Where we stand on residency

Some in this city continue to miss the bigger picture in the ongoing Joseph Santiago residency case, as has been evidenced by people speaking publicly in City Council chambers and in letters to the editor in the pages of Trenton’s two papers.

Such confusion in the community means that maybe it is time to offer one take on where this issue has come from, where it is going, and where it stands today.

Right now the issue is in limbo, with a hearing scheduled for June 3 in New Jersey’s Appellate Division.

There a panel of three judges recently granted an extremely short stay and an accelerated appeal schedule, g iving the impression that they want to see this issue settled, and not dragged out forever in the courts as Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer has publicly vowed to do.

In the meantime Mayor Palmer has asked City Council again and again to quickly swoop in and amend the residency law to allow the mayor to grant waivers, and effectively reverse the initial court decision in which City Council members were victorious plaintiffs along with nine city residents, including me.

Last week Mayor Palmer even wrote a letter to City Council members, which was eventually published an Op/Ed piece in the Times of Trenton.

It again called upon the seven members of council to amend the law because of the presence of unnamed city employees with “special skills or talents” who the administration has determined are violating the city’s residency law, likely because of either carelessness on the part of Mayor Palmer’s staff, or simply more unequal application of the law.

But it seems that people like the city’s Communications Director and other politically-favored employees continue in the employ of the city despite not maintaining bona fide residences here.

That only goes to show that for Mayor Palmer, this is not about “special talents or skills” but simple political favoritism and cronyism, and blatant disrespect for the law.

Part and parcel with this call for a hasty ordinance amendment is a position that public safety is in danger because of the possible removal of Mr. Santiago, which is also plainly false.

The Trenton Police Department is made up of hundreds of brave and capable police officers who have the skills and talent necessary to perform the job, with or without the ephemeral presence of a man who is frequently nowhere to be found during many of the city’s most dire public safety emergencies.

Even if Mr. Santiago has done a good job – which is highly debatable – it should be remembered that an employee’s performance on the job has nothing to do with why they should or should not be allowed to remain in office when openly violating city law.

Such arguments have never been applied to the 20 or so employees who have been terminated in the past by the Palmer administration, many of whom have likely performed valuable services to the city while violating this long-standing rule.

In the earlier court decision, Judge Linda Feinberg stated that she believed Mr. Santiago had done a good job, but that those sentiments did not save him, or anyone else, from the weight of the law. She stated this in no uncertain terms in her ruling that Mr. Santiago had to vacate his office, and when denying a stay or appeal on the same decision.

Just like any other residency violation case, this is not about one man. This is about the law.

It still remains to be seen whether the City Council will move to amend that same law in the future to install some sort of waiver amendment that would allow non-residents the ability to take office here.

It at least bears some consideration and public discourse, especially if a system could be installed that would prevent the kind of political favoritism that has been applied to the law up to this point by the Palmer administration.

That being said, there is absolutely no rush to consider amending the ordinance until the Santiago affair has been settled by the court system, which should happen sometime in June.

Only after that dust settles should the seven members of City Council begin deliberations on revising the law, which served the city so well without waivers or exemptions for nearly four decades.

It should be pointed out as well that while Mayor Palmer cries and whines for a waiver amendment and talks of his support for residency, it was his own group of high-paid lawyers who argued that the entire residency law should be thrown out, which was the only reason the waiver amendment was tossed in the first place.

That same argument also resulted in a ruling by Judge Feinberg that the only waiver provision that can possibly be considered is a state statute that likely precludes Mr. Santiago from ever being able to attain the position again.

It requires a classification system that weights job candidates according to their proximity to Trenton. Candidates living in Trenton, the towns surrounding Trenton, Mercer County residents, and the counties surrounding Mercer would all have to be offered the directorship before Mr. Santiago could ever even have a chance of getting the job.

It is obvious that the residency ordinance is a great tool in contributing to the economic well-being of this city, by keeping high-paid city officials contributing to Trenton’s fragile economy and tax base.

Mayor Palmer himself said in the State of the City address that these are the types of economic mover and shakers that need to live in Trenton if the city is to reverse its downward economic trend.

Live Where You Work, right Mayor Palmer?

But for Mayor Palmer the trend that has developed is the perception that Mayor Palmer cannot decide whether he likes residency or not. He says he supports it, then instructs his lawyers to seek to have the entire law invalidated, for the sake of Mr. Santiago.

Maybe he is just saying whatever it is at the moment that he and his tax dollar-funded attorneys think will best suit his obvious desire to keep Mr. Santiago in office and win a battle with his own constituents.

Whatever Mayor Palmer’s stance is, moment to moment, it is obvious that Mr. Santiago has plainly been proven to be in violation of the law, and as it stands, he should be removed from office for that decision.

That should be done despite claims made by Mayor Palmer and Mr. Santiago regarding their belief that there are currently few or any high-ranking police officials within the department who could take over the position. These claims seem to be entirely untrue.

First, there are several captains and others who could take over the position and move to Trenton.

Like the invalidation of the waiver provision, this is also the fault of these two men. Mayor Palmer and Mr. Santiago orchestrated the elimination of the three deputy chief positions years ago. These positions, if filled, would have provided ample talent to take over the directorship.

And, for argument’s sake, it should not be forgotten that at one time Mayor Palmer installed an interim director who never attained a rank higher than patrolman, which means that person never had any administrative experience, or even command experience in leading any number of sworn officers, let alone an entire department.

There are plenty of equally-capable law enforcement officers that could take over the purely administrative functions of the Police Director position, and some of them would likely move to this city and become part of the Trenton community.

And that simple fact probably makes them a better candidate for the position than a non-resident director like Mr. Santiago could ever be.

Let Trenton residents not forget that it has been the decision of Mayor Palmer, Mr. Santiago, and their lawyers to continue this costly fight through the court system despite the very letter and spirit of the law standing in their way.

The residency law, its importance, and the arrogant fashion in which Mayor Palmer and Mr. Santiago have carried themselves through this affair will not be forgotten by the electorate either, a majority of which seems to support the equal application of the law.

Any elected official rushing to amend such an important law to save the skin of one man should remember that the people in this city support the law, as is, and will vote accordingly in 2010.

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