though I didn’t go last year, I looked forward to this year’s event, and beyond. For once, I thought, Trenton had come up with an idea that was so unique, so much fun, and so basically uncomplicated, that nothing and no one could screw it up.

Now, as I said above, I didn’t attend last year’s event, I don’t know any part of the behind-the-scenes drama about the falling-out that led to the creation of two rival events, to be held at two separate locations on the very same day this year. My initial, uninformed take on it, shared by many in this town I talked to, was that this kind of development, and the publicity it created, could be a good thing. Two dueling festivals in different parts of town on the same day might actually create more buzz and draw bigger crowds than last year’s. Heck, there’s even been talk of a Vegan Pork Roll Festival, if you can conceive such a thing, being planned for the same day!

Trenton seemed to be on the verge of a renaissance fueled by processed meats. Let a thousand pork roll festivals blossom!!

Well, once again, Trenton showed me that there is no good thing that can’t get screwed up. In this case, by a falling out among the two main organizers that has led over the last 12 months, first, to the prospect of two separate and competing festivals on the same day this year. And most recently this week, to the threat of legal action by one against the other.

This latest development became public on the pages of Facebook yesterday, and has been taken up by the local media this morning in both the Times and Trentonian. The wire services will no doubt pick this up today, and I have every expectation that the rest of the world will soon be chuckling at our most recent foibles.

Which to me is one damn shame. Because it will be further proof that this town is full of fuck-ups. Because it will show that it doesn’t take long for a good idea, even a relatively small (in the cosmic sense of things), light-hearted and affectionate idea like a local food festival can get screwed up by ego, greed and small-mindedness.

From where I sit, as a bystander, I have to look at the actions taken this week by Scott Miller and shake my head. He is the person who retained a lawyer to send a “cease-and-desist” letter to TC Nelson. Both were the principal organizers of last year’s event. The inspiration for the event seems to have been Miller’s. The venue was Nelson’s very successful Trenton Social restaurant. Both organized and produced the event in 2014, and apparently had a falling-out over the last year. Mr. Miller retained a lawyer to send a threatening letter to Mr. Nelson, accusing him of violating Miller’s “intellectual property rights, including the trademark and copyrights attached as Exhibit A.” Mr. Nelson, quite understandably, is upset, and he took to his Facebook page yesterday to vent his anger at his former associate.

The “Exhibit A” mentioned in the cease-and-desist letter is as of now unavailable for examination. But it is possible to examine applications for Trademarks, in an attempt to satisfy one’s curiosity about the validity of some of these claims. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the government agency that grants trademarks, part of the “intellectual property” claimed by Mr. Miller. That office maintains something called the “Trademark Electronic Search System,” a searchable database for registrations applied for and granted by the office. A cursory search of the term “Pork Roll” returns some very interesting results.

An application by Mr. Miller’s company “Pork Roll Productions” was indeed filed with the USPTO, on March 26 of this year. A summary of the application can be seen here. There is a lot of information here, in his attempt to claim the phrase “pork roll festival” as a registered Trademark. Let me point out just a few key notes.

The application claims the “First Use Anywhere Date” of “At least as early as 3/15/2014,” which sounds about right for an event first held last May.

But in answer to an item that says “SECTION 2(f) Claim of Acquired Distinctiveness, based on Use” Miller’s  application states “The mark has become distinctive of the goods/services through the applicant’s substantially exclusive and continuous use in commerce that the U.S. Congress may lawfully regulate for at least the five years immediately before the date of this statement. [Emphasis mine - KM]”

Five years? Really? Seems to me that, if one of the requirements of getting an exclusive trademark for a phrase is five years of “exclusive and continuous use” then a statement that it has only been in use since 2014 makes the application about 4 years premature. Another statement about the status of Mr. Miller’s application says that his March 2015 application will not even be assigned to an internal USPTO attorney for review and approval three months after the application, or June of this year at the earliest. At that time, I would guess that the assigned review attorney will ask Mr. Miller about the discrepancy between his statement about “at least five years” of usage before a “first use” in 2014.

Seems to me that Mr. Miller’s cease-and-desist letter is nothing more than a bad-faith attempt to force Mr. Nelson (and, perhaps, the Vegans, too!) to cancel his competing festival, based on a very very dubious claim of exclusive intellectual property rights.

Shame on Scott Miller. Shame on him for turning what started out as a great idea turned into a great little event inspired by local Trenton pride – a little kooky yes, but isn’t Trenton more than a little kooky? – and trying to squeeze out everyone else who helped turn the event from an idea into a reality.In the process, he seriously risks the good will to this event that he AND TC Nelson earned last year.

Nothing will draw people to a street festival – and, really, that’s what this is, a great local street festival – like the promise of a few hours of fun, good food and drink, and good times. And nothing will keep them away like the smell of greed.

If Scott Miller has any common sense left in him, he should apologize to TC Nelson today for his stupid and ill-considered letter this week, and for what sounds like months of pig-headed selfish behavior leading up to it. He has a short window of time to that, before news of his bone-headed greed spreads more widely and spoils a good thing for everyone.

It would be a shame if one of the nicest things to come out of this town in years gets ruined by Scott Miller’s petty spite.

Lip Service

You know that old puzzle? “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I won’t worry with that one right now, but I will suggest a variation on that question to ask in Trenton, NJ: “If a street fight breaks out, and there’s no smartphone to record it, does anyone pay attention?”

The answer to that one, apparently, is “No!”

A very nasty fight broke out this week at Trenton’s Greg Grant Park. Two young girls, 16- and 17-year-old sisters were, in the words of the Trenton Times’ Kevin Shea, “punched, kicked and stomped by a crowd of people in Greg Grant Park in Trenton on Monday while onlookers videoed the melee and urged more violence… During the brawl, Lajahia Cooke was struck in the right ear with a brick, causing a wound that required 15 stitches to close, she said. Destiny Cooke lost a chunk of hair, leaving a bald spot. At various points in the attack, both women were held down while others throw punches and kick the teens.”

As I said, nasty. There are several unanswered questions about the fight that are as of this morning unanswered. The identity of the attackers is under investigation by Trenton Police, and the role of the Police is also at issue. A spokesperson for TPD confirms there were officers on the scene, having been sent there after police received a 911 call about the fight.What they did or did not do at the scene is being examined.

Although the fight took place this past Monday, it did not rise to public notice until some cellphone video started appearing on Wednesday. Local press started appearing online that day, and in print yesterday. The story also picked up some attention further afield, with TV stations in Philadelphia and New York running stories on the fight.

All this attention focusing on Trenton led to a public appearance by Mayor Eric Jackson yesterday. A news conference was held at Greg Grant Park headed up by the mayor, backed up by several members of City Council, senior Police officers, and community members.  A piece in The Times by Jenna Pizzi and Keith Brown describe the mayor as “visibly angry,” and that comes across in the video clip embedded in the online piece.

The mayor had strong words to say yesterday. “I will use the full power of my office to bring those responsible to justice.
We are better than that as a city and we are better than that as people. We will not tolerate this kind of behavior in our city… This type of meaningless violence, no matter how it begins, will not be tolerated in the City of Trenton.”

Yes, strong words. But they are hollow and empty. Hollow and empty because we Do Tolerate behavior like this. The fight in the park this week was indeed horrible, and the injuries suffered by the Clarke sisters shocking; I wish them a quick recovery. That no one in the crowd stepped in to help the girls or attempt to stop the assault is sickening.

But I do not believe, for one minute, that this incident would have received this kind of attention had not the video of the incident not been posted online and picked up by the media. I don’t believe the Mayor and the Council members would have appeared at a press conference yesterday if the morning newspapers hadn’t covered the story. The assault and near riot occurred Monday. The Mayor spoke only yesterday. What happened in the meantime? The media got interested, locally and then in the region.

Am I being cynical?

Where was the outrage over this fight?

Or this one?

Did I miss the press conference about this?

Was there “visible anger” after viewing this video?

If you search for “Trenton fight” on YouTube, you’ll find these and many more videos. Some are recent, some are several years old. This sort of stuff happens in Trenton all the time. We do tolerate this, Mr. Jackson! This is all meaningless violence, and it is not uncommon.

The Clarke sisters were brutally beaten by a crowd after having done nothing wrong, and that makes this incident in my mind worse than the others. But that many of the people in these other videos were in many cases willing participants does nothing to excuse them and those incidents.They are, all of them, nasty and unacceptable.

That a lot of people choose to record video of these fights and attacks rather than take any action to help or defuse a situation means that too many look at these fights more as entertainment than as serious assaults or worse.

We do tolerate these, far too much. And we have, for far too long. And in making this entertainment, we do more than tolerate it. We are complicit in it. We encourage it.

That’s why when I see and hear Mr. Jackson express his outrage, I see and hear Lip Service. Cheap Theater.

When I see Council Members stand behind him, I see Council members who’ve been in office for close to five years now, and who’ve done Nothing in their time.

When I hear the bold proclamation, “We will not tolerate this kind of behavior in our city,” I say “Yeah, right. Until the next time. And only if someone records video.”

Today In Irony...

[Community activist and former Trenton City Council 2010 candidate Juan] Martinez also worked on the campaign of current Mayor Eric Jackson, but not on any of the mayor’s campaign contribution filings.

“Totally separate and apart,” Jackson said. The mayor said he hopes that elected officials and those involved in elections will pay close attention to the stringent rules of ELEC [NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission].

“As elected officials we have to do our very best to stay within the boundaries,” Jackson said.  – Trenton Times, April 7, 2015

Which begs the obvious question. Is this your “very best”, Mayor Jackson?

Newly elected Mayor Eric Jackson collected about $88,000 in the final days leading up to the June 10 election, including some donations that were over the allowed limit, according to a post-election report his campaign filed with the state last week.                              – Trenton Times, July 25, 2014

And this:

Eric Jackson has shown his opponent the money, albeit four years after the fact.

A day after challenger Jim Golden asked his supporters to tweet Jackson “Where’s the money?” from his 2010 election campaign, the mayoral candidate filed amendments with the state…

Jackson had $23,770.94 remaining in his 2010 war chest before filing documents for the 2014 election, according to his April 30, 2010 campaign report. None of that money was carried over or reported how it was spent until last week…

In his amendments filed on April 1 [2-14], Jackson disclosed last quarter bills for his 2010 campaign…

“We did file the amended report and they got filed to ELEC late,” said Jackson, who is currently the Plainfield director of Public Works and Urban Development. “I take full responsibility for that.” – Trentonian, April 10, 2014

And this:

Although he has raised the most money by far in the race to be Trenton’s next chief executive, mayoral hopeful Eric Jackson has received several questionable campaign donations, according to reports filed with the state.

The Jackson campaign accepted nearly $2,000 in cash donations in December, but in reporting the money to the state the donors were never divulged, a violation of the state’s election reporting rules. “All cash contributions you would need disclosure,” said Joe Donohue, deputy director of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). “No donations are supposed to be anonymous,” he said. – Trenton Times, March 4, 2014

AND this:

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.  - “And Another Thing,” August 4, 2014

This last item seems to have prodded the Jackson campaign into action. From an ELEC report filed on November 28, 2014 we can see this notation of a check written to reimburse a contributor only three days after this space reminded him:

jackson refund

It’s more than a little ironic to read Mayor “ZT” Jackson quoted in today’s newspaper about the importance of compliance with NJ campaign funding and reporting rules, when Mr. Jackson’s campaigns in 2010 and 2014 were notorious for both their tardiness, mistakes and violations. Mr. Jackson would be well advised to put his own house in order before he should feel comfortable in commenting on the foibles of other candidates such as Mr. Martinez.

For starters, the 11/28 report cited just above, covering the 3rd Quarter (July-September) of 2014 is the last one on file with ELEC. Mr. Jackson is currently three months late with a report that was due on January 15 of this year, which should have included activity for the 4th Quarter (October-December) of 2014. His next report, for the 1st Quarter of 2015 is due next Wednesday. Will he make it on time? Stay tuned.

And there are still a few land mines buried in his past ELEC reporting that may come back to haunt Mr. Jackson. I refer to the ICE PAC/Bridgeton Democratic Organization connection that I’ve been talking about for a year now. Both of those contributions, which taken together exceed the maximum allowed by the state, are still on Mr. Jackson’s campaign books as far as I can tell.

It’s all well and good for Mayor “ZT” Jackson to say, “As elected officials we have to do our very best to stay within the boundaries,” but his own campaigns show he is all too willing to draw outside the lines.

One Step Forward

I applaud the decision announced by Mayor Eric Jackson, announced at last night’s meeting of City Council, to end the City’s contract with the law firm DeCotiis Fitzpatrick & Cole. This is the firm that Trenton’s “full time” City Attorney David Minchello joined as partner while also intending to remain in his City position, a move that became public only this past Monday. The Mayor denied there was any problem with the proposed arrangement with Mr. Minchello and his new firm. “I want to have this on record that there is nothing illegal or unethical about the practice that we are under,” he told Council, as quoted in the Times article this morning by Jenna Pizzi.

Your comment is noted for the record, Mr. Mayor. But, come on! Really? Nothing unethical?

The Times article, does not mention, nor does the Trentonian article by David Foster,  Mr. Minchello’s intentions for the other municipal “clients” he is also currently serving. Mr. Foster did remind his readers, “In addition to leading Trenton’s law department, Minchello is Plainfield’s city solicitor, special counsel in Burlington, and North Plainfield’s municipal prosecutor.” How Mr. Minchello will juggle all of these civic duties AND his new partnership AND work full time as Trenton’s Law Director – as City Ordinance requires – is one of the many loose ends that remain to be tied up.

We still deserve a fuller explanation of the contracting process by which DeCotiis won its $80,000 legal services contract. We know that DeCotiis was not the lowest bidder, with an hourly rate proposed of $175, compared to Rudermann Glickman’s – the firm replaced by DeCotiis – rate of $140. Also, that $175 rate was reduced to $150 hourly before the contract was signed, suggesting that discussions and negotiations were carried on between DeCotiis and the City after their proposal had been tendered and opened. This sounds like this contracting process was something less than fair, open, and transparent.

I think Mr. Minchello also needs to provide a chronology of the events of the last several months. We know that DeCotiis was awarded the City contract in November, and that Mr. Minchello announced his partnership this past Monday, March 30. What we don’t know is when Mr. Minchello started to talk to the firm about coming on board there. We don’t know when Mr. Minchello spoke to Mayor Jackson about his plans, and we don’t when the City talked to the NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA) about the proposed arrangement.We don’t even know how widely known was the fact that Mr. Minchello was working for three other towns at the same time he was our Law Director.

To me, those are vitally important facts to bring into the open before I can agree with Mr. Jackson’s claim that there is nothing unethical here. To simply assert that everything is OK without knowing the chronology is just not credible.

What we do know is that, prior to Monday, several if not all members of City Council – who Minchello formally represents as City Attorney – were totally in the dark about the situation. At-Large Member Phyllis Holly-Ward, according to Jenna Pizzi, “she read about Minchello’s new position in the news, rather than hearing about it from him before the decision was made. ‘It is almost a lack of respect,’ Holly-Ward said.”

“Almost.” Councilwoman, you are being kind. You were dissed, Big Time!

Her colleagues apparently agreed with that sentiment, voting unanimously last night to hire special counsel specifically to represent them.  As quoted in the Trentonian North Ward Member Marge Caldwell Wilson said, “If we’re discussing this issue [Minchello's appointment] , I don’t believe that Mr. Minchello should be our counsel. I think someone else should be here representing us.”

Another member is quoted as being troubled by Mr. Minchello’s arrangement. The Times writes, “Councilman Alex Bethea agreed saying now that Minchello is a partner, they city attorney now has a financial interest in the DeCotiis firm. ‘You can’t separate the two,’ Bethea said. ‘To me that is a slippery slope.’

Do you realize what you just read? Do you?


Mayor Jackson, if EVEN ALEX BETHEA can be roused from his torpor to be bothered by a situation, you gotta know it’s a real problem!

The Administration tried to sell this deal as one that would save money. We’ll save on not paying Minchello’s fringe benefits, we were told. Well, with the prospect now of new outside counsel for City Council, so much for that big idea! We’ll no doubt end up paying more more money for this arrangement than we would have with a full time City Attorney who is actually Full Time for Trenton.

I will say that Mr. Minchello’s new partners are being gracious about this turn of events. The Times quotes a statement from the firm that alludes to Trenton’s past and current problems and sensitivities to a situation like this. “Unfortunately the city is in a difficult situation of addressing perception over substance. We fully appreciate their situation and understand their need to act cautiously.” As I wrote above, we don’t yet know enough to agree that this is a matter of “addressing perception over substance.” But DeCotiis understands our need to act cautiously, and I appreciate that.

As I do appreciate Mr. Jackson’s decision and announcement yesterday. As reluctantly and begrudgingly he may have come to take this action, it was the right one to take. It’s a major step forward for the Mayor’s pledge made last year to operate his mayoralty and his Administration with “Zero Tolerance” for unethical actions and appearances.

Casting Lots

Brothers and Sisters, today’s lesson is from Matthew, Chapter 27, Verses 35 and 36:

“And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there.”

I offer this story, which is told in each of the four Christian Gospels, not to preach a religious parable during this Holy Week, but a political one. This story shows how, even in ancient times, it has been the practice of those in power to rob the poor and helpless under the guise of law. In the Gospel, we read how in the course of carrying out the legally sanctioned execution of Jesus of Nazareth, soldiers and centurions wearing the uniform of Rome found the chance to make a couple of denarii off the poor guy hanging on the cross above them, while doing their official duty.

So it has ever been throughout history. Those with a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence – one of the definitions of a state – also use that power to make a little money on the side. Perfectly legally, of course. The uniforms and flags may have changed, but the basic dynamic has not. There are always opportunities for personal gain, even from the poorest and powerless.

In the present day, many of these legal thieves wear suits and ties. Such as this morning’s example, Trenton Law Director David Minchello and his new partners at the law firm of DeCotiis Fitzpatrick and Cole. We heard the news yesterday that Mr. Minchello, who earns a fulltime salary of $105,384 as Trenton’s City Attorney and the head of the Law Department, has become a partner at the Teaneck-based firm with an office in Princeton. According to the account by Jenna Pizzi in this morning’s Trenton Times, Minchello intends to keep his position as the City Attorney as he takes up his partnership at his new firm.

The article is silent on whether Minchello will also keep his other municipal jobs. According to The Times, he “is also the city solicitor in Plainfield, special council (sic) for Burlington City, and a municipal prosecutor for North Plainfield.” He is quite the busy man.

Despite the fact that Trenton’s City Ordinances state that “Department heads [such as Minchello] shall devote full time as required for the proper and efficient discharge of the duties of their respective offices,” he cannot help but be a part-time Director. He will also likely claim that, as a partner of a private firm, he will not be subject to the various financial disclosure and ethics laws applicable to other, real fulltime City Directors and employees.

Which will probably be a good thing for him, since he might otherwise face some embarrassing questions about his role in landing a contract for legal services to be provided to the City of Trenton by his new firm DeCotiis Fitzpatrick. This was approved back in November, and surely had to be a factor in his favor when he was involved in his employment conversations with DeCotiis. The contract is only for $80,000, small change as far as these things go.But the firm won the contract for legal services even though its hourly rate was bid at $175, much higher than the $140 charged the city by Ruderman Glickman, the firm that previously had the work that is now to go to Minchello’s new friends.

That should have been enough to raise suspicions of whether this contract was properly awarded to DeCotiis. The added fact that city spokesman Michael Walker confirmed for the Times that the eventual contracted hourly rate was negotiated down to “only”$150 raises all kinds of doubts about how fair, open, honest and transparent this whole bid process was.

The contract is likely to expand greatly if his new firm will now bill the City for Minchello’s (part-time) services as City Attorney. The firm will no doubt take on other city business, and this may be the first step in the wholesale privatization of Trenton’s Law Department.

About his new arrangement, Michello tells the Times, “It is perfectly legal.” It probably is.

The NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which gave its blessing to the deal, went further. “We see no conflicts or ethics violation,” DCA rep Tammori Petty told the Times by email.

Mayor Eric “ZT” Jackson had no comment on the matter. As you will recall, Jackson brought Mr. Minchello to Trenton, allowing him to pad his resume further as he sought the next step in his career, his new gig at DeCotiis. Since Petty told the Times that DCA had “an honest conversation with the mayor” about the matter, we can presume despite his silence that he is hunky-dorey with his pal’s new gig.

Of course Jackson is ok with it. So far in his Administration, he hasn’t seen a questionable situation he hasn’t liked.

Of course DCA doesn’t mind the deal: it has only a minimal expectation that this arrangement will not cost cost any more to the city.”

However, this whole thing stinks. We well know how this Administration and the last play fast and loose with the City’s money, especially with regard to outside legal services. Just recall the names  Long Marmero and Cooper Levenson for a refresher course.

The prospect of a privatized City Attorney is one that should greatly concern Trenton’s citizens. The possibility that the situation may be entirely legal does not excuse it or make it right. We’ve seen too many recent examples of “legal” actions that will likely only have the effect of impoverishing this city even further. They are all “legal,” but they are all robbery.

We see public school districts in Trenton, and throughout the state facing critical financial cutbacks, layoffs and school closings, in large measure because so many taxpayer revenues are being diverted to funding private charter schools, many of whom are commercial enterprises.

We see a new law passed in New Jersey which makes future sales of public water systems to private industry without public approval much easier to accomplish.

And we have witnessed the award of Billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to corporations in New Jersey whose benefits to anyone other than corporate managers and shareholders are questionable.

Today’s news about David Minchello should be considered in the light of all of these developments. Corporations are people, my friend, but lately corporate people seem to be doing very, very well, at the expense of flesh-and-blood real people.

And the poorest people are doing the worst. In the midst of their misery, as the authors of the Gospels and the authors of today’s news remind us, there have been and will always be those who will seek to swoop in and cast lots for the spoils. Even when – especially when – they have the cover of law to do so.

Trenton’s City Council will meet in Executive Session tonight to discuss Mr. Minchello and this deal. I would hope that Council do the right thing and vote to block the deal. The meeting will be closed to the public, though.

But it might be possible for you to stand outside the doors of their meeting room and listen. If you hear the sounds of shaking dice, be afraid.