Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A letter to council

I sent this to Council members this morning:

Dear members of Trenton City Council,

I take a lot of heat from my family and friends for living in Trenton; most of that criticism is because of the crime. I don't blame them for their concern: Glen and I are not from Trenton; we don't have ties here, so why do we choose this life, they want to know. We could have purchased a home elsewhere, but we chose Trenton because of its location, its history, its beautiful, affordable architecture, and because we hoped that Trenton would see a rebirth, like many New Jersey municipalities are experiencing right now.

Family and friends are right: crime is a problem, especially since we live very literally just a few doors from three murders that have taken place in three years (Jamal Tucker, 11/2005; Anthony Dunbar, 6/2008; Brian Smalls, 8/2008); murder is jarring; it makes the history books; it causes a person to rethink everything, because there is no violation more offensive than the taking of someone else's life. And this is a good neighborhood! I'm not afraid for my safety; I don't have bars on my windows; I have furniture and plants on my porch and they've never been disturbed. My neighbors, for the most part, are good, decent, honest people. I can say this with certainty, even though I find the casualness about the loss of life here to be heartbreaking.

The problem comes from the top. Crime is so prevalent because our system is broken. And when I talk about Trenton's REAL problems with the friends and family members who wonder loudly why we stay, I feel a deep sense of embarrassment. Our system is broken, and we haven't fixed it, even though we can — we could have a dozen times over in just the last few years. We, the good people of Trenton, are able-bodied, and smart, and come from a long line of innovators, and we turn the other way at the gaping wounds in this city's fabric. We drag our feet when we can and should be running after the nagging issues that taunt us repeatedly. We retreat into our homes each night and don't do enough to make a difference.

We are faced with a horrible budget crisis, one that has escalated possibly because of the lack of openness in our government's administration. There are members of the public, as well as members of city council, who must regularly fill out Open Public Records forms, just to get information from our administration — information that would be more than forthcoming in any other municipality. We are selling our assets, and our taxes are going up, and our palms are outstretched for hand-outs from the state and the feds, and yet we continue to allow the status quo to stand. The status quo is not working.

Council, you have the power to make a difference. We have elected you to represent us, and we need that representation now more than ever. Trenton needs to make some serious changes; some of the changes are so simple, but they'd make a significant dent in our problems, and send a clear message that change is afoot. Here are some:

  1. We need to put an immediate end to our very liberal take-home car policy, and the associated perks (namely, free gas for those who get a take-home car). Far more affluent municipalities around the country have ended this practice, and it benefits everyone; so there's no reason for a financially-struggling city like Trenton to wait another minute to end this practice as well. There's no reason for the citizens to be paying upward of $4 a gallon in gas for a large-engined fleet, plus maintenance, for people who make enough money to afford their transportation to and from work. Plus, with some of our employees traveling over 50 miles each way to work, that's a lot of gas, a lot of wear and tear, and it needs to stop immediately.
  2. Police Communications Director Irving Bradley was recently found to be unqualified by NJ's Department of Personnel to serve in a state taxpayer funded position. He is also in violation of the spirit of Trenton's residency ordinance, with his family living full-time in Rahway, NJ. None of the other cities around the state have a communications director for their police departments, so there is absolutely no logic or reason for keeping the unqualified, rule-breaking Bradley in this $90,000/year job.
  3. Enforcement, and other money-making ideas. Who wouldn't want to see a functioning, vibrant downtown and business hub in Trenton? (I'm not criticizing the existing businesses, by the way, even though your hours are kind of lousy). We need to take care of some housekeeping first before we dream, and waste any more money. We need to fine those in violation of our codes and laws. We need to issue tickets consistently for illegal window tint, for not allowing the pedestrian the right of way, for speeding, for those in violation of the noise ordinance, for truancy. We need to go after lousy landlords AND lousy tenants, and encourage them, in the strongest way possible that they must behave according to the laws that govern polite society, OUR society. We must go after those who dump illegally in our alleys, and the drug dealers AND buyers, as well as the prostitutes. There are many areas of this city where criminals are allowed to act with impunity, and this must stop. Studies show that enforcing our laws will help to discourage those on the fence about committing criminal acts. Enforcement helps. The laws are on our side; it's time we get to it. Related to this, perhaps it's time the city thinks about a city wage tax — both New York City and Philadelphia have one — for non-resident state workers. This may generate some interest for some state workers to move here (a good thing), and will certainly generate some much-needed revenue to help us maintain our struggling city.
  4. Crime may be down nationwide; specific sorts of crimes in Trenton may be down. Violent crime is NOT down here. This is not necessarily the fault of former police director Joseph Santiago, but to know that violent crime is at an all-time low elsewhere in the nation, it seems evident that perhaps we've taken the wrong approach here in Trenton. Also, since he is unwilling to live by the terms of his job description, I have no idea why we keep him on the payroll. The courts have declared his position vacant; Santiago has wasted so much of Trenton's money to fight us on our own laws, and it is insulting. It wasn't personal, but it's becoming personal: Police Director Joseph Santiago must go. And he should go before his grace period expires. This city deserves a functioning head of the police department, especially in light of the very violent summer we've seen. And we must begin to discuss plans for the post-Santiago years; we cannot rely on the administration to take care of us, or for things to fall into place. The citizens of Trenton must not be kept in the dark about this issue.

I would like to attend tomorrow night's city council meeting to show my support for this city and my neighbors. There's enough going on right now, I almost feel motivated enough to speak. However, I'm expecting a baby any day, and have a prenatal appointment tomorrow evening, and timing isn't so good for us. So, I'm writing instead, so you know that even though some folks can't be there, we do care, and we're tuned in, and we do expect you, Council, to represent us well.

Christine Ott
Trenton, NJ 08629

NOTE FOR BLOG: I heard from Councilman Coston, and just wanted to follow up: the city of Trenton is not permitted to charge a wage tax on state employees. And, more importantly, city council has no power to remove Santiago before his last day (9/22). I appreciate the councilman's feedback, though it is discouraging to hear this news, particularly the latter bit. Perhaps council has the ability to tie Santiago's hands somewhat, so he won't be able to enact any more changes within the department? — co


Old Mill Hill said...

A very cogent statement. Thank you, Chrissy, for taking the time to express it to Council (who should be thinking along the same lines already) and for sharing it with us.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent letter. Council President Pintella should stand up and read it tomorrow at the meeting. You speak for many residents of the city. Are you sure you don't want to run for office? Not just in the city but maybe county, state? pbaman

Mr. CleƤn said...

::stands and applauds::

pbaman is right - I'd like public proof that Prince Paulie knows how to read.

Chrissy said...

I heard from Councilman Coston, and just wanted to follow up: the city of Trenton is not permitted to charge a wage tax on state employees. And, more importantly, city council has no power to remove Santiago before his last day (9/22). I appreciate his feedback, though it is discouraging to hear this news, particularly the latter bit. Perhaps council has the ability to tie Santiago's hands somewhat, so he won't be able to enact any more changes within the department?

Old Mill Hill said...

I am cinfident that Councilman Coston is correct.

Similarly, there is no mandate for the former Director or the MIA (Missing In Africa/Missing In Action--take your pick) Mayor to keep City Council and/or the public aprised of the status of the transfer of power.

However, an conscientous, honest and open administration would be very upfront about the situation.

Instead, we've got to deal with the cry-baby, tantrum throwing tactics of Doug and Joe.

Doesn't mean the public or a council member can't ask the questions.

Greg Forester said...

Good stuff.

What Chrissy has written describes many of my feelings almost perfectly.

So many good people in this city come up with almost exactly the same thoughts without having communicated about them - because they're correct!