Cut and Paste

In my last piece posted on Friday, I wrote about a proposed Ordinance #18-24, dealing with residential Yard Waste. This Ordinance, one of three presented to Trenton City Council in order, as explained by Public Works Director Merkle Cherry, to bring the City into compliance with Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations concerning stormwater maintenance. This particular Ordinance was unanimously tabled, removed from consideration to be re-written. The other two passed their First Reading unanimously. Second Reading and final voting for passage is scheduled for May 3.

Perhaps Council might want to send the other two back to be reviewed, in order to make sure they really do what they are intended to do. Because the City’s Law Director Walter Denson, and in this instance Director Cherry, don’t seem to be taking much care in the drafting of the City’s legislation.

In my Friday piece, I wrote this near the end:

A little bit later, at another opportunity for public comment, I added to my comments that the Ordinance was very poorly drafted, drawing their attention to the fact that although the first page and a half of the measure discussed and defined things like “yard waste” and “containers,” in the section that actually defined the actions to be prohibited by the new law (Section III) the language seemed copied from another Ordinance, #18-23. This language prohibited “The spilling, dumping, or disposal of materials other than stormwater.” Not a single word in this section about leaves, yard waste or bags. This was very sloppily drafted and edited not at all.

At the time I said that to Council, I was only speculating that the language in #18-24 seemed a little wonky. I hadn’t yet seen the texts of the other two proposals, and so couldn’t be absolutely sure that there was any mixup.

Yesterday, I received copies of the other two stormwater Ordinances passed by Council. Number 18-21 can be read in its entirety here. Ordinance 18-23 can be seen here.  Below are a few excerpts.

18-23 top18-23 IIIYou will notice that this Ordinance is intended, as stated in the header, to prohibit “the Spilling, Dumping or Disposal of Materials Other Than Stormwater.” That intention is spelled out in Section III, which lays out what this bill actually prohibits.

It has been duly signed by the City’s Chief Lawyer, Walter Denson, who attests that it is “Approved as to Form and Legality.” Director Cherry signature verifies that the “Factual content” of the legislation has been “certified by” him.

Here’s #18-24, the subject of my last piece and of my comments to Council.

ord 18-24 topThis proposal, as described in its header, is to “Establish Requirements for the Proper Handling of Yard Waste.” Here’s the relevant section explaining what will be prohibited by this new Ordinance:

18-24 IIIYes, you read this correctly. As I had suspected last week, the exact same language in Section III of  Ordinance 18-23 was cut and pasted into Section III of #18-24.

The Exact. Same. Language.

Let me briefly describe the probable path these documents took before they were deliberated in Council lat week.

Since, as Merkle Cherry told Council, these laws are intended to bring Trenton into compliance with EPA regulations, those regs probably were sent to the Public Works Department. They may have also been sent to the Law Department, since city compliance would require writing new local laws. The EPA material sent to Trenton probably also included sample language the City could use in its own Ordinances.

After receipt of the EPA requirements by the City, Mr. Cherry and Mr. Denson probably communicated about what would be needed to meet ther Federal regulations. After those communications, the Law Department wrote these three draft Ordinances. Whether or not Mr. Denson wrote the ordinances himself isn’t known. We do, however, see his signature on all three of the bills. Remember, his signature means these bills were “Approved as to Form and Legality.” Public Works Director Cherry added his signature, approving them for “Factual content,” meaning he is saying that these ordinances will do what they are supposed to do.

After both Mr. Denson and Mr. Cherry literally signed off on these bills, they were sent to each member of City Council, probably at the end of last week, in order that they could review them prior to their Conference Session of April 17. In those working sessions, Council openly reviews all of that week’s Docket in detail, reviewing each matter before them and discussing the legislation and any attachments. Directors and other members of the Administration attend these sessions in order top answer whatever questions Council members may have, and offer any additional relevant information that may be needed by Council that might not be contained in the materials sent to them. The Agenda for last Tuesday’s Conference Session indicates that both Mr. Denson and Mr. Cherry were scheduled to attend last Tuesday. I don’t know if they actually did so.

So, after all this: 1) Law Department drafting and review; 2) Public Works review; 3) review by individual Council members prior to their Conference Session; 4) review by all the relevant parties – Council, Denson, and Cherry – at the Conference Session; 5) two full business days following the Conference; and 6) the Council Session of April 19; not one person noticed that the language for one bill was identical to another, that it had been actually copied from one Ordinance to another.


I think it’s safe to say that, had public objection to that particular Ordinance not been made by Charlie Leeder and myself, this Ordinance would have approved unanimously along with all the rest, and would be on track to become City Law after May 3.

It’s pretty mind-blowing that something like this can happen. And if it almost happened on this occasion, it’s likely that it’s probably happened before. Who knows what kind of landmines exist in other legislation and other matters proposed by this Administration and approved by this Council that might blow up in the future, causing unknown amounts of mayhem and damage to the City and its residents in the Future?

It’s impossible to know.What we do know is that in this instance – because you can see the proof above –  both this Administration and this Council failed the most basic tests of their jobs. They failed to read what was put before them, when they had more than ample time do so. And they failed to pay attention.

Look, a lot of what’s done by the City, and any City, can be very complex and complicated for laymen to understand. There are a lot of highly technical systems and procedures that a City is involved with. And to codify all these technical systems often means translating them into legalese, having its own arcane and dense language needing translation for Council. I get all that. It can be hard.

But that is not the case here. This is an instance of three bundled Ordinances of no more than 3 or 4 pages long, with fairly uncomplicated definitions and language. An instance when no one in the chain – Not One Person – noticed that one of the three ordinances was a word-for-word cut-and-paste job from one of the others.


Keep this in mind over the next couple of weeks. The Brain Surgeons on Council who almost let this go by who are running for Re-Election on May 8 are Marge Caldwell Wilson, George Muschal, and Zachary Chester.

And two of these Rocket Scientists – Alex Bethea and Duncan Harrison – are so proud of the work they’ve done on Council, they think they should be Mayor!

As you stand in the Voting Booth on May 8, remember that, in addition to Cutting and Pasting, you can also Delete.

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