Monday, January 30, 2006

Veteran Cops and a New Gizmo May Fight Crime

Make way for the Segway.

The two-wheeled device may become part of an anti-crime strategy for the central business district, if the City Council and the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority endorse use of $276,143 in sales tax funds for four police officers and the unique “Human Transporter” that would place a standing officer eight inches off the ground. Besides giving higher visibility, the Segway is “the ultimate icebreaker,” according to company advertising, because everyone who sees one wants to converse with the operator.

The Segway can go about 3 miles per hour, two or three times walking speed, and can sprint at 12.5 miles per hour if necessary. It uses gyroscopes and tilt sensors to allow the user to direct it by body movement. The $5,500 police model would allow speedy coverage of a downtown beat, its makers say.

The city would have to come up with a 20 percent match for the program, which includes four “seasoned” officers who would stay exclusively in the business district. The total program cost would be $338,304.

The council agreed to approve the submission to the state authority that administers funds accumulated in each Urban Enterprise Zone account.

A formal vote will take place at the regular City Council meeting on Feb. 6, 2006, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The money comes from a reduced sales tax that certified retailers are allowed to charge and the authority must sign off on each proposed project. The authority meets next on March 8.

The city has 700 businesses in its Urban Enterprise Zone and 100 participate in the sales tax program, according to the proposal. The program’s effectiveness would be measured in terms of reducing the current crime rate.

According to city police, crime figures in the Urban Enterprise Zone in 2005 included nine homicides, seven rapes by force, 141 robberies, 84 aggravated assaults, 141 burglaries, 368 thefts, 113 motor vehicle thefts, six incidents of arson, 192 weapons possession reports, 192 narcotics reports, 6o disorderly conduct incidents and 47 instances of driving while intoxicated.

The City Council made no mention of the crime statistics or the Segway in its discussion Monday (Jan. 30, 2006), but said the increased police presence in the business district would increase the perception of safety and might draw more shoppers.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: budget, police

Overpayment Issue Taxes Councilman's Generosity

City Tax Collector Constance Ludden wanted $809,984 in tax overpayments put into surplus to balance the books, but Councilman Cory Storch raised questions Monday (Jan. 30, 2006) after noticing he was on the hook for more than $3,000.

The overpayments date back to 1996 and range from $5.40 to $18,292. Owners of property in the 907 accounts can claim the money if they can prove the overpayments. The 18-page list contains several well-known property owners, including Storch, a city inspector, library director Joe Da Rold, Walgreen’s, The Salvation Army, Leland Gardens, Union County College, PNC Bank and Interfaith Council for the Homeless.

Ludden said the issue was one of balancing the city’s books and notices should have been sent to property owners.

“Well, I‘m on the list and the city owes me a lot of money,” Storch said, claiming he never received a letter.

“I would have noticed if I got a letter saying the city owed me $3,000,“ he said.

Ludden said some of the problems included bulk payments by mortgage companies and mix-ups that were difficult to sort out.

Council members said they wanted at least two newspaper advertisements of the overpayments published so property owners could come forward to resolve the issues.

Bob Swisher, representing the city’s auditing firm, Suplee Clooney & Co., said the tax office had problems because payments came from various sources that were hard to trace. Both Swisher and Ludden presented the problem as an accounting procedure that could be put off if the council wished, but one that should be resolved by the June 30 end of the fiscal year.

Ludden promised to send out another round of notices for the overpayments. Anyone who can prove a claim to an overpayment will receive the money back.

The list of overpayments is available in the City Clerk’s office at City Hall, 515 Watchung Avenue. The resolution will be up for a vote at the regular City Council meeting on Feb.6, 2006 at 8 p.m. in the Municipal Court/Council Chambers, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Storm Cleanup Tops 100 Tons

A mid-January weather roller-coaster of rain, snow, gusting winds and extreme temperature changes resulted in a challenge for Plainfield’s Division of Public Works as trees toppled and branches fell on city streets.

On Jan. 14, the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly issued warnings for severe thunderstorms and a winter storm, with even a tornado watch thrown in. Then wind advisories followed. Plainfield had heavy rain and the soaked ground set the stage for falling trees in the high winds.

Information released Friday by Acting Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier indicated that the Public Works Division had to respond to more than 17 locations to clear trees and tree limbs. In some instances, Public Works Superintendent John Louise said, trees on private property fell across city streets and had to be cleared. Louise said the amount of debris removed from city streets exceeded 100 tons.

Besides the Jan. 14-15 preliminary report, the National Weather Service Mount Holly office also issued a preliminary winter storm summary for Jan. 17-18. In that storm, rising temperatures and high winds on Jan. 17 were followed by a rapid drop to cold weather and gusts up to 60 miles per hour in some locations.

The agency noted numerous tree uprootings, with damage to homes and cars as well as power outages and flooding.

As late as last week, city homeowners could be seen still picking up tree branches and twigs from their yards, and a city front-loader was busy hauling away sections of tree trunks on East Seventh Street.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: storm, public works

Thursday, January 26, 2006

School Budget Discussion Raises More Questions

Information presented at a special school board meeting Tuesday (Jan. 24, 2006) to clarify the omission of $1.8 million from the 2005-06 school budget only served to muddle some aspects of the problem.

First of all, the amount identified as late as Dec. 20, 2005 in the school board agenda was erroneous, as officials had named the wrong charter school as the one omitted from the budget.

A timeline handed out by the district’s Community Relations coordinator, Louis Rivera, said interim business administrator Ron Piliere told Superintendent Paula Howard in August that the Queen City Academy charter school appeared to have been omitted from the budget.

In October, new business administrator Victor Demming told the board that $1.8 million was missing from the budget for charter schools, according to the timeline.

The $1.8 million figure came up again at a Dec. 20, 2005 business meeting and again at a Jan. 10, 2006 work-and-study meeting. In a Dec. 20 resolution, the board voted to use $1 million from surplus to help bridge the gap. The board authorized the business administrator to find ways to come up with the additional $865,613.

But in fact, the school in question was Union County TEAMS, which opened in September 2005 with a budget of $1,740,063.

So after deducting the $1 million and adjusting charter school funding based on actual enrollment, the balance to be made up was not $865,613, but $383,220.

It is true that after longtime business administrator Gary Ottmann left the district in January 2005, the district had two interim administrators and did not get a fulltime business administrator on the job until Sept. 26, 2005. In addition, there were new or temporary people in charge of county and state offices with oversight on charter schools.

But at the time the two Plainfield charter schools were the only ones in Union County and the information on each was readily available on the state Department of Education web site.

While Rivera’s timeline trumpets there was “NO MONEY EVER MISSING,” in fact the omission means the district will have to come up with funds to bridge the gap.

The full charter school budget for 2005-06 included $1,851,496 for the Queen City Academy, $1,275,644 for Union County TEAMS and $8,529 for one city student who attends a charter school in New Brunswick (the sending district pays the cost).

The total was $3.13 million.

To make up the $383,220 difference, the district will have to adjust administrative costs, reduce school support services and factor in funds generated by employee vacancies. Officials were not able to identify cuts Tuesday.

School board members Wilma Campbell and Lisa Logan-Leach asked for a special audit of the past school year’s finances, although other board members questioned the wisdom of funding an extra audit when the district already spends $60,000 annually for a regular audit. The issue will be taken up again at the February work-and-study session.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

School Budget Lapse Shrinks To Less Than $400,000

In a special school board meeting Tuesday (Jan. 24, 2006), the case of the missing charter school funding came down from more than $800,000 to a mere $382,220.

Part of the problem as indicated in school board documents was the mix-up of two charter schools and a subsequent adjustment of the actual funding needed to support the schools.

A timeline of the errors in the discrepancy showed that officials thought the school in question was Queen City Academy at a cost of $1,865,613. But the new TEAMS school funding was $1,740,063.

With further adjustments for the actual enrollment offset by a $1 million reduction from surplus, the cost went down to $383,220.

Officials cited the temporary status of officials at district, county and state levels that produced the inability to register the problem.

The difference in Plainfield will now come from the categories of “administration, support and breakage,” which caused consternation among the public especially about “breakage.”

Eventually, officials explained that “breakage” meant instances of jobs left unfulfilled, early departures and other circumstances that meant money left over.

Opponents of the plan to make budget adjustments called for an extra audit of the circumstances that led to the discrepancy. But other board members cited an annual $60,000 audit and said additional costs were not warranted.

In the end, the board agreed to seek a forensic audit of what actually happened in the past year with costs to be considered at the next work-and-study meeting next month.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: BOE, school budget

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Board of Education Fills Vacancy

Education activist David Graves was selected and sworn in Tuesday (Jan. 24, 2006) to fill a school board vacancy created when Sharon Robinson-Briggs became mayor Jan. 1 and had to step down from the board.

Graves will serve until April 18, when the annual school board election takes place. He said last week he has not decided whether to seek a full three-year term, but he has until Feb. 27 to file if he chooses to run.

Graves won in a 5-3 vote, with board Vice President Agurs Linward “Lenny” Cathcart Jr. taking part by telephone from out of town. Cathcart, board President Martin Cox and members Patricia Barksdale, Bridget Rivers and Vickey Sheppard voted “yes” and members Lisa Logan-Leach, Wilma Campbell and Rev. Tracey Brown voted “no.”

The votes in the same configuration went against Reno Wilkins, a mechanical engineer with the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority who cited his background in science, mathematics and technology as qualifications to serve. Wilkins also said he is a problem-solver and cited community service with the Neighborhood House, the Little League, Cub Scouts and the Police Athletic League board.

Graves said he attends almost every board meeting and has served on school parent-teacher groups and district advisory boards. He said he has run twice previously for the school board.

A third candidate, Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, was disqualified because he did not meet the requirement to appear for a public interview with the board. Abdul-Haqq said last week he filed for both the vacancy and the three-year term before undergoing knee surgery, which kept him from appearing for the interview.

Three three-year terms are up this year. Incumbent Lisa Logan-Leach’s term ends in April, as does that of Patricia Barksdale, who won the balance of Bishop Herbert Bright’s term last April. The seat filled temporarily by Graves is the third term up for grabs.

Before the vote, Sheppard grilled the two about their willingness to take extra classes on budget making and Rivers asked each how they would contribute to increasing harmony on the board. Both candidates said they would take the classes.

Wilkins said he would use his listening skills to work toward the best solutions of board issues. Graves said he is a consensus builder and would take all members’ opinions into account.

After the vote, Graves was sworn in by district business administrator and immediately took his seat on the board.

--Bernice Paglia


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Assemblyman backs free distribution of tenants' rights booklet

According to 2000 census figures, half of Plainfield’s residents are renters, in contrast to less than one-third of residents statewide or nationwide. That’s why a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Jerry Green might be of special interest in his Queen City hometown.

The proposed legislation would provide funding to permit free distribution of “Truth in Renting,“ a booklet issued by the state Department of Community Affairs to enlighten both tenants and landlords about their rights and responsibilities. Presently, the booklet costs $2 and may be ordered through DCA’s Landlord-Tenant Information Service.

Landlords are supposed to provide the booklet to each tenant, but several renters told Plaintalker they had never received one. The booklet gives basic information on security deposits, leases, rent increases, repairs, heat rules and causes for eviction. A renter who does not receive the booklet from a landlord may find it useful to obtain a copy to prevent abusive tactics by landlords.

Assembly Bill 473, co-sponsored by Assemblymen Green (Dist. 22) and Joseph Vas (Dist. 19) would require appropriation of $100,000 to provide free copies of the booklet. The companion Senate Bill 441, sponsored by Sen. Ronald L. Rice (Dist. 28) would appropriate $250,000 for the same purpose.

Green did not return a call for comment.

Renters have another option to learn their rights in a larger publication offered by Legal Services of New Jersey. "Tenants’ Rights in New Jersey" costs $12 per copy but is also available online with links to each subject.

Tenants' Rights in New Jersey: A Legal Handbook for New Jersey Tenants

A large influx of Spanish-speaking renters has given unscrupulous landlords an edge in skirting the state tenant law. In one building on East Seventh Street, Latino tenants complained they had not been told where their security deposits were banked. They also feared challenging the landlord for spotty heating and did not understand how to assert their rights regarding repairs.

Among rules for tenants, the rent must be paid. Holding it back for whatever reason puts the tenant at risk of eviction.

State law requires a landlord of a multi-family dwelling to file a registration statement with the state and the city in which the building is located, including emergency contact numbers.

Security deposits are the property of the tenant and the location of the deposit must be disclosed to the tenant.

Terms of leases may only be changed on the anniversary of the lease, not just when a building is sold. Other laws regulate the return of security deposits and require periodic state inspection of multi-family buildings.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Tenant info

Friday, January 20, 2006

BOE To Fill Vacancy, Discuss $1.9 Million Error

The Plainfield Board of Education will meet Tuesday (Jan. 24, 2006) to vote on filling a board vacancy and to discuss a $1.865 million budget discrepancy.

The meeting will be 8 p.m. at Plainfield High School, 950 Park Ave.

The vacancy came about when board member Sharon Robinson-Briggs took office Jan. 1, 2006 as the city’s first female African-American mayor. The interim appointee will serve until the April 18, 2006 election.

The budget matter is a $1.865 shortfall due to failure to include a new charter school in the 2005-06 budget. During a time of administration transitions in early 2005, the funding for the school was left out of the budget. The school, Union County TEAMS, has received all its payments on time, but to correct the mistake, the board agreed in November to put $1 million in surplus funds toward the deficit and find ways to come up with the $865,000 balance.

The district must pay 90 percent of the cost of running a charter school, which is considered a public school. Presently, Union County TEAMS and Queen City Academy receive such funding. In September 2006, Central Jersey Arts Charter School will become the third one operating in the city with an anticipated enrollment of 248 students.

Regarding the vacancy, three residents met a 4 p.m. deadline Friday (Jan. 20, 2006) to apply for the seat.

The candidates are Rasheed Abdul-Haqq of 219 Lee Place, David Graves of 949 West Eighth Street and Reno Wilkins of 20 Randolph Road.

Abdul-Haqq was hospitalized Friday, recovering from knee surgery. He said he had submitted the required written statement on why he wants to serve on the school board, but he was not sure he could attend the Tuesday meeting.

He said both his daughter and his late son were Plainfield High School graduates and he had devoted 10 to 15 years to participation in parent or community groups to improve education.

“I’ve been intensively involved,“ he said.

Abdul-Haqq said he has also filed for the Feb. 27, 2006 deadline to run for one of three three-year seats on the board.

Graves, a city inspector and former Board of Adjustment chairman and member, said he has run for the board twice previously and has children at Hubbard Middle School and in the Plainfield High School 9th grade academy.

He said he attends “practically every meeting” of the board and has taken both district and state parent training.

Describing himself as a “highly active community member,” Graves said he is still deciding whether to file for the three-year term.

Wilkins did not return calls for comment.

Visit the New Jersey School Boards Association at
for more information on serving as a school board member.

A legal notice for the Tuesday meeting also noted action will be taken on workman's compensation issues.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: BOE, School budget

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Council Amends Budget, Sets Jan. 30 Public Hearing

Property owners will see a 2.9 percent increase in taxes for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2005, officials said at a special meeting Wednesday (Jan. 18, 2006) to vote on budget amendments.
The 2004-05 tax rate was $3.01 per $100 of assessed valuation and in July the council approved an estimated rate of $3.073 for fiscal year 2006. The rate to be applied to the next two quarters will be $3.099 and will result in a total increase of $29.29 for the rest of the tax year on the average $112,653 house, Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya said.

For the full tax year, the increase on the average home will be $90, he said.

The council held intensive budget sessions starting in July, but after the November election produced a new mayor, the process slowed down. Council members said in December they wanted to give Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs a chance to have input into the budget, so they held off until after her Jan. 1 swearing-in. Robinson-Briggs’ administration added a few jobs, including a confidential aide for her office and another confidential aide to assist with technology and implementation of city projects including road repair.

The council sought last year to eliminate the position of director of Public Affairs and Safety, but the new mayor appointed Martin Hellwig of Nutley to the post in acting capacity, so the council restored the funds.

In all there were 140 changes - both on the revenue and spending sides - that had to be voted on individually. The net result was a larger overall budget, from $63.6 million to $64.7 million, but a reduction in the amount to be raised by municipal taxes, from $41.4 million to $39.7 million. Revenues from grants, state aid, Urban Enterprise Zone funds and other sources rose from $22.2 million to $23 million.

Faced with the tedious task of voting on each line item, the council tried to get away with a single voice vote, but City Clerk Laddie Wyatt overruled the ploy, saying, “This is the people’s money.”

So for most of an hour, Chairman of the Whole Rayland Van Blake read each item aloud. Each of the 140 votes was unanimously “yes.” Council President Ray Blanco broke up the monotony by shading his inflections as he called for the vote and by labeling the new 4th Ward Councilman Elliott "Reduction" Simmons” for his emphatic seconding of votes to cut funding.

After publication of the amendments on Jan. 26, there will be a public hearing at 6 p.m. Jan. 30 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Since July, the council has approved temporary monthly budget appropriations, each one-twelfth of the 2005-06 budget. Besides wanting to accommodate the new administration, the council had to wait for the announcement of extraordinary state aid for tax relief. The city requested $2.9 million and was awarded $500,000, in part because the city had a surplus of about $2 million.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city council, budget

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Council Resolves To Limit Phone Use

The City Council agreed Tuesday (Jan. 17, 2006) to tighten rules for members’ city-issued cell phones, a sore subject since an investigation three years ago uncovered excessive bills.

The Aug. 3, 2003 Courier News report on phone charges (by this writer before retirement) revealed calls nationwide by some members and many minutes of overtime that the city paid, no questions asked, even though the phones were meant for city business only. Some members stayed well within the limits and at least one member did not use a city-issued cell phone during the period between January 2002 and April 2003.

Only then-freshman Councilman Rayland Van Blake is still on the council and he only had one month’s charges at the time of the report.

Resident Jean Black recalled the controversy in 2003 and also the fact that the council members’ compensation went from $7,500 to $10,000 as of Jan. 1, 2002. She did not see any reason to have the city pay for cell phones.

“It should be stopped, with the taxes going up,” she said. Monday. “I think it‘s wrong.”

The rules approved Monday set the plan cost at $59.99, plus taxes and insurance, emphasizing the phones are only for city business or to help members of the governing body to provide aid to constituents.

  • Upon request, the public may obtain the cell phone numbers from City Clerk Laddie Wyatt.
  • Council members are encouraged to tell people who have their cell phone numbers not to use them for personal calls except in emergencies.
  • Any council member who decides not to have a city-issued phone cannot bill the city for a personal cell phone.
  • Those who exceed the plan cost must reimburse the city for the amounts beyond the plan limit within 30 days or face loss of service.

    The policy was up for a vote Jan. 1, 2006 at the annual reorganization meeting, but former Council President Linda Carter wanted to add provisions, such as inclusion of insurance and taxes for the monthly bill.

    Carter’s amendments also included the following:

  • Each council member is allotted a maximum of $150 for phone equipment every two years when the plan is renewed.
  • Council members who lose phones must pay for the replacement, or if they have insurance, must pay the deductible.
  • If council members want extras like text messaging or plan upgrades, they must pay the difference of the cost within 30 days.
  • Bills will be reviewed twice a year, with summaries sent to the council members.

  • In the 2003 Courier News report, it appeared that extreme usage in some cases only generated higher cost plans to accommodate the volume of calls. For example, former Councilwoman Joanne Hollis had a $35 plan with 300 minutes in March 2002 but in August 2002 given a $100 plan with 1,200 minutes. Still, she exceeded the new plan in six of the nine succeeding months.

    --Bernice Paglia

    KEYWORDS: council, budget

    Monday, January 16, 2006

    Daughtry Urges More Racial Justice Effort

    At age 75, The Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry can point to 46 years of service in his church and community and a worldwide reputation as a seeker of justice. Yet one thing that he chose to share with an audience of about 600 people Monday was a humiliation.

    The largely African-American audience chuckled wryly as Daughtry recounted how his people used to make trips home to the South, armed with nothing more than shoeboxes full of fried chicken and pound cake against the perils of segregation. Stops had to be carefully calculated, but on his wedding trip home, he felt a craving for a frosty ice cream drink and pulled in at a dairy stand. As a grown man on his honeymoon, he was rebuffed with a racial epithet and told to go around back.

    “That was the South of my youth,“ he said. “That’s why we love Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.“

    Daughtry, the national presiding minister of The House of the Lord Churches, was the featured speaker at the Frontiers International of Plainfield’s 30th Annual Memorial Breakfast at Plainfield High School in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

    He traced the forces that led to enslavement of Africans and the struggles of subjugated blacks in America to assert their rights through King’s non-violent methods. But he exhorted young people to keep up the struggle today by making the most of their opportunities for education.

    “If you don’t, guess what - they are already building jails for you,“ Daughtry said.

    Daughtry commended both the Frontiers group and the five Plainfield High School students who received scholarships before he spoke. He also praised current Frontiers president BJ BrownJohnson, the mother of motivational speaker Nashad Warfield and Rhodes scholar Nima Warfield. BrownJohnson resumed her education as an adult and is now a principal in the Plainfield school district.

    Speaking on “Creating the Beloved Community,” Daughtry asked, “If you have to create it, why was it fractured in the first place?”

    Daughtry said early African civilizations excelled in the arts, sciences and philosophy and valued hospitality to outsiders. But he said Europeans usurped Africa’s knowledge and took advantage of its welcome to introduce colonialism and, along with Arabs, slavery. The effects of the divide-and-conquer incursions linger on today, he said.

    “All you young brothers out there killing each other are just being programmed,” Daughtry said.

    Under slavery, decades of insurrection were followed by a church-led effort at relief, where congregants sold untold numbers of chicken dinners and held fish-fries “to make sure our children went to school,” he said.

    But segregation persisted, even though thousands of blacks served in the military through several wars.

    It was the struggle as taken up by King and his followers that made the difference in civil rights, he said.

    Citing the example of Rosa Parks, Daughtry said, “When she sat down, a people stood up.”

    The lunch counter sit-ins, marches and strikes tipped the balance of racial justice.

    But with more work to be done , Daughtry gave a humorous aside to the struggle.

    Noting Bruce Springsteen is called “The Boss,“ Elvis Presley is “The King,“ Benny Goodman is “The King of Swing” and Frank Sinatra is “The Chairman of the Board, despite basing some of their music on African-American originals, Daughtry asked, “Can‘t we be something?”

    Basing his comment on Frontiers member Roy Southerland’s maxim, “Do something to prevent nothing,” Daughtry said, “Let us not be in the category of not doing anything.”

    --Bernice Paglia

    KEYWORDS: MLD, Daughtry

    Saturday, January 14, 2006

    GOP Wants Mayor Removed Over Qualifications

    Plainfield Republican Municipal Committee Chairwoman Sandy Spector is asking the City Council to enforce the city’s special charter and remove Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

    Robinson-Briggs filed to run for mayor on April 11, 2005, but had only registered as a voter in Plainfield on Sept. 30, 2002. The special charter requires a mayoral candidate to be a registered voter for at least four years before his or her election.

    Spector asked City Council President Ray Blanco for an answer within five days.

    But Blanco said Friday (Jan. 13, 2006) the matter was settled.

    “The City Council received appropriate certification from the county clerk,” he said, referring to the official certification of election results presented at the annual reorganization meeting on New Year’s Day.

    Blanco said County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi is “the chief election officer in the county.”

    Spector countered by saying Rajoppi only certified the end results of the election, but not the initial qualifications at filing time.

    Ten months ago, nobody questioned Robinson-Briggs’ petitions, despite the fact that incumbent Mayor Albert T. McWilliams found himself dumped from the party. Neither McWilliams’ supporters nor election officials apparently checked her standing against the charter requirements.

    McWilliams was Democratic Party Chairman at the time but was not allowed to choose who would run on the line. After scrambling to put together a “New Democrats” slate for the June primary, McWilliams found himself outspent and ultimately out-voted, losing the primary by barely more than 300 votes.

    Things were quiet until the end of the summer, when it came out that the Republican mayoral candidate, Cheryl Bullock, had never stepped down as she had announced she would in early July.

    A frenetic effort to get McWilliams on the ballot as the Republican candidate failed. He then mounted a write-in campaign, but lost the Nov. 8 general election as well.

    Referring to Rajoppi, Spector said, “She vetted us all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding Albert McWilliams. She had an equal responsibility to qualify Mrs. Robinson-Briggs’ candidacy.”

    It was only on New Year’s Day, after Robinson-Briggs was sworn in, that a casual reading of the charter revealed that nobody had ever checked the mayoral qualifications. Neither McWilliams nor Assemblyman Jerry Green, who was the new mayor’s campaign manager and the Democratic Party Chairman, noticed the four-year requirement, each said in phone interviews last week.

    --Bernice Paglia

    KEYWORDS: politics, election

    Thursday, January 12, 2006

    Tagging: It's not all Greek to me

    I don't know many people who like graffiti. I'm not talking about the type of personal expression that began to find serious standing in the art world about 20 to 25 years ago. I mean the turf markers that I see around town that are much more than simple eyesores.

    Few people bother to learn what these arcane scribbles, called "tags," mean. For example, let's look at the recent writing that extends some distance along the retaining wall at main train station on North Avenue.

    I can barely make out the script and I am not fluent in gang lingo, but I can decipher an important part of the message: MS 13.

    Anyone who cares about improving the quality of life in Plainfield, eradicating crime and the part played by gangs should be reading graffiti, not just glancing at it or trying to ignore it and wishing it weren't there.

    Here's why: Last March Newsweek magazine called MS 13 "The Most Dangerous Gang in America."

    If the tags appearing in downtown Plainfield were put there by members of MS-13 and not just by wannabe thugs, that's a much bigger problem than a kid with a can of spray paint.

    This is not a local problem. MS-13 is an international gang that operates in over 30 states. It is known for violence and its activities are serious enough to be termed "organized crime" by law enforcement officials.

    Dealing with criminal gangs is more than the average citizen can cope with, but there are some easy steps to be taken that will help tone down this "advertising."

    Plainfield's Special Improvement District (SID) has an anti-graffiti program to clean off, or paint over, the markings in the business district. Weather permitting, The Plaintalker hopes the SID will get their eradication crew out soon to deal with these gang-oriented messages. If the train station writing is New Jersey Transit turf, a phone call needs to be made. The trick with graffiti is to wipe it out as soon as it appears.

    Add to the list the big tag The Plaintalker has been watching since last summer. It is plastered on the Front Street side of Supremo market, a half-block from the YWCA.

    It's been there so long the paint has faded, but it is undeniably MS 13.

    OPINION: Graffiti at prominent locations should not be allowed to stand for any length of time. Tags that identify gangs should be erased as soon as they appear. It seems to me the longer a gang name is permitted to remain visible, the more power gangs can claim over the immediate area and the real estate on which it appears.

    --Barbara Todd Kerr

    KEYWORDS: gangs, crime, graffiti

    Not In Plainfield Any More?

    Former City Administrator Norton Bonaparte Jr. is the chosen finalist for the new post of city manager in Topeka, Kans.

    According to media reports from Topeka, Bonaparte emerged from a pool of 30 candidates as one of two finalists. In a meeting Tuesday (Jan. 10, 2006) the Topeka City Council decided to open negotiations with Bonaparte for the job.

    Voters agreed in November 2004 to change Topeka’s form of government from a strong mayor-council government format to a council-city manager plan.

    As city manager, Bonaparte will have extensive powers to hire and fire administrators and employees and also to manage Topeka’s finances.

    The position will be almost the opposite of Plainfield’s situation, where the mayor has the power to hire and fire and make appointments.

    The job description includes such global requirements as “to devote his or her entire time to the duties and interest of the city,” in addition to preparing the budget and being in charge of the city’s financial affairs.

    "I think while I have certainly appreciated being the administrator for the City of Plainfield, I am looking forward to the appointment of city manager for Topeka," Bonaparte said Thursday.

    On Wednesday, when he received a call that the Topeka City Council had selected him, the news was splashed across a local Topeka TV outlet in a scrolling banner.

    Bonaparte said he has informed Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and Plainfield City Council members of the Topeka council's decision. The move will take him back to the Midwest, where he had his first administrative post in Grand Rapids, Mich. and where he met his wife, Santa. In New Jersey since 1995, he was an administrator in Willingboro and Camden before coming to Plainfield.

    "I value all those experiences," he said.

    Bonaparte said he applied for the city manager job in October.

    By way of contrast, Topeka, Kans. has about 123,000 residents, while Plainfield has around 48,000 residents. The Topeka budget for 2005 was approximately $154 million. The Plainfield budget, still to be approved, is about $64 million. Plainfield has about 500 city employees and Topeka has a work force of approximately 1,300.

    Bonaparte was sworn in as the acting director of Administration and Finance in Plainfield as the new administration took hold on Jan. 1, 2006. The Plainfield city administrator, all three department heads and corporation counsel are only serving in acting capacity for 90-day terms awaiting City Council approval for four-year terms concurrent with that of the new mayor.

    --Bernice Paglia

    KEYWORDS: Bonaparte, finance director

    Tuesday, January 10, 2006

    TV Or Not TV: Council Considers

    Even though the City Council just published its 2006 annual meeting schedule and it has also been posted on the City of Plainfield web site, City Council President Ray Blanco says big changes may be coming.

    The council currently holds regular meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month in the Municipal Court/Council Chambers at 325 Watchung Avenue.

    Agenda sessions take place the Monday before the regular meeting and are held in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Avenue. The schedule is altered for federal holidays and for time off around the June primary and November general election.

    Blanco said the council is looking into holding fewer meetings and finding the best location for televising the meetings.

    City Hall Library is lit only with wall sconces that make the room too dim for televising. The court is brighter, with overhead lighting.

    Blanco said new Acting City Administrator Carlton McGee, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, Acting Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson and three council members will meet soon to discuss the number of meetings and the best place to hold them.

    Coincidentally, it turns out that one of the new acting department heads is council president in Rahway this year and that municipality’s regular meeting is on the second Monday of each month at the same time as Plainfield agenda session. On Monday (Jan. 9, 2006), Acting Public Works and Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier of Rahway was absent from the Plainfield meeting.

    A few years ago, the council tried to get away with one regular meeting a month in the summer, but the volume of resolutions and ordinances proved daunting to cover in one evening.

    Another consideration before cutting back on meetings might be that ordinances must be passed on two readings and then become effective in 20 days. If the council can’t pass important legislation in two regular meetings within a month but must need two months to vote final passage, there will be a longer timeline for implementation.

    The rationale for any proposed change should be made public. If it is only to accommodate an acting department head’s other obligations, the public should know. If there are more solid reasons why one meeting a month is desirable, they should be spelled out.

    As for televising the meetings, the city has a lot of work to do regarding its local origination channel before taking that step. The city has to get its Cable Television Board set up, put policies in place and formalize the operation of Channel 74 with proper job titles and standards.

    Not very many people actually attend City Council meetings and some might be glad to have the schedule whittled down or to be able to sit home and watch the proceedings on television. That’s what citizens in Rahway now enjoy.

    --Bernice Paglia

    KEYWORDS: city council, television

    Monday, January 09, 2006

    School Board Race Coming Up

    In seven weeks, petitions are due for the annual school board election.

    Each year, voters get to choose three people for three-year terms on the nine-member Board of Election. Here are the requirements for candidates as explained by the New Jersey School Boards Association:

    To become a member of a local board of education in New Jersey, you must—

  • Be able to read and write · Hold citizenship and one year’s residency in the school district
  • Have no interest in any contract with, or claim against, the board
  • Not hold office as mayor or member of the municipal governing body
  • Be registered to vote in the district and not be disqualified as a voter under N.J.S.A. 19:4-1.

    There is a complete school board candidates’ kit online at

    Candidates must submit their petitions by 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, 2006 to Board Secretary/School Business Administrator Victor R. Demming at the board office, 504 Madison Ave.

    The seats up this year are those won in 2003 by Sharon Robinson-Briggs, Lisa Logan-Leach and Bishop Herbert Bright. Since then, Robinson-Briggs became mayor on Jan. 1 and resigned her seat. The board must now choose an appointee to serve until the April 18, 2006 election. Any city resident interested in applying should complete a Board of Education petition and return it to Demming by 4 p.m. Jan. 13, 2006.

    Anyone applying should also submit a one-page letter explaining why he or she wants to become a school board member, and must be available within the following week to be interviewed by the board.

    Interviews will be conducted during a public school board meeting.

    Bright also resigned and in the April 2005 school board election, Patricia Barksdale won the balance of Bright‘s term. Logan-Leach is still on the board.

    Before running, candidates must also consider the fact that they will need to undergo training if they win and will also be responsible for filing campaign contribution and expense reports. Full information is available at the NJSBA web site.

    Asked what it is like to serve on the board, current President Martin Cox said bluntly, “It is an absolutely thankless job.”

    But he added, “It is certainly an opportunity to build policy which leads to developing the direction of the district.”

    The board meets twice a month, once for a work and study session and later for a business meeting to vote on resolutions. The meetings start with a 6:30 p.m. executive session and the public portion is at 8 p.m. Meetings also include public comment, presentations from district officials and remarks by the superintendent, board president and others. To see a typical agenda, go to the district page at

    The board is wrestling with a number of challenges that any new members will have to face as well over the next three years. Cox said they include overcrowding, the need for more bilingual education, monitoring Abbott district funding and facility issues.

    The district had pinned its hopes to relieve middle school overcrowding on a plan to build a new middle school complex on South Second Street. The project was also intended to become the linchpin of neighborhood revitalization in a section of the West End. But after the New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation (NJSCC) ran out of money, the project went into limbo.

    Abbott funding, which pays most of the school budgets for the state’s 30 neediest districts, is not guaranteed. Plainfield nearly lost out on its funding a few years ago.

    Cox noted with a new administration in Trenton, there could be new views on both NJSCC and Abbott funding.
    Within the district, 55 percent of the 2005-06 kindergarten class comes from Latino families, a first for the school system. Overcrowding in the high school this year forced shifting of administrators out of an older building to make way for the overflow of students. The administrators moved to Jefferson School, displacing students there to the West Front Street “swing school” and upsetting parents.

    Besides the long school board meetings, Cox said, there are committee meetings and demands on board members’ time to attend various school functions.

    Grueling as it may be, some find the chance to serve on the board very gratifying. Former board member Beulah Womack served seven terms before deciding not to run again in 2005.

    --Bernice Paglia

    KEYWORDS: school board

  • Friday, January 06, 2006

    Monday here, Monday there

    Jennifer Wenson-Maier will face a tough choice Monday (Jan. 9, 2006).

    The Rahway councilwoman (and possibly council president - Plaintalker could not get confirmation Friday) will be expected to attend the regular meeting of the Rahway governing body at 7:30 p.m. in that municipality.

    But as the new acting head of the Department of Public Works and Urban Development in Plainfield, she will also be expected to appear at a 7:30 agenda session in City Hall.

    The Rahway meeting is televised for viewing on Channel 34 in that municipality, so residents there will be able to verify from the comfort of their homes whether Wenson-Maier showed up.

    Plainfield is still awaiting local Channel 74 television coverage of City Council meetings, so only those who come to 515 Watchung Avenue Monday will be able to discern her choice.

    Plainfield just published its meeting schedule in the Courier News and Rahway put its schedule up on the municipal web site, so anyone can see that this dilemma is likely to recur on every second Monday, except in June. [Rahway City Council web page]

    The Plainfield City Council holds regular meetings on the first and third Mondays of every month, except when federal holidays kick the meetings to Tuesdays or elections cause a hiatus. Agenda sessions are held the week before each regular meeting.

    The Rahway Municipal Council holds a “pre-meeting conference” the week before its second-Monday regular meetings.

    Given that Wenson-Maier heads a department with nine Public Works bureaus as well as the Inspections, Engineering and Recreation divisions, with Economic Development responsibilities previously handled by the deputy city administrator, her presence is all the more important at Plainfield agenda sessions.

    Some have asked whether her dual role is in violation of the Plainfield City Charter’s prohibition on dual office holding. For example, Assemblyman Jerry Green cannot also be mayor under the city’s special charter.

    But the language is so murky and open to interpretation that only a bevy, clutch, throng or swarm of lawyers could get to the bottom of it.

    7.3 Dual office holding.
    No officer under the City government shall hold or retain any office under the County government, nor shall any officer under the County government be eligible to hold or retain
    office under the City government, except in each case when any such office is held ex officio by virtue of an act by the Legislature. Any person holding City office, whether by election or appointment who shall, during his term to office, accept, hold or retain any other civil office of honor, trust or emolument under the government of the United States, except commission for the taking of bail, or under the government of the State, except the office of notary public or commissioner of deeds or officer of the National Guard, or who shall hold or accept any other office connected with the government of the City, or who shall accept a seat in the Legislature, shall be deemed thereby to have vacated any office previously held by him under the city government; except that the mayor may accept, or may in writing authorize any other person holding office to accept, a specified civil office, in respect to which no salary or other compensation is provided.

    In a twist on the famous Clinton question on what the meaning of “is” is, let us just say, “Is you is or is you ain’t our PWU&D department head?”

    --Bernice Paglia

    KEYWORDS: city charter

    Thursday, January 05, 2006

    Nobody Checked The Charter

    Plainfield’s chief political maxim is that you have to be able to count to four.

    That means the mayor needs four votes on the seven-member City Council to get things done.

    But there’s another count-to-four that eluded everyone in the tumultuous 2005 election season.

    An idle glance through the city’s special charter on New Year’s Day revealed that Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs may have come up short on a requirement that a mayor “shall have been a legal voter in the City for at least four years prior to his election.”

    Never mind the gender discrepancy - until 2006, there had been no female mayor.

    The point is, as it came out in a prior dispute about Robinson-Briggs’ qualification to serve on the Board of Education, she has only been a registered voter in Plainfield since Sept. 30, 2002.

    The BOE dispute was whether Robinson-Briggs met the one-year residency requirement for the April 2003 school board election. Although she received the most votes, her status was questioned by candidate Veronica Taylor-Hill because Robinson-Briggs signed a house sale document on April 29, 2002 with a Piscataway address, a few days short of the one-year requirement. Robinson-Briggs countered with an April 2, 2002 lease for her father’s East Front Street apartment, saying she lived there.

    In the end, Robinson-Briggs prevailed.

    But the legal challenge brought out her voter registration status as well, and in all the fuss this year over the mayoral race, it seems nobody checked the charter.

    Defeated Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, who even changed parties and later tried a write-in campaign to beat his opponent, said his supporters were thinking there was a one-year requirement, as there is for City Council candidates.

    “Nobody looks at that darn charter,” he said.

    But he added, “I think the charter has to be upheld.”

    Assemblyman Jerry Green, who is also the Democratic Party chairman and was campaign manager for Robinson-Briggs, said he didn’t know about the requirement either. But now that he is advising Robinson-Briggs on putting together her new administration, he said, he is paying attention to the charter.

    “We want to do everything right,“ Green said.

    The charter spells out the structure of government - mayor, city administrator and three department heads - as well as the powers of the top leaders and budget rules.

    Green said the new administration is checking with acting Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson on charter rules and with the state Department of Personnel on proper hiring procedures.

    It doesn’t seem likely that anyone will actually try to undo the election at this point. The new mayor‘s supporters could argue that the charter does not say four consecutive years, and Robinson-Briggs was previously a Plainfield voter before registering in Middlesex County in 1996.

    Die-hard opponents of Robinson-Briggs may find the lapse fuel for a recall effort, but according to the charter, an elected official must serve at least one year before a recall petition can be filed.

    The last person to run afoul of the mayoral voter registration requirement was Arthur L. Harriatt, a convicted bank robber who ran for mayor in 1997. Not only did his parole status cast doubt on his viability as a candidate, the Union County Board of Elections confirmed just before the November 1997 general election that Harriatt had only registered to vote in February of that year.

    Plainfield became a city in 1869 and the current charter took effect 100 years later. Since then, the charter was reviewed in 1972 and again in 1990, with some changes recommended each time. But the steps to effect major changes - approval by the state Legislature and city voters - have never been pursued.

    Studying the charter is not easy. There is a copy on file at the Plainfield Public Library, but for those who don’t already have a copy of the thin, pamphlet-sized charter, the tab to purchase one in the City Clerk’s office is $20.

    --Bernice Paglia

    KEYWORDS: city charter, mayor

    NOTE: The full text of Plainfield's City Charter can be found on Councilman Rashid Burney's website.

    Monday, January 02, 2006

    Firsts For Plainfield

    Two harmonious events on Jan. 1, 2006 marked the advent of the city’s first female mayor, Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

    In a 3 p.m. gathering outside City Hall, Robinson-Briggs received good wishes and prayers from numerous religious leaders before being sworn in for a four-year term. In her remarks, Robinson-Briggs effusively thanked her supporters in a hard-fought campaign and pointed out she is not only the first female mayor, but also the first female African-American mayor.

    A very large crowd filled City Hall Plaza in dank, chill weather for the swearing-in.

    “I pledge to work hard every day on your behalf,” Robinson Briggs told the people.

    At 5 p.m., the City Council held its annual reorganization in the Municipal Court, a block north of City Hall. In her State of the City address, Robinson-Briggs again thanked all her friends and family for their support of her campaign before outlining some goals for her administration.

    Robinson-Briggs said she will look for more use of Urban Enterprise Zone funds to hire police - up to 35 percent of the available funding - to combat crime.

    She also wants police deployment to be studied by the new acting Public Safety Director, Martin Hellwig, and may ask that a recent crime response plan be rescinded.

    The plan, offered in several versions since Jiles Ship replaced Michael Lattimore as Public Safety Director in 2004, was most recently declared in effect with 24 days to go in 2005. But then Ship resigned before his term ended Dec. 31.

    The mayor offered a number of cabinet appointees, but only in acting capacity. Carlton McGhee was approved as acting city administrator. The acting Public Affairs and Safety Director is Martin Hellwig. Jennifer Wenson Maier is acting Public Works and Urban Development Director, and former city administrator Norton Bonaparte is acting director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services.

    Not wanting to break the spell, The Plaintalker chose not to ask the question, why not the normal four-year term concurrent with the mayor? The acting position is only for about 90 days. Answers will no doubt emerge in time.

    A former corporation counsel, Dan Williamson, was sworn in to serve the new administration.

    Councilman Rashid Burney, an appointee in 2005, was sworn in for the one-year balance of the term for the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat. He will have to run this year for re-election.

    Elliott Simmons was sworn in for a four-year term representing the 4th Ward.

    Councilman Ray Blanco, who was voted in as the first Latino council president, also had a list of initiatives.

    Blanco said the city must address crime with more walking patrols and downtown surveillance cameras. He also advocated an “arts district“ and said proposed road improvement projects must be monitored to ensure they meet deadlines.

    Blanco also called for stabilization of taxes, cost control in city expenses and programs for youth.

    Blanco vowed that the city will see erection of a new senior center in 2006 and suggested the city may see a new plan for a municipal complex encompassing multiple municipal needs, in contrast to recent spending of $1 million for roof repairs to just one city-owned building.

    One of the happiest persons at the two events was Assemblyman Jerry Green, who was campaign manager for Robinson-Briggs. His supporters trounced a slate offered by two-term incumbent mayor Albert T. McWilliams and Green won back chairmanship of the Democratic Party.

    Putting the strife behind, Robinson-Briggs said, “Today is Unity Day. Collectively, we made history today in Plainfield.“

    --Bernice Paglia

    KEYWORDS: administration 2006