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Friday, October 31, 2008

Trenton Fire Department plans press conference

Trenton's firemen will be on hand at Trenton Fire Headquarters on Perry Street at 1 p.m. Monday to address manpower cuts proposed by the city government, which will result in a serious safety problem that endangers all lives and property within the great City of Trenton, according to fire officials.

Earlier this month, outgoing Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum announced a dramatic regimen of fire department cuts including the layoff of 13 fire captains, the elimination of 16 firefighter vacancies, and the occasional closing of some of the city's remaining fire companies.

Firefighters, in a statement, cited an infamous incident on Prospect Street in December of 2006 where three Trenton firefighters nearly lost their lives as evidence of the danger of additional cuts.

"Any reduction of captains or firefighters at this fire would have caused these firefighters to lose their lives," said one official, in the statement.

This year's proposal follows a round of cuts in 2002, after which the Trenton Fire Department maintained a consistent record of adhering to its budget while making do with dangerously reduced staffing levels, according to the statement.

Its final line reads, "Enough is enough. We ask council and the residents to protect their fire department."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Musical chairs, anyone?

New Jersey public officials always seem to be engaging in a wild game of musical chairs, whether it's regarding actual positions of employment or moral or political positions on how the government should be run.

Tuesday’s announcement that Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum was leaving Trenton to take up a similar position up in Perth Amboy, with Assistant Business Administrator Dennis Gonzalez taking her position, is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Only months ago, many in the city breathed a sigh of relief after hearing reports that stated Mr. Gonzalez – the same guy who threatened city residents who questioned his work with lawsuits – was the one preparing to leave the city to take up a new position, also in Perth Amboy.

His longtime friend but eventual enemy, Mayor Joseph Vas, was defeated in the recent mayoral election, bringing a new administration into power and perhaps opening up a way for Mr. Gonzalez’s return.

Such a move seems to make a little more sense than the Feigenbaum announcement, considering Mr. Gonzalez’s long-time connections up there, after having grown up there, with Mr. Vas, who made Mr. Gonzalez law director after Mr. Vas was elected sometime in the early 1990s.

But, as many do in New Jersey, the relationship soured, after Mr. Vas fired Mr. Gonzalez’s wife and city aide Kim McReynolds in late 1995 for failing to substantiate the reason she had to take off an extended period of time from work, after she had a cancerous lump removed from her tongue.

Then, in 1997, Mr. Gonzalez got the axe, after Perth Amboy City Council voted to change his job to a part-time position. Some council members like Joseph Misiewicz told The Star-Ledger that the move was a personal attack designed to “get rid of Dennis.” With the salary cut in half, Mr. Gonzalez left the position, about a month later.

Things got worse in October, when Mr. Vas filed a complaint with the state Supreme Court Ethics Committee, charging Mr. Gonzalez had violated attorney-client privilege by talking about opinions he had given to the city at public meetings, and later commenting on his wife’s termination to a reporter. Although the committee found no evidence of wrongdoing, relations got even worse.

“I think the fact that he didn’t inform me is cowardly and dishonest,” said Mr. Gonzalez, to The Star-Ledger. “If he had any sense of decency, he would forwarded a copy of the complaint to me.”

Then, in 1998, Mr. Gonzalez went head-to-head with Mr. Vas’ own slate of City Council candidates in the election, running on a slate of anti-Vas candidates. Although he lost badly, his public comments from the time represent another type of musical chairs, in that they contradict the manner in which he and other administration officials in Trenton frequently treat City Council members.

“It’s wrong what’s going on in Perth Amboy,” said Mr. Gonzalez in a Star-Ledger piece about the election, saying Mr. Vas controlled City Council.

Mr. Gonzalez also said he wanted to use his legal prowess and sit on a strengthened City Council to maintain a balance of power in city government, according to The Star-Ledger.

But judging by how Mr. Gonzalez and Ms. Feigenbaum acted down here in Trenton, it looks likes the new acting business administrator had a change of heart in many ways, but especially regarding the importance of having a balance of power and a strong governing body.

That’s probably good for his conscience about his hometown, because people there are probably in for a rough time, with Ms. Feigenbaum’s entrance into the Perth Amboy scene along with reports that the Vas administration's activities are being probed by the FBI.

Welcome to New Jersey....

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another distressed cities bill advances

The state Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee Legislation this week unanimously passed legislation that's aimed at reforming the state's Distressed Cities financial aid program by imposing additional oversight on potential recipients like the City of Trenton.

The Distressed Cities program, which doled out approximately $140 million in extra state aid last year, has received increased scrutiny recently due to the state's fiscal woes and a perception that the program lacks the accountability necessary with the appropriation of such large amounts of taxpayer dollars.

Sen. Phil Haines, R-Burlington, apparently sponsored legislation designed to reverse that perception, basically by requiring more from municipalities seeking extra state aid dollars through the program and empowering the state with additional oversight power.

"For far too long, this program has been used for partisan political purposes," said Sen. Haines, in a statement. "This common-sense reform measure that passed the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee will inject fairness and transparency into a state aid program that distributes over $140 million of the taxpayers' money every year."

The bill amends existing Distressed Cities law to require municipal officials receiving significant aid to create a financial plan aimed at addressing the underlying causes of their municipality's fiscal woes, to be laid out in a memorandum of understanding with the state.

Municipalities failing to live up to the expectations laid out in the memorandum face a suspension of aid. Also, the bill provides a limit of three consecutive years of extra aid, barring special circumstances, and empowers the state to convene municipal finance boards to oversee the decision-making of towns constantly experiencing fiscal problems.

Trenton certainly appears to fit the category of a distressed city. Last year the city's finances were saved by a late-minute infusion of $25 million from the state's so-called "Capital City appropriation", which came with stipulations including prohibitions on wage increases that were apparently ignored.

Fast forward to today.

The city now faces a larger $27 million gap, at a time when the state's finances are in even worse shape than they were last year.

Another multimillion dollar infusion of state dollars, perhaps under state oversight within the state's Distressed Cities program, seems to be Trenton's only hope.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

More NJ gasoline abuses

Another Republican in New Jersey is screaming bloody murder about alleged taxpayer-funded transportation abuses, down in Atlantic County.

Frank Balles, the GOP candidate for Atlantic County sheriff, attacked current county Sheriff Jim McGettigan today after the sheriff personally ran up thousands of dollars in bills on a county credit card purchasing gas at private gas stations in recent years.

The sheriff bought 1,400 gallons of gas at a station miles from his home between October of 2004 and August of 2006, according to reports published in The Press of Atlantic City.

Mr. McGettigan and other sheriff’s employees received the credit cards after the sheriff made the claim that his officers needed county-issued gasoline cards to assist with transportation associated with their official duties, but Mr. McGettigan was the one who really took advantage of the cards.

County records demonstrated that his officers used the cards 24 times for a total of $642 over the two-year period, compared with Mr. McGettigan’s use – 72 times for over $2,500.

“It is contemptible that McGettigan trued to use concern for the safety of his officers as a method to obtain personal benefit,” said Mr. Balles, in a statement.

Following the purchases, Atlantic County took action by prohibiting further use of the credit cards by Mr. McGettigan, who violated county policy by purchasing the gasoline at more expensive, privately-owned gas stations instead of county-owned stations, according to The Press of Atlantic City.

County-owned stations in Atlantic City, Hammonton, Mays Landing, and Northfield provide gasoline at cheaper prices, due to the county’s tax-exemptions, according to reports.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Scrap metal bill advances

There is help on the way for the City of Trenton and the numerous persons, businesses, and other entities that have become crime victims during the dramatic surge in metal thievery.

Criminals in many areas of the state have begun plotting out methods for absconding with anything containing certain metals, like copper and aluminum, which have experienced significant price increases in recent years.

Assistance for those beleaguered by this crime wave comes in the form of legislation proposed by a trio of Republican legislators from South Jersey who have apparently taken notice of the trend and plan to legislate the problem away - Sen. Christopher Connors, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf and Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, all R-9.

Under their proposal scrap metal business owners would be required to engage in better record-keeping practices, since they are the usual recipient of the stolen metals.

“Unfortunately, honest operators of scrap metal yards unknowingly become entangled in these crimes by virtue of being the only venue where thieves can turn a profit from their stolen property,” said Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Little Egg Harbor, in a statement.

The law requires such businesses to request identification from anyone making scrap metal sales. On that basis they would be required to maintain records for up to five years consisting of the name and address of metal sellers, which could be used by law enforcement officials to prosecute metal thieves.

Other portions of the law require businesses to disclose sale information to law enforcement officers and to promptly report suspicious sales. Scrap metal businesses found in violation of the disclosure and reporting stipulations would be subject to various penalties, according to the legislation.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

City finances threaten revitalization, point to state takeover

Economic revitalization should be priority number one for any city government in Trenton, but current city fiscal policies have resulted in a multi-million dollar budget shortfall that threatens the city with a massive tax rate increase that will create tax conditions that are adverse to redevelopment.

It also looks like such a tax increase won't even cover the budget gap, likely forcing the city into asking for a state-funded bailout sure to come with the institution of state oversight on the city's finances.

Right now the City of Trenton proposes a budget that assumes that the state Board of Public Utilities will approve a plan to sell outlying Trenton Water Works infrastructure to a private company for $100 million.

Despite that infusion of $100 million, the proposed budget carries a 13-cent tax rate increase, bringing the City of Trenton's property tax rate to $2.58 per $100 of assessed value. That rate hike, plus other measures including layoffs, will go towards closing a $7 to $8 million budget gap.

Already, lower property values in much of the city and a lack of up-to-date property assessments result in a city tax rate that is one of the highest in the county. A lack of growth in ratables and ineffective cost-saving measures in the government means constant, large-scale tax increases.

But now, regardless of those conditions, both city and state officials are saying the proposed water works sale may not receive approval, which would balloon the city's budget shortfall up to an astounding magnitude of $27 million.

No one is quite sure where such a shortfall will be made up, but adding significantly to the city's tax rate will result in a situation where anyone considering the purchase of property in the city is going to think twice, as soon as they see Trenton's large and growing municipal tax rate.

Perhaps the only good thing that could come out of such a large budget shortfall is that the city could be forced into begging for a state-funded bailout.

Given the financial footing of state officials, who recently identified falling state tax revenues and their own budget shortfall, such a bailout will likely come with a stipulation of state control over the city's finances.

Given what the Palmer administration has been doing with the city's money lately, this could certainly be a good thing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Investigators probe Perth Amboy's former administration

Federal and state investigators are probing the activities of former administration officials who worked under former Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas, who was soundly defeated in the mayoral election earlier this year by new Mayor Wilda Diaz, The Asbury Park Press is reporting.

Mr. Vas, who also serves as a state assemblyman for the 19th legislative district, ran Perth Amboy for 18 years after being elected in 1990 as the city’s first Hispanic-American mayor.

Although what exactly is being probed remains unclear, Mayor Diaz has confirmed that her administration is indeed cooperating with the investigation, after rumors began swirling this week, alleging widespread visits from FBI agents and the issuing of subpoenas to both former and current city workers.

Some were even visited by investigators at their homes, according to published reports.

Reports published earlier this year, prior to Mr. Vas’ exit from the mayor’s office, stated that city workers were ordered to shred thousands of city documents and papers, following the former mayor’s defeat in the 2008 mayoral election, according to The Asbury Park Press.

But Mr. Vas denied that the papers were being shredded for any nefarious reason, and said that records and documents with electronic back-ups were not prohibited from being shredded.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Governmental mismanagement continues in Trenton

It has become increasingly evident that officials in Trenton are hellbent on leaving residents on the hook for their boneheaded decision-making.

This most disturbing trend of mismanagement continues at a time when the city faces a potential $27 million budget shortfall that, if unfilled, promises a dramatic tax rate increase for all property owners in the city.

Most recently, an external audit firm official told City Council on Tuesday that the city received a clean audit, despite major discrepancies, in the form of a $16 million grant the city never received from the state and some questionable Public Works time sheet activity.

Solidifying the trend of mismanagement is the fact that over the last month the city and its officers have been named as defendants in no less than three separate and highly avoidable lawsuits. Two center on the former communications director and present police director, Irving Bradley, Jr.

The first was filed by dispatchers who used to work under Mr. Bradley. They allege that Mr. Bradley engaged in racially-charged employment practices and harassment in an effort to drive white employees out of the communications center.

The second suit was filed by a group of residents, including me, over Mr. Bradley's residency status, in renting an apartment in the city while maintaining a family home in Rahway that Mr. Bradley is known to frequent on the weekends.

The director's residency status was consistent with that of dozens of employees the city has fired over the years for non-residency, yet city officials did nothing about Mr. Bradley's apparent violations, which opened the door for another costly round of unnecessary legal battles over residency enforcement.

The sad thing about the lawsuits targeting Mr. Bradley is that the man should not have been employed by the city, in any capacity, due to his being unqualified for the communications directorship in addition to his highly questionable residency status.

If the city’s elected officials had done the right thing and cut him loose, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs would not be headed into the pockets of expensive, high-class lawyers.

Finally, the outlying townships that rely on water from the Trenton Water Works filed their own lawsuit against the city this week, seeking to put a stop to the recently instituted 40 percent water rate hike.

City Council members dutifully passed the rate ordinance at the behest of officials from the Douglas H. Palmer administration, despite overwhelming evidence of malfeasance regarding the city’s water works budget practices, very public threats of costly lawsuits from the townships, and numerous requests from outside officials for cooperative discussions on the matter.

And now, all these chickens are coming home to roost, and once again, Trenton’s residents will be left holding the bag because of the poor governance of their elected officials.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

State vehicles subject to significant abuse

Some state employees granted the use of vehicles from the state's Central Motor Pool abused the privilege numerous times between 2005 and 2007, according to a report from last year that has become political fodder for state Senate Republicans.

Of interest is that these apparent abuses occur despite the fact that the state uses an intricate policy system to govern the usage of such vehicles. The City of Trenton, which has somewhere around 100 taxpayer-funded vehicles, does not have a single vehicle policy in use at this time.

The state Central Motor Pool consists of approximately 7,600 total vehicles, which cost the state somewhere around $20 million annually, excluding administrative expenses. Some of the governmental entities using the largest amounts of state vehicles include Children and Families, Corrections, and Human Services, at 2,511, 1,092, and 1,016, respectively.

The report - put together by State Auditor's office in late 2007 - demonstrated that at times approximately 10 percent of the vehicles logged gasoline purchases in amounts that exceeded the total capacity of the vehicle's gas tanks, perhaps indicating employees were using their vehicle privileges to purchase items other than gasoline.

Also, nearly 160,000 gallons of expensive gasoline were consumed without appropriate documentation, without indication of what the gas was used for or even which vehicle it went into.

"To me, widespread abuse like this means we should eliminate the majority of state vehicles," said state Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, in a statement. "The oversight of taxpayer funded motor vehicle usage is lax or non-existent."

Also of interest was the fact that the state auditor found that many of these vehicles were making same-day gasoline purchases, indicating the owners were driving the vehicles so frequently that they were draining entire tanks of gasoline in a single workday, requiring additional stops for gas.

If this state report is any indication of the trends in taxpayer-funded vehicle abuses, then it appears that reining in Trenton's motor vehicle pool could be a prime place to look for cost savings in the battle to plug the looming $27 million budget shortfall.

If the government can't take that step, the people sure can.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In 2009, decisions, decisions

Gov. Jon S. Corzine's future gubernatorial aspirations could hinge on whether or not the legislature passes a slew of bills called for by the governor earlier this month in an effort to seriously restrict pay-to-play and wheeling, which continue to hamper public opinion of New Jersey government.

It could be a showdown - between the value of real ethics reforms versus control of the governorship - that would certainly be interesting and quite telling for New Jersey residents, who have revealed in recent polls that the corrupt perception of their government weighs heavily on their minds.

Of course, the only real reason that the party in power, the Democrats, might actually face such a conundrum is because of the man Gov. Corzine will likely face off with in 2009.

Whether he means real reform or not, current U.S. attorney and likely Republican candidate for governor Chris Christie will have the support of many a New Jerseyan.

That's because many of us have become quite tired of the endless tales of corruption, whether it be actual cases of criminal activity or the disproportionate influence of money and political bosses on what is supposed to be a democratic process.

People see the corruption cases that Mr. Christie has so successfully prosecuted, and equate that record of success with some sort of unfounded judgment that the ugly practices and dirty government going on right now will somehow stop with Mr. Christie's ascension into Drumthwacket.

But in reality things will probably continue in much of the same way, as they did when Republicans were last in power.

That's why all these calls for blood over the recent government grant revelations made during the ongoing Wayne Bryant trial ring so hollow. As many have written recently, the Republicans have done and would have done exactly the same thing in the same or similar situations.

But regardless of the equally poor ethics records of both major New Jersey parties, when it comes to the 2009 governor's race, Mr. Christie surely has some sort of an advantage over Gov. Corzine, that is, unless the state legislature advances those ethics reform bills, despite whatever negative effect the laws may have on the ability of Democratic bosses to raise funds and solidify power.

Does controlling the governor's office matter enough to power-hungry politicians to sway them into voting to significantly dampen their own ability to hold onto the reins of power?

That is the question.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A lower house for Trenton

Trenton residents could take over many of the functions of their city government through what would be similar to the formation of a large, unofficial lower house of city legislature.

That's because the piece of state law governing how this city's government is run, the Faulkner Act, hands Trenton residents the power to initiate their own ordinances or suspend and send them on to City Council, and eventually the ballot, as long as residents successfully collect a certain number of signatures from the registered voters of the city.

This would require the participation of 800 or so registered voters, willing to meeting, communicate, and vote on various ordinances, either proposed by members or taken from the dockets of City Council. Binding votes would mean that all members would have to affix their signatures onto official petitions bearing the ordinances.

With the combined signatures of all members, such a group would assume the power to propose its own legislation and strike down anything proposed by official City Council members or the city administration, with everything going to referendum vote.

The 800 or so number comes from the statute, which dictates that the number of signatures necessary for certain actions. The number is either 10 or 15 percent of the total number of voters who voted in the last election in which state Assembly members were elected.

Due to the depressed economic and social conditions that have become the hallmark of the city under Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, few voters come out to vote for state legislators. The statutory 10 or 15 percent is traditionally a fairly low number.

Sure, it may sound like a rather cumbersome and ineffective way to run the city government, but it sounds a little bit better when compared with the current city government. The people in power now, especially Mayor Palmer, have been so cumbersome and ineffective that they allowed the city's finances to reach the point where Trenton now faces a $27 million budget shortfall.

City residents are looking at what could end up being one of the largest municipal tax rate increase in recent New Jersey history, especially if the sale of outlying Trenton Water Works infrastructure falls through.

Maybe it's time Trenton residents get together and put together a government of their own.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tell us the truth, mayor

By all accounts, Police Director Irving Bradley Jr. is a big hit with many in the City of Trenton.

He has attended civic gatherings, carried himself well at government meetings, and suggested what appear to be new, innovative ideas. He even seems to be gaining solid acceptance among the rank-and-file of the city’s police force, unlike his predecessor.

That’s why it is so disturbing that the City refuses to elaborate on the director’s living situation, which has been questioned so frequently since Mr. Bradley emerged on the scene last September, at nearly the same time as former director Joseph Santiago was questioned and then ousted over his own non-residency.

That legal battle, over Mr. Santiago, cost the City hundreds of thousands of dollars and painted Mayor Douglas H. Palmer as a mayor dedicated to establishing the power to decide which workers are subject to residency rather than spending time working on the city’s problems.

Now, another director is on the scene who also appears to be breaking the same residency law, and despite the presence of a similar lawsuit that threatens the city’s funds all over again, the only thing Mayor Palmer says is that Mr. Bradley is in compliance.

Such a position loses credibility because of the continued existence of Mr. Bradley’s well-known family residence in Rahway, where the director’s children attend school and where the director has taken City vehicles. He was even seen there, about a month ago.

The city’s established position on residency - based on decades of court rulings - is that employees are not in compliance when they rent an apartment inside the City while occasionally visiting immediate family members who live in a larger, owner-occupied home far away.

But that is exactly what Mr. Bradley appears to be doing, and that type of double-standard, evident in Mr. Santiago’s case and now in Mr. Bradley‘s, is exactly why people like me are suing the city.

It is abhorrent to supporters of democracy when laws apply to most but not to all, because such activity is reminiscent of the shackles of monarchy that Americans fought so hard to throw off in the Revolutionary War, communist Russia, or the segregationist laws that kept people of color down in the South earlier this century.

If this is not the case and Mr. Bradley has some sort of living arrangement or situation in play that makes him in compliance with the law, then it would behoove Mayor Palmer and Mr. Bradley to reveal that information, before the City wastes hundreds of thousands of dollars in an unnecessary court battle with its own residents.

If there is some sort of arrangement that only emerges in court, be it a legal separation or divorce, then it shall prove that the Palmer administration would rather fight a costly court battle with City residents to prove those residents wrong than save City dollars and allow Trenton to move on, under the capable leadership of Mr. Bradley.

Mayor Palmer will likely ignore this request for this cost-saving information, and that’s fine.

But should the court battle continue and facts emerge establishing that once again the mayor has ignored the city’s own, long-established law, then City residents ought to get working on ensuring that someone else takes over following the 2010 election.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Trenton administrators get pay raise, amid budget turmoil

Top Trenton officials received pay raises earlier this year despite the city's disastrous fiscal situation, according to South Ward Councilman Jim Coston.

Rumors attesting to this fact were heard months ago, but when no resolutions or ordinances that specifically mentioned the raises appeared on City Council's dockets, many assumed that the raise rumor was just that, a rumor.

But apparently members of the Douglas H. Palmer administration - before warning the city about the closure of city libraries, the laying off of dozens of city workers, and the slashing of municipal services - thought that in handing the city a $27 million budget deficit they had done a good job, and they deserved more money.

Almost equally disturbing as the news of these pay raises was the response that Councilman Coston received when inquiring about how exactly the raises were instituted.

"You voted for them," said one administration official, according to Councilman Coston's Web site.

Let's get this straight. Administration officials received pay hikes while the city's budget is in tatters, and City Council members, the stewards of the city's budget, didn't even know about them?

With instances such as these, it is really no surprise that this city faces such a massive, debilitating budget shortfall. The people who are supposed to be looking out for the interests of the residents at City Hall are apparently asleep at the wheel.

But perhaps all is not lost.

City Council, despite its obvious shortcomings, needs to get its act together immediately, and use its power to investigate this situation and immediately repeal whatever pay raises were handed out to Palmer officials.

Perhaps some deserve these raises, but with the city dealing with such a large budget gap and residents facing a double-digit tax increase, it is hardly the time to be handing out more money.

The city simply cannot afford to do so.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Easy revitalization

Some say that things are looking up in Camden.

Campbell’s Soup Company recently broke ground on a $90 million, brand-new Camden corporate headquarters, and the state, county, and city governments are sinking an additional $23 million into the area’s infrastructure.

The complex includes an 80,000 square-foot employee services building, as well as 200,000 square feet of office space, to be built on an adjacent parcel and redevelopment site. According to the office of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, the project will retain nearly 1,200 jobs and “anchor the redevelopment of the surrounding area.”

But projects such as these represent minimal, baby-sized steps towards the revitalization of cities, when compared with the single easiest step that the state could take to jump start economic revitalization: end the residency exemption given to firemen, policemen, and teachers.

If these groups were subject to the residency ordinances of New Jersey’s cities, all of these relatively well-compensated workers - numbering in the thousands in each city - would fill in city neighborhoods and help these urban areas take the first steps back towards economic vibrancy and tax revenue self-sufficiency.

Until state legislators take such a drastic step and face off with the powerful unions of teachers, firemen, and police, Camden will remain the same. The nice part of the city, the waterfront, Cooper Street and near City Hall, will remain a bombed-out wasteland of empty hotels, empty storefronts, and empty high-rises – just general emptiness, all because no one lives there.

Even the better-off cities of Newark and Trenton have similar traits. Both have downtowns that adopt the same emptiness once the buzz and din of worker activity stops at the end of the day, and thousands of vehicles flee the cities for the suburbs.

What’s missing is the kind of stable, middle-class population that brings economic activity, property ownership, and a good tax base. These things fled to the suburbs over the last five decades, and with them went the days of prosperity, at least for the vast majority of New Jersey’s cities.

The residency-exempt Civil Service positions could help bring prosperity back. Sure, the unions will kick and scream, but that can be reduced through the establishment of a grandfather clause for current residency-exempt firemen, police, and teachers.

Only new personnel, hired after a certain effective date, should become subject to residency.

To address the certain lack of candidates that may emerge when some downtrodden places like Camden start searching for employees, the state should up the ante, and provide extra salary or compensation to whomever is willing to take the job.

Cities can engage in similar activities, like offering vacant homes or other incentives to residency-required employees.

It may seem excessive to spend extra money to fund such incentives, but the current status of these cities means that nearly all of their municipal and school dollars come from the state, so revitalization through removing residency exemptions becomes a more lucrative tactic.

It is truly a good first step towards bringing cities back from the abyss.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Stop this deal!

The reasons for supporting the proposed sale of outlying Trenton Water Works infrastructure to a private, foreign-owned company for $100 million just don’t add up, no matter what side you look at.

The folks reviewing the matter have apparently begun taking the same position lately, as evidenced by reports detailing vague feelings of doom on the part of city officials, who are apparently aware of what is going with the deal.

For the City of Trenton, this appears to be a cheap, one-time injection of revenue to shore up a $27 million budget gap caused by years of financial mismanagement. But regardless of the city’s budget problems, it bears remembering the words of wise financiers, who almost always say that selling off a long-term asset to fix a short-term problem is never a good idea.

Even worse than selling of a long-term asset to fix a short-term problem is selling that asset off for less than half of the original price.

That’s apparently what the city faces now, after independent experts told the state that the City of Trenton should only get a little over $50 million for the infrastructure instead of $100 million, because much of it was built by the townships and developers, rather than the city.

Constantly putting forth lame excuses for the deal is Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, who is always quick to point out that the city will continue to profit from the water infrastructure because the company, New Jersey American Water, has signed an agreement to continue buying water from the city for 20 years or so.

But after that, there is no guarantee that the city will receive any revenue from the outlying infrastructure, especially given the existence of numerous connections to other areas of New Jersey American Water infrastructure that could be used to pump in outside water in the future.

Apparently Mayor Palmer could care less about the city's long-term future.

For the suburban townships surrounding Trenton – which, with Trenton, make up “one family”, according to Mayor Palmer – this deal makes no sense whatsoever. They will be taken over by a company that has just made a $100 million expenditure, which, in addition to other costs, will eventually be recouped, right out of the pockets of ratepayers.

Also, the new company that will be providing them water under the deal has shareholders, pays dividends, and operates as a for-profit venture, unlike the Trenton Water Works.

City officials have said that suburban customers will get a better deal because New Jersey American Water will do a better job of maintaining the infrastructure and providing better service. But that's not so, according to people from other areas where American Water has taken over. They have said that the real trend is almost always a drop-off in service.

Arguments over better regulation are ridiculous as well.

While it is true that the City of Trenton’s rate hikes are not regulated by the state, such regulation is not really a safeguard against significant rate hikes, especially when the company requesting them can demonstrate that they recently spent more than $100 million.

Also, companies like American Water are known to repeatedly ask for exorbitant hikes, knowing the state will grant increases lower than what the company requests. But if a company makes enough of these requests, the end result is the same: higher water rates and poorer ratepayers.

Under the city’s control, rates are hiked by city ordinance. The state may seem like a better bulwarj against unnecessary rate increases, but in reality, if the city continually tried to hike water rates, there would be outcry, both immediately and probably later, at the city ballot boxes.

Also, Trenton citizens wary of exorbitant rate increases could take to the streets and defeat any ordinance effecting a rate increase through a petition drive, which would get the rate hike ordinance on the ballot. It is quite a stretch to imagine city residents voting to pass rate hikes on themselves.

In sum, this is a bad deal for Trenton, a really bad deal for the suburbs, and a good way of seriously damaging relations between the two. The only entity that benefits from such a deal is the Palmer administration, which will be able to plug budget holes for a year or two, until the mayor and his people are safely out of town.

Once again, Trenton will be left holding the bag.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Trenton needs an audit

Palmer administration officials warned City Council Tuesday night that help may not be on the way regarding the city’s massive, $27 million budget deficit, because things aren’t looking good with the proposed sale of outlying Trenton Water Works infrastructure to private water company.

Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum dropped the bombshell as she went over some of the cost cutting measures being instituted by the city. They include the layoff of 80 city workers, the demotions of numerous fire captains, and the canceling of the hiring of additional police officers that was so highly touted by Mayor Douglas H. Palmer during his 2007 State of the City address.

But despite these measures, which some fire and police officials have labeled as a threat to public safety, the city still faces an addition $19 to $20 million budget gap if the aforementioned sale of water infrastructure doesn’t go through.

Given the frequency of tax rate hikes, water rate hikes, and the growth in the cost of government in Trenton prior to this fiscal disaster, a gap of this magnitude seriously calls into question the budget practices utilized by Mayor Palmer, who has been in power for nearly 20 years.

Residents paying for this poorly managed operation, from both the city and outside in the rest of the state, should demand an independent state audit of the city government’s financial dealings. The vast majority of money spent in Trenton is state money anyway, so demanding such action should not require too much heavy lifting or lobbying with state officials.

When it comes to this city's fiscal practices, there is obviously something that is simply not working very well, and it needs to be taken seriously. Such fiscal mismanagement threatens any future renaissance the city could experience in the future, by threatening to bankrupt the city government and force more prohibitive tax hikes onto property owners.

There must be an immediate end to all official perks, including the use of vehicles and gasoline by employees who clearly do not require them. All expensive trips must end, and that should include special training for police officers and other officials and the purely political junkets frequently taken by Mayor Palmer.

Finally, the mayor’s protection detail must be disbanded and folded back into the Trenton Police Department to make up the growing manpower gap.

But, in the end, the best solution of all is brand-new leadership in 2010. The current government is obviously too stupid and too expensive for this city to bear, and it’s time to get a new one.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Water sale could be dead

Trenton could be in even deeper fiscal trouble than it already is.

It appears the proposal to sell outyling Trenton Water Works infrastructure to New Jersey American Water for $100 million could fall through, or be seriously reduced in value, according to industry insiders.

Apparently the valuation process that resulted in the $100 million figure was seriously flawed, and because of that, state staffers could recommend that the state Board of Public Utilities kill the sale outright, or reduce it in value.

The city's valuation firm inappropriately chose to include in the $100 million portions of infrastructure financed by developers and residents in the suburbs surrounding Trenton that was handed over to the city at no charge, and that has proven problematic for the deal.

In most official valuations of this kind such infrastructure should not be included in the sales price, according to testimony given to BPU staff by independent authorities like Howard Woods.

Mr. Woods and others have said the infrastructure belongs to the ratepayers that have rented or purchased the properties serviced by the pipes, pumps, and other water infrastructure and is not Trenton's to sell.

It remains to be seen whether the city would accept a much lower sale price - said to be in the neighborhood of between $50 million and $70 million - but given the city's financial straits, such a firesale of a valuable asset will likely be construed as necessary by city officials like Mayor Douglas H. Palmer.

The city administration was relying on the deal to provide a $20 million infusion of cash into the city's coffers that would help close a massive budget shortfall, but if the deal falls through, the $7 million hole could increase to $27 million.

The city already plans on cutting 150 jobs from the municipal payroll to help deal with the $7 million deficit, but increasing that budget gap by another $20 million would likely result in a nearly catastrophic cut in municipal services.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Layoffs and lawsuits don't add up

The City of Trenton will be eliminating around 150 municipal position from the city’s payroll in an attempt to address a $7 million budget shortfall, according to The Times of Trenton.

These layoffs will come at a time when Mayor Douglas H. Palmer apparently thinks it is appropriate to spend thousands of dollars in court defending a employee from a lawsuit that could have been avoided, and the utter hypocrisy of that is astounding.

Even worse, many in this city seem to accept the actions of a mayor who is constantly talking out of both sides of his mouth, especially when it comes to breaking the law, the budget, and unneeded lawsuits.

This particular avoidable lawsuit, like the one that ousted the previous police director, challenges the claim that Mr. Bradley has taken up permanent residency in Trenton, as required by law.

Despite comments from Mayor Palmer and misleading stories in the local media, the claim that Mr. Bradley established permanent residency in Trenton is something that nearly everyone in Trenton knows to be false.

Remember that Mr. Bradley was first caught with a city vehicle at his old family home in Rahway. Then he was involved in a car accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, nearly 30 miles outside the city at a point on the most direct route from Rahway to Trenton. Finally, he was caught at the home again, fully a year after he and his family should have moved into the capital city as required by law.

In trying to help out his favorite mayor, Trentonian columnist L.A. Parker wrote a story detailing how Mr. Bradley produced a state driver’s license and a rental agreement, which was purported to somehow demonstrate that Mr. Bradley is a bona fide Trenton resident and that people challenging that claim are foolish and misguided.

Apparently Mr. Parker – and City Council for the matter – have forgotten that simply renting an apartment and changing personal documents to reflect that information is not enough when it comes to residency. That is clearly established by decades of law that everyone who supports Mr. Bradley’s appointment seems to have forgotten.

But the actions of Mayor Palmer and his officials demonstrates that at least they are aware of what residency means. They fired dozens of employees for residency, and many of them had similar or equivalent living situation to what Mr. Bradley is currently claiming.

These employees rented apartments, changed their driver’s licenses and voting records, and made other changes to make it look like they were following the law. The Palmer administration successfully prosecuted nearly all of them.

Until recently, the City of Trenton never supplied funding for an employee’s legal defense for such things as residency violations, and especially not for employees who face significantlegal problems like Mr. Bradley. He is already the subject of another lawsuit for allegedly pursuing a “racialist” agenda when he worked in the city Communications Division.

But now, when the budget is broken and the city cannot afford unnecessary expenditures, Mayor Palmer and City Council have thrust another man into the police director’s position who does not meet the requirements of bona fide residency, again opening the city up again to taxpayer-funded legal challenges.

What is says is quite clear.

Such an action means that Mayor Palmer would rather fight a costly and unnecessary battle in court against his own constituents than be forced to follow the city’s residency law and appoint a real city resident to the police director’s position.

That’s a pretty sad situation for Trenton to be in.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The truth about TRAC

Members of the Trenton Residents Action Coalition stand for the rule of law and the betterment of Trenton, and do not conspire with anonymous and perhaps even nonexistent police who may or may not be racists.

Yet some in Trenton have been taking a ridiculous, contrary position and have been pushing it lately, on the pages of local newspapers, on the airwaves, and in the chambers of City Hall.

This happens because TRAC members and the plaintiffs who sued and successfully ousted former Police Director Joseph Santiago, a man of Hispanic heritage, have now sued his black successor, Irving Bradley Jr., over what the group believes is a similar residency infraction.

Because of the color of the skin of these two men, and not the motives of TRAC, the group is now being painted as some sort of "supremacy" group. Apparently the only defense left to supporters of Mayor Palmer is making vague reference to racial motivations.

The basis for these accusations is a worldview that holds that the Trenton Police Department, prior to the institution of a civilian director in 1999, was led by white chiefs and the infamous "good ol' boys network", which was apparently unsympathetic to the city's black residents, according to some in the city.

Now, because TRAC took a contradictory position on his views about residency, Mayor Palmer's supporters have made public statements that TRAC is somehow hellbent on ignoring the city's demographics and pursuing a "whites-first" agenda for the leadership of the police department based on the aforementioned "good ol' boys network".

The only basis for this, however faulty, is that some anonymous police officers have publicly supported TRAC and the ouster of the former director. TRAC is somehow associated with the views of these unnamed officers, according to Mayor Palmer's supporters, but such arguments gain little traction with reasonable persons.

Quite simply, TRAC's 15 or so members have no control over the opinions of the people who express support for the group's activities, just as the people advocating for the funding of the city's libraries remain unassociated with the self-described Bloods gang member who recently supported their cause at a City Council meeting.

Sen. Barack Obama has been publicly endorsed by despicable terrorist organizations, yet no reasonable person can construe that such an event is an indication of Sen. Obama's personal views on terrorism.

In fact, the truth is just the opposite when it comes to TRAC. Its members take the position that racism and bigotry have no place anywhere in America, and especially not in Trenton.

Despite TRAC's public positions, Mayor Palmer's supporters have continued to fan the flames of racial tensions for cheap political gain. But for good, reasonable people, it is quite easy to look right through such political smoke and see that TRAC's only goal, like many other city organizations, is a better government and a better Trenton.

Let it be known once and for all that TRAC condemns the views of racist individuals of any ethnicity. This author pledges strong support for having a person of color as the city's civilian director, as long as that person is a qualified, bona fide resident of the city.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The ultimate distraction

L.A. Parker apparently doesn’t care about the plight of many Trentonians or good race relations, despite his public positions.

This man's sole reason for existence is as a big distraction, meant to lure away attention from the fact that Mayor Palmer is one of the biggest disasters that ever happened to Trenton.

Whatever his stated positions, this man is actually hurting all Trentonians through his constant playing of the race card for purely political purposes, as evidenced by yesterday’s Trentonian column attacking opponents of Mayor Douglas H. Palmer like the Trenton Residents Action Coalition.

In it, the fuming Mr. Parker attacks from many different angles, comparing unnamed bloggers like myself to members of the Ku Klux Klan and even going as far as to accuse a black member of TRAC, James Fouse, of being a “token” black man.

Mr. Parker has also taken the position that TRAC members are racists, which is absolutely ridiculous.

The fact is that TRAC has never done anything out of racial motivations and our members, who are all Trenton residents, are not racists. Although there are probably a few racists living in Trenton, it always seems highly unlikely that a racist would ever choose to live in Trenton, where whites represent less than 20 percent of the 83,000 people living in the city.

He also struggled to paint a picture of hyprocrisy yesterday, and his idiotic arguments demonstrated that he does not think very highly of the intellects of his readership.

Mr. Parker tried to say that a lack of outrage over the residency of the current fire director and police Capt. Fred Reister, who was briefly acting police director, was an indicator of hypocrisy. But all that lack of outrage showed was a superior knowledge of state law, which exempts both men from residency requirements.

Mr. Parker tried to paint Mayor Palmer's opponents as hypocrites for pointing out the man recently named police director is a convicted felon, while staying silent on a restraining order that was put on one TRAC member many years ago.

Sorry L.A., but you already outed that particular TRAC member, and he is not the police director. His past, non-criminal record has little to do with anything.

The disturbing thing about these tirades is that, besides bordering on libel, they are also truly reminiscent of the tactics used by bigots and hate mongers like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. They even harken back to the politics of fear used so successfully by such antichrists as Adolf Hitler.

Like these evil men, Mr. Parker uses the false pretenses of fear, in this case prejudice and racism, to obfuscate the reality that Mayor Palmer and the people in power are ruining the city and are dragging Trentonians of all races into an economic and social abyss.

No one really knows why Mr. Parker does this.

There are the unsubstantiated rumors that Mayor Palmer has “dirt” on Mr. Parker, perhaps from his younger days, or that maybe Mr. Parker is being compensated for the constant Palmer spin that is applied to nearly every newspaper article written by Mr. Parker.

Whatever the case is, the only thing Mr. Parker is succeeding in doing is impeding progress in Trenton, and that’s because his work helps keep Mayor Palmer in power by helping to keep the mayor’s enemies marginalized, and in a weakened state.

But the recent residency defeat of the mayor over his police director and other defeats of the past year sometimes point to a weakening of the mayor, and even a weakening of Mr. Parker.

Never was that more evident than at a civic meeting last week in the North Ward, where an overwhelmingly black group of residents expressed a strongly negative opinion of Mayor Palmer, The Trentonian, and especially Mr. Parker, calling the paper and the columnist racist, and damaging to the cause of black Americans.

There is hope in Trenton.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Welcome to the Twilight Zone

Numerous people in Trenton have commented on how much the city has taken on the feeling of an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” following the appointment of Police Director Irving Bradley Jr. this week.

First, the usual hate mongers were playing to the fears of the people in the local media today. They were quickly branding any and all opponents of Mayor Douglas H. Palmer as racists, as those opponents - including me - pursue the ouster of Mr. Bradley, like his predecessor Joseph Santiago, for violating the city’s residency ordinance.

Part of the basis of this racially-charged response is the surveillance tactics used by some residents in observing Mr. Bradley at his family residence in Rahway two weeks ago, but such a response only demonstrates the hypocrisy of Mayor Palmer and those who support him.

These tactics were taken right out of his administration’s playbook. Mayor Palmer’s own officials have spied and investigated employees for maintaining similar living arrangements to those of Mr. Bradley.

The icing on the cake in the lawsuit filed this morning is that one plaintiff, Frederick Constanzo, did exactly what Mr. Bradley is doing and was fired by Mayor Palmer for doing so.

As Councilman Manny Segura told Mayor Palmer this week, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

The playing of the race card was expected, since it has become the only worthwhile tactic to the advocates of hypocrisy. But there was other, more unexpected rumors and innuendo flying around the city today.

One rumor holds that some council members were aware that in the event of a legal challenge being mounted against Mr. Bradley’s appointment, the man would move towards the pursuit of some sort of separation, legal or not, designed to foil the challenge and embarrass the residents.

Rumor number two holds that council members were bullied into accepting the man’s residency status, and accepted that the living arrangements of his wife and children were “personal” information and thus went unquestioned during Tuesday’s confirmation hearing.

If count one of the rumor is true, then Trenton’s government is completely broken, because it effectively means that elected officials have decided to keep important information, which has only become more important due to recent events, from the very people they are elected to represent in an effort to marginalize and embarrass said residents.

Count two, if true, means that some of the current city representatives sorely lack the credentials necessary to do their jobs, which include a willingness to uphold city law and enforce it.

Residency is a city law, and living arrangements, however personal, are subject to this law. Dozens of employees have been fired in the past based on these livings arrangements, which were probed, investigated, and spied upon with vigor by the Palmer administration at great cost to the taxpayers.

To suddenly declare such information off-limits is a ridiculous and hypocritical position to take. This is something that Trenton residents have come to expect from their mayor, but not City Council members.

Outcome of residency will be determined by the residents

Men and women elected to represent their peers have a responsibility to the voters to keep the public interest in mind at all times, but when they become forgetful of those responsibilities or neglect them in favor of ulterior motives, it becomes the responsibility of the people to take action.

That's what needs to be done in the City of Trenton.

City Council voted to confirm a non-resident police director on Tuesday, under pressure from a selfish mayor and an artificially large crowd that appeared at council because of the distribution of flyers urging people to "show up and support" an unnamed director.

The same council members that fought a months-long, expensive legal battle over the last police director's non-residency somehow managed to shirk their duties Tuesday by not asking the tough questions about residency, which have become an important part of their legislative responsibilities.

No one really knows what went on behind the scenes prior to the vote, but following what happened, several things have become clear.

The imminent residency lawsuit against new Police Director Irving Bradley and the details that will emerge during its expensive course will demonstrate to all just how much the current council failed the city on Tuesday.

When what is contained in that suit comes into the public eye, the only people in this battle who will look like bigger fools than Mayor Douglas H. Palmer are some on council.

Relating to that situation is that City Council appears to have returned to its submissive form, with a majority of members unwilling to go against the mayor and ask the tough questions that are part of their responsibilities.

In fact, they will likely do whatever the mayor says, including amending the city's residency ordinance to allow Mayor Palmer to legally play favorites with residency, instead of in the unlawful manner he is forced to use because of the structure of the ordinance.

But the people can stop this.

A practice petition drive undertaken last year managed to gather 700 signatures in five days.

That effort can be repeated now, in a drive towards getting a residency amendment into the city code that would simultaneously allow for outside hires in emergencies while never allowing Mayor Palmer to play favorites with the law, ever again.

The bottom line is that throughout all of this, including the mayor's lying, grandstanding, reversals on established positions, the council's decisions, and the court battles, the people have been the decisive factor.

If they want to defeat the mayor and the officials who sold them out on Tuesday, then it can be done.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Trenton's government is broken

City Council folded under pressure Tuesday night, when Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and a crowd of cronies marched into council chambers and bullied and dealed their way through the confirmation of new police director, convicted felon, and residency violator Irving Bradley Jr.

The council's "Gang of Four" broke into splinters, with former stalwart Gino Melone breaking for the bad guys in voting to confirm Mr. Bradley. Palmer cronies Annette Lartigue, Paul Pintella, and Cordelia Staton also voted to confirm the director.

The confirmation came despite a preponderance of evidence - nearly 12 months' worth - that demonstrated that from the beginning of his employment, Mr. Bradley was in violation of the city's residency ordinance. That city law requires employees to maintain a bona fide, primary residence within Trenton city limits.

First, Mr. Bradley openly admitted that he didn't even have a residence in Trenton, and even when he established a secondary residence in Trenton, he was caught on camera with a city vehicle 40 miles to the north, at his family residence in Rahway.

Again, just over three weeks ago, he was caught at the same residence by Trenton residents. Council members were fully aware of this, yet not a single member from either side of the pro-Palmer and anti-Palmer fault line decided to question the director over where his family lives.

The end result is that Trenton taxpayers will once again be on the hook, when a lawsuit similar to the one that ousted the previous police director is filed in the coming days. With that suit city taxpayers will again be left on the short side of things, because their government cannot follow the simplest of laws.

In retrospect, Tuesday's council meeting took on an almost circus-like atmosphere. Flyers were apparently put out in the West Ward of the city, urging residents to show up to support an unnamed director. They showed up in droves, and made their ignorance known as they cheered for a wasteful, arrogant, and vindictice mayor hellbent on screwing over the residents and the City Council that had recently defeated him.

He succeeded, in mysteriously convincing a formerly strong Councilman Melone to switch to a positive vote, and getting a majority of council to confirm a controversial, residency-breaking, convicted felon to Trenton's highest law enforcement position.

During the entire meeting, Mayor Palmer was his usual self, showing an amazing ability to talk out of both sides of his mouth.

He said he was appointing a director, after only minutes earlier complaining that the city's residency ordinance prevented him from doing so. He attacked residents that had conducted their own residency investigations of public officials, while excusing the same activities, when performed by contractors hired by his own administration.

When asked by Councilman Manny Segura about why the mayor allowed nearly $300,000 in taxpayer funds to be wasted on lawyers in an ultimately futile residency battle, Mayor Palmer blamed council for suing him to enforce the residency law, instead of accepting his own blame in violating the same law.

But while Mayor Palmer proved himself to be Tuesday's greatest actor, the entity that deserves the most blame for this debacle is City Council.

Not a single member asked the appointee about where his family resides, despite the insane and lengthy residency affair that occurred over the course of the prior 10 months, which demonstrated that such information is crucial to any residency determination.

And because of such legislative forgetfulness, Trenton will likely now face another lawsuit, at a time when the city can ill afford such an unnecessary expenditure.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Palmer appoints Bradley

Mayor Douglas H. Palmer appointed Communications Director Irving Bradley Jr. as the city's new police director today, demonstrating a reckless disregard for the City of Trenton, its residents, its laws, and its finances.

Mr. Bradley replaces former Director Joseph Santiago, the man who resigned in disgrace weeks ago after two courts ousted him for violating the city's residency ordinance.

Like Mr. Santiago, Mr. Bradley is also in violation of the residency ordinance, living part-time in a Trenton apartment while maintaining a primary, family residence in Rahway, where he was seen less than three weeks ago. This fact disqualifies Mr. Bradley from holding the directorship, or any office in Trenton, and Mayor Palmer knows this.

Despite that knowledge, Mayor Palmer appointed Mr. Bradley today, knowing full well that such a foolhardy move will immediately open the city to another citizen's lawsuit aimed at ousting a convicted felon who cannot hold office here.

Also on Mr. Bradley's sordid resume is successfully eliciting a lawsuit from city dispatchers alleging racist practices, which also threatens the city's finances. Before that, the new director was found to be unqualified for his old communications position by the state Department of Personnel.

Such reckless disregard on for the city's finances by Mayor Palmer comes at a time when the city is preparing to lay off workers, slash services, and shutter city libraries because of a massive budget deficit.

City Council, which should have an opportunity to vote down such an appointment, must do so, lest the city follow the mayor's path and risk additional, precious city dollars fighting a losing battle to demonstrate the falsehood that the mayor has the ability to decide which employees must follow the law and which do not.

Error or not, the song remains the same

Trenton residents were greeted in the newspapers Tuesday with stories featuring the brushing off of good fiscal arguments and childish taunting by some city officials, over what they saw as a botched attack on one of the Palmer administration's highest positions.

What really went on was that members of the Trenton Residents Action Coalition - including me - engaged in a governmental study last week. The group decided that the city's current municipal vehicle fleet and the chief of staff, among other executive positions, represented unnecessary burdens on the city's taxpayers.

With the city's fiscal woes and the looming library closures in mind, TRAC correctly concluded that these areas were the best places to make cuts in the budget to free up money and help plug holes in the city's budget.

But the group incorrectly determined that the chief of staff position used in the administration under Mayor Douglas H. Palmer was unauthorized by the state law governing Trenton's form of government, and issued a public statement calling on the city to examine the position, based both on its fiscal burden and apparent unlawfulness.

Sadly, it was determined after the statement's release that an obscure provision in state law did provide the option for such a position, however unnecessary it may be for the operation of Trenton's government. TRAC, represented by attorney and member George Dougherty, retracted the statement and apologized for the error.

But despite the group's mistakes and the taunts of the Palmer administration, the city's fiscal situation remains the same, and so does the resolve of TRAC.

Trenton must get its fiscal house in order, and that starts with the cutting of instances of administrative fat, like the municipal car fleet and the unnecessary, however legal chief of staff position.

Trenton can no longer afford these luxuries, especially when they come in the form of taxpayer-funded transportation or optional, generously compensated chiefs of staff. This city is not what it used to be, and the size of the city government needs to come back to realistic proportions.

*Let's not forget how many mistakes the Palmer administration has made, without so much as a peep or an apology to Trenton and the residents who so often find themselves on the hook: Manex, Performa, Champale, Full Spectrum, Santiago, Colicelli, Messina, Bradley, the libraries, the Trenton Water Works deal, the budget, supporting Clinton, residency...feel free to add more in the comments section.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Palmer is like Bush

Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, using former Police Director Joseph Santiago as his arbiter, took a page right out of U.S. President George W. Bush's playbook when he brought in the former director to politicize, marginalize, and harass officers in the Trenton Police Department starting in 2003.

That evaluation rings true when comparing what Mayor Palmer did with Trenton's police department to what President Bush did, through attorney generals John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In a piece written by Andrew Gumbel in The Nation, Mr. Gumbel details how an angry President Bush turned his gaze towards the Justice Department, which had apparently earned the ire of many neoconservatives by working on such "liberal" causes as civil rights cases and protecting the voting rights of minority Americans.

Because of these perceived violations, the Bush administration, ever working towards multiplying the powers of the executive branch beyond the reach of the checks and balances of the other branches, began politicizing the department by installing ideologues and party loyalists in key positions.

From there, they controlled the hiring of attorneys for work in key positions at the department, ensuring that important posts and even the rank-and-file of the department became increasingly filled with conservatives of strong political views but dubious legal skills. Good employees were marginalized through placement in less-important positions.

Then came instances of misbehavior, with favored Department of Justice employees harassing, intimidating, and attacking other employees not of the same political persuasion, up to and including the now infamous firings of various U.S. attorneys by the then-attorney general, Mr. Gonzales.

The end result was that "They have destroyed the internal culture of the Justice Department...," said Bruce Fein, a prominent constitutional lawyer quoted in The Nation piece, entitled "Justice, Bush-Style".

To complete the comparison, hop on the northbound train to Trenton.

There, Mayor Palmer engaged in similar activities regarding the police department.

This came after various officers, during contract negotiations or political campaigns, expressed views contrary to the mayor either by directly attacking him or through their support of other mayoral candidates, like current Mercer County Freeholder Tony Mack.

With these transgressions in mind, the mayor pursued and successfully executed a drastic change in the department's leadership, in the 1999 citizen's referendum that resulted in a civilian, police director-led department rather than a police force led by a sworn, tenure-protected, and less-politically inclined police chief.

After a series of directors who did not sufficiently politicize the department, in came Mr. Santiago, and the mayor had his man. Immediately, officers who had crossed the mayor's path or director's path were relegated to meaningless late-night shifts and desk jobs, while less qualified, but loyal and like-minded officers were placed in positions of leadership.

Instances of official excess emerged, with harassment, intimidation, and unpunished misconduct becoming commonplace. The department lost dozens of valuable officers through retirement and attrition who might have stayed with more even-handed, less-politically motivated management decision making.

Like the Department of Justice, the end result was a politicized organization with limited effectiveness, after skilled employees left and others were relegated to meaningless positions while like-minded peons flourished and were put in positions of importance.

Mr. Santiago is now gone, having resigned after being found in violation of Trenton's residency ordinance, but already Mayor Palmer seeks to bring another politically-charged appointment to rein in the police department, while suppressing dissenters.

Sounds a little like the Justice Department, doesn't it?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Vehicle ordinance looms

An ordinance aimed at reining in costs and eliminating the practice of giving city-owned vehicles to officials as some sort of twisted governmental privilege could receive attention in City Council as early as Tuesday.

Trenton really needs one of these, and nothing made that more evident than when Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum said recently that the city had no single vehicle policy and that policies dictating the use of city-owned, taxpayer-funded cars was up to the individual directors of the city's 10 municipal departments.

And sometimes it appears that these policies aren't getting the job done.

Pointing to this conclusion are the occasional car crashes involving city vehicles far outside of city limits, the stories about civilian employees like former Police Director Joseph Santiago sending in municipal cars to get tricked out with unnecessary bells and whistles, and rumors about the lending of cars to employees attending sporting events in Philadelphia.

Even without this perception of abuse there is the mere fact that the gasoline going into the gas tanks of these vehicles, free of charge to the drivers, remains at a cost of around $3.25 a gallon, at a time when the city's finances are in tatters.

The municipal fleet, quite simply, represents a sucking wound that consumes hundreds of thousads, if not millions of city dollars at a time when Trenton talks of 10 percent budget cuts, layoffs, and the closure of public library branches.

Part of the ordinance that could end this would require Ms. Feigenbaum to go out and put together an inventory of Trenton's municipal fleet, complete with documentation justifying why certain employees need expensive, gasoline-consuming vehicles to do their jobs.

That part should be really interesting.

City Council and the residents its members represent will finally get a look at what the Douglas H. Palmer administration has been doing as far as assigning and using vehicles.

Also, people living in this city of 83,000 residents will be able to compare the size of its municipal fleet to other cities. Judging by Mayor Palmer's usual taxpayer-funded extravagances - a police officer protection squad, frequent trips around the nation and the world, and $500,000 light-up fire department signs - it probably won't be pretty.

But for comparison's sake, in absence of any hard numbers on Trenton's fleet, it seems that Yonkers, N.Y. has 144 take-home cars for civilian employees, in a city with 196,000 residents and more than twice the land area of Trenton.

Buffalo, N.Y. recently slashed its municipal fleet due to economic pressures and fuel costs and now has 50 total take-home vehicles for civilian employees in a government serving a city nearly four times as large as Trenton, with 292,000 residents.

Another part of the ordinance would require the city to implement some sort of Internal Revenue Service-compatible accounting system, so employees would actually have to pony up a buck or two for having a free commute to work. Apparently Trenton hasn't been doing this, despite the obvious negative implications of such a practice.

Anyway, here's to Tuesday, and to City Council moving forward with this ordinance and making the Palmer administration go the way of the City of Buffalo.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Amendment vs. appointment

The usual rumor mongers have city Mayor Douglas H. Palmer naming a permanent, civilian police director as early as Tuesday, a little over two weeks after Joseph Santiago resigned the post after two different courts found him in violation of the city's residency law.

This rush to appoint a permanent director stems from Mayor Palmer's fear of letting the Trenton Police Department get back to police work without the political interference that was provided for so long by Mr. Santiago.

Mr. Santiago's activities usually meant good, effective officers being paid large salaries were relegated to midnight shifts, desk jobs, and other positions of relative irrelevance.

Almost immediately after Mr. Santiago's departure, acting director Capt. Fred Reister began making transfers and assignment changes that put some officers back in positions of significance, where their police skills could have actually made a difference on the streets of Trenton.

But Mayor Palmer is apparently fed up with such activities, preferring an appointee who will again rein in the various officers who may have crossed the mayor's path in the past while putting less worthy, but more pliable officers - like Capt. Paul "Sleepy" Messina and the like - in positions of power.

But Mayor Palmer and his administration should understand that such an appointment would publicly demonstrate that the mayor values the ability to politicize his own department higher than having the ability to appoint non-residents to employment positions.

That's because, without having a residency amendment in place at the time of the appointment, Mayor Palmer will surely have to name a city resident to the position. Anyone other than a bona fide city resident would be unlawful in a manner equivalent to Mr. Santiago, and everyone knows what happened with that situation.

But the appointment of a resident as director is also a weakening of the mayor's argument that the city's residency ordinance makes it impossible to appoint the right man for the directorship, and other high-ranking city cabinet positions, because the mayor will have done just that in appointing a city resident qualified for the position.

Sadly, he will also have demonstrated that getting political revenge on the Trenton Police Department is the most important piece of Mayor Palmer's city agenda, at a time when there are other, way more important things that a Trenton mayor should be worried about.

We are being robbed

Citizens don't usually react kindly to the news that their government has been stealing from them.

Such news is met with anger, disgust, and a feeling of violation, or any other unwanted feeling that emerges as the result of gaining the knowledge that people trusted with making important decisions and appropriating money for others have broken that trust.

This is what happened Thursday, when it was revealed that state legislators siphoned off millions earmarked for property tax relief for their own pet projects, during testimony given in former state Sen. Wayne Bryant's federal corruption trial.

The same thing is going on in Trenton, in a more indirect and complicated manner. The city government has made it standard policy to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to compensate people in positions that should not and cannot be in receipt of public money.

There was former Police Director Joseph Santiago. He was proven unqualified for the very job he filled for over five years because of the way he, with Mayor Douglas H. Palmer's blessing, openly broke the city's residency ordinance and was ousted by two separate courts for doing so.

Communications Director Irving Bradley, a Santiago associate, continues to be paid city dollars despite a multitude of issues that seem to indicate that the city should cease doing so. Mr. Bradley is not a bona fide resident and is thus subject to removal under the city's residency ordinance, like Mr. Santiago.

Mr. Bradley, a provisional appointment, has now exceeded a state Department of Personnel statutory 12-month limit on such appointments, months after the same department determined that Mr. Bradley was unqualified to take the state test for the position he currently occupies.

There are positions like special counsel and chief of staff, which command hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary from the city yet appear to exist in a manner that might be contrary to state law and Trenton's own municipal code.

This is happening at a time when residents are being told that the city is operating in the red, despite multiple tax rate and water rate hikes, and that the result will be reduced services, layoffs, and even the potential closure of valuable resources like the branch libraries open in each ward of Trenton.

The government, including City Council, must move to end these legal inconsistencies to not only restore confidence in municipal government but to save city dollars for use in funding important city services.

In failing to do so, the government risks more of the embarassing litigation that seems to have become the only recourse for residents, when it comes to getting their own municipal government to operate properly.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Green means nothing to Trenton's present economy

Once again, Trenton found itself without a leader this week as Mayor Douglas H. Palmer spent his time campaigning in Florida for the man he tried so hard to defeat in the Democratic primary, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

While having no time to develop commonsense solutions for the problems of Trenton, Mayor Palmer did find time, however, to call in to the radio show of favored Trentonian reporter L.A. Parker. The mayor discussed his efforts in bringing green policies, green industry, green jobs, and other environmentally-friendly initiatives to Trenton with Mr. Parker and his listeners.

In doing so, the mayor once again proved just how far away he is from the people of Trenton, when it comes to sensible public policy that might actually make a difference in the economic opportunities afforded to city residents.

The mayor pointed to a recent report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of which Mayor Palmer was the one-time president. The report looked at the current level of green industry in various metropolitan areas of the nation, and then made various projections and predictions on the size of the industry many years in the future.

Mayor Palmer was pleased to point out that the Trenton-Ewing metropolitan area already boasts nearly 9,000 so-called green jobs, and that projections 30 years into the future demonstrated a potential for nearly 70,000 jobs.

“We’re in the top 25 metropolitan areas for green jobs,” said Mayor Palmer, noting that the report found the Trenton-Ewing area was number 14 on the top 25 list of metropolitan areas with significant concentrations of green employment opportunities.

This report may indicate the existence of green jobs in the general area of Trenton, but despite Mayor Palmer's enthusiasm, it really means nothing to the people of Trenton. Most of Trenton’s residents lack the training for such positions, and they do not even have a real opportunity to gain such training, thanks to the economic conditions of parts the city.

It's evident that, despite the mayor’s constant traveling and faraway touting of so-called “green” initiatives, the reality in Trenton is that down-to-earth, realistic economic development that residents can actually take part it would better serve the city.

The presence of green jobs, probably outside of the city’s borders in Ewing or other neighboring towns (except for this), means nothing to the average resident and the next mayor better realize that and act accordingly.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Program gave legislators millions with no oversight

State legislators like disgraced former Sen. Wayne Bryant had their way with millions in taxpayer-supported property relief money, according to testimony in Mr. Bryant’s trial in Trenton today, as reported by The Star-Ledger.

Known as the Property Tax Assistance and Community Development grant program, the fund was doled out with little oversight directly to several state legislators for use on projects they personally deemed important, a state budget officer said today.

Mr. Bryant, formerly one of the state’s most powerful legislators, was given $4 million in funds from the program, according to The Star-Ledger's report.

Mr. Bryant is now on trial for of bribery and mail fraud charges, alleging that he used his office and position as chair of the powerful Senate Budget Committee to steer millions in taxpayer dollars to various entities, in return for no-show jobs and other perks.

Today’s testimony reported by The Star-Ledger contradicts statements from state officials, who have said previously that where the program’s money went was based on applications and a formal process, rather than the will of powerful New Jersey politicos.

Mr. Bryant has connections to Trenton’s political establishment, having been a political ally of former local legislator John Watson, his son William Watson, and Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer.

The city, under Mayor Palmer, even admitted unlawfully steering hundreds of thousands of city dollars to Mr. Bryant’s firm in the early 1990s through a scheme that paid Mr. Bryant money for legal work on city bond activity with out a fee schedule or guidelines.

Cut the fat

When good government officials are faced with budget deficits and shortfalls, they make thoughtful deliberations on what services need to be slashed and what positions need to be cut.

In this respect, the administration under Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer has proven itself particularly inept, in choosing to let the axe fall on such important institutions as the city’s library system and the ranks of low-ranking employees rather than itself, a bloated and fattened administration that weighs down the rest of the city‘s finances.

Now, in part because of the unneeded, and perhaps unlawful positions permeating the city administration, all city departments are faced with 10 percent or greater budget cuts and a promise of multiple layoffs of the very employees who populate Trenton with good middle-class wage earners.

City Council, having the power of the purse, needs to demand budget information from the Palmer administration and begin taking steps to prioritize city services and employment positions, preserving necessary services like the Trenton Free Public Library and as many of the helpful, low-ranking employment positions as possible.

Well-compensated and unneeded positions like the assistant business administrator, the chief of staff, and the multitude of executive aides and secretaries that have existed only since the advent of the Palmer administration are what needs to go.

The city has no use for these positions, except as a web of support for a mayor who is frequently outside of the city doing bigger and better things than taking care of his hometown.

The chief of staff is a true abomination, because it never even existed before Mayor Palmer, and for good reason. It appears to have no basis in law, and is certainly a perversion of the city’s municipal code that indicates just how large a sense of entitlement the city’s mayor has developed as the length of his tenure has increased.

But Trenton’s taxpayers can no longer bear the weight of Mayor Palmer’s ego or the extravagant system of support that has been allowed to develop, to the great detriment of the city’s finances.

Faced with this budget crisis, City Council must make the prudent decision to begin cutting away at this administrative fat, to preserve important city services like libraries while preventing the need for future, massive tax cuts that threaten to siphon off any prospects of good economic development.

Trenton can ill afford Mayor Palmer’s high cost, and it is time for residents to push their City Council to bring that cost down.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Support Corzine's ethics reforms

State legislators better move quickly to pass the ethics reform legislation proposed last week by Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

It appears that residents in New Jersey could soon become sufficiently fed up with the constant presence of corrupting campaign contributions and the endless parade of corruption convictions to organize and oust some complacent legislators in the 2009 elections.

Detractors say Gov. Corzine’s reform push, which came in the form of four executive orders and some legislative proposals, is nothing more than a last-minute political move to deliver on the governor's unfulfilled campaign promises while stealing the corruption-fighting spotlight away from his likely Republican opponent, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.

But detractors such as these should probably understand that at this point the Garden State’s residents probably care less about the political motivations behind the governor’s initiatives and more about whether they actually get passed by the current state Assembly and Senate.

As the issue has come more and more into the public perception, there has been a constant call for an end or at least a significant reduction in the practices of pay-to-play and wheeling.

These shameful practices involve the delivery of lucrative government contracts to campaign contributors, and the practice of moving campaign cash back and forth between state political organizations in order to circumvent existing campaign finance law.

Evidence of how serious this issue has become can be seen in the constant parade of editorials and the emergence of grassroots campaigns and non-profit organizations, all aligned against these practices.

The issue's seriousness can also be gauged by the nearly constant passage of local pay-to-play restrictions in state municipalities and counties.

But despite the severity of the problem, neither party‘s officials have successfully delivered on any promises to get the corrupting influence of money out of New Jersey politics, whether in power or not.

Each party has instead moved to do little except make lofty, unfulfilled promises while undertaking a series of half-steps and half-measures that allow most of the corrupting influence of money to continue, and New Jersey residents are rightfully getting sick of it.

Legislators, however preoccupied with the current economic crisis, must ensure that real, bona fide ethics reforms are passed into as soon as possible, regardless of the potential political motivations of advocates like Gov. Corzine and others.

Voters are equally responsible for the current situation through their continued support for do-nothing officials of both parties, but they need to stand strong and vote for whichever candidates deliver on ethics reform regardless of party loyalty.

New Jersey is sinking under the weight of corruption, and even crafty politicians like Gov. Corzine are right when they that it’s time to do something about it.

An acceptable residency resolution

Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer continues to call for amendments to the city's residency ordinance, based on a superficial need to fill employment positions with candidates who do not or will not live in the city.

But he better be careful with such calls, because there are certainly legal, and supportable ways to give him what he is publicly calling for without giving him what he really wants, which is a blank check to exempt favored employees from laws requiring a bona fide residence within Trenton.

Mayor Palmer recently lost his handpicked, non-resident amigo, Police Director Joseph Santiago. The director decision to live outside the city and the mayor's approval of that illegal arrangement resulted in a citizen's lawsuit filed by a group including me.

The lawsuit was concluded when a judge officially declared that Mayor Palmer does not have the power to decide which employees are subject to residency and other city laws and which are not. Also, Mr. Santiago was ousted.

Now, Mayor Palmer is forced to exist as a mayor who can no longer pick and choose which employees follow the residency law based on favoritism and a warped sense of entitlement, and he wants his old powers back very badly.

He wants them so badly that he is feigning that the city cannot find suitable resident candidates for the police directorship, and is now demanding that City Council amend the law to allow him to look outside the city.

That position is obviously false because the city never actually looked for any resident candidates. It and remains a leap of faith to say the city needs residency exemptions.

In fact, petitions and outcry have shown that most city residents firmly believe that the city does not need residency exemptions at all, and that talent needed to fill any position can be found within the city, or at least outside the city in people willing to move in.

But it could be possible to create a law-based exemption system that would satisfy Mayor Palmer's false calls - but not his real desires - while keeping politics out of decisions over which employees must abide by residency and which do not, which is what precipitated the recent crisis of leadership over residency.

That could be accomplished through the city's adoption of provisions of state residency law that lay out a lengthy, politics-free process through which positions are exempted.

City Council could adopt an ordinance amendment that requires a diligent, months-long search for candidates living or willing to live in Trenton.

If that process is completed without finding any suitable candidates, it would be followed by a weighting of outside candidates, based upon concentric proximity to Trenton. Candidates given the highest priority would be those living in adjacent towns, then those in the rest of Mercer County, then those living in counties contiguous with Mercer, and finally candidates living in New Jersey.

In all likelihood, such a thorough and documented search would reveal the opposite of what the Palmer administration has been telling us about a lack of qualified candidates living in Trenton.

And even there were no qualified candidates inside Trenton, the candidates closest to Trenton would be the first to get the job, rather than a preferred candidate like Mr. Santiago, who resides in faraway Morris County.

Providing for such an ordinance amendment would immediately quiet Mayor Palmer and any others clamoring for a residency exemption, while making decisions on which positions get exempted free of the political interference that often characterizes the public policy of the Palmer administration.

In essence, Mayor Palmer would get what he is publicly asking for without getting what he really wants: the ability to decide which employees must abide by residency. That would be reserved for the process laid out by the state and adopted by City Council, which has lately proven itself to be a more worthy instrument of the public interest.

The city would be left with a good residency safety valve in the unlikely event that homegrown talent cannot be found to fill an employment position, with little likelihood of handpicked Palmer appointees of dubious value ever entering into the picture.

Again, the city wins, and political panderers like Mayor Palmer lose.