Saturday, May 27, 2006

Independence Day Plans Ready

Besides being the time to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, the Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial beginning of the summer season. After summer begins officially on June 21, the next big occasion is Independence Day and the city will be ready to celebrate, Recreation Director Dave Wynn said Friday.

Even though a new all-Plainfield Independence Day Committee will not be finalized until after the holiday, an ad-hoc committee of city staff and volunteers has been working on arrangements for the July 4th parade, Wynn said.

“Hopefully, this will be the best parade in a long time,” he said.

The theme, “Declaration of Unity,” will echo the motto of the new administration, “Growth Through Unity.” And Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, the city’s first African-American female mayor, will be the grand marshal, Wynn said.

The city will hold its observance on July 4, even though this year it falls on a Tuesday.

The crowd-pleasing parade will step off at Johnston Avenue and proceed to a reviewing stand at Park Avenue and Front Street. It will include bands, floats, balloons, community groups and a special tribute to the Negro League baseball players, Wynn said.

The committee is still signing up volunteers for many aspects of the parade. Anyone interested can call (908) 753-3097 to sign up.

All volunteers will receive commemorative parade T-shirts, Wynn said.

The parade formerly included as many as nine Central Jersey towns, but over the years participation and financial support dwindled. Several years ago, North Plainfield announced its own parade plans, calling a halt to the route that had included a turn north on Somerset Street to a reviewing stand at Somerset School in the borough.

The city then began holding its own parade, with evening fireworks in Cedarbrook Park in Plainfield instead of Green Brook Park, which is at the North Plainfield border.

“The fireworks will be fabulous,” Wynn promised.

They will start at 9:30 p.m., he said.

The committee is still working on putting together a concert to round out the day’s festivities.

In the week before the parade, there will be a carnival at the Plainfield High School soccer field, Wynn said. It will be run by a combination of church and non-profit groups, not by the city, he said. The proposed dates are June 27 through July 2, he said.

Wynn said the city’s events will cost about $25,000 to $30,000 and will stress patriotism.

Past parades were criticized for lack of American flags, poor pacing that left viewers waiting a long time for the next float or band to come in view, inappropriate displays by dancers and general disarray. All that is over with, Wynn said.

Viewers should plan to bring chairs, sunshades and water, as the parade is usually from three to four hours long.

-- Bernice Paglia

Friday, May 26, 2006

Council On Election Hiatus

Under the City Council’s new schedule, the governing body is taking off for a month until June 19 for an “election hiatus.“

But unlike past years, 2006 offers no local primary contest on June 6.

City Council incumbents Rashid Burney and Rayland Van Blake have no party opposition. Nor do Republicans Angela Perun and Arlington Johnson. It won’t be until Nov. 7 that Burney and Perun will vie for the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat and Van Blake and Johnson will go head to head for the 1st Ward seat.

One contest on a sample ballot received this week is one for three Union County freeholder seats, pitting three entrenched, incumbent Regular Democrats - Deborah P. Scanlon, Alexander Mirabella and Chester Holmes - against three upstarts - Stanley J. Moskal, Joseph Aviles and Michael Romano - running on the “Union County Democrats for America” slogan.

Incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Robert Menendez also faces a challenge from James D. Kelly Jr., running on the slogan, “End Corruption in the Government.” The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, State Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., is opposed by John P. Ginty, running on the slogan, “Republicans for Conservative Leadership.”

But given the stranglehold Regular Democrats have on the freeholder board and the widespread notion that the November contest will be Menendez vs. Kean, the primary contests seem a bit uneven. All the usual election work must still be done, but voter turnout will likely be very low.

The only spice for Plainfield may be to see whether any independent candidates file on Primary Day to try to cause a ruckus in the general election on Nov. 7.

But anyone suffering from City Council withdrawal through those weeks will get a major fix next month, with the June 19 agenda session, conference meeting scheduled for June 20 and regular meeting on June 21.

The conference meeting is an innovation this year. The first one was on crime and drew about 100 residents to Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center’s Centennial Hall, where a panel of public safety officials held forth before two hours of public comment. The public comment portion had only been scheduled for 15 minutes.

The conference meetings are supposed to help the council develop policy. Because of Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow’s strong stand on the need for security cameras to fight crime in the West End, one upshot of the crime conference meeting has apparently been to derail an $800,000 proposal for security cameras downtown. City Council President Ray Blanco removed the resolution from consideration on May 21 until issues of location and staffing can be resolved.

Blanco is still mulling the topic for the June 20 meeting, with economic development or Inspections as possibilities.

At this point, Inspections might be the hotter topic. The council just repealed a comprehensive ordinance aimed at combating overcrowding and ensuring safety in rental housing. Renters make up half the city’s households and are at the mercy of landlords who may choose to obey or disregard the property maintenance code. The Inspections Division is the front line of defense for the code, but former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams said the division generated the most complaints from residents of any aspect of city government during his two terms. Hence, the “Safe Homes Registration and Inspection” ordinance that was just tossed out at the behest of the new administration.

A special seven-person unit was organized to enforce that law, but new Public Works and Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier told the council the unit wasn’t working and should be disbanded.

The city still has a Certificate of Compliance law on the books that calls for an inspection of each house or apartment at the time of sale or rental. But the property owner must call Inspections to initiate the review and must pay a fee for it.

Economic development is a worthy topic, considering that the outgoing administration had more than a dozen redevelopment schemes on the books at the end of last year.

The council decided to shut down all action on the proposals until the new administration had time to review them, and so far there has been no update. At a 100-day report in April, the new administration proposed four “transit villages” as the focus of redevelopment - two around existing train stations and two more around defunct stations that would have to be rebuilt.

There has been no comprehensive status report on the 13 redevelopment plans that Pat Ballard Fox was working on as former deputy city administrator for economic development. The former Economic Development office was dissolved and its functions placed under Wenson Maier when the administration changed hands.

For the time being, citizens can lounge evenings and weekends on lawn chairs and picnic blankets until late June, when council-watching will mean sitting on hard seats and benches for three nights in a row.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, May 25, 2006

"The School Is On Fire"

A parent’s frustration with violence in the schools boiled over Wednesday (May 24, 2006) after a panel spent about two hours fielding questions on school issues.

Darryl Clark, the father of a girl who was assaulted at school by another second-grader, brandished a flier for the meeting that said, “The School is on Fire - Save the Children.”

“I have heard a significant amount of lip service,” Clark said. “Why wasn’t this put in every backpack?“

Clark said he only heard about the meeting the day before and personally carried it around and sent it to about 60 people.

Only about 30 people showed up at the Plainfield Public Library for the meeting.

Clark told the panel not to use words like “should,” “would,” “could,” “need to,” “have to,“ but to state specific actions to take. Others called the meeting “preaching to the choir” and regretted the lack of interest.

Several speakers said the next step should be a Town Meeting for the whole community.

Moderator Henry Rawls said he and his partner Clark Everson of The Nubian Cultural Center organized the meeting. The panel included Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, school board members Lisa Logan-Leach and Patricia Barksdale, New Covenant Christian Academy founder Stephanie DeGeneste and Adrian Council, publisher of The Positive Community magazine.

Robinson-Briggs highlighted youth activity including the April Month of the Young Child parade of pre-schoolers and youth involvement in an Arbor Day event. Logan-Leach talked about her efforts to help retain an auto shop program at the high school that was in jeopardy because of failure to meet OSHA requirements. She said it would take $400,000 to bring the program up to speed, but that car dealerships in the region might help out.

Both Robinson-Briggs and Logan-Leach had to leave early and Council arrived late, but all preached unity in addressing the problem of getting the community to uphold a common standard of decorum.

“A cultural crisis is looming in the community,” Council said, citing 17 murders of teenagers in Newark this year.

Council deplored radio and television stations that spew negative images of the black community while lowering societal standards in general.

But others said a problem is parents who will come to schools ready to fight teachers or principals who have labeled their children as problems.

The district recently began a truancy reduction program and Barksdale called for all adults to contact authorities when they see a child out of school during school hours. An alternative school has been established as well for students who are disruptive.

Some parents at the meeting called for more support for students who want to learn and succeed, with less focus on the percentage who cause trouble in class.

Although the meeting was described on a radio program Tuesday as being about how to bring a Christian influence to public education, most speakers Wednesday were careful to speak of the positive influences of all faiths.

Council, who said his magazine emphasizes a “faith-based lifestyle,“ said, “If I were to establish a curriculum, you know what I would do. We have to be able to love and embrace and know who God is.“

Council called for “freedom schools” to be held after school at churches.

DeGeneste held up two books, “Overcoming the Odds” and “Beating the Odds,“ which were based on studies that found high-achieving scholars from varies backgrounds succeeded because of their faith.

“If we don’t get back to a higher cause, we will continue to lose children,“ she said.

But some parents said they had decided to remove their children from the public schools because of violence and other problems. Rev. Michael Carr said when it came time for his oldest daughter to enter middle school, “The fear factor took place,“ and he enrolled her in a private school in Newark.

Carr said he was disappointed that the room was not full Wednesday and said speakers were “preaching to the choir.“ He said parents must get involved with their kids, but some are overwhelmed.

“Faith is the key. If you take Christ, which is the center, out of it, you will live with the results.“

Besides school violence and other internal problems, the district may soon face pressure from the outside in the form of reduced Abbott funding, Barksdale said.

Plainfield is among about 30 poor districts that receive the bulk of their school funding from the state. The local tax levy for schools has remained at about $18 million for many years, with about 80 percent of funding coming from state and federal revenues.

Barksdale warned that if character-building programs in the schools are cut, problems will increase. She urged parents to come to school board meetings and get involved in fighting funding reductions.

“When you don’t have hope, please grab on to a little bit of faith,” she said.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, May 19, 2006

West End Group Mobilizes

A plan to revitalize 44 blocks of the West End is going into high gear.

On Thursday (May 18, 2006) the group known as POWER (Plainfield Organization for West End Revitalization) held a public meeting to encourage residents to join task forces on various issues affecting the West End.

The Rev. Michael Jones, who is the community director of the group, said the tasks included the following:

- Neighborhood building, with links to city agencies and the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority to address issues such as trash, speeding and developing block associations.

- Arts, including performances and links to assets such as the Plainfield Public Library and the DuCret School of Arts.

- Adult services, encompassing senior assistance and employment.

-Youth services, addressing unemployment for older teens and safe places for young people between the hours of 4 to 9 p.m.

- Economics, including development of the Marino’s site on West Front Street: school construction; and the transit village proposals for the West End.

- Housing, and ways to create more homes around what the city has proposed as a “transit village” in the West End.

On Thursday (May 25, 2006) Homefirst and several related agencies will celebrate the private-public partnership that supports the project. The Wachovia Regional Foundation is contributing a $100,000 planning grant for it.

Our board saw the tremendous potential that exists with this project and we wanted to participate in turning the passion and vision of this group into reality," said Denise McGregor Armbrister, executive director of the foundation. "This type of replicable community revitalization is exactly what the foundation supports."

The Rutgers University National Center for Neighborhoods and Brownfield Redevelopment is another main partner of the project.

The event will be from 11 a.m. to noon in Hannah Atkins Park on Plainfield Avenue.

--Bernice Paglia

Photo Contest Winners Revealed Saturday

Realizing that a photo contest deadline coincided with school breaks and the Easter holiday last month, library officials extended it and netted more than quadruple the original number of entries.

On Saturday (May 20), the Plainfield Public Library will hold an exhibition opening to unveil the 69 new photographs of Plainfield that were entered in the contest, "Plainfield in Focus: A Local History Photography Competition.“

Winners of the contest will be announced and the photograph that has been selected to become a new Plainfield postcard will be revealed.The reception is from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Anne Louise Davis Room on the courtyard level of the library, 800 Park Ave., Plainfield. Call Jessica Myers in the Local History Department at (908) 757-1111, ext. 136, for additional information.

All entries will become a permanent part of the library’s Historic Photograph Collection. Historic postcards and photographs from the local History Collections will be shown in juxtaposition with these contemporary images of Plainfield.Funding has been made possible in part by the New Jersey State Council of the Arts, Department of State, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, through a grant administered by the Union County Division of Cultural and Heritage Affairs.

--The Editors

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Youth Issues Dominate Council Meeting

Youth opportunities emerged as a prime topic at the Wednesday (May 17, 2006) City Council meeting.

Plainfield Action Services Director Rick Smiley was on hand to explain a summer youth employment program that the council had questioned at Monday’s agenda session. Members had asked about the application process and how the young people were selected.

On Wednesday, the program received council approval in a single “consent” vote that included almost all the resolutions on the agenda, but Smiley still explained its details.

The resolution was to renew a contract with Union County Human Services in the amount of $86,733 to provide summer youth employment.

Smiley said the program is open to youth ages 14 to 21 and applications are available at City Hall Annex, 510 Watchung Avenue. The applicants must be economically disadvantaged and will serve in jobs at City Hall, non-profit agencies and schools.

Councilman Don Davis asked how the program was advertised and Smiley said, “We usually go right to the schools.”

The job notice is also posted in his office and the information also spreads by word of mouth, he said.

Those employed receive the minimum wage of $6.15 per hour and applications will be received through May 31, Smiley said.

Davis said he didn’t know about the program, but Smiley said it has been in operation for many years.

There are other youth employment programs in the city and City Council President Ray Blanco called for better coordination of them.

The council earlier this year approved formation of a Youth Council to give input to the governing body on needs and concerns of young people, as well as establishment of a Youth Commission to allow young people to serve as liaisons to various city boards and commissions.

“This year has been a planning year for us,” Blanco said, adding the two new organizations will soon be active.

In the public comment portion of the meeting, Josef and Dottie Gutenkauf spoke separately of their dismay that an auto shop program in the high school will be disbanded.

Josef Gutenkauf said a month ago Schools Superintendent Paula Howard said the elimination of the program was only a rumor, but at Tuesday’s school board meeting it was announced that the program would close due to the excessive cost of meeting state safety standards.

Both said the program was valuable because it gives blue-collar youth a means of earning a living by acquiring auto mechanic skills.

Latin American Coalition President Flor Gonzalez also spoke in favor of the program, saying, “We should all support it.“

Another controversial issue at Monday’s agenda session was a plan to use almost $800,000 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds for crime surveillance cameras downtown. The council was asked to endorse an application to the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority for the funding. But the council had reservations about using 911 personnel to do the monitoring and also questioned the proposed locations of the cameras.

Blanco said in a recent crime forum, Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow advised using the cameras in the West End and suggested that monitoring should be separate from the Police Division.

“If we have a crime meeting and the prosecutor tells us what to do and we don’t do it, what’s the point?“ Blanco said on Monday.

On Wednesday, he used his power as City Council president to withdraw the resolution on the cameras “for further research.“

Blanco referred the matter to the council’s Crime and Economic Development Committee for more discussion.

There is no primary contest this year, but the council will still take an election hiatus and will not meet again until the June 19 agenda session. Under the new schedule, the next regular meeting will be June 21.

--Bernice Paglia

Parade Committee Will Be All-Plainfield

A revived Independence Day Committee will become legal slightly after the holiday is past.

The City Council will vote this week on the ordinance to recast the committee with all-Plainfield residents. But if passed Wednesday (May 17, 2006), the measure will not be up for final approval until June 21 and the 20 days must elapse before it takes effect.

The proposed ordinance gives the committee the power to solicit funds for the event. It calls for nine members serving three-year terms. A list of committees provided by the City Clerk’s office last year showed eight members on the former committee, all of whose terms expired in 1993.

Asked Monday about the timetable, City Council President Ray Blanco confirmed that the committee would not be legally constituted in time for this year’s event, but will serve in the future.

Previously, as many as nine municipalities took part in the Central Jersey July 4th parade that marched west on Front Street before turning north to a Somerset Street reviewing stand in North Plainfield.

But towns dropped out over the joint parade’s 78-year history and most recently, North Plainfield developed its own parade and related events. Since 2002, the city has held the parade starting in the East End and ending at Park Avenue and Front Street. Both Plainfield and North Plainfield have organized musical performances and fireworks to celebrate the day.

The city parade attracts several thousand viewers each year.

Plainfield has used both volunteers and a paid event coordinator to organize its own parade since the split.

Recreation Director Dave Wynn is also asking City Council permission to hold an outdoor luncheon at Hugo’s on Front Street to celebrate the parade. Officials said the city traditionally hosts a luncheon for dignitaries and volunteer organizers of the parade.

Hugo’s is a new restaurant located at the former Lily Greenleaves site.

The council received notice of other festive plans. They include the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority’s annual Environmental Fair on Sept. 16, a concert series at the Plainwood Square Park on South Avenue on four dates starting in June and the 6th Annual Latin American Heritage Festival, this year to be held at Library Park.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Cameras, Web Site Among Council Items

The City Council’s third agenda session under new meeting rules brought out only a few citizens Monday (May 15, 2006). Attendance has also dropped off at regular meetings, now that they are on Wednesdays after first and third Mondays.

Among the big topics: Council members don’t mind committing almost $800,000 in Urban Enterprise funds to install 18 closed circuit television cameras for public safety, but some want more emphasis on the West End rather than business districts. On Wednesday, the council will vote on whether to apply for the funding.
The funding includes purchase of equipment, monitoring and construction. The proposal is to expand the present 911 center in the police station to monitor the cameras, using civilian staff instead of police. Five thousand feet of fiber-optic cable would be snaked through conduits built as part of a downtown streetscape.
Council members dickered over what was most important, crime prevention in general or the perception of downtown shopper safety.
City Council President Ray Blanco said outsiders don’t distinguish between the downtown and the West End.
“They hear about a murder in the West End, to them it’s Plainfield,” he said.
Police officials said future phases could be done in several ways, but the fiber-optic cable had to be in place.
On hearing that the Housing Authority had a camera system at its location west of the downtown, Councilwoman Linda Carter called for collaboration between the agency and the city for crime prevention.
Blanco rejected a notion that the next phase of surveillance should be the South Avenue business district, calling it “wrong-headed” if it meant ignoring the West End.

Council members also worried that the Urban Enterprise Zone funds were being used up too quickly.
Asked to approve a proposal to use $160,000 for administrative costs for the zone, Councilman Don Davis said the fund was “dwindling down.”
The fund consists of sales tax revenues from certified retailers in the zone, who are allowed to charge only half the state sales tax. The state holds the money and the city can apply for its use for projects that must gain approval of the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority.
According to documents given to the council, 700 businesses are eligible to join, but only 118, or 16.9 percent, have been certified.
One document states that the current total available working balance is $877,892, but Jacques Howard of the Economic Development office said last week the city has about $3 million in the fund.

A resolution to continue and encourage transparency in government won support of the council. The resolution calls for publication of the city budget, council minutes and other information on the city’s web site.
But after City Administrator Carlton McGee complained that the city has no information technology staff to keep up the web site and other resources, council members tried to pin him down to a deadline for getting the work done.
“Basically, you want us to go from the Stone Ages to the Jet Ages,” McGee said.
The city lacks servers, software and staff to match other municipal web sites, he said.
But Blanco chided him, saying the new administration can no longer keep saying, “We’re new in town.”
“My friend, we need a deadline,” Blanco told McGee.
Davis said the city should partner with the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority and the Housing Authority to get its web site up to speed. Outside agencies have already helped the city “just out of the goodness of their heart,” he said.
Blanco and other council members suggested trying to find outside contractors to help maintain the web site.
“The web site is part of the face of our city,” Carter said.

The regular council meeting is 8 p.m. Wednesday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. The past two regular meetings have been very sparsely attended, even though that is where the council actually votes on matters discussed at the agenda sessions.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Special Improvement District Expansion Endorsed

The City Council gave initial approval Wednesday (May 3, 2006) to an ordinance that would not only expand the Special Improvement District, but would also add numerous apartment buildings to the list of properties that are assessed a surtax to stimulate business.

City officials want to expand the SID beyond the original downtown and South Avenue business districts, adding downtown commercial and industrial properties from Front Street north to the Green Brook.

Designated SID properties are assessed a 3 percent surtax, which is matched with Urban Enterprise Zone funds to create a budget for improvements in the district. The program began in 2004 with 428 properties generating $113,607 in assessments. With the UEZ funds, the first-year budget was $227,214 to be spent on extra security patrols, extra trash pickups, hanging flower baskets and SID-logo tiles on trash cans.

Now the city plans to add 84 commercial and industrial properties in the expanded district. But a list attached to the ordinance also shows a large number of apartment buildings being added, even though the ordinance establishing the district excludes tax-exempt properties and those used “for residential purposes.“ Many of the apartment buildings are outside the proposed downtown expansion boundaries.

One block bounded by Park, Crescent and Watchung avenues and East Seventh Street had only one commercial property, the Scott Drugs building, on the original list. The amended list adds a dozen more properties, all multi-family buildings in a residential zone. Scott Drugs is zoned for commercial use.

On that block alone, the proposed assessments would add more than $5,000 to the SID coffers. Most of the apartment buildings are owned by Connolly Properties. Owner David Connolly could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

The district is administered by a management corporation. It has a web site at which is shared with the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce. A quarterly magazine, also named Positively Plainfield, is mailed to city households.
The Spring issue details a trip that SID board members and city staff made to Jersey City to learn more about the effectiveness of closed-circuit television cameras to combat street crime. City officials are contemplating using a similar system downtown.

The ordinance expanding the district and adding the multi-family buildings will be up for a public hearing and final passage later this month.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Barksdale, Abdul-Haqq, Logan Leach Sworn In; Cathcart is BOE President

Two school board candidates who emerged victorious from a last-minute smear campaign were sworn in Tuesday (May 2, 2006) for three-year terms, along with an incumbent who was the only survivor of her slate.

Longtime school activist Rasheed Abdul-Haqq and incumbent Patricia Barksdale were the top vote-getters in a school board contest that turned slimy with an anonymous flier that played up Abdul-Haqq’s youthful transgressions and pinned all the nine-member board’s problems on Barksdale alone.

Incumbent Lisa Logan-Leach campaigned with newcomers Reno B. Wilkins and Claudette Lovely-Brown and emerged third in the field of seven candidates, despite the slate’s having headquarters, glossy mailings and numerous free food events.

Business Administrator Victor Demming administered the oaths.

Logan-Leach abstained on both votes as Agurs Linward “Lenny” Cathcart Jr. was chosen board president and Barksdale was elected vice-president for one-year terms.

Cathcart, taking the presidency for the second time in his five years on the board, said he was supposed to come up with a vision, but he said, “I don’t have a vision.”

Instead, he said, his three main issues will be safety, communications and “celebrating our positive students.”

Cathcart said he will be working with District and Homeland Security Director Donald Moye on safety issues. He said the positive achievements of students are not sufficiently recognized.

He said he supports Superintendent Paula Howard "100 percent."

In her remarks, Howard said 18 students, including one runaway, were picked up in a new truancy program. A new alternative school, Alpha Academy, now has four students, she said.

The board will carry on its work May 9 with an 8 p.m. Work and Study session at Plainfield High School, 950 Park Ave., and a May 16 business meeting, 8 p.m. at Washington School, 427 Darrow Ave.

(Note: Amateur photos by Bernice)

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

City Council Seeks Repeal Of Anti-Overcrowding Ordinance

Saying a plan to crack down on overcrowding has not worked out, city officials want to repeal a law requiring registration and inspection of one- and two-family rental properties.

The ordinance also called for annual city inspection of multi-family residences that normally receive state inspection every five years. Early projections of revenues from inspection fees ranged from more than $700,000 in the first year to $937,500 in 2007, but now the council wants to drop the program before the end of the 2006 fiscal year on June 30.

The plan involved establishing a new unit in Inspections, with a projected additional seven inspectors to concentrate on ferreting out overcrowding and illegal occupancies.

“The problem I have is, we spent a lot of money in having all these inspectors,” Councilman Don Davis said, adding that the program has been in existence two years and is not working.

Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier said the program never really took hold, because new hires for the innovative enforcement unit dwindled away due to military call-ups, vacancies and even one death among the staff. Plans to have inspectors work evening hours have so far not panned out, due to problems with supervision and the fact that City Hall offices are not open after hours, she said.

Now the focus will be on consolidating the staff so a new assistant director, Nagy Sileem, and his newly-hired administrative assistant can keep tabs on the Inspections staff. Inspections activities and administration were scattered through the building when the Safe Housing plan was launched.

Because some of the new trainees upset residents with their aggressive enforcement, the division’s renewed goal will be to treat everybody with respect and address their concerns, Wenson Maier said.

Council President Ray Blanco said the Inspections Division has had problems for all the 30 years he has lived in the city. Councilwoman Linda Carter called for a more systematic way of evaluating the division’s efficiency and revenue production.

Councilman Rashid Burney said new software and computers had been purchased for the new unit and now “they’re sitting in a room somewhere.”

Blanco said if the council did not repeal the ordinance before the new fiscal year begins July 1, the program would go into the FY 2007 budget.

“I pity the poor Plainfield taxpayer,” he said. “We threw money at a problem, we threw staff on it, but we didn’t implement it during the past administration. So let’s cut our losses.”

The ambitious program was supposed to be the cure for the faulty Inspections Division, which former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams said generated the most complaints from residents during his two four-year terms.

The anti-crowding ordinance called for landlords to account for the number and identity of people living in rental units and also required them to provide floor plans of sleeping rooms. Landlords were to submit names of emergency contacts, fuel oil providers, trash haulers and their own correct addresses.

If the ordinance is repealed, landlords will still have to obey the city’s property maintenance code, register multi-family buildings with the state Department of Community Affairs and provide adequate heat, among other rules. Landlords are also expected to conform to the Certificate of Compliance program that requires each rental unit to be inspected before a new tenant moves in. But because the landlord must request the inspection, the division has no way of knowing when one is needed.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, May 01, 2006

Marchers Make Evening Protest

A group of people carrying a large, handmade banner and waving flags of many nations wound around the block across from City Hall Monday night while a City Council meeting was in progress. In contrast to an organized demonstration for immigrant rights in mid-day outside City Hall, the evening march was just a group of local residents who decided to march, one participant said.

Immigrants Protest At City Hall

Three city taxi companies closed for the day and protesters waved flags and chanted slogans outside City Hall as Plainfielders took part in a national immigrant boycott.

Sponsored by the Latin American Coalition and supported by El Asociation de Taxistas y Chofers de Plainfield, the protest grew to about 100 people by early afternoon.

Although the Plainfield group was mainly Hispanic, coalition president Flor Gonzalez said the demonstration was for the rights of immigrants from all over the world.

"We are supporting new legislation that could legalize or give papers to everyone in the country, regardless of what country they come from,“ Gonzalez said.

A mason named Elijio said he took a day off without pay to join the protest and Gonzalez said several Hispanic restaurants were closed for the day.

Protesters wore Uncle Sam hats and had red, white and blue ribbon loops pinned to their clothing. A young girl handed out sparkly flag stickers and almost everyone waved small American flags. A large image of the Statue of Liberty was tied to a column at the top of City Hall’s steps, flanked by a large American flag. Red, white and blue balloons bobbed in a brisk wind as the group chanted , “Si, se puede” - “Yes, we can” - and “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido“ - A community united never can be conquered.“

Another chant in Spanish translated to “We are not one, we are not one hundred, we are millions - count us right.“
Among the placards held up to traffic along Watchung Avenue, one read, “We are not criminals.”

James Boyd, an African-American artist and historian, took a turn with the bullhorn to speak in support of the immigrants.

Boyd said he worked with city civil rights leaders including the late Rev. Frank Allen, founder of the Plainfield Branch NAACP, and the late activist Marshall Brown.

“I’m for the immigration rules concerning criminality being eliminated,” Boyd said.

Plainfield’s Latino population began to swell in the 1990s and is now generally considered to be at least one-third of its more than 47,000 residents. The city unsuccessfully tried to reach a count of 50,000 for the 2000 census and officials blamed the failure on the reluctance of some immigrants to be counted.

The 50,000-mark would have given the city direct access to federal funds for housing and social services without going through Union County.

With the nationwide protests and massive marches, it seems nearly all immigrants are coming out of the shadows. Gonzalez said she believes immigrants will take part in the 2010 census.

She said the issue of immigration affects many families where some members may be American citizens and others are not. As immigrants protest their treatment, her T-shirt highlighted the message of the Immigrants Rights Defense Committee: “March Today, Vote Tomorrow.“

--Bernice Paglia