Monthly Archives: February 2008

A call for a new Law Department

South Ward Councilman Jim Coston recently stated on his Web site that the reason why a woman named Susan Singer is representing the City of Trenton in the Santiago residency case is that the city was named as a defendant in the original complaint, in addition to Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and Police Director Joseph Santiago as defendants.

Mr. Coston said that as a defendant, the City of Trenton needed to file a response and a brief for the court, or face some sort of default judgment.

What has been so peculiar is not Ms. Singer’s involvement in the case and the city simply needing representation, but rather the circumstances that led to this whole case and why the city now needs to pay for outside legal counsel.

The current situation and those same circumstances also mean it is time to look for new municipal counsel, because the present bunch has made it clear they cannot perform their duties without yielding to political pressure, which is a force that can be deadly to the rule of law.

The present Santiago drain of city resources stems from the fact that two separate lawyers who already represent the City of Trenton – among others – could not yield a public opinion on the case, and now the taxpayers are paying for a lawyer from North Jersey to represent a client that has basically become a schizophrenic.

One voice in the city’s metaphorical head is Mayor Palmer, and the other is City Council, and they have taken contradictory positions on a legal issue.

In response, neither City Attorney Denise Lyles or Special Counsel Joe Alacqua – who receive a total of around $280,000 annually from the city – could give a public opinion on the case, and made the bizarre claim that they were in conflict.

This may seem acceptable on the surface, but the function of the City Attorney and a Special Counsel who does the City Attorney’s job is to function as the third, judicial branch of municipal government.

They are tasked with giving legal opinions, judging laws, and making legal sense of situations for both the mayor and council, which obviously represent the other two branches of a democratic government.

But both of these highly paid and likely well-educated people could not publicly fashion some sort of an opinion in a case that is allegedly as straight forward a legal case as can be.

If that is indeed true and Mr. Santiago’s residency violation controversy is so legally simple, then it follows that Ms. Lyles and Mr. Alacqua probably did not lack the ABILITY to yield an opinion that would have prevented the current involvement of courts and numerous lawyers.

They lacked the WILL, and in this case, the will to do the duties they are charged with as paid lawyers working in the service of the city, and therefore the people of Trenton.

For the money of the people of Trenton, and it truly is their money, a City Attorney or Special Counsel is needed who can defuse these situations.

They should give unbiased opinions and save uncountable hours and dollars on something that is really nothing more than a pissing match between a vindictive city executive who can’t stand to lose, and a City Council that has, until now, been unable to stand up for itself as a group.

In most positions of employment, if a worker refuses to discharge their sworn duties in a highly important situation that calls for reliable service, the employee is instantly and summarily removed from their employment, and a suitable replacement is found and put to work.

It can be construed that the residency case has demonstrated that two of the highest lawyers in the city’s Law Department care more about politics than the city they work for or the law they have made a life’s work out of.

This City Council and its members and future councils need to work to ensure that the next time an important legal conundrum faces the city, the lawyers they employ don’t flee for the hills and leave the people of Trenton behind to pay the bill.

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Corzine suggests huge cuts

Gov. Jon S. Corzine presented his 2009 budget proposal yesterday to a packed and nearly silent New Jersey Assembly room, outlining a budget with highlights that included the elimination of 3,000 state jobs and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Personnel, and spending cuts of $500 million compared with the previous fiscal year’s budget.

“The time is long part for the state, its governor, and its legislature to end imprudent spending and borrowing that exceeds our means,” said Gov. Corzine. “This budget does just that.”

The budget not only eliminates the three departments, but reduces spending in every department of the state’s executive branch, which is something that Gov. Corzine said has never happened before.

With real spending cuts of $500 million, the budget has a total spending cut of around $2.7 billion, which is designed to offset uncontrollable inflationary costs of healthcare, contractual, and energy costs.

Cuts to property tax relief would eliminate tax rebate checks to more wealthy New Jersey homeowners, although the rebates are preserved in the new budget proposal for 90 percent of homeowners.

A majority of those will receive the same rebate checks they received last year, around $1,000.

Smaller municipalities, especially those with populations of less than 10,000, face cuts to state aid, with a total of $190 million of cuts to the state’s municipal aid funding.

Gov. Corzine said Wednesday that he will continue pushing his toll hike scheme, despite overwhelming public opposition to a plan that would eventually raise current tolls by 800 percent, while a highway management entity would use that money to pay back a massive bond issue.

The bond issue money would go to both paying down half of New Jersey’s $32 billion state debt and refunding the Transportation Trust Fund, set to run out in 2011.

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Palmer pulls 180 for Santiago

The defence of both Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and Police Director Joseph Santiago against a residents’ lawsuit seeking the ouster of the director rests firmly on positions that are complete reversals of earlier Santiago and Palmer rhetoric.

It’s true that politics is a dirty game and that one can easily reverse earlier stances on more benign issues, but the defences of these two men seriously call into question their ability to serve the public interest as city officials, not to mention the success of their defense would result in unfathomable consequences for numerous state entities.

After vigorously applying the city’s residency ordinance against dozens of employees who were investigated and found to be living in a way that was outside of Trenton’s residency law, Mayor Palmer’s defense teams now says that the law is invalid, and fails to follow the guidelines of state law on residency regulations.

In a similar way, Mr. Santiago maintained strongly in testimony to a state pension board that his new position as Trenton Police Director was a civilian position, but has now reversed that stance by hanging his hat on state law that protects policemen, firemen, and teachers from having to comply with residency ordinances.

Mayor Palmer, despite claims of being an accountable elected official, seems to be making it public knowledge that he is now willing to try to overturn a law that he staunchly supported in pushing for having a civilian director of police.

Let the City of Trenton not forget that Mayor Palmer originally claimed that a switch from a chief would provide additional accountability, because he would have more control over a man who lived in Trenton, instead of a powerful chief living outside of city limits.

And Mr. Santiago has made it clear that he is equally willing to reverse his position on issues of great importance, by basing his defence on the police nature of his job only a year after emphasizing the same job’s civilian nature, to keep tens of thousands of dollars in annual pension money coming into his pockets.

But both men’s reversals aside, what they seem to be basing their defences on could be faulty, for the following reasons.

In Mayor Palmer’s case, a ruling in court favoring his position would mean that residency ordinances across the county and across New Jersey would suddenly become invalid, freeing thousands of employees from the constraint and setting the stage for a mass exodus of people, money, and taxes out of many New Jersey towns.

Mr. Santiago’s vindication would mean that any mayor who had pushed for a director-led department based on additional accountability and the ability to make the director live in town – and not some far-flung suburb – would suddenly have the rug pulled from underneath them.

The consequences of supporting either of those positions or both together would likely be too high for any rational Mercer County Superior Court judge to support.

But, stranger things have happened.

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Senators take aim at witness intimidation

The story has become a familiar one in urban areas like Trenton.

A man or woman is murdered in plain view in a densely-populated city neighborhood, yet investigating police cannot find a single witness willing to go on the record and finger the murderers.

Those witnessing the act won’t talk, due to fear of retribution from gang members willing to end the life of people they believe are talking to cops.

This week New Jersey Sen. Shirley Turner and Sen. Ray Lesniak sponsored legislation trying to tackle this growing problem, which would raise the stakes for those taking part in witness intimidation and tampering by increasing penalties.

Bill S-267/A-503 was released from the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee this week, and would strengthen penalties for those convicted of witness bribery, intimidation, tampering, and hindering.

“Our prosecutors are having a tougher and tougher time getting witnesses to testify in court cases when the defendant is a member of a street gang,” said Sen. Turner, D-Mercer, in a statement. “These gangs have effectively paralyzed our neighborhoods by threatening retribution towards who ‘snitches.’ We need to stand with witnesses and let them know that the law will protect them and their families.”

They hope the laws will allow more witnesses to come forward and suppress a problem that has been significantly hampering crime investigations in New Jersey cities.

“Witness intimidation is getting so bad that many times, prosecutors will not pursue a criminal case unless there are multiple witnesses to the crime,” said Sen. Lesniak, D-Union, in a statement. “Many witness fear for their lives, especially when gang members are the accused individuals. We need to reverse this trend so that prosecutors can put more violent criminals behind bars.

The bill works mainly through raising the degree of established offenses, with witness tampering becoming a first degree offense in cases involving those who bear witness to the most heinous of crimes, listed under the No Early Release Act.

Also, retaliation against a witness or informant would become a second degree offense instead of a fourth degree offense.

The bill now heads to the New Jersey State Senate, after receiving unanimous approval in committee.

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Contract oversight? What a concept!

The chair of the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee this week said that New Jersey needs to implement better oversight measures to prevent the wasteful spending of taxpayer money on professional services contracts.

“It’s intolerable to hit taxpayers with the price tag for state contracts that balloon in size while no one is properly trained to oversee their implementation and ensure accountability,” said Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex.

The source of Ms. Buono’s concern this week were apparent memos about implementing oversight from high-ranking state officials in the mid-1990s, which Ms. Buono said were agreed to but never implemented.

The result: longstanding contracts with consultants that balloon in size and suck the lifeblood out of a state that is in a world of financial hurt, with Gov. Jon S. Corzine widely expected to propose massive budget cuts and slash services in his Tuesday budget address.

Ms. Buono’s office, in a release, said the state had spent around $800 million on outside consultants in the two-year period up to August of 2007, mostly without any accounting of what the money was actually being paid for, and whether the services were provided in a proper way.

New Jersey’s municipalities could use similar oversight, with governments in places like Trenton frequently exploiting loopholes in state law to hand out contracts reeking of cronyism and bad politics.

Using an extremely broad interpretation of state statutes regarding extraordinary and unspecifiable contracts, the city recently paid one man over $300,000 with little oversight and no accounting of what he was actually doing with his time.

That’s right, it was Barry Colicelli, he of the city office, car and cell phone, and not of the skills, expertise, or special knowledge to do what the city thought he was doing, which was a situation likely signified by ambiguous invoices and the “business as usual” attitude of the city’s finance officials.

Change the laws Ms. Buono, and not just for the state government.

The residents of New Jersey like their money in their pockets, and not in the pockets of the friends and associates of shady politicians.

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Palmer: residency law is void, contradicts state law

Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer’s defence against a lawsuit seeking the removal of Police Director Joseph Santiago for non-residency is based in part on statements that severely contradict the way the law has been enforced for decades and Mayor Palmer’s own reasons for installing the Police Director position.

Papers filed in Mercer County Superior Court Wednesday by attorney Angelo Genova said that state laws exempting police personnel from residency requirements protect the Police Director position.

Palmer’s defence against the suit – brought by myself and eight other residents – also claims there are discrepancies between state law and Trenton’s residency requirement and that a law used to fire dozens of employees during Mayor Palmer’s tenure is now void, and has no force, although these claims seem to be tenuous interpretations of Section 2-95 of Trenton City Code.

The laws referred to by Mr. Genova and an attorney representing Mr. Santiago actually apply to rank-and-file employees and not director positions, which are clearly accounted for elsewhere in both the state wording and Trenton’s residency law, according to legal sources.

The defence laid out by Mayor Palmer’s counsel seems to fly in the face of the policy of a mayor who actively pushed for creating a director-led Police Department instead of one headed by a chief because it would allow more accountability and also empower the mayor to make sure the leader of the Police Department was a city resident.

The statements portraying the residency law as a violation of state regulations is even more tenuous, because it would mean that a law that has been on the books for over 40 years was never challenged by anyone with the slightest knowledge of legal matters, including the counsel for any of the numerous employees fired by the City of Trenton for residency violations.

The other important implication of Mayor Palmer’s defence is that if it were upheld in Mercer County Superior Court it would mean that all city employees would be exempt from the suddenly voided residency law, likely resulting in the mass exodus of 2,000 middle-class wage earners out of the city.

In a flurry of other papers filed in court Wednesday, Mr. Santiago’s lawyers said the director never stated he would refuse to move his family to Trenton if forced to do so, and an attorney claiming to represent the City of Trenton – which includes City Council – moved to have the case dismissed, despite actions to the contrary by David F. Corrigan, who represents City Council.

Mr. Corrigan’s papers have the City Council asking a judge to decree that Mr. Santiago must immediately establish a residence in Trenton, or Mayor Palmer must then do his duty and remove his coveted cabinet member.

City Council also seeks a combination of their complaint with that of the residents’, in the interest of saving both time and taxpayer dollars.

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Council plans to file their own suit, decision delays likely

Trenton City Council members and their attorney want to file their own court action against Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and Police Director Joseph Santiago, and combine that with the lawsuit against the two filed earlier this year by nine Trenton residents, including myself.

City Council’s attorney, David F. Corrigan, sent papers signalling the council’s intentions Friday, stating their intention to file their own court action involving “the city’s residency ordinance, the Police Director’s failure to abide by the same, and the mayor’s alleged refusal to enforce the law.”

That action could be consolidated with the suit brought by the residents, but with the amount of lawyers involved in the case – alreay up to six – the proposal likely means more delay for a case that was originally set to be decided on Feb. 22. and delayed until March 7.

Trenton City Code states that City Council is empowered to remove the director with a five-member vote, so if they believed in the merits of their case against him the body could remove the director without resorting to a costly and protracted court battle.

But that may be the end result anyway, with Mayor Palmer stating earlier in the flap that he would not remove the director himself and planned to retain the director’s services despite any council action removing Mr. Santiago from employment with the City of Trenton.

In his letter to Judge Linda Feinberg Mr. Corrigan said the council’s position was inconsistent with that of the lawsuit brought by the residents, although it is unknown how that position is different from that of the residents, whose suit is based upon support the residency law and its continued enforcement.

With the filing of council’s official response it should be determined exactly where those inconsistencies lie, based on the language of City Council’s response.

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