If We Had Ham, We Could Make a Ham Sandwich, If We Had Bread

I don’t know why it is, but during this political season I find myself most annoyed by the pitch being made by the mayoral campaign of one-term At-Large Council member Duncan Harrison. It might be due to my reactions to his increasingly overwrought and buoyant campaign promises and rhetoric. With every new press release and newspaper article – he’s definitely playing The Trentonian like a violin, as they post breathless “articles” that seem like word-for-word transcriptions of Harrison releases and conversations, without any vetting or fact-checking – it seems that he is both over-promising what can be delivered during one four-year mayoral and Council term, and under-delivering in terms of his experience and qualifications.

This space first discussed one of his campaign pronouncements a few weeks ago, when he tried to spin a rather mundane and routine action taken by Council – to prefer one kind of bidding over another in seeking to allow the City to process credit and debit cards for several types of business transactions – into a revelatory game-changing accomplishment. Listen to how he described this vote’s impact on the city: “This is an important change that will move Trenton into the 21st Century and help us build a bright, new future for our city.”

I still shake my head every time I read that.

He was just getting started. The Biography page on his website leads off by describing him as “the new leader Trenton needs. He has the experience we need to fix the challenges Trenton faces, but also recognizes the strength, creativity, and innovative spirit that define our city. Duncan understands what Trenton needs right now, but he also sees what our city can become, and he has the skills we need to build a vibrant, new Trenton – a real Trenton renaissance.”

I don’t know how you over-promise more than that. A Trenton renaissance? Seriously? His “vision” strikes me as the kind of wishful thinking expressed in the line “If we had ham, we could make a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.” He knows where he wants to go, but doesn’t seem to be aware of all the steps on the path to get there.

Let’s review – very briefly – what’s happened over the last four years in Trenton, during the time that Mr. Harrison has been serving on City Council, while consistently and dependably providing his vote for the failed Eric Jackson Administration. I know I repeat myself here, but I feel the disastrous experience in Trenton of these last four years taints every elected official in the City and every senior appointed manager, and that tarnished record can’t be repeated often enough in this election to suit me.

One of the City’s own vendors stole $5 Million Dollars in payroll tax funds. This happened under the noses of all of the City’s financial management. In its aftermath, the Mayor and his Administration refused to talk about both how this was allowed to happen and what actions they were taking to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. Ever since that theft, I haven’t heard any Council members – including Mr. Harrison – calling for Accountability.

The City of Trenton in 2015 was labeled by the US Government “a high-risk grantee of Federal funds.” The actions leading to this designation mostly preceded the Jackson Administration and Mr. Harrison’s Council years. But a couple of years later, in 2017, the City agreed with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to give back over $3 Million in grant funding because after three years the Jackson Administration had failed to fulfill pledges it made to improve its administrative processes and procedures. Again, hardly a peep from Council about this.

Over the last four years, the Trenton Water Works continued to decline, leading to a record number of fines and violations and raising frequent concerns from customers and public officials around Mercer County about the quality and safety of its drinking water, due in large measure to the significant under-staffing of the Utility. This Administration and this Council bears all the responsibility for four years of drift, neglect, and lax oversight.

And, as described just yesterday, City Council – with Mr. Harrison’s votes – approved several contracts for goods and services that at best could be called mis-guided, and at worst wasteful and inappropriate. Please remember, again, the Information Technology contract from Hell, the public swimming pools contract, and the property reassessment contract. This last one resulted in wildly inconsistent property revaluations that vastly increased the property tax burden – doubling and tripling the local property tax burden for many home and business owners, while slashing many others.

If you search for Duncan Harrison’s name in connection with any objections or disagreements with any of the above, I predict you will find few results. In fact, Trenton’s Council has had a reputation for many years of being a rubber stamp for whichever Administration has then been in office. The last four years have been no different. During these last four years, Duncan Harrison has been one of the dependable rubber stamp votes that enabled the Jackson Administration to take so many of their misbegotten actions.

Even this Administration’s and Council’s own initiatives had trouble getting done. In November of last year, Jim Carlucci posted two informative pieces narrating the sad fate of the Local Employment Initiative, and its stillborn Trenton Employment Commission. Undertaken with much fanfare (and Harrison’s vote) in 2014, this initiative was abandoned after only one year. Money approved by Council to pay the consultant hired to prepare plans and studies wasn’t fully paid. No study or reporting was delivered and a Commission intended to help expand career training and hiring of local employees was never formed. Despite Mr. Carlucci raising the matter months ago, there’s only been silence from Council. As on so many other occasions!

The record of this Council for its term is entirely undistinguished, frankly disastrous. As a member of the voting majority, he has to own his share of that record. Which does not recommend his promotion to the Mayor’s Office.

Part of Harrison’s pitch is the professional experience and record he’s had as the Associate Executive Director of the Union Industrial Home (UIH) here in Trenton. I’m sure he does outstanding work there, but his is an organization with an annual budget under $2 Million, only 1% of the City of Trenton’s, according to the most recent tax return I could find for the organization, for 2016. On that return as well as earlier ones in 2014 and 2015, on Page 7, is a listing by name of UIH’s “Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees.” Mr. Harrison does not appear on this list. Serving in middle management of a small community non-profit really doesn’t suggest the relevant training at this point to run a complex organization like Trenton’s government.

It’s too bad, actually. I like him personally, he has a real feel for people – good in a politician –  and is full of energy. I think he has the makings of a good and productive Council member, the last four years notwithstanding. I think he has the potential and talent to develop as an independent voice on Council, representing and responsive to Trenton’s voters, and acting as a true check and balance on the Executive. Instead, he’s convinced himself – or been convinced – that he’s ready after four years as an Administration yes-man and a community middle manager to take on the massive dysfunction that is the City of Trenton. A shame.

I think, frankly, he fell in with the “wrong crowd” on Council. He and Zachary Chester and former member Verlina Reynolds-Jackson were consistently supportive of the Jackson Administration. Along with the less-consistent (in so many other ways) Alex Bethea, they all backed the Administration, for better or for worse.

Along with Chester and Reynolds Jackson, I think that Mr. Harrison’s downfall was his going along to get along. They didn’t rock the boat in Trenton, and they didn’t go against the program, in the expectation perhaps that such loyalty would be later rewarded. In Ms. Reynolds-Jackson’s case, her entirely undistinguished career on Trenton’s Council was rewarded by a significant bump upstairs to first being the Chair of the Mercer County Democratic Committee, and then to the appointment by that Committee to serve the remaining term in the State Assembly of former member Elizabeth Muoio, now NJ’s State Treasurer. In Mr. Harrison’s case, his reward for loyal and dependable service is the support he is receiving for his mayoral campaign. He benefits from much of the same support that would have lined up behind Eric Jackson, had he decided to run for a second term.

That support apparently includes some of the same campaign consultants who have worked on past New Jersey campaigns including US Senator Cory Booker, Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, and the NJ Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee. A few weeks ago, in The Trentonian, one Marc Matzen was identified as Harrison’s “campaign manager.” Matzen is one of the Principals in a political consulting firm called FiftyOne Percent. I’m sure that the services of a firm such as that don’t come cheaply.

It’s possible that Mr. Matzen may be volunteering his services to Harrison’s campaign, since the gentleman lives in Trenton. However, along with the services being provided to the mayoral campaign of Walker Worthy by Vision Media Marketing of Secaucus, whose Dan Knitzer was quoted this week defending Worthy from anonymous charges of personal financial problems, his presence is a sign that at least these two mayoral campaigns enjoy significant support and resources from outside the City, from many of the same sources that supported Eric Jackson and Tony Mack previously. Past performance does not predict future results, but it is worth noting by Trenton voters.

I’m guessing that his consultants have been advising Mr. Harrison to stake out as his own distinctive territory by branding himself as the “Vision” candidate, offering his proposals with as many synonyms of “bold,” “vision,” “innovative” and “revolutionary” as he can cram into a press release. Sometimes, as in his Credit Card victory lap, it doesn’t really work. And it seems to me that the only “Revolution” Trenton is primed for is a French one. Because after the last four years as briefly recounted above, it sure feels that Trenton needs to re-learn how to make itself work again, well before it can ever think of either Mr. Harrison’s “Revolution” or his “Renaissance.” I wrote just a few days ago about Mr. Harrison’s rhetoric compared with some of his more prosaic and grounded opponents, and don’t need to revisit that further.

I will just finish by citing one of Duncan Harrison’s more specific proposals as evidence that he may want to tone down some of the exuberance in his proposals order to concentrate some on their nuts and bolts, because there’s a lot missing there.

Take his proposal on neighborhood revitalization, offered this week. As part of his plan, Harrison proposes to re-open the four neighborhood branches of the Trenton Free Public Library that closed and have been allowed to rot since 2010. As reported in the Trentonian this week, Harrison intends “Reopening community library branches by partnering with library management, City Council, and the State to procure capital funding and state library bond funding.”

It’s a very laudable objective. But the reason that the branches closed in 2010 wasn’t due to a lack of capital funds. It was due to the lack of Operating Funds, and a reduction in the City’s subsidy of the Library System. In 2010, the Mack Administration cut the Library’s budget by $1 Million. The remaining budget of $2.1 Million was not enough to keep the four branches open. The Library Director at the time estimated the minimum operating budget needed to keep the branches open for only four hours a day five days a week was $845,000. In 2010 dollars. The City didn’t have it then. That amount will surely have grown by now.

Flash forward to 2018. The FY 2018 budget approved by Mr. Harrison and his Council colleagues appropriated $2 Million Dollars to operate the Main Library downtown. The state-mandated minimum Library tax revenue for the Library is only $786,000. The remaining $1,214 Million comes from the City’s main operating budget.

Does Mr. Harrison think the City can afford another $845,000, plus inflation? If so, why didn’t he didn’t propose this before now?

Even Harrison’s proposal to “procure capital funding and state library bond funding” – money to build and/or repair the buildings and physical property – raises questions. Last November, New Jersey voters statewide approved a ballot measure to raise $125 Million in bond revenue to be used to support capital grants to communities for local public libraries such as Trenton. We can certainly apply for a piece of that funding, as Mr. Harrison proposes. By all means.

However, those State grants would fund only 50% of a local project. Towns and cities would be responsible for raising the remaining 50%, as well as, of course, the operating monies.

Does Mr. Harrison think the City can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital monies, as well as another Million or so in operating monies? If so, why hasn’t this been done before this? Why hasn’t he sought to do this before now? Perhaps because he wasn’t running for Mayor before this year.

The same vague lack of specificity tied with a blithe assumption that details will take care of themselves informs much of the rest of his neighborhoods plan. Again, according to the Trentonian, the plan includes “Revitalizing abandoned buildings and holding landlords accountable by working with the Housing and Economic Development department to secure grant funding for neighborhood improvement projects, creating a marketing package to attract colleges and corporations to Trenton, and enforcing a graduating fine system for landlords who put their tenants at risk by violating housing laws.”

D’oh, why hasn’t this occurred to anyone before now? Hey, Duncan Harrison’s proposals aren’t as thin as, say, Alex Bethea’s. But they are detailed enough and optimistic enough to raise voters’ expectations unfairly. He thinks a lot can be done in only four years to transform a City that has trouble getting snow off City streets. His proposals have merit, but they lack the sense that Harrison knows how to actualize them. Ideas without resources are dreams. Dreams are definitely worth having, but after Tony Mack and Eric Jackson we need prose not poetry.

The truest sentiment attributed to Duncan Harrison is at the end of that Trentonian article. “Harrison knows City Hall has let Trentonians down.”

Yes, it surely has.

As much as I like him, as Mayor he would also let us down. Trenton can’t take another failed mayor,

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