Friday, November 11, 2005

What Will McWilliams Leave For His Successor?

Sharon Robinson-Briggs is not likely to find Krazy Glue in the locks or shredded documents in the trash as some mayors have found upon taking office. But she will inherit a mixed bag of things that came about during the eight-year tenure of Mayor Albert T. McWilliams.

For one, she will have a $35,000 salary that wasn’t there before. The salary of a sitting mayor cannot be raised, but the City Council approved a raise from $10,000 to $35,000 just before McWilliams was re-elected for second term.

As the mayor often said in campaign speeches, the city now enjoys its highest tax collection rate in decades. But the opposite side of that coin is that the city can’t get millions in tax lien sales any more, now that delinquent taxpayers have gone down from about 10 percent to 5 percent of property owners. Robinson-Briggs will have to look harder for revenue sources.

A police contract hammered out over three years was just settled. The clinker is, it expires at the end of 2006, so negotiations will have to begin again.

The Department of Public Affairs and Safety, whose civilian director is in charge of the Police and Fire divisions, fell on hard times in recent years, with long-time director Michael Lattimore suing the city, the mayor, the police chief and others. Then he quit for a post at Rutgers. No settlement terms were made public.

Then Police Chief Edward Santiago sued the city, the mayor, Lattimore and others. Leaders of the police union and its African-American fraternal group were vocal in their support for Lattimore and condemnation of his successor, Jiles Ship, and also outspoken against Santiago’s leadership.

Robinson-Briggs campaigned with PBA Local 19 President Andre Crawford and Plainfield Area Ebony Police Association President Kenneth Reid close at hand. Robinson-Briggs will have the challenge of quelling the dissension and sharpening the focus on public safety after a year with 14 homicides.

Improving the city’s has been a task for McWilliams and every other mayor since the 1967 civil disturbances. The City Council approved spending $250,000 on creating a “brand” for the city. But since the Robinson-Briggs campaign sent out fliers highlighting the record number of homicides in the city, the task is a bit more uphill.

McWilliams increased the number of redevelopment plans from about three when he took office to more than a dozen now. The Tepper’s and Park-Madison sites downtown are now developed. McWilliams also changed the deputy city administrator’s mission from that of ombudsman for the citizens to a cabinet-level economic development role.

By placing Planning under the office, McWilliams created in effect a new city department, an apparent violation of the City Charter, which spells out three departments under which all divisions must be placed.

Robinson-Briggs will have to sort through the redevelopment schemes and figure out how the city will pursue them. And who will be in charge.

Despite passage of the Civic Responsibility Act of 2005, which calls for more transparency in appointments to boards and commissions, many of those bodies are defunct. Perhaps the next administration will either take some off the books or revitalize them.

McWilliams launched the first major road repair program in 20 years. It calls for $75 million in repairs over the next fifteen years. Robinson-Briggs will have to keep it moving to avoid increasing costs if the plan faces delays.

There are lots of other things to do, including appointment of top administrators and reviewing operations. The city just hired more code enforcement officers to address overcrowding as well as property code violations, a program the next mayor will have to assess. McWilliams hired several new police officers and Robinson-Briggs promises to hire more.

When Robinson-Briggs takes office Jan. 1, she in turn will give the Board of Education a new task . Because the City Charter does not allow dual office-holding, she will have to give up her board seat. A new person must be appointed to fill out her term, which expires in April 2006.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city government