If You Cannot Move That Fast, then Kindly Get Out of the Way

December 1, 2017 – or Two Water Warnings Ago if you are a customer of the Trenton Water Works (TWW) and use the frequent release  of written warnings about local water safety to mark the passing of time – was the last occasion Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson spoke on the record about the ongoing problems at TWW. After the disclosure of correspondence and other records between the City and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) revealing that the safety of much of Mercer County’s drinking water was at risk due to critical and long-standing understaffing at the Water Works, Mr. Jackson defended the actions of his Administration and TWW Management to Trenton Times reporter Kevin Shea.

In response to an aggressive timetable DEP was seeking to impose on the City to find a private contractor in November or December – a process that is still apparently under way – to take over daily DEP management and operations, Jackson resisted a quick response.  Mr. Shea wrote, quoting the Mayor, “Government procurement processes, ‘Cannot move that fast,’ Jackson said.”

In Shea’s December 1 piece, Mr. Jackson just does not seem to express any urgency about this situation, even indicating that he and DEP had the rough outlines of a deal. “Jackson said the city and DEP have since agreed on a plan that brings in a management company that would assist the city in running TWW for three to five years,” Shea wrote.

Adding to that lack of urgency, the Mayor attempted to frame the problem at the Water Works as a temporary problem with management, and not safety: “The mayor said the [DEP/City/TWW] 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]

Well, kiss that excuse goodbye. Yesterday evening, the Trenton Times posted a new article, also by Kevin Shea. It tears the City a new one:

The state Department of Environmental Protection on Friday slammed the city of Trenton’s reaction to ongoing issues and water quality violations at their water utility, calling it a “continued failure.”

In a letter from DEP Commissioner Bob Martin to Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, Martin wrote: “The City’s inability or unwillingness to act with the urgency the current situation requires potentially puts at risk the health of the 225,000 people (the utility serves).”

… Martin’s Friday letter said the DEP has been “exceedingly patient” with the city, but that Trenton officials are not following the steps he outlined in a Oct. 30, 2017 letter, nor in “several telephone conversations” as recently as last week.

…Martin’s latest letter also ripped the city for giving the DEP an “unacceptably incomplete” draft for a contract for one outside firm, and says another firm the city itself chose disappointingly fell through.

Additionally, yesterday Mayor Kelly Yaede of Hamilton Township, which is partially served by TWW, sent a letter to her residents, which also appears on the Township’s website. She told her citizens,in part,

In December, prior to the latest notification sent to Trenton Water Works customers, I initiated a meeting with Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, County Executive Brian Hughes, as well as the mayors of the other towns that are serviced by Trenton Water Works.  At this meeting, which took place in late December, I expressed my concerns regarding Trenton Water Works directly to Mayor Jackson and the other officials to ensure that safe water is continuously provided to our residents.

I insisted on their communicating a plan as to how Trenton Water Works would remedy its infrastructure needs through future improvement projects and sought answers to how the utility would fill its shortage of licensed professional positions.

Additionally, I focused on the necessity of timely communication regarding issues affecting the residents of our community. [Emphasis added – KM]

In that last line, Yaede hits on what has been one of the worst problems with the Jackson Administration, not only on this problem but throughout city governance, and for the last three and one-half years. THEY DON’T COMMUNICATE. It’s a problem from the top down.

It’s a problem that extends even to this very day. To respond to these extremely strong letters from DEP and Mayor Yaede, the only person from the Administration that Kevin Shea names and quotes is the City’s Public Information Officer, Michael Huckabee Walker.

Yes, really! Eric Jackson, we have been told (not by any formal announcement, but via an offhand comment made by a former official at an entirely unrelated event), is recovering from back surgery. That’s a whole other situation, to be addressed later.

OK, so the mayor is out of action. But, to respond to two very pissed off stakeholders who are expressing strong concern about a matter of critical public safety, Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff Francis Blanco wasn’t available?u

Business Administrator Terry McEwen wasn’t available?

Director of Public Works Merkle Cherry wasn’t available?

TWW Acting Superintendent wasn’t available?

Council President Zachary Chester wasn’t available?

NO ONE other than a press spokesperson (whose comments were undecipherable in any case) was available to respond to the Department of Environmental Protection and to Hamilton’s Mayor? NO ONE?

There is not even anything on the City’s website today acknowledging this problem (or, as an aside, acknowledging the Mayor’s current incapacity and saying who is in charge. But, again, that’s a whole other problem!).

This is a totally unacceptable situation. This is dereliction of public duty. People need to resign, or be fired, over this. Other people need to be voted out of office for this. This is serious. It’s not about staffing, as Eric Jackson would have us believe. It is about safety, as I wrote last month.

It’s about the utter inability of Eric Jackson and his entire team to serve this City, an inability proved once again today.

George Patton is known to have said, “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” Jackson has shown that he can’t lead on this and so many other of this City’s horrible problems. He has taken no initiative, and provides poor leadership example to the rest of his Administration, none of whom as listed above, are taking charge of this issue today. The City is leaving its citizens, customers, and public officials in the state, county and neighboring townships uninformed, confused, anxious and angry.

Mr. Jackson has also shown he can’t, or won’t, follow. In the TWW situation, as with the HUD CDBG situation, with his ELEC reporting, and many other matters, he’s been unable or unwilling to comply with contracts, timetables, regulations and agreements with other government agencies.

It’s gone on long enough. Now, Eric Jackson should just get the hell out of the way.

And that might not take that long. According to Kevin Shea in the Times yesterday,

The DEP said it has chosen not to file a Superior Court compliant, due to the few days left in the Gov. Christie administration, but Martin said he’s already informed the new DEP commissioner nominee, Catherine McCabe, of the TWW situation, and the options she has for the “much needed corrective actions needed at TWW.”

State action dealing with TWW may not be long in coming, once McCabe is approved for her new position.

And when this action comes, the City of Trenton and its Administration will probably not be part of the solution. They are the problem.

Time for Eric Jackson and his team to get out of the way. They had their chance, and they blew it.

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