Archive for 2012

Politics IS the Answer: The Majority for a Better Trenton

Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t pay attention to politics, politicians disgust me”, I feel sorry for our society and how that person’s parents and teachers have let us all down.

Politics (from Greek politikos ”of, for, or relating to citizens”) as a term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the corporateacademic, and religious segments of society. It consists of “social relations involving authority or power” and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy.

Politics isn’t a “bad” word.  When people complain about politics, what they’re really complaining about is that some people are simply better at it then they are.  And, by definition, if you don’t participate in the political process at all then you’re pretty much at the bottom of the heap.

Nothing is a given in politics.  People perceived as powerful don’t have to stay that way.  We don’t even have to keep our form of government.  Any one person or group of people can wield political power.   Case in point are Trenton’s bloggers, just by writing about our political situation we have at least some (albeit modest) political power.  In the past two years it’s been individual citizens who have researched and discovered many of the abuses of power in Trenton’s City Hall.

As the Citizen’s Campaign people are fond of pointing out there are many ways to be involved in the political process more than just voting and less than running for elected office.

  • You can be a party representative
  • You can be a citizen journalist (like me)
  • You can be on public board (like I used to be)
  • You can be a citizen legislator
  • Or, you can call people to action (like I’m doing in this article)

In Trenton we have non-partisan elections. This has good and bad effects on our city.  A partisan election with Republicans and Democrats has the potential to weed out bad candidates (which would have been helpful in 2010) but it also has the high likelihood of introducing issues into a local race that have no business being there (i.e. Defense spending or public healthcare ).

The absence of political parties reduces the opportunity for public involvement in the process and weakens the strength of platforms on which the candidates might run.  Rather than have candidates embrace ideals embodied by a party (as miss-guided as they might be) we have candidates in Trenton running mainly on personality.  We’ve all seen how that’s worked out.  I’m not arguing for a two party system in Trenton, rather I’m suggesting that stakeholders organize themselves in order to have a louder and more intelligent voice.

Elections should be about “ideas”, not about “what neighborhood a politician is from” or whether she was “born and bred” in Trenton.  Being an ideologue isn’t a bad thing.  We need well thought out goals, strategies and plans that are bigger than a single candidate.   They should be bigger.  The thinking required to revitalize Trenton is beyond any one person.

We need a mechanism to allow the best and brightest to set policy for our city and then to communicate those policies to an engaged public.  Such an organization will have a large membership of stakeholders, will communicate with officials and citizens, will serve as watchdogs over our government and importantly will select candidates that espouse the group’s ideals.  Its goal should be to make government beholden to the people and not the other way around.

I suggest that The Majority for a Better Trenton is that organization.  It is a political group with a mission to build a strong base of support for the strategies and plans that will revitalize our city.  If that means we need to change our form of government, then those options are on the table.  If it means wielding power to force elected officials to do the right thing, then that’s OK.  However, for the first time in Trenton, this group will decide what the “right things” are and why.

The group will create an opportunity for political expression beyond just voting on Election Day.

Being a member

MFABT will require lots of volunteer effort to develop policy, ensure good government and build the organization.  However we also want members!  Membership is for people who want to have a better opportunity to influence Trenton by better understanding the issues and then by voting on the group’s platform policies and support for candidates.  Basic membership is $15 and will go to support the costs required to grow the group (501c4 filing, PO Box, mailings etc.).    Members may be called upon to show support for an issue at City Council and be asked to vote on the group’s platform and support for candidates and other big issues at our annual meeting (planned for early 2013).  We’ll also call on members to participate in educational sessions and city budget prioritization sessions.  Trenton residents, business owners and property owners can be voting members.  Basically a member is a Trenton stakeholder who wants to raise their political voice louder than just voting every 4 years.

Being a volunteer

MFABT is creating standing committees to:

  • Serve as government Watch-Dogs,
  • Improve our political process,
  • Develop platform policies,
  • Identify future leaders,
  • Grow the membership and
  • Communicate to the public.

We hope that by virtue of this group being formed out of last year’s recall effort there is harmony among the activists and those that want to be more active to work with us to build a strong political force in Trenton.   Volunteering can mean doing mailings on the membership committee, doing OPRA requests for good government or researching an issue for the policy committee.  Volunteers will shape this group and help better run our city.

Being a leader

People shy away from leadership.  It’s hard and sometimes it takes time.  Really though, it only takes time when others don’t do their part.  The founding members of this group have already led and invite other leaders in Trenton to join us.  MFABT is a unique experiment in political activism and we all hope to look back on our roles with pride years from now.

Our Ask

  • We have a facebook group that you can join (look up Majority for a Better Trenton) please do.  We post events there and I’m sure discussions will happen.
  • Get involved by emailing me @ or Keith Hamilton at to let us know how you want to be involved.
  • For now our Treasurer will send invoices for membership dues until we have a web site with e-payments up and running.
  • Forward this to others that should be involved.

Voting is the basic level of involvement but it’s not enough.  I’d really rather that people who’ve not taken the time to understand the issues and the people running for office, just stay home.  You’re abusing your right to vote by not taking it seriously.  Votes make a difference and we’re all paying the price here in Trenton.  We’ve made bad political choices for a long time in Trenton and now we’re in bad fiscal shape and have a poor quality of life.  It’s not the politician’s fault, it’s the voters.

As we form Majority for a Better Trenton it’s inevitable that we’ll have to have meetings.  Please feel free to get involved with any of them.  We have three meetings coming up:

4/21 – Membership Committee Meeting

1pm @ Trenton Social.

We’ll start the organization process for building an 8500 person membership

4/21 – Policy Committee Meeting

2:20pm @ Trenton Social.

We’ll start sketch out the areas in which we want to have positions.

4/28  – General Meeting

1pm  @ Turning Point Methodist Church (15 S. Broad).

We’ll bring everyone up to speed, take membership dues  and break back into committee work

Trenton’s Mayor hates bloggers

As we speak, Trenton Mayor, Tony Mack, is criticizing bloggers at a special City Council meeting. He thinks that people like me criticize him too much.

He probably thinks it unfair, that there are literate people living in Trenton who are wise to his inability to manage a city. He says that “He doesn’t want to be part of anything negative”. Our Mayor has a blind eye when it comes to criticism. He’s under the impression that everything he does is right and that everyone who disagrees is trying to “take down” Trenton.

The foolishness of our Mayor really comes through when he says things like this.

Why would tax-paying residents of Trenton, like myself, spend so much time writing, researching and otherwise recommending ways to improve our city, if all we wanted to do was “take down” the city. No, of course that’s crazy. We and the 8500 voters who signed the recall petition have simply had enough. We know there’s a better way to run our city and that our city can be much better than it is today.

Our Mayor, in another display of foolish management tonight, just claimed in public that he was saving money by using Acting Directors instead of real “qualified and approved” Directors. Given that our charter requires us to employee real Directors in order to manage the affairs of the city in a professionsal manner, the Mayor is essentially saying, “I’m saving money by not managing the city well”. Being somewhat of a student of management, I can assure Reinvent Trenton readers that the “Run it into the Ground” school of management has never really caught on.

NPR’s “This American Life” from Trenton

A simplistic and misleading account of Trenton’s budget dilemma.

That said, listening to it at least paints the picture of the problem. We don’t have a collective understanding of the problem or the solutions. There’s a leadership vacuum around the subject of revitalizing Trenton.

This inspires me to help in the organization efforts for Trenton’s new political group, “The Majority for a Better Trenton”.

Trenton’s Plan: The Ultimate Question

I’m currently working with a client to help them rethink their business with an eye towards improving their Net Promoter Score (NPS). NPS is a fairly well known mechanism for measuring the health of a customer relationship. It’s based on asking one question: “Would you recommend the company / product to a friend or colleague?” Answers are given on a 0 to 10 scale and the NPS is calculated by subtracting the percentage of detractors (scores from 0-6) from the percentage of promoters (scores from 9-10). Depending on the industry, a decent score is 40.

Typically, companies ask detractors to explain their problem and then ask whether someone can follow-up in person. The best companies have managers follow up and take care of the customer immediately but more importantly help find ways for the problem to not happen again.

It turns out that employees in companies with high NPS scores like Apple, Jet Blue, Progressive Insurance and Enterprise Rent-a-Car are also happy with their jobs. Employees like being able to consistently satisfy customers.

The book that best explains NPS is The Ultimate Question 2.0 by Fred Reichheld and Rob Markey (Markey is a classmate of mine). The web site is

What if Trenton had such a program?

“On a scale of 0-10, would you recommend Trenton as a place to live to your friends and family?” This could be “The Ultimate Question – Trenton Edition.”

What if we religiously asked residents this question? What if we followed up? We could set up an email survey to ask the question or even better use our robocall system to do the asking.

In part one of my Trenton Plan, I recommended measuring four numbers: Ratables, Population, Crime Index and Graduation rate. Those are good things but to be really great we need to ask the ultimate question, “Would you recommend that a friend or relative live here?”

My free consulting advice for our next Mayor is to do exactly this. When you hire your aides, hire them into a small group that does nothing but call back residents about their problems, look for ways to solve them immediately and then craft ideas of how to solve the problems permanently. Additionally, your senior staff and you yourself should make some portion of these calls as part of your daily routine.

Citizen feedback and administration responses could be put onto the web site as a way to maintain transparency and re-enforce the point that we’re trying hard to deal with problems.

The next administration should use Net Promoter Score as a way of evaluating all departments and personnel. Create a bonus pool with city council’s blessing to reward employees based on NPS for the city. As you get more sophisticated, tie all work orders and emergency responses to how they served individual residents and business owners. Be able to link the work of the city back to individual NPS results in order to eventually give each employee an NPS score.

We might not even need to link bonus to NPS. The best companies don’t. A source of pride for Trenton employees (and I’d like to see this extended to schools) would be to achieve high levels of citizen satisfaction. Can you imagine how good it would feel to know that because of your efforts, citizens were giving the city scores of 9 or 10?

In short order we could turn into a city that strives to have citizen’s recommend it. This kind of attention to customer satisfaction could certainly be the silver bullet that revitalizes Trenton. Soon, everything our administration does could be oriented towards citizen priorities. Our budgets and policies would finely be in tune with the public.

This doesn’t solve our budget problem immediately and we won’t magically fix our crime issue. But by aggressively listening to citizens and solving their most important problems we slowly begin to repair our broken image.

Trenton’s Plan: Setting Goals

It is a truism that, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.”

And so it is with Trenton. We don’t know where we’re going, and so far, it’s pretty clear we haven’t gotten anywhere good.

Ask five Trentonians what their goals for the city are and you’ll likely get five different answers. Try asking 7 city council members. Or, try getting an answer from our Mayor at all.

Leadership is painting a vision and lacing it with measurable goals.

To miss-quote John F. Kennedy – “We choose to go to somewhere in space in the future”. Not much of a call to action is it.

As a community we don’t have a common set of goals that represent our vision and drive our mission to revitalize the city. We need that. We need our leaders to be thoughtful about how our policies and our budget are used to achieve goals. We can’t do everything, so being clear on the things we must do is job #1.

It’s hard set measurable goals

Goals are meaningless if you can’t recognize when they’re accomplished. Too many people forget this. A goal doesn’t help if you can’t measure achievement, or the progress towards achievement.

Every meaningful Goal has an outcome, and the challenge to writing meaningful goals is drafting a clear, precise, and measurable outcome.

To oversimplify, which goal stated below is meaningful?

  • To keep the citizens of the City safe from fire.
  • To keep citizens safe from fire by maintaining first engine response time to less than 3 minutes.

Note that meaningful Goals often describe an action or activity [although not always], but they always describe outcomes that are clear, precise, and measurable.

Think about measurement. How would I measure this? Can I accurately count the number of times something happens? Will I know when something happens? Can the administration cook the books?

These are all questions we need to ask ourselves.

Broad health goals set the agenda

For Trenton we have four basic concerns: We want our city to be safe from crime, for our children to be educated, for the city to be a pleasant place and for our government to be affordable. These concerns are not only interrelated but spill-over into every other part of life in the city.

Bad school environments breed crime, which makes us feel unsafe. When we feel unsafe we want to hire more police, which costs money we don’t have. However, if we don’t reduce crime we’ll not attract the new investment that would help us pay for a police force and a good school system.

Four broad goals can serve to focus us and our government policy on these concerns.

Ratables: Goal is $2.1B. in 4 years

That’s a 10% increase over the current $1.9B. Source: City tax rolls.

Ratables are what drive property taxes. In Trenton our property tax pays for 15% or our total municipal and school budget. The average for New Jersey is 50%. The State of New Jersey is under increasing pressure to decrease its funding to Trenton and we’ll need to make up the difference. However, to be a great city, we need to have a tax base that does more than maintain minimum services as we’re doing now.

Today the State of New Jersey funds $285M of Trenton’s school and municipal budget. If State property were taxed like private property, it would pay only $45M. Clearly we exposed to tightening budgets at the state level.

Ratables are measured in Trenton by the tax assessor and the tax roll is maintained by Trenton’s tax office. While property assessment is generally a well disciplined art, Trenton will need to update its processes and regularity for property value assessment.

Population: Goal is 90,000 people in 4 years

That’s up from 84,913 in 2010. Source: US Census – ACS

Growth in population shows that our city is appealing to outsiders. If we’re attracting people we’ve been successful in making the city livable for existing residents but we’re more attractive to businesses as well.

Population in Trenton is measured by the US Census bureau with a hard count every 10 years and an accurate estimate every year via the American Communities Survey.

Crime Index: Goal is a 20% decrease in one year, 40% in four years.

That’s from 3851 crimes in 2010. Source: Uniform Crime Report

The Uniform Crime report and FBI Crime Index report crime in a standard way and is a widely used statistic for assessing a community’s safety.

Graduation Rate: Goal is 90% graduation rate in 4 years

That’s up from the rate of 78%. Source: NJ DOE

Educators will argue over the use of this statistic but then fail to provide an alternative single measure for the health of a school system. A school system’s overall graduation rate, while not a perfect measure, is a good indicator of success and has the virtue of being well understood by the public. Furthermore, graduation from high school is a solid predictor of a student’s future success in life.

I hope that by publishing these four goals and our current state of affairs. We, as a community can begin to discuss them honestly. Perhaps we’ll change the targets up or down a bit, but in the end we need goals on which we can agree.

Another use for $500,000 in Trenton money

Our city council recently agreed to give the money-losing Trenton Marriott another $500,000 to satisfy the demands of the very management company that made it money-losing in the first place.

This begs the question of whether this is the best way we could invest that kind of money.

We could pay for 5 police officers, but that would be for just one year and then we’d have to lay them off in 2013. A better idea is to make investments in our tax base and quality of life that will be permanent and predictable.

With $500,000 we could stimulate investment in 50 new homes for 50 new families in Trenton.

Our fundamental problem (and all but the lunatic fringe agree) is that we don’t have enough people with disposable income living in Trenton. For now and to make the math easy, I’ll define that as people who can afford a home that costs $200,000 or more.
A home like that yields approximately $4,400 city revenue given our current tax rate and the 60% discount on home value our tax office builds in to the appraisal.

What if we give $10,000 grants towards anyone who will buy a new $200,000 home in Trenton. Given our tax rate this would yield a 79% rate of return over 10 years and would be paid back in just over two years.

For $500K we could make 50 grants to 50 new Trentonians that will help the rest of us pay for our city government going forward. Those 50 homes would generate $220,000 a year in revenue to the city or $1,720,000 over 10 years.

This plan recognizes an inescapable fact that much of our property in Trenton now has negative value. That’s right, we’d have to pay someone to take it off our hands. Free isn’t good enough. This happens all the time around toxic waste dumps. High murder rates aren’t much different.

The good news is that by simply building on a lot and living there, the land value is increased. We create value by stimulating development of new neighborhoods populated with people who won’t stand for crime. The criminal element hates houses with people and lights.