Friday, March 31, 2006

Park To Get Official Designation

A small green oasis on busy South Avenue is up for official designation as Plainwood Square Park.

The City Council will vote Monday (April 3, 2006) on granting the park official status and a place on its roster of Green Acres sites. The meeting is 8 p.m. .
in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The Plainwood Square Merchants Association promoted development of the park, which is near the east border of the city. Association President Donna Albanese said ground was broken in 2000. A former two-way side road that looped around the plot was made one-way, increasing the park space by 40 percent. The park was landscaped with a plaza and benches surrounding a fountain.

“It’s the gateway to the city,” Albanese said.

Throughout the summer and fall, the park has become a favorite venue for concerts, community gatherings and more recently, the Plainfield Idol competitions.

“It means a great deal to the merchants,” Albanese said, calling it “a symbol of the effort of the business community.”

The South Avenue business district and the traditional downtown blocks on Front Street are the city’s main commercial areas, with the downtown dominated by retail establishments and South Avenue being known as “Restaurant Row” for its wide-ranging take-out or fine dining choices.

Albanese said the 50-member merchants’ association has made commitments of finances, time and effort to make the park a success.

“The city recognized the efforts that were made, and they’re appreciated,” she said.

People driving past the park in summer have been amazed to see banana trees and other tropical additions to the plantings. Albanese said city resident Fred Judith has voluntarily donated exotic plants each year.

Judith, who spends winters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and summers in Plainfield, said he found the initial plantings in the park a bit mundane. He replaced the shrubs with his own choices of magnolias, crape myrtles, laurels and Virginia sweet spire. During hot weather, he has planted exotic banana trees, pink angel’s trumpets and elephant ears.

Judith said the angel trumpets, also known as datura, are covered every three weeks with bell-shaped flowers that release fragrance at night. The owner of a landscaping service called Landplan, Judith also stops traffic on nearby East Seventh Street with exotic plantings in his own front yard. He jokes that in late summer it is known as the “Chiquita Banana” house.

As for the park, he says, “I just wanted to do something fun.“

The South Avenue merchants and the Friends of Sleepy Hollow neighborhood organization pressed for the successful restoration of the Netherwood train station and the reconstruction of the South Avenue roadway, which featured “bump-outs” to provide slowing of traffic and additional safety for pedestrians.

Albanese said residents have responded positively to the merchants’ campaign to get people to “shop Plainfield.”

With the park designation capping their efforts, Albanese said, “It’s been years coming and we’re very happy that the day has arrived.”

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: park, green acres

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Police Chief Reinstated

Supporters of Police Chief Edward Santiago rejoiced Thursday (March 30, 2006) after a judge ordered his return to work immediately.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who took office Jan. 1, 2006, placed Santiago on paid administrative leave on Feb. 15, saying it was necessary because Santiago had filed a lawsuit against the city and various officials. But Union County Superior Court Judge John Pisansky found that the city acted improperly, Santiago supporter Flor Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez led a series of protests outside City Hall after Santiago’s removal. On Thursday, a group from Plainfield attended the hearing in Elizabeth where Pisansky made his ruling.

“We are very grateful to know the law prevailed,” she said.

Another interested person at the hearing was Mitchell Sklar, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police.

“What it means is that the city officials have to follow the law,” Sklar said of the ruling.

Sklar said state statutes require due process and a “substantive reason“ for removal of a police chief. In addition, the charges must be presented and the official must be allowed to have a hearing.

“The judge found that the city didn’t comply with the law,” Sklar said. “Nobody is above the law, and that includes cities.”

Neither Santiago nor Robinson-Briggs could be reached for comment Thursday.

Santiago was the city’s first Hispanic police chief when he was appointed in April 1999. But as early as September 199, Santiago drew criticism from black police activists.

Robinson-Briggs had heavy police support during her campaign from the Plainfield Area Ebony Police Association President Kenny Reid and Police Benevolent Association Local 19 President Andre Crawford. After Santiago was placed on administrative leave, Lt. Ron Lattimore was named acting chief. Lattimore is the brother of former Public Safety Director Michael Lattimore, who quit in September 2005 for a public safety position at Rutgers Newark.

At a Democratic City Committee meeting on Feb. 24, Robinson-Briggs recounted her session with Santiago. She said she assured him “it was not a personal thing“ and she was acting on legal advice that she was given.

Robinson-Briggs said she and the chief had a “heart-to-heart“ discussion on his removal.

Santiago’s 2005 lawsuit named both Michael Lattimore and McWilliams, in addition to other officials, seeking expungement of charges related to a one-day suspension.

But since Santiago was forced to step down from his post, his attorney Todd Shea said, Santiago will seek monetary damages.

The fine points meant less to Santiago supporters Thursday.

“Justice prevails,” Sklar said.

“It is a great day for all of us,” Gonzalez said.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: police, law suit

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Senior Center Plans Still Unclear

In a report Wednesday (March 29, 2006) to the Senior Center membership, President Charles Nelson said a meeting Friday with administration officials yielded no news on a promised new center.

Promises were on the lips of all campaigners for city office last year, but since the new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took over Jan. 1, officials have said everything is up for review.

Currently the seniors meet in rented space at 305 East Front Street. The $90,000 annual lease is up in June and the building has been sold. The proposed site for the new center is slightly south and east of the present one, still on East Front Street.

Nelson and other members of the center’s Building Committee met Friday with Robinson-Briggs, Public Works Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier and City Administrator Carlton McGee, who is also the acting director of Administration and Finance, the city department that is in charge of the senior center.

“We were supposed to get some good news,” Nelson said.

But he said the meeting ended with “nothing definite” on a new center, though with hope held out that it could be on the proposed site if a mixed-use project , perhaps including housing, could be developed to produce tax revenues. The center alone, as a city agency, would be tax-exempt.

Member Jean Black said the Friday meeting ended with accusations that seniors had been disrespectful to the mayor by asking questions.

If we can’t get answers and they rely so much on us for our vote, I think it’s wrong,” Black said.

Member Charles Booker recalled that the last major housing development - the conversion of the former Tepper’s department store to 75 apartments - only resulted in a 30-year tax abatement plan and suggested that a new housing plan might not mean new ratables after all.

Center member Reggie Garner said he heard that the $4.3 million raised for the center in a bond sale last year was “going to be turned back to the Utah bank,” referring to the successful bidder, Zion Bank.

McGee, reached later by phone at City Hall, said . “I know nothing about that.“

McGee said the city has no plans that have an architect’s signature, but in light of several past proposals, he said, “We haven’t taken anything off the table.” In fact, he said, the city has added more possibilities.

He said the dialogue with seniors will continue while the new administration does its “homework” on ideas for the center.

McGee said officials will be “more circumspect about promises” while they sort out the options.

Asked for a comment on what she heard at the membership meeting, member Mary Jackson said, “The comment really is, in January we were told they didn’t have the money. In February they did have the money.“

Jackson referred to remarks by Robinson-Briggs regarding the $4.3 million general bond anticipation note. The mayor misunderstood the language and said there was no bond money in January, but corrected herself in February.

Jackson continued, “In March, they’re going to send the money back. What’s it going to be in April?

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: senior center

Sunday, March 26, 2006

New Calendar Has Big Glitch

The City Council’s new schedule is supposed to kick in on April 17. It calls for an agenda session on the Monday preceding the third Wednesday, when the regular session will take place.

But in what amounts to a perfect storm for the City Clerk’s office, the intervening Tuesday just happens to be April 18 - the date of the school board election. The result will be three late-night evenings in a row and a conflict between handling the school board election and accomplishing the turn-around for the Wednesday meeting.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf has repeatedly warned of conflicts that will arise from the new schedule and others have complained that it will force residents to choose between Wednesday night Bible classes and the regular council meetings. But so far, nobody made the connection that the first week of the new schedule will clash with the school board election.

City Clerk Laddie Wyatt said Sunday she will look into the situation.

The schedule does allow time off for the June primary and the November general elections.

The council decided to set the new schedule this year, saying it will cut down on the number of meetings. But residents pointed out there will still be four meetings each month - except for June, July. August and November - there had been with the Monday-only schedule used for decades.

Officials deny the new schedule is meant to cure a problem for Public Works and Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier, who is City Council president in Rahway and must be there on second Mondays for that municipality’s monthly voting meeting instead of being at the Plainfield council’s agenda session to answer questions.

Under the new schedule, the May 3 meeting conflicts with the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Sept. 7 and Oct. 5 meetings, both on Thursdays, appear to conflict with the Planning Board. Under the new rules, the Monday session moves to Tuesday in case of a holiday such as Labor Day, and the regular meetings moves to Thursday.

The new schedule was adopted despite the fact that the council approved a traditional schedule in December that was published in local news papers and posted in the clerk’s office. It also defies language in the new City Council “Rules of Order” that the schedule must be finalized “no later than December 10th” of the preceding year.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city council

City Loses Outspoken Activist

Another fervent community voice has been stilled.

Phyllis Mason, a commentator on both local and national politics for many years, died Saturday at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center.

She was one of the regulars who came to the microphone at City Council meetings to state her views on city finances and decisions of the governing body. Her voice had a ringing quality that commanded attention and she used both intellect and humor in trying to sway the council to her arguments.

A Republican for many years, she became a Democrat more recently. After her car accident in May 2005, she could not attend council meetings but began watching C-Span for hours at a time and writing letters to Senator John Kerry and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. She had a zest for Congressional byplay that few people could match.

While devoted to things of the mind, Phyllis cared less for bodily needs and often ate dinner at midnight or got around to breakfast by late afternoon. She was more faithful in caring for her dear Chihuahua, Anisette, who suffered many health problems until dying in December 2004.

Phyllis favored long phone conversations and didn’t hesitate to keep talking if a new idea occurred to her. She had a hearty laugh that often punctuated her many anecdotes about people she knew.

Perhaps her greatest interest was holding elected and appointed officials - in Plainfield or in Washington - accountable their constituencies and to the laws they swore to uphold. If she got mad enough, Phyllis was not above swearing a little bit herself in exasperation with the shenanigans of officeholders.

She was in the hospital only briefly before it became clear that she was gravely ill and would not recover. She will be missed by all those who admired her strong will and clear personal vision of how a city or a country should be run.

Count this writer among them.

--Bernice Paglia


Friday, March 24, 2006

Senior Center Plans To Be Revealed

Seniors rang out the old year with politicians’ promises of a new center ringing in their heads.

But the New Year brought a different message. There will be a new senior center, but maybe not at the East Front Street site where former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams held a groundbreaking last May. McWilliams lost out to Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who became mayor Jan. 1, and her mentor, Assemblyman Jerry Green, has hinted at other possible sites for the promised center.

On Monday, Senior Center President Charles Nelson told Robinson-Briggs and the City Council that he came back from a vacation to find his members very upset.

The “future site” sign erected on the city-owned East Front Street property was gone. Nelson reminded the council that the governing body had committed $4.3 million in funding “for that particular site.”

Council President Ray Blanco joked, “They’re just cleaning it. They took it down to put my name on it.“

But for seniors, the possibility of the new center being shifted to some other site is no laughing matter. Since the city’s 10-year lease ran out in 1999 on the rented quarters at 305 East Front Street, seniors have adamantly rejected alternate sites, such as the city-owned public space under the Tepper’s building on Front Street or the Plainfield Armory on East Seventh Street, which the state is offering for other uses.

Nelson said City Administrator Carlton McGee told him Monday that the seniors will be very happy with the new administration’s decision on the center.

At a meeting today (Friday, March 24, 2006) the senior center’s building committee is supposed to receive definitive information on the new administration’s plan. The meeting is closed to the public, but Nelson said the results will be made public at a senior meeting on Wednesday (March 29, 2006).

The new administration has promised explanations at previous junctures. Robinson-Briggs met with seniors on March 7, but had no news. Her administration was supposed to have a plan in place by March 10.

The center has been located at 305 East Front Street since 1989, when the city signed the 10-year lease. After it ran out, the city has had various short-term lease arrangements. The current annual rent is close to $100,000. Earlier plans for a new center had a price tag of $1.2 million, but more recently the cost has been set at $4.3 million and the city last year committed to that amount.

However, the new administration has questioned both the cost and the location. In addition, McGee has maintained there are no specific plans on file for a new center.

Former basketball star Jayson Williams had proposed a senior center combined with an arts complex, but dropped out of the project. Officials have also proposed a center combined with a retail strip to bring in tax revenues. Both proposals were to be located at the East Front Street site about a block north of the current center, on land cleared at city expense. Green has denied persistent rumors that the potentially valuable downtown location is now being eyed as the site for a new Commerce Bank.

Meanwhile, Nelson attends City Council meetings and reminds officials of their past promises. What will happen today remains to be seen, he said.

“We gotta wait and see,” he said. “They’re telling me it’s gonna be good.”

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: senior center

Monday, March 20, 2006

Crowded Meeting Ends With Mother's Plea

In a single vote Monday (March 20, 2006), the City Council approved 13 resolutions that included granting full terms to cabinet members and waiving residency requirements, setting comprehensive rules of conduct for the governing body and giving health and pension benefits to same-sex partners.

The council also passed eight ordinances, including one to change the meeting schedule, two to set up youth commissions and one to raise the salaries of Public Works employees.

Residents including Joan Hervey and Sally Hughes thanked the council for the domestic partner legislation. Hervey also read a statement of support from former Mayor Richard L. Taylor, who could not attend the meeting.

On the cabinet appointments, Councilman Cory Storch said over the past 90 days he got to know and appreciate the cabinet members, all of whom came aboard with acting terms. But he asked that future appointments be made as in past administrations, with candidates being interviewed in executive session by the council before confirmation.

The new rules of conduct and a new limit on public comment irked residents Joe and Dottie Gutenkauf and Sandy Gurshman. The Gutenkaufs sent Council President Ray Blanco a six-page memo on the 28 pages of rules for conduct after obtaining a copy last week, but most of the public never saw the rules. Dottie Gutenkauf asked Monday how the council could say meetings must start at 8 p.m. and conclude by 10 p.m., and that only agenda sessions would be videotaped.

Blanco said he spent time discussing the rules with council members and trading e-mails with the Gutenkaufs. He said he spent anywhere from two hours to eight or 10 with one member on the rules.

Councilman Don Davis said “I was the 10-hour member,“ and remaining unconvinced, cast the only “no” vote on the resolution.

The Gutenkaufs and Gurshman strongly objected to a 30-minute limit on public comment and a three-minute limit on each speaker.

“It’s the only place to ask questions, it’s the only place to blow off steam,“ Joe Gutenkauf said, calling public comment “an important function.“

“I guess if you don’t have that, you will have explosions elsewhere,“ he said.
Gurshman read a vision statement printed on the agenda that assures people they “will be heard.“

“If we believe it, we don’t limit comment to 10 people,“ she said. “”Who is the eleventh person, who doesn’t get heard?“

In fact, public comment went on much longer than half an hour Monday after resident Ruby White made an emotional plea to the council to do something about violence and shootings. White said she had to take her son out of school to avoid being hurt and that she had lost a grandson and recently a nephew to gun violence.

“What are you going to do about the killings in Plainfield? They’re dying. It is so sad, and the schools are no better,” she said.

White asked why more was not being done to keep young people safe.

“It’s unbearable, it’s just unbearable, to think these young people don’t have another day,” she said.

Blanco assured White that the council and administration “really do care” and the issues are being addressed by adding more police officers and more opportunities for youth. Davis said the city and the school board are working together to find solutions. Then speaker after speaker came to the microphone to talk about crime, better parenting, more police coverage and stricter law enforcement.

In response to Blanco’s suggestion for legislation to hold parents accountable, resident Mike Robbins said, “I don’t want my council to be social workers. I don’t want my council to be police.”

Robbins said he wants the council to legislate and to foster development in the city.

He said solving the youth and crime problems will never be done “with grandiose gestures and glorious speeches,” but must be done in the home.

At the end of the evening, Blanco pointed out that public comment had run to an hour and 15 minutes, adding, “I don’t think anyone was gaveled down.“

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city council, domestic partnership, violence

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Monday's Meeting A Busy One

Monday’s City Council agenda is jam-packed with newsworthy items, including requests from Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs to confirm her cabinet choices.

There are also seven ordinances up for final passage, including one that would change the schedule of council meetings and another that would establish a Youth Commission to advise elected officials on the views of young people. In addition, a resolution on domestic partnership benefits is up for a vote.

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

Robinson-Briggs is asking the City Council to confirm the current acting city administrator, department heads and corporation counsel for full four-year terms concurrent with hers. Those up for confirmation are Carlton McGee for city administrator; Jennifer Wenson-Maier to head the Department of Public Affairs and Urban Development, which now includes responsibilities formerly carried out under the Office of Economic Development; Martin Hellwig in charge of Public Affairs and Safety, the department that includes the Fire and Police divisions; and Dan Williamson as corporation counsel.

The controversial change in the council’s meeting schedule is up for a final vote. It would alter the traditional schedule of regular meetings on first and third Mondays, with agenda sessions on preceding Mondays, to one that puts regular meetings on first and third Wednesdays, with agenda sessions on preceding Mondays. However, there would be only one regular meeting in June, July, August and November, with one preceding agenda session.

Objectors have said the new meeting schedule will clash with other important city meetings and will conflict with Wednesday Bible classes held in many churches. Officials have denied that the rejiggering of the schedule is meant to let Wenson-Maier out of a sticky situation - she must be in Rahway on second Mondays to serve as council president at the regular meeting there. At the March 13 agenda session, she was absent as the council discussed five Public Works and Urban Development issues and some questions went unanswered.

The new Youth Commission is the second group by that title to be proposed. The first one, established by ordinance MC 2006-10, calls for youth liaisons to city boards and commissions. The young people who serve would receive community volunteer credits.

A second Youth Commission, covered by MC 2006-13, would provide input to the governing body, suggest youth activities and serve as a link between city government and young people. Both are up for final passage.

Two resolutions on domestic partnership benefits will be up for approval. One provides health benefits and the other confers pension benefits to partners of city employees, both active and retired, as long as the couple has registered under the New Jersey Domestic Partnership Act.

The council will also honor Donald Moye, who retired from the Police Division Jan. 31 with 31 years of service. Moye is employed by the Plainfield Public Schools now and is in charge of Homeland Security within the school district.

Another item, Council President Ray Blanco’s proposed rules of order for the council, was mentioned at the agenda session and has since been revised. It was not listed on a preliminary agenda for Monday’s meeting, but may be added. The 28-page document covers council organization, meetings, role of the council president, handling of legislation, decorum, and many other aspects of council activity. It also includes a full schedule for 2006 that signals April 17 as the starting point for the new Monday-Wednesday schedule.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf obtained a copy of the initial version of the rules of order and offered six pages of comments and suggestions, many of them pointing out that the city’s special charter, state law and Robert’s Rules of Order already cover many aspects of the proposed rules.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, March 17, 2006

Dems Choose Candidates For Council Seats

Incumbent City Council members Rashid Burney and Rayland Van Blake will run on the Democratic Party line in June, Assemblyman and Party Chairman Jerry Green said Friday.

Burney holds the 2nd and 3rd Ward at-large seat and Van Blake represents the 1st Ward.

Burney first served as an appointee and then won the balance of an unexpired term in November. He will be seeking his first full four-year term.

Van Blake won his seat four years ago and is the council member with the most longevity as he seeks re-election.

Green said last month he would make the choice and the Democratic City Committee authorized him to do so. He said only one other city resident, Leslie Graham, submitted a resume. Green said Graham will be given a chance to work with the party and will be considered for future opportunities to run for elective office.

Green said he hoped the selection of Burney and Van Blake would be “the start of the healing process,“ referring to a fractious year in 2005 that saw a major split among Democrats.

Both candidates were backed previously by former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, who lost both the June 2005 primary and a write-in bid in the November general election.

The candidates echoed Green’s hopeful remarks in comments after their selection.

“I feel we have a really great team put together,“ Van Blake said, referring to the “synergies of the cohesion” among council members.

Burney vowed to move the city forward, “saying, “We can do it. I ask you to put the interests of Plainfield first.”

Questioned by committee member Marie Davis on his biggest accomplishments, Van Blake cited a road reconstruction program that would span 15 years and correct neglect over the past 20 years. He also mentioned pool reconstruction and expansion of the Urban Enterprise Zone to include commercial corridors in the East End.

Davis asked Burney to explain his main focus.

Burney said he wants to resolve issues regarding the proposed senior citizens center, add more officers for increased public safety and curtail city costs to prevent tax increases.

The two Democrats and any primary opponents must file petitions by April 10. Any objections to candidates must be filed by April 14.

Green also welcomed attorney Jonathan Williams Friday to explain aspects of so-called “pay-to-play” legislation that will put restrictions on campaign contributions to candidates for elective office.

Williams reviewed several pieces of legislation that attempted to define rules for vendors who might be doing business with governmental entities where elected officials would decide to grant contracts.

The bottom line appeared to be that candidates must be very careful to avoid the appearance of impropriety, but the rules may also be revised in coming years.

The main impact will be that campaign funding will be affected as politicians try to adhere to rules that are in flux.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: election

Green Offers Pay-To-Play Forum

Plainfield Democratic City Committee Chairman Jerry Green has invited the public at large to join members at a meeting tonight (March 17, 2006) to learn more about state “Pay-to-Play” election contribution rules. Green will also announce candidates for two City Council seats.

The meeting is 7 p.m. at the YWCA, 232 E. Front St.

The state has established new rules for political contributions and several municipalities have set their own rules. The state rules may be seen at

Some city residents want more stringent rules.

Rebecca Williams of the Bayard Rustin Progressive Democrats suggests a sample ordinance from the Center for Civic Responsibility, designed for Dover Township.

The comparisons can be arcane for the average citizen, who is unlikely to be making a big political contribution anyway. The issue is the relationship of politicians and vendors doing business with the governmental entity the elected official represents. Donations from vendors have been a staple of campaign funding, but new rules limit the amount as well as some of the traditional means of sidestepping limitations, such as having relatives or agents make additional contributions to curry favor for a business.

At last month’s Democratic City Committee meeting, Green said the rules are so confusing that not even the state Election Law Enforcement Commission has figured them out. He said he has sought professional help on campaign accounting and fundraising issues and expressed hope that candidates will not reach out to vendors for campaign contributions.

Meanwhile, residents must decide who to vote for in two City Council elections. The two seats up for re-election are the 1st Ward, currently represented by Rayland Van Blake, and the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat, currently represented by Rashid Burney.

Green stated on Feb. 24 that he will pick the two candidates for the party line. The committee voted last month to authorize him to make the choices.

Candidates must file for the June primary by April 10 and any objections to the qualifications of a candidate must be made by April 14.

This year is also when city Republicans get to reorganize, fielding a slate of city committee candidates and selecting a chairperson in June, in addition to naming candidates for the two City Council seats. But Republican Party Municipal Committee Chairperson Sandy Spector said Thursday she is not ready to reveal the party’s candidates yet.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, March 13, 2006

Cabinet Appointments Will Be Offered For Confirmation

With the clock ticking on acting appointments, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs asked the City Council Monday (March 13, 2006) to consider confirmation of her cabinet members at next week’s regular meeting.

All had been appointed in acting capacity at the Jan. 1, 2006 reorganization meeting with no reason given. The city allows only 90 days for interim appointments and their terms would expire at the end of March, failing confirmation.

The affected positions include Acting City Administrator Carlton McGee, who is responsible for day-to-day city operations; Acting Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson; Acting Director of Public Works and Urban Development Jennifer Wenson-Maier; and Acting Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig. Acting Director of Administration and Finance Norton Bonaparte Jr. just left the city for a position of city manager of Topeka, Kansas, and no successor has been named.

But Wenson-Maier, Hellwig and Bonaparte constituted the three department heads mandated in the City Charter.

Council comments indicated that city residency requirements will also be waived.

Cabinet officials are supposed to move to Plainfield within a certain time after appointment. But Wenson-Maier is not only a Rahway resident, she is president of the Rahway City Council.

Hellwig lives in Nutley. McGee’s home address has not been verified, but he previously lived and worked in Jersey City.

The news met with little opposition Monday, but Councilman Cory Storch did ask his colleagues to be more attentive to past protocol for putting forth names for confirmation.

Councilwoman Linda Carter disagreed, saying the agenda session Monday was meant to set up the regular meeting for next Monday.

Robinson-Briggs said she had not previously discussed the item with City Clerk Laddie Wyatt, who then mentioned something about a 120-day timeframe for appointments.

The regular meeting will be next Monday (March 20, 2006) at Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: administration, appointments

Council Favors Partnership Benefits

A scheduled discussion of city benefits for domestic partners Monday (March 13, 2006) was very brief, because all the City Council members endorsed the plan.

“It’s a great thing for Plainfield,“ Councilman Cory Storch said. “It addresses the spirit of what Plainfield is.“

The city prides itself on its diversity among more homogeneous surrounding communities.

In public comment, residents Alex Toliver and Joan Hervey spoke in favor of the resolutions and resident Dottie Gutenkauf said, “I want to add my voice to the chorus of hurrays to the City Council.”

Gutenkauf said the she was sorry it took so long, but was glad the council was “acting as one” on the issue.

At the regular meeting on March 20, the council is expected to approve city participation in state plans for pension and health benefits for couples registered under the New Jersey Domestic Partnership Act.

The last time the city had a focus on domestic partnership was on July 10, 2004, the first day partners were eligible to file. As in Maplewood, Montclair and other municipalities, Plainfield made a registrar available that Saturday at City Hall. Registrants had to bring proof they lived together and pay a $28 fee, among other qualifications. The opportunity was also open to opposite-sex couples over 62.

On Monday, the city’s Office of Vital Statistics cited a total of 35 registered partnerships.

Attorney Stephen Hyland, who specializes in domestic partnership law, said he believes the statewide number of registrations is under 4,000, despite a broad range of benefits that the law confers. He said New Jersey has an estimated 16,000 same-sex couples and it was unclear why more did not take advantage of the state law.

“The reason I think only a quarter are registered is that there is so much misinformation about the effect of the act and the usefulness of registration,“ he said.

Hyland said anyone who is committed to a same-sex partner “should be out there registering.”

He said anyone holding a governmental job who thinks that registering will make their sexual identity known to the world should remember that all the documents are private. Partners can register anywhere in the state, not just in their hometowns or where they work, he said.

Hyland is the author of a book on the subject and also maintains a web site with legislative updates and news about municipalities that decide to provide benefits. Hyland also offers a look at what other states may be doing regarding domestic partnership. Visit for more information.

At the state offers answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” and provides more details on the Domestic Partnership Act.

Hyland said when a municipality takes action to establish domestic partnership benefits, “I think it does increase the awareness all around.”

He called the state statute “a very, very broad law” and said, “People are losing significant benefits by not registering.”

As drafted, the Plainfield resolution covers both current employees and retirees who are registered as domestic partners.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: City Council, domestic partnership

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Raises In Store For City Officials, Workers

Two top city officials are up for raises that will tip their salaries into six figures this year.

City Clerk Laddie Wyatt and Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya hold the offices affected by a salary amendment the City Council passed on first reading at the March 6 meeting. The ordinance will be up for second reading and final passage on March 20.

The ordinance gives raises retroactive to 2002, when each official received $86,570. Increases proposed for 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 will elevate that amount by 17 percent to $101,498.

Both Wyatt and Sepelya are eligible for retirement and the salary hike will result in higher pensions for each.

Sepelya was supposed to retire at the end of 2005, but stayed on as the new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took over Jan. 1, 2006. Ray Blanco, now the City Council president, joked in December that the council was not letting him go. The council declined to pass the budget for the 2006 fiscal year until the new administration came in.

Sepelya served as Plainfield’s chief financial officer from 1972 to 1987, then held similar posts with Hunterdon County and Bridgewater before returning to the city in 2000.

Wyatt was named city clerk by former Mayor Richard L. Taylor and served the administrations of former mayors Harold Mitchell, Mark Fury and Albert T. McWilliams. She now serves the new administration.

Another salary ordinance covers pay increases for members of the Plainfield Public Works Employees Association and will also be up for second reading and final passage on March 20.

Workers under 19 job titles and supervisors covered by 11 titles will receive increases for 2005 through 2008. Base salary amounts for 2004 were not available Sunday but the annual increases starting from 2005 amount to about 3.8 percent yearly.

Cashiers at grade 5 would see their maximum pay increase from $33,869 in 2005 to $37,878. At the top of the supervisory range, a grade 19 general Public Works supervisor’s maximum salary is listed as $64,986 for 2005, rising to $72,680 in 2008.

The public may speak on either ordinance at the second reading on March 20. The meeting will be at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

Public notices published Friday (March 10, 2006) confirmed the creation of two new positions, a secretary and a confidential aide for the mayor, and their salaries through 2008. The secretary’s 2006 maximum salary will increase to $59,991 by 2008. The confidential aide is coming in at a maximum of $61,073 in 2006 and will receive a maximum of $65,803 in 2008. Those ordinances passed in February.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: salaries, budget

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Mayor's Visit Leaves Seniors Frustrated

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs did not deliver definitive news Tuesday (March 7, 2006) on the location of a new senior center, but did tell members the new owner of the present leased quarters wants to raise the rent.

Robinson-Briggs appeared before a capacity crowd of seniors for her second scheduled monthly visit. Last month, she upset seniors by saying there was no money bonded for a new building, but later said she was informed that funding was part of a note, not a bond issue. The $11.7 million note was sold Nov. 4, with proceeds going to the city on Nov. 10. Meanwhile, seniors have demanded to know what became of plans for a brand-new building on East Front Street near the leased space.

On Tuesday, Robinson-Briggs said she knew most of the seniors wanted a new center across the street, but she said her administration is looking citywide in a “balancing act” that will result in “what’s best for everybody,” citing the need for ratables to boost taxes.

If the city erects a new center downtown as seniors have demanded and been promised, the building would be tax-exempt. In one plan, a commercial strip was to be added to the building to bring in some taxes. But Robinson-Briggs and her cabinet members have insisted the past administration of Mayor Albert T. McWilliams left behind no documentation on center plans. Acting Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier met with the seniors’ building committee on Feb. 24 and is supposed to suggest an action plan Friday.

Meanwhile, the building at 305 East Front Street has been sold and the new owner wants a 5 percent rent increase and wants the city to pay for utilities, the mayor said.. The city sought a six-month or month-to-month lease, but the owner wants a one-year lease, she said.

The city’s 10-year lease for the center at 305 East Front Street expired in 1999, and the rent has increased to $100,000 annually. center president Charles Nelson said. Robinson-Briggs said the city is analyzing the possible costs for utilities.

Past president George Smith questioned how much the city has already spent readying the site where a sign proclaims the future center. The city acquired and demolished properties and spent money on surveys, he said.

“And now you’re going to build a bank?“ he said, echoing comments of others who said they heard Commerce Bank wanted the site.

Robinson-Briggs said she had no information about any such plans.

“No decisions have been made on anything,” she said.

Some members veered off the topic of the new senior center to fire off other questions about the new administration that took over Jan. 1.

--Member Jean Black asked about a new confidential aide to the mayor. Robinson-Briggs said her administration took one $90,000 position and split it up into two aides and costs of an information booth proposed for City Hall, which would be staffed by African-American youth and seniors.

When Black asked what the eliminated position was, the mayor said it was “something in Economic Development.”

--Rev. Robert Dixon said seniors were frustrated and felt disrespected when they expected to see the mayor at a center meeting and someone else showed up. Robinson-Briggs said on the day of the building committee meeting, she had been called to the Union County Prosecutors Office and could not attend.

--Rasheed Abdul-Haqq asked why police officers were on hand.

“Nobody down here wants to hurt you,” he said. “We don’t need police down here - they could be on the street.”

The meeting had one officer on hand when it started, later expanding to three. Robinson-Briggs said she didn’t request police presence and suggested they were just there “to hear what is going on.”

Robinson-Briggs also reacted to comments that she is being guided by Assemblyman Jerry Green, who is also the Plainfield Democratic Party chairman.

“I’m the mayor of Plainfield,” she said. “I have my own mouth.”

Robinson-Briggs asserted that such questions did not arise when men were supported by Green, but only when a female is in the mayoral position.

“I’m a strong black African woman,” she said, “I speak for myself.”

Regarding the transition between her administration and the past one, she reminded seniors that McWilliams had eight years and she only had two months. She also said she had been requesting a meeting since July (after winning the June primary) and only got “30 minutes in December.”

McWilliams recalled that Robinson-Briggs canceled at the last minute.

When quizzed about how one of her department heads can also be a Rahway City Council official, Robinson-Briggs said curtly, “ It’s legal. Have a good afternoon.“

Robinson-Briggs earlier stated she had canceled all her appointments due to the hospitalization of her mother and told the seniors she had to leave to be with her mother.

The mayor’s next scheduled visit with the seniors will be on April 4.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: seniors

Monday, March 06, 2006

City Council Wants Youth Input

High school students will be invited to serve on a new commission that will reward them for attending city board meetings.

As outlined by Councilwoman and former City Council president Linda Carter, students on the Plainfield Youth Commission would receive community service credits for joining decision-makers such as planners and zoners. Although they would not have a vote on city boards, they would gain insight into how government works. The civic participation could produce a group of young, informed citizens willing to be the next generation of appointees on important boards and commissions, officials said.

The students would have to have parental permission, file a timely application, and commit to spend at least two hours per month as liaisons to city boards. Applicants must be city residents. No more than two could serve on any given board nor could a student liaison serve more than three one-year terms.

Outside Plainfield Public Library Monday (March 6, 2006), Alisha Reid and Jade Coney looked over a list of boards and commissions and found the concept interesting.

“I think that they should let teenagers have our impact, because it‘s all about the teenagers in 2006,” Reid said. “Teenagers should have a say in what goes on in this community, because it‘s a community for us.”

Coney agreed, and both members of the Plainfield High School Class of 2007 were delighted to see that two schoolmates, Shemika Brooks and Andrew Asare, were on the City Council agenda as honorees for their achievements. The council previously honored Danielle Sterling, Luis Nunez and Kenya Nesbitt. All five students were previously honored by Frontiers International at the 30th Annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast on Jan. 16.

Reid did have some reservations about the time commitment involved. Most city meetings last from two to four hours or more, although students need only serve a minimum two hours per month.

On Monday, the council decided to move the ordinance to the March 20 meeting, but also introduced another ordinance on first reading to establish the membership rules.
The commission’s proposed membership has changed in discussions since December.

Originally set at 21 members, it shifted Monday to 15 members. Youth between ages 15 and 19 would comprise 11 members, two appointed by the mayor, one appointee each by seven council members and two from the public at large. Four members from the public at large would be over 21. The commission would have an annual budget of $20,000.

The city has 38 boards and commissions, but not all are active and many lack members. Reid was interested in the Plainfield Cable Television Board, but at present, only three City Council liaisons have been named and other seats are unfilled. Last year, the council approved a Hispanic Affairs Commission, but so far no members have been named.

The city also passed the Civic Responsibility Act in early 2005, creating a means for citizens to learn about vacancies on boards and commissions and how to apply for them. But an application form was not created nor was required information about each board made available last year. The council recently approved numerous appointments without opening the process the way the Civic Responsibility Act envisioned.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: youth, commission

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Protesters Call For Return Of Police Chief

A brisk, chilly wind did not deter participants in a rally Friday (March 3, 2006) in support of Police Chief Edward Santiago.

Holding brightly-colored placards and using a bullhorn to ask passersby to join the demonstration, protesters stood in front of City Hall, where Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs placed the chief on administrative leave two weeks ago. Robinson-Briggs said her action was based on legal advice related to a lawsuit Santiago filed in August 2005. Santiago will be on leave with pay until the outcome of the lawsuit, according to published reports.

But on Friday morning. press reports indicated the chief is stepping up his response to the leave by filing court papers to get his job back.

Organizer Flor Gonzalez said the protest was to have been held last week, but permission was denied. At Monday’s City Council meeting, acting Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig apologized to Gonzalez for erroneously informing her that her permit for the rally was invalid. Gonzalez said a larger crowd was expected on Feb. 24, but not all could make it to the rescheduled rally.

Gonzalez said she had 500 signatures on petitions for the chief’s return.

The initial small crowd of fewer than a dozen protesters doubled within an hour. Two Plainfield Police patrol cars were parked in front of City Hall, apparently monitoring the event.

Santiago, an appointee of former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, ran into protests from a black police fraternal organization and the police union within six months of his April 1999 appointment.

One protester, Lillian Jamar, is a longtime member of the Democratic City Committee.

Jamar said she asked Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green what the problem was with Santiago, but she was unable to schedule a meeting with Green to talk about the issue, she said. Jamar said she still hopes to get to the bottom of the new administration’s issue with the chief.

Jamar, a 49-year resident of the city, was outspoken in her support of Santiago.

She said Santiago responded “whenever I asked him for anything.”

“He’s a man of the people,” she said. “He wanted the people to know he was there for them.”

Santiago freely offered his cell phone number to citizens bothered by crime in their neighborhoods.

According to press reports, there will also be a challenge to the city’s move in placing a lieutenant in charge as acting police chief, ignoring the more traditional route of choosing a captain as acting chief. The mayor named Lieutenant Ron Lattimore as acting chief.

Jamar questioned why the city is paying one chief on leave and an acting chief in the meantime.

“I don’t like the idea of paying two chiefs any way,” she said.

Jamar said she will keep asking questions.

“Until I know what the concerns are, I’m on the chief’s side,” she said.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: police, protest

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Director Removed From Local Channel

The station master for Channel 74 said she was told to vacate the studio of the local channel Monday (Feb. 27, 2006).

Rebecca Williams said Personnel Director Karen Dabney came to the studio at 11:55 a.m. Monday with checks covering two weeks’ notice and terminal pay, then asked her to turn over the keys.

“I did that and left,” Williams said

Williams had been in charge of the local cable operations since June 2004, she said. No reason was given for her removal, she said, but she characterized it as “political retribution.” Williams had served as campaign manager for three City Council members who were associated with former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams when they sought political office.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs did not reply to a call to her office regarding future local cable operations. Under the tutelage of Assemblyman and Plainfield Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green, Robinson-Briggs successfully overcame McWilliams’ bid last year for a third term. She took office Jan. 1.

Two weeks ago, she placed Police Chief Edward Santiago, a McWilliams appointee, on administrative leave until completion of a lawsuit he filed over a brief suspension in 2003. Also this week, McWilliams’ public information officer, Dan Damon, is leaving city employment.

Williams said Monday’s cable programming has been running all week, and she did not know whether there was anyone replacing her. She said she was qualified for the job because she had a background in film and television work and had taught graduate courses for four years at New York University’s Tisch School of Film and Arts. Williams said her removal showed “total disregard for the residents and the First Amendment.”

The city asked for its own channel when its franchise with Comcast of the Plainfields was up in 1999. Comcast agreed to furnish equipment and training. The city receives 2 percent of the franchise fees - about $120,000 last year - and dedicated the money for station operation. A Cable Television Board , with 11 members in seven categories, was to be established to oversee the operation. Recently, three City Council members were appointed, but the other seats are unfilled.

City Council President Ray Blanco said he would not comment on any personnel matters, but as a public and commercial television consultant, he did have some views on use of the local channel.

“As we all clearly know, there is not sufficient media coverage of the city,” he said. “This means of communication has a lot of potential to provide information to residents.”

Blanco said the channel could be a resource for emergency or Homeland Security information as well.

“ I would like to see the promise of the cable station fulfilled finally,” he said.

He noted the cable ordinance provided for two channels, one for the municipality and one for schools. He said he has talked to the school board and Superintendent Paula Howard about a joint venture with the city, with the goal of enhancing students’ academic skills through various aspects of television production.

“It would be a great tool to keep kids in school, and to keep kids engaged,” he said.

Blanco said he was “sort of” interested in having City Council meetings televised, but had questions about the cost .

For the future, he said, the city should “build a real plan with people in the profession,” decide whether to partner with the high school and explore the use of free music videos of various genres to expand programming.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Channel 74, cable station