Monthly Archives: October 2007

Ewing: we are safe again

The Times of Trenton this weekend reported that Ewing Township is happy about the lack of gangs following arrests made after some well-publicized incidents involving battling gang members and guns.

Things might seem better in Ewing, but a handful of arrests made and a few months of quiet do not mean things are really any better in Ewing. The article says the arrests ended a gang war, but there is no possible way to authoritatively make this statement.

But Ewing obviously wants to set the record straight about its return to peaceful suburban normalcy. And the funny thing is Ewing can get away with it, because most of the gang crime that occurs there is probably not reported, or even picked up on by law enforcement.

Trenton on the other hand cannot get away with making such false statements about public safety, even though Mayor Doug Palmer and Police Director Joseph Santiago do on a constant basis.

In recent years Director Santiago said crime is at an all-time low, but anyone living, or even visiting the city, can tell things are not OK all over Trenton.

In certain areas there are random acts of violence all the time, which leads to an environment where people feel unsafe, whether it is true at the moment, or not.

When people feel unsafe, it is very difficult to remedy, and Mayor Palmer and Director Santiago can make all the statements about crime they want. It does not have the same effect as in Ewing, where the vast majority of residents still feel safe so statements about safety have credence.

Twenty-plus homicides a year and innumerable assaults and lesser crimes hammer the lack of public safety home to everyone in Trenton and the surrounding area.

The statement “crime is down” goes against the public perception.

And it is all about perception.

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Coston’s police ordinance fails amid lack of information

An ordinance that would have increased the Trenton Police Department’s minimum staffing levels from a range of 270 to 290 up to 310 to 330 failed Tuesday after receiving only two yes votes from City Council members.

Councilmen Jim Coston and Milford Bethea voted yes for the measure, while council members Manny Segura, Paul Pintella, and Annette Lartigue voted no. Council members Cordelia Staton and Gino Melone abstained from the vote.

The council members who did not support the measure said they needed more information about the financial impacts and other consequences of the measure, which administration officials agreed to hash out any with council at the Oct. 23 meeting.

Another requisite for their votes is an appearance by Police Director Joseph Santiago, who has consistently avoided making appearances at council.

But the director has apparently agreed to come before the body on Nov. 27, Chief of Staff Renee Haynes said.

Council members Cordelia Staton and Paul Pintella made remarks to the effect of accusing Mr. Coston of using the measure for political gains by painting council officials as anti-police and anti-public safety, but Mr. Coston said his only motive was to allay the fears of his constituents.

“Public safety should be our top priority,” said Mr. Coston. “We can give out all the PILOTs we want, but if folks don’t feel safe we will have a beautiful, empty city.”

City Council officials not supporting Mr. Coston’s ordinance consistently cited a need for information from the administration and the police department to inform a decision about the staffing.

But this is nothing new, as City Council officials have been asking for all of these appearances and all of this information for nearly six months, only to be consistently strung along by administration officials.

Special Counsel Joe Alacqua addressed council near the end of the meeting about a controversial executive session that occurred weeks ago, saying that Mr. Coston indeed erred in providing session tapes to the public.

The counsel also said the council did indeed adopt a resolution prior to the session, despite statements made by City Clerk officials to the contrary.

Mr. Alacqua said council may not have erred in its broad-ranging executive session discussion, among other comments, despite outside legal opinions to the contrary.

Some council members said Mr. Coston acted out of ignorance – being the newest council member – but Ms. Staton said he released the tapes on purpose in what she labeled a calculated move to “make a point”.

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Council shows some backbone

City Council Tuesday went against the advice of Special Counsel Joe Alacqua and went with their hearts instead, voting down a resolution that would have renewed the liquor license for a nightclub that had been the cause of numerous problems for the city in past years.

Counsel for the owner of the establishment, Club XL, had recommended the council renew the license so owner Diance Lockhart could sell it to another unrelated party and try to recoup some money, in the face of impending state-mandated violation penalties.

Councilman Milford Bethea, whose North Ward was the site of the maligned club, said from the start of the proceedings last week that he could never vote for a renewal of the license after the club had caused so many problems for his constituency, in the form of robberies, assaults, and other illegal activity.

Other council members recalled the lengthy investigation of the club, in what has become somewhat of an albatross for this City Council.

Last week it seemed some council members were ready to acquiesce to the request of the club-owner’s attorney and the recommendations of Mr. Alacqua, but in a rare moment of righteous clarity, Trenton’s elected representatives stood up for their beliefs – alongside their colleague Mr. Bethea – and did the right thing.

Let’s see some more of this in the future!

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Executive session violations

For personnel discussion about the appointment of new City Clerk Juanita Joyner, the City Council went into an executive session on September 18.

But that move now looks to have been an improper and illegal one, involving an executive session that lacked a proper resolution detailing why it was needed and when its contents could be made public.

In addition, sources with a legal background reviewed tapes of the session, and said it went so far off topic that it should not have been discussed during a single executive session, or an executive session at all.

New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act sets forth guidelines for bodies going into executive session during meetings to ensure government operates in an open way indicative of a democratic process, but still retains the ability to discuss sensitive issues in a private setting.

These guidelines come into play with the recent toungue-lashing that Councilman Jim Coston received after he released recordings of an executive session to a member of the public without following normal procedure.

The letter of the OPMA requires a resolution detailing the topics of the executive session to be drafted prior to the session, along with information detailing under what conditions and at what time the contents of the session may be made public.

Also, officials from the clerk’s office are required to go through recordings or minutes and remove sensitive material before the release of the contents of the executive session.

Councilman Coston certainly did not follow the proper protocol with the release of executive session tapes.

But it turns out this whole problem may be a moot point because City Council itself and its mysterious special counsel seemingly did not follow the initial protocol in going into executive session.

During the session an official from the clerk’s office brought up the last city clerk, and council members went as far as discussing their the relationship between City Council and the administration, according to tapes of the session, demonstrating the obfuscation of what should have been a public discussion.

To make matters worse, City Clerk officials said Wednesday that no such resolution was passed on the day of the executive session, and that no such resolution exists.

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Capt. Sleepy needs to go

A Web site about Trenton’s infamous Capt. Paul “Sleepy” Messina recently detailed an incident within the Trenton Police Department that has resulted in an internal affairs investigation and the transfer of an officer, after sexist comments made by Capt. Messina about a female officer were made public.

After the female officer received a laptop computer to fulfill her own assignments, Capt. Messina allegedly told a male officer who requested a laptop computer for his own use to “buy a set of tits, flash them in front of Barry and Director Santiago and you can get anything you want.”

This is the latest in a long series of incidents involving Capt. Messina that have brought nothing but embarrassment to the Trenton Police Department, its leadership, and the City of Trenton as a whole. And if this incident is anything like the others, the leadership of the TPD and the City of Trenton will probably do nothing to reprimand Capt. Messina, and more likely will do anything they can to defend him.

The leadership of the city has proven again and again that they do not care about the actions of those in positions of power within the city government and the police department, and they have no interest in administering the government and enforcing the rules that govern its departments.

It is now time for Trenton residents to demand the removal of Capt. Messina from their police department before he brings any more embarrassment to this city and its inhabitants. His treatment is indicative of the creeping malaise that is afflicting all levels of the leadership of the city, from the mayor’s office on down.

If the leadership in the police department and the city continue their record of inaction on these matters, it only provides additional credence to the belief of many city residents that their government and its leadership are not only ineffective, but even worse, arrogant about their latitude in acting in ways unbecoming of those serving the public of Trenton.

Trenton desperately needs new leadership, and people need to begin to come together to ensure this happens, especially during the 2010 election.

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Downtowner piece

The following appeared in the October issue of the Trenton Downtowner:

The U.S. Conference of Mayors was in town this September, and the arrival of many of the nation’s leaders in New Jersey’s capital city was greeted by the sight of silent marchers carrying signs that called attention to the ills that they see as a symptom of ineffective leadership in the city during Mayor Douglas H. Palmer’s 17-year reign.

What the signs said was nothing new, and neither were the responses they received from the administration or its loyal henchmen in the Trenton media.

The facts of the protest were the following:

The signs called attention to the continued mess that is the Trenton public school system, and the secretive and even threatening nature of a city government that provides little information to City Council members, let alone citizens, and even threatens residents who dare to scrutinize public officials with lawsuits, among other problems.

The people marching came from many economic and ethnic backgrounds, all united by the desire to have their leader in Trenton handling Trenton’s problems instead of national afflictions.

Of course, the usual responses and marginalization efforts came out following the event.

Mayor Palmer said that he may be away from the city, but he is still advocating for the needs of Trenton and pushes an agenda meant to benefit Trenton.

“I was missing when I met with President Clinton to get him to make Trenton a home ownership zone, an arrangement that has allowed us to build homes and create hundreds of new homeowners here in Trenton,” said Mayor Palmer, responding to the protesters rallying outside the Trenton Marriott.

While Palmer has had some success building homes for low-income residents, it also must be recognized that any politician, especially one who has been in power for so long, can point to some victories and successes as rebuttals to scrutiny from detractors and naysayers.

It is true that the Palmer administration has built many homes in the city of Trenton – just look at the Battle Monument area – but during his tenure in office, Trenton’s ratio of rental properties to owner-occupied housing has increased to 55 percent against 45 percent, and the number of vacant properties has steadily increased over the last few years, according to the U.S. Census.

Under Palmer, the city is filled with code violations and illegal living arrangements, and housing inspections only take place in Trenton every five years. There are so few inspectors in the cash-strapped city that single employees are responsible for the inspections of thousands of properties. Palmer unveiled a new housing inspections plan in 2007 that would flood problem areas with inspectors, but the real problem requires more inspectors and Palmer said the current funding situation makes this impossible.

The other response came from a Trenton columnist, who, while independent of the city administration, has become such a common source of Palmer propaganda and damage control that many residents have begun to wonder out loud whether his close relationship with the mayor has begun to erode his journalistic objectivity in his news articles and lead the award-winning columnist to use his subjective columns as a constant pro-Palmer bully pulpit.

In his Saturday piece following the protest, the columnist labeled the protesters a bunch of carpetbaggers who were involved in a short protest before retiring to upper-class coffee shops to drink expensive coffee concoctions. In an e-mail to one of the protesters he said the rally was just a bunch of white people who cared little about the problems faced by many of the city’s residents.

“Most of them were white and disgruntled people who bitched and moaned about city conditions that they really don’t care about,” said Parker in the e-mail. “Most of them could not care less about black unemployment, urban education, gangs, guns, violence, etc.”

“Most of them don’t like having a black mayor and a Hispanic police director,” he added.

The truth behind the demonstration is that people from many different backgrounds and ethnicities came out to show that they care about the entire city and its current condition under Mayor Palmer, and they showed it by having the guts to stand up in the spotlight for their beliefs about the city they love.

The rally might not have been perfectly proportional to Trenton’s demographics, but it was still a powerful sight that was not made up of any one ethnic group.

It’s too bad that some people cannot look beyond skin color and band together with their fellow man without calling motives into question, even in 2007.

But the people who banded together with their fellow Trentonians and came out for the U.S. Conference of Mayors demonstration apparently don’t suffer from that problem.

– Greg Forester

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