Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

At last night’s meeting, City Council voted to reverse the hasty and administratively improper decision of Trenton’s Acting Mayor George Muschal to terminate the employment of Fire Director Qareeb Bashir. Mr. Bashir was restored to his position for the remainder of the current mayoral term at the end of June.

Most of the Council members present – all except Mr. Muschal – objected to the fashion in which the Acting Mayor cashiered the Fire Director in violation of City Ordinance 2-9. This Ordinance, covering the Removal process of Departmental Directors, specifically directs that termination of a Director can occur no less than 20 days following written notification by the Mayor (or Acting Mayor in this case) to the employee in question and to Council. Mr. Bashir was terminated last Friday, well before 20 days.

Since I believe the Acting Mayor exceeded his authority and his mandate in this matter, Council was entitled to take the action they did last night.

However, not being content with that action, a number of Council members threatened to take retaliatory action on Mr. Muschal for his attempted removal of Bashir, by promising to remove Mr. Muschal from his other official position as City Council President.

I don’t think they have that power, according to City Ordinance.

Tempers were apparently very high at last night’s meeting. According to theTrenton Times account by Bridget Clurkin this morning, “Several council members said they thought the dual roles Muschal is holding gave him too much power and they mentioned that they ‘have the option’ to strip him of his council president responsibilities, saying that the vote may happen at next week’s meeting. ‘There will be a new council president,’ Councilman Zachary Chester said. ‘We won’t have that vote tonight, but we will have that vote.’

Trouble is, Trenton’s Ordinances do not provide any mechanism for removing the Council President.

Here is what the relevant Ordinance, A316-2, Rule IV A, has to say about the process of electing a Council President:

A. Election and Duties. The presiding officer of the Council shall be the President, who shall be elected at the organization meeting.

The “organization meeting” is held at the beginning of Council’s term. The Ordinance is silent on the topic of rotating, or removing the President. This Council elected George Muschal as President at its org meeting in July of 2010. Their practice of rotating the position each year to different members, and their practice of electing a Vice President – a position not authorized by City code – was done in violation of Ordinance.

Similarly, this Council would be in violation of City Ordinance were they to remove Mr. Muschal in advance of the next organization meeting. The only provision our Ordinances allow is the selection of a President pro tem, but only in the specific instance of the absence of the duly-elected President from a particular Council session.

These members of Council demonstrated last night once again that they have learned precious little over their four years in office about the proper exercise of their authority over the City’s affairs and over the administration of their own body.

It is very ironic that Mr. Chester and his colleagues  threaten Mr. Muschal with punishment for his improper exercise of authority – by promising an improper exercise of their own authority.

I’m afraid to say that Council is stuck with Mr. Muschal as their President until July 1.

Just as we are stuck with these sorry-assed excuses for Council members until that same date. I can’t wait.

After watching the “Acting” Mayor this week, and Council last night, I have to ask one more time, “Can’t ANYBODY here play this game?”

So, What Exactly Has Changed in Four Years

“He is no longer an employee. If you are no longer an employee you cannot come in there.”

– “Acting” Mayor George Muschal, on the events of April 16, 2014, during which Trenton Police Officers were called to Trenton Fire Department Headquarters after Fire Director Qareeb Bashir showed up to work after he was terminated from his position.

“It’s a disgrace City Hall’s got to do this and have this publicity right now.Everybody is upset by this. She served in the city all these years very well, and then to turn around and basically trash the lady and drag her out. What did she do so wrong to humiliate her like this?”

Councilman George Muschal, on the events of August 4, 2010, during which Trenton Police Officers and Mercer County Sheriff’s Deputies were called to City Hall after Deputy City Clerk Cordelia Staton was terminated from her position.

“At worst, our temporary mayor gave a criminal order worthy of Vladimir Putin to our police department to have director Bashir escorted from the Trenton Fire Department headquarters.”

– Councilwoman Kathy McBride, on the events of April 16, 2014


– Councilwoman Kathy McBride, on the events of August 4, 2010

So, someone please tell me,  What Exactly has Changed in Four Years?

All's Cheerless, Dark and Deadly

Several years in the past – less than four, although they seem an age ago – I felt something positively Shakespearean in the drama then unfolding in Trenton’s City Hall. Looking at the man who had after years of planning and grasping for the job had finally achieved the office of Mayor, I felt echoes of the title character of the Scottish Play in his administration. Better suited as a candidate than an incumbent, Tony Mackbeth brought a whole cast of almost theatrical villains into office along with him, and proceeded with his four-year long drama. No, “villains” isn’t quite right.  To observe some of them in action, I think the Bard would have cast some of them as Fools.

In any case, the curtain came down on that particular play, as Birnam Wood (in the unlikely form of a State Street parking lot) finally tripped them all up. Exeunt Stage Left.

After Mack’s resignation, I had thought that the intervening months between that event and the inauguration of a new Mayor and Council would have been mostly uneventful. I had thought that Acting Mayor George Muschal would have his hands full with catching up with unopened mail and unpaid bills, and turning over rocks and seeing what scurried away. I had thought things would be mostly calm for a few months, quiet other than whatever entertainment the mayoral and Council campaigns might provide.

Oh, I was wrong.

Instead of a peaceful interregnum, we now have an updated version of “King Lear.” Minus the daughters, of course.

No, really! Listen, all Lear had to to do at the end of his reign was to peacefully arrange for his succession. He might have waited until he died, but being son-less there was no obvious successor. In that event, he could have simply named his eldest daughter, or another, his heir after his death. He could have then carried on as King, secure in the fact that he knew that he would leave his kingdom and his people in peace and prosperity.

Had he done that, of course, there would have been no play.

Instead, he had the bright idea to divide his kingdom up among his daughters, according to how much they would say they loved him.

You can guess how that turned out: “[A]ll’s cheerless, dark, and deadly.
Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves, and desperately are dead.”

Everybody’s dead! Lear, all his daughters, lots of other characters and nodoubt thousands of innocent civilians killed in a war that didn’t have to happen. All because Lear’s plan of succession failed, miserably. The Single Big Thing that Lear had left to do, what many kings before and after him had done without a problem, pass his kingdom along peacefully, he screwed up.

You follow me now?

George Muschal was not elected Mayor by the people of Trenton. He was appointed by his colleagues on Council, in accordance with New Jersey law and Trenton City Ordinance, the “Acting” Mayor. He is in office only to fulfill the remaining weeks in the term that had been Tony Mack’s. He leaves office at Noon on July 1, as Tony Mack surely would have after his one and only term. His main job is to hand off the City, peacefully, to the next guy, hopefully no worse off than when he took it on two months ago.

He has no mandate for drastic action, no legitimacy to enact major changes. And, to be fair, neither does this lame duck City Council.

Apart from several important tasks facing him – as mentioned above, catching up on City business too long ignored by a hapless and distracted Mack, Muschal’s main role should have been as a trusted caretaker, doing as little as possible to rock the ship of state, just sailing steady and back on course. Instead, “Acting” Mayor Muschal has presided over much drama, most of which was avoidable, and a good deal of it of his own making. At the same time he seeks to take on so much in the few weeks he has remaining to him, Muschal has succeeded mostly in tripping over his own feet and burning through whatever good will he had from citizens that accompanied him into office.

We saw last month the farce regarding candidate petitions for office that threatened to postpone the scheduled May election. That snafu was primarily the responsibility of City Clerk Richard Kachmar, who owned up to his error. In the midst of that problem, Mr. Muschal was quite forgiving of Kachmar’s mistake.

Of a situation a special attorney hired (shortly after, fired) to clean up the mess that he characterized as “the first mistake of its kind in state history,” Mr. Muschal called it “a minor setback.”

While several Council members called for the Clerk’s resignation, Kachmar was ok by Muschal: “He owned up to [the petition snafu]. I respect him for saying ‘George, I made a mistake.’”

No harm, no foul for Mr. Muschal, I suppose. Many candidates, and several citizens were upset that Muschal failed to press Kachmar for his resignation, or even to publicly discipline or criticize him.

In fact, the “Acting” Mayor actually had the arrogance of attempting to deflect criticism from the City Clerk, suggesting that certain private citizens had known about the problem with petitions in advance of city officials, and through their failure to notify the city “created a major problem here that should never have been a problem.” Shamefully, the “Acting” Mayor has never apologized or retracted those groundless accusations.

All of this makes his abrupt actions this past Friday to dismiss Law Director Caryl Amana and Fire Director Qareeb Bashir from their positions hard to comprehend.

There may well be matters and issues regarding both department directors that may have led to their dismissal. But Mr. Muschal did not make that case for either of them, and now cites the confidentiality of personnel issues to explain that he will not do so.

There are also proper procedures for terminating the employment of heads of departments, as required both by City and State laws and regulations as well as the additional terms and conditions agreed to in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Trenton and the NJ State Department of Community Affairs (DCA).

But Mr. Muschal has failed to observe those as well.

During last night’s Council session, several members objected to the dismissal of Ms. Amana and Mr. Bashir, claiming that Muschal failed to provide advance written notice of his intentions to Council 20 days before the dismissal as provided by City Ordinance.

And DCA rebuked the “Acting” Mayor for violating the terms of the MOU, at least regarding the abrupt dismissal of Ms. Amana. Curiously (at least to me), DCA had no problem with Mr. Bashir’s dismissal. In a letter to the City, DCA Local Government Services Director Thomas Neff stated “The division has no role to play in Director Qareeb Bashir’s termination”, even though they had a lot to do with his hiring back in 2011. To some extent, it sometimes seems that DCA is making up a lot of stuff as they go along. But I digress.

The uproar over Ms. Amana and Mr. Bashir is entirely of George Muschal’s own making. He has only 76 more days in office. As egregious as their perceived faults were, if Mr. Muschal was willing to forgive Kachmar’s sins, then he certainly could have lived with Bashir and Amana until the next mayor – the next duly-elected mayor, that is – takes office and has opportunity to build his or her own Cabinet.

Mr. Muschal claims that he did things by the book. He is quoted in today’s Trentonian as saying, “Following the direction of the law, which I rely on, the information was given to me from law that the firing of Mr. Bashir is legal and to the point,” Muschal reiterated Tuesday before the meeting ended abruptly due to a medical emergency. “I have to rely on the law department to lead me in this direction.”

But, remember.  that is the very same Law Department whose Director he is trying to sack, and who, among recent items, submitted a legal brief on the election snafu that the judge hearing the case found “deficient” and called by the Trentonian “riddled with errors.”  I’d take any counsel and advice from them with a grain of salt.

Muschal has a lot of good instincts, but often exhibits questionable judgment. His charges against private citizens was one recent example. His quite bizarre accusation a few years ago that Tony Mack’s brother Ralphiel drove by his laundromat business in order to photograph the Councilman, uh, well, there’s no other way to say this, “pleasuring” a dog, was another memorable one.

Likewise, some of Muschal’s other announced initiatives would be better left to be considered by the new Council and Administration.  At the beginning of the week, he suggested that he would work to have City Council reverse the 1999 voter referendum that created the position of civilian Fire and Police Directors in favor of restoring Chiefs for both departments, selected from the ranks of those public safety departments. And a few weeks ago, he announced that he is working to re-open the city’s four neighborhood branch libraries, closed since 2010 by order of the previous Administration.

Mr. Muschal would be well advised to avoid both moves, as well as any other similar over-stretch. As much as I would love to see the neighborhood branches re-opened, Mr. Muschal has not presented any financial analysis to show that the City can afford to re-open the branches and keep them in operation. Surely that case has to be first made.

And his plans about the police and fire directors positions sound positively anti-democratic. Even though these positions were created by voter referendum, Muschal wants to bypass the voters and let Council vote to abolish the Director positions. There’s no reason to let the voters decide when council can decide. The council is put there for checks and balances to make the right decision.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

Perhaps. Perhaps if Muschal were a duly-elected Mayor, who ran on a platform to abolish those positions, and if Council members were elected on the same basis – openly discussing the pros and cons of the matter and promising to work for that goal if they are elected – then and only then would I feel comfortable to say that in that case the Mayor and Council had a mandate to take the action themselves.

But Muschal was elected only as the Councilman for the South Ward. He was not elected Mayor. And none of the seven council members, including Mr. Muschal, ran on a platform that promised to restore the Chiefs.

I think the issue is a valid one to discuss. As important as public safety is to this City, and how dire it has become, I think it entirely appropriate to ask candidates what they think of appointed civilian Directors versus uniformed Chiefs. I hope we hear more on the issue.

But Muschal has to drop the matter for now. He is an appointed Mayor. He has no mandate for this kind of action, despite his possession of awesome executive power, on paper. He has enough to do with just running this city without wrenching it in new directions that the citizens of this town will not follow.

Lord knows I believe that this City needs bold action and decisive decisions. But those have to be taken by representatives duly elected by the people to do their specific jobs. Which won’t be done until next month.

I know that must be aggravating to the man. His intentions are good, and dedicated towards improving this City.

But he simply has no moral authority, credibility or mandate to take any major action in the short time remaining to him, other than what he may be  compelled to do by events. All the “cheerless, dark and deadly” drama swirling around him and this city this week proves that. Most of this is of his own doing.

The end of this drama, or at least a great reduction, can also be his own doing, should he choose it.

He could do the City a great service if he just steps back from the bully pulpit a bit, tinker around the edges and let the heavy lifting be done by a new Mayor and Administration.

After four years, I have frankly had enough of Shakespearean drama and petty soap opera!

Playing Endorsement Games

Last week on April 2, the campaign of mayoral candidate Paul Perez staged a press conference on the steps of Trenton City Hall to announce the endorsement of Mr. Perez’s candidacy by former Trenton Board of Education Toby Sanders. This endorsement by one of the City’s leading educational figures was considered a big one by the mayoral hopeful. The occasion was reported in a note in the Trenton Times by reporter Jenna Pizzi, a full article with accompanying short video clip by David Foster in the Trentonian, and a release on Mr. Perez’s website.

Mr. Sanders spoke glowingly of Mr. Perez and his career to date, his current candidacy, and his plans for the future of Trenton. He was chock full of praise for the man.

“This man is absolutely a hero — the most heroic of all the candidates… His candidacy of all the candidacies that are out there is the most thoughtful and the most visionary about the future,” as quoted on the campaign website.

Mr. Sanders wanted to make sure that people knew that he came to his decision after careful consideration of all the other candidates. According to the Trentonian, “Sanders said he met with every candidate before making his decision. ‘None of them have the specificity, a vision, the creativity, and the attention to detail that the Perez campaign has,’ he said. ‘Their platforms leave a lot to be desired.’

And, just to be sure that we understand that Mr. Sanders makes his endorsement on the basis of his experience and Moral Authority, he also said (as recorded on the video clip accompanying the Trentonian’s print story):

“I come to you as a citizen of Trenton, as an Activist in the city, as one of the Educators here, as one of the Leaders here, one of the Pastors here.”

What the man did NOT say – at least in any of the video or print reports I have read – is,

“I come to you as a relative of Paul Perez, as the husband of his niece, a niece who helped to write part of his Platform, the very same platform I praise so highly while I criticize those of all the other candidates!”

Kind of puts quite a different spin on Mr. Sanders’ endorsement, doesn’t it?

Another Jenna Pizzi article in the Trenton Times, a profile of Mr. Perez in today’s edition quotes one Leslie Sanders. Ms. Pizzi calls her “Perez’ niece” and goes on to say “The two have worked together to help craft Perez’s education policy, with Sanders, who is a school literacy leader in the city’s public schools.”

The article today, and all of the press over the last week, fail to note that Leslie Sanders is also the wife of former School Board President Toby Sanders.

I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with Mr. Sanders endorsing the candidate of his choice. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with Ms. Sanders offering to help on the policy formulation of the candidate of her choice. And I don’t believe that Paul Perez did anything wrong in accepting a personal endorsement.

What I do mind, and think is frankly pretty sleazy – even by Trenton standards – is that this endorsement was made and reported without any disclosure of any of these pre-existing bonds among the Sanders and Mr. Perez.

Without disclosing these bonds, I can only resent the self-righteousness of Mr. Sanders when he said last Wednesday, “I don’t stand here as a church, I stand here as a citizen. I have every right to offer my opinion about what’s best for Trenton. What’s best for Trenton is Paul Perez.”

Yes, Mr. Sanders, you have the absolute right to your opinion. But when you share that opinion with us, you also have an absolute obligation to let the public know of this background. You stood on the City Hall steps “as a citizen,” but also as Family. And, what’s more, Family with both former and current professional, employment and policy-making relationships with Trenton’s public schools and its Board of Education.

We should have been told that.

Had Mr. Perez and Mr. Sanders let us know of these connections – and had the media reported them – at the time of the endorsement, the public would be fully informed and able to make up their own mind as to whether Sanders’ backing was influenced at all by bonds of family or by his wife’s work on the Perez platform he is so very fond of.

But he did not. And therefore this endorsement, and Mr. Perez’s campaign strategy, must be viewed as suspect.

I expected more from both of these gentlemen, than to see them both play these kinds of games.

When Eric Jackson accepted the endorsement of a large group of local clergy, among whom were several who had previously endorsed Tony Mack, and one who actually took a job from the man after the election, I criticized his campaign for it. Now that Mr. Perez seems to be playing his own endorsement games, he should be called on it as well.

At this point, Mr. Perez needs to open up and fully disclose his connections with the Sanders, and whether there is any expectation that their bonds of family and their contributions of support and endorsement may follow through with any roles, formal or informal, in a future Perez Administration.

Similarly, it is probably appropriate at this point in the campaign for Mr. Perez, and all of his fellow candidates, to fully disclose any and all familial connections they may have who either currently work for the City and its various departments, or who we may expect (0r not) to see working for the City under their Administrations.

We are just coming off of four years that featured not only the excesses of Tony Mack, but those of his brothers Stanley Davis and Ralphiel Mack. All three got in to the game and grabbed what they could, while they could, until they were caught.

I for one do not want to see even a hint that we are going back to those bad old days.

Again, I want to stress that I do not believe that what Paul Perez and Toby Sanders did this week measures up at all with the outrageous criminal excesses of the Mack Family.

But it was and is entirely inexcusable for a man to offer public support to a candidate, and offer it so extravagantly! - This man is absolutely a hero — the most heroic of all the candidates!” – without letting us know that his “hero” is an Uncle by marriage, and that at least some of those “most thoughtful” and “most visionary” ideas came from his own wife!

More Nuts and Bolts

In the section of his mayoral campaign platform on Economic Development, Eric Jackson concludes with a strong statement titled “Focus on the Fundamentals:”

We will work relentlessly to provide ecient, eective municipal services, from public safety to education, from garbage pick-up to development plan approvals, from building inspections to snow removal and pothole repairs. My Administration will seek to restore the morale of the city work force by providing the focused, ethical leadership that public employees deserve.

My administration will build Trenton’s reputation as a city that works hard and works smart for its residents, businesses and visitors. Success at the fundamentals will be key to realizing my larger vision of economic progress and growth.

This is a sound statement, and one which is appropriate and realistic at this point in Trenton history. The City and its government is broke and broken. An emphasis on fundamentals, the nuts and bolts of day-to-day municipal business, is what’s needed. I am pleased to see this acknowledgement and pledge by Mr. Jackson here.

However, I would have been more pleased had that principle of Focusing on Fundamentals been applied throughout his platform. Alas, this is not the case. In other areas of his plan, Mr. Jackson lays out ambitious – in some key instances, over-ambitious in my opinion – proposals for new initiatives. These typically take the form of new departments and offices in City government, at a time when the existing ones need to be rehabilitated.

The first example I will cite is Mr. Jackson’s proposal for a Cabinet-level “Mayor’s Office on Education.” He sees a mission for a new department to coordinate and “align the actions and resources” of the City with every major educational player in the City: the city’s School District as well as charter and parochial schools, parents and neighborhood associations as well as non-profits and other city agencies. He would have this done via yet another new entity, a “consortium” to be operated out of the Mayor’s Office.

Now I don’t claim any special understanding of city educational issues. I do know that the city’s students and schools are generally under-performing, with test and achievement scores low, and dropout rates high. I would suggest that a more realistic, and I will also use the word “humble,” goal for the first term of a Jackson Administration would be to work on fixing the City schools first. If after four years you can point to some real measurable successes, perhaps then and only then might you presume to be able to offer something to all of the other schools and students in the city.

Mr. Jackson proposes a closer working relationship with the state’s School Development Authority, as it proceeds with rebuilding Central High School and other facilities in the city. That’s the sort of effort that could be meaningful and practical. Before we start talking about new Cabinet-level “Offices” and “Consortia,” how about we Focus on Fundamentals, OK?

In his section on Ethics, Mr. Jackson wants, again, to establish a new position to restore competence and integrity to City Hall, an “Independent Inspector General.” I discussed this proposal a few weeks ago, when the candidate wrote an opinion column for the Trenton Times. Along with a similar proposal by Paul Perez that I discussed yesterday, I find such plans unnecessary for a city as small as ours. I flat out disagree with Mr. Jackson that “An Inspector general will ensure that taxpayers’ hard earned dollars are not wasted and expended in compliance with all applicable laws.”

THAT’S what we elect a Mayor to do. THAT’S what we appoint a Business Administrator to do. Those are responsibilities and trusts that cannot and should not be delegated away to another office in a small city of 85,000. For Mr. Jackson and Mr. Perez to suggest otherwise of one of the most important – if not THE MOST important – duties of a mayor essentially negates their viability as candidates. Why should we elect them, if they will abdicate one of their most important duties and delegate it to another?

In Mr. Jackson’s case, a proposal to charge the “authority to investigate of corruption, fraud and inefficiency throughout city government” to another officer resonates strongly with his previous tenure with the city as Director of Public Works. Over the last several years we have read a lot of press stories about deep and widespread corruption at that department, for years pre-dating the Mack Administration. Last year, in courtroom testimony at a case involving allegations of punitive and illegal treatment of Trenton Water Works employees, Mr. Jackson spoke of many instances of just such corruption, fraud and inefficiency.

In his testimony, Jackson explained how he handled each matter with internal disciplinary hearings and actions. What Mr. Jackson did NOT describe was any action he took to refer allegations of items we now know were severe and criminal to either our City Police Department, or the County Prosecutor. I remarked on this last December, and asked several questions about Eric Jackson’s tenure as Director of Public Works that have not yet been addressed by the Candidate, and which are still highly relevant to this campaign.

In that context, I find his proposal for an “Independent Inspector General” not only redundant to the proper responsibilities of a good Mayor, but also as potentially stonewalling real, credible investigations into any future misbehavior. Rather than calling for a new city bureaucrat, I would have welcomed a strong statement from the candidate that “Allegations of corruption, fraud and other illegal behavior that are referred to the Office of the Mayor or to the Business Administrator will be swiftly referred – in every case – to Police and Prosecutors.”

We do not hear, and do not read such a call from Mr. Jackson. Jackson is asking voters to consider his candidacy very strongly on his call for restoring Ethics and Integrity to Trenton;s government. From his Times Op-ed to his platform, his concept of the Inspector General is key. To me, the idea is a Fail. As a result, I suggest that his candidacy may be evaluated very substantially on this one plan alone.

In another area, Jackson’s platform suggests yet one more office for the City. He announces his idea for an “Office of Public Engagement,” whose two main responsibilities would be both to provide information on city services to citizens, and receive feedback from Trentonians about local problems and conditions. Among other duties, he says, “This Office will be required to evaluate the City’s use of technology and recommend improvements that will enhance services and reduce costs.”

Mr. Jackson does not state so, but I hope that this new Office reduces costs enough to pay for itself, as well for the New Inspector General, and the New Office on Education!

With all of these new initiatives, there isn’t a lot I can find in Mr. Jackson’s platform that discusses in any detail how he intends to “Focus on the Fundamentals.”

In the concluding paragraphs of his platform, he promises “We will work relentlessly to provide efficient, effective municipal services, from public safety to education, from garbage pick-up to development plan approvals, from building inspections to snow removal and pothole repairs.” Most of these tasks are actually performed by employees of our Public Works department, the agency Eric Jackson ran for many years. It’s the department he presumably knows the best. It’s also the department, as we know too well, that has seen more than its share of problems including instances of crime and corruption as well as basic technical competence.

Mr. Jackson specifically mentions garbage pick-up and snow removal and pothole repair as the fundamentals, but he doesn’t talk about them at all other than that brief mention. He doesn’t address the very, very serious situation at the Trenton Water Works that frankly threatens the future of city ownership of this vital utility. He does mention Trenton’s “Strategic Location” as being key for attracting business and residential development, and promotes the city’s “exceptional transportation infrastructure.” But, surprisingly for someone with his background, he omits to say anything about reassuring potential investors that our water mains won’t break and that our water will be clean and clear, not brown. I’d like to have heard some promises that roads and streets will be kept clear of snow on a timely basis, and that private cars and commercial trucks won’t have wheels and axles destroyed by running on our city streets, many of which resemble a Tough Mudder obstacle course!

I wanted to read something in his Public Safety section about how the Police Department is structured. Apart from his call for “effective partnerships with County, State and Federal Agencies to leverage and enhance the capacity of the Trenton Police Department,” what can he do as Mayor to improve our Department? We’ve had appointed Police and Fire Directors for several years, rather than Chiefs. How does he think that’s been working out? Does he think we need to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with our police officers, who are long overdue for one?

We don’t read anything about that in his written plan. This morning, we read that Jackson will give a speech on his crime plan Monday. Perhaps he may give us more details on his Fundamentals at that time.

I hope also that Mr. Jackson may improve his grasp of certain “fundamental” facts. I previously remarked that in his Times op-ed last December he called for the City to adopt an ethics plan – despite the fact that the city’s brand-new Ethics Board has already adopted one. In his section on Public Safety, Jackson promises that:

“I will explore the practice instituted in several other New Jersey cities which relieves the police department of the obligation to detain possible undocumented immigrants for deportation by federal immigration officials, allowing for more appropriate use of our limited law enforcement resources.”

Mr. Jackson is describing the “Sanctuary Cities” program, a loose nationwide network of towns and cities that do exactly what Mr. Jackson proposes. Such Sanctuary cities operate under these policies in open, but tacitly acknowledged, violation of several federal immigration regulations and laws. Mr. Jackson seems to be suggesting that he will examine the experiences of Sanctuary Cities in New Jersey such as Camden, Fort Lee, Jersey City and Newark for lessons that could be learned in Trenton.

However, Mr. Jackson doesn’t need to look very far. Trenton appears on a list of “Original Sanctuary Cities” right along with the other towns named above, meaning it has adopted and been operating under these policies since at least 2007.

Had Mr. Jackson expressed an intention to examine and review Trenton’s record under this program, I could understand that. But by referring to “exploring” the experiences of other New Jersey towns, he sounds like he is proposing their policies as models he may consider introducing under Administration while neglectful of the fact that they have already been in force for the better part of a decade!

Out of touch on a brand-new Ethics Code is one thing, but missing a major policy affecting thousands of city residents for 7 years is something else!

Overall, Mr. Jackson has made a great effort to address his plans and priorities for a Jackson Administration. He covers a great deal of the problems and challenges facing the City after a singularly catastrophic four year term, but also in the context of decades of decline. His platform is an admirable effort.

But the several contradictions built into his plan – the unacknowledged and unreconciled tensions between a “Focus on Fundamentals” alongside over-ambitious new initiatives; failure to devote much attention or detail to his plans to rehabilitate and restore functionality, competence and trust in essential municipal departments and duties; and embarrassing gaps in basic city knowledge – as well as important but unanswered questions about his previous tenure in Trenton’s government, lead me to conclude that Mr. Jackson’s plan – and his candidacy – are good, but not nearly good enough for what we now need in Trenton.

Discussing Mr. Jackson’s proposals has taken more space than I had originally planned. I intend to talk about Jim Golden’s plans, and those from Council candidates, but I don’t want to cause any more eyestrain for my readers on a beautiful weekend.

To be Continued.

Nuts and Bolts

If our Municipal Election is held as scheduled – a big IF this morning – we are now only 39 days away from selecting a new Mayor and (hopefully mostly) new City Council. Most of the mayoral candidates have by now issued some kind of campaign platform, laying out what they believe are the important issues and how each of them are uniquely suited to solve Trenton’s problems.

I say “most” because of the six people running for mayor, five are running campaign websites or hosting other presences on social media. Only Oliver “Bucky” Leggett appears to be missing any presence online. There is nothing that I can find or have seen from the man or about him. He has been pretty good at maintaining an extremely low profile during this election so far.

Considering that the man has been invisible in this city since his last election loss to Doug Palmer in 2002, I’d say he’s certainly staying in character. That is inexcusable in a candidate to replace Tony Mack. I hope we are racing for the top this year, and not the bottom.   There is not one single thing to recommend Bucky Leggett as our next mayor, so I will not say one more word about him for the remainder of this election unless he can present some ideas and plans.

After the last four years, we hardly need any more reminders about how bad things have gotten around here. But over the last few days, we have seen two more stories about the abysmal state into which the City of Trenton has fallen.

Yesterday, the Trenton Times reported that the NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA) has criticized the city for the many extreme delays and bottlenecks in its contracting process. “The city needs to find a way to address bids on a more timely basis,” DCA told us in February, as they were asked to green-light proposals for projects based on bids and proposals several months old and, in the term used by the state, “stale.”

Wednesday, in another Trenton Times article, we read that due to years of delayed or faulty maintenance the Trenton Water Works (TWW) loses a full 28 percent of the water it pumps every day from the Delaware River to leaks on its way from the source to the faucets and pipes of the utility’s business residential customers around Mercer County.

And another article yesterday, this one in the Trentonian about TWW describes the great difficulties the utility is having just recruiting and training qualified service personnel from the City of Trenton.

These stories show just how bad the normal, everyday, basic but essential functions performed by the City have become. By no means, however,  are all of these problems the sole responsibility of the former disgraced Administration of the former felonious Occupant, although he and his cronies greatly accelerated trends that pre-dated them.

These stories show just how acute these problems have become. The City’s failures to properly manage its contracting and purchasing systems will mean a further deterioration in the city services we still receive; they will be harder to deliver and more expensive. And experiencing yet more problems at the Water Works further strengthens the argument that TWW is too important to the public health and economic life of Mercer County to leave it in the hands of a bumbling, in competent City of Trenton. As I have said for most of the last four years, we are in danger of losing city control of the utility and the income it provides for this broke town unless we can clean up our act!

So, we are 39 days from the election. Who among our Mayoral candidates acknowledges how significant the problem of providing essential yet routine city services has become? Who has the best feel for the nuts and bolts of running a small Northeastern post-industrial city?

Not many, I’m sorry to say.

We’ve already dismissed Leggett. Let’s continue with the candidateI most recently discussed, current Council Member Kathy McBride. Turns out she is the easiest one to talk about, because she says so little on her website about the problem.

On the Platform page of her website, she fails to discuss any issues having to do with Trenton’s city government. The closest she comes to the subject is to talk about “Infrastructure.” This is her platform plank on the subject, in its entirety:

Kathy believes that infrastructure investment will enhance the quality of life for Trenton residents, and create safe, clean and aesthetic neighborhoods. As Mayor Kathy will…

  • Re-build city bridges
  • Repair damaged roads

And that’s it. She doesn’t explain how she will do this: she doesn’t explain any financing for this, any timeline for this, any sets of priorities for this, or even whether she believes this work will be done by city employees or contractors. It comes across, as does most of her platform, as a set of buzz words offered to allow her to say that she has a “plan” for her mayoralty, but without suggesting that she knows anywhere near enough about the problems themselves in order to offer credible solutions.

Based on this, do I believe Ms. McBride would be able to untangle the mess in our contracting and purchasing functions? No way.

How about Walker Worthy? His platform does contain a section labeled “Governance,” although it describes several laudable objectives very general in nature: “operate a clean, honest , transparent government;” appointing competent Cabinet members (what a novel idea! and how sad that such a thing has to be explicitly stated); talk to the State about restoring significant and permanent revenue flows to the city in the form of Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS); stabilize city property taxes; “restore revenue generating departments,” such as Inspections and Parking Enforcement.

These are all good objectives, but I don’t get a sense that Mr. Worthy has a real road map in mind on how to get there. Along with his other areas of concern – “Jobs and Economy” (discussed by me here), “Education,” and “Crime and Public Safety” – Mr. Worthy displays a pretty good sense of what needs to be done. I just don’t think he knows how to go about it.

Paul Perez’s platform is slimmer than Mr. Worthy’s, although he has a few more concrete ideas about city operations:

  • Provide professional development programs for City Hall employees that includes performance measurement, supervision and leadership training.
  • Create an Office of Integrity and Accountability responsible for oversight of city programs and combat Fraud, Waste and Abuse.
  • Restore the public’s trust through transparency that promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what the city is doing.

Mr. Perez is getting a little closer to the mark. But these and his other platform proposals, while good and desirable, sound to me awfully generic. For instance, in what town would citizens NOT want to “Transform City Hall into a customer friendly operation?”  Where would a city NOT want to “Provide professional development programs for City Hall employees?”

The main criticism I have of Mr. Perez is that as a recent returnee to the City, he is not familiar enough with the particulars of our specific situation and our specific problems to be able to effect meaningful solutions. As a manager with long and distinguished service in the Federal government, is his experience and training in environments as vast as the Federal bureaucracy truly appropriate for the small scale of our city’s operation? Local government, after all, is not simply a scaled-down US Government; it is an entirely separate world with real-life constraints that an executive manager whose nearly entire career with the Feds might not be well-equipped to handle, frankly.

Take, for instance, his proposal for an Office of Integrity and Accountability. That his remedy for the rampant corruption and incompetence seen in city departments over the last few years is yet another city department strikes me as unnecessary. We are a small city of only around 85,000 souls. The City of Trenton’s government is not so large that we need another functional department whose stated purpose would be oversight of City programs and to fight abuses in the system.

In a town like ours, we elect a Mayor to ensure Integrity. We elect a Mayor to oversee the city’s departments. We elect a Mayor to fight abuse, supported by a Business Administrator.

The fact that we elected a disaster four years ago does not negate what the office of mayor is for. The fact that we have gone through a series of ineffective and unproductive Business Administrators does not prove we need a brand-new layer of additional overhead.

We don’t need to create new positions; we need to elect and appoint the right people in the first place. If we don’t, a “Director of Integrity and Accountability” won’t make a dime’s worth of difference.

Mr. Perez’s lack of specific references to Trenton’s conditions, and his overly generic platform solutions, such as his earlier expressed proposal to provide high-speed Internet throughout Trenton, bother me.

I’ll move on to Jim Golden and Eric Jackson’s plans tomorrow.

You First, Mr. Bethea! After You, Ms. McBride!

Oh, this is rich!

One of the persons least justified in climbing on a high horse in this Trenton election season is Councilman-at-Large Alex Bethea. On a body blessed with an abundance of mediocrity and mendacity, with a pitiful 4-year “record” of accomplishment to show for their terms, Bethea surely stands out as being the most useless. And that is saying something!

But, there he is in this morning’s news. In a Trentonian article by David Foster, he is described as having “seen enough” of the ongoing election snafu in the City: Bethea “called for embattled Clerk Richard Kachmar to submit a letter of resignation by the end of the business day Wednesday due to ‘his incompetence’ stemming from his election mistake. ‘Let’s hold people accountable,’ Bethea said after the council meeting. ‘If you’re not doing the job, then submit the resignation.’”

I am not a fan of this Clerk. His fumbles in office, along with those committed on an ongoing basis by Trenton’s Law Department headed by City Attorney Caryl Amana, deserve their dismissal in favor of someone who knows what they are doing.  But I can’t stand to hear Bethea of all people on this subject.

Had only Mr. Bethea taken such a stance earlier in his term, we might have heard similarly stern and impassioned calls to resign directed at the incompetence of other City figures. But a Google search for such items won’t turn up other statements blasting the incompetence of the likes of Anthony Roberts, Harold Hall, or Tony Mack.

In fact, what will turn up for Mr. Bethea is a long record of statements and votes supporting the Convicted Ex-Occupant.

For instance, in August of 2012, weeks after the FBI raids on Mack’s house and City Hall that would lead to federal felony indictments and convictions of several people, Bethea claimed “We don’t have the right to tell the mayor how to do his job.” God forbid he should have suggested of the mayor, “If you’re not doing the job, then submit the resignation.”

I could go on at GREAT length about Mr. Bethea, but will only add this one reminder that on one of the few occasions when City Council attempted meaningful action to rein in the Administration of the Felonious Punk, Bethea had Mack’s back. Remember the effort in Fall 2012, when Council voted “No Confidence” in the mayor, and also voted to cut his salary in half? Guess who voted against both? Yep, Alex Bethea.

To be fair, Mr. Bethea has little to no chance of being re-elected to his at-large seat in the spring election – whenever that will be – so I won’t bother to call for him to do the honorable thing and resign. It will be soon enough that we won’t have to put the words “Councilman” and “Alex Bethea” together again. Good riddance to him! That day can’t come fast enough.

You can say the same thing about his colleague and fellow Council obstructionist Kathy McBride. One can say with an absolute certainty that she won’t be a Council member after her term is over. But in her case the reason is that she feels that her record on the Council is so good that she is running for Mayor.

She is joining her colleague Bethea in calling for the resignations of Mr. Kachmar & Ms. Amana, and has even requested the state Department of Community Affairs (who vetted and approved the appointments of both) to intervene and terminate the employment of both.

Like Mr. Bethea, McBride was a firm and active backer of the Convicted Fraudster and Bribe-taker, who also blocked the 2012 votes of No Confidence and mayoral salary reduction. She, too, is a born-again Good Government type as the election is getting closer. Her calls for Council and State to do the right thing regarding ridding the city of incompetence are increasing in number at a rate that seems to be inversely proportional to the number of days before the election. So for 3 1/2 years, we have heard and seen little from her other than support for the previous Administration. Now, she hopes we all have short memories.

In her campaign for Mayor, I think she knows she can’t run on her Council record. Instead she is running on her record as a community activist and private citizen. Here is a select list of what she presents on her campaign website as her “Record” over the last four years:

  • Hosted an expungement seminar that provided Trenton residents with information about the expungement process.
  • Advocated for union workers to maintain their employment with the Lafayette Yard
  • Raised awareness of mental health problems in collaboration with former NBA basketball player Luther Wright. All proceeds were donated to the Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare.
  • Hosted an annual movie night for the entire community.
  • Sponsored a trip to Orangeburg, South Carolina for high school and college students to participate in the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary Election. The goal was to introduce students to the political process.
  • Celebrated and united Trenton’s various cultures by hosting an annual Multi-cultural/Holiday program. This program offered an olive branch to different ethnicities to highlight the rich diversity of the City. During this event, hundreds of children received gifts for the holiday season.
  • Worked closely with the Police Benevolence Association during Hurricane Irene to provide clothing and gift certificates to displaced families.
  • Educated Trenton students about municipal government and guided students on a tour of city hall.

That’s right, Trenton. Kathy McBride thinks she should be Mayor of this city because she’s hosted Movie Night, and guided students on a tour of City Hall!

She is, apparently, quite serious.

In her defense, she does state quite clearly that this record describes her “service on the Council and as a Community activist,” so she is not claiming all of those milestones solely as her Council legacy.

Her expressed dissatisfaction with the City’s Clerk and Law Department is just not credible, given her record – on Council – of enabling the incompetent and criminal excesses of the previous regime, and obstructing all efforts of her body to control and reverse the worst of them.

Given her “record,” then, what does she propose to do as Mayor? Her platform is full of vague objectives vaguely expressed and poorly argued. Her website claims that, “As Mayor, Kathy will…”

  • Maintain safer streets and safer neighborhoods.
  • Improve community policing policies that are geared towards reducing our crime rate.
  • Work to increase foot patrols and enhance the channels of communication between police personnel and city residents.
  • Secure funding to provide adequate staffing and resources to the Police Department.
  • Offer Police Officers and Fire Fighters salary incentives to establish and maintain residency within the city.
  • Work with the Board of Education for system wide improvement of the school district.
  • Provide additional resources to schools with innovative programs that strive to advance academic growth.
  • Heighten our children’s preparation for the workforce with quality career and technical educational programs.
  • Attract educators who are STEM literate (”Science, Technology, Engineering and Math”), and incorporate STEM learning in every subject.
  • Promote bilingual education city-wide through peer tutoring programs.
  • Work with business interests to make the city amenable for investment opportunities.
  • Partner with corporations to attract new business and create employment opportunities for Trenton residents.
  • Sell abandoned city-owned properties to qualified developers and city residents.
  • Continue to work with the State of New Jersey to redevelop surface parking lots into commercial real estate.
  • Impose wage contribution for all employees who live outside of the city.
  • Re-build city bridges
  • Repair damaged roads

Nowhere in her platform does she explain just how she proposes to do any of these things, or if she even comprehends how some of these actions can even be attempted.

For example, does she really think she could “impose wage contribution for all employees who live outside the city?” What does this even mean?

How will she “secure funding to provide adequate staffing and resources to the Police Department?” Her last “plan” on the matter was to  incoherently beg the Governor to “deputize” law enforcement officers from outside the City to patrol our streets.

Is she the best person to “Attract educators who are STEM literate (’Science, Technology, Engineering and Math’), and incorporate STEM learning in every subject?”

Her only public foray into science education, after all, was her attempt from the Council dais to warn Trenton’s citizenry about the danger of that dangerous new public health threat, Blue Waffle Disease?”

What, you thought I could resist an opportunity like that? Not a chance!!

Alex Bethea and Kathy McBride are two Council members who have no business lecturing us about the need for incompetent Trenton public officials to resign.

If they want to be taken seriously on this matter, the first resignations to be tendered would be theirs.

They Have Earned the Right

Big Think About Broadband

This is the time of the political season for Trenton’s May elections when some candidates feel they have to present their Big Ideas, their Vision Thing for Trenton’s future. The week before last, we read Deputy County Clerk Walker Worthy’s “Plan for Jobs and Economy;” we were not impressed. The Big Idea for Trenton’s economic re-building as proposed by Mr. Worthy was development of the City’s waterfront area, including a Casino. The benefit of a Big Idea like a Casino is that it is an easily understood proposal, able to be summarized quickly and succinctly. The devil, of course, is in the details, few of which were forthcoming from Mr. Worthy.

At the end of last week, Jim Golden released a summary of his plan, which I am looking forward to discussing. But before  that, Paul Perez released a proposal that is getting some attention this morning, and which I think counts as his own Big Idea. And that makes it worth a look.

According to an article by Davis Foster in this morning’s Trentonian, “Paul Perez wants everyone in the city connected. The mayoral candidate revealed plans to create a citywide, ultra-high-speed broadband internet network to spark economic development.”

The plan, dubbed with its very own acronym TBS, for Trenton Broadband Initiative, is “to deliver speeds of 1Gbps and higher to attract IT startups, investors and businesses, in addition to providing Wi-Fi to schools, colleges and the residents at affordable prices. ‘Through a public-private partnership we can develop an affordable broadband network and create the conditions for schools, colleges, businesses and even the state offices to have a reliable and resilient IT infrastructure, ‘ Perez stated. The mayoral candidate said cities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., Provo, Utah, Kansas City, Miss. and Austin, Texas are already developing the networks.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

This proposal is certainly ambitious, and even audacious in Mr. Perez’s suggestion that a Trenton Initiative could provide broadband access to New Jersey state offices.

Ambitious and audacious may attract headlines, and perhaps sway votes, but how realistic is this plan? Looking at the municipal examples that Mr. Perez himself cited as leading the way, I have to answer, “Probably not very realistic at all.”

According to an op-ed written last August in the Baltimore Sun by Maryland State Senator Catherine Pugh, “Taxpayers in Provo, Utah, for instance, spent $40 million to build a relatively small and modest network only to sell it for $1 a few years later because they underestimated the massive costs of operating, upgrading and maintaining it.” The new owner of the Provo system, Google Fiber (more about them below) according to Senator Pugh will need to invest another $20 Million into the system – which we are told is barely ten years old – before it is considered “fully operational.”

Yikes! So Provo’s experience really does not recommend the idea very favorably to Trenton. Let’s move on.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, is the location of a municipal broadband system serving 56,000 customers according to the Wall Street Journal, and offering speeds of 1 Gigabit.

But Chattanooga’s system was helped along by several crucial facts. For one, the city-wide Internet broadband was an outgrowth of a plan by the city-owned electric utility to improve the reliability of its electrical grid. With an electrical infrastructure already reaching into every home, school and business in the Chattanooga region, this gave the City a headstart.

Trenton does not own an electrical utility. It does own the Trenton Water Works. A water utility, even one that has struggled to provide dependable basic water service to its customers, is not suited to add on this kind of added functionality.

Chattanooga funded its municipal system in part by $111 Million in Federal Stimulus dollars, and a $220 Million Taxpayer-approved bond. That is One-Third of a Billion Dollars to construct a system for a metropolitan area with about twice Trenton’s population. Using a similar yardstick to estimate the cost for Trenton, one comes up with a number of at least $160 Million.

In her Baltimore Sun op-ed, Senator Pugh tells us “To pay-down these massive costs and to break even year-to-year, municipal networks need to sign up tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of customers… [Chattanooga signed] up just 34 customers (eight residential!) to its $350 per month 1 Gbps offering. Chattanooga residents saw little use for a 1 Gbps connection, particularly at such a premium cost.”

Has Mr. Perez run the numbers for Trenton?

Did he even look very closely at the experiences of the other cities he cited?

In today’s Trentonian article, Mr. Perez does talk about utilizing a “public private partnership” to embark upon a program such as he is proposing. In that, he may be thinking about the examples of the other two cities he mentioned.

Kansas City (the one in Kansas & across the river in Missouri, NOT Mississippi as the Trentonian reports!) and Austin, Texas are cities that are being upgraded to advanced broadband services by working with a division of Google, Google Fiber. In Kansas City, the “private” part of the partnership is estimated as costing Google about $1 Billion to build out its system.

This kind of investment from a company such as Google is just the kind of commitment Trenton would love to see.

However, this private investment requires a lot n return. For its part in the project,  Kansas City is providing several in-kind items and services: “Free office space, free power for Google equipment, and use of ‘all assets and infrastructure’ in both Kansas Cities… including fiber, buildings, land, and computer tools for nada. And to sweeten the deal more, both cities are giving Google a team of government employees dedicated to the project. ”

Would Mr. Perez be willing to offer this kind of investment from Trenton? He didn’t say in his talk with the Trentonian. He should be asked if that is his intention. Trenton’s recent record of public investment in private enterprises (Hello, Lafayette Yard!) is not exactly a good one, you know!

Austin, Texas is the other big metro area seeking to upgrade its municipal infrastructure with Google Fiber, but that is an effort running into a lot of difficulty, not least of which is that Google’s plans for Austin would require it to have access to the city’s existing utility poles. 80 percent of those are owned by the City, but 20% are owned by competitor AT&T, which is not exactly pleased by Google’s entry into their market. AT&T is challenging Google’s ability to build out its system, claiming that Google is not qualified as a Telecoms services provider by either Texas or Federal regulators.

In Trenton, a similar attempt by a Perez Administration to bring in a company such as Google into a “public private partnership” would likely run into similar objections by the companies that are now here, namely Comcast and Verizon. Not that that should be an obstacle in itself. The prospect of competition in one of its markets might encourage Comcast and/or Verizon to make improvements to its service and pricing. This is certainly something Trentonians would benefit from.

But that hasn’t happened yet. A survey of the industry on written last year reviewed developments nationwide including expansion plans by corporations such as Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon, as well as the public private partnerships towns such as the ones discussed above along with Google Fiber, and found problems with the timely rollout of our Big Connected Future

The search giant [Google] insisted it had no intention of becoming an internet service provider. It just wanted to encourage existing ISPs, including Verizon, to run higher speed lines across the country. But although Google Fiber has now arrived in Kansas City, Kansas, the big name ISPs aren’t exactly following suit.

Verizon has stalled the expansion of FiOS indefinitely, and other companies have been slow to invest in ultrafast broadband. Time Warner Cable is rolling out fiber to office building in New York City, and Comcast’s Xfinity Platinum service offers a 305 megabit cable service in some locations for $299.95, but that’s the extent of it…

‘Competitors have been overbuilding, investors are wondering where the returns are,’ says Mark Ansboury, president and co-founder of GigaBit Squared. ‘What you’re seeing is an entrenchment, companies leveraging what they already have in play.’

Mr. Perez is correct that the future competitiveness of Trenton as a community that can attract investment by businesses and families depends on an improved infrastructure. I can’t blame him for thinking big by proposing that Trenton move into the 21st Century and provide a first rate information infrastructure.

But his proposal as presented this morning is a poor one. Trenton has a long way to go to repair and upgrade too much of its brick-and-mortar infrastructure before we can hope to compete with a fiber optic one.

His proposal today is poorly thought-out. He provides no details on what a “public private partnership” of this sort may look like.

There is no estimate offered on what the “public” investment (taxpayer funds) required by Trenton might be, and what the return on that investment might be.

The other cities he cited as examples to follow in fact offer caution and warnings, clearly not what he intended.

His proposal is certainly a Big Idea, intended to distinguish himself from the rest of the mayoral field, and attract voters looking for a candidate with Vision.

Sadly, Mr. Perez’s vision of the “Trenton Broadband Initiative” is no more serious and practical than Mr. Worthy’s waterfront Casino.

If a Candidate Can't Follow Campaign Finance Law, Shouldn't That Tell You Something?

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) last week filed a complaint against Hoboken Council Member Beth Mason, alleging several violations of the state’s campaign laws dating back to her 2011 election campaign. That complaint, and the nature of the charges, should be of concern to current Trenton Mayoral candidate Eric Jackson and his campaign.

It’s also a matter that should be of concern to Trenton voters who are being asked to vote for Mr. Jackson based on a presentation of the candidate as being the most professional, the most ethical, honest and transparent of the eight candidates running. The conduct of his election efforts in both 2010 and this year – at least in regard to their observance of state campaign finance laws, suggests far less than conscientious compliance.

The State ELEC filed a complaint against Ms. Mason and her husband (who was her 2011 campaign treasurer), charging the council member with six counts of late and incomplete reporting, all in connection with her 2011 council campaign. According to the Hudson Reporter, In all, ELEC alleged that Mason’s campaign failed to report a total of $126,199 on time, with the information submitted anywhere between 98 and 276 days late. The amounts should have been reported on reports that were due beginning in October 2011 and April 2012, but were not revealed first until July 2012.”

According to the account in, the Councilwoman and her treasurer husband have the option of contesting the charges at a hearing, or they can accept the the determination of the Commission and likely end up paying fines. Although not spelled out in either of these articles, the amounts of such fines can easily total thousands of dollars. Last year, for instance, the political action committee for Union City Mayor and State Senator Brian Stack was fined $68,725 by ELEC for late campaign filings dating from 2003 to 2005.

That’s some serious money, for serious campaign finance violations.

So, what’s the connection with Eric Jackson?

Jackson’s current 2014 campaign has been in the news over the last few weeks for a few campaign-finance related irregularities. One involves an alleged violation of Trenton’s Pay-to-Play Ordinance by a current contractor with the City of Trenton. The second concerns the failure to properl;y account for and disclose the identities of the donors of nearly $2000 in cash donations given to the Jackson campaign in December of 2013. These two instances cover only the ongoing 2014 mayoral effort by Mr. Jackson.

Where Eric Jackson shares some exposure to charges by ELEC, similar to Beth Mason in Hoboken, is from his prior mayoral campaign, in 2010.  Beth Mason is facing charges from filing several of her reports very late . Eric Jackson’s prior campaign failed to even file many of his required reports.

In connection with his 2010 campaign, Mr. Jackson filed 4 reports with ELEC. As required, he submitted both a “29-Day Pre-Election report” and an “11-Day Pre-Election report” prior to the May 11, 2010 election, which detailed all of his donations and expenses up to the point at which the reports were submitted. As of his latest report, the “11-Day Pre-Election report” filed on 4/30/2010, Mr. Jackson had raised a total of $45,371 for his campaign, and had spent only $16,517.

And there the story ends. No further reports were ever filed by Mr. Jackson for his 2010 campaign.

He failed to file a required “20-Day Post-Election report” itemizing all of the income and expenses from his campaign as he incurred them before and after Election Day.

He failed to file Quarterly Financial Reports for the periods ending March 30 and June 30, 2010.

He failed to file any “48-hour” notices of expenses or donations in amounts exceeding $1400, as he would have been required to. Now it is possible that his campaign may not have had any donations or expenses that exceeded those amounts; but given how busy his campaign got toward Election Day, and immediately after when he contested his very tight 3rd-place finish alongside Manuel Segura, that is somewhat unlikely.

And, perhaps most importantly, Mr. Jackson failed to file any reports to formally close out his campaign committee after it had ended the 2010 campaign.

By law, any unspent balance in his campaign accounts would have either had to have been transferred to his 2014 campaign, or returned to donors. If he never formally closed his 2010 account, he would have been liable to file financial status reports at the end of every quarter from 2010 up until now.

Mr. Jackson’ s campaign filed no reports from April 30, 2010 until July 15, 2013, over three years later. That July report, which can be viewed here, is the first for his 2014 campaign, and begins all balances for his new campaign from zero.

According to his last report filed, Mr. Jackson had a balance of $23,770.94 in his account. He has never filed a report, as required by law, to disclose what he did with that money after the 2010 election was over. As far as NJ ELEC and state campaign finance law is concerned, the fate of that $23,770.94 – plus any additional 2010 campaign donations and expenses since April 30, 2010 – is unknown and way overdue to be reported.

Back to Beth Mason. According to the article in PolitickerNJ, she has been formally charged with violations and is now subject to fines for reports that were late by 276 days, 276 days, 184 days, 184 days, 98 days and 98 days.

How late are Mr. Jackson’s reports? One of them, the report for expenses through and including the quarter ending June 30 was due on July 15, 2010. That was 1,334 days ago. Many of his other reports are even more overdue.

Will Mr. Jackson be held liable by ELEC for any of this? I don’t know. But given the examples cited above, Councilwoman Mason and Senator/Mayor Stack, he certainly is vulnerable.  And his campaign could be exposed to pay significant penalties and fines, should he be charged.

To me, though, these disclosures are relevant and important for several other reasons.

In reaction to press reports about the pay-to-play violation and the mis-reported cash donations, both the Jackson campaign and the candidate himself have seemed pretty dismissive of the problems.  As quoted by the Trenton Times, Jackson attorney David Minchello denied any violation of ELEC law. “There definitely hasn’t been any violation of the ELEC law,” he said, ”but we will make sure that the cash contributions are reported with names as required by law.”

Mr. Minchello’s denial of an ELEC violation is kind of  undercut by what he said after “but:”  We didn’t violate the law, but we will make sure we will follow it in the future! Hmmm.

Mr. Jackson himself sounded rather dismissive of the problems in his current campaign reporting. According to the Trenton Times, “Although he has to sign the reports before they are submitted, Jackson said he is not solely responsible for any inconsistencies. ‘I don’t see every check that is coming in,’ he said.”

He sounds somewhat less of the hands-on, dedicated professional manager who is the best qualified to bring ethics back to Trenton that his campaign is making him out to be, doesn’t he?

Mr. Minchello and Mr. Jackson could possibly afford to take this kind of position, as long as the conversation was just about one or two minor violations and discrepancies in his current campaign, isolated instances in an otherwise well-run campaign.

But, when viewed in the context of several omissions, oversights and violations conducted by not one but two of his mayoral campaigns four years apart, these isolated instances begin to look more like a pattern of repeated behavior, doesn’t it?

Eric Jackson failed to properly report on, disclose and close out his 2010 mayoral campaign. He has already admitted to violations in campaign record-keeping and reporting in his current one. He admits as well to a certain distance from day to day operations – “I don’t see every check that is coming in” – in a campaign for which he is ultimately responsible.

Does this suggest to you that, as far as observing campaign finance law is concerned, Eric Jackson may be a little less than dedicated? Does he and his campaign believe that there will likely be little chance of being held accountable by ELEC, or the voters, for his campaign reporting lapses?

Perhaps Hoboken’s Councilwoman Beth Mason felt the same. As of last week’s charges against her, I’m sure she feels differently now.

Should all this concern Trenton’s voters? I think it definitely should. Eric Jackson’s unfinished business from his 2010 campaign should certainly be relevant to voters in 2014 as they consider who to elect Mayor to repair Trenton after the past four disastrous years.

Last summer, I wrote a piece that discussed the continuing problems with timely ELEC compliance that several sitting Trenton City Council members were having. What I felt then, I still feel now, and I will finish today with a reprise from that piece.

[A] candidate’s – or office holder’s – record of compliance with the commonly-known and pretty easily-followed ELEC Rules of The Game is a pretty good way to predict how conscientious that person will be to following the rules in office… If [candidates] can’t handle their own campaign finances properly, can we expect them to do so for Trenton’s?