Dysfunction leaves NJ capital city in ‘crisis’ — but officials don’t want state help
TRENTON – The government in New Jersey’s capital city is in turmoil but local officials say they are not ready for state intervention.
Both the City Council and Mayor Reed Gusciora agree the political solution has escalated to “a crisis level.”
Amid the chaos, the City Council led by President Kathy McBride has suspended its meetings until April. Their last meeting was on March 3.
In response, Gusciora has issued a controversial executive order allocating nearly $6 million in new spending without approval from the other body. The mayor’s office says it’s needed to preserve the health and safety of residents.
But when asked if the city’s government needs more help from the state, mayor’s office spokesman Timothy Carroll said the mayor is taking care of business on his own.
"Mayor Gusciora is knocking down abandoned houses, improving water quality, and integrating social services with the police force — all of which raises the quality of life for Trentonians. He has no control over the City Council or the City Clerk, nor should he. Their actions speak for themselves."
Nearly all of the funds in the executive order cover water infrastructure and health services. It also sets aside $520,000 for the demolition of an overgrown, abandoned warehouse at 942 Prospect Ave.
Under normal conditions, approving contracts and demolitions is the responsibility of the council. However, the state Department of Community Affairs has a fiscal monitor in Trenton who could greenlight the executive order. New Jersey 101.5 reached out to the DCA for comment.
The chaos affects a city that was once a thriving manufacturing hub but is now beset by crime and poverty. At $37,000, the median household income in Trenton is less than half of the statewide average — and many of its 90,000 residents are in underserved communities that would be most impacted by a breakdown in government services.
State takeover necessary?
The given reason behind the council's sabbatical is City Clerk Michael Conlon's indefinite medical leave. It comes after two law firms corroborated allegations against Conlon of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.
The clerk’s temporary replacement resigned after a single day when the mayor took issue with a possible conflict of interest.
Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers, told New Jersey 101.5 steps can be taken at the local level.
The City Council or a single member could file a complaint about Conlon to the Local Government Services Division within the DCA.
“They have responsibility for certification and disciplinary action that can be taken toward municipal clerks and that process needs to be started with a complaint. It is possible that the division could initiate its own action, but apparently, that hasn’t happened yet.”
It’s likely any overhead from the state would not resemble the financial takeover of Atlantic City. The state government has limited power and can only step in when a municipality is headed toward insolvency.
As for the City Council, Pfeiffer said the best solution may be citizen engagement rather than sweeping changes from state officials. He recommended citizens attend public meetings, dig into local issues, and talk to council members on the street.
"There is some power the state has to step in and take care of those failures. But those powers are very rarely and very carefully used.”
Adding to the council's concerns, two at-large members will have changed jobs come June. Former Councilman Jerell Blakeley resigned from the body in January for a position in Indiana.
Meantime, Councilman Santiago Rodriguez announced this week he will be leaving office early on June 30. Council members passed an election ordinance last year to extend their terms to end this December instead of June.
Rodriguez told New Jersey 101.5 he would complete his original four-year term but not the extra six months. He plans to then move to Florida to care for his grandson because he says Trenton Public Schools "does not have adequate services."
The at-large councilman labeled Mayor Gusciora a “dictator” for the recent sweeping executive order. Rodriguez called on him to resign, adding "he should go to jail."
Days earlier, Rodriguez had been planning what the local newspaper called a "coup" against Council President Kathy McBride.
"It was a desperate measure, but it was impossible," he said. Rodriguez only secured two of the five votes on council needed to remove her.
He also told New Jersey 101.5 that the mayor is a Princetonian, not a Trenton man.
"His hanging places were New Hope, New York, those gay clubs," said Rodriguez. Gusciora is the city's first openly gay mayor. "He never spent a penny in Trenton."
As for potential state intervention, Rodriguez is not on board.
“Over my dead body,” Rodriguez said.