Monday, February 27, 2006

Council Gets Earful On Senior Center, Chief Leave Protest

A relatively sedate City Council meeting turned passionate Monday (Feb. 27, 2006) when citizens spoke out on two hot-button issues.

When it was time for the public to speak, Senior Center President Charles Nelson came forward to demand answers on the status of plans for a new senior center building.

“I’m really dismayed,” he said, noting a building committee meeting with acting Public Works Director Jennifer Wenson Maier on Feb. 24 yielded no insight into the new administration’s plans to follow through on campaign promises for a new building.

Nelson said new Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs suggested last month that the seniors should move to the old Plainfield Armory, a notion the seniors rejected about eight years ago.

“My people are frustrated,” Nelson said.

For their part, Wenson Maier and acting City Administrator Carlton McGee claimed equal frustration in not being able to gather facts about the history of the center project.

“I went to the meeting with question marks,” Wenson Maier said, while McGee referred to a trail of “bread crumbs” on the new center proposal.

McGee criticized the borrowing of money in November for the project because the city is paying interest on the debt and no construction is going on. Wenson Maier said plans were incomplete.

An early proposal set the cost for a new center at $1.7 million , but it ballooned to $4.3 million by the time the city went out for notes last year to fund it. The debt is in place, officials said, but there has been no action to start building.

Robinson-Briggs arrived midway through the discussion and said Wenson Maier came back from the Feb. 24 session “with nothing.”

Robinson-Briggs is scheduled to meet with the seniors March 7 and stated at a Feb. 18 joint meeting of land use boards that she intends by then to have a plan ready for the senior center.

In another emotional issue, Flor Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition, said a Feb. 24 protest in support of Police Chief Edward Santiago was denied permission, despite the fact that one against the chief earlier in the week was allowed to go on. Robinson-Briggs put Santiago on administrative leave Feb. 15 pending outcome of a lawsuit the chief filed against the city and various officials in August 2005. The mayor said she did so on advice of legal counsel.

Gonzalez spoke fervently of the need for understanding among all ethnic groups, but also questioned how her group was denied a right apparently given to others.

Gesturing at the interior of City Hall Library, Gonzalez said, “ This house belongs to all of us.”

In response, Acting Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig said he had mistakenly told Gonzalez she had to wait two weeks to hold a protest. But he said after he found out the protesters had a right to express themselves, he met with the small group carrying placards Friday.

“I take responsibility for giving the wrong information,” Hellwig said, but he also cited issues of traffic safety related to the group’s plan to march from Police Headquarters to City Hall.

After Gonzalez also alleged that a police officer beat a Hispanic, among other recent crimes in the city, council members asked police officials to look into the allegation.

Councilwoman Linda Carter asked for an investigation and assurances that all police officers are properly trained in dealing with the public.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: senior center, Latinos, police

Seven File For Board Seats

Three incumbents are among seven people who met a 4 p.m. deadline Monday to file for three three-year school board terms.

The filers include Lisa Logan-Leach, running for a second term; Patricia Barksdale, who won a one-year unexpired term in 2005 and will now seek a full term; and David Graves, who won board approval on Jan. 24 to serve until the April 18 election in the seat vacated by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs when she took office Jan. 1.

Others are Reno D. Wilkins, who also applied for the interim seat in January; Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, another interim applicant who was disqualified because he could not attend the screening meeting in person due to knee surgery; Nan Anderson, daughter of the late Councilwoman Helen Miller; and former Planning Board member Claudette Lovely-Brown.

Candidates will meet the public at various forums, such as those traditionally held by the Senior Center and the Plainfield League of Women Voters, before the April 18 election.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: school board, election

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Green To Party: Hands Off School Board Election

Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green does not want to put a party stamp on the 2006 school board election, he said Friday.

“I’m asking the committee as a whole not to get involved in the school board election,” he told city representatives of the party.

Green said he wanted to “stay away from all of them” so the party can support whoever wins.

“The party will not get involved,” he said. Nevertheless Green indicated there could be some leeway for members, acting as individuals, who may want to support BOE candidates.

School board candidates must file petitions by 4 p.m. Monday (Feb. 27, 2006) at the business office of the Plainfield Board of Education, 504 Madison Ave. Those who qualify will be eligible to run in the April 18 school board election. Three three-year seats are open.

Green’s position is a change from recent years, when both he and former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams openly backed slates. In 2005, candidates supported by McWilliams won, but McWilliams lost both the mayoralty and the party chairmanship in June. Filings tomorrow may show whether the rivalry between members of the Regular Democratic Organization and McWilliams’ New Democrats will dominate the election.
The Democratic organization agreed Friday to let Green select candidates for City Council seats. Those candidates must file by April 10 for the June 6 primary.

Green said new “pay-to-play” rules will complicate the November election. The state has a set of rules and some municipalities have also passed “pay-to-play” rules limiting contributions by venders doing business with governmental bodies. Green said the situation is very complicated and he has hired both a professional accountant and fundraiser to guide the party.

“Even ELEC hasn’t figured it out,“ he said, referring to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Green said he will bring someone to the committee’s next meeting to explain “pay-to-play” rules. He said while some people think the so-called reforms are good, “This is actually designed to hurt the Democratic Party.”

The meeting ended with remarks from City Council members, including Council President Ray Blanco, former president Linda Carter and members Rayland Van Blake, Rashid Burney and Don Davis.

After Blanco remarked that the council’s new-found solidarity was based on “resolving issues behind closed doors,” former Freeholder Lewis Mingo advised him, “You can’t talk about the back room.”

The Democratic Committee will meet again in one month, at which time Green said he will name his choices to run for the primary.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: school board, election

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Green Will Choose Primary Candidates

Plainfield Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green told his committee members he alone will select candidates for two City Council seats.

Green made the announcement at a Democratic City Committee Friday. In previous years, he has allowed the committee to choose who will get the party line and has even opened it up to community members. But in the wake of a tumultuous year of Democratic factionalism, Green said, “I’m going to go out on a limb this year and make that decision.”

The filing date is April 10. The 1st Ward and the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seats are up for election.

Incumbents are Rayland Van Blake in the 1st Ward and Rashid Burney in the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat. Both gained their positions with the support of former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams and both won committee seats running under the New Democrats for Plainfield slogan, in opposition to Green’s Regular Democratic Organization of Plainfield slate.

Green, who is also state Assemblyman for District 22, said he will accept resumes at his Prospect Avenue home address.

Green noted that some Democrats last year went so far as to support the Republican Party and he made it clear that he would not tolerate such behavior this year.

Last year, McWilliams changed parties after being denied the party line and losing the June primary to party choice Sharon Robinson-Briggs. But in a legal decision, he was denied a chance to run as a Republican in a “fusion” campaign with New Democrats who backed him in June. His subsequent write-in bid in November also failed, and Robinson-Briggs won the general election as well.

The city committee is a sub-set of the county committee and at present has former New Democrats as about one-third of its members. Once elected, all committee members are assumed to be part of the Regular Democrats.

But Green seemed to want to make sure all committee members were now party loyalists.

“There will not be any Democrats for Tom Kean coming out of this city,” Green said. “I‘m not going to tolerate it.”

Green referred to State Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., who most likely will challenge recently appointed U.S. Senator Robert Menendez for his seat.

Green said committee members will be expected to back Democrats running for office at local, county, state and national levels. He cited “hard-ball” and “tough love” approaches to ensuring party loyalty.

Green said he will announce his choices for council seats at the next committee meeting about a month from now.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: elections

Friday, February 24, 2006

Committees Aim To Hone In On Problems

Last year, the City Council formed a Finance Committee to put a sharp focus on the 2005-06 budget and bring back its findings to the entire governing body. The committee did a line-by-line review of the budget and the council was able to keep the municipal tax increase to about 3 percent.

This year, the council has established five more committees, to look at road construction, code enforcement, technology, public safety and economic growth and the state of bridges between the city and the neighboring borough of North Plainfield.

Many Central Jersey municipal councils use a committee structure to study various aspects of government, but Plainfield has not done so in past years, possibly due to factionalism and mistrust among council members. New City Council President Ray Blanco said he will build on a new tone set last year by past president Linda Carter to emphasize working together on city issues.

“This institution, the City Council, is only in my hands for a period of time,” he said. “I am trying to de-politicize this institution.”

Blanco said he is the first-ever council member to complete a course in government for elected officials and he said several other council members are also taking the courses offered at Rutgers. (See http://www.blanco4plainfield.com/2006/01/on-rutgers-elected-officials.html for more information.) The goal is to emphasize public service and effective delivery of city services.

Among the new committees to enhance that goal:
The Roads Construction Oversight Committee will monitor a 15-year, $75 million plan to repair or reconstruct all city roads. The committee’s goal will be to keep the plan on track to prevent a backlog of repairs.

The Code Enforcement Oversight Committee will look at operations in Inspections, the city division that former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams portrayed as generating the most complaints from citizens. Many residents said when they complained about violations in their neighborhoods, they themselves were targeted for summonses for code violations.

Last year, the division expanded its ranks of inspectors to address concerns of overcrowding and unsafe conditions as well as basic property upkeep.

The Technology Infrastructure Oversight Committee would examine all aspects of technology use and ways to link existing networks to make the most of shared services not only among city agencies, but with the Board of Education and Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority.

The Public Safety and Economic Growth Subcommittee would explore ways to improve perceptions of the city.

“There is a direct connection between public safety and economic development,” Blanco said.

The city has more than a dozen redevelopment schemes, but the city’s image of being crime-ridden has been an obstacle to success for many years.

The Bridges Subcommittee would work on questions regarding the bridges over the Green Brook between Plainfield and North Plainfield. There are currently 18 bridges, not all of which are in good repair. One has been closed for several years. In the past, Union and Somerset county officials have met to discuss which bridges are most important to preserve, but no agreement has been reached.

"The committees will allow the council to fulfill its Charter obligation of oversight as well as tackle difficult issues. The committees are also allowing for the council members to engage in meaningful dialogue about the issues that confront us," Blanco said.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: committees

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Board of Ed Filings Due Monday

A filing deadline is looming for school board seats, but so far few petitions have been dropped off at the Madison Avenue business office, staff said.

Three three-year seats are up for election on April 18 and petitions must be submitted by 4 p.m. Monday (Feb. 27, 2006).

In recent years, the board has become a barometer of political influence, even though the elected board was supposed to remove politics from the previous system of direct mayoral appointments. Last year, an independent slate that gained the support of former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams won out in April over one endorsed by Assemblyman Jerry Green, who won back chairmanship of the Democratic Party in June.

In 2003, Green’s slate of Sharon Robinson-Briggs, Bishop Herbert Bright and Lisa Logan-Leach prevailed. Since then, Robinson-Briggs was elected mayor and had to vacate the seat, which was won recently on an interim basis by David Graves, who twice ran for a committee seat with McWilliams' New Democrats.

After Bright resigned, Patricia Barksdale ran for the unexpired term and she won in April 2005.

Two other candidates that ran against Green's slate, Vickey Sheppard and Bridget Rivers, also won seats in 2005.

The vote for Graves last month gave the McWilliams faction an edge, but the filings Monday and the April 18 election will tell the tale of which brand of Democrats is in charge for the future.

Community activist Rasheed Abdul-Haqq filed for both the interim seat and the three-year seat before going in for knee surgery last month. Because he could not appear at a board interview due to his medical problems, he lost out on the interim term. But now mostly recovered, he said he is ready to campaign for a full term.

Abdul-Haqq minced no words in his assessment of the situation Thursday.

“I want to see a board that‘s independent of local politics,” he said. “A board that‘s focused on the difficult task of educating all of our students. When I say independent of local politics, I mean independent of Assemblyman Jerry Green.”

Green, the self-styled mentor and campaign manager of Robinson-Briggs, did not answer calls Thursday.

--Bernice Paglia & Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: School board, elections

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More Changes Proposed For Council

A plan to change the City Council’s meeting schedule drew fire from some citizens Tuesday and a promised amendment caught more flak.

The City Council first proposed to change the city’s hallowed schedule of Monday meetings to one featuring voting meetings on Wednesdays, but resident Robert Darden reminded the council that in many city churches, Wednesday evenings are devoted to Bible study.

Before the vote Tuesday (Feb. 21, 2006) on the plan to hold regular meetings on first and third Wednesdays, with agenda sessions on preceding Mondays, resident Dottie Gutenkauf called on the council to make sure the council would not conflict with other city agencies.

Later, when Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the ordinance might be amended to state regular meetings would be on Wednesdays after the first and third Mondays, Gutenkauf said the amendment “may actually have made matters worse.”

Williamson said after the meeting that if the adjustments didn’t work out, the matter might have to be tabled.

Resident George Smith, a past president of the Senior Citizens Center, said of the changes, “I don’t think it’s the proper thing to do.”

Smith linked the issue to changes suggested for the proposed new senior center,, telling the council, “It’s time you leave well enough alone.”

Seniors were promised a new center on East Front Street near the current leased space, but after the new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs came in Jan. 1, seniors were told the center site and redevelopment areas were being re-examined for their best use.

“Stop making changes,” Smith said.

The council had already adopted a traditional schedule for 2006 when it became evident that there would be a conflict for new Public Works and Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier, who is also the president this year of the Rahway Municipal Council.

She is expected to be in Rahway on second Mondays for that municipality’s voting meeting, which coincides with the Plainfield council’s agenda session at which department heads are expected to be on hand to answer questions about resolutions and ordinances related to their work.

Although officials say the change was prompted by a desire to compress the number of meetings, the perception has been that it may have been an accommodation to the conflict.

Another innovation offered at the meeting was a Youth Commission that would provide for liaisons to city boards and commissions. Students who spent at least two hours per month sitting in on municipal meetings would garner volunteer service hours that would enhance their college applications.

However, just as the meeting change schedule ordinance was in flux, so was the Youth Commission. The number of students taking part was still to be determined, said Councilwoman Linda Carter, who backed the ordinance.

The students must be enrolled at Plainfield High School and must be city residents. The must have parental or guardian approval to take part and must apply to the boards or commissions as their rules apply.

Although the council approved several appointments Tuesday, the city’s boards and commission have numerous vacancies and some are defunct. It remains to be seen what boards or commissions will receive student liaisons.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 20, 2006

Council To Fill Board Vacancies

The City Council is expected to fill nearly a dozen vacancies on three major boards at its regular meeting tonight (Feb. 21, 2006).

The meeting is 8 p.m. at the Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The seats on the Planning Board and Board of Adjustment expired Jan. 1 and the seats on the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority expired Feb. 1. The issue of timely appointments came up Saturday at a special meeting of the Planning Board, Board of Adjustment and Historic Preservation Commission Officials mentioned an Environmental Commission that was established in 2001, but no members have yet been appointed.

Nominees for the land use boards were invited to Saturday’s meeting, which was called to work on a unified vision for city upkeep and development. Historic Preservation Commission member Sandy Gurshman said the boards need to work with “any current administration” to make sure the boards are “peopled.”

Boards that are short of members may be unable to hold annual reorganizations or to get quorums to hear cases.

At the Feb. 13 agenda session, the council made some changes from the printed agenda. The final roster will be available tonight.

The nine-member Planning Board has four classes of members. Six are citizens appointed by the mayor with advice and consent of the council. One is the mayor or a designee, one is a council member and one is a city official. There are also two alternates.

As proposed Feb. 13, Councilman Cory Storch will succeed himself for 2006, as will Police Capt. Siddeeq El-Amin as the city official. Board member William Toth, whose four-year term ended Jan. 1, will become an alternate with a two-year term and former City Councilman Joseph Montgomery will serve the one-year balance of board member Barbara James’ term.

James, the new confidential assistant to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, resigned from her board term ending Jan. 1, 2007 and will be the mayor’s designee serving until Dec. 31, 2009.

The Board of Adjustment has seven members and two alternates, appointed by the mayor with advice and consent of the council.

The changes call for alternate member Melvin D. Cody to take the balance of a four-year term to Dec. 31, 2008, a vacancy caused by the resignation of Michael Worlds. Leroy Gallman will replace Cody as an alternate, for a two-year term ending in 2008. Ivan Flores will succeed Linda Hines for a four-year term ending in 2009 and alternate J. Frank Johnson will complete the unexpired term of Sandy Lawrence, who resigned. The unexpired term will be up at the end of 2006.

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority has five commissioners and two alternates, appointed by the mayor with advice and consent of the council.

Former member William Reid will return for a five-year term, replacing Philip Bartlett. Alex Toliver will become an alternate for a two-year term, replacing Wilbert Gill.

Last year, a citizens’ group sought more access to boards and commissions. The council passed the Civic Responsibility Act of 2005, with provisions that include posting of all appointive positions, the requirements for applicants and many other details, including a means of submitting a resume. The full text of the ordinance is on the city’s web site at www.plainfield.com but the pertinent information on boards and commissions was never posted there as the new law required. It was not clear whether any of the appointees up for a vote on Tuesday applied through the new process.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Boards To Unite On Vision For City

In a joint meeting Saturday (Feb. 18, 2006) members of the Planning Board, Board of Adjustment and Historic Preservation Commission agreed to uphold a common standard for land use within the city.

In coming years, the city will be faced with issues of affordable housing requirements, reviewing its master plan, redevelopment goals and educating the public on code enforcement standards, officials said. Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson stressed the need for all three boards to share a vision on how the city will address revitalization and quality of life concerns.

About 15 board and commission members attended the 3 1/2-hour meeting at City Hall, along with Planning Director Bill Nierstedt and Principal Planner Scott Baumann. Nierstedt said that the city will be revising the master plan this year. The last full revision was completed in 1998, with a re-examination in 2004.
The state Council on Affordable Housing will also be looking at the city’s responsibility to provide affordable housing based on growth, he said.

Municipalities will have to show how much affordable housing has been added in relation to increases in office and residential units. In recent years, a new office building has risen on the downtown Park-Madison block and the adjacent former Tepper’s department store has been converted into 75 apartments and ground-level retail space.

Nierstedt noted that on March 1, the Zoning Board of Adjustment will hear applications for two large new projects. Maxim Development Group is seeking approval for a five-story, 40-unit apartment building in the 900 block of South Avenue and a four-story, 64-unit apartment building in the 800 block of South Avenue.

Regarding the goal of having a new master plan by the end of the year, Historic Preservation Commission member Sandy Gurshman asked officials whether a revised zoning ordinance would follow in a “more congruent” manner than the last time. The zoning ordinance upholds provisions of the master plan and in the past, some projects that did not meet master plan goals got through because a revised zoning ordinance was not in place. Robertson assured her the process would be more timely.

In terms of past planning objectives and policies, officials said only 25 percent of them were completed. Some that need more attention include promoting the arts and focusing on “transitional” neighborhoods that need help to avoid decline.

Historic Preservation Commission member Mark Newton said code enforcement was the key to preventing decline, but the group also questioned how well city inspectors carry out their roles. Councilman Cory Storch, who is the governing body’s liaison to the Planning Board, said he advocated a “top to bottom” review of code enforcement operations last year, but he said the issue became overshadowed by public safety concerns.

Participants suggested elements for a joint mission statement that will be refined later. Historic Preservation Commission member Elizabeth King said the mission statement should include the goal of educating property owners and the public about land use boards and regulations. Other concerns were to make sure board vacancies were filled on time and to make greater attempts to include Latinos on the boards.

To accomplish the goal of getting a new master plan done this year, Robertson said, the Planning Board will devote its meetings on first Thursdays of each month to site plan review and will use the third Thursday meetings to work on planning issues.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city planning

Friday, February 17, 2006

Council to change decades old meeting schedule

The City Council will vote Tuesday on changing its meeting schedule, with regular meetings to be held on Wednesdays instead of Mondays.

The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

For decades, the council has held voting meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month, with exceptions for federal holidays and breaks for elections. The agenda-setting sessions, at which the council members decide what matters to put up for a vote, have been held on the preceding Mondays.

The ordinance up for first reading Tuesday calls for regular meetings on the first and third Wednesdays, with agenda sessions on the preceding Mondays. Reasons given for the change include the council’s desire to have fewer meetings and also to allow more time for council members to study resolutions and ordinances. Currently, packets are sent out after the close of business on Fridays. Under the new plan, members would get the packets on Thursdays and have time to ask questions of city staff.

A side effect of the proposed change would be to solve a dilemma for acting Public Works and Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier, who as the 2006 president of the Rahway Municipal Council must be present for regular meetings there on the second Monday of each month.

The ordinance must pass on two readings and will take effect 20 days later. The change could come about by late March, or approximately the end of Wenson-Maier’s 90-day acting term.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs appointed all her cabinet members Jan. 1 for acting terms. So far, none of the names have been offered for council advice and consent for four-year terms concurrent with that of the mayor.

A small group of residents attend almost every council meeting. One of them, Emily Washington, took exception with the proposed schedule change.

“Bad night for the public,“ Washington said, “because a lot of meetings are on Wednesdays.

“The people in Plainfield are pretty much geared to Mondays,” she said.

Washington said she became engaged in city politics while in her teens. Now about to turn 82, she said, the present meeting schedule has been in effect “so long, I can’t remember.”

The change was proposed just weeks after the council adopted its schedule for the whole year based on the traditional formula. The schedule was posted on the city’s official web site in January, along with language from the Municipal Code:

“All regular City Council meetings will be held on the first Monday of every month, and also on the third Monday of every month, at 8:00 p.m., in the Municipal Court - Council Chambers, 325 Watchung Avenue, Plainfield, New Jersey except that when a regular meeting day falls on a legal holiday the meeting shall be held the same hour and place on the next day which is not a legal holiday, unless the Council shall otherwise provide a resolution. “

--Bernice Paglia

Yearning for a day outdoors

My house plants have recently been looking with envy toward their outdoor cousins. This winter's unseasonable warm spells have made them jealous of the quince, the iris and the viburnum just beyond the glass.

Normally the philodendron, the dieffebbachia and their pals would be happy if the cat brushed by their leaves on the way to the window. Not today. With the temperature nearing 60-degrees and last Sunday's 24" snowfall a mere patch on the lawn, my few stalwart green guys were scratching at the door to go out.

Who am I to deny my plants a little vacation from the ho-hum life in a bay window? Out they went during this morning's brief rain shower. Then the clouds blew away and they basked in the midday sun until the temperature began to go down. Now the radio is warning of an overall 35-degree drop as a weather front moves in.

Yes, the plants are inside, happy to be back and safe from the high winds that are supposed to arrive. Let's hope whatever weather "event" visits us tonight, that it is not as devastating as last month's tree-toppling sleet storm.

--Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: weather

Police Chief Will Fight Leave

Police Chief Edward Santiago will seek monetary damages for being placed on administrative leave because the action was “illegal” and “retaliatory,” his attorney, Todd Shea, said Thursday (Feb. 16, 2006).

Shea said Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs placed Santiago on administrative leave with pay Tuesday (Feb. 14, 2006) shortly after he refused to replace Police Division personnel with people who did not meet the criteria for the positions.

The reason cited for the leave was that the chief had a lawsuit pending against the city, but Shea said the lawsuit was filed in August 2005. Robinson-Briggs took office Jan. 1 and did not make an issue of it until this week.

A promised press release on the issue was still not available Thursday from the mayor’s office.

In his 2005 lawsuit, Santiago did not seek damages but just a clearing of his name related to a disciplinary charge in June 2002. He filed the suit after making numerous attempts to settle the matter with the city. He alleged defamation as well as violation of his rights to free speech and due process.

The administrative leave will be in effect until the lawsuit is finished, Shea said, which could be many weeks.

“It’s just getting started,” Shea said. “It could be a good couple of months.”

Santiago has more than 30 years’ service with the Plainfield Police Division. He was named chief in April 1999.

Police union leader Andre Crawford said Robinson-Briggs wants to put more officers on the street, but he said Santiago is putting more officers in clerical positions. Crawford supported Robinson-Briggs in her mayoral campaign last year as she promised a different approach to crime.

Asked who will replace Santiago while he is on leave, Crawford said, “The last I heard, it was the director,” referring to acting Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig. Officials could not confirm Thursday who was in charge. One of Santiago’s contentions is that he has the right to name the person who will be in charge of day-to-day operations while he is on leave.

Shea said of the mayor’s action Tuesday, “It does not make any sense at all.”


--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: police

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bonaparte Gets Topeka Top Job

Norton Bonaparte Jr. won approval Tuesday (Feb. 14, 2006) to become the first city manager of Topeka, Kans.

The Topeka City Council approved a contract that will give the former Plainfield city administrator and present acting Administration and Finance director a salary of $137,500. Bonaparte will also receive a $550 monthly car allowance, full health benefits and numerous other perks as he assumes the job created in a 2004 restructuring of Topeka city government.

Bonaparte will be the most powerful official in Topeka, able to hire and fire employees and responsible for the city‘s budget and finances. The city manager form of government replaced a strong mayor-council structure.

Bonaparte told WIBW-TV reporter Stephanie Wurtz his first order of business will be getting know the people of Topeka. The CBS 13 News channel broke the story Tuesday as soon as the council voted.

According to information at www.epodunk.com, Topeka is the state capital of Kansas and county seat of Shawnee County. It had an estimated 122,008 residents in 2003, mostly of German descent, with 12 percent African-American residents. By contrast, Plainfield’s 2003 population was estimated at 48,025 and 62 percent African-American.

Topeka’s violent crime rate according to FBI statistics was 5.9 per 1,000, while Plainfield’s rate was 10.7 per 1,000. The web site ranks gay and lesbian population with 100 as the national rate; Topeka is lower with 83 and Plainfield is more than double at 231.

Bonaparte was in charge of Plainfield’s day-to-day operations from April 2003 until former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams left office Dec. 31. Bonaparte was asked to stay on as department head in charge of Administration and Finance. On Jan. 10, the Topeka council chose him as finalist in a pool of 30 candidates for the city manager job. After weeks of negotiations, he signed a contract and the last step was the council approval Tuesday.

He will begin the job in Topeka March 13.

Known here for his reserve and laconic style, Bonaparte maintained his composure Monday when officials tried to put him on the spot over a November issuance of bond anticipation notes.

Even though the City Council voted to approve the issuance, new Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs told seniors last week the $4.3 million for their new building was not there. Briggs said Monday she had been told there was no bond issue, but was later informed that notes were issued.

Bonaparte’s successor, acting City Administrator Carlton McGee, called the note sale “sort of a rush job” on Nov. 10, just after the November 8 election. He said going into the election there was no debt “and two days later, there was almost $12 million in debt.“

According to the Grant Street Group online auction site, the general obligation bond anticipation notes were put up for sale at 11 a.m. Nov. 3 and were sold within 15 minutes to Zion Bank. The proceeds went to the city on Nov. 10.

McGee characterized the sale as “pell mell” and helter skelter“ and said the new administration was not sure what capital projects it covered.

“We’re still researching it,” he said.

Asked to explain it all, Bonaparte said, “Mr. McGee has stated he is putting together the facts,” expressing confidence that McGee will share his findings with the council.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: administration

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Senior Center Questions Still Unanswered

Funding for a new senior center is in place, City Council President Ray Blanco confirmed Monday, but not in the format the council demanded last year.

In a council discussion Monday (Feb. 13, 2006), Blanco said four separate bonds the council authorized for the senior center, road repair, pools and other needs were never issued. Instead, the city issued $11 million in notes that will have to be re-financed in November and that lumped together projects that the governing body wanted to be distinct.

The question of paying for a new center arose last Tuesday when Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs stunned seniors by saying the city never bonded for the $4.3 million cost. Robinson-Briggs said Monday she learned the day after her visit with the seniors that notes had been issued instead.

Financial terminology aside, the question of where the center will be and in what form will be answered within 30 days, Robinson-Briggs told the council Monday. In her visit to the present senior center last Tuesday, she suggested that the Armory at Leland Avenue and East Seventh Street might be a good choice.

But Senior Center President Charles Nelson said Monday the seniors had rejected that notion nearly a decade ago, when it was raised by Assemblyman Jerry Green. Green is again trying to secure the building for a city use and is working with new state Treasury Department staff to get a better deal than the $1 million asking price announced last year.

Seniors have insisted on a new building downtown, and former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams held a ground-breaking in May 2005 at a site on East Front Street near the current leased space.

Nelson invoked the memory of former Councilwoman Helen Miller in his plea for a speedy resolution to the senior center dilemma. Miller, a staunch advocate for a new senior center, died Thursday (Feb. 9, 2006).

“Don’t let me be like Helen Miller and leave here before it happens,” Nelson pleaded with the council.

Senior Center Director Sharron Brown said the seniors will talk about the situation at a membership meeting Tuesday (Feb. 14, 2006) at 10:30 a.m. in the center at 305 East Front Street.

The issues will also be discussed at a building committee meeting at the center on Feb. 24.

Nelson reminded the council that early on, the price for a new center was set at $1.7 million. He questioned how it got to $4.3 million and also traced the history of the project that included one chapter where former basketball star Jayson Williams promised to build the new center half a block away from the present leased space. At each interval, Nelson said, the plans stalled.

“Now we’re at the bottom,” he said, noting the seniors were told a new architect had to be hired.

“My people are very upset,” Nelson said, claiming the new center has been a “political football” since the administration of former Mayor Mark Fury, who took office in 1994.

Officials assured Nelson that they are still backing the seniors‘ wishes for a new center.

“We are very committed to make sure this happens,“ Councilwoman Linda Carter said Monday.

“The building will be built,” Blanco said.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: senior center

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Bonaparte's Topeka Contract Unveiled

The Topeka City Council will vote Tuesday on a contract that would make former city administrator Norton N. Bonaparte Jr. the first permanent city manager of the Kansas state capital.

A contract posted on the Topeka council’s web site lists the proposed salary as $137,500.

Bonaparte, now the acting Administration and Finance director in Plainfield, was chosen as finalist for the Topeka position in January. He and his wife, Santa, visited Topeka last month to meet officials and take a tour of the city. Details of contract talks were secret until the agenda for the Feb. 14 council meeting was posted.

Other details include a $22,000 moving allowance and a provision for nine months’ severance pay in case of job termination without cause. Bonaparte would receive full health benefits and a $550 monthly vehicle allowance.

Topeka would pay for professional dues and subscriptions, job-related travel and education and business expenses, as well as a computer and cell phone.

As city manager, Bonaparte would serve “at the will” of the council and could be fired at any time upon 30 days’ notice.

If the contract is approved, Bonaparte would start work in Topeka on March 13.

Voters approved the new city manager form of government in November 2004, to replace a strong mayor-council plan. Public Works Director Neil Dobler has been acting city manager while the council conducted a search for a permanent manager. Thirty candidates applied and the choice was winnowed down to five finalists, then two, before Bonaparte was chosen.

As city manager, Bonaparte would have the power to hire and fire employees and would be responsible for the budget and city finances. Topeka had a budget last year of $154 million and has about 1,300 municipal employees.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: administration

Friday, February 10, 2006

A Personal Memory Of Helen Miller

In 1983, a young Plainfield woman was abducted and killed. She was last seen leaving a South Avenue restaurant, where she had auditioned to play piano.

I was then the leader of the Plainfield Area Chapter of the National Association for Women and our members were outraged and sorrowed by the murder of Karissa Davis and several other assaults on women that year. Helen Miller and Theodota Muller had formed a Concerned Women group after the spate of sexual assaults, and Councilwoman Miller agreed to speak at our NOW chapter’s “Take Back the Night” rally on Nov. 11, 1983.

Carrying placards as well as umbrellas in a drenching downpour, about 20 women marched from the YWCA to the plaza at Park and Front streets. Nobody was out except us. Courier News photographer Vince Kremer snapped pictures and staff writer Jack Gill wrote the story of our protest, which ended with speeches.

“Take back the night for women pursuing their dreams as artists, as students. Take back the night for women who must work or travel. Take back the night for all women who choose to lead independent, active lives,“ I said.

But Helen Miller spoke as if she was addressing a crowd of thousands. Standing on one of the low benches that circled around Financial Plaza, she thundered out a denouncement of all those who would interfere with women’s rights or who would even think of violence against women. She called for women to have full access to power in society and demanded justice for Davis and all victims of violence.

That was my first encounter with Helen Miller as a force to be reckoned with. Once she took a stand, she was indomitable. If she was sometimes over-reaching in her views, it was only because she refused to back down.

A few years later, I was the one with the byline in the Courier News and had many an occasion to quote Helen Miller. Politically, she was a scrapper who took no guff from men. Among the growing ranks of strong women in Union County, she was in the forefront. There was a look she would get on her face - eyes cut sideways, mouth paused with unspoken words - that to me meant she was weighing her next move against those who were in her way.

It may have been her very toughness that led to her being sidelined eventually. But even from the sidelines, she was formidable in her commentary on the political scene. Back in the fold last year, she was part of a successful effort to seat the first female African-American mayor of Plainfield.

I wish I had saved a little of that November rain. I would pour it out as a libation to the ancestors - and to a memorable woman, Helen Miller, who has now joined them.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Helen Miller

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Senior Center Plans Up For Review

The fate of a proposed senior center may be in question once again, as the new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs reviews issues of funding and location.

Robinson-Briggs visited the present center Tuesday (Feb. 7, 2006) and suggested that seniors should consider the vacant Plainfield Armory as a location, center president Charles Nelson said. The mayor also told seniors the past administration had not issued bonds for $4 million to pay for a new center, member Emily Washington said.

Robinson-Briggs did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

A brand-new center downtown has been both the express wish of the seniors and a frequent political campaign promise in the last few years. The city is presently paying $90,000 annually to lease space in a block-long building on East Front Street, but other tenants, including Union County offices, have moved out.

Nelson said the building has been sold, although tax records in City Hall do not yet reflect a sale, and he said the center’s lease is up in June. The center’s building committee will discuss the situation at a Feb. 24 meeting, Nelson said.

Regarding the funding, former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams said Tuesday night the bond for the center went through.

“The money is there - the land is already owned by the city,” he said.

The city acquired and demolished several buildings to clear the proposed site across the street from the present center. In 2003, former basketball star Jayson Williams was given approval to develop the site, but he backed out in 2005. The McWilliams administration then planned to bond for $4 million and make the new center a city project. McWilliams and dozens of officials took part in a ceremonial groundbreaking in May 2005.

The City Council authorized the administration to go out for bonding in late 2005.

Regarding location, Nelson recalled that the seniors were previously urged to move to the Armory several years ago, but rejected it. They also refused an offer to occupy space in the lower level of the former Tepper’s department store, which was converted into 75 apartments, retail space and a portion for municipal use.

According to press reports in June 2005, the state Treasury Department put the historic Armory up for sale with an asking price of $1 million. Assemblyman Jerry Green said Wednesday he is working with the new Treasury Department staff on how the city can acquire it for less.

Green, who previously tried to convince the seniors to go to the Armory, said he is now just trying to get it “in the city‘s hands.”

“The mayor asked me to reach out to Trenton,” said Green, who was campaign manager for Robinson-Briggs and is also chairman of the Democratic City Committee. The mayor and all City Council members are Democrats.

He said the new administration‘s director of Public Works and Urban Development, Jennifer Wenson-Maier, is reviewing all past development proposals to determine their status and will report her findings to the mayor.

At the end of the McWilliams administration Dec. 31, the senior center and about 13 redevelopment projects were on the books in various stages of planning.

Promising action, Green said, “We’re moving, we’re not playing.”

But he added, “All this stuff has to be looked at to make sure we are making the right decisions for the city - the city of Plainfield comes first.”

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: senior center

Monday, February 06, 2006

Attorney will Receive $7,500 To Research Mayoral Issue

Over the objections of two Democratic Party stalwarts, the City Council approved spending $7,500 for an attorney to research a dispute over mayoral qualifications.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs won a June 2005 primary and also the 2005 general election, but it is possible that when she filed to run in April 2005 she was short of the city’s special charter requirement that a mayor must have been a “legal voter” in the city for four years prior to election. At the time, nobody challenged her qualifications within the period allotted to do so.

Robinson-Briggs had to vacate her school board seat Jan. 1 when she became mayor and the change revived questions about her residency and voter registration. Republican Municipal Committee Chairwoman Sandy Spector asked the City Council to look into the issue and the response was to hire Angelo Genova, a prominent Democratic lawyer described by Council President Ray Blanco as an expert on election law.

Robinson-Briggs was a registered voter in Plainfield before relocating to Middlesex County, where she was registered from 1996 through the fall of 2002. She registered in Union County in September 2002. The charter does not state whether the registration must be four years immediately prior to election or four years accumulated over time.

Before the council vote Monday (Feb. 6, 2006), Democratic City Committee members Josef and Dottie Gutenkauf both objected to the expenditure.

Josef Gutenkauf said it would accomplish “nothing whatever” because, he said, “The City Council has no role in this matter.”

“Sometimes this body seems to be too easily intimidated,” he said, adding that the council’s response sets a precedent for responding to anyone with a chip on his or her shoulder.

He labeled the expenditure “frivolous,” and his wife, who is the Democrats’ 3rd Ward leader, agreed.

She said the question has been raised through “various blogs, internet squawks and the Courier News,” adding, “It doesn’t make Plainfield look good.“

She cited a section of the state election law that sets limits for contesting elections at no later than 10 days.

“This is three months after the election,“ she said, questioning why the council would authorize spending money for legal advice “when there is no legal issue before the council.“

After the news story on Spector’s challenge, a recent Courier News editorial called for the matter to be dropped.

But when the vote was taken, only Councilman Don Davis voted “no.“
Blanco and council members Linda Carter, Cory Storch, Rayland Van Blake, Rashid Burney and Elliott Simmons voted “yes.“

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: charter

Friday, February 03, 2006

Bonaparte Signs Contract, Awaits Council Vote

Acting Administration & Finance Director Norton Bonaparte Jr. has signed a contract to become the first city manager of Topeka, Kans.

Bonaparte and Topeka Acting City Manager Neil Dobler both confirmed Friday (Feb. 3, 2006) that the contract was signed and that the next step is for the Topeka City Council to approve it. The Topeka council will discuss it Tuesday and although it is not on the agenda, Dobler said five members could vote to put it on for approval.

Bonaparte, who was Plainfield’s city administrator from April 2003 to December 31, 2005, declined to say much more about the matter until it is finalized.

In November 2004, Topeka voters agreed to change their form of government from a mayor-council format to a council-city manager plan. If confirmed, Bonaparte would be the first to hold the position and would be in charge of all the city’s fiscal and administrative responsibilities.

Bonaparte and his wife, Santa, visited Topeka after he emerged as finalist in a field of 30 candidates.

“My wife and I were very impressed with the city,” he said Friday. “We’ll see what happens with the City Council.”

Topeka has a very sophisticated web site at www.topeka.org that includes online council agendas, a lot of information about the city, which is the capital of Kansas, and one element that may be of interest to New Jersey politicians on a quest to rid the Garden State of corruption.

A unique feature, the “Topeka City of Character” page features monthly expositions on traits such as self-control, patience, responsibility and justice.

Dobler said the word of the month is featured not only on the city web site, but also on billboards, in newspapers and in the school district.

The “Character” program is also in effect in other cities.

“It’s really taken hold around here,” he said. “It’s really community-wide.”

Dobler said when the new word appears on billboards and other sites, it perks peoples’ interest.

“It’s just become kind of commonplace,” he said. “When the new word comes out, people stop and think about it.”

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: administration

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Attorney May Probe Mayoral Qualification Issue

At the City Council meeting Monday (Feb. 6, 2006) the governing body may authorize payment of up to $10,000 to attorney Angelo Genova as special counsel to look into the issue of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs’ qualifications.

Robinson-Briggs filed to run for mayor in April 2005 but may not have met the Plainfield City Charter requirement of being a registered voter for four years prior to the election.

In a previous controversy regarding her school board election, Robinson-Briggs was accused of not meeting the one-year residency requirement. But she was able to prove residency from April 2002 and took the seat.

However, upon becoming mayor as of Jan. 1, 2006, she had to step down from the board. The past controversy revived the question of when she moved back to Plainfield since relocating to Piscataway and also the issue of how long she was a registered voter in Plainfield.

According to election board records, she was registered in Middlesex County since 1996 and only switched to Union County in September 2002, a year short of the charter requirement to run for mayor.

Once Robinson-Briggs filed to run for mayor in April 2005, nobody challenged her qualifications by the official deadline. She won the June primary and the November general election.

Asked about the issue, City Council President Ray Blanco said he was relying on the fact that County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi certified election results for both the primary and general elections.

Republican Municipal Committee Chairwoman Sandy Spector wrote to the City Council in January to dispute the mayor’s qualifications. Spector and others backed former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams for re-election to a third term in 2005, but McWilliams lost his bid to run as a Republican in November after losing as a Democrat in the June primary. He then mounted a write-in campaign and though he was not on the ballot, he came in second after Robinson-Briggs and ahead of former Councilman Bob Ferraro, who was on the ballot as an independent candidate.

The move to hire Genova is in response to Spector’s inquiry.

Party candidates must file in April to run in the November election. There is a deadline for filing, which this year is 4 p.m. on Monday, April 10. Then there is a deadline to raise objections to a filing, which this year will be Friday, April 14. Even though objectors challenged petitions of candidates for the Democratic City Committee last April, nobody challenged Robinson-Briggs’ qualifications. Party officials said they were unaware of the charter requirement regarding mayoral candidates.

Democratic City Committee members were elected in the June 8 primary and took office at the Democratic Party reorganization on June 13. This year, the Republican Municipal Committee must field candidates for 68 seats and will reorganize after the June primary.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: charter, election

Council Meeting Schedule May Change

The governing body may change its meeting schedule, City Council President Ray Blanco said Monday (Jan. 30, 2006).

The council usually holds regular meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month, with agenda sessions on preceding Mondays. A schedule for 2006 reflecting the traditional plan was recently adopted by the council, then published and posted in City Clerk Laddie Wyatt’s office.

But now the council is considering a schedule that calls for agenda sessions on the first and third Mondays of each month, with regular meetings to follow on first and third Thursdays. The council may also hold conference meetings from time to time, Blanco said.

The model follows the meeting schedule of Jersey City, where acting City Administrator Carlton McGee was a former business administrator. It would also solve a dilemma for acting Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier, a Rahway council member who was named council president for 2006. Rahway holds its regular voting meeting on the second Monday of each month, which clashes with the Plainfield council’s agenda session.

The restructuring would also change the flow of information to the Plainfield governing body, which currently receives packets from the clerk’s office after the close of business Fridays. By receiving information on Thursday instead of Friday or Saturday, Councilman Cory Storch said, the council would have more time to get questions answered before the meetings.

Storch said members could then shift from “technical to substantive issues” at the meetings.

Department heads would have to send their requests for council action to the clerk by noon Mondays instead of Wednesdays.

The city’s special charter calls only for one meeting a month at City Hall Library, but the schedule used in recent decades is in the Municipal Code and would have to be revised.

McGee, Wenson-Maier, acting Administration & Finance Director Norton Bonaparte, acting Public Affairs & Safety Director Martin Hellwig and acting Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson are all now into the second month of 90-day temporary terms. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has not yet offered their names for advice and consent of the City Council for four-year terms concurrent with hers. The 90-day rule came out of a dispute between a previous council and former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, who allowed some cabinet members to stay on in acting capacity for months or years.

If confirmed, the cabinet members will face another issue - residency. The city requires its top administrators to become residents of Plainfield within six months of appointment and confirmation. For example, Wenson-Maier lives in Rahway and Hellwig lives in Nutley. If approved for full terms, both would be subject to the city’s residency requirement unless it is waived by the City Council.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city council

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

City Council Approves 2005-06 Budget

Despite a capacity crowd at the public hearing on the 2005-06 budget, not one citizen had a thing to say.

The City Council held the hearing Monday (Jan. 30, 2006) in City Hall Library, where the crowd spilled out into the rotunda. But no one responded to City Council President Ray Blanco’s call for public comment. The council then passed the budget unanimously.

After working on the budget since July, the council neared a vote in December but decided to hold off to allow new Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs a say on the spending plan. Robinson-Briggs was sworn in Jan. 1 and her administration is now in charge for the last six months of the 2005-06 fiscal year. The 2006-07 budget, starting July 1, will be the new mayor’s first full budget.

The $64.7 million budget includes a municipal tax levy of $39.7 million, a reduction from the $41.4 million before amendments were adopted in a special meeting on Jan. 18. While the budget process went on for months, more grants and state aid came in, resulting in a revenue increase from $17.7 million to $20.5 million.

The 2.9 percent municipal tax increase will result in a $90 increase on the average home assessed at $112,653, Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya said.

A finance committee that included Councilmen Cory Storch, Rayland Van Blake and Rashid Burney made a line-by-line study of the budget and brought findings and recommendations to the full council in budget deliberations. The largest part of the budget - more than one-third - is for the Public Affairs and Safety Department , which includes the police and fire divisions. Administration & Finance, which also includes health and social services, takes up about 23 percent of city costs and Public Works & Urban Development is around 11 percent.

On Monday, the council will vote on establishing two new positions in the mayor’s office, a confidential assistant and a secretary. Because the budget year is more than half over, the impact will be for just a few months.

Starting July 1, the salaries will be paid for the entire fiscal year. The mayor’s salary is $35,000 and will remain so for her full four-year term, as the City Charter prohibits a raise for a sitting mayor. But the salaries of the new staff will increase each year, according to salary guide that the council will also vote on Monday. The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Avenue.

Correction: City Council President Ray Blanco was on the Finance Committee last year, with Chairman Cory Storch and Rayland Van Blake. Blanco appointed Rashid Burney as chairman of the committee this year and will serve again with Van Blake.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Budget