Sunday, February 09, 2014

A Conspiracy of One - The Final Act of The Sad Tenure of Tony Mack

Tony Mack (center) found guilty on all counts - (Photo -
In terms of media coverage, the recent trial of Trenton mayor Tony Mack took place largely in the shadow of the ongoing Bridge-Gate scandal currently engulfing Trenton's much more famous ethically-challenged politician-in-residence, governor Chris Christie.

But the outcome reached last Friday in Federal court arguably eclipsed the governor's woes when Mack and his brother Ralphiel were found guilty of fraud, extortion and bribery in connection with a Federal sting operation in which the two agreed to sell off a city-owned garage for half it's value in exchange for about $100,000 in cash.

The other cohort in this tragedy, the almost-comical 500-pound local business owner, wannabe Boss Tweed and convicted child molester Joseph "Jo-Jo" Giorgianni, plead guilty in December 2013 and agreed to testify against the Mack brothers to save himself from another lengthy prison stretch.

There's little to be gained by dancing on the political grave of Tony Mack as there's little reason to celebrate for the approximately 85,000 residents of Trenton who must still live in an 8.1 square-mile  urban area characterized by high unemployment and pockets of chronic poverty that's been neglected by the local, state and Federal government for decades.

The people of Trenton already had it hard enough by the time the Great Recession was near it's apex in July, 2010 when Mack was sworn in as mayor - within months of his taking office it was clear the city of Trenton deserved better.

A simple but clever sting operation conducted by the FBI and state law enforcement brought the curtain down on Mack's tenure, but the abuse of his position as mayor to enrich himself and his allies at the expense of the welfare of the residents of Trenton started long before FBI agents entered the Trenton City Hall in July, 2012 to seize documents and other evidence.

If you can stomach it, take a look at the painfully long list of instances of Mack's corruption compiled by Trenton Times reporter Jenna Pizzi; a time-line of Mack's downfall taken from her excellent ongoing coverage of the Mack administration.

It reads more like a script synopsis from an HBO drama than the track record of a mayor who attended high school in the city and was more than familiar with the challenges faced by it's mostly African-American residents.

Pizzi cites examples like the city announcing the four branches of the Trenton public library would be closed the same month Mack took office in July, 2010 - in a city with high school student proficiency test scores so low they aren't even published.

Or his firing experienced department administrators to try and appoint close friends to the key positions even though they were totally unqualified; like Carlton Badger as the city housing director despite his having been indicted for forgery and theft, or Municipal court director Nathaniel Jones serving even though he'd been convicted of felony assault.

Then there was Harold Hall as public works director who was later linked to the installation of the $17,000 sign in Cadwalader Park which I blogged about back in 2012. That infamous sign (which was later removed by the landmarks commission) was a rather tacky  replica of the Warren Street Bridge that connects Trenton with Morrisville, PA.

Each morning and evening I drive across that bridge on my way to and from work and I'm reminded of Trenton's struggle to fund even its most basic municipal services when I drive past the corner of Ferry Street and the 700 block of South Warren Street next to Parker Elementary School.

This tiny intersection serves as a conduit channeling New Jersey-bound vehicle traffic from Pennsylvania exiting off of north bound Route 1 who use the small stretch of South Warren Street to reach Route 29 to cut over to I-295.

The street surface is so pockmarked with potholes, divots and bumps it's a miracle no one has dropped a transmission or bent an axle.

Sadly it's almost within eyesight of the state offices and just across Route 29 is the extremely well-designed baseball park that sits next to the Delaware River where the AA affiliate of the New York Yankees, the Trenton Thunder, play; which is one of the few major positive attractions the city has going for it.

Even with the budget shortfalls you'd think the city would be sure to make sure roads with high traffic volume in around the ball park (which brings a lot of visitors to the city) would be well-paved, well lit and properly marked.

My point is that the appearance and condition of that small stretch of South Warren Street leaves a really poor impression of the city of Trenton. It's a street-level (no pun intended) reflection of poor overall city management of basic services like road maintenance - I won't even get into the condition of some of the abandoned row houses along Ferry street, eye-sore would be putting it nicely.

In my capacity as a residential leasing agent, I've met dozens of people of varying ethnicity, age group and socioeconomic background who've come to me with the saddest kinds of tales of what's happened to downtown Trenton in the areas around Chambersburg; a neighborhood in the south eastern section of the city that was once home to a vibrant working class community of well-kept homes and small businesses.

There are older homeowners who've lived there for decades who find themselves unable to live there anymore because of how the crime rate has impacted the quality of life in the city. Selling their homes isn't much easier because of the conditions and let's be honest, the situation wasn't helped when Tony Mack laid off a staggering third (100 officers) of the Trenton Police Department back in early 2012 because of budget shortfalls and shrinking revenue - right around the same time he unveiled a $4,000 portrait of himself and former mayors of Trenton in City Hall. 

Crime spiked an alarming 12% in the city seven months after Mack announced the layoff of 100 police officers in 2012; and the quality of life and resident safety have both suffered as a result.

For example, back in the fall I rented an apartment to an 89 year-old woman who'd lived in the same home in Trenton since the 40's. She uses a walker to get around and came into her kitchen one afternoon to find some guy who'd broken into the house rifling through her cabinets - fortunately he just took off, but the experience terrified her and she was too scared to live in her own home anymore.

I have more stories like that I've heard from longtime Trenton homeowners that would break your heart; I just don't have the time to write about them all. Besides, it's really the same story.

"The Burg" as it's also commonly known, was until quite recently also home to a number of nice little family-owned Italian restaurants; the types of places that have been there for years. Some were the kinds of places where they didn't even have a menu, the food was so good you just went in and ate what was being served that day.

Most of those are now closed after many long-time locals moved away. And other customers no longer felt safe going there for dinner because of increasing harassment from young local gang members who made getting back to the car after a meal a dangerous trek.

It's not fair to blame Tony Mack for everything that's happened in the city of Trenton; some of those deteriorating conditions were in place or well under way before he took office in the summer of 2010 - a time when cities and communities all over the country were struggling with diminished tax revenue and shrinking support from the Federal government during the Great Recession.

And as an article on Tony Mack's guilty verdict in last Friday's New York Times pointed out:
"Since 2000, mayors of the New Jersey communities of Asbury Park, Camden, Hamilton, Hoboken, Newark, Orange, Passaic, Paterson and Perth Amboy, among others, have been convicted or have pleaded guilty in corruption cases."

So while political corruption is a much broader problem for the state of New Jersey, it's both sad and revealing that the communities comprised of populations that most need real leadership, innovative approaches to complex economic problems and a clear sense of ethics seem to get the Tony Mack's of this world. 
But that said  the corruption that's been a hallmark of Tony Mack's tenure as mayor has been a clear impediment for Trenton as both state and Federal funding for the city suddenly came attached with strings requiring that Mack's office would have no say in how it was spent to ensure that the funds meant to help the city would not be siphoned away to line the pockets of Mack's cohorts and allies.

Incredibly, Mack was still raising money for a re-election campaign before being found guilty and there are those in the city of Trenton who still see Mack as being the victim of some kind of set up or conspiracy. That speaks volumes about the low expectations many residents in economically disadvantaged areas have for the political leaders who they elect to serve them; as if words and good intent are more important the truth of someone's actual record in office. 

The real truth is the city of Trenton just couldn't afford a mayor like Tony Mack anymore, but it was Mack's own decisions, choices, greed and lack of ethical boundaries that led to his own undoing.

Only Mack is not the only one who will pay the price for it. The victims of the spike in crime in Trenton will pay, or have paid. The older resident who can no longer safely live in a home they can't sell; they're paying the price. Or the child who doesn't have a library to go to in order to study or quench a thirst for knowledge - they'll still be paying the price for years, maybe decades to come.

In the end the paltry thousands of dollars Mack's insatiable greed siphoned off from the city will pale in comparison to the price the people paid for his lack of leadership. And if there was a conspiracy in this sad chapter in the history of Trenton, it was a conspiracy of one.

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