TRENTON — Tired of dysfunction in the municipal government, a city resident on Monday filed an ethics complaint against council over the attempted secret sale of the historic Roebling Wire Works building.
Mike Ranallo, who lives in the West Ward, asked the Trenton Ethics Board to investigate whether legislators violated the city ethics code by holding an illegal executive session during its Sept. 3 virtual meeting.
“I want it on the record,” said Ranallo, who has questioned the function of the ethics board due to some of his past complaints going nowhere. “What they choose to do with it, or how they follow up, is on them.”
The taxpayer’s concerns echoed ones raised by The Trentonian and Mayor Reed Gusciora.
Both asked AG Gurbir Grewal to investigate whether council violated the Open Public Meetings Act by meeting privately to hear a pitch from John Liu, president of Elite Spiders LLC, who proposed buying the Wire Works building for $200,000 to turn into a PPE manufacturing plant.
On Monday afternoon, The Trentonian learned the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office will investigate allegations The Trentonian has written about including claims of bid rigging, wiretapping and Open Public Meetings Act violations.
Members of the arts community bashed the secret proposal, saying the Wire Works building, which hosts the annual Art All Night festival, is too important to the community to sell.
In the complaint, Ranallo accused legislators of possibly having a personal “interest” in Liu acquiring the city building.
He wants all seven legislators held accountable for the OPMA violations, saying they had a duty to leave the virtual executive session and rejoin the public rather than participate in the shady session.
Ranallo believes the secret meeting was “in substantial conflict with the proper discharge” of council members “professional” duties.
He pointed to the city ethics code that says, “No local government officer or employee or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction or professional activity which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.”
Ranallo, who supported Paul Perez in the 2018 election and has been a consistent critic of Mayor Reed Gusciora, said the council members “serve some important aspect of public interest and the general good of society.”
“The term ‘professional’ places a strong emphasis on the integrity and the competence of its members,” he wrote, “and therefore requires them to conduct themselves in accordance with a code of conduct.”
It’s unclear how Liu came into contact with the legislative body.
Liu, who told The Trentonian he was rescinding his interest in the building after questions arose about his past, met with the administration about buying the Wire Works building but was told it wasn’t for sale.
Gusciora accused the businessman of going behind the administration’s back to council, but neither Liu nor council president Kathy McBride would say how the governing body came to hear the pitch privately.
An apparent go-between, former council candidate Joyce Kersey, a consultant, refused to say who her “client” Liu was put in touch with on the governing body.
McBride or vice president Marge Caldwell-Wilson normally control the agenda docket. The Liu proposal appeared under the executive session portion of the agenda as redevelopment being discussed privately because of the attorney-client privilege exception to the OPMA.
In his letter to Grewal, Gusciora asked him to investigate who from council invited the redeveloper into the executive session.
State law allows governing bodies to meet in executive session to discuss contract negotiations among themselves.
In its letter to the AG, The Trentonian cited case law that made it clear legislators shouldn’t have met with the interested party in private to discuss his proposal.
McBride, who did not respond to a request for comment, fired off her own letter to Grewal, demanding an investigation into who she claims illegally leaked the information about the Liu proposal.
Ranallo called McBride’s request “silly,” agreeing the information shouldn’t have been shielded from the public in the first place.
He said the council’s actions since taking office resemble a “dumpster fire.”
“It’s literally one thing after another. This violation is one of their more egregious ones. They were discussing the sale of a historic public building with private developer funds in secret with no record of it,” Ranallo said, referring to city clerk Matthew Conlon’s admission to The Trentonian that the executive session went unrecorded.
Stephen Slusher, the chairman of the Trenton Ethics Board, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Under city ordinance, the board can subpoena witnesses and documents relevant to Ranallo’s complaint and hold a hearing if it believes council members’ violated the ethics code.
The board can provide information to the AG or MCPO “concerning violations of the City of Trenton municipal Code of Ethics or financial disclosure requirements by local government officers.”