“Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR WATER WORKS!” – “Eric Jackson,” January 18, 2018

The above is a quote from a Press Release issued yesterday from Trenton City Hall, from Mayor Eric Jackson.

Well, OK, you’re right. It’s not a quote from the Press Release. It’s obviously a quote from the 1995 Mel Gibson film, “Braveheart.” But as surely as those movie words were not written by Eric Jackson, neither was yesterday’s Press Release.

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the words above as from the most famous speech in the film. Mel Gibson, as William Wallace, the leader of an uprising of Scots against the occupying and oppressing English King and his barons. Gibson is here rousing his troops into a fighting rage as they prepare to give battle to the bloody English.

Yesterday’s Press Release is trying to do the same thing. Except this time, Mayor Braveheart is trying to whip up indignation and rage against an oppressive State Department of Environmental Protection and its “barons” (local mayors of the neighboring Mercer County townships served by Trenton’s Water Works, TWW), who seek to, in the stirring and forceful words of “Mr. Jackson,” “force us to sell or privatize our utility for personal or other political gain.”

This effort to seize the Water Works, as far as this Press Release tells us, comes in the midst of “some temporary operational issues,” leading to a disturbing series of recent water quality and water safety incidents made more visible by the several Boil Water Advisories and Conservation Notices sent to the system’s 225,000 customers in the City as well as parts of nearby Ewing, Lawrence, Hamilton, and Hopewell.

I don’t need to go over all of the system’s recent problems again today; you can browse many of the links contained in posts written in this space since the beginning of December. All I will say this morning is that, far from being “temporary operational issues,” as claimed by “the Mayor,” the current crisis with Trenton Water goes back a decade at least, and much of the current tension with the State and Townships rise from the lack of compliance by the City and TWW with agreements and pledges signed by the City in 2014, and reiterated several times since then. And, the lack of compliance with those agreements has been caused in large part by the chronic manpower shortages and personnel problems in the utility ever since Eric Jackson (the real one) ran Public Works a decade ago.

That ain’t a “temporary” problem. That’s pretty darned permanent, seems like.

So why do I keep saying that Eric Jackson didn’t write this Press Release? Because its tone of condescending defiance (or, if you will, defiant condescension) doesn’t sound remotely like Eric Jackson. Eric Jackson, as much as I have criticized his flawed leadership for many years, has been a candidate in a few election campaigns, and one thing most candidates learn how to do instinctively is how to read a room, or a public mood.

If your audience is behind you, you give them more reason to back you. If the mood is skeptical, you try to convince. If they are angry at you, let them know you don’t mean them harm, and turn on the charm. At least that’s what the more successful campaigners do. Jackson’s won his most recent campaign, so he learned all that to some extent. He can read a room.

But the writer of this Release can’t. Otherwise, he (or she) would have realized that after a year of almost-monthly occasions of purple water, lead in the water, having to boil water, and having to conserve water, you don’t say that you want to “debunk the highly charged rhetoric and misinformation being circulated by individuals and news outlets with no technical background or knowledge.” You don’t write stupid and tone-deaf stuff like that if you know, as a guy who’s run for office knows, that those “individuals” you are positively sneering at are otherwise called “citizens,” “voters,” “customers,” “fellow mayors,” “Assembly members,” and “State regulators.”

That’s a really big crowd to deliberately piss off.

To be fair, it is possible that Mayor Jackson wrote this release. If so, it’s possible to have written it while under the influence of the powerful painkillers he may be taking for the ascribed back problems accounting for his long and continued absence from City Hall and other public events. But to me it’s more likely that this release was written by the City’s public spokesperson Michael Huckabee Walker. The florid, yet content-free, style sure does sound like Walker to me.

If this was indeed written by Walker, the question then becomes: did the Mayor approve this before it went out? It was a statement in his name: does he stand by these words? Does he dismiss the charges and complaints from throughout the County as “highly charged rhetoric and disinformation?” Does he hold all of these people – all of us – in such low regard? If not, he needs to say so. If so, he should reaffirm his statement and his sentiment in person. Mr. Jackson, and TWW, are in a perilous situation at this point.

Does the Mayor remember how “Braveheart” ended? There are perhaps some cautionary lessons here for Jackson’s defiant stance.

Wallace’s rebellion, while initially successful, is betrayed from within. The Scottish nobles who had backed him are bought off by the English king, and they abandon him on the field of battle. Wallace is captured, tried, and executed.

Jackson may be in a similar situation. Even though he shouts “FREEDOM!” and “I will not allow the sale or privatization of our utility,” the weapon of his betrayal is already in place and ready to be used if the English, in this version the State of New Jersey (fewer castles), choose to.

Do you by any chance remember the “New Jersey Water Infrastructure Protection Act?” Passed by the Legislature at the end of 2014, and signed by former Governor (yay!) Christie in February 2015 – both actions during the current Jackson Administration, and therefore within recent memory – this law “removes the public vote requirement to sell water systems throughout the state under emergency conditions that many systems currently meet,” in the words of a news article from 2015. In the opening section of the law, it states,

There are public water and wastewater systems in the State that present serious risks to the integrity of drinking water and the environment because of issues such as aging infrastructure systems. the deterioration of the physical assets of the systems, or damage to infrastructure so severe that it is beyond governmental capacity to restore;

Under the appropriate circumstances, the transfer of these threatened water and wastewater assets to a capable private of public entity with the financial resources and expertise to improve management, operation, and continued maintenance of the assets could help ensure the protection of drinking water; and

It is in the public interest that public entities have the option to transfer, lease or sell water or wastewater assets that threaten drinking water or the environment.

(N.J.S.A. 58:30-2 b. through d.)

Sure does sound like it was written with Trenton in mind? Perhaps that’s no coincidence. The 2015 news article reported “A notable political contribution was made in between the vote’s passage and Christie’s signing of the measure. American Water of Voorhees, the largest publicly traded U.S. water and sewer company, contributed $50,000 to the Republican Governors Association in the final days of the New Jersey governor’s chairmanship of the organization.” We know how much NJ American Water has long wanted to get its hands on our water system. And they, and their competitors, know how to play a long game.

They may yet get their chance. Even though Christie is gone, the law is still on the books, and many of the Legislators in both Democratic-controlled Houses who passed the bill are still there; this law is going nowhere soon.  It is still a loaded pistol – or sword, to continue the Medieval analogy – pointed at the City of Trenton.

Make no mistake. The City – whether through its mayor or another speaking in his name – may strike a defiant pose and claim no one will take our Water, but that’s all it is. A pose. The mechanism to take the Water Works away from this city – a move that would also be politically very, very popular in the Townships where around 2/3 of our customers live – is there to be used.

Knowing all this, the Press Release issued yesterday reads more sad and pathetic than strong and defiant.

I’d almost hope that it was written by a mayor too ill to rationally consider his situation and the severely negative impact this sentiment would have. I’d hate to think this statement came from someone in full health and a clear head.

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