“As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.” ~ Nelson Mandela
It has now been nearly two months since Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo was ordered to appear at the Trenton federal courthouse to answer charges of extortion and bribery. Despite being caught red-handed on an FBI surveillance tape selling his office for $12,400 to influence a school board insurance contract, he remains unrepentant and has refused to resign as mayor. While Times readers may think this is Hamilton’s problem, the reality is that, as the largest municipality in the region, the stubbornness exhibited by this mayor and the lack of action taken by township council has a very real impact on our area.
Hamilton is an economic engine, generating revenue and taxes that provide money for projects and services all over Mercer. Frankly, Hamilton is so large and important a municipality in Mercer that when things go bad there, they go bad all over.
The accusations of criminal wrongdoing for a sitting mayor are alarming, but it does present an opportunity to fix those gaps that have been revealed in the municipal laws that guide appointed and elected officials in ethically performing their jobs.
In the unlikely event that other Mercer County communities are confronted with a scenario similar to Hamilton’s, the response of those communities could be based on what Hamilton Council’s actions will or will not be.
There are things that must be done to reverse the damage already inflicted: First, the accused mayor should resign. Defending oneself against felony extortion charges is an inherent conflict with acting as mayor and John Bencivengo cannot publicly tell the truth about the charged offenses without having that information possibly used against him in criminal proceedings. Barring his voluntary resignation, council should pass a formal resolution now to call for his resignation. Second, council must enact reforms.
Council should formally call on the mayor to resign. Though an elected official cannot be removed from office in this manner, council knows that the mayor’s alleged criminal indiscretions are not conducive to business growth. Council’s formal call for resignation would provide the confidence a business leader needs to have in the community she or he wants to invest in. Council has not called for his resignation and this lack of a unified voice from council on the matter of alleged criminal behavior of its mayor does nothing to instill confidence and could mean no business growth, which means higher taxes for the rest of us.
Their response to the recently planned event to raise legal defense funds for the mayor was to merely say that they were going to stay home. There was no formal condemnation of a naked attempt to use the mayor’s title to raise money from township contractors and potential contractors or of the mayor’s refusal to release the names of those who contributed.
We know that a municipality’s council cannot remove an accused official from office. However, it can certainly stop awarding him or her perks and favors. If or when the accused is found innocent of the charges, those perks can be restored. In Hamilton’s case, council has allowed the mayor to enjoy the never-before-permitted upgrade to a luxury four-wheel-drive SUV. Furthermore, council is prepared to make permanent a $10,000 pay raise for the accused.
We are shackled by this mayor because we must rely upon an accused elected official to do the right thing by resigning. In Hamilton’s case, John Bencivengo has said he will not resign. Despite the threat to our economy and its growth, our council has failed to act to counter the impact of the mayor’s stubbornness. Neither has council given an indication that it will enact reforms to eliminate holes in our pay-to-play laws.
We must also take the following steps: lower the dollar amount that requires competitive bidding for municipal contracts; forbid the practice of comparison pricing in lieu of competitive bidding; eliminate loopholes that permits the township to avoid bidding thresholds by breaking a single large contract into multiple smaller ones; require those authorizing municipal contracts to submit signed affidavits detailing why that contractor was selected; require the disclosure by bidders of their existing employees who are former municipal employees; during bidding, require a bidder to document any family ties with local government employees; post all job openings on the township website and a major job-seeker’s website; and require hiring managers, department directors and the supervisors to document via affidavit their hiring decisions.
The residents know that the issue confronting a criminally accused elected official affects more than that elected official. It affects the entire community. As a result, residents rightfully expect those in a position to do so to take actions that will counter those negative effects.