Friday, April 28, 2006

Block Leader Honored On Arbor Day

The founder of one of the city’s oldest block associations was honored Friday (April 28, 2006) with dedication of a park in his memory.

John W. Hayes was remembered as a tireless worker to improve the Rushmore Avenue neighborhood where he lived from 1963 until his death in 1991. His wife, Willie Hayes, received proclamations from Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs as part of a ceremony where a small triangular city-owned site was transformed into a green space for the enjoyment of the West End neighborhood.

Melvin Cody, the present president of the Rushmore Avenue Block Association, said Mr. Hayes was active with the group for over 35 years.

“Our main thing was making sure everyone had representation,” he said.

The block association now includes residents of West Third Street, Willever Street, Evona Avenue and Rushmore Avenue, he said. Concerns raised at block association meetings are carried to City Hall for resolution, he said.

“We have seen great improvements,” Cody said.

Councilman Don Davis said Hayes’ example should be passed on to the next generation.

“Plant the seeds now,” he said.

Symbolically, the torch was passed as children from Second Street Youth Center helped plant a Carolina Silverbell tree as a focal point of the park. “Stella D’Oro” daylilies, hosta, Japanese barberry bushes, viburnum and ornamental ivy rounded out the plantings.

The park was designed by landscape architect April Stefel, a member of the Ten Cities Tree Committee that has worked toward passage of a Shade Tree Commission ordinance. The ordinance was passed this year and will provide a means of protecting and perpetuating the tree stock that complements the city’s famed residential and historic neighborhoods.

The site at Rushmore Avenue and Willever Street was crowded with neighborhood residents, public officials and well-wishers at the 11 a.m. ceremony.

According to a biography submitted by the city, Mr. Hayes was born on Feb. 29, 1920 and served in the U.S. Navy from 1939 to 1945. He worked at Lyons Hospital until his retirement and was a member of the Mohawk Lodge for many years. He was the first president of the Rushmore Avenue Block Association.

The Shade Tree Commission will soon be seeking members to carry on the work begun by the Ten Cities Tree Committee. Anyone with a love of trees or expertise in urban forestry is encouraged to submit a resume to the City Clerk‘s office at 515 Watchung Avenue.

(Disclaimer: This writer is a committee member.)

--Bernice Paglia

City Sees Four Transit Villages

Statewide, only 17 Transit Villages have been approved since 1999.

But in comments Thursday (April 27, 2006) Plainfield officials are envisioning four transit villages within the city's six square miles.

Plainfield once had four train stations - Netherwood, North Avenue, Grant Avenue and Clinton Avenue - but today only the main station at North Avenue and Netherwood are active.

At a 100-day mayoral report Thursday (April 27, 2006) Economic Director Jennifer Wenson Maier projected a map showing four “pods” of housing density around the rail stops.

“Each pod will have a separate identity,” she said, saying people might travel back and forth from pod to pod.

Wenson Maier said the city might see the renaissance of features such as the old Tier’s Pond for skating and new concepts such as canoeing in a dredged-out Green Brook.

She said the plan might take 20 years to fulfill the goals, but the city is working toward them.

She said developers are highly interested in the possibilities of transit village development.

Plaintalker did some research on Transit Villages and came up with the following context:

In the 19th century, houses and stores just naturally sprang up along rail routes connecting commuters to New York.

On the present Raritan Valley Line, Westfield, Fanwood, Dunellen and Bound Brook are examples.

In Plainfield, the main station anchors the city’s only commercial historic district, where in the 1800s Wall Street executives living on West Eighth Street’s Millionaire’s Row departed for the city. Shops in the block between Park and Watchung Avenues offered wares for their tables and households.

“These were transit villages before we had the term,“ said Jan Wells, program director with the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.

Part of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Policy and Planning, the center examines virtually all aspects of transportation, including the New Jersey Transit Village Initiative that began in 1998.

The 17 Transit Villages approved in a state program had to meet rigorous guidelines for applicants. Eleven state agencies are represented on a Transit Village Task Force that examines the applications and determines a municipality’s eligibility. Bound Brook, Rahway and Cranford are among Central Jersey transit villages.

The idea behind the Transit Village program is to redevelop and revitalize blocks around train stations to make them attractive places to live, work and enjoy life.

An applicant is expected to have, among many other things, an adopted land-use strategy based on what the New Jersey Department of Transportation calls “transit-oriented development” principles. A good candidate must also have a project ready to go that can be completed within three years.

Ample parking, cultural activity, some affordable housing, a station management plan and architectural guidelines that support the historic and architectural integrity of the community are other desired facets of a Transit Village application.

Plainfield’s rail history dates back to 1837, when the Easton & Amboy Railroad was built from Elizabethport to the city, according to a 1901 history published by the Plainfield Courier News. After the tracks were elevated in 1874, rail traffic increased from 11 trains each way to more than forty east and west at the turn of the 20th century. The Central Railroad of New Jersey had stations at Grant Avenue and Clinton Avenue in addition to North Avenue and Netherwood.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: development, transit village

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mayor Gives 100-Day Report

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said Thursday (April 27, 2006) her first 100 days in office were devoted to listening to city residents and staff, planning to make changes and preparing to carry them out.

“Every decision was made with the interest of the community first,“ she said.

Broadly, the changes included making city offices “people-friendly,” firmly committing to build a new senior center on East Front Street, increasing youth activities and bringing back a program to level sidewalks heaved up by tree roots.

The city will also have an improved communications system, she said.

Robinson-Briggs and various department and division heads spelled out the changes in a presentation at Washington School that attracted about 300 people.

The administration adopted the theme of “Growth by Unity” and held two days of strategic planning sessions to get old and new staffers on the same accord about how the city should address long-standing issues of public safety, code enforcement, economic development and quality of life.

Among the revelations:

Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig said as the first non-African-American in the civilian post created after racial turmoil in the 1960s, he will uphold the standard of no one being mistreated on the basis of race, gender or other status. Hellwig said the Police Division will also add nine new officers this year at no additional cost to taxpayers and will add bilingual officers to assist the city’s burgeoning Latino population.

The Police Division will also crack down on traffic violations and increase street patrols, he said.

City Purchasing Agent Craig Smith, speaking on information technology, said the city will replace its old phone system with “voice over Internet protocol” and will make sure employees are trained to use the latest software to share information.

A.J. Jalloh, speaking on public information, said city news and events will be publicized on local Channel 74, in a newsletter and on the city’s web site.

Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said the city will have a new master plan and zoning ordinance by the end of the year.

Jennifer Wenson Maier, director of Public Works & Urban Development, said the new proposal for a senior center is one with a regional Veterans of Foreign Wars component as well as housing and a commercial portion.

Public Works Superintendent John Louise showcased new equipment that will allow the city to make in-house road repairs, warding off major reconstruction projects.

The evening also featured catered food and raffles for gifts, which extended the evening but also the camaraderie among the crowd of citizens and city staff that turned out.

“I enjoyed it very much. I’m looking forward to a change and to see what happens,” city resident Marian Roberts said as she left.

--Bernice Paglia


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Inspections, Crime Lead Public Concerns

A brief City Council meeting Wednesday (April 19, 2006) was followed by a litany of citizen concerns about code enforcement and public safety issues, including gun violence and alleged retribution by city inspectors to residents who file property maintenance complaints.

The first Wednesday regular council meeting drew a sparse crowd, but after the council concluded its business, the citizens had a lot to say.

Resident Ed Mendez told the council that attendees at Kingdom Hall meetings on Woodland Avenue are not using the church parking lot, but are instead parking on the street and even in neighboring driveways.

“They say they can park wherever they want,” said Mendez, who was part of a seven-year fight to block the Kingdom Hall from being built in his neighborhood. He asked for enforcement of planning conditions imposed on the hall regarding parking.

Mendez also alleged that when he makes complaints to the Inspections Division, he ends up getting cited for infractions. He said he had to install a railing costing $600 after his last complaint, and forecast a possible new citation for coming to the council with his concerns.

His remarks drew the ire of City Council President Ray Blanco, who called for punishment of any city employee who used retribution against a citizen for making a complaint.

“If any employee of the City of Plainfield is rude to a taxpayer, I want to hear about it,” he said.

Other speakers asserted the practice is both historic and ongoing.

But Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said civil service rules on such matters could result in the employee being kept on the job. He said there must be concrete evidence of infractions.

Residents Murray and Helga Roberts also complained of irregularities in the Inspections Division, such as inspectors signing off on dubious projects. Murray Roberts asked the council to weed out cronyism and nepotism in city jobs.

“This is the kind of thing we just have to get rid of,” he said.

City Administrator Carlton McGee said a new strategic plan would be unveiled soon that would address management problems such as accountability of employees.

Former Councilwoman Joanne Hollis spoke out Wednesday on recent shootings and demanded an investigation into how guns were coming into the community. Hollis said she felt “some big person” was involved in the gun sales.

Hollis also expressed exasperation at police dispatchers who ask what color clothing and what kind of cars shooters have, instead of just sending police at once to gunshot locations.

Hollis said she missed the April 10 City Council conference on crime, but took exception to remarks about the Housing Authority projects as venues for crime.
“I’m not looking for the Housing Authority to go away,“ she said.

Hollis said people come from all over Plainfield to commit crime in the Housing Authority projects.

The first Wednesday meeting on the council’s new schedule drew a sparse initial crowd of about eight residents. Later arrivals came just in time to make public comments. Ironically, the council had just passed more new rules about public comment, which limited the time to 30 minutes in all and said residents should stick to their personal views with no back-and-forth discussion. An escape clause gave the governing body the right to extend the commentary.

Mendez was permitted to have what amounted to a dialogue with the council and Hollis received carte blanche to state all her comments and opinions.

Under the new schedule adopted Wednesday, the City Council will meet for agenda sessions on the first and third Mondays of each month, excepting June, July, August and November, with regular meetings on the following Wednesdays.

-- Bernice Paglia


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Barksdale, Abdul-Haqq Lead BOE Winners

Patricia Barksdale and Rasheed Abdul-Haqq overcame a last-minute, anonymous smear campaign to emerge as the top vote-getters in the school board election.

The two were among seven contenders and ran as a two-person slate. Three three-year terms were up for election and the third seat was claimed by incumbent Lisa Logan-Leach, who ran on a slate with Reno B. Wilkins and Claudette Lovely-Brown.

Nan Anderson and David Graves ran independently, although Graves, Barksdale and Abdul-Haqq were endorsed by the New Democrats organization headed by Freeholder and former Plainfield Councilman Adrian Mapp.

Unofficial results Tuesday show Barksdale leading with 1,034 votes, followed by Abdul-Haqq with 808. Logan-Leach received 683 votes. Lovely-Brown had 658 votes, trailed by Wilkins with 455, Graves with 423 and Anderson with 277.

The turnout was about 8 percent, according to the City Clerk‘s office.
Results must be certified by Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi before becoming official.

This writer voted near closing of the polls and was number 38 out of more than 600 registered voters in Ward 2, District 1.

Although Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green declared hands-off the board election for the party, a well-orchestrated campaign with official headquarters, glossy mailings and numerous campaign events seemed to indicate more than just some individuals backing the slate of Logan-Leach, Wilkins and Lovely-Brown.

Abdul-Haqq and Barksdale benefited from a fundraiser at the home of former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams and later received the blessing of the New Democrats, formerly headed by McWilliams in opposition to Green’s regular Democratic Organization.

Thus the school board election seemed to perpetuate the battle between the New Democrats and the Regular Democratic Organization.

Whatever the political meaning, Abdul-Haqq was just pleased at the outcome, despite an anonymous, last-minute flier that tried to blame numerous school board woes on Barksdale alone and branded Abdul-Haqq as a convicted felon.

After the vote tally, Abdul-Haqq said, “I think people want to see a better form of politics. We tried to deal with the issues. We didn‘t try to resort to dirty, lowdown politics.”

Barksdale said her goal is “to certainly continue to inspire our young people toward success.”

She said the board will further need to “engage people and the community” in education.

As for the success of Abdul-Haqq, she said, “It’s just great to have an additional person on board who has a history of commitment to kids, education and the community.”

Over the next three years, the school board will face issues such as increased grumbling statewide about Abbott district funding. Plainfield’s school tax levy has remained the same for a decade or so - about $18 million in local taxes out of a budget that this year will surpass $147 million. in many suburban districts, local property taxes pay around 90 percent of school costs.

The district also has not regained the certification it lost nearly two decades ago.

The board will also face thorny issues about school construction caused by the failure of the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp. to carry out plans for new buildings. Plainfield lost out on having a new middle school and other plans are in limbo. Coincidentally, the Planning Board will hear an application Thursday (April 20, 2006) on the agency’s long range facilities plan. The board meets at 8 p.m. in City Hall Library.

The school board will reorganize soon, picking a new president and making other changes as necessary.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, April 17, 2006

New Meeting Schedule Kicks In

The City Council’s new meeting plan began Monday (April 17, 2006) with an agenda session in City Hall Library.

On Wednesday, the council will act on items brought up at the agenda session.

Interestingly, one of the items up for a vote Wednesday is amending the 2006 calendar.

Even though the revised calendar has been under discussion since early February, it seems the change will be formalized after the fact.

Last week’s meeting, listed on the January legal notice as an agenda session, was in fact a new entity, a “working conference” meeting on crime issues. The location of the April 10 meeting was cited by city officials on the previous Monday and Tuesday as City Hall Library but then was changed to Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center’s Centennial Hall for the conference on crime issues.

Monday’s meeting was listed on the official Jan. 1 calendar as a regular meeting, to be held at Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

When asked what notice of Monday’s meeting at City Hall Library was published, City Clerk Laddie Wyatt said it was the Jan. 1 notice.

At the risk of quibbling, the meeting may not have been properly noticed.

Several regulars found their way to City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave., for the actual first agenda session of the new schedule. The Wednesday meeting at 325 Watchung Ave., not acknowledged on the city’s web site or on the official notice posted in the City Clerk’s office, is the first regular meeting on the new schedule - and the one at which the council will vote to adopt the revised schedule.

Plaintalker’s question is, why, if these changes were discussed as early as Feb. 2 and endorsed by Feb. 17, they were not properly noticed under the Sunshine Law as to the kind of meeting and location, so that citizens could attend if they wished?

This situation echoes a general hastiness that has become evident since Jan. 1, with quite a bit of last-minute legislation and numerous so-called “walk-ons” for City Council votes.

Recently the late addition of recognition of the good work done by the Boys & Girls Club of Plainfield led to its hearing by only a dozen or so regulars who attend the council meetings. Surely the club deserved better.

Other measures, such as numerous attempts to better the prospects of young people, have been clouded by multiple changes in the legislation, so that the news media wishing to highlight the positive aspects of the new laws found challenges to timely and thorough reporting.

In the interest of the Sunshine Law and citizen participation, the City Council needs to give more forethought to changes in its schedule and to explanation of proposed new laws.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, April 13, 2006

School Board Candidates Share Views

About 70 residents filled the Plainfield Public Library’s meeting room Thursday to hear views of school board candidates at the annual League of Women Voters forum.

Voters must choose winners Tuesday (April 18, 2006) from a field of seven candidates for three three-year seats. The polls open at 2 p.m. and close at 9 p.m. Voters will also have their say on a budget question that has been virtually unchanged for years, a $17.6 million local school tax levy, for the 2006-07 school year part of a $151.3 million budget heavily augmented by state and federal aid.

The candidates are incumbent Lisa Logan -Leach, running on a slate with newcomers Reno B. Wilkins and Claudette Lovely-Brown; Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, running with incumbent Patricia Barksdale; and solo contenders Nan Anderson and David Graves.

Moderator Dawn Clarke, from another LWV chapter, fielded written questions from the audience, including a couple she found perplexing without knowing the city’s special problems with state school construction funding.

Baffled by inquiries on what will become of Jefferson and Emerson schools, Clarke got answers that Emerson remains a hole in the ground and Jefferson’s disposition also relies on how the district can shift needs among its various buildings.

The district established a “swing school” on West Front Street designed to accommodate schools that were expected to be demolished and reconstructed under a comprehensive plan set by the New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation. But as officials realized the corporation had used up all its funds with many projects pending, plans became amorphous.

The candidates said Emerson’s fate is not yet known and Jefferson students were shifted to the swing school because a student population surge in the high school meant administrators had to vacate the old high school, known as the North Building. Because the swing school could not be used for staff, the administration took over Jefferson School and sent pupils to the swing school.

But Jefferson now accommodates only about 40 employees, as opposed to a couple of hundred students, candidate Claudette Lovely- Brown said.

Other speakers said the switch was poorly communicated to parents and an outcry resulted in the district having to provide transportation from Jefferson to the new site.

In all, candidates said communication between the board and administration must be improved, schools must be made safer, parental involvement must increase, positive school events and achievements must be better publicized.

Asked what they hoped to accomplish if given three-year terms, candidates varied in their responses.

Barksdale said she hoped for a code of conduct that staff, students, parents and administration would agree on.

Anderson cited past wars on poverty and drugs and said she wanted a “war on miseducation.”

Lovely-Brown said she wanted the achievement gap closed, a decrease in truancy and a decrease in transfers by students to outside schools at the fifth-grade level.

Logan-Leach wanted a return of the DARE anti-drug program, more town hall meetings with city officials and more advanced placement courses.

Williams wanted to see Plainfield students competing “on a level playing field.“

Abdul-Haqq envisioned a partnership with Princeton University to aid in staff development.

Graves projected a board that would work together to fill the achievement gap in the district.

Wilkins called for more accountability and asked whether the board had to respond to the school superintendent or vice versa.

The event was videotaped and will be offered to Plainfield’s local origination Channel 74 for rebroadcast.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Public Safety, Revelations and Recriminations

The City Council’s first “working conference” meeting Monday (April 10, 2006), on the topic of public safety, produced some revelations and a number of recriminations.

The one-topic meetings, as envisioned in the council’s new “Rules of Order,” are meant to be used for policy development or similar matters.

Monday’s roster of experts included Police Chief Edward Santiago, Public Affairs and Safety Director Martin Hellwig and Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow. A shifting crowd, from about 50 to 100, came to Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center’s Centennial Hall to listen to the exchanges between council members and the law enforcement officials.

A public comment portion scheduled first for 15 minutes, but extended to 30 minutes, went on for almost two hours as citizens reacted to what they heard.

Gangs, gun violence, drug dealing and parolees led the list of worries for both law enforcement and residents.

“We have a serious gang problem in Plainfield,” Romankow said, citing documentation of over 300 gang members in the city, out of 1,200 in the county.

Romankow said surveillance cameras in a one-mile-square section of the West End would go far to solve the problem. He also suggested that Plainfield could take advantage of national data bases on known gang members.

Councilwoman Linda Carter said the city must find out how guns are coming to the city and how gun violence can be quelled.

“You have a gun in your hand, you shoot that gun - I don‘t want you in Plainfield,” she said.

Strategies to cope with drug dealing ran the gamut from suggestions to publicize names of outside drug customers in their hometown newspapers to blasting classical music in troubled neighborhoods. City Council President Ray Blanco suggested the musical ploy, which he said worked in many cities across the world, “to get people to move out of town.”

Romankow replied that various kinds of legislation such as gang-free zones had reduced crime, but added, “I don’t know about classical music - I’ll pass on it.”

On parolees, Santiago brought along three thick binders that he said contained information on people returning to Plainfield. He said every day a parolee comes back to Plainfield and the recidivism rate is 90 percent, meaning the parolees will likely repeat crimes once they return to the community.

When it came time for residents to speak, many agreed with the council members and law enforcement officials on needs for more innovations such as Spanish-speaking police staff, not only for crime reports but even traffic accidents.

“P.S., you’ve got to get more people here who speak Spanish 24 hours a day,” Romankow said.

But later many objected to Romankow’s use of the term “animals” to describe heartless gang murderers.

Anti-gun violence advocate Stephanie Alexander, whose daughter was paralyzed in a shoot-out and whose brother was killed in another incident, preached forgiveness.

“We got to learn to love those that don’t love they self,” she said.

Resident Rickey Williams told Romankow he should get on his knees and pray for forgiveness for his remark, but Romankow said, “I don‘t think God is going to punish me.”

Romankow said his job is to prosecute people that need to be prosecuted.
“I don’t love any murderer,” he said.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: public safety, council

Monday, April 10, 2006

Filings Produce No Primary Contests

Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green’s call for unity this year may have worked.

On March 17, Green announced his City Council slate, two incumbents who gained office with support of former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams. The two-term mayor was defeated in the June 2005 primary and failed to win a third term with a write-in campaign in what became one of the city’s most contentious political seasons in many years.

Not only have Councilmen Rashid Burney and Rayland Van Blake opted for party solidarity, no other Democrats broke the calm by coming forward Monday (April 10, 2006) to contest the party’s choice.

Burney was an appointee to the City Council after former Councilman Adrian Mapp became a Union County Freeholder and vacated the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat. Burney then successfully ran in November for the balance of the term, which ends Dec. 31. Now he will be seeking a full four-year term.

Van Blake unseated 16-year incumbent Elizabeth Urquhart to gain the 1st Ward seat in November 2002, taking office Jan. 1, 2003. He will be running for a second four-year term.

Although there were rumblings that former City Administrator Harold Gibson wanted to challenge Burney and Urquhart might seek her seat back, no such challenge emerged at the March 17 meeting at which Green, also Assemblyman in the 22nd District, named the two incumbents.

So it seems it’s on to November, when the two Democrats will face off with Republicans.

The GOP is backing Arlington Johnson for the 1st Ward and Angela L. Perun for the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat. The party must also reorganize this year, selecting committee members for two-year terms and choosing a chairman, also to serve two years.

Republican Party Chairwoman Sandy Spector spoke enthusiastically Monday of Johnson, who previously ran for a school board seat. Spector called him “a really impressive guy,“ citing his work with young people in the community.

Perun, a retired lawyer, has a formidable political track record as a former councilwoman and state Assemblywoman and is known for being outspoken on politics at all levels.

However, with only about 1,200 registered Republicans in the city versus more than 9,000 Democrats, the GOP will have to rely on unaffiliated voters - about 8,800 last year - for extra votes.

Spector said she was not able to fill all the 68 committee slots with candidates. But she said, “We’re committed to doing a significant job of party rebuilding.
“Watch us grow,” she said.

Primary Day, June 6, is when independent candidates must file, so there might be another name or so on the November ballot. But barring a stealth write-in campaign, city Democrats will have few distractions from what Green described as the need for all-out support of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.

Green told the committee at a February 24 meeting, “There will not be any Democrats for Tom Kean coming out of this city - I‘m not going to tolerate it.”

Menendez was named to replace Jon Corzine when the former senator became governor. He faces State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. in what is expected to be a tight race.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Crime Will Be Topic Of Conference Meeting

Among this year’s innovations, the City Council will hold several “working conference” meetings. The first one will be Monday (April 10, 2006) and the topic will be crime.

The council agreed recently to change its calendar from regular meetings on first and third Mondays, with agenda sessions on preceding Mondays, to a format that sets agenda sessions on first and third Mondays with regular sessions on Wednesdays of the same week.

The schedule also calls for occasional “working conference” meetings on a single topic . As described in a recent “Rules of Order” document for the City Council, the working conference sessions will be used primarily for policy development. The main goal is to have council discussion and “formulation of policy.“

The public comment portion will be 15 minutes, according to the new rules.

At an April 4 meeting at the Plainfield Senior Center, City Administrator Carlton McGee characterized the April 10 meeting as a “hearing” where “testimony” would be taken in response to the recent spate of crimes in Plainfield.

McGee’s comments provoked several questions from seniors.

Inez Durham asked what the council expected to accomplish by holding such a meeting.

“What do they expect this meeting will do to stop crime this crime wave?” she asked.

Rasheed Abdul-Haqq recalled a crime hearing two decades ago and said one issue raised then was whether the city needs a public safety director as well as a police chief.

Another speaker said drug dealers keep returning to the Elmwood Gardens housing complex and residents then have to bring their children inside. Others said the hour was too late and the City Hall Library was too small to hold such a meeting.

But City Council President Ray Blanco later clarified that the April 10 meeting will not be a hearing, it will be a regular City Council meeting. He said Wednesday it will be held at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center.

A notice with full details will be published in the newspapers.

Law enforcement officials from the city and county may be present to comment.

Plainfield’s top law enforcement entities are Public Affairs & Safety Director Martin Hellwig and Police Chief Edward Santiago, who recently won reinstatement to his post after a judge ruled his removal last month was incorrect.

Last year Plainfield had 15 homicides and so far this year the city has seen three homicides.

The recent homicides have spurred one resident to mount a campaign against violence.

Ruby White told the council last month her nephew and a grandson were fatal victims of gun violence. She will lead a march against violent crimes in the city on May 13, starting at Neighborhood House and ending at City Hall.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Blanco Says Pricey Senior Center Plan "Was A Mistake"

City Council President Ray Blanco said Monday (April 3, 2006) a $4.3 million senior center is a mistake he should have acknowledged last year.

Blanco spoke after several seniors traded barbs with officials during the public comment portion of the council meeting. When center member Jean Black kept speaking out from her seat, Blanco silenced her with repeated triple-tap raps of the gavel.

Center President Charles Nelson and City Administrator Carlton McGee went head-to-head, with Nelson claiming city officials walked out on a March 24 senior center building committee meeting and McGee saying he was “deeply offended” by Nelson’s remarks. McGee said he did not walk out.

Later, Blanco said when it was clear last May that former basketball star Jayson Williams was out of the project, “I should have said, ‘stop the train,’ and said, ‘go back to $1.7 million.’”

He referred to an earlier proposal before Williams was given exclusive rights to develop the new center in January 2003. Since then, nearly all elected officials have promised the seniors a new center, and former two-term Mayor Albert T. McWilliams held a May 2005 groundbreaking with dozens of dignitaries posing with shovels at the site on East Front Street.

Even after McWilliams lost the primary and a November write-in bid, officials still rang out the old year with promises of a brand-new center to replace leased quarters about a block away from the proposed site.

However, since Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took office Jan 1, her administrators say they are reviewing all options for a new center.

Robinson-Briggs was due to make her third monthly visit to the Senior Center Tuesday, and as of Monday evening she was still expected to be there, even though her father-in-law, Peter Briggs, suffered a massive heart attack.

But on Tuesday, Center Director Sharron Brown told about 100 seniors that Mr. Briggs had died that morning and the mayor was unable to visit.

McGee took the microphone to answer questions in the mayor’s stead and was soon peppered with the same concerns he has heard all year - what is the timeline for the new center’s plans, and where will the new center be built.

McGee said he is “95 percent sure” the building will be on the East Front Street site. As for a timeline, he said, referring to the new administration, “If there’s nothing there in four years, we’re out.”

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: senior center

Illegal Construction Will Be Halted, Officials Vow

City Council President Ray Blanco promised tough penalties and even lawsuits to fight illegal after-hours construction that both residents and council members brought up Monday.

Resident Helga Roberts and others noted projects that exceed land use limits and said some are going forward just on the say-so of city inspectors, without review by the Planning or Zoning boards.

Blanco said the council is sticking together to resist lawsuits against the city, but he said he would favor making a lawsuit against someone doing illegal construction “to make an example.”

Resident Murray Roberts said code enforcement people are approving projects.
“Code Enforcement doesn’t know what they are doing,” he said.

The effectiveness of the Inspections Division has been a thorny subject for many years and the new administration has declared it a target for improvement.

Councilman Cory Storch agreed with Blanco that something must be done to deter illegal construction at night and on weekends.

“Nothing’s really going to change if you don’t change the mentality and structure of Code Enforcement,” resident Frank D’Aversa said, recommending staggered shifts so after-hours work can be monitored.

“It’s a good point,“ Councilman Rashid Burney said. “Inspections people are not supposed to be able to grant variances. If the Zoning Board gives approval, it’s up to Inspections to verify it.“

Councilman Don Davis and Councilwoman Linda Carter also expressed concern about the way the Inspections Division is functioning.

City staff took part in two days of strategic planning last week, Davis noted, citing a “lack of enthusiasm” on the part of some regarding their work.

As a result of the sessions, City Administrator Carlton McGee said, “I am pleased to report we have discovered some enthusiasm.”

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: inspections, planning

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Tax Lien Notice Names Names

In that annual exercise known as the tax lien sale, a lengthy notice has been published naming those who slipped up on paying property or sewer taxes.

The amounts owed will now be liable for sale to individuals who will pay the city and then require debtors to pay the money back at up to 18 percent interest. If the debtors don’t pay within a certain time frame, the lien holder can apply to foreclose on the property.

All that aside, the most interesting part of the legal notice may be who is listed as owing taxes or sewer charges.

The 2006 list includes highly paid fire officials, school board members, the school board itself, the New Jersey School Construction Corporation, a prominent realtor, a member of the Democratic City Committee, the owner of a controversial night club, city employees, a school principal and the owner of a South Avenue business.

On the bright side, the list is down from two and a quarter pages in 2005 to one and a half pages of listings this year. But of course, that was why the state Division of Local Government Services would not allow as much in anticipated delinquent tax revenues as the city had projected for the 2006 fiscal year. The city has just done too good a job of plucking up all those taxes owed.

The tax lien sale is scheduled for 10 a.m. April 26 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The legal notice states that only those who were pre-registered by March 30 can take part.

The sale will be conducted by David Marshall, who was named tax collector last month. City officials declined on comment last month on the status of former Tax Collector Constance Ludden. Auditors for the past two years have suggested that the tax collector must be bonded, but officials declined to say whether Ludden was bonded or could be bonded.

In the past, tax lien sales have added millions to city coffers. But as the city’s percentage of taxes collected increased, the ability to reap dollars on tax lien sales decreased.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: tax liens, tax sale

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Seniors Want School Board Forum

When Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs holds her monthly meeting with seniors at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday (April 4, 2006), she will face one big question.

At the membership meeting last week, center Director Sharron Brown announced that the administration had requested that the forum for school board candidates be dropped in favor of candidates providing food and chatting one-on-one with members.

The innovation drew heat from member Jean Black, who asked, “Why can’t they come all together?“

This year’s race has seven candidates for three three-year terms.

Three are running on a slate that has already sent out glossy postcards. They are incumbent Lisa Logan-Leach and newcomers Claudette Lovely-Brown and Reno Wilkins.

Two candidates, Rasheed Abdul-Haqq and incumbent Patricia Barksdale, are running together. Nan Anderson, daughter of the late former Councilwoman Helen Miller, and incumbent David Graves, a city inspector, are campaigning separately.

Brown said she had received word from the administration that there was to be no forum. As an employee of the administration, she said, she had to take direction from the administration.

But members repeatedly questioned the rationale.

“For the past two years, we have had a forum,” member Inez Durham said.

Members also said the senior center board had written to the administration to say the forum was a tradition, but as of the March 29 membership meeting, the board had received no response.

Black spoke up again, saying “I don’t see a reason now for a change.”

Brown said the seniors will have their chance Tuesday to question the mayor on the change and center President Charles Nelson got a vote from the membership to raise the issue Tuesday.

In recent years, the elective school board has become a battleground between the forces of former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams’ New Democrats and Assemblyman Jerry Green’s Regular Democrats. Green, who was Democratic City Committee chairman for many years, wrested the leadership back from McWilliams, who won it in 2003 but lost it in 2005.

At a Democratic City Committee meeting last month, Green said the party itself would back no candidates in the school board race, but individuals could do so.

“The party will not get involved,” Green said at the February meeting.

The school board election is April 18.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: seniors, school board, election