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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Is Change Happening in Camden - Not sure

I read the story in the Courier-Post this morning about Camden Mayor Redd's assistant, Novella Hinson and her checkered political past. It certainly does not give this resident much confidence in the new Mayor's ability to lead the city out from under the shadow of the Camden political machine. I think the most interesting tidbit from the article is that Mrs. Hinson earns $14,800 as a Camden election commissioner. Nice work if you can get it! I think part of New Jersey's fiscal woes come from the outrageous pensions, salaries for low-show jobs, and no/low contribution benefit packages that are provided to people who get on the public gravy train. Now, I have worked for state supported universities all my life and consider myself a public employee. I feel I have a right to criticize the public sector. I also have made a career out of studying and examining the public sector, so I feel like I know a few things. I know many people look askance at academics because we are eggheads in the ivory tower - whatever that means. I've been on the ground involved in public sector actions since I was old enough to go door-to-door with campaign flyers. I think I have enough experience to make comment.

I can't begrudge the Mayor for making a trusted ally and mentor her unpaid aide. In politics, you need a person you can trust without hesitation. I think it is the other aides that people are concerned about - all the ex-Corzine administration folks that were the "best qualified" to take the positions. I have no doubt they have qualifications. But if there is to be any hope for Camden, the city needs to be able to make decisions that can be independently vetted. Right now it looks like the Democratic machine train has pulled into the station. I don't even have a problem with political machines. I grew up in Chicago when the original Mayor Daily was in office - the trains ran on time, the city grew, and the city operated. Of course it also was a racially prejudiced place that did not tolerate dissension (1968 national D convention head bashing of protesters), and had a corrupt housing authority that eventually had to be taken over by a judge.

A reliance on the expediency of a political machine has a price. In Camden, I don't know if we can afford to pay that price forever. The new mayor has been in office for only a few months. What can you expect in that time? One might expect a plan, a strategy, or a laundry list of items to tackle. We haven't seen that yet. One might expect a commitment to going after federal stimulus funds to boldly take on some of the vexing economic issues facing the city. So far there has been a $750,000 charitable grant to Cramer Hill to hire community planners/implementers, a $21 million grant from HUD for housing repair and development split between two different applications in the city, and .... (sound of crickets chirping). It may be unfair to compare the mayor to Corie Booker in Newark or mayors in other cities, but she is not going to make any lists of exceptional politicians this year if she continues this trend. Unfortunately, her most noteworthy act to date is an attempt to garner more salary dollars for her aides. Not a smooth move Mayor.

Camden has come out from under state control (for the most part) and will have the power to take over the school district, which is a hot mess. So far, two people from that underachieving school district have been appointed to the city council to fill vacant seats due to members moving up the political food chain (including the Mayor). These decisions do not bode well for Camden improvement. Meanwhile, the Mayor has not made any statements about how she will appoint school board members, run the budget commission, or what vision she has for the district.

The absence of direction, information, and leadership in Camden is very disappointing and very troublesome. We have rhetoric in large doses, but specific action, strategic vision, and detailed direction is in very short supply.

It is easy for me to throw criticism from the sidelines. So let me give some concrete suggestions.
  1. outline how school board appointments will be made. What criteria are needed in board candidates, how will they be screened and vetted, and what will be the decision process. Same goes for the budget commission.
  2. outline 5 goals for the rest of the calendar year - whether it is in visible accomplishments, professional benchmarks for city staff, partnerships with measurable milestones - something the city residents can hold the mayor accountable for. Right now, we have nothing.
  3. the mayor made a big deal about economic development during the campaign. What types of development are you going to pursue? How will you decide? We supposedly have a medical school coming that will support Cooper Hospital. What jobs for Camden residents are being supplied or offered by this development? What modern technology, green efforts, sustainable practices are we pursuing? What innovation or bold strokes will be undertaken? Look around and see what other cities are doing. Camden is like a barge stuck in the mud. We aren't doing anything and we are going nowhere.
Those ideas should keep the Mayor and her aides busy for a while. Transparency, accountability, measures, and production. It isn't that complicated - but it isn't easy either. It can be done if there is political will. I can attest that in Camden there is plenty of civic will to support these things. There may not be much civic will to support the current status quo.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Good take on Camden's direction. Camden has a way of recycling people, specially those that played a major role in getting the city to its curret state of affairs. We need a resurgence of new home grown leadership that are committed to change!!! and that also have the skill set to address challenging problems!!!

Wanda Garcia