Monthly Archives: December 2008

Poor budget practices

When government officials refuse to release budget documents for political purposes they are not only screwing over their legislative colleagues.

They are screwing over the citizens.

Such practices are commonplace in Trenton, where the city administration under Mayor Douglas H. Palmer has made withholding the budget from City Council – sometimes to the point that the entire fiscal year has expired – into an artform.

This practice ties council members’ hands behind their collective backs.

It serves to preserve many positions and budget dollars within the mayor’s office and the city Department of Administration.  It means that budget areas that should be considered for cuts and layoffs fail to receive any scrutiny, generally resulting in higher potential tax rates for Trenton’s beleaguered property owners.

Of course, such activity is expected from a mayor who is almost universally despised.

That’s why the news Republican legislators plan on suing the Corzine administration over budget documents, citing similar activity on the part of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, is kind of disturbing.

Sure, people like Mayor Palmer may engage in such counterproductive, politically-charged maneuvering, but someone who took on the mantle of a political outsider and a reformer should abstain from such activities.

New Jersey’s budget is similar to Trenton’s, in that years of mismanagement have resulted in massive imbalances and shortfalls.  That means that the budget process should be open, public, and free from political maneuvering, unlike what Gov. Corzine is doing.

Of course, the Republican lawsuit is just as politically-charged as the governor’s decision to withhold budget documents, but at least one possible result of that activity could be greater budget scrutiny and a better budget for state taxpayers.

The only result of the practices adopted by Trenton’s misguided mayor and New Jersey’s governor is a bad deal for their constituents.

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Tyranny in Trenton

Tyranny reigns supreme in Trenton.

That is one conclusion that can be drawn in reviewing court documents filed in the case of Ettenger, et al v. Feigenbaum, et al, otherwise known as the case of the Palmer administration trying to discipline city firefighters who spoke out against a fire staffing plan that would have put the city at risk.

The case reads like something out of Soviet Russia.

The group of firefighters, upon learning of former Business Administrator Jane Feigenbaum’s plan to eliminate 13 fire captain positions from the department, decided to exercise their constitutional First Amendment rights and speak out against the scheme earlier this fall.

They did so by identifying themselves as representatives of the two local firefighter unions on a press release announcing a press conference at the public atrium area of Fire Headquarters on Perry Street.  They held the conference, without incident, for approximately 45 minutes on the date quoted on the release.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

Apparently the negative comments regarding the potential public safety danger carried with Ms. Feigenbaum’s staffing plan caused Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and the business administrator to fly into a rage.

As a result, Ms. Feigenbaum contacted acting Fire Director Hank Gliottone and told him to bring the firemen up on charges or face termination himself, according to the lawsuit, all because the three men properly used free speech to question a plan that would have put the entire City of Trenton at risk.

The disciplinary charges chosen to warrant punishment are both comical and contradictory.

In one, the city claims that one firefighter broke an archaic rule that says firemen may not wear uniforms to theaters, circuses, and other public places because it may result in free admission.

Then the city declares that the firemen misused non-public property at Fire Department headquarters for their press conference, despite the fact that the men received clearance from the acting fire director to do so.

Read it again.

Those two charges do not comport.  One is about wearing a uniform in a public place and the other alleges misuse of non-public property – which is it Palmer lackeys?

Finally, among other absurdities, the city government actually misrepresents and effectively edits the contents of the press release to make it appear that the firemen identified themselves as representatives of the department, and not the union representing the rank-and-file.

Unfortunately, a large masthead on the press release clearly identifies not only the union-nature of the gathering, but also the actual titles of the unions themselves.

Trenton residents, these are the kind of people who are leading your city – people who are ready and able to suppress the most basic of all human rights in a false and vindictive manner.  This kind of thing makes a lot of what you see around the city make a lot more sense.

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Water deal could be back on

A controversial city plan to sell outlying Trenton Water Works infrastructure to the New Jersey American Water company could be completed as early as the end of next month, according to sources at the water utility, who said the sticking point in the deal’s success was a reduction in the original $100 million pricetag.

Another feature of a successful deal could be an agreement to eliminate a 40 percent rate increase that was passed earlier this year by Trenton City Council, as a way of appeasing angry officials from the outlying townships, who have opposed the sale. 

City Council members would have to sign off on the new sale agreement, due to what is feared to be a significant reduction in the amount of money the City of Trenton would have made off the deal.

Water utility employees have said they have already been informed that the deal appears to be complete, for the reduced price, and that they should be prepared to stop doing work on utility infrastructure in Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell, and Lawrence as early as April, presumably when the transfer of ownership would be complete.

If the deal goes through with a new reduced price – possibly in the $50 to $60 million range – Mayor Douglas H. Palmer and his administration will have succeeded in selling off another valuable city asset at a firesale price to temporarily stop a recurring budget imbalance.

They previously sold off the city’s stake in the Trigen energy complex off of Broad Street for many millions less than what some outside entities said was the value of Trenton’s stake.

Again, the sale amounted to selling off a long-term asset for a one-time infusion of cash.

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Graft alert: New Brunswick official gets 87 months

A former New Brunswick housing director was sentenced to 87 months in federal prison and ordered to pay over $100,000 last week after pleading guilty to extortion and tax evasion in federal court earlier this year, acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra Jr. said.

William Walker, 36, of Pennsauken accepted bribes and free home renovations from contractors in the New Brunswick area in return for housing rehabilitation contracts in the city, investigators said.

Mr. Walker will have to pay back $112,500 in restitution to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which primarily funds much of the work and the contracts that he oversaw while employed in New Brunswick.

After being charged, Mr. Walker eventually pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from two contractors and failing to report $112,500 in corrupt payments on his tax returns from 2004 to 2006.  The actual charges he pleaded guilty to consist of extortion under color of official right and one count of tax evasion.

Mr. Walker was the director of the Neighborhood Preservation Project for the city’s Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, a position in which he was responsible for approving funding and contracts for the rehabilitation of low-income and moderate-income residences in New Brunswick.

The former city employee took corrupt payments from Friendly Maintenance of Middlesex County and Taj Maintenance of Perth Amboy, which received over $1.3 million and $900,000 in city contracts, respectively.

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State ethics reform has strong foes

Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s 2009 reelection hopes may rest on his ability to deliver on campaign promises of ethics reform, but it appears that legislation fulfilling those promises has some significant foes in the New Jersey legislature.

Senate President Dick Codey, D-Essex, and Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union – both extremely powerful legislators – have come out against key pieces of the governor’s ethics reform package.  The governor seeks to rein in pay-to-play and wheeling, which are two campaign finance practices that continue to contribute to the toxic nature of state politics and the corrupting power of special interests in government.

Sen. Lesniak told a reporter from Millenium Radio and NJ 101.5 FM that “there is a balancing act” in campaign finances reform.  He seemed to be saying that freely moving around campaign funds from county organization to county organization to circumvent campaign finance law, as in wheeling, and handing out governments contracts to firms that donate to campaigns instead of the lowest responsible bidder, as in pay-to-play, are somehow meant to protect candidates with moderate funding from rich candidates like Gov. Corzine.

It’s true that Gov. Corzine basically spent millions to get elected to the U.S. Senate and the governor’s office, but somehow linking the former Goldman Sachs CEO’s campaign decisions to spend massive amounts of cash to a need for more traditionally-funded candidates to raise money through pay-to-play and wheeling seems to be quite a stretch. 

It’s revolting to hear one of the state’s most powerful legislators defend them, because these practices do little more than corrupt the political system while entrenching politicians from both parties in certain offices, further restricting the democratic process.  Reducing and eventually eliminating these disgusting perversions of democracy should be a priority for state politicians, as Gov. Corzine seems to understand. 

Unfortunately for the voting public, those who are not politically connected, and all of us who believe in democracy, it looks like the powerful in the governor’s own party are willing to throw their own top state politician and what could be his most important set of campaign promises under the bus for the sake of saving pay-to-play and wheeling.

Frankly, that’s disgusting.

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Rumors: Palmer to resign

Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, the longtime mayor who has presided over the latest period of Trenton’s economic and social decline, could resign as early as next month, possibly to take a position somewhere in the federal government, according to multiple people in the city.

Mayor Palmer infamously supported Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in the presidential election despite his city’s overwhelming support for President-elect Barack Obama.  However, Mr. Obama’s decision to hand the secretary of state position to Ms. Clinton means that Mayor Palmer was granted a reprieve for his initial loyalties.

Apparently the preferred successor in Trenton is Council President Paul Pintella, but those same people say that the ineffective councilman probably does not have enough votes on council to be appointed mayor, meaning the city could face a special election sometime in early 2009.

Mayor Palmer’s possible exit from the scene will no doubt hand many in Trenton a heavy dose of mixed feelings. The city has surely suffered under his selfish and incompetent leadership, but delivering this city from the shackles of his ego could only mean that his toxic governing tendencies would be foisted onto a grander stage.

In fact, most reasonable people probably would rather see the much-maligned mayor exit from the public realm altogether, but that might not be an option at this time.

One can only hope that the Obama administration, should that be where Mayor Palmer is headed, does proper background research on this man, who is little more than an expensive suit, a toothy smile, and a vindictive egomaniac.

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Differences in residency cases

The City of Trenton is handling the residency case of the current police director, Irving Bradley Jr., far differently than it handled the residency case of former director Joseph Santiago, who was eventually ousted over the matter.

Of course, the facts of each case are a little different, in that Mr. Santiago, with the open support of city Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, readily admitted that he was not a city resident while he claimed that some unknown power bestowed upon Mayor Palmer allowed him to live in violation of the law.

But Mr. Bradley, who rents an apartment in Trenton but occupies a family home in Rahway, claims that he is a full-time resident of Trenton.  That claim comes despite both his family’s presence in Rahway and the fact that courts have usually construed the family home to be a person’s bona fide residence.

The complaints against the two, which were filed by a group of city residents including me, are nearly the same.  That makes the significant differences in the routes of defense chosen by the city somewhat peculiar.

First off, the city is allowing its in-house counsel and Law Department director, Denise Lyles, to handle the case in terms of filing briefs and arguing Mr. Bradley’s case to Superior Cort Judge Linda Feinberg.  When it came to Mr. Santiago’s ultimately unsuccessful defense, the city retained several expensive defense attorneys, some of whom never even filed a meaningful brief or spoke in court.

Also, it appears that the city has been fighting a series of delaying battles in the early action, initially by challenging the authenticity of tax and real estate documents demonstrating that Mr. Bradley is indeed the owner of the family home in Rahway.  There is little dispute that Mr. Bradley owns the home there, making the city’s attention to the authenticity of the documents, which are real, somewhat frivolous.

Finally, court documents filed recently by plaintiffs’ counsel paint a recent city motion for dismissal as another frivolous action, with the city having yet to raise any significant counterpoints to the complaint filed on behalf of the plaintiffs.

These delaying actions are very different from what the city saw during the Santiago saga, in which the city filed counterpoint after counterpoint to the complaint they faced, even seeking to have the city’s entire residency ordinance invalidated.

Compare that to Mr. Bradley’s case, in which the city is using less high-powered legal expertise and does not appear to be diligently offering legal arguments in favor of the director’s living arrangements.  Some might say it doesn’t look like the city is very confident in Mr. Bradley’s legal prospects, although the city will just have to wait and see once the gets matter gets into a courtroom next year.

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