Trenton Water Works is Another Sewer Works

I wasn’t intending to post anything today. The Christmas holiday is beginning today on a bright, clear crisp note that I am reluctant to do anything to endanger. But, my hand is forced by an article by Alex Zdan in today’s Times. So here I am.

Alex Zdan interviewed Stanley “Muscles” Davis, the brother (a full brother, we find, not the half-sibling relation that we’ve been told for years) of the Indicted Occupant of Trenton’s Mayor’s Office, serving criminal time for his corruption conviction while working as an employee of the Trenton Water Works. The headline to the Times article announces that Davis is telling “his side” of the story that has led him to jail, and that all but promises to land his two brothers in prison jumpsuits before long, too.

I won’t describe the story in detail here. It is a good read, one that is full of self-justification and self-pity, with a tone of self-awareness and frankness that I found kind of surprising, frankly. Talking about the bribe taking that led to his arrest and conviction, he says “I really, I was greedy. Because I didn’t need the money. [Taking a bribe was] a bad judgment call, something stupid I should have never done… I had maybe a total relapse of who I was, maybe a sense of arrogance, and I did it.”

What brings me to write on this Christmas Eve is not what this article tells us about the last four years, but what it announces about our future. Specifically, what it tells us about the future of the Water Works and the City of Trenton.

Our last municipal election involved the Water Works, and the effort by former Mayor Doug Palmer and his Administration to sell the assets of the Water system located outside the City limits to a commercial water company. That sale was signed by Mayor Palmer and approved by City Council, but decisively overturned by an overwhelming public vote on the same day in June 2010 on which Tony Mack was elected.

This election, also, I believe will heavily involve the Water Works. This time, I think the main issue will likely be whether the City of Trenton deserves to continue to own and operate this utility that provides water not only to the city’s citizens and businesses but to customers in Hamilton, Ewing, Lawrence and parts of Hopewell.

In 2010, I defended the city’s claim to retain the entire TWW system. Now I am not so sure. I have doubts whether City ownership and management can survive the ongoing revelation of an ongoing climate of corruption at the Water Works in place long before the IO took office.

In today’s interview, Davis characterizes the Water Works as “Corrupt. From top to bottom.” And, according to him, it has been crooked for long before his time there and his crimes. Of course, a lot of these claims have to be seen as little more than self-serving defense, attempting to make his transgressions look less unusual, less onerous, less criminal in the context of a place where corruption like his was common.

The article quotes several former and current city officials to counter Davis’ claims. Current Director of Public Works Luis Mallinedo refutes Davis by saying, “What Mr. Davis is commenting to is what happened when he was there, and he was leading the corruption. What he’s referring to is history. … It’s the past.” Doug Palmer is quoted as also quoted, denying he condoned corruption on his watch.

However,  it is left to Eric Jackson to provide a greater defense at length of the environment at the Trenton Water Works under his watch as Director of Public Works under Palmer. As a declared candidate for mayor in next May’s elections, Jackson is naturally being sought out for comment on a situation that has become toxic. He needs to defend his record and convince folks that he managed the Water Works well, if he wants us to take his candidacy seriously.

But all of the many reports I have read over the last few weeks have only increased my doubts about Mr. Jackson’s prior record at Public Works, and therefore I have only increased doubts about his candidacy.

Davis charges that Jackson attempted to improve discipline and root out corruption while he ran Public Works, but was hampered by his boss, Mayor Palmer. “[H]e’s a pretty decent person but his hand was tied. He really just did what (then-Mayor) Doug Palmer and them told him to do.” Palmer and Jackson of course deny this.

Jackson claims that he attempted to discipline the corrupt internally. In today’s article, Alex Zdan writes, “Jackson put together a discipline hearing, where he was expecting testimony [against Davis] from witnesses who never materialized. ‘We had the attorneys there, ready to take it to administrative law and the witnesses did not want to come forward,’ Jackson said.

This internal approach to solving the problems at the Water Works has been described by Eric Jackson a few other times in the last few weeks. Giving testimony last week at an Office of Administrative Law trial involving two Water Works employees,  he said he implemented policy changes that reduced massive overtime charges, the padding of which was a principal method of stealing from the Water Works.

And two weeks ago another article in which Alex Zdan reported that a Grand Jury in 2011 had looked into allegations of corruption and theft at the Water Works both during Mack’s term and before – that is, during Jackson’s tenure under Mayor Palmer. In that article, Jackson again described and defended his actions: “Jackson said he had received some information that employees [such as Davis] were hooking up water to customers without authorization, but did not obtain enough information to make a case against anyone. ‘There were allegations we investigated, but not corroborated,’ Jackson said. As director, Jackson said, he inherited staff and procedures, but worked to increase accountability even as some of the employees tried to counter with other ways to perform illicit activity.”

According to this December 11 article by Mr. Zdan, there were many serious problems at the Water Works over the years. In addition to payroll padding, there were several thefts of equipment including incidents in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2008. A lot of incidents.

Mr. Jackson’s response each time, as stated in these three separate news accounts? Investigations, disciplinary hearings and administrative findings. All internal.

What I would like to know, after all these stories, is whether Mr. Jackson ever called in the Trenton Police or talked to county prosecutors about this rampant corruption?

We know that there was criminal activity at the Water Works; that’s why Muscles Davis is serving time. Equipment was walking away, and individuals were falsifying time cards. Did any of this lead Mr. Jackson to involve law enforcement? If not, why not? Why did the only criminal prosecutions stemming from corruption at the Water Works occur after Palmer and Jackson left City Hall, if the situation was similar back then?

I think we also need Mr. Jackson to explain what other measures he put in place to reduce problems at the Water Works. We read he cut down on overtime abuse. Were additional security cameras installed to control equipment walking away? Were inventory controls and equipment sign-out procedures revamped? Did TWW management exert more effective oversight of their staff?

While we are at it, why was maintenance of the suburban assets of TWW allowed to slip in the run-up to the 2010 referendum, and why were so many staff openings for service technicians left open during that period, leaving the Water Works short-handed as the Mack Administration started up?

For me, if Eric Jackson cannot show that he at some point in his tenure brought in law enforcement to investigate the situation at TWW, that will sink his candidacy. He cannot be seriously considered as a potential Mayor if he allowed a culture of corruption to survive unchecked at the utility without trying to call in the cops.

Beyond the candidacy of one man, though, the integrity of the Trenton Water Works is vital to Trenton’s residents. Right now, TWW smells like a sewer. The past four years has been enough for many critics and angry water customers outside of Trenton to argue that the Works should be taken out of city hands and regionalized at the County level, at least. Every new revelation of past corruption, and waste, and theft that precedes the Mack years hurts the City’s case for its future stewardship of much of Mercer County’s water supply for its residents.

And were we in May’s elections to select individuals from that past to lead Trenton past 2014 might prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the Water Works as Trenton’s.

1 comment to Trenton Water Works is Another Sewer Works

  • ed w

    back when the police layoffs were announced, i had an idea that the TWW hire some of the police with the sole responsibility of protecting the assets of the TWW, infrastructure, filtration plant reservoir etc. I discussed it with then det. Russo but it didnt get much traction.

    Now in enlightened hindsight, i wish i had pushed this further, its not unusual for organizations to have an internal police force, think nuclear power plants, this would have kept maybe 5-10 experienced city cops in trenton. Im sure thefts would have gone down quickly.

    Unfortunately the management of the TWW during Palmer’s reign was filled by many rejects from the political world, think Santiago, etc. One of the main reasons for the creation of the public works certification was that it would force at least min. skills to the holder of that post.

    IMHO putting Eric Jackson into city hall would be a disaster for the city, Trenton desperately needs someone willing to buck the old system, and to date i do not see anyone out there with those qualifications.

    merry Xmas/holidays to you and yours, peace