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.