Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Homicide No. 10: Homeless Woman No. 3

PLAINFIELD (6/29/05) - The city's latest homicide victim was found Wednesday morning, June 29, in a yard behind 144 East Seventh Street, between Park and Watchung Avenues, barely a block from City Hall.

The victim was identified as Manita Andrews, 41. She was the third woman killed within seven weeks in the city. Police had little to say, but onlookers said her body was found naked and bound.

Relatives and friends gathered in front of the multi-family home as police probed the back yard, which had numerous vehicles and large piles of dirt in it. Witnesses said the investigation began Wednesday morning, but it was only in the afternoon that police put up a blue tarpaulin where the body was found. The body was removed and carried on a gurney to the medical examiner's car at about 2:45 p.m.

Police also refused to say why they investigated an office building on the same block where a male friend of the victim lived.

PHOTO: Councilman Ray Blanco and Flor Gonzalez of the Latin American Coalition await further information about the murder victim.

The two other women found murdered recently in Plainfield were Pebbles Cade, a homeless woman whose body was found in a trailer at the site of the new senior citizens' center in the 300 block of East Front Street, and Carolyn Robinson, who according to published reports was beaten to death June 9 in a basement in the 700 block of East Front Street.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Murder, homeless, police

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Urban Clear-Cutting


Why were all the trees cut down on Financial Plaza?

A. Because they were old.
B. Because they would not have survived the streetscape reconstruction.
C. Because the plaza had to be re-graded for handicapped access and the trees had to go.


If you chose "C" that was the most recent explanation offered Monday by project engineer George James. Simply put, if the improvements didn’t meet the state access code, funding would not be provided. City engineer Carl Turner did not comment.

“I know it was a nice, shady area,” James said, offering a revised plan that would place some larger new trees on the site to hasten growth of a canopy.

Citizen rumbling began when the first trees were cut down as part of the launch of the long-awaited downtown streetscape improvements. About 80 trees on Front Street and side streets between Madison Avenue and Watchung Avenue fell under the axe. The outcry hit a crescendo last week after a dozen mature trees were cut down on Financial Plaza at Park and Front and gained more decibels when residents and merchants saw a big yellow machine clawing the shade-covered park apart.

Citizens attending the hearing were especially horrified to see a leafy glade furnished with benches and chess tables laid bare and then demolished to make way for new sidewalks, sapling trees and replacement brick pavers.

Third Ward resident Josef Gutenkauf called the action “a heinous crime,” and Dottie Gutenkauf read a poem about the chess park that she wrote in the form of an obituary.

A gaping hole in the plaza will most likely greet visitors who come to the July 4th parade, as the reconstruction will not be completed until mid-July.

The project originated in the Economic Development office before the city hired a tree expert and started a committee to address how trees should be preserved. The Ten Cities Tree Committee was formed last fall and is working on getting a tree commission and an ordinance to protect city trees.

Because so many people were upset over the tree removal and because there was considerable finger-pointing at the hearing, Councilman Ray Blanco asked for a separate council meeting just on the subject of trees.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: redevelopment, public hearing, trees

Budget hearing for Special Improvement District

PLAINFIELD - SPECIAL HEARING (6/27/05) - The hearing on June 27th was a time to review the second-year budget for the city’s Special Improvement District (SID) projects -- an ambitious program that includes a quarterly magazine and student “ambassadors” to greet train arrivals.

The budget will be up for a vote at the July 5, 2005 City Council meeting.

Half of the $227,200 budget will come from a 3 percent tax assessed on about 400 property owners downtown and in the South Avenue business district. It will be matched with $113,600 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds, a special program that holds sales tax money for designated projects in the zone.

$113,600 - 3% tax paid by business district property owners
$113,600 - Urban Enterprise Zone funds
$227,200 - Total for fiscal year 2005-6

The budget covers the fiscal year starting July 1 and will also provide for hiring a professional management team, creating signs to mark the district, new holiday decorations and completion of a door-to-door inventory of more than 600 businesses for a membership directory.

The proposed student ambassadors will provide city information to rail travelers as part of “quality of life” improvements that also include graffiti removal, security cameras and dusk-to-dawn streetlights in darker parts of the district.

The idea for creating a Plainfield Special Improvement District originated with the city administration. Like the PMUA, however, the SID is a self-governing body. The SID organized in September 2004, selecting officers and approving bylaws after months of preparation.

At a June 16 Planning Board meeting, SID president Elissa Cohen of Suburban Jewelers questioned why city officials had not included the group in redevelopment talks on downtown projects that could cause business and property owners to have to relocate.

“Why does the city feel the SID should not be involved? she asked.

The redevelopment questions and related concerns about the streetscape project come even as the newly revitalized Chamber of Commerce has hired an executive director and established an office at Park Avenue and Seventh Street, another part of the SID.

Residents expressed considerable passion and a significant amount of confusion at the June 16 meeting about the many redevelopment efforts under discussion. In order to address citizens’ concerns, city planners will devote the July 21 Planning Board meeting to explain the city’s many layered projects in greater depth.

Longtime resident Nancy Piwowar said Monday, “What I just saw tonight, it’s evident that all departments that deal with each project all need to talk to each other.”

COMMENT: Is the city showing progress or turmoil in all these changes? - B. Paglia

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Budget, public hearing, Special Improvement District, redevelopment

Drink Up

PLAINFIELD - PUBLIC HEARING (6/27/05) - It'll be business as usual for all 35 holders of Plainfield liquor licenses. That's the result of the June 27th public hearing on license renewals. Those whose paperwork is in disarray or who have charges pending will be able to go to Trenton and get temporary licenses.

Nevertheless, attorney Frank Capece, who was hired to work on liquor license matters, promised more hearings that could lead to suspensions or denials. Even the North Avenue bar, La Bamba, that Capece vigorously attacked in a hearing several weeks ago, will be open pending an appeal to the Office of Administrative Law.

Only two residents spoke at the June 27 hearing.

Sheldon Green complained that people buy liquor at JFT Liquors on Grant Avenue, then drink outside and urinate in public. Green said his nearby recycling bin was filled with bottles left by the al fresco drinkers. He said the assumption is that people buy liquor and then take it home to consume “in the comfort of their living rooms,“ but that’s not what happens at JFT.

Nancy Piwowar said a liquor store at Clinton and Front also holds a flea market, allows truck parking and sells used cars on the premises.

Police Captain Anthony Celentano said drug activity at both locations had been investigated, but until Green raised the question, he had no reports of drinking in public at JFT. At Clinton and Front, he said, police also investigated allegations of prostitution.

City Council President Linda Carter asked for more frequent police reports on liquor establishments so the council can make informed decisions in its role as the local Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

Plainfield's liquor license holders include five social clubs, 14 bars and 14 stores, and two inactive bar licenses.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Liquor licenses, public hearing

Sunday, June 26, 2005

On Primary Day They Let Fingers Do Their Talking

PLAINFIELD - ELECTION - A quarter of Plainfield Democrats who voted in the June primary election withheld their votes from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Jon Corzine.

According to certified results from Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi, 5,505 Democrats voted on June 7. Of those, 5,160 split their votes among three mayoral candidates, incumbent Albert T. McWilliams (2,388), Regular Democrat Sharon Robinson-Briggs (2,713) and independent Democrat Thomas T. Turner III (59).

McWilliams, who had been chairman of the Plainfield Democratic City Committee, was forced to run a slate of his own after party officials stripped him of the power to select candidates for the line. His supporters were offended when a political consultant for Corzine sent out an alleged first-person endorsement for Robinson-Briggs, complete with a contrived version of the state seal. Corzine's office said that flier was mailed without the senator's approval, though he did endorse the slate running on Column A.

McWilliams fielded a slate on Column C that included City Council, freeholder and Assembly candidates, with the governor's slot blank. He also expressed dismay at the made-up flier that singled out Robinson-Briggs.

Corzine received 4,077 votes, 1,364 more than Robinson-Briggs, indicating that some Column C voters moved their fingers to the left to vote for him. But of all Democrats who went to the polls, 1,428 walked out without pushing the Corzine button.

Ironically, McWilliams lost by 325 votes and apparently 345 voters made no selection for mayor.

Rajoppi, who ran for another five-year term as County Clerk, was unopposed in Column A but only got 48 percent of the total turnout.


5,505 Democrats voted
5,160 Voted for mayor
345 cast no mayoral vote

Albert T. McWilliams - 2,388
Sharon Robinson-Briggs - 2,713
Thomas T. Turner III - 59


5,505 Democrats voted
4,077 Voted for Corzine
2,713 Voted for Robinson-Briggs
1,364 Turner and/or McWilliams voters who also voted for Corzine

Finally, 1,428 voters cast no gubernatorial vote for Corzine, that equals 25.9% of Plainfield’s voting Democrats.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Election, voting, Democrats, mayor

Thursday, June 23, 2005

CITY COUNCIL: Special hearing Monday night on Plainfield's liquor licenses

The City Council will hold a public hearing on liquor license renewals at 8 p.m. Monday, June 27 at City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. Residents have had much to say about the effect of bars and liquor stores on neighborhoods in the past. Consider the following and take this opportunity to speak your mind.

BACKGROUND: Liquor, licensing and the law: What it means in Plainfield

Annual license renewals are now before the council. Police reports on ABC inspections and other information can be considered by the council in its role as local ABC board.

The sale of alcohol in liquor stores and bars is a legitimate and highly regulated industry. However, the very heading of New Jersey's statutes on alcohol - Title 33: Intoxicating Liquors - evokes some of the problems that law and public safety officials face as a result of irresponsible alcohol consumption.

Drunk driving, public nuisances such as bar fights and rowdy parties, substance abuse and chronic addiction by both young and old as well as illegal sales in bordellos and after-hours clubs are only a few of the issues that cost taxpayer dollars for enforcement and may also cost injury or loss of life to innocent victims.

The city's first homicide in 2005 occurred outside a bar. The third stabbing followed an argument after a night of drinking, according to police reports. The notorious public disturbances at Park and Fifth, which resulted in a fatal shooting last year and other instances of violence, are caused by people assembling at that corner after bars close. In recent years, crowds of 200 or more commonly filled the street and residents blocks away could often hear gunshots.

Excessive drinking is also a frequent concomitant of domestic abuse and other family troubles that require a response from public agencies. Plainfield once had 38 license-holders operating bars, clubs and package goods stores. Citizen concerns and City Council response have limited that number somewhat through stricter inspections and hearings on infractions that have led to some denials of license renewals.

Other license holders have had conditions imposed for renewal, such as training for bar staff, education on liquor laws, sinage to curb underage drinking and drug use on the premises and beeing required to hire security staff. The city has also raised fees to the maximum allowable under state law and has challenged holders of "pocket licenses" to conform to state rules limiting the length of time they can be held.

State law now limits issuance of new liceenses so that there will be no more than one consumption license for every 3,000 residents or no more than one distribution license per 7,500 of a municipality's population.

PLAINFIELD population - 47,829
Consumption (3,000) = 15.9
Distribution (7,500) = 6.4

Because Plainfield licenses predate this formula, the city has more than double the amount of liquor stores allowable under the new rule. The number of bars and restaurants serving liquor rose to the point a few years ago that legislation was passed empowering the city to buy out a license, if warranted.

Annual license renewals are now coming before the council, at which time reports on ABC inspections and other information can be considered by the council in its role as local ABC board.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Liquor licenses, public hearing