The Progression of Slow: Slow, Slower, Slowest, Jackson

The Kevin Shea article posted online in the Trenton Times Friday evening, and appearing in the Saturday print edition, has some pretty remarkable comments by Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson about revelations made public on Friday regarding the perilous staffing situation at the Trenton Water Works (TWW).  The City-owned utility serving Trenton and several Mercer County communities has been so starved of personnel over several years that, in the words of New Jersey’s Commissioner of Environmental Protection Bob Martin, “although TWW carries a $12 Million Surplus, it has only one-third of the staff needed to operate its system.”

Anyway, as a result of this understaffing, and the potential threat to the safety of TWW’s water supply, the state has concluded “TWW has demonstrated it is unable to properly acquire the necessary skilled people and manage its facility alone.”

The State says “unable.” I might say “unwilling,” but let’s just put that aside for now!

As a result, the State has compelled the City to start a process to transfer day-to-day management and staffing responsibility to an outside firm, for first a temporary basis and then a longer term that could be as long as ten years.

Mayor Jackson said some things to Kevin Shea, either via written statement or phone conversation, or both, that are striking – and strikingly wrong.  Let’s review some of them.

“The mayor said the letters do convey the increased oversight the DEP took after the boil advisory, which was contentious in the past few months, but centered on staffing, not water quality.” [Emphasis mine – KM]

What? As if there’s no connection between the two? Does Eric Jackson believe that a staffing level of 1/3 of what “is needed to operate the system” has no connection to water quality?!?! Would, to use an example I cited on Friday, a police department only working from 9a to 5p have no connection to public safety?

That’s exactly what I hear Eric Jackson saying.

In rebuttal to the Mayor, let me quote Commissioner Martin again, from his letter dated October 30, with which I led off my Friday post:

[O]ver the past year, the City has experienced multiple incidents caused by deficiencies in TWW’s standard operating procedures, equipment, and, most especially, staffing. The City, through its own admission, lacks the appropriate management structure, both in terms of vacancies in key management roles and experienced individuals serving in acting management roles.”  [Emphasis mine – KM]

Still don’t get it, Mayor Jackson?

Let’s look at the Incident Report that was written following the Boil Water Advisory that was issued to all county-wide customers on June 5, 2017 – clearly a “water quality issue.” This Report, prepared by consultants Mott McDonald and dated August 11, 2017, and is one of the items released to me as part of my OPRA request. It is a very, very heavily-redacted document, (censored to remove details of the operations of public utilities not to be made public for interests of security), but I think you can get the drift:

Based on information relayed over the course of this investigation, a sequence of events has been developed, regarding the Boil Water Advisory incident…

At around 11:00 AM, Senior Engineer Theresa Ponella, while taking manual plant process turbidity samples noticed that the sample from the Plant Intake was extremely discolored, reportedly similar in color to coffee. She reported the issue to the Water Treatment Plant Supervisor, William Mitchell. Dixon then received a call from Operator Schoranda Henderson, regarding “dirty water”…

Dixon reportedly indicated that he recalled a similar incident several months ago where this operation was performed and did not affect the plant. He thought there would not be an issue and did not notify the Operators in advance

William Mitchell had been in contact with the DEP regarding the incident as it became evident that the treatment process was compromised and a Boil Water Advsory was issued. [Emphasis mine – KM]

Well. “This operation.” “He thought there would not be an issue.” “The treatment process was compromised.” Sure does sound like the June 5 Boil Water (i.e. Water Quality) Incident was caused in at least large part by human error. There is no indication of any natural or infrastructure-related cause of this incident that can be gleaned from the non-redacted portions of the report.

That makes it Staffing related, Mayor Jackson! Let me make it real easy for you. When it comes to Public Safety, whether Police, Fire, or the Water We All Drink:


As to Jackson’s boast that “The water quality of TWW remains at or above regulatory standards,” that’s kind of like boasting you go to Atlantic City every month with the rent (or, maybe more appropriate, the payroll tax) money, and you haven’t lost it yet! You’ve been lucky, not good!

Luck doesn’t last forever. Remember, in the last six months alone, we experienced:

Do you still feel confident, Mayor Jackson? Do you still feel “lucky?”

In his comments to Kevin Shea, Eric Jackson defends his Administration’s actions from state criticism by claiming there hasn’t been enough time for the City to respond to the State’s requests for action:

The mayor said he values the DEP assistance, but when the agency pushed for an aggressive timeline for the emergency contracting, he said he had to remind them that Trenton is a transitional-aid city with oversight from the state Department of Community Affairs. It was just unreachable.

A Nov. 3 letter from a DEP manager called for a Nov. 16 deadline for the emergency contract, from drafting to bid selection.

Government procurement processes, “Cannot move that fast,” Jackson said. – [Emphasis mine – KM]

I call Bullshit.

Trenton wasn’t asked to move nearly that fast.

In his October 30 letter to Mayor Jackson, Commissioner Martin referred to “my meetings with Mayor Jackson of September 29, 2017 and October 20, 2017, and my conference call of October 24, 2017.” He also refers to “ongoing discussion for more than 10 years.” Commissioner Martin gets to the point of his letter by writing “My expectation is that the City will issue an emergency RFP [Request for Proposal] by this Friday, November 3, 2017. My expectation is also that the City will award an emergency contract by November 30, 2017 and that the contractor will begin work as soon as possible.”

The Mayor’s version of an “aggressive timeline” from November 3 to November 16 as told to Kevin Shea is simply not supported by the facts. The City was formally given a full month for this emergency contract process, not two weeks. And Mr. Jackson had been involved in several meetings and phone calls dating back to September when this entire scenario was discussed in great depth and detail.

And, you know, if the State had written a November 3 letter with the “aggressive timeline,” it would have been part of the OPRA document release NJDEP sent me this week. I didn’t get one, so unless Mr. Jackson can produce it, it doesn’t exist.

As of today, there is no TWW-management-related RFP on the City’s bidding webpage. As an emergency contract, it may not show up on the regular page.

Or it could be that Trenton just “cannot move that fast.” As usual.

Moving slow is Eric Jackson’s trademark.

He hasn’t filed a campaign finance report with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission in three years.

He never filed an IRS tax return in the three years since he established his non-profit foundation, and lost its tax exemption. And he didn’t file an annual report in NJ for three straight years, for which his NJ business registration was revoked.

His Administration ignored months of Notices  and Warnings that should have alerted the City that it was being robbed by its payroll vendor, and Eric Jackson himself gave misleading statements and chronologies of the robbery that were at variance with the facts.

By failing for over three years to provide paperwork and contract deliverables to the US Housing and Urban Development Department, the City lost over $3.3 Million in Federal funding and was labeled “a high-risk grantee of federal funds.”

The Jackson Administration even forgot about or lost interest in one of its own initiatives, its Resident Employment Initiative, paying its consultant only about half of his contract and failing to even establish the Trenton Employment Commission it suggested,

Eric Jackson, in his own words, just “cannot move that fast.”

In this case of the Water Works, he’d better learn how! Although Kevin Shea’s Times article today quotes a DEP spokesperson as sounding conciliatory, saying “the city had made recent progress,” the October 30 letter from DEP Commissioner Martin takes a much tougher stance.

If the City fails to follow through immediately on this emergency contract, DEP will be left with no choice but to seriously consider pursuing administrative or legal action to ensure the protection of public health for the City’s residents and the customers in the surrounding communities supplied with drinking water by TWW.

Between the seemingly conciliatory DEP spokesperson and its hard-line Commissioner, Eric Jackson should listen to the Commissioner and “follow through immediately.”

But I don’t have much hope for that, because Eric Jackson just cannot… well, you know.

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