Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Year in Review

Possible ties for top Plainfield story in 2005: the bitter political fight among city Democrats and an extraordinary string of homicides.

Two-term incumbent Mayor Albert T. McWilliams found himself ousted from party power just before the June Democratic primary and had to scramble to put together an alternate slate. He lost by a little over 300 votes to Assemblyman Jerry Green’s candidate, Sharon Robinson-Briggs, and Green also won back the party chairmanship that McWilliams wrested from him in 2003.

By the June primary, the city had suffered nine homicides, which became political ammunition against the incumbent.

After a quiet summer, political warfare re-emerged with a vengeance in September, when McWilliams tried to run as a Republican. That bid failed, and McWilliams’ supporters then mounted a write-in campaign.

The number of homicides had grown to 14 in September, and the Regular Democrats cast more blame on McWilliams. He was not on the ballot, but came in second with 2,299 write-ins to Robinson-Briggs’ 4,357 votes. Robert Ferraro, who was on the ballot, received 1,119 votes.

Since the election, there has been one more homicide, for a total of 15. By contrast, the city only had one homicide in 2002 and five in 2003.

Other top stories:

Unrest in Law Enforcement: Leadership changes, litigation, no contract, no confidence
The year ended with no Public Safety director in place. Giles Ship, appointed after McWilliams fired longtime director Michael Lattimore in late 2004, left in December. Both Lattimore and Police Chief Edward Santiago sued the mayor and other city officials over a disciplinary matter. Police rank-and-file and superior officers waited three years for a new contract, which was settled at the end of 2005. Police leaders expressed a lack of confidence in the leadership of both Ship and Santiago.

SCC Money Woes Sink New Middle School
A large tract of land on South SecondStreet in the West End was slated to be the site of a badly-needed new middle school, but the New Jersey School Construction Corp. ran out of money with dozens of projects uncompleted statewide. Unless the state gives the troubled agency more money, the land may now be placed on a list of sites for economic redevelopment.

New Charter School Opens at Shiloh but BOE forgets to budget for it
Plaintalker was the first to hail the opening of the Union County TEAMS Charter School in the new Shiloh Baptist Church community complex. Midway through the 2005-06 school year, the Board of Education had to take $1 million in surplus funds to make up for leaving the school out of the budget. Another $865,000 must be made up through budget adjustments.

Downtown streetscape upsets residents with tree cutting and an excess of benches
Residents reacted angrily when a shady grove of trees on Financial Plaza was cut down. Then a proliferation of 80 benches installed downtown caused merchant worries and citizen concerns about loitering. Many new trees did not survive the summer's blistering heat. The streetscape plan also included new streetlamps, sidewalks, brickwork and trash receptacles.

Council votes money for senior center, mayor holds faux groundbreaking
Plans for a new senior center changed after former basketball star Jayson Williams pulled out as developer. Williams still showed up for a May "groundbreaking" at the East Front Street site, where numerous dignitaries stuck shovels in a pile of imported dirt for photo ops. More recently, the City Council approved a $4 million bond ordinance for the center and new plans are in the works.

New office building opens on Park-Madison
The Union County Improvement Authority's office building opened in 2005 with tenants including state and county agencies. Victorian-style benches and street lamps offset the modern blue-glass look and tie the building to the downtown's late 1800s architecture.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: year in review, politics