Monday, January 29, 2007

Budget Amendments Approved

City Council members agreed Monday (Jan. 29, 2007) on budget amendments that will drop the proposed municipal tax increase from 8.2 percent to 3.95 percent.

The savings will be achieved by reconfiguring city departments and not filling vacancies, officials said.

A hearing will be held Feb. 12 on the amendments and the council may then vote final budget passage for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2006.

Last year’s fiscal year tax per $100 of assessed valuation was $3.099 per $100 of assessed valuation. In July 2006, the city increased the rate to $3.188 for the third and fourth quarters of 2006. The proposed rate for the first and second quarters of 2007 is $3.24.

While congratulating the council and administration on cooperation for the tax reduction, officials pledged to do better in the future.

“This is a combined effort,” Councilman Rashid Burney said as he thanked all council members and the administration for the reduction in the tax increase.

“I can look any citizen in the eye and say we did our best,” Burney said.

Burney said from here on out, the council will formulate a five-year budget plan.

The FY 2007 budget process suffered from vacancies in the mayor’s cabinet, such as the departure of City Administrator Carlton McGee in October. McGee was also the city’s acting finance director for many months. It wasn’t until months later that the city had an official Director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services (Ray Daniels) and a City Administrator (Marc Dashield).

“That’s what really tripped us up big-time,” said Burney, who headed the council’s Finance Committee. “We had to work around that.”

The FY 2007 budget was the first budget for Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who took office Jan. 1, 2006. She inherited from former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams the FY 2006 budget that passed in January 2006.

Robinson-Briggs gave kudos Monday to the council for cooperation in resolving the 2007 budget, saying the council worked with the administration to make sure no services were lost in refining the process.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Mapp, Taylor, Budget

How interesting to read in the Star-Ledger today that Union County Freeholder Adrian O. Mapp is Roselle’s new chief financial officer. Mapp served previously on the Plainfield City Council and was president of the New Democrats for Plainfield in 2006. See his message in the newsletter here. Assemblyman Jerry Green, who is also chairman of the Plainfield Democratic Committee, has made it clear he would not support Mapp for a second term as freeholder. Mapp won in 2004 on a ticket with Bette Jane Kowalski, this year’s freeholder chairwoman, and Democratic Party stalwart Daniel Sullivan. Mapp’s predecessor was Lewis Mingo Jr. of Plainfield. Will Green come up with another Plainfielder for the seat? We’ll find out in April.

Friends of former Mayor Richard L. Taylor are organizing an “Appreciation Dinner” in his honor and want Court Place to be renamed for him. The dinner is 4 to 8 p.m. March 17 at 111 E. Front St. If the City Council grants permission for the renaming, a ceremony will be held on Court Place at 3 p.m. March 17 preceding the dinner. Court Place is adjacent to the Municipal Court/Police Headquarters complex. Taylor was elected to City Council before becoming mayor. Since leaving office, he has become a minister.

The City Council will hold a special meeting Monday (Jan. 29, 2007) to introduce amendments to the FY 2007 budget. The meeting is 8 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The budget year began July 1, 2006 and the council is hoping to wrap up the budget process soon so tax bills can go out. Plaintalker expects to report on the amendments. The budget as presented to the council by the administration last fall reflected a tax increase of 8.2 percent and the council has been trying to get it down to about 3 percent.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Absalom Jones

Long before Martin Luther King Jr., there was Absalom Jones.

Born a slave in 1746, he gained his own freedom in 1784 and went on to become the first black priest in the Episcopal Church in 1802. The Feast of Absalom Jones is celebrated in the church on February 13 and is part of the Black History Month program at Grace Episcopal Church.

The story of how Absalom Jones and Richard Allen opposed segregation within a Philadelphia church, formed an independent black church and later came into the diocese on their own terms is a compelling testimony to the strength of the human spirit. It was refreshing to be reminded of it in a packet handed out at Grace’s Martin Luther King Jr. service on Jan. 15. That event launched Grace’s Black History Month program, which runs through February 17.

Today (Saturday, Jan. 27) there is an all-day Race and Reconciliation workshop at the church. Other events include a Spiritual Singalong on Feb. 3; slave narratives and African-American music at the Feb. 4 and 11 services, 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on both Sundays; a Health Fair from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Feb. 10; the Feast of Absalom Jones, 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 13; and a gala dinner at 6 p.m. featuring foods from the African Diaspora. The church is also co-sponsoring presentation of the documentary "Slavery and the Making of America" at the Plainfield Public Library, 6 to 9 p.m. at the library on Feb. 8 and 15.

Absalom Jones was known for his strong stand against slavery and preached a Thanksgiving sermon on Jan. 1, 1808 in which he called for the first day of January to be marked as “the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country.”

Enslavement of individuals for economic gain is still going on in human trafficking and forced labor around the world. Some say the tacit use and exploitation of day laborers in our country is a present-day form of slavery. The work begun by Absalom Jones is not finished. But he lives on as an inspiration to all, no matter what race or religion.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 26, 2007

Tenants Deserve Safe Housing

In a city where half the households are renters, residents must depend on state and municipal government to uphold rules for multi-family dwellings. But tenants must first find out what the rules are.

There is no tenant organization or movement in Plainfield currently, so the hapless renters must learn the hard way what their rights are. For example, a landlord who takes a security deposit must inform the tenant where it is deposited in an interest-bearing account. If this does not happen, the tenant can request the deposit to be applied toward the rent. But many newcomers with language barriers have no idea of such rights.

Landlords of multi-family dwellings are also supposed to file certificates of registration with the state Department of Community Affairs and post these certificates in a prominent place in the apartment building. Ownership must be declared and emergency numbers must be listed. As many tenants can verify, this rule is not obeyed. A copy of the document is supposed to be on file with the city clerk, but again this does not always happen.

Recently the City Council repealed the Safe Housing ordinance that was intended to prevent overcrowding and unsafe conditions. It was a victory for landlords and managers, but a scary prospect for tenants. Who is on our side, renters in 7,500 or more households may well ask.

After a fire Wednesday morning routed nearly 40 tenants from a Park Avenue building, officials promised a thorough investigation. Many tenants who have made property code maintenance complaints would prefer a pro-active response before disaster strikes.

One thing prospective tenants can do is to get an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) form from the clerk’s office at City Hall and then go to the third floor and ask to see the folder for the building they plan to move into. The folder will detail infractions such as heat complaints and other problems including pest infestation and the city’s response.

Legal Services of New Jersey publishes a booklet on tenants’ rights which may also be read online. Click here for more information. Low-income tenants can get a copy free.

The city still has a Certificate of Compliance ordinance that calls for an inspection of an apartment before a new tenant moves in to make sure there are no property code violations. If any exist, the landlord is given time to fix them and there is a re-inspection. The landlord is supposed to request the initial inspection and pay a fee. A tenant can check the folder in Inspections to see whether this was done and if so, what violations should have been corrected.

An informed tenant will have a much better chance of getting results when a landlord won’t make repairs or otherwise breaks the law. But the city also needs to do better. A recent state study of the Inspections Division uncovered flaws in its operation that the city needs to correct. Maybe the Safe Housing ordinance was too sweeping or just physically unworkable, but tenants still deserve safe housing, even if they have to fight for it, one apartment at a time.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Park Avenue Fire

Looks like I will be Pressgrrl today instead of Bloglady. Check the Courier online at for early details of the fire at 1003 Park Avenue. Story to follow.

Of Paramount Importance

Last week I was wearing my other hat, the one with the "Press" tag in it. I filed a couple of news stories for the Courier News.

One had to do with the sale of many downtown properties to a Bayonne property management firm. In case you missed it, click here.

At the time of writing the article, I did not have a complete list of all the Bayonne firm's properties in Plainfield, as not all were under the name of Paramount but under various limited liability corporations. A couple of hours of poring through tax records showed ownership of more than 40 buildings going back to the same address in Bayonne (with a few variations). The assessed value of all these buildings is about $7.5 million, with the market value being much higher.

Merchants are already on the alert for changes downtown through redevelopment. It will be interesting to see what else happens as the Bayonne property management companies put their stamp on the downtown.

--Bernice Paglia

Walking? It's a Gas!

Hey George Bush! I have cut my gasoline usage by 100 percent!

Since my car was pronounced not worth fixing in November, I have been walking or getting around by bus or train while I ponder my next move. I made a couple of feeble stabs at getting a new car, but coincidentally I read in the Utne Reader about a book titled, “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car.”

The book then showed up in the Plainfield Public Library and I took it out. Deciding it was a valuable guide, I bought a copy from Amazon. It is full of practical advice and real-life examples of individuals who live without cars.

Surely Plainfield is one of the best places to test one’s ability to cut down on car use or do without one. A lot depends on circumstances, of course. It is nearly impossible for parents of young children to do without a car. I was already walking a lot, finding it easier to set out on foot from my home in the middle of Plainfield to go to City Hall, the post office, the library and downtown eateries than to waste time driving and looking for a place to park.

As the need for certain things emerged, such as lithium batteries for the digital camera, I expanded my walking distance to a mile or so from Park and Seventh. The CVS in North Plainfield, Walgreen’s and Muhlenberg were not as far away on foot as I thought and the pedestrian view of the city was quite fascinating.

I got hold of bus and train schedules and explored stores close by that I had previously ignored in favor of driving to Fanwood for grocery shopping. My trips to Twin City are more frequent than my once-a-week forays to the A&P, but they have almost everything I need and some interesting products that mainstream chain groceries don’t have.

Today I caught the 59 bus to downtown Westfield, where I picked up my favorite Starbucks coffee, found a great pair of shoes at half-price at Randal's and a fancy paring knife at Williams Sonoma, got some great food at Trader Joe’s and bought a couple of pens at Papyrus to feed my habit of buying writing supplies. It was a pleasant outing.

Since retiring, I was only spending about $20 a month on gas anyway, so getting to zero wasn’t that much of a leap. Anyone who likes mall shopping or motoring junkets would be very unhappy to be without a car, but I don’t mind. Sooner or later I will probably give in and get a car, re-joining the ranks of those who have heart-stopping encounters with bad drivers and who wonder whether that funny noise means a $700 repair bill. For now, I’m seeing Plainfield and the nearby world in a different way – not through a windshield.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 22, 2007


Barbara Todd Kerr, who came up with the idea for Plaintalker and designed it, has taken her name off the blog due to lack of time to participate.

Thanks to Barbara for all she has done to enhance the blog since it began in June 2005. Little by little I have learned how to post entries, add photos and make links. I still can't do graphics or the more professional creative things that Barbara contributed. My main contribution is reporting on municipal government.

Newspapers have largely abandoned the idea of covering a town by attending meetings to see what elected officials are up to and what residents think about proposed changes. When I found out about a study of 23 blocks south of the main train station for possible redevelopment, I thought it was a story. The study covered 188 properties, including the building where I have lived since 1992.

I actually wrote up the equivalent of a news story and handed out copies to some people who keep an eye on government. The result was that some of them checked it out and came to a hearing prepared to ask questions.

I didn't know anything about blogs at the time, but Barbara explained how it worked. It certainly sounded like a better way to get information out than by handing out stories one at a time on paper. After some more talk about how it would work, I was in.

It was a lot of fun early on, but also a lot of work, unpaid at that. Neither of us had full-time jobs at the time. Since then, Barbara has taken a job and has a long commute. I still have time to go to meetings, do research at City Hall and stay up late writing.

Again, thanks to Barbara for introducing me to blogging late in my seventh decade on the planet. If you see Barbara around town and you appreciate Plaintalker, give her your own word of thanks for starting it.

--Bernice Paglia


A reader points out that one of the school board members up for re-election is not a supporter of Superintendent Paula Howard, so the upcoming election could not produce a shift of power from the present majority that supports Howard. If an anti-Howard slate won on April 17, the faction that consistently opposes her would still only have four of nine votes. Thanks for the correction.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

School Board Election Coming Up

Scott Booker’s lengthy Jan. 14 Speaking Out piece in the Courier News was headlined, “Howard must be removed as city schools chief.” It set off a minor tizzy on the Star-Ledger’s Plainfield Forum, with writers urging him to come forward and run for school board.

Is this an attempt to showcase a newcomer to the Queen City’s world of politics? Maybe. Is Mr. Booker’s agenda evident, should he choose to run? Darn right.

Paula Howard has both partisans and detractors on the current board, enough of the former to secure her place in Plainfield until 2010 if she still wants to stay. Each year the nine-member school board has three seats up for election, so if the two non-Howard fans got three more allies, they would control the board. The filing deadline is 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 26, so expect to hear a lot more rhetoric about Howard in coming weeks.

Plaintalker deeply regrets not having enough time or energy to cover both the school side and municipal side of local politics. Lack of coverage only adds to the murkiness of what is going on with the district. When Wilma Campbell, Rev. Tracey Brown and Martin Cox were elected to the board in 2004, less than one-third of the registered voters took part. By contrast, two-thirds made their way to the polls for the general election in November 2004.

Now those individuals will have to decide whether to seek re-election. Other residents will have to decide whether they want to run for a three-year term on the board. Qualifications to run are available at the Board of Education office at 504 Madison Avenue and also online. Winners must commit to a grueling schedule and take mandatory training. If the public is apathetic, politicians are not and will be watching every move of board members as they approve or reject contracts and personnel decisions offered by the superintendent.

Some may say it will not be up to individuals to make the decision to run, but up to the Democratic Party leadership, even though the school board election is supposed to be non-partisan. Coming weeks will tell the tale. Expect more letters to the editor, more forum postings and more rhetoric. Voters will have their say on April 17.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Muharram, the Islamic New Year, will be observed today (Jan. 20, 2007) by many Muslims.

If anyone doubts the complexity of the Muslim community, an online glance at the topic will confirm it. Sunnis and Shiites disagree on how to observe the holiday or even whether to observe it.

But meanwhile, companies like Crayola want to participate. Crayola offers activities for kids for the Islamic New Year.

For those of us who remember Crayola colors such as Raw Umber (what does that mean anyway?) and Flesh (changed to “peach” in 1962), the inclusive Crayola stance is very interesting.

In all fairness, Crayola did offer a pack of crayons a while back called “My World” that included skin, eye and hair colors for many ethnicities. Now there is a "multicultural" pack.

Anyway, it behooves everybody who favors cultural understanding to give a look at web sites about the Islamic New Year.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 19, 2007

Land Use Boards Hear Redevelopment Updates

At their first meetings in 2007 this week, both the Planning Board and Board of Adjustment received updates on redevelopment in the city.

On Wednesday, Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier outlined major projects. Planning Director Bill Nierstedt did the same Thursday for the Planning Board.

The key trend is transit-oriented development, or increasing density around the train stations. Proposals on South Avenue would take advantage of proximity to the Netherwood station and North Avenue plans are centered on the main train station. Wenson Maier said the city will make a new application to the state for transit village designation now that a re-examination of the master plan includes TOD goals.

Almost all the current proposals call for condo development.

Plaintalker has covered a number of the redevelopment proposals offered last year and reader can look up the stories by using the “search” function in the bar at the top of the blog. For example, key in “Maxim” and you will get all the stories on the South Avenue developer or “Landmark” for the North Avenue project.

The city made an agreement last year with the Union County Improvement Authority to put that agency in charge of redevelopment, that is, to perform studies, work out redevelopment agreements with developers and many other tasks. (Key in UCIA.) Each action step along the way is to receive city approval. A couple of projects, such as the new senior center/condo plan and the South Avenue projects, are not under the UCIA but will be privately funded.

One plan closely watched by downtown merchants is Landmark’s North Avenue proposal for hundreds of new residential units and an entertainment center in the historic district adjacent to the main station. On Thursday, the Planning Board saw a proposed expansion of the redevelopment area to include the PNC Bank block and the current Municipal Lot 6 that provides parking for East Front Street stores off Park Avenue.

The expansion is only in the talking stage, but when the city brought up using the lot in 2005, merchants were concerned about losing parking and therefore customers.

New North Avenue business owners are also worried about eminent domain causing them to shut down.

The city may also be expanding the transit village radius around the two existing and two former train stations from a quarter-mile to one-half mile. That item was withdrawn from the City Council agenda Tuesday.

Plaintalker will strive to keep the public aware of the status of all the many plans. Any citizen can attend the meetings where they are discussed and public hearings are part of the redevelopment process. Plainfield is up for a lot of changes if even some of these plans go through and it’s important to pay attention.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Maxim Returns

An item listed only as “Concept Plan” on Wednesday’s Board of Adjustment agenda turned out to be a return appearance of Maxim Development, this time for an informal discussion of two South Avenue condo proposals.

Before Maxim principals Patrick Gawrysiak and Sal Carfaro talked about their ideas, newly re-elected BOA chairman Sally Hughes reminded the board that the developers were there only for a free-wheeling discussion that was non-binding.

“It isn’t a promise,” she said.

Maxim came before the board last summer with a proposal for a 64-unit condo proposal that was supposed to be the pioneer project for the transit village concept touted by city officials. The condos would have been within walking distance of the Netherwood train station and were geared to young professionals and older people no longer interested in maintaining large homes.

But the application foundered on what Hughes called “woefully inadequate” presentations by the developers’ experts and it was denied in September. Since then, Maxim pursued other plans in upstate New York and Connecticut.

The concept plan was heard late in the evening Wednesday, past the hour when the board normally takes up new items. About 25 people who came out for a hearing on a West Eighth Street subdivision had gone home by the time the Maxim matter came up, with only four residents lingering on to see what it was about.

Gawrysiak started off by noting the last time, “We probably weren’t the most prepared.”

He then showed a depiction of a proposed 32-condo building for 929 South Avenue, which he said was only 200 feet from the Netherwood station at the former Clem’s Ornamental Iron Works. Gawrysiak said there is only one parcel on the site that Maxim could not acquire, which is the Royal Construction show room. The developers would work around it, he said. The proposed new building would be set sideways on the site with a retail portion on the east side.

Lack of a retail portion was one of the reasons the board rejected the previous plan for 64 condos at 803 South Avenue. But Maxim still does not want to put retail on that site. That project would have both 1- and 2-bedroom units, while all those at 929 South Avenue would be two-bedroom units. The condos would sell for about $350,000.

Since the September denial, the Planning Board has completed a six-year examination of the master plan and added a lot of language about transit-oriented development that calls for greater density around train and transit hubs. Last summer, the Maxim proposal stood out as too tall and too dense compared to the rest of South Avenue.

But on Wednesday new board member Jeffrey Holmes said, “This is the right place for density.”

Among other topics, board members asked about control of the parking spaces so outside commuters didn’t slip in and condo owners didn’t sell of their spaces. Gawrysiak said the condo complex would be a “gated community” and the condo association would not allow spaces to be sold.

Forbidding owners from renting out condos would not be possible, but the association could have the right to approve any prospective renters. As far as retail uses, Gawrysiak said he wanted a Starbucks and a bank as possible uses, but no doughnut or take-out shops that would produce smells.

Asked about marketing, Gawrysiak said the company has a marketing study done in December. He said the two projects add up to around 100 units and within a five-mile radius, 1,800 condos have been sold.

The developers did not indicate when they might file an application, but foresaw construction completed within 12 to 18 months from receiving all approvals.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

No 2007 Calendar Yet

With an incomplete budget and major redevelopment decisions looming, the City Council stalled Tuesday on a more fundamental issue: When to meet.

Last April, the council departed from a decades-old schedule that called for meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month, with agenda sessions on the preceding Mondays. The new schedule called for agenda sessions on Mondays and voting meetings on Wednesdays with a week off in between.

But in practice, that schedule proved to be unworkable, because it left the City Clerk’s office barely more than a day of turnaround time between agenda and regular meetings.

Given three choices – the traditional way, the 2006 experiment or a new plan for Wednesday agenda sessions with Monday regular meetings a week later – the council reached no consensus Tuesday.

Why Tuesday? Because every time there is a federal holiday on Monday that conflicts with the schedule, the current plan calls for an agenda session Tuesday and regular meeting Thursday, which often causes conflicts with Board of Adjustment and Planning Board meetings.

Councilman Harold Gibson took the lead Tuesday to call for a return to the traditional Monday-only schedule, saying it gives the City Clerk’s office the time needed to prepare for the meetings. Councilman Don Davis concurred, saying it would be “reverting back to what’s worked.”

But Councilman Rashid Burney, City Council President Rayland Van Blake and Councilman Elliott Simmons all said they liked having a week off between meetings.

“To me, having a week off gives me a lot of time to think through things,” Burney said.

Simmons said he likes to week off to spend time with his family, especially his 14-year-old daughter. When committee work is added on, he said, the weekly schedule “complicates my life.”

Councilwoman Linda Carter said she could live with either the traditional Monday schedule or the proposed Wednesday-Monday plan, but condemned the 2006 innovation.

Due to lack of a consensus, the council is stuck with the plan they don’t like. But to add to the confusion, the legal notice in Sunday’s Courier News mixed up the dates. After Feb. 20, the schedule in the newspaper switches all the regular meetings and agenda sessions to the wrong days.

In light of the controversy, resident Dottie Gutenkauf asked when the next council meeting would take place, but got no answer. Resident Brenda Gilbert said last year’s innovation was “confusing to citizens” and suggested reverting to the traditional schedule.

Under the schedule nobody likes, the regular meeting is 8 p.m. Thursday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.Court, 325 Watchung Ave. It promises to be a short meeting, because big items including a proposed $7 million bond ordinance for road improvements and a major redevelopment agreement with the Union County Improvement Authority were withdrawn Tuesday.

--Bernice Paglia

The Amaryllis Cure

After bursting out with three 9-inch flowers, my $14 Dancing Queen Amaryllis bulb from Smith & Hawken in Westfield produced a stalk topped by four 8-inch blooms. Now as those flowers are fading, a new stalk has shot up with a big bud at the top. It’s a great cure for the winter doldrums, worth anything else you can get for $14 nowadays.

An amaryllis bulb looks like an overgrown onion and offers no hint what is inside. It gives me the same feeling of anticipation as when I get a new pocket calendar, wondering what will fill up those pages. I like to add a ribbon place-holder, with some kind of little ornament at the end.

All too soon the dates will be filled in with meetings and obligations, deadlines and reminders. Later this year, I’ll be making a note to take the amaryllis outside for the summer so it can produce the long, floppy leaves it needs for replenishment. And before the first frost I’ll remind myself to cut them off, stash the bulb in a dark corner and at year’s end check for the green tips that promise an encore performance.

Plan ahead – flip to November in your 2007 calendar and make a note: Buy an amaryllis to light up winter’s dark days.


The strains of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” rolled out across my neighborhood Sunday. The black national anthem was being played on the Grace Episcopal Church carillon.

Considering the early 2oth century stance of Grace and other major Plainfield churches that African-Americans should worship separately from whites, it was a pleasing note of harmony. At the same time, it points up the fact that Plainfield’s other “minority” has no national anthem here.

The multiplicity of Latino cultures and voices means that there is no central theme for their needs. Newcomers are quick to display flags of their homelands on their houses and cars, but they have nothing comparable to the unifying red, black and green colors of Kwanzaa.

Why should anybody care? Eventually Latinos here will probably assimilate, as European and Asian immigrants have, starting with learning English. And anyway, Hispanic Heritage Month is already on a lot of calendars, so what’s the problem?

For Latinos, the problem is that they are showing up in droves in small towns and cities and creating a parallel population with its own shops, restaurants, churches and gathering places. Culture shock and misunderstandings are leading to animosity all over the map. And even though Latinos look like a solid bloc to non-Latinos, their community is a pastiche of nationalities that don’t always like each other or get along.

It is a test of Plainfield’s self-proclaimed love of diversity to figure out what to do when a former 7 percent minority swells to one-quarter or perhaps one-third of the population. Schools are mandated to provide information to parents in the language spoken at home. But city government lags far behind in helping Latinos to understand local regulations and how to take part in civic life. Politicians seem to be still seeking that one Latino who can deliver votes from the whole demographic.

Curiously, corporations seem to “get” the change even if individuals and institutions need more time. Sears began using dual-language signage quite a while ago. Purveyors of food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals use Spanish on their labels. And Whirlpool is now selling a stove dubbed “Sabor” that is specially designed for Latino cooking, with a traditional comal, or griddle, for making tortillas and such.

In city neighborhoods, it is more likely to be small interactions over time that will smooth out the unfamiliarity on both sides. A visiting abuelita may admire someone’s garden and get the nietos to stop kicking soccer balls into the flowers. Delicious aromas may entice a person to step into a Latino restaurant and get arroz con camarones instead of the usual fried rice with shrimp from the Chinese take-out place. A Sweet Sixteen party in one yard may be matched by Quinceanos festivities in another.

Somehow it will happen. More Latinos here will register to vote, seek public office, run for the school board, put down roots. And maybe someday a Latino poet as capable as James Weldon Johnson will come up with something better than last year’s controversial Spanish version of the Star-Spangled Banner, “Nuestro Himno.”

The Queen City’s population has shifted dramatically before and most newcomers have become proud Plainfielders. For now, let's just say, "Bienvenidos a la Ciudad de la Reina" to the newcomers and try to get to know each other better.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Meeting mavens will have their pick next week.

The City Council meets at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall Library, while the Board of Education meets at 7 p.m. in the Plainfield High School Library.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment meets 7 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall Library and the Planning Board meets at 8 p.m. Thursday in City Hall Library.

Topics for these meetings are not known right now. Usually Board of Education agendas are available in the Plainfield Public Library on the weekend before the meeting. Agendas for the council can be picked up at the City Clerk’s office the day of the meeting. Zoning and Planning agendas can be obtained in the Planning office on the second floor of City Hall.

A lot of important decisions will be made in 2007. News reports can only convey the gist of what goes on at these meetings or may focus on one of many items discussed. Attending these meetings is always a better way to see elected and appointed officials in action. Block associations and neighborhood groups can send representatives to report back on issues of interest.

Plaintalker tends to get over to City Hall more than to the school board. Anyone who feels inclined to blog about the school board need only log on to and get going!

--Bernice Paglia

Budget Talks Ongoing

The City Council held a brief budget meeting Wednesday, but had no numbers to talk about.

Finance Committee Chairman Rashid Burney said proposed cuts have been given to the administration for review, to make sure they will not harm city operations. The council expects to discuss the cuts during the agenda session Tuesday.

New City Administrator Marc Dashield and Finance Director Ray Daniels attended the meeting. The city had no finance director since March and no city administrator since October. The council began budget deliberations in September but was apparently willing to allow the new officials some input, even though Councilman Don Davis reminded everyone that once it is introduced, the budget is in the council’s hands.

The council received the budget from the mayor with an 8.2 percent tax increase. The governing body’s goal is to whittle the budget increase down to the cost of living increase, or about 3 percent. Councilman Cory Storch said the council should think in the spirit of Gov. Jon Corzine’s State of the State address and “become as lean and mean as possible.”

Corzine proposed a 4 percent cap on the property tax levy, in contrast to amounts as high as 7 percent in the past two decades.

Storch said his “strong hope” is that the city can hold to a 3 percent increase.

“We don’t want to dip into the surplus,” he said. “We may need it next year.”

The city is already seven months into the 2007 fiscal year that began July 1. City operations have been funded with temporary appropriations every month since then.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Reorg Redux

Crime and economic development, two staple campaign topics, were not forgotten by City Council President Rayland Van Blake as he took on leadership of the governing body for a second year.

“We as a city have to do more,” Van Blake said, calling for zero tolerance of crime. “All citizens must feel safe.”

Also marking the start of his second four-year term, Van Blake commendably gave a clear-eyed view of the city’s needs for the future.

“Crime and economic development hinge on each other,” he said.

With the city poised for transit-oriented growth, commuters and new condo residents will have to be sold on choosing Plainfield as a hometown over others along the Raritan Valley Line. Stories like the Halloween assault on a city man and the fatal shooting of a young girl loom large in the minds of outsiders who don’t know much about Plainfield. And residents who want to stay here must weigh the increasing possibility of random violence as gang presence becomes more and more evident. Plaintalker finds Van Blake’s assessment of city priorities correct.

For those who weren’t there for the annual reorganization, blogger Dan Damon captured Van Blake’s remarks and most of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs’ State of the City address on video and put the results up on YouTube. The videos may be seen on Damon’s Plainfield Today blog.

In another life, this writer sat through many a State of the City address, ranging from vitriolic harangues to tedious puffery. One memorable moment occurred when former Mayor Richard L. Taylor used the occasion to invite then-Councilman Harold Mitchell to walk the plank off the Good Ship Plainfield. Mitchell went on to become mayor himself and got to make his own State of the City address.

At the risk of appearing to carp, Plaintalker found the current mayor’s speech heavy on feel-good items and a bit light on significant issues. The mayor made just a passing comment on “the growing Latino population” and her wish to partner with its business community. It is this very community that, with or without city partnership, has revitalized commerce in this changing municipality and improved many of its homes.

Latinos are now a quarter to one-third of Plainfield’s population and will be the deciding factor in whether the city breaks 50,000 in the 2010 census, giving more direct access to federal funds that now filter through county government. Children from Spanish-speaking homes made up more than half the incoming kindergarten class of 2006. Being the mayor here means getting to know a lot more about everyday needs and concerns of Latinos.

The mayor spoke of many festivities, toy giveaways, events with food for the public, even giving out “goodies” while touring the city with public safety officials after a major blizzard. Citizens have taken note of this mayoral style in 2006, some wishing the city’s first female African-American mayor would leave off the candy and show a little more political steel in light of Plainfield’s problems.

At the reorganization, the mayor was able to introduce a new city administrator, a new director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services and the director of Public Affairs and Safety. The third department head, for Public Works and Urban Development, was absent, presumably at the council meeting in Rahway, where she is a councilwoman. Robinson-Briggs said she intends to reorganize the departments and also to save money by not filling vacancies. After a year of internal shake-ups and major administrative vacancies, let’s hope the mayor will proceed with caution and give City Administrator Marc Dashield the power to apply his expertise in municipal government to running the city day-to-day.

If the mayor’s one-year legacy appears more like putting the “party” back into party politics instead of leading the city, the good news is that she has three more years to write her chapter in Plainfield’s history. For 2007, she has a full cabinet, a supportive City Council and a largely hopeful populace to help carry out her goal of “Growth by Unity.”

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Mayor Will Perform Civil Unions

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs will perform civil unions, she said in her State of the City address Monday.

Her announcement came as panoply of national flags popped up on a PowerPoint screen, with a rainbow flag in the middle. Gay marriage activist Joan Hervey let out a whoop and many in the audience applauded. The mayor asked for support from those who agreed with her stance and for tolerance from those who disagreed.

Hervey rose in public comment to thank the mayor for her “courage and commitment,” but no one protested and no one else spoke in favor of the announcement.

Other than that news and the mayor’s statement that she planned to reorganize city departments, the speech was mostly a long list of statistics and accomplishments. Robinson-Briggs dwelt on her theme of “Growth by Unity” and gave effusive thanks to her staff, the City Council, all city employees, Assemblyman Jerry Green and the public.

Green, pleased with the harmony of the current council and administration, called the occasion “one of the more happiest moments of my life.”

He noted that in past years, Plainfield had the reputation of a city with the governing body and administration at odds.

Council members chose Rayland Van Blake as president for the year and Don Davis as chairman of the whole to preside at agenda meetings.

Van Blake and Rashid Burney were sworn in for four-year terms on the council and Harold Gibson was sworn in for an unexpired term ending in 2008 succeeding the late Ray Blanco.

Newly-appointed City Administrator Marc Dashield was present Monday. Dashield is still finishing up obligations in Franklin Township, where he was chief financial officer, and will effectively be here Jan. 15.

The City Council approved numerous appointments to city boards and commissions Monday, but it remains to be seen whether these were the best choices. Some appeared to have political reasons for being chosen.

The issue of when the City Council will meet in 2007 is still up in the air. It may be mid-January before the 2007 calendar is adopted. The council may have to pay for a big legal notice with the past calendar for a couple of weeks and then a real calendar notice later on.

Among major accomplishments in 2006, the mayor noted approval of a new senior center, new initiatives against crime and other plans to improve the quality of life.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 08, 2007

Reorg Tonight

The City Council’s annual reorganization meeting will take place at 8 p.m. tonight (Jan. 8, 2007) at Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The meeting will include a State of the City address by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

The council will choose a president for the year and a chairperson of the committee of the whole. Rashid Burney and Rayland Van Blake, both of whom won re-election in November, will be sworn in for four-year terms. Municipal judges and legal officials will be sworn in and many organizational decisions, such as naming official banks and newspapers, will be made.

Appointments will be made to numerous boards and commissions. The council will also adopt a calendar of meetings for 2007.

The reorganization has traditionally also brought out all the local pundits and watchdogs to give their takes on how the city is doing. Expect some political posturing and prognostication as well. No popcorn allowed.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Hot, Hot, Hot

Outside City Hall Annex, the flowering quince bush was in bloom.

Outdoor thermometers registered 70 degrees or more.

Some city residents reverted to tank tops Saturday and daffodils pushed three inches out of the ground.

Blame it on El Nino or global warming, but most people didn’t care what caused it. They just liked the ease of getting around and feeling comfortable.

Winter is still out there somewhere, so keep the fleece and wool on hand.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Mayor Signs Senior Center Contract

Seniors gave Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs a standing ovation Thursday as she signed over a city-owned tract for a new senior center and condo complex.

Rahway-based developer Glen Fishman will finance the $15 million project that will give seniors their long-desired new center at no cost to the city.

“This is a day of victory,” Robinson-Briggs said.

As promised, the mayor had senior center president Charles Nelson sign the contract in recognition of all the work he and others did on plans for the new center. Each senior at the ceremony received a bottle of spring water with a red bow to mark the occasion.

“This is our champagne,” said Inez Dowling, who with others vowed to keep the bottles to drink a toast when the center opens.

Fishman said ground may be broken in two or three months. At the Dec. 7 Planning Board meeting where the proposal won site plan approval, Fishman said he hoped to have the building occupied in time for Christmas 2007.

The ground-floor center will have 12,800 square feet of activity rooms, offices and a large meeting hall that will seat 200 for special events. A veterans center will also be located on the ground floor. Three floors of market-rate condos, 63 in all, will rise above the center. The city is expected to receive $400,000 annually in taxes from the condo development.

Fishman praised local officials for their speedy approvals of the project, saying achieving them in about five months was “a record in this state, for sure.” The condos will be marketed at over $300,000 each to empty-nesters and young professionals who are likely to find the nearby main train station a draw for commuting.

Assemblyman Jerry Green said the condo units will be the same as those going up in Cranford but will cost $200,000 less. A similar condo in Manhattan would cost $1 million, he said. Green also praised Robinson-Briggs, the city’s first female mayor, for accomplishing what several past male mayors had promised to seniors and not delivered.

The project site was cleared of homes, a landscaping business and a lawyer’s office over several years. The lots were combined into one in 2006 and conveyed to the developer Thursday for $1.
In September, the City Council agreed to turn the site over to the Union County Improvement Authority and to authorize the mayor to sign it over to the developer once an agreement was worked out among the UCIA, city and developer. A zoning change on Nov. 22 made the center a permitted use in the downtown and mixed use zones.

The city is paying about $100,000 in annual rent for leased space at 305 East Front Street. The new site is at 400 East Front Street. Seniors rejected other proposals over the years, saying they wanted a new center downtown and nothing less.

The closest the city came previously to building a new center was a $4 million proposal in 2005. Nelson quipped Thursday that he still has his ceremonial shovel from the May 2005 groundbreaking that never led to construction.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Do Good, Go Shopping

Tapped out by holiday spending but still have the itch to shop?

Try the Nearly New Shop at Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church. Not only is everything over $1 on sale at 75 percent off, every penny you spend benefits Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center through the Muhlenberg Auxiliary.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. The shop is tucked under the church in a basement space on the Watchung Avenue side, off East Seventh Street. Look for the signboard near the stairway down to the shop.

The shop has clothing, accessories, household items and little treasures that attract collectors as well as bargain hunters.

On Wednesday, volunteers were sorting and pricing goods and even snapping up some finds for themselves. Volunteer Margaret Johnson opened her purse to buy an unusual apron made of gingham and floral prints as this writer, an apron fan, covetously looked on.

Johnson said all the items are donated and all the work is done by volunteers. The money raised is turned over to the Auxiliary for special causes at the hospital, such as nursing school scholarships.

The shop has changed locations over the years and has been at the church for about five years now, she said.

“We take in everything except furniture,” Johnson said

Donations are always welcome. Right now the shop is a bit overstocked, giving rise to the sale.

While chock-full of sales items, the shop could use a few more volunteers.

Johnson and Virginia Doren, both of Dunellen, and Margot Lame of Watchung staffed the shop Wednesday. Volunteers must commit to a certain number of hours per week, usually at least half a day. “Being nice with people” is the main requirement, Johnson said.

For more information or to volunteer, call (908) 226-8352.

--Bernice Paglia

Senior Center Contract To Be Signed

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs told seniors Tuesday the contract for the new senior center will be signed at 11 a.m. Thursday (Jan. 4, 2007) at the present leased space at 305 West Front Street.

Robinson-Briggs called Senior Center President Charles Nelson up to the podium to make sure he would be there Thursday. Robinson-Briggs wanted Nelson to be a special signatory to the contract for the new center, the goal of members since 1999 when a 10-year lease expired at the leased space. Seniors have opposed several interim proposals, holding out for their very own new building.

Early in 2006, officials suggested that the proposed site might have a better use, launching an outcry by seniors. In July, the mayor introduced a developer who proposed building the center at no cost to the city, with 63 condos overhead. On Dec. 7, that plan won Planning Board approval.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 22, the City Council agreed to convey the 1.5 acre city-owned tract to the Union County Improvement Authority for an undisclosed “nominal” amount. The mayor was also given authority to convey the land to the developer.

Dornoch has pledged to have the building occupied within a year of receiving all approvals. While the senior center will be tax-exempt, the condo complex is expected to bring in $400,000 in tax revenue annually.

The condo complex is the only one among several “transit-oriented” proposals to get city acceptance. The two-bedroom condos would sell at market rate, or more than $300,000, according to the developer.

Square footage for the proposed new senior center has varied, but on the November 2006 site plan submission it is listed as 13,400 square feet. The plan includes rooms for cards, music, television, billiards, computers, library, health exams, offices and a multi-use room for events. Seniors would have access to the condo roof garden on the second floor as part of the deal.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

After Auld Lang Syne

Too often in 2006, mayoral appointments were offered “In the Midnight Hour.”

Late submissions made former City Council President Ray Blanco apoplectic and at the last meeting before his death, Blanco summarily dismissed a bunch of them. Little did he know that before he came in late that night from a gala event in New York, yet another “walk-on” appointment had been offered by the mayor.

The council is promised a number of appointments to vote on at the Jan. 8 reorganization. Let’s hope they are all in order and that boards and commissions will start the New Year in good shape, with enough members to get down to business.

The city also has a number of auxiliary police officers who are supposed to reappointed annually, something that didn’t happen in 2006. Perhaps the administration can “Do the Tighten Up” and take a proactive stance toward appointments. At least at cabinet level, the year will start with a new city administrator and all three department heads in place.

The council plans to alter its schedule for greater efficiency in 2007. If the administration can match the effort with timely submissions to the governing body, only then will “Everybody Have A Good Time.”

(If you want to sing along, do a Google search on The Drells.)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

May 2007 bloom with good fortune for you and your family!