It's Time to Be Responsible

Each time I want to write about what the various and sundry candidates for election in five weeks actually propose to do if they’re elected, the current elected officials go off and do something new to show why we need a clean slate of new people. We’re already going to get a new Mayor; I think it’s also time to do a clean sweep of every member of City Council, and try again. How much worse could an entirely new crowd do? Not much.

Case in point: Trenton’s City Council has screwed up what should have been a routine contracting process. The Trentonian reported yesterday about the ruckus surrounding a contract awarded by the City to Cole Media for public relations work for the City. This firm raised some eyebrows back in September, when Council first approved a $50,000 contract with them for public relations work done for the outgoing one-term Mayor Eric Jackson, due to the fact that, as reported by Kevin Shea of the Trenton Times back when the Times reported actual news about Trenton and not simply local sports scores – but I digress – “Although not the lowest bid, Cole Media won the contract after being evaluated by a bid committee.”

That evaluation, and the committee’s decision, has been called into question by one of the other firms, the EFK Group of Trenton, which submitted one of the losing proposals for the contract. I won’t recap the substance of the current mess, leaving you to click on the links above for those details.

I want to point out what I think what should be the main point here. Isaac Avilucea reports in his Trentonian piece, “City council last year approved a resolution for a $50,000 payout to Cole Media to do PR work for Jackson, according to news reports. The city didn’t explain at the time why it needed the services, and it wasn’t immediately clear what work contributions Cole Media has made to the city.”

I’ll say that again: it is not at all clear what work Cole did for the City to have earned its $50,000. And now the City has struck another deal with the firm.

What is objectionable about this is that Council – and the public  – has  no way of evaluating what connections other than their contracts Cole Media – and every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years – has with Eric Jackson.

Because the outgoing one-term Mayor has failed to file any of the legally-required quarterly campaign finance reports since October of 2014, it is impossible to know if Cole Media – or every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years – has made financial contributions to Eric Jackson which in turn benefit them by getting lucrative contracts from the City.

Now, I realize this is entirely unfair to Cole Media – and every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years – but Mayor Jackson has single-handedly created the current situation. Because of his ongoing failure to file his reports and identify the funds coming to him during his entire term, companies like Cole Media – and every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years – are now under a cloud of suspicion every time they do business with the City.

In the case of Cole Media and EFK, the allegations made by one of the losing bidders has put this one deal under the spotlight. We’ll have to see how that unwinds over the next couple of weeks or months, and whether this matter ends up in court.

However, this won’t be the last time this happens. A big part of the legacy that Eric Jackson leaves behind is that, for the next several years, whenever the City proposes a contract with a company like Cole Media – and every other vendor the City has contracted with over the last four years – we will wonder if they got their foot in the door to get a piece of the City’s business because of donations made to Eric Jackson between 2014 and 2018.

And we won’t know. Because Eric Jackson has failed in his legal obligations to report, and failed to fulfill his promises to voters four years ago to be The Ethics Mayor.

You know, when Tony Mack left office, we all had a pretty good idea that most of his dirty laundry and dirty deals had been publicly revealed, courtesy of the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office for New Jersey.

We can’t say that about Eric Jackson. Although there’s been no suggestion publicly made of criminal behavior, it’s now unfortunately impossible for him – or anyone else in City Hall today – to credibly deny that there hasn’t been any.

There are two lessons I think we can learn here, and I hope we learn them in time for Election Day.

First, we are seeing the damage done – even long after they leave office – to the way the City does its business when the campaign finances of its Mayor are shrouded in secrecy in violation of New Jersey law. We can’t afford another Eric Jackson again!

That means that any candidate for the office of Mayor who demonstrates they either can not or will not comply with the law with their campaign reporting should not be trusted with the office, no matter how otherwise compelling their qualifications or campaign platforms. I’m looking at you, Paul Perez.

And, second. For the last four years, we’ve seen time after time that the City – Administration and Council – has very. very serious problems with its purchasing and contracting process. Not only has it screwed up the Cole Media deals, the City has also made a mess of – for example – its Information Technology contract, its public swimming pools contract, its property reassessment contract, and, most infamously, its payroll service contract. You’ll recall with this last deal that the City continued to renew its contract with Innovative Payroll Services even while IPS was stealing Five Million Dollars from the City.

What can be done to clean this situation up? Well, for a start, I would just absolutely love it if one or more current Mayoral and Council candidates pledged that he or she would make a great start by ensuring that they would follow the law.

What do I mean by this? Trenton already has in its City Code a built-in check and balance on the city’s purchasing process, and it has NEVER used it.

It’s called The Board of Review. It’s on the books in Section 2-74 of the City’s Ordinances. The language of the complete Ordinance can be found here. I’ll just quote a few key lines:

Section 2-74 D.Appeals

In such cases where a prospective bidder desires to appeal the decision of the Purchasing Agent with respect to a particular public works or public contract previously advertised and desires to have a review and decision by the Board prior to the time for submission of bids on the contract, the request shall be filed not less than five days prior to the final date for the submission of bids, and the Board shall hold a hearing and act upon the request not less than two days prior to the date fixed for the next opening of bids on such public works or contract. The request for any such expedited review shall state with specificity the need for an accelerated review stating the time and subject matter of the impending bid. Such accelerated review shall also be available to any person who receives notice of disqualification or notice of potential rejection pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:11-32 following the opening of bids and prior to the award of contracts.

This Board would not have authority throughout the entire bidding process. It’s not designed to have board input after the actual award of contracts, for instance. But it does allow a mechanism for bidders prior to that point, who might feel the purchasing process has been “fixed” or otherwise stacked against them, to have their voices heard by an independent body not beholden to the current Powers That Be. Also, if the Administration in office knew that much of their work would be subject to Board review, I think one could argue that the very existence of a Board of Review would have a pretty mighty deterrent effect.

By the way, the Board would consist, per the Ordinance, of “one member of the City Council to be designated by motion of the City Council and two citizens of the City to be designated by motion of the City Council.”

Might any of the purchasing disasters of the last four years have been avoided if there were such a Board in place? I can’t really say.

What I can say is that we have not had a Board of Review and we have had all of these disasters over the four years. And I can say that Trenton City Ordinance requires such a Board to be in existence. And the City has ignored this mandate for years.

I think that does explain, in part, the situation we have now. I am tired of it happening again, and again.

I’ve written about this before, as far back as 2011. Here, and here. I think it’s well past time to comply with the law and convene this Board.

So, any Mayoral and Council candidates or managers reading, what do you think? Who will go on the record as saying,

“It’s time to stop tolerating purchasing disasters. It’s Time to comply with the Law. It’s Time to give the Public the Check and Balance the Law provides. It’s Time to be Responsible. “

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