Blogs > Hamilton in focus

Covering Hamilton and Robbinsville townships in-depth for The Trentonian. I can be reached at (609) 989-7800 ext. 207 or (609) 468-6962. Email me at or follow me @awisefool.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Funky Friday: Teacher of the Year

I mentioned earlier that Hamilton had announced its Teacher of the year awards, and here they are:

Back Row, from left to right:
Patricia DelGiudice, Board President; Diane Fawcett, Robinson School; Francesca Garzio, Mercerville School; Karen Granaldi, Kuser School; Jennifer Yanucil, Wilson School; Julie Herman, University Heights School; Amanda Mondelli, HEP/Willey Campus; Harry Kenworthy, Lalor School; Christine Wichser, Langtree School; Mark Paulino, McGalliard School; Elizabeth Keyes, Klockner School; Christopher Wilmot, Grice Middle School; Sue Proulx, Hamilton West; Dayna Kowalski, Greenwood School; James Geraci, Crockett Middle School; Ellen Nenno, Nottingham/Hamilton North; Theresa Oliva, Kisthardt School; Susan Stephani, Sayen School; Dr. James Parla, Superintendent

Front Row, from left to right:
Kelly Bednarek, Sunnybrae School; Christie DiLeo, Yardville Heights School; Cindy Minoque, Alexander School

Not in photo:
Cindy McCarthy, Morgan School; Annette Bitter, Yardville School; MaryBeth McArthur, Reynolds Middle School; William James, Steinert/Hamilton East

Thanks to Hamilton Township School Board for the photo/caption.

Another news item: at this week's Robbinsville town council meeting, Mayor Dave Freed said the recent arrest of Robbinsville police officer Mark Lee was a "very tough thing the township went through."

"I am especially grateful to Project Freedom for them being as supportive as they have been," he said.

You can read more coverage of the issue here and here.

In the news today:
High foreclosure rate could put local government credit ratings at risk
Two Trenton cops suspended without pay
NJ military base to conduct explosive training

Next week I'll be starting in on local elections. If you're running for office in Hamilton Township, you'll soon hear from me! And here's some Stevie Nicks to play me out:

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hamilton to have unwanted drug disposal

Hamilton Township will be bringing a national prescription drug disposal program to the town this weekend, according to a press release.

On Saturday, people who have expired or otherwise unwanted prescription drugs can bring them to the Hamilton Police Division Headquarters at 1270 Whitehorse-Mercerille Road.

The initiative, part of a Department of Justice program that disposed for more than 275 tons of unwanted prescriptions in April, is meant to prevent the misuse or illegal resale of such drugs, according to the release.

It is called "National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day" and runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Residents looking for more information can call (609) 581-4000.

No word on whether Robbinsville has a similar program going on, though I doubt the Hamilton police would mind those residents showing up.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hamilton Township School Board president confident exec sessions cover proper issues

After the Hamilton Township School Board voted not to record its executive sessions, it is unclear whether some discussions in those meetings should be in the public.

Before the executive session of Monday night's board meeting, board president Patricia Del Giudice said she was confident the board handled its executive sessions well. She said she was not concerned the board discussed issues in those sessions that were supposed to be public.

The person in charge of that, district attorney William Burns, she said monitored their discussions and made certain only the correct issues came up.

It should be noted though, that Burns could not recall the list of appropriate subject matter for executive sessions earlier in the meeting.

During the board's discussion of board member Jeff Hewitson's proposal to record executive sessions, Burns said he did not know "off the top of my head" the list of appropriate topics for such sessions. He said he would be able to get a list of such subjects.

The board had arranged to discuss those issues Monday night at last week's meeting.

The motion to record the meeting, defeated on a 4-to-3 vote, was meant to address concerns that the board had routinely discussed issues that should have been addressed in the public portion of the meeting.

“I think it is very important. We talk about too many things in executive session that don’t belong there and should be in public,” Hewitson said before the vote. “We are talking about transparency. What is more transparent than taping executive session?”

The executive sessions take up a considerable portion of the length of most meetings. At last week’s meeting, the board’s executive session lasted more than two hours out of a five-hour meeting.
Board members discuss contract negotiations, personnel issues and legal matters at executive sessions, as well as confidential matters.

During the discussion of Hewitson's motion Kelly Addler, the attorney for Capehart and Scatchard advising the board, said the board recording its meetings would be more trouble that it was worth, because different portions of the tapes would become public documents at different times.

She also said the board should not continue its practice of recording meetings when other board members are absent. It is unclear whether the board recorded its Monday night executive session, which lasted more than an hour.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Rob Warney's sentencing hearing moved

You can read the full (short) story here.

  • The sentencing hearing for the convicted money launderer in the federal case against Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo has been delayed to December, according to court documents.

  • Former Hamilton School Board member and township official Rob Warney, who was scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 9, pleaded guilty in June to one charge of money laundering. Warney’s sentencing hearing will now occur after the scheduled beginning of Bencivengo’s trial, currently set for Nov. 5.
  • William Hughes, Warney’s attorney, said he had not requested the change, and he was not aware of any such request from prosecutors, either.

Board discusses recording meetings

From today's Trentonian:

Much of the first half of the Hamilton Township School Board meeting revolved around what the board hasn’t said and isn’t saying.

Community members and board candidates laid into the board over drops in high school rankings, increases in the budget and a decision by the board not to tape its executive sessions.

“We had a wonderful presentation to start the meeting,” said Dina Thornton, candidate for the board after the group broke for executive session.

“Unfortunately it took on a different turn because many people were unhappy with the school district and decisions they are making.”

The 4-to-3 vote against recording, which the sponsoring board member, Jeff Hewitson, said would make the board more open to the public. Other board members and a representative for law firm Capehart and Scatchard said it would be more trouble than it is worth.

You can read the full story here. More to come from the second half of last night's meeting.

Storify of 9/24 Hamilton School Board meeting

Monday, September 24, 2012

Live tweeting the Hamilton Township School Board meeting

I'll be tweeting about the meeting tonight, which starts in about 15 minutes, from my handle @awisefool.

Should my (tenuous) connection to the web drop, I'll have it all in a later blog post and story in tomorrow's Trentonian.

From the weekend: Bencivengo admits misusing mayormobile

You can check out the full story here.

Bencivengo admits misusing mayormobile

  • Embattled Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo has admitted to improperly using his township car, a township official said last week.

  • The mayor, who had taken the day off, used his car to drive an acquaintance’s child to school Friday morning, according to sources. The car, a black Chevy SUV, is supposed to be used by the mayor for township business.
  • The Trentonian is not identifying the family to protect the child’s identity.
  • Township Business Administrator John Ricci said township vehicles should only be used for township business, and only township employees are allowed in the vehicles. He said the township’s employee handbook spells those rules out clearly.
  • He said he had spoken to Bencivengo about the car ride, and the mayor admitted it was a mistake and said he would not do it again.
  • “He and other employees should know it is only for township business,” Ricci said.

Hamilton Township School Board meets tonight

At 7 p.m. tonight, the Hamilton Township School board will meet for the last time before October. You can check this blog out later for up-to-the-minute updates or check out my Twitter handle @awisefool.

Superintendent James Parla will also make a presentation about the district's investigation into misuse of a Lexis Nexis account in the residency office. At Wednesday's meeting, Parla said the matter had been forwarded to the Mercer County prosecutor's office, which said it could not press charges on the issue.

The board will likely also discuss the state Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance report on dealings with the district's former insurance broker. The report also levied a $25,000 penalty on the district, which last week the board voted to informally appeal.

In addition, they will likely discuss the possibility of a formal investigation into the scandal surrounding the dealings with the broker.

They'll also address some minor curriculum changes and teacher hiring.

Bencivengo scandal reaches Board of Ed...again

District catches thousands in overpayments to retirees

Steinert High School mold problem on the mend

You can also reach me at or (609) 989-7800 ext. 207.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Funky Friday: Buckle up, Rex

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney may want to watch where he's driving in New Jersey in the future: the state may make driving with unrestrained animals a punishable offense. No comment from the presidential canines on the issue.

I wonder if this case would have been affected?

Jerome Ballarotto will continue to appear in the pages of the Trentonian, it seems. Jojo Giorgianni retains same attorney as Bencivengo

From Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman's story:

"The convicted sex offender at the center of the Mayor Tony Mack federal extortion case has retained the same personal attorney as indicted Hamilton Township Mayor John Bencivengo.
     Joseph 'Jojo' Giorgianni appeared at his Friday morning bail hearing with defense lawyer Jerome Ballarotto representing him in his extortion and drug complaint cases.
     Giorgianni, 63, of Ewing, is the owner of JoJo’s Steakhouse and five other properties on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Trenton. Up until Friday, Giorgianni was retaining a public defender since his Sept. 10 arrest on extortion, weapons and drug charges.
     'I really got no comment,' Giorgianni said following his five-minute hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Arpert on Friday."

Check out the Trentonian tomorrow for a story of mine on the mayor. And Monday, get ready for some riveting coverage of the town school board meeting.

And here's Wild Cherry to play me out:

Hamilton lawyer on Pay-to-Play: subject to interpretation

Hamilton Township attorney Lindsay Burbage has given a response to critics' concerns over the ability of the township to regulate embattled Mayor John Bencivengo's legal defense fund.

Namely: it's a legal gray area and he's having the township take what he sees as the best course.

Burbage said he and another attorney in his office worked separately and came to the same conclusion; the township can't regulate the mayor's defense fund. The bills in the legislature give further proof, he said.

"By trying to give municipalities the ability to regulate them, you can draw a logical conclusion that it is not allowed now," he said.

He said the language of the local Pay-to-Play ordinance specifically mentioned "political contributions," which he defined as money given to a political campaign or political fund.

Bencivengo’s legal defense fund first made news in May when letters went out advertising a fundraiser for Bencivengo, who is fighting federal corruption charges. The fundraiser, which was cancelled, brought the issue of legal defense fund regulation, or lack thereof, to the forefront.

Bencivengo was arrested in April on federal corruption charges.

He allegedly received $12,400 in bribes from a cooperating witness, whom sources have identified as Marliese Ljuba, in order to influence a member of the Hamilton school board on behalf of her employer, Vineland-based insurance broker Allen Associates.

He has maintained his innocence, stating in a financial disclosure filed after his arrest that the money was a loan from a friend and not a bribe.

Politicians are allowed to use their own funds or funds donated to a defense fund for a private legal defense, but are prohibited from using campaign funds and vice versa, per a 2010 state Supreme Court decision.

Burbage conceded though, that there was some room for interpretation in the law. He pointed to a directive from the state's Department of Community Affairs on what local government "may" do in these situations as another point of murkiness.

"Whenever a government agency says this is what you may do, we don't know what will stand up in court," he said. "Any time there is a gray area there will be two sides to it, and they are on the other one."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

District catches thousands in overpayments to retirees

At last night's board meeting, member Joe Malagrino congratulated the district on catching tens of thousands of dollars in overpayments to former employees.

He said the district reimbursed retirees for their insurance copayments on prescriptions. He said the district had found checks to 70 former employees were too high, some by as much as $3,000.

He said the plan was supposed to cap the copay amounts at $1300 for the retiree and anyone on their plan.

"You have to be an awful sick individual to tally up those copays in a given year," he said.

He said the district had based those reimbursements on affidavits from the retirees, rather than receipts or documentation from the insurance companies.

The district canceled those checks and reissued new ones at the correct amount. Malagrino said he hoped the district would continue to investigate the issue.

When asked about the issue last week, Parla said the payment plan was a part of employee contracts, and he had seen similar plans in other districts.

I'm still waiting to hear back from Parla about this and other issues.

Steinert High School mold problem on the mend

Still catching up from last night's board meeting.

Superintendent James Parla said the mold problem discovered last week at Steinert High School has been pretty much remedied.

Karl Environmental, the contractor that completed the work, has finished cleaning the science wing and completed a second round of testing. The tests there and through the rest of the building came back clean.

Parla said the mold likely grew due to a combination of moisture in the building during the summer when ventilation systems had been turned off.

The company also received a contract through next June to handle other environmental issues at district schools.

More to come on pictures showing a board member and members of the school's administration at events with the cooperating witness in the FBI's case against Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo.

Robbinsville administration dealing with aftermath of arrest

ROBBINSVILLE - Township leaders and residents on Wednesday were dealing with the aftermath of a shocking series of assaults this week that ended with a township officer in handcuffs.

  • Sgt. Mark Lee remained hospitalized following his Monday night arrest. A source close to the situation said numerous tests were being conducted by doctors and psychiatrists.
  • The township administration will be bringing in special counselors this week to deal with officers’ issues following the arrest, said Mayor David Fried. He said after taking care of the victims, they had to take care of the police as well.
  • Lee, one of four sergeants in the 26-officer department, worked closely with the other officers on a daily basis, Fried said. He said it made sense to make sure they were all right.
  • “These officers, who had to arrest him that night, have worked with him every day,” he said. “They all know each others’ families.”
  • You can read more here.
  • Bencivengo scandal reaches Board of Ed...again.

    At last night's Board of Education meeting, longtime critic of the Board George Fisher made an unusual presentation.

    During the public comment section of the meeting, he brought out these photos showing Board Member Ron Tola, and members of the administration with the woman identified as the cooperating witness in the FBI's case against Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo.

    From left to right: Business Administrator Joe Tramontana, district attorney William Burns, Tola and Marliese Ljuba, former agent of Vineland-based insurance broker Allen Associates at a thank-you party for Tola's victory in 2009.
    Ljuba, Tramontana and Tola from a fundraiser for the latter's campaign in 2009.

    Fisher said they showed a pattern on the part of the business of the board for too-close relations with its vendors. At the time of the photos, Ljuba's company was acting as the district's insurance broker.

    “There are supposed to be at-arms-lengths dealings between the vendors and the administration,” said  Fisher, the three-time candidate for board. “You can’t have at-arms-length dealings when you are socializing with the vendor.”

    Tola, for his part, said the photos were taken out of context. He said he had a number of fundraisers for his campaign, and she attended one of them and the victory party.

    The pictures were shown after the board voted for the superintendent to investigate practices that resulted in the district being cited and penalized $25,000 by the state for mishandling its dealings with Allen Associates.

    Tola and other members of the board had been discussing such an investigation for weeks before the meeting.

    “There was a culture that existed under previous superintendent and CEO of non-bidding,” Tola said.

    The administration, Tola said, had done that without informing the board of its actions, a practice which current superintendent James Parla said has changed.

    "The administration was telling us things that were not accurate," he said.

    Ljuba has been identified by sources as the cooperating witness in the federal corruption case against Bencivengo. He allegedly received $12,400 in a bribe from her in order to influence a member of the school board on behalf of her employer.

    He has maintained his innocence, stating in a financial disclosure filed after his arrest that the money was a loan from a friend and not a bribe.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2012

    Robbinsville police officer busted, preview of tonight

    From police reporter Brian Dzenis: Robbinsville Cop busted after series of assaults

    "A Robbinsville police officer was charged with aggravated assault following an attack on a 45-year-old woman and her 4-year-old son Monday night at Project Freedom, which provides housing for the disabled.

  • Sgt. Mark Lee was on-duty during the assaults, which took place as a wheelchair-bound relative of the victims looked on in horror.
  • Lee was charged with official misconduct, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of endangering the welfare of a child, five counts of aggravated assault upon a police officer, and one count each of burglary, harassment and criminal mischief."
  • We'll have more on this story later, and I'll be covering the school board meeting tonight. (Hopefully tweeting from @awisefool, assuming the Internet doesn't fail me)
  • Council addresses issues with Trenton Water Works, other biz at meeting

    A suit brought by Hamilton Township could soon bring out exactly how many Trenton Water Works employees do work for other parts of the city.

    Councilman Ed Gore raised concerns last night over a report in The Trentonian last month that Paul Harris, an employee of Trenton Water Works, was running the city's Public Works division.

    He said the city work done by Harris was "once again an example of malfeasance by the administration of Trenton Water Works."

    "This is money from the taxes of Hamilton residents that is being misused by the city of Trenton," he said.

    Township lawyer Lindsay Burbage said Hamilton, among other municipalities, is nearing a settlement with Trenton Water Works in their suit against a 2008 rate increase. Burbage said the lawyers involved with the suit will have a status conference with the utility’s representatives Wednesday to work on the settlement.

    He said the settlement would include information about which utility employees are doing what work -- meant to make sure Hamilton residents' water bills pay for the service they receive.

    “We will ensure that all emplyoees paid by Trenton Water Works work for Trenton Water Works,” Burbage said.

    He said the township had information that multiple employees paid by Trenton Water Works were doing other work.

    Stay posted for more information on the law department's advice on the proposed Pay-to-Play ordinance and the meeting on the settlement.

    Storify of 9/18 Hamilton Town Council meeting

    Tuesday, September 18, 2012

    Hamilton council meeting, 9/18/2012

    For real-time updates, check out my Twitter feed @awisefool

    Tornado watch issued for much of east coast

    The darkened skies and occasional shower today are harbingers of some nasty weather tonight.

    The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado watch for much of the Mid-Atlantic region and all of New Jersey. The storms will be rolling through shortly and stick around for much of the evening.

    Per the National Weather Service forecast for tonight:

    "Showers and possibly a thunderstorm before 1am, then showers likely. Some storms could be severe, with damaging winds, gusty winds, and heavy rain. Low around 62. Breezy, with a south wind 19 to 24 mph becoming northwest 11 to 16 mph after midnight. Winds could gust as high as 45 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New rainfall amounts between three quarters and one inch possible."

    You can find a link to the watch here. The warning runs through 7 p.m.

    Hamilton council can’t regulate legal defense funds

    From today's Trentonian:

  • The Hamilton Township Council won’t be taking up a measure supporters say would help clean up the town’s politics.
  • The measure would extend the reach of the township’s Pay-to-Play law to cover private legal defense funds for criminal charges, including embattled Mayor John Bencivengo’s.
  • Council President Kevin Meara said, on advice from the law department, that state law did not give the township the ability to regulate legal defense funds.
  • “There is really nothing we can do to regulate ” he said. But if the state were to revisit the law, “we may have the ability and look at it again then.”
  • Several Election Law Enforcement Commission officials said the current Pay to Play law only let townships govern campaign funds, and did not extend to private legal defense funds. Deputy Director Joe Donahue said the agency’s reach did not extend to private funds.
  • “Certainly under our law, that set us up, there is nothing,” he said. “We certainly have no regulatory authority over legal defense funds.”

  • I'll be covering the Town Council meeting later this evening on here, so stay tuned!
  • Friday, September 14, 2012

    Funky Friday

    Welcome to Funky Friday! Each Friday I'll post some juicy links to take you through the weekend before really getting going again on Monday.

    Props to our own Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman and L.A. Parker for digging around for this story: Ex-Trenton officials: FBI used old plot to bait Mack

    Hamilton's finance department has been upgrading, apparently. The office is using technology to replace employees lost to retirement and attrition. The robot apocalypse is coming, one Excel spreadsheet at a time.

    As loathe as I am to link to a competitor, the Free Public Library of Hamilton has a great collection of art (which is also for sale) on display.

    ICYMI: Hamilton high school cleans mold problem and Hamilton residents lose water service

    And, for those of you talking about cleaning up municipal politics, imagine cleaning up after this dog

    In closing, here is this gem from Yoko Kanno:

    Thursday, September 13, 2012

    Hamilton high school dealing with mold problem

    Steinert High School in Hamilton has a growing problem.

    On Monday, school officials discovered mold on ceiling tiles in the school’s science wing, which has since been closed off for cleaning.

    Superintendent James Parla said classes had been relocated and a contractor was brought in to clean the wing.

    “We’re not talking about weeks here, we are talking about days,” he said.

    Once the contractor finishes cleaning, the wing will be tested again before allowing people back into the building, Parla said.

    School principal Kelly Mattis sent home a letter to parents, that was also posted on the school’s website, which detailed the district response and the work by the contractor, Karl Environmental.

    “Ceiling tiles are being replaced, and vents, grids, flat surfaces, walls and floors are being sanitized according to the direction of Karl Environmental,” Mattis said.

    The letter also said the school would exercise “sensitivity” for students whose books are stuck in the affected wing.

    Wednesday, September 12, 2012

    Hamilton Police Chief: Burglaries level off

    Hamilton Township Police Chief James Collins

    Hamilton Police Chief James Collins said that, after the township saw a higher number of burglaries through July (a total of 279 burglaries in 2012 as compared to 267 last year) the number has since leveled off.

    Through the end of August, Collins said Hamilton has reports of 322 burglaries this year, the same as through last August. In 2011, the township had 513 burglaries, he said. In 2010 he said there were 434.

    The numbers became an issue at a community meeting last week to address a spike in burglaries in the Golden Crest neighborhood of the township.

    "It's not the best, it's not the worst, but it's not good," he said at the time.

    No word yet on the rash of burglaries in Golden Crest, though at last report it was 24.

    Video of Hamilton 9/11 memorial

    9/11 service in Hamilton

    Hamilton residents, first responders and township officials came together to remember the 11th anniversary of 9/11 Tuesday at Veterans' park.

    The ceremony included presentations from Mayor John Bencivengo, Chief Mark Antozzeski of the Hamilton Fire Chiefs Association and Larry Rosenthal of the Hamilton Township Patriotic Committee.

    Brian Bethke, 52-year old Hamilton resident and brother of 9/11 victim William Bethke, said he enjoyed the memorial.

    “I appreciate that the township does this,” he said. “They always do a nice job of it.”

    Find more images from the day here.

    Monday, September 10, 2012

    Calling all photogs!

    Hamilton's 30th annual Septemberfest is just a day old, and on the Internet that's a lifetime. (or at the very least, the life cycle of a few pop songs)

    So don't let those precious memories go by the wayside! Share them with your fellow Hamiltonians!

    Send them along to the Trentonian at, and they'll make their way up here.

    Hamilton residents express frustration with burglaries

    At a community meeting last week, more than 200 locals expressed frustration with a growing number of burglaries in their neighborhood -- at least 24 so far this year.

    Check out the story here.

    Have your own stories about crime in Hamilton? Want to submit ideas for this blog?

    Get in touch with me at

    Friday, September 7, 2012

    Weather forecast clear for Sunday's Septemberfest

    Hamilton township's 30th annual Septemberfest should see clear skies and (relatively) mild temperatures.

    The national weather service said the weather should be sunny, in the mid 70s and have a decent breeze for the festivities in Veterans Park.

    This year's "Birthday Theme" festival starts at 10 a.m. and runs through 5 p.m.

    The township calendar has more info here.

    Hamilton offering free flu and pneumonia vaccines

    From a Hamilton Township press release:

    "If your goal is to avoid the flu this season, Hamilton’s Division of Health wants to help you achieve it."
    The township will have a series of free flu clinics starting this month for H1N1 and seasonal flu strains. (The shots are only available to residents)

    Homebound residents who cannot get to clinics can still receive vaccinations by calling (609) 890-3884 to schedule an appointment.

    The release said "[the flu] is especially dangerous to certain age groups and those with chronic or immune system conditions."

    For people outside those groups, myself included, the flu still isn't fun.

    In addition, residents older than 65, or those with diseases such as diabetes, cardiac diseases and respiratory conditions can get pneumonia vaccines by contacting the Division of Health at (609) 890-3884 for an appointment.

    Welcome and first post

    Hello readers/random visitors,

    This is Michael Macagnone, the Hamilton and Robbinsville beat reporter for the Trentonian. I'll be covering both townships, their school boards and everything else in their borders on here.

    Here's my first few stories, and keep an eye out for more:

    Hamilton mayor likely won’t be on November ballot

    Hamilton school officials may do some digging

    Follow me @awisefool

    You can reach me at the Trentonian here:
    (609) 989-7800 ext. 207