The most vivid personal image I have of the time that New York City hit rock bottom comes from around 1975 or 1976, on Seventh Avenue near Duffy Square. As I turned the corner from 47th Street to the Avenue, I saw a helmeted NYC policeman using his jacket to swat at flames coming from the engine of his banged-up, falling-apart, bright robin’s-egg-blue Vespa scooter. He wasn’t making any progress as he just kept slapping at the flames. I asked if he needed a hand. “No thanks,” he said, “unless you have a fire extinguisher handy.” Being fresh out of those, I wished him luck and kept walking on, as did everyone else. He kept swatting at the flames, alone.
What a metaphor for the City, I thought! Falling apart, bursting into flames, with only a few brave souls bravely trying to keep the whole decrepit thing from falling apart, a probably hopeless effort.
Watching the hapless and luckless Mayor Abe Beame try to keep the whole thing together in those days was painful. Good Lord, I often thought, who in their right minds would ever want to run this place? What an impossible job, to be the mayor of a town like New York.
Almost forty years later, we know that the fortunes of the City have dramatically turned. Once written off for dead, that town of 8 million souls has reversed itself. That’s not to say that it’s paradise on earth. A casual look at a local newspaper or TV news will quickly disabuse you of that idea! There is still too much crime, too much desperate poverty, and too much aged infrastructure. Hurricane Sandy showed that the city may not fare well in a future of more extreme climate swings. There’s an awful lot that’s still wrong with New York City, to be sure. But for anyone who remembers the Bad Old Days of the 1970’s, the turnaround is simply astonishing.
Granted, New York has vast resources other cities can only dream of. The economy is much more diversified than most cities, keeping its tax base robust, although its over-reliance on the financial services industry may yet prove to be a weak link. The city continues to be a magnet for talented individuals from around the US and the world, and the constant influx of those people added to the 8 Million already living here keep the place vibrant.
New York has also been fortunate with its string of elected leaders. Since the unlucky Mr. Beame, the city’s public face has been its talented (although of course flawed) mayors. Ed Koch, David Dinkins (Trenton’s native son), Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg have each put their imprint on the City, and each were vital in wrenching New York out of the gutter. Nearly forty remarkable years, with only four mayors in all that time. Of course, there are hundreds of thousands of other individuals, if not millions, who are part of this story. But so much of the tale always comes back to the guy in City Hall.
If a metropolis of Eight Million People can come back from the dead, surely a pocket city of eighty thousand can, too. With a little luck and some competent leadership, yes, and with the work of 80,000 souls here. But I do believe today about the job of the Mayor of Trenton what I thought 40 years ago about New York’s: who in their right mind would ever want the gig?
These thoughts come to mind this morning, with the first news in a while about the developing 2014 political horse race that is the coming mayoral election. I last wrote about the upcoming contest back in December, when several names of potential candidates were swirling around the local rumor mill. I didn’t name any names then, since there were very few candidates who were admitting to their preliminary efforts. But I did lay out some criteria for what I considered to be essential qualities and experience in any credible candidates for the position. More on that in later posts.
Today’s article is prompted by the announcement by one unannounced candidate, James Gee , that he would not formally enter the race; and Gee’s decision along with that of another candidate, Patrick Hall, to talk to Trenton Times reporter Alex Zdan about the dynamics of the race as it is being run today, about 14 months before the May 2014 election.
According to the article, Mr. Gee declined to run largely because of personal considerations, which is an honorable decision. He seemed to think that his chances in any race were good, even though his resume as a political operative with several political campaign and a series of appointed staff positions in state government never struck me as sufficient qualification to run the city’s Executive Branch.
Mr. Hall also feels qualified to run for Mayor, although his background, prior experience and non-existent civic profile also suggest to me that his is not among the strongest names pondering his chances. But this morning, his interview with Mr. Zdan is giving us some news.
Mr. Hall talks about several small informal meetings that have been occurring around town for the last year, as many of the potential candidates are testing the water for potential voter and campaign contributor support, talking to ad hoc invited groups of individuals as well as standing civic associations. Full disclosure: I have been contacted by a few of the potential candidates and asked to meet. So far I have met with one, but have not yet made any public or private expressions of support. All of that is what you’d expect to see at this point in the election cycle, all standard procedure.
What’s interesting to hear about is Mr. Hall’s disclosure that several candidates have met on multiple occasions to discuss the race and, in the words of Mr. Hall, “We tried to bring all known would-be candidates together, and tried to get a sense of how we can navigate this and not get it to where it was last election.” By this he means that several current candidates want to avoid the circus free-for-all we saw in 2010, when 10 formal candidates (and one late write-in entrant) scrambled for votes, a process that led to the election of the disaster currently occupying the mayor’s office.
The candidates who participated in this process included both Mr. Hall and Mr. Gee, as well as James Golden and Eric Jackson. Also involved as participants, Mr. Hall named West Ward Councilman Zac Chester, Mercer Freeholder (and Cadwalader Heights neighbor) Sam Frisby and William Watson, long active in Trenton affairs both inside government as Mayor Doug Palmer’s Chief of Staff and member of several city boards, as well as the involved periphery in such roles as his position at the Watson Institute of Public Affairs at Edison State College and as brother to Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. Not part of this process were other potential candidates, such as Council member Kathy McBride and Deputy County Clerk Walker Worthy.
What do I think of these developments?
Back in December, I characterized the first rumblings of the mayoral race as sharks swimming around, all attracted by the non-existent re-election prospects of the Indicted Occupant. This week’s developments tell me that there is tacit agreement that the IO will not be any significant factor in 2014: he will either not run, or he will run with no prospects of success. His blood isn’t motivating the other sharks, but all the remaining guys are throwing enough chum in the water to stir things up.
I desperately, desperately want to avoid a re-run of 2010, and am cautiously pleased to hear that at least some of the candidates want the same, along with several other interested parties. If Mr. Hall’s description of the motivations of these individuals is accurate, and this process results in winnowing out some of the field by mutual agreement to run and support only the strongest candidate or two, then we citizens may benefit from having better choices than we had in May and June of 2010.
Is this “smoke-filled room” insider politics, unfairly excluding the general public? Generally, I think not. To the extent this kind of process is between candidates, in the absence of a partisan primary process, I think it can be healthy if these discussions result in fewer but stronger candidates, strongly supported. And nothing prevents individuals from running if they are unhappy with these kind of “pre-season” discussions. With enough signatures on petitions, anyone – and everyone as we saw in 2010 – can run. No one is excluded, and the public will be able to make their choice.
I’ll talk more about the individuals running in future posts. I still think to a certain extent that anyone who wants to be Mayor of Trenton is flipping crazy, and that a person who voluntarily runs should be disqualified for reason of mental instability.
However, I also more deeply feel that those who are considering a run in this race deserve our appreciation for putting themselves out there. It’s going to be a thankless job, and too much time and effort will be spent by the winner swatting helplessly at the flames of this broken-down town with nothing more effective than a jacket.
Some of the folks in this race now are more capable and qualified than others, to be sure. I expect that more of these individuals will come to the same decision as James Gee did this week, and admit this race to be likely outside their grasp. But I am encouraged by the presence of at least a few of those running, and look forward to hearing more about and from them.
Having lived through much of the comeback of New York City, I know that if a huge lumbering beast of eight million can turn around with a little luck and the right people in charge, then it’s certainly possible for a burg of eighty thousand to do the same.
With a little luck.
And the right people in charge.
I know, we just saw the Indicted Occupant of Trenton’s Mayor’s Office poke his head out of his secure undisclosed location on Berkeley Avenue the other night. He gave his third State of the City address to a much-less-than-packed Council Chambers, a speech that was as meaningless and as quickly sent to the dustbin as his first two. And on the front page of the city’s website this morning, you can see his trademark vacant smile on half a dozen snapshots. He’s still drawing his paycheck, and his name is still pasted on his office and as many pieces of City real estate and rolling stock as he can get away with.
But it’s not the same. We don’t have anyone to actually perform the duties of a mayor. To provide day-to-day leadership to the City of Trenton’s various departments; manage its employees and its tenuous finances; devise policies and actions that meet the needs of its citizens and taxpayers and that are possible given fiscal and political realities; and to articulate a future path for the city and collaborate on devising strategies and tactics for getting there.
Or failing all that, just be there to crack heads together to resolve disputes, provide accountability (a fancy way of accepting responsibility, blame or credit for the way things turn out), learn from mistakes and move forward.
We don’t have any of that right now. We haven’t for a long, long time under this Administration, and the cracks that have been showing in our city’s government for three years now have busted wide open and we’re taking on water by the gusherful. We are facing several serious, simultaneous problems in Trenton, and the vacuum of leadership at the top only serves to make a very bad situation much, much worse.
Let’s start with Public Safety. We just saw the other evening a troubling display of how badly this City is responding to the worsening crime situation inside its borders, during a presentation by Police Director Ralph Rivera to City Council. Mr. Rivera was by all accounts poorly prepared for a substantive presentation, and struggled to defend his recent actions and policies. In the light of reports this week that crime has over the last several months significantly spiked at the same time police arrests have tumbled, Director Rivera avoided any admission that these developments were due to decisions he had made and changes in his department’s scheduling and unit structure. He chose to blame the massive reductions in force implemented in 2011 with the layoffs of more than 100 officers, provisions in the current (but expired) collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the police union, as well as personal resistance among the police rank-and-file to his decisions. His presentation ended with nasty personal insults lobbed back and forth between Mr. Rivera and several members of Council, mainly South Ward Councilman and former Trenton police officer George Muschal.
Although neither Mr. Rivera nor Council represented themselves professionally on Tuesday, I must fault the Police Director as being more responsible. He was prickly and defensive, and I believe must admit that many of his decisions and policies are largely responsible for the results on the streets. The significant rise in violent crime at the beginning of 2013 reported this week is in comparison to the same months one year ago, after the 105-cop layoff took effect. Last winter was also much milder than 2013’s, and that must factor in as well.
So, what changed between last year and this year? Changes implemented under Mr. Rivera’s direction. Namely shifting the Trenton Police Department to an entirely reactive force, dissolving elements such as the PD’s Tactical Anti-Crime (TAC) unit which worked on pro-active actions and gaining street intelligence, and putting those officers on beat duty. Seems to me there really is a correlation here. We have basically the same size force as one year ago, but they are being deployed very differently. Cause, effect. There surely is a connection here, and Mr. Rivera is being evasive not to acknowledge this.
And Mr. Rivera has problems with the union contract, claiming it is tying his hands in such matters as paying too much overtime for officers assigned to units like the TAC? Well, without going here into the truthfulness of this claim – and there are differing opinions on this matter – one obvious solution would be to negotiate a new contract!
The police have been working since January 2011 under an expired CBA. If management, in the person of the Police Director, have problems with terms of the contract, the best way to work those problems out of the CBA is to negotiate in good faith a new one!A lot has changed in the city and the department in the last two – now going on three! – years since the CBA expired. The union should surely recognize this and agree to realistic terms, including updating or dropping provisions that are just not practical any more. And if they don’t agree, then Mr. Rivera and the City will have a stronger basis on which to point to union intransigence and non-cooperation than they do now.
But, under the system we have now, an appointed Police Director is not an independent actor. He is appointed by, and responsible to, the City’s mayor; as well as, lately, being vetted and approved by the State Department of Community Affairs. Over the last close to three full years, all of the many, many, many Police Directors and “Acting” Police Directors have been the responsibility of the Indicted Occupant. He has hired all of them, and fired most of them. He has totally fucked up this responsibility.
His many Plans and Announcements, from NEST to “All Hands on Deck” to a “Comprehensive” initiative that was anything but, to a “Clergy Citizen’s Police Academy” (I don’t have any clue what this is either) and “Enough is Enough”, have all contributed to worsen the muddle we see this week in Trenton’s Public Safety. The chief blame for the current failures of the leadership of the Trenton Police Department, as with so many other things in this town, lies with him.
Would things be better with another mayor? I can’t say for sure. For one thing, I can’t say that we would not have faced the layoffs of 2011 under another guy. The finances of the city would not have been that much better under anyone else. But it does seem entirely reasonable to suggest that we would not have had the same pace of rotation in and out, and out, and out, of the Director’s spot as we have seen. Hey, another mayor might have decided that Irving Bradley had been doing a good job, and kept him on! And another mayor may have thought that eliminating TAC and re-opening small, expensive inefficient substations were bad ideas.
And a stronger, more engaged mayor would be able to sit his Director down and tell him, “What we have been doing doesn’t work. What’s Plan B?”
But we don’t have a mayor like that. We don’t have a mayor to engage and direct the ongoing rush to disaster that is shaping up for the City’s Hotel. The newspaper this week describes a “rush” to put plans in place to continue operations at Lafayette Yard under a new brand and new management. Plans that will cost this city at least $3 Million Dollars to renovate the place, and who knows how much more for operations in the future. The hotel’s board and Council are madly pushing this process along, on the basis of using nothing more than Magical Thinking to convince themselves the future of this place will look anything different than its past. And both the outgoing and incoming management are using the same financial projections that claim that revenues for rooms will miraculously increase 25 percent in one year just because we will renovate!
The IO has not figured in to this discussion. At all. Would another mayor do better? Perhaps, perhaps not. The last one got us into this mess in the first place, after all, and the current one is Missing in Action. But the proverbial Buck would Stop with him, and not the seven members of council who as a body have proved serially incapable of responsible decision-making.
Oh, I wish we had a real mayor! I know the crises over public safety, and the hotel, and the schools, and the Water Works, and Recreation, and Purchasing, and so on, wouldn’t all magically improve over night.
But the reason this job was invented, and the reason Trenton still has one, is that we believe that things will be better managed with a mayor than without one. We hope that every four years we can pick a person with the experience, ability, intelligence, and compassion to leave the city a little better at the end of his or her term than when they found it. That has certainly been the intent and hope in other cities and towns. Their record, of course, is mixed but generally positive. And I suppose that’s why there are so many mayors.
But we haven’t had one of those in three years. I sure wish we did. I hope we do a better job next year. Because We Need a Mayor!
“It’s funny, in a human kind of way, how we can convince ourselves that we’re in control at the very moment we are beginning to lose it.” - Bill Moyers
As a corollary to Bill Moyers’ observation, I would add that some people are compelled to assert at every available opportunity that they are in control to everyone who will listen (and a lot of people who won’t) as loudly as they can.
This, of course, is business as usual for the Indicted Occupant of the Mayor’s Office, and has been since his first days in office. Even as the city he was elected to serve continues the long slow decline that he surely did not cause but which he has greatly accelerated during his 992 days in office, he’s never been shy to claim that his was the steady hand at the wheel guiding the Good Ship Trenton past the storm and rocky shores upon which we would surely perish without his labor.
He’s always been devoted to the theatrical aspect of his job, allowing him the pride of place on the city’s website with dozens of smiling photos and press releases praising his name. He likes to see his name and photo in the paper, or his portrait hanging in the City Hall atrium on a wall with his predecessors (every one of them his better), and carefully staged just a few feet from the 44th President of the United States. And that will be the closest he ever, ever gets to Mr. Obama.
One of his favorite pieces of theater is the annual State of the City Address, his third of which was delivered last night in Council Chambers. In 2011, the Indicted Occupant’s theme was Vision, in particular His Vision of a greener, safer, more beautiful City that he was going to lead us all to, a veritable Moses calling on the waters of the Assunpink Creek to part so we could follow him to his Promised Land. “Beloved,” he told us, “I will continue to put Trenton first. I know you will stand with me – as we revitalize Trenton together as partners. I am energized, optimistic, and enthusiastic.”
This Vision was, of course, preached to us eight months into this Administration, a period during which we saw, among many, many other things, a botched plan to furlough 600 city workers; shady plans to basically (and illegally) give away city-owned property to a campaign contributor; and continue a pattern of sterling personnel selection by hiring Paul Sigmund as Chief of Staff.
And while all this “Vision” stuff was happening in prominent and noisy public view, the FBI was using vision of their own to watch and listen to the alleged conspiratorial acts of the Occupant and colleagues.
Last year’s State of the City theme was more Moses, with some Chauncey Gardner thrown in for good measure. “We are headed in the right direction,” we were told over, and over, and over; and would be, as long as we followed him and allowed his hard work to bear fruit. His “goals will continue to bear fruit and spout throughout the city. But, do not judge or pick the fruit before it is ripe, give it an opportunity to bloom, and join our administration in moving our City forward.” All will be well, in the garden.
Of course, in the same month we heard that we were heading in the right direction, we also heard from the State of New Jersey that “We are troubled by the mayor’s tendency to fire people in critical positions first and figure out solutions later.”
And in this same period, the United States Attorney charges, the IO and his colleagues were continuing to collect thousands of dollars in cash bribes, all while heading in the right direction.
Last night, we heard in the third address of this Administration that we have indeed, arrived in the Promised Land. Upon announcing that his Administration has balanced its third consecutive budget, the Occupant looked at its mighty work, and saw that It Was Good. “Our administration has the responsibility of balancing the demands of City taxpayers against declining local, state and federal aid, and a national recession. This in and of itself is a herculean task but once again we prevailed.” [Emphasis mine - KM]
The rest of the speech was spent describing the highlights if various city departments, and a victory lap for the IO in his recitation of proud accomplishments. These he measured in the massive amounts of grants received from those shrinking state and federal funds; one-off receipts of token payments for city real estate; new plans for non-taxable downtown development by Mercer County Community College; and in the number – 323 – of new residential units built, even though of that 323 only 63 are market-rate, the remaining 80% being affordable and/or subsidized.
I won’t talk any more about the details in this speech, instead directing you to Erin Duffy’s account in the Trenton Times, David Foster’s in the Trentonian, and From the Front Stoop’s caustic and on-point commentary for more.
I will just give my impression that this speech was only the most recent in a long line of pathetic attempts to make us believe that the Occupant is still in control in this City, and that his efforts are improving our city and our lives here. The State of the City evoked last night, and the very City described, does not sound like the reality of Trenton, New Jersey today. In the very same newspapers we read these accounts of this speech, other articles demolish all of the Occupant’s happy-talk arguments made last night.
After reading the speech’s description of the efforts being made to fight crime, we read this morning that in the months after two major initiatives from the Police – disbanding the Tactical Anti-Crime unit and re-opening local police substations – crimes have soared and arrests have plummeted. Alex Zdan reports in the Times that in the first months of 2013, we have seen six murders, 38% more shootings in February of this year compared to last year, and 41% more robberies in the first two months of 2013 compared to 2012.
At the same time, arrests have dropped, steeply: 30% fewer this January than last, and a scary 60% fewer in February 2013 compared to 2012.
This is how we expect to “prevail” over crime? The numbers tell us that things are spiraling out of control. What the Administration is doing is not working. Do We Have a Plan B?
Several hot-button issues were not even mentioned last night. We heard not one word about the future of the city hotel, even as we read that a decision needs to be quickly made – and a binding commitment by Council of up to $3 Million Dollars – if the city-owned failed money pit is to stay open.
We did not hear that the State’s cancellation after this year $6 Million in annual payment in lieu of taxes will punch a same-size hole in next year’s budget, setting up another “herculean task” to find the money to replace it.
Not a word was said about the Mayor’s Learning Centers, the accomplishments for which the man bragged in last year’s Address even before the first doors of those zombie libraries had opened.
And, sadly, apart from the non-profit and non-taxable college projects announced for downtown, and the residential construction – 80% of which are affordable – we heard not one word about any prospects for commercial, private, taxable development on the radar, nor the beginnings of any strategy to seek any out.
We did hear that “we can and must make this City a relevant player on the regional and national stage,” without hearing any reasons why that is necessary or even meaningful. I for one would be very happy and content for this to be a small, quiet irrelevant city with increasing property values; declining crime rates; good schools; and competent, honest elected officials we can trust to take our money and responsibly pay the city’s bills. That’s all we need.
Last night was another poor effort by a drowning man to attempt to show that he is in control of things, and that the work he is doing is relevant, productive, and helping to make things better.
He doesn’t convince me, and from the poignant observation that he had to occasionally remind his audience to applaud, he didn’t convince anyone in Council Chambers last night, either.
Can he still convince himself?
bury the lede
(idiomatic, US, journalism) To begin a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing more essential points or facts.
The Trenton Times runs a very curious opinion piece by Irwin Stoolmacher in today’s edition. The title is “Four Trenton Councilwomen could be contenders in 2014 mayoral race.” It is curious in that the whole thing runs 14 paragraphs, and 849 words, but he doesn’t even mention any of the so-called “contenders” until he is about half-way into the article. And he really doesn’t actually discuss each of them with very much detail, or provide any evidence that he even knows them very well. He is kind of burying the lede here.
The first half of Mr. Stoolmacher’s article is entirely a defense of another opinion piece he wrote in September of 2012, where he discussed five potential mayoral candidates – all of them male – for next year’s race in Trenton. Stoolmacher uses 411 words trying to convince us that Women Can Be Leaders, Too!
This epiphany occurred to him after he tells us he attended an Emily’s List brunch and read a New York Times column by Maureen Dowd. After figuratively smacking himself on the forehead, he tells us “given the abilities and attributes I listed as crucial characteristics for Trenton’s next mayor, it was wrong-headed of me not to have included women.”
He was, like, “Duh!”
Just in case we miss his point, Mr. Stoolmacher then cites as further evidence in support of his argument quotes from female executives from the Elle Group, Goldman Sachs, and the academic work of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).
That’s OK, Mr. Stoolmacher. We already know women can distinguish themselves in government, as members of both major parties. We have heard of Hillary Clinton; Condoleezza Rice; the all-female Congressional delegation from New Hampshire; women governors of Connecticut, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina and oh yeah, Alaska. As you remind us at the end of your article, two out of three members of Trenton’s representatives in our state Legislature are female. And we even have a woman running for Governor of New Jersey this year! Imagine that!
So Mr. Stoolmacher really didn’t have to work so hard to tell us that women can be credible political candidates. We get it.
On the other hand, perhaps he did have to use so many words to tell us what we already know, because there really wasn’t much he could say about the titular subjects of his piece, the four “contenders” for Trenton Mayor who currently sit on City Council.
After all, he does not cite one single accomplishment in their current office of any of the four Councilwomen. He cites with approval their professional work in governmental day jobs with the State and County; volunteer work in party politics, or community activism. He believes that having won their current office shows “that these four women have managed to make it in the rough-and-tumble world of politics [a]s an indication that they have the self-confidence required to be mayor.” But he fails to provide any argument at all that any of these women have actually achieved anything of merit since winning their elections as legislators, and therefore deserve any consideration for promotion to the Executive.
Mr. Stoolmacher admits as much when he writes, “Whether any of these women has a transformative vision for Trenton and the ability to assemble a team with the talent to execute that vision, I’m not sure.” [Emphasis mine. - KM]
But hey, we can sort all that out without much fuss, right? “That’s what campaigns are for — to see whether a candidate knows the issues and has a plan for addressing the key issues and to get a sense of the type of people they would appoint to key leadership positions.”
Neither this opinion piece, nor the earlier September article, contributes much clarity or wisdom to the political situation here in Trenton. We had a long campaign in 2010, with close to ten mayoral candidates. Did we “see whether a candidate knows the issues and has a plan for addressing the key issues and to get a sense of the type of people they would appoint to key leadership positions” then?
Not exactly. Instead, we came down to a choice between Manny Segura and Tony Mack. We know how that worked out.
The thing is, Mr. Stoolmacher did have a few strong points to make in his September piece.
First and foremost, Trenton desperately needs someone with a proven track record of accomplishment in government/politics… Trenton’s problems are very complicated and interrelated and require a strategic, long-term thinker… Trenton’s problems — too many state-occupied tax-exempt properties, failing schools, lack of commercial ratables and jobs, no major college/university campus, etc. — will not be solved overnight. To address these problems, a leader with a long-term perspective is needed… Trenton needs a leader who can see the big picture and develop a shared vision of the future and then determine the best way to make the vision a reality.
But in the follow-through, Mr. Stoolmacher totally fails to hold up any of his candidates – neither the five men mentioned in September, nor today’s four Councilwomen – and compare them against his own standards. He is content to throw their names in the ring and trust to the 2014 campaign process to produce the best person to be Trenton’s Mayor.
I don’t find this kind of article very helpful. And I also do not find it helpful that the Trenton Times continues to lend its space, on both the Editorial and the Opinion pages, to opinion that is truly uninformed about the realities of Trenton city affairs.
There are already many individuals running, or “exploring” a run, or “testing the waters,” for a 2014 race. And too many of them have absolutely no business running. I for one do not want another madhouse like we had in 2014. That ended in disaster.
These sorts of pieces only encourage more individuals to look in their mirror and think they see the Next Mayor. If it takes you eight paragraphs and 400 words before you can even see fit to name them, perhaps that kind of encouragement really isn’t needed.
I blew it this morning, and must apologize and retract my earlier piece this morning.
As suggested might be the case by a reader, and confirmed by my research, I found out that Public institutions of higher learning in New Jersey, unlike their private counterparts, are actually exempt from local land use and zoning ordinances. This is codified in the State’s Master Land Use Law, which put into law the principles of several court rulings, including a State Supreme Court 1972 decision, Rutgers v. Piluso. These recognize public universities to be instruments of the State in the same way as New Jersey departments and agencies.
The entire premise of my piece this morning is wrong. I don’t often have to say this, but I don’t mind when I am wrong: I apologize to Mr. Denson and his colleagues. Any appearance at the city’s Planning Board, such as the one two weeks ago, would in fact be a courtesy, since Thomas Edison State College is not bound by the requirements of our zoning ordinance.
The Trenton Times this morning has a piece by Erin Duffy, breaking the news that a formal disposition agreement was signed on March 1 between the City of Trenton and Thomas Edison State College (TESC), by which the property located at 301 West State Street will be transferred to the College. I won’t revisit all of the drama associated with that story – you can review some earlier pieces in this space, or Google earlier press accounts if you like. But I do want to draw attention to two points that I think are worth discussing.
First, the disposition agreement was signed only three weeks after City Council approved TESC’s proposal to build a new Nursing Center on the property. And it was signed without any further Council discussion and approval on the matter, because Council gave up any further role in the matter per the wording in the approved Ordinance. Ms. Duffy’s article describes some of the terms contained in the agreement that, according to Walter Denson, the city’s Director of Housing and Economic Development, protect the interests of the people of the city of Trenton.
What else is in the agreement? We won’t know for a while. As mentioned above, Council will not be able to vet this deal, and the public will have to wait until an Open Public Records Act request, filed by Jim Carlucci, turns up a copy of the agreement.
Second, the article concludes with this statement: “Thomas Edison appeared before the city planning board two weeks ago as a courtesy [Emphasis mine - KM], but will not require further planning approvals from the city, Denson said.”
Well, Mr. Denson, appearing before the Planning Board may have been “a courtesy,” but I sure do hope you intend to bring this proposal before the Zoning Board, because I think you have to.
301 West State Street is located in the Central West Redevelopment Area, one of the dozens of areas within the City’s boundaries that are the focus of specific objectives and plans for residential and/or commercial redevelopment. The Plan for Central West was first published in September of 1988, and it was revised and updated several times, the most recent of which was May 2009.
As you can see from the maps attached to the plan, the defined Central West Area is almost entirely residential, with small parcels being designated as part of the Delaware and Raritan Canal Zone, under jurisdiction of the NJ D&R Canal State Park and Canal Commission for any land use affecting the canal and immediate area. But one parcel, the one encompassing 301 West State, is in a “Mixed Use Zone,” a designation that allows (as you might guess from the title!) a mix of commercial and residential development.
Since the Central West plan was first adopted in 1988, the formal main objective of redevelopment in this neighborhood has been “to create new home ownership opportunities” in most of the area.
However, 301 West State has always been specifically addressed in this plan, as is only appropriate for a lot that anchors the whole area: “Plans [for Glen Cairn] shall be in accordance with the mix-use land uses as defined under Section 2 a. (2) of this plan.” That section says this: “The Mixed Use Land Use shall be permitted in this district. Mix Use development shall be governed by the standards applicable to the Mixed-Use zoning district as set forth in the City of Trenton Zoning Ordinance.”
I have emphasized this phrase to draw your attention, and that of Mr. Denson’s, to the fact that the explicit intent of the Central West Redevelopment plan for the last 25 years has always been that any re-use of 301 West State Street must comply with the standards for the city’s Mixed Use Zone, by the City’s own Ordinances.
Which the TESC proposal currently does not.
Chapter 315 of the City Code covers Zoning and Land Use Development. Article XVI discusses the definition of the Mixed Use (MU) District, its permitted uses: that is, uses not requiring any variances; and permitted conditional uses: that means, uses that may be allowable in the zone, but approval for which must be granted by the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.
According to the Ordinance, here are the principal permitted uses (Section 315-101):
Detached single-family dwelling units.
Semidetached single-family dwelling units.
Two-family dwelling structures.
Row house dwelling units.
Multifamily dwelling structures, and dwelling units located over permitted nonresidential uses, in accordance with multifamily dwelling structure regulations.
Public facilities of the City of Trenton.
The office of a doctor, lawyer or other licensed professional office buildings for business and professional purposes and medical clinics.
The offices or headquarters of a nonprofit or service organization, such as the Red Cross, Chamber of Commerce or generally similar leagues or associations not organized for pecuniary profit.
On the other hand, these are permitted CONDITIONAL uses (Section 315-103), requiring a variance needing the approval of the Zoning Board
Restaurant, retail and personal services uses.
Thomas Edison State College proposes to build and establish a School on this site. Clearly, this will require the college to apply for a variance for a Conditional Use in a Mixed Use (MU) Zone, and to appear in person before the Trenton Zoning Board.
Not as “a courtesy,” but as a legally-mandated requirement to comply with Trenton’s Ordinance.
Since one of the requirements of the funding which TESC seeks from the state from the “Building Our Future Bond Act” is to demonstrate that a proposal is “construction ready,” meaning among other things that required “zoning and permitting approvals” have been secured, then the College and the City should huddle up real quick to get their application before the Zoning Board.
I will say right here that since I have been very vocal about this project since its public announcement, there is no way that I could be expected to be able to consider this application impartially. I will, of course, recuse myself from sitting on the Zoning Board to hear this application; but also, of course, reserving my right to speak before the Board as an interested member of the public. ;-D
But I do insist, and insist strongly, that the matter of the TESC proposal for 301 West State Street is one that requires action by the city’s Zoning Board.
For Mr. Denson to speak of any further actions by the City as merely “a courtesy,” is absolutely, flat out wrong. To me, this is one more step in the long process by which the TESC proposal has been recklessly pushed through by the City of Trenton.
Tomorrow will mark the three-month anniversary of the announcement of this project. From January 12 to today, we have seen the proposal move quickly. Too quickly for my taste. The process has to slow down, now, to allow the City’s laws to work as they are intended to.
I must ask if the Editorial Board truly reads the reportage in its own paper. In an editorial today, the Editorial Board says. “Chief among those aims [objectives for the Lafayette Yard hotel going forward]should be putting an end to the interminable leeching of cash from a city that can ill afford it.”
Yet, any decision by City Council to proceed with the new management group and a new Wyndham franchise agreement will require an upfront, significant capital investment of at least $2 to $3 Million Dollars. The presentation by the Marshall Group at Council session this week all but admitted that this capital would need to be provided by the City of Trenton.
Would the closure of the hotel be a blow to the City’s fragile economy? Probably yes, but much less so than: the emptying out of 1 West State Street, as reported in The Times this week; the possible loss of 250 jobs at Hutchinson Industries, as reported in The Times this weekend; the impending loss of $6 Million in annual PILOT payments from the State of New Jersey, as reported in The Times; and the permanent removal from the City’s tax ratables of the Glen Cairn Arms site, as reported by The Times and supported by its Editorial Board.
The Editors say, “Above all, the council should come up with a clear plan of the city’s objectives for the hotel.” I disagree. Our City Council members are not, and should not be, innkeepers. The decade-long attempt of the City of Trenton to own a hotel and conference center has not worked. Other cities throughout the country who have attempted the same thing (Baltimore being the nearest major relevant example) have had mixed, mostly negative experiences similar to Trenton’s.
The best and most desirable outcome should be the immediate sale of the Lafayette Yard property to private commercial hoteliers. Let them make a go of it. If the Times Editors actually paid attention to their own reportage, I would hope they would come to the same conclusion.
Despite the headline on today’s Trentonian article by David Foster, Trenton’s Municipally-owned hotel, flagged as a Marriott until June, has not been “saved.” The Times piece by Erin Duffy has the bare fact of the vote taken last night: “Trenton City Council agrees to give Marriott $295K.”
That’s about the size of it. Trenton is broke, and facing new gaps in funding over the next fiscal year measured in the Millions of Dollars upon facing the expiration of some of the state Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS) the city has been receiving for years. But Council still believes we have enough discretionary funds to spend a couple of hundred grand to keep the Lafayette Yard Hotel’s doors open for a few more months. The vote to grant the funds last night was 4-3 in favor. Had the vote gone the other way, the hotel today would probably be preparing to shut its doors and suspend operations.
As it is, that prospect may have only been postponed until June. Because the underlying business fundamentals of the hotel are not likely to change in the next three months. That is for sure. One of the biggest factors in the hotel’s lack of success to date – the commercial environment of Trenton’s downtown – is not going to improve. Indeed, with the prospect of significant new vacancies in nearby office buildings such as the impending emptying-out of 1 West State Street, the situation will if anything get worse.
So what may change over the next three months? Well, I expect City Council, and the public, to take a much closer and much more critical look at the proposals on the table for Lafayette Yard’s future. That includes the proposal from the Marshall hotel group to take over the hotel’s management; a plan to re-brand the place as a Wyndham Hotel; more accurate cost estimates (currently standing at $3 Million Dollars) for renovating the building; and – I hope – thorough examination of the financial prospects for the hotel.
Let’s start with that last item first. To bolster the case to keep the hotel going, the hotel’s current management, the Waterford Group, prepared a 5-Year Forecast of Revenues and Expenses, which can be found here.
Take a look. At first glance, this is a very encouraging projection. It forecasts five years of positive, and increasing profits, starting at $293,229 in 2013, and building to $1,029,445 in 2017. Fairly impressive, one would think.
But, how likely is this? A forecast for a profit this year of $300,000 seems awfully aggressive, considering that the results for the month of January alone showed a net loss of nearly $133,000. Add to this the tremendous dislocations and loss of sales momentum – translating to loss of sales – that would surely be experienced as one management and brand winds down and another starts up, and the projection for 2013 looks highly unlikely.
Let’s keep going, looking at 2014 next. From this year on, all the numbers in this rosy forecast follow from one key assumption: that Room Revenues from 2013 to 2014 will rise by a whopping 25 percent, from $3, 353,626 this year to a hefty $4,187,747 next; with more moderate, but still significant, increases for the next three years.
How can this be possible, you ask? Look at the bottom left hand corner of this page. “Projections are based on a renovated hotel,” we read. So that is the secret of the success that we can expect? Renovations? If We Build It, They Will Come? This seems to me to be an extremely weak basis on which to build highly optimistic budget projections.
Let’s go back to another document prepared recently by the Waterford Group. Last month, dated February 4, Waterford delivered to City Council a Historical Financial Review, a narrative description explaining the Hotel’s poor financial performance over the last few years. I have already quoted from this document a few times, but I will do so again because its conclusions about the past are highly relevant to discussing the future of the hotel.
According to the very same people who project significantly improved revenues – 25 percent! In One Year!! Because of Renovations!!! – the reasons the hotel has failed up until now are largely due to the hotel’s “market weaknesses in Trenton.” And I quote:
- No large businesses in Trenton
- The city lacked the socio-economic diversity to realize revenues
- Negative press – front page reporting of violence and crimes that are a deterrent for people to come into Trenton.
I suggest that these factors are far more critical to the future success or failure of the hotel than property renovations. Given the extremely remote possibility of major improvements to these “market weaknesses” over the next five years, it is much more likely to me that the future of the hotel will be continued failure than dramatic improvement and success, I am sorry to say.
This weakness in the underlying assumptions of Waterford’s 5-year plan leads me to dismiss these projections as being unrealistic and overly aggressive. I would like to see a fresh set of projections and plans from a neutral, disinterested party that can dispassionately project more accurate numbers for the next five years.
Now that Council has spent another $300K to keep the hotel on life support until June, we now have a window of time to closely examine the proposals on the table, and to discuss the pros and cons of continuing to be a city in the hotel business, by the numbers.
We also have an opportunity to achieve some changes in the hotel’s governance. Yesterday, the chairman of the Lafayette Yard Community Development Corporation (LYCDC), Cleve Christie, resigned his position on the Hotel’s Board in the immediate aftermath of allegations of conflict of interest, but also after weeks of criticism that his Board had kept secret from Council the deteriorating financial condition of the hotel that led to last night’s request for the $295,000 in the first place.
I am glad to see Mr. Christie go, and would now urge the remaining members of the Board to tender their resignations so that the City – this time with the advice and consent of Council, which has been negligently ignored up until now – may reconstitute the Board as a more responsible body. Even if a decision to close the hotel is made in the next few months, there will be enough for the Board to do to unwind Lafayette Yard’s many and various obligations for the next year or so, I’d guess.
There will be activity in the near future on other hotel-related areas as well. Last night Business Administrator Sam Hutchinson told Council that the city had heard from one party interested in discussing the outright purchase of the hotel, which would certainly be a most welcome development.
And according to Erin Duffy’s piece in the Times, “There’s also an upcoming meeting with the state to discuss having the state and/or county share some financial responsibility for the hotel.”
That should be a very short meeting.
To Be Continued…
“In this arena, in this town, obviously what is best for the taxpayers is out the window.It’s more important to posture and beat up on people. For whatever reason, there’s a lot of hatred for certain people and if you’re associated with those people remotely, you are collateral damage.”
Those words are from Cleve Christie, the Chairman of the Lafayette Yard Community Development Corportion (LYCDC), quoted in an article by David Foster in the Trentonian today. The article discusses allegations of a conflict of interest in Mr. Christie’s tenure as Board Chair of the troubled Hotel. Mr. Foster writes that the Chair is considering his resignation in light of news that he produced several jazz events at the hotel, and received at least some preferential treatment as a client that was not available to other individuals and groups in their dealings with the hotels.
Should Mr. Christie resign? Hell, yes. I suggested as much almost two weeks ago, when the news came out that the Board had failed in its obligation to periodically notify City Council, as they had agreed to, of ongoing developments in the Hotel’s financial condition after receiving several hundreds of thousands of dollars in city subsidy last year. The news came out now only because the LYCDC is back with yet another request for $295,000 in emergency funds, a move that only makes sense if the city is willing to commit to the continued future of the Hotel under new management and a new brand. This decision has a price tag associated with it of not only the $295K, but $2 to $3 Million or more in renovation expenses, a mammoth sum the City and its taxpayers will probably be on the hook for.
You know my feelings on the matter. Mr. Christie and his colleagues should all resign, because of this failure to communicate with Council, and also because each member of the Board sits in violation of their own by-laws. As disclosed in the same David Foster article, West Ward Councilman Zachary Chester lets us know that in addition to being nominated to their positions by the Mayor – or whoever sits in THAT office – the advice and consent of Council is required. This step was not taken for any of the current members, so off they should go. Some members should be considered for reappointment, among whom I will mention Michael McGrath, who has during his nearly 3 years on the Board has well represented the people of the City who own that hotel. But for others, such as Mr. Christie? Bye Bye!
But enough of the hotel, for now. I’d like to return to Mr. Christie’s remarks at the top of this page, which barring any more developments may serve as his self-pitying valedictory to his term of public service, considering himself “collateral damage,” in some bigger battle.
It’s been awfully common in this town, for years now, to say “there’s a lot of hatred for certain people” as motivation for political opposition. “Hatred” is often a code word for both personal grudges or for racial animus, and “haters” a convenient description to dismiss those who take unpopular stands and say inconvenient things.
I’d like to call “Bullshit” on all of this. On this specific occasion of Mr. Christie’s quote, and in general. I am sick and tired of this one-size-fits-all excuse being used to explain away one’s own mistakes, missteps and screwups.
It’s not just the race card, although that is always too easily played. It’s also that this town is so damned small, and everyone has all this personal and family history going on, and that always gets dragged in to things. Grudges from TCHS get played out in City Hall years later. Neighborhood beefs from childhood get resolved as knives in the back decades after.
It all drives me nuts! We are enough of a city to have big city problems, but we act like we are Peyton Place. Enough!
In this space, I have often been very opinionated (surprise, right?) and critical of all the multiple messes, scandals, crimes, and petty incompetence we’ve seen over the last few years; and I have been pissed off at the many knuckleheads who have been committing them. I have not been alone in this, but neither have we been numerous enough to have made much meaningful impact in changing this town around.
But I, and we, have not been motivated out of any “hatred” of anyone or anything. This is not personal for me, in any way. I have never met half the people I have written about, and I probably never will. That’s not important to me. What they do in this town has been my concern, not who they are.
For Mr. Christie and others to throw out the convenient “hatred” charge is highly disrespectful. It discounts the substantive content of my, and our arguments, and reduces them to charges of being merely personal attacks. And nothing, nothing, could be further from the truth.
Charges such as Mr. Christie’s do not serve the public good any, when he raises the issue of hatred, or identifies any criticisms as politically motivated. It doesn’t help the public dialog any by refusing to address the substantive issues and policies we need to tackle if we have any hope of improving this city.
Such behavior also reveals a marked lack of sophistication and an inability to discuss these issues on any but an extremely superficial basis. Mr. Christie unwittingly betrayed this exact mindset in another of his comments. Talking of the criticism he’s received, he said “In this arena, in this town, obviously what is best for the taxpayers is out the window.”
It is just the opposite. The criticisms I and others make is motivated precisely by “what is best for the taxpayers,” largely because well, I am a citizen and taxpayer! I feel I have been getting a raw deal from the current Administration and other public bodies lately. And I am frustrated at the refusal – among voters in this town as well as among elected and appointed officials – to engage on these matters on any but a personal and entirely superficial basis.
It makes me crazy to read quotes such as Mr. Christie’s, which turn acknowledgement of their own fuck-ups into pity parties for themselves and charges of “hatred” against their opponents.
This has to change if we, any of us, are to have any hope of turning this town around. We all have a lot of work to do. One of the first steps I think is to call out all of the “haters and hating” rhetoric as wrong, lazy, unproductive and divisive.
None of this is Personal, it’s just Business.
The public’s business.
And we – all of us – are the public.
Who are just trying to get along and make things a little better. In spite of the knuckleheads inside City Hall and out who have, and continue, to screw things up for the rest of us.
UPDATE: Cleve Christie has resigned as Chair of the LYCDC, effective today.
Let’s be absolutely clear about one thing, up front. The headlines this morning say “Trenton Marriott demands $295K from city council or hotel goes dark,” and “City needs to come up with nearly $300K or possibly lose the hotel.” But this is not the amount of money that is at issue before Trenton’s City Council.
Immediately, possibly as early as tomorrow, Council may vote on granting $295,000 in cash to the Lafayette Yard Community Development Corporation (LYCDC) in working capital, to assist the management of the downtown Hotel in paying some critical payables, and provide enough cash until (and maybe if) business picks up in the spring and summer months. This cash is critical, we are told, to keep the doors of the hotel open for the next three months. Otherwise, the Marriott Corporation will cancel its franchise license with us immediately, and the Waterford Group – the hotel’s management company – will cancel its contract and close the hotel down.
But any vote to give the hotel another $295,000 in cash makes sense only – I repeat, ONLY – if the City wants the hotel to stay open, which after June of this year will mean open as a Wyndham Hotel, with a new management company.
And THAT decision will mean a commitment for more funding from the City of Trenton of anywhere from $2 Million to $3 Million Dollars, or more. No one has prepared a detailed budget for the renovation and other administrative changes needed to convert the hotel from Marriott to Wyndham, so this is the best estimate we will get before decisions have to be made.
That is what City Council will vote on tomorrow. $3 Million or more of the City’s – meaning taxpayers’ – dollars.
At last night’s City Council meeting, representatives from the LYCDC Board and its attorney made a presentation about the situation at the hotel. Council also heard from reps from Michael Marshall, the head of the potential new management company, Marshall Hotels and Resorts, selected by the hotel Board to run the Wyndham if Council votes to proceed.
The board’s attorney, Rocky Peterson wanted Council to focus mostly on the immediate cash call, the $295,000, saying “We’re here to talk about the future but we have a short-term problem that has to be addressed.” Should Council fail to vote the money, the hotel would close immediately, dozens of hotel employees will be laid off, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills (including a hefty $116,000 to the Trenton Parking Authority) will go unpaid. The Erin Duffy piece in this morning’s Times calls this “a doomsday scenario.”
But what happens if we pay the $295,000, and then decide sometime in the next three months that we cannot afford the money to renovate the hotel? Under that scenario, in three months, dozens of hotel employees are laid off, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in new bills incurred during operations now through June will go unpaid (and that assumes suppliers are still willing to do business with the hotel). The same exact scenario we face now. Except the City of Trenton will have paid another $295,000 on top of everything else.
So if we foresee the same shut-down scenario in June as we face now, why spend all that extra money in March if it will only go down the drain?
Once again, the only scenario in which the $295,000 cash call makes sense is if we decide to keep the hotel open as a Wyndham. The solution to Rocky Peterson’s “short term problem” makes sense only if we commit, now, to the long term. And that means millions of more dollars from the City of Trenton.
Oh, in his presentation last night Mr. Marshall said his company “is trying to find a lender to finance the renovation, but the city may have to eventually cough up more money to cover it.” [Emphasis mine - KM] He is unable to guarantee at this point in time – and I certainly understand that he had to be somewhat vague and non-committal – that any source of financing other than the City of Trenton would be available. He did offer, according to Ms. Duffy, that “Wyndham is allowing some flexibility to stagger the renovations over a 12 to 18 month period to get it up to Wyndham standards, but the work will have to be done.” The $3 Million might need not to be paid entirely upfront, but in stages. But even in an installment situation, making any payment of a half or a quarter at a time makes sense only in the context of going full-in on the decision to keep the doors of the hotel open as a Wyndham.
So, what kind of future could we expect for the hotel, under a new brand and new management? Again, Mr. Marshall couldn’t be specific; he can’t predict the future. He said, “This hotel used to do $10 million a year in revenue. Do I think we can get back there? Yes. Do my numbers show that? Absolutely not. The operating margins will be a lot different.” That’s really all that we could expect the man to say at this point.
Is that enough of a basis on which to commit to the future of the hotel, with an accompanying commitment of several more millions of City of Trenton taxpayer dollars? Because, again, that is what Council will be considering tomorrow, when they vote on the immediate matter of $295,000. Is it enough?
I don’t think so. The financial experience we have had with the hotel over the last decade has not been a good one. The place is a money pit, and will remain one during any future as a Wyndham. The environment in which the hotel is situated – downtown Trenton – will not provide any boost to the hotel’s fortunes.
The current hotel management, in a narrative history prepared for City Council last month, described how the lack of large corporate business in downtown, the City’s lack of socio-economic diversity, and Trenton’s high crime rate and image problems have all contributed to the ongoing failure of the Hotel to achieve success. This environment will not change, at least not in time to make a Wyndham/Marshall hotel prosper where a Marriott/Waterford joint couldn’t. It just won’t happen.
To its credit, Mr. Marshall did tout his company’s record in turning around under-performing hotels, boosting revenues and occupancy rates in markets such as Cleveland, Brooklyn, Virginia Beach, Pittsburgh, and closer to home, Morristown and Mount Laurel. That does count for something.
But $3 Million Dollars worth? And maybe more? I have to say no.
We know how unsuccessful Lafayette Yard has been, over the years. I have previously talked about examples of other city-owned hotels and the mixed, mostly unsuccessful histories they share. Those examples do not give me the confidence to think that Marshall and Wyndham will help the Lafayette Yard to, finally after all these years, thrive.
If Council votes on the $295,000, tomorrow or next week, I hope the body votes No. The members will save us $3 Million Dollars by doing so.