Outside Perspective

My attention was drawn the other day to a headline on “An Urban Island of Batsh*t Crazy.” Hey, I thought. Someone’s writing about Trenton! I clicked on the link, and was rather surprised to find out the article was actually about Bridgeport, Connecticut, instead. You know what? This other post-industrial Northeast city of 147,000 is pretty screwed up, in ways that might even lead jaded Trentonians think, “Wow, I’m sure glad I’m not stuck in a place like Bridgeport!” I’m telling you! Check it out for yourself.

Reading the article got me thinking that it is helpful to hear about other towns and cities from time to time. To read about how different localities tackle some of the same problems we experience on the Delaware, and hear other viewpoints may help expand our minds and help us become open to new approaches and solutions, or at the very least help us to validate and our own perspectives. It’s in that spirit that I thought to chat with an outside voice. Someone with limited firsthand knowledge of Trenton, perhaps, but someone whose long experience, keen perception and quick wit has endowed him with a wisdom that surely has much to offer us in our small burg.

I spoke to Sam Clemens, an experienced journalist who has reported for a number of newspapers throughout his career, including the Hannibal (MO) Journal, the Virginia City (NV) Territorial Enterprise, the Sacramento Union, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Buffalo Express. He’s also done some freelance writing under an assumed name. He was gracious enough to share a few moments, and thoughts.

Mr. Clemens, thanks so much for agreeing to chat about Trenton! I want to start by giving you a little context. We are in the second year of the Eric Jackson Administration. When the man ran for Mayor, he made a major promise that his term in office would be distinguished by the highest ethical principles. Sixteen months in, he and his colleagues have, well, fallen kind of short on that promise.What do you think of such high promises being so easily set aside?

Principles aren’t of much account, anyway, except at election time. After that you hang them up to let them season.

I hear you! That certainly appears to be what’s happened around Trenton. Take this whole IT contract business. It seemed to me when the news broke that there was something really wrong about the way the City’s managed to work the bidding process around so that their preferred company won Trenton’s business. A Superior Court judge agreed, and ordered City Council last week to halt the award of a contract until a pair of lawsuits are resolved. A lawyer for the City calls the lawsuits “frivolous,” by the way.

Lawyers are like other people–fools on the average; but it is easier for an ass to succeed in that trade than any other.

The City is adamant that this very small firm, FCC Consulting Services, is the best qualified for the business, even though the company works out of a private house, is a single proprietorship, and not much experience. Compared to the other 11 companies which bid for the City’s business, this is really a case of the underdog winning out over larger companies with more resources.

Let your sympathies and your compassion be always with the under dog in the fight–this is magnanimity; but bet on the other one–this is business.

That about sums it up. But all last week, we read several articles in which the City’s Business Administrator and Law Director kept insisting that FCC’s was the “overall best proposal,” when the evidence doesn’t really support that.

Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

The Administration seems to have entirely forgotten what happened five years ago. The City first tried then to ditch the current vendor and replace it with a new one of doubtful ability.

It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.

Man, you’re right about that! This Administration is repeating a lot of the mistakes made during the Tony Mack years. But so is Trenton’s City Council. Six of the seven current members were on Council during the Mack years. The seventh could read a newspaper. They seem to be entirely clueless about how to do their jobs.

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of [Council]. But I repeat myself.

Oooh, that’s harsh.

Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a [Council]man can.

You’re not holding back today. Why do you have such a low opinion of Council?

All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity.

Well, at least you aren’t singling out Trenton’s City Council for your disapproval. But you are right about them. They do tend to go with the flow. Or, whoever provides the strongest flow at the time, who is usually the Mayor and his folks.

We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going, and then go with the drove.

That pretty much describes Council from last week. On one matter, a symbolic resolution asking the New Jersey Legislature to introduce legislation that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, only one member moved for a motion to approve. Four other members didn’t utter a single word, pro or con, on the matter. They all sat mute, not an expression on their face like they were waiting for a bus. Two other Councilmembers conveniently left before the matter came up. One later said she was sick and had to leave, but she reportedly spent some time talking to different people before leaving City Hall. Ill, or just “allergic” to talking about Marijuana? It was hard to tell.

…the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes.

Well, some of those words were in fact used that night. It wasn’t a very courageous moment for Council, at all.

It is curious–curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare…  There are not enough morally brave men in stock. We are out of moral-courage material.

As you said at the beginning of our conversation, it seems like the only time we really hear any ideas or principles from these guys is at election time.

If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times.

Unfortunately. What really bugs me, with Council as well as the Administration, is that they often just seem like so many fools.

Let us be thankful for the fools; but for them the rest of us could not succeed… I reckon we are all fools. Born so, no doubt.

But, I know we’re not alone in that. Every city and every town has its share, right?

If you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don’t tell them he’s a damned fool, they’ll never find out.

As a journalist, what advice would you have for our elected and appointed public servants?

We ought never to do wrong when people are looking.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? This is a time when local journalism – at least the traditional kind of newspapers, radio and television – is on the wane. It’s harder to depend on local reporting to inform citizens. How are we to keep informed – and keep our local government honest?

[E]very citizen of the republic ought to consider himself an unofficial policeman, and keep unsalaried watch and ward over the laws and their execution.

Do you think there is a role for regular citizens, to make their voice heard when they disagree with the direction of their government?

The citizen who thinks he sees that the commonwealth’s political clothes are worn out, and yet holds his peace and does not agitate for a new suit, is disloyal; he is a traitor.

I agree. But there is a lot of resistance in this town to any kind of criticism.

Arguments have no chance against petrified training; they wear it as little as the waves wear a cliff.

But it’s really exasperating when you see the exact same mistakes being made over and over.

Concerning the difference between man and the jackass: some observers hold that there isn’t any. But this wrongs the jackass.

Yeah, but sometimes it makes me angry to see so much going on, and so little learning from past mistakes!

When angry count four; when very angry, swear.

That happens, sometimes, I’ll admit. Mr. Clemens, don’t you get a little worn out occasionally, from all the foolishness you see everywhere you look?

If all the fools in this world should die, lordly God how lonely I should be.

Surely, you jest!

Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His work must be contemplated with respect.

Thanks for the taking the time to chat, Mr. Clemens. One of these days, we need to see you in Trenton.

Ten or twelve years ago I was surprised and shocked to receive from England — from the Internal Revenue Office — a tax-bill of £48 — an income-tax bill, levied on my English copyrights. I was shocked, but it was not all shock. I was flattered as well as shocked; flattered to be formally taken notice of by a foreign government. It seemed to kind of introduce me into the family of nations; seemed — well, it seemed to sort of recognize me as one of the Friendly Powers — not on a large scale, of course — not like Russia and China and those, but on a — well, on a secondary scale — New Jersey.

Thank You!

5 comments to Outside Perspective

  • Ed W

    as one who has been to Bridgeport Ct. via train station, to visit a friend/contractor who lived outside the city, he warned me of the crime/decay level there, which i saw firsthand as we left the “city”. I had to tell him that it looked familiar and indicative of corrupt/incompetent political leadership of my own city.

    I have read many economic studies, the biggest reason for a failing economy is corruption either actual or implied. now trentonians are witnessing this first hand. welcome to interesting times.

  • Kevin

    There are a lot of Bridgeports out there, unfortunately. Each of them, like Trenton, with their own unique miseries.

    We’ve had nothing but interesting times for years now. I am awfully sick of it.

  • Christine Donahue

    Hi Kevin … I wanted to comment that the most disturbing thing that I have seen from your posts in recent days is the number of citizens in council or should I say lack of citizens at council meetings.

  • Ed W

    People in Trenton are just tired of the lunacy, its as if a form of royalty has replaced our democracy and all the inbreeding has produced a special species of human who are totally unconcerned for the welfare of the people who voted them in.


    I read the mayors state of the confusion speech where he claimed to been involved in the vacant housing servy. TCCA worked closely with Isles, with a core of volunteers from TCCA’s member civic groups as well as others. The mayor was not even remotely involved and i double checked.

    Its pretty sad when you have to makeup good things to say, makes one question any other statements coming from his speechwriters.

    btw Christine, good to see you back

  • Kevin

    Christine – I will concur with Ed to say it’s good to see you here. Thanks for reading.

    I admit to being guilty of almost zero Council attendance for the better part of a year. In my case, distance from my day job and the time of Council meetings makes it nearly impossible to attend on any kind of frequent basis.

    On the other hand, Council’s performance lately demonstrates how most of the City’s meaningful business is taking place well away from Council Chambers and any public scrutiny. So why bother with meetings? They merely ratify what’s already been agreed upon.

    Ed, I do agree. Another instance of the tendency to glom on to credit was the reference to the Roebling Center development. Announced years before by Brian Hughes, since Mercer County midwifed that development, it was kind of funny to hear Mr. Jackson say “my economic development team was instrumental in clearing the last of the project’s hurdles.”

    Heckuva job, Eric!