Tuesday, February 27, 2007

School Board Hopefuls File

Monday’s school board filing deadline turned up the smallest field in four years, just five candidates for three three-year seats.

In contrast, 11 candidates vied for three seats in 2003 and also in 2005, with an additional five candidates battling that year for a one-year unexpired term. In 2004, six people ran for three seats and seven ran in 2006.

Incumbents Wilma Campbell and Martin Cox will be on the 2007 ballot again, but the Rev. Tracey Brown is not seeking another term. Campbell is a real estate agent along with her husband, John Campbell, at offices across from the high school. Cox comes from a family with a long history of community activism and youth involvement. He is employed at the city’s Senior Center.

David Graves, a city inspector, served on the board as an appointee. He ran for a full term on 2006 without success and also lost a bid in 2005 for a one-year term. Graves is a close observer of the school board.

Christian Estevez is a union activist who sought a City Council appointment last summer replacing the late Ray Blanco. The Democratic City Committee gave the seat to Harold Gibson, who then ran in the November general election. Plaintalker published four stories last year on Estevez. Click here to see them.

Evergreen Avenue resident Jeanette Criscione is making her first try for a board seat.

The school board election is April 17. The League of Women Voters will hold its Candidates Forum April 11 at the Plainfield Public Library. Other forums are to be announced.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 26, 2007

Patience and Impatiens

The weather outside is frightful.

Meanwhile, a dozen or so impatiens plants grown from cuttings last fall await their turn to go outside. When the forsythia basket blooms, the impatiens plants can move from the window shelf to the garden.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bar License Transfer Proposed

A small legal notice Friday (Feb. 23, 2007) heralds the possible re-opening of the former Rusty Spigot bar on Watchung Avenue as “Latin Heat Sports Bar & Grill.”

The notice reminded Plaintalker of a 2005 campaign promise by Republican Al Coleman to transform the bar into the “Bankers & Brokers Jazz Club” and a five-star restaurant. Coleman lost the election and the plans never materialized.

The other thought was how shuttering of that bar and others seems to have led to a quiet time in the city. Granted, police reports are no longer published in the newspaper, so the level of bar fights, assaults, drug- and prostitution-related offenses and other infractions cannot be objectively measured without statistics. It’s just a perception on this writer’s part.

At present, it seems that bars near Roosevelt and Third, Park and Second, Richmond and Third and Watchung and Fourth and a couple on South Avenue are all closed. Residents and officials have long bemoaned the high number of liquor establishments in the city and somehow, through economic or other reasons, they have been reduced.

There is nothing to say that a properly-managed bar and grill cannot succeed and attract a responsible clientele. Indeed, one former police chief used to speak with relish of the opportunity to have an “adult beverage” after work.

Anyway, the legal notice mainly serves to alert the public to the fact that anyone with objections to the license transfer should send their concerns in writing to City Clerk Laddie Wyatt at City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave., Plainfield NJ 07060.

This is a standard part of the licensing process in the case of transfers. Residents may also write to the clerk with any concerns about license renewals.

Concern over the high number of liquor establishments in the city once led to City Council legislation authorizing license buy-outs with public funds. It has not come to that, but anyone with objections to the way a bar operates can say so in writing. Each license holder is also subject to a police investigation.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, February 23, 2007

Signs of Spring

Pedestrians may delight in the snowdrop buds outside Municipal Court, but drivers will most likely curse the appearance of potholes.

To report a pothole, call (908) 753-3427.

Council Update

Thursday’s City Council meeting was over in 11 minutes, according to one of less than a handful of people who came out to see the governing body at work.

The council approved a resolution giving the Union County Improvement Authority the go-ahead to do redevelopment studies or plans on three sites, which are:
- 126/136 Madison Avenue/303-306 West Second Street.
- 520-536 South Avenue/500-514 Scott Avenue and 529-536 East Sixth Street
- Tepper’s Phase I (part of the block that includes the Horizons at Plainfield redevelopment of the former Tepper’s department store).

One thing that was not addressed in this council cycle was the expiration of two conditional designations for redevelopers for the Marino’s tract and the North Avenue tract.

The next council meetings are March 5 for the agenda session and March 7 for the regular meeting, which conflicts with the Board of Adjustment meeting.

On Monday, the calendar revision issue was on the agenda again but was withdrawn. That means by default the council is sticking with the calendar they say they don’t like, the one that calls for regular sessions on Wednesdays after first and third Mondays of each month. The other options are to drop back to the traditional schedule of Mondays only or to choose a rolling schedule of Wednesday agenda sessions and regular meetings a week later on Mondays.

Also on Monday, city resident Michael Wroble, a longtime advocate of historic preservation, was honored for his dedication to the cause. Wroble’s work begins at home – he lives in the 1717 Fitz-Randolph farmhouse on Randolph Road. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs presented Wroble with a proclamation citing his advocacy and his involvement in the city’s “nationally recognized” historic house tours.

“I love this city,” Wroble said.

--Bernice Paglia

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Downtown Changes

Stores are closing and rents are rising since a major property management
acquired downtown property, merchants said this week.

Business owners alleged that Paramount Property Management of Bayonne is tripling rents and forcing an exodus from buildings recently purchased from the Pittis Estate. But Paramount property manager Philip Baum said only those with no lease or expiring leases will be affected. He said for prime properties on Front Street between Park and Watchung avenues rates of $20 to $25 are reasonable.

Photo shop owner Alex Alonso was upset over a possible rent increase until he realized the lease for his Front Street store is in effect until 2010. But his wife, Lillian, said, “We think the rent is high. Nobody can pay this amount. It’s too much.”

“In one year, it will be a ghost town,” her husband said.

Merchants said rates were going as high as $5,000 and $6,000 per month, but could not specify the previous and new rates per square foot.

For those who don’t deal in commercial rentals, rates are quoted in annual rates per square foot. AST Realty rents retail space in the new Park-Madison building at rates from $20 to $23 per square foot, so a 1,000 square-foot store would have a monthly rental of $1,666.66 or $1,916.66. Depending on the terms, a tenant may also have to pay other costs such as taxes, maintenance and insurance.

A commercial real estate web site shows a range of Plainfield rental rates averaging about $18 at four locations, but Paramount is asking $30.86, or $1,800 monthly, for a 700-square foot store on Watchung Avenue near City Hall, a bit higher than Baum’s projection of $20 to $25 per square foot for new leases.

Among closings that concerned merchants were an 89-cent store and a clothing store on the two south corners of Watchung and Front and a martial arts studio and a longtime men’s clothing store, both on Front Street.

But Baum said the 89-cent store closed due to eviction for back rent and a computer store, “which Plainfield hasn’t had,” will be going in.

Choong Hwang, president of the Korean Merchants Association and owner of Ped-Eze, a clothing and shoe store on Front Street, said, “I think there should be a positive and negative impact.”

While agreeing with concerns about triple rent increases, Hwang said the change may bring better tenants and a better retail clientele.

“Most people have a short lease or no lease,” he said.

“I already felt the change,” he said. “I think some early tenants who cannot pay the current rate, they are suffering. They are not able to pay the rent, so they are leaving.”

Hwang said ultimately it’s good for consumers.

“You cannot stop this change,” he said, calling it a nation-wide trend where “big people invest” and “small guys got to leave.”

Hwang said a negative effect would be vacant stores that would make the city look like a ghost town. But he said “Paramount has good connections. They might bring big people here.”

--Bernice Paglia

Council Meeting Tonight

The City Council meets at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.
Items on the agenda include expanding the Union County Improvement Authority's to-do list with three more economic development sites, authorizing a layoff plan (no public details), and four resolutions authorizing release of performance bonds for projects that have been completed. The meeting will probably be very short, so be on time or you'll miss it.
The layoff plan is mandated due to budget cuts recently approved. It must be approved by the state and at any rate won't take effect until May, leaving very little time to save money because the fiscal year ends June 30.

O Pamplemousse, O Pamplemousse!

Reader Joan reports that Pink Grapefruit Mentos can be bought in bulk at the Mentos store online. A reader at Not Martha says they are even cheaper at Amazon.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

In mid-2005, the city had more than a dozen redevelopment studies or plans in the works. After the administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took over in 2006, several more were added along with the notion of clustering development around city train stations.

On Tuesday (Feb. 20, 2007, Councilman Cory Storch reported on the work of a new Economic Growth Review Committee that will track all the proposals in their various stages, report to the full governing body and cooperate with the administration to name priorities and iron out hindrances to progress.

The committee, which includes Councilmen Don Davis and Rashid Burney, will also make recommendations regarding initiatives such as transit-oriented development, attracting new businesses to Plainfield and “strategic alignment” of business organizations with the city.

Other issues the committee will address include parking, traffic circulation, “pedestrian friendliness” and transit strategies.

Storch said the committee hopes to review proposed Zoning Ordinance updates for their impact on development in the city and will help draft and review all resolutions and ordinances as they pertain to economic development.

New City Administrator Marc Dashield is putting together the “big picture” on redevelopment and will bring it back to the committee and the council, Storch said.

Plaintalker has been attempting a similar overview of all the redevelopment studies and plans on the books, but the challenge is to describe them all without having the readers snooze off. The projects range from hundreds of condos to dozens to exactly one dozen on a vacant lot on Madison Avenue. Unless the plan affects one’s neighborhood, it’s hard to pay attention.

The new transit-oriented development thrust confounds the question of what’s happening where, as the “transit villages” overlap redevelopment plans already underway.

The council was supposed to consider a new Union County Improvement Authority deal Tuesday that would have given the UCIA power to conduct needs studies and make redevelopment plans for areas in one-quarter mile and one-half mile radii from the two existing and two defunct train stations. But that was put off until March. Plaintalker’s quick stab at mapping showed the quarter-mile and half-mile to encompass an awful lot of the six-square-mile Queen City. The new concept would seem to overlap a bunch of the redevelopment studies and plans already on the books.

Of all the proposals, only Dornoch Plainfield’s plan for a new senior center and 63 condos has neared the possibility of construction. The viability of others remains to be seen.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 19, 2007


Having read about Pink Grapefruit Mentos and their limited availability in other parts of the world, I was surprised to find them right here at the crossroads of Plainfield, Park & Seventh.

On a web site called Not Martha, they are described as rare and elusive.

After apprehending some at Park News, I sent one pack to my daughter in Seattle and kept one for myself.

They are excellent and worth searching out, whether you go to Australia or the U.K. or just amble on over to Park News.

--Bernice Paglia


Happy Lunar New Year

A visit to Seattle is not complete without a venture into the International District, where dragons twine around light poles and all the city’s many Asian cultures are represented in shops and restaurants.

Plainfield’s Asian population is less than 1 percent, but in Seattle it’s 13 percent. The Lunar New Year is a big event, as these photos in The Seattle Times show.

Former Plainfielder Audrey Z. reports that Daiso, the leading 100-yen retailer in Japan, has opened a store in Seattle. This Plainfielder (aka mom of Audrey) received a selection of Daiso items for Valentine’s Day. A main attraction in the International District is Uwajimaya, a huge store with everything Asian including lots of fancy Japanese pens and notebooks.

Children at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield put on a dragon parade Sunday (Feb. 18, 2007) as church members called out, “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” to mark the Year of the Pig. The children shook bells and other noisemakers in the spirit of the holiday. Before the parade. Minister David Leonard read the children a story about the 15-day celebration.

Happy Lunar New Year to all! Have some potstickers to celebrate.

--Bernice Paglia

Development Deadlines Looming

Three development deadlines are coming up soon.

February 21 marks 60 days since the City Council approved an extension of conditional designations for developers of the North Avenue tract and the Marino’s tract. Plaintalker incorrectly stated that the East Richmond/Third redevelopment project was up for renewal this coming week, but that developer has a 90-day conditional designation that runs out March 6.

The conditional designations mean that the developers get exclusive consideration while agreements are worked out among the city, the Union County Improvement Authority and the developer. The City Council agreed last year to put the UCIA in charge of numerous redevelopment functions, including needs studies, redevelopment plans and working out agreements for each project.

Plaintalker’s error on Feb. 9 shows the folly of trying to blog when the indoor temperature is between 38 and 56 degrees, a condition that has since been fixed. Kind of gives a new meaning to the term “brain freeze.”

Anyway, delving through the big red folder of redevelopment stuff, Plaintalker sees that it is time for action on the three conditional designations.

The proposed developer for the Marino’s tract on West Front Street is AST Development Corp. of Lavallette, the same group that developed the Park-Madison complex that includes governmental offices, stores and a parking deck. The plan for the Marino’s tract includes a supermarket. AST received a 90-day conditional designation in August which was extended in December for 60 days.

Landmark Development Corp. of Jersey City similarly received conditional designation in August as developer of the North Avenue tract near the main train station and also got an extension in December. The proposed redevelopment area includes the North Avenue Historic District, but city officials recently proposed expanding the area north and west. The effect of an expansion on talks with the developer since August is not known.

The third deadline is for Capodagli Property Company, the conditionally designated developer for 20 properties in the East Third/Richmond tract. The company proposes 352 residential units in five buildings. The 90-day designation runs out March 6.

The East Third/Richmond tract includes properties owned by the Thul family, which has had a business there for more than 90 years. Some other parcels in the target area are owned by the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, which is in the process of consolidating its offices there.

Except for brief presentations on the proposed developments and council and Planning Board votes on needs studies and redevelopment plans, the public has seen little of the process. Negotiations are taking place behind closed doors, so the deadlines present the only clues as to how things are going. At each deadline, the City Council has the choice of extending a conditional designation or letting it expire.

The three proposals are among an increasing number of development plans, mostly for condos. Dornoch Plainfield’s plan for 63 condos over a new senior center is the only one to have received site plan approval.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Council Calendar Still Undecided

The City Council meets next week on Tuesday and Thursday.

Tuesday’s agenda session may include a discussion of the calendar for the rest of the year. As Plaintalker has previously noted, there are three proposed choices. The current schedule, adopted last April, calls for regular meetings on Wednesdays following the first and third Mondays of each month, with agenda sessions on preceding Mondays. During election seasons and summer months, there may be only one meeting per month.

That schedule replaced the traditional one that called for regular meetings on first and third Mondays, with agenda sessions on preceding Mondays. Reverting to that plan is one of the choices.

The third choice is a “rolling” schedule with agenda sessions on Wednesdays, then a week off, and regular meetings on the following Mondays.

For those who don’t follow council meetings, the agenda sessions are where the governing body discusses proposed resolutions and ordinances and decides whether or not to put them up for a vote at the next regular meeting. There are often general discussion matters as well. At regular meetings, the public may speak on resolutions and ordinances before the council votes on them. There are also public portions on any city topic at both agenda and regular meetings.

Agenda sessions are 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave., and regular meetings are 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

Council members say they don’t like the current schedule and City Clerk Laddie Wyatt opposes it, because it creates only a two-day turnaround time between the agenda session and the regular meeting. Her staff is overworked by the schedule, she told the council in asking for a return to the Mondays-only, traditional calendar.

But some council members like having a week off with no meetings, which the rolling schedule would afford.

The council has gone over the pros and cons at least twice without any agreement on a permanent schedule for 2007.

Councilman Rashid Burney favors the rolling schedule and rejects concerns that it would be hard for the public to follow. Burney notes that only a few people come out to council meetings anyway and the calendar must suit the legislators, who are making decisions affecting about 50,000 citizens.

Others including Councilmen Harold Gibson and Don Davis sympathize with the clerk, who is the official secretary to the governing body and must prepare all the paperwork for council meetings along with many other duties.

It will take four votes from the seven-member council to approve the calendar ordinance, which must be heard on two readings and will take effect 20 days after final passage. So it will most likely be April before a new schedule can start up.

The casual observer may well ask, if this is all about Mondays and Wednesdays, what’s up with Tuesday and Thursday next week?

Almost all federal holidays fall on Mondays, so that kicks the schedule over to Tuesday and Thursday. Happy Presidents’ Day!

--Bernice Paglia

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Icy Sidewalks

Not everyone took heed of the rule to clean sidewalks within 24 hours after a snowstorm.

Pedestrians had to pick their way over ice at many locations. With temperatures expected to stay below freezing today, walking will remain a challenge.
Call (908) 753-3386 to report ice-covered sidewalks.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Last month’s flurry of interest in Scott Booker’s views on the Plainfield school board has died down, but the question remains: Who is Scott Booker?

Plaintalker made a few inquiries last month with no concrete results. A call to the household of Charles and Anna Booker, who have decades of service in Plainfield, drew a blank.

A board member who shall remain nameless surmised that “Scott Booker” is a pseudonym. This person felt that certain information in the Courier News opinion piece could only have come from inside knowledge of board happenings.

The mystery may be solved by 4 p.m. Feb. 26, when candidates for school board seats must file petitions to be in the April school board election.

If Scott Booker is indeed a dark horse candidate, all will be revealed on the filing date.

The postings regarding Scott Booker are still up on the NJ Forum web site of the Star-Ledger. Since the frisson of speculation last month, the forum has mostly been quiet.

There are three seats up for three-year terms on the Board of Education. Potential candidates can check the New Jersey School Boards Association for qualifications. Petitions may be picked up at 504 Madison Avenue.

Considering that more than half the incoming kindergarten class this year was from Latino households, one hopes there will be a Spanish-speaking candidate for 2007.

Incumbents whose terms expire in April are Martin Cox, Wilma Campbell and Rev. Tracey Brown.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The skies cleared Wednesday afternoon over a grimy granita of slush at Park & Seventh.

Inside Park Florist, business was brisk.

Viva romance! Abajo Nor'Easters!

Valentine's Day

Tired of standard love songs?

Try "Buckets of Rain" by Bob Dylan.

Happy Valentine's Day to all!

PMUA Increases Rates, Reorganizes

Costs outside control of the city’s solid waste and sewer authority will cause rate increases for the first time since 2005, said presenters at Tuesday’s Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority rate hearing.

Commissioners approved rates Tuesday (Feb. 13, 2007) that will increase some charges by 20 percent as of July 1.

Disposal fees and fringe benefits for employees are driving the increase, Bill Vukoder of T&M Associates said. Out of the $9.7 million solid waste budget for 2007, $2.8 million will go for disposal of trash. Fringe benefits have increased by 17 percent over actual figures for 2006, Vukoder said.

The annual rate hearing brought no public comment and the annual reorganization that followed brought only one quibble from a resident who felt he was being overcharged for services.

The rate changes include household increases for garbage collection from $133.02 per quarter to $159.65 starting July 1. Container fees will also increase.

Vukoder said some increases should start March 1 and the commissioners agreed. Those charges kick in when the city calls on the Authority to clean up a property that the owner fails to maintain. The hourly rate for a so-called “abatement” would increase from $216.80 per hour to $260 and the rate per ton of debris removed would increase from $155 per ton to $162.

The other increase starting March 1 would be for charges at the Rock Avenue transfer station. Residents may bring cast-offs to the transfer station for a fee, such as $2.35 per old tire. The new rate per tire would be $2.60.

The Authority is encouraging residents to recycle, because disposal fees for some recyclables are lower than those for garbage. Charges for bottles and cans will drop from $79 per ton to $34.40 and metal recycling will drop from $54 per ton to $39.30.

But garbage drop-off at the yard will increase from $86 per ton to $120.30 and bulky waste will go from $157 to $165 per ton. Vegetative waste will increase from $60 per ton to $78.50.

Sewer rates will also increase by about 20 percent July 1, to $127.25 per quarter for each dwelling unit. Fees charged by the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority account for about 30 percent of sewer costs, officials said.

Councilman Don Davis, the City Council’s liaison to the PMUA, said after the meeting the increases are “well-needed at this time” due to rising costs.

At the reorganization, commissioners chose Carol Ann Brokaw to stay on as chairwoman for 2007. William Reid will be vice-chairman, Alex Toliver will be secretary and David Beck will be treasurer for the year. Officials offered condolences to Commissioner Jo-Ann Sloan, who was absent due to the death of her father.
--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

PMUA Meetings Tonight

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority is holding its annual reorganization tonight as well as a rate hearing.

The rate hearing is 6 p.m. and the reorganization meeting is 7 p.m. at the Authority’s offices, 127 Roosevelt Ave.

The PMUA provides solid waste and sewer services to the city. It sets rates for property owners to pay for services including garbage removal, bulk waste pickup, recycling, drop-off at the Rock Avenue transfer station and sewer flow.

A little-known fact is that each flush of the toilet involves not one but three authorities. PMUA is responsible for sanitary sewer lines within the city. The Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority, or PARSA, serves the city and about a dozen other municipalities. Waste ends up in a treatment plant operated by the Middlesex County Utilities Authority, or MCUA.

The sewer rates charged by PMUA thus include pass-along fees from two other authorities.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Budget Passes

The city budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 finally passed Monday (Feb. 12, 2007) with promises for more timely passage in FY 2008.

The $68 million budget includes a municipal tax levy of $41.3 million, down from $43 million in the introduced budget. The City Council reduced a projected 8.2 percent tax increase to just below 4 percent, largely through the work of the council’s Finance Committee.

Property owners have already paid part of the increase through a state-mandated anticipated tax increase for the first two quarters of the fiscal year. The balance for the second and third quarters will amount to $56.50 on the average home assessed at $113,000.

The final rate is $3.24 per $100 of assessed valuation.

A thought: If any of those proposed $350,000 condos were up right now, would owners be paying $11,340 in municipal taxes alone?

The budget included a $20,000 increase for council expenses, which riled Councilman Harold Gibson. He said he would vote “yes” on the budget, but vowed to vigorously oppose the expenditure when it came before the council for a vote. Gibson said the money was intended to provide legal counsel to the governing body, but he said Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson already serves the council.

“I don’t see the need,” Gibson said.

Councilman Rashid Burney defended the proposed cost, saying it was a relatively small amount of money and citing the separation of powers between the governing body and the administration.

Currently, the council is fielding legalities of numerous redevelopment proposals with agreements being worked out among developers, the Union County Improvement Authority and the administration.

In the public hearing portion, speakers included Frank Johnson , president and CEO of the accounting and auditing form J.F. Johnson. He congratulated the council on reaching budget passage, but noted the process was overly long and offered his expertise for the FY 2008 budget process.

Johnson called the budget process a management tool and not a means to an end.

Resident Tony Rucker called for a better budget process and City Administrator
Marc Dashield responded, “It will be a more efficient process.”

--Bernice Paglia

Downtown Guy

Write your own caption.

A Tale of the East End

As Plainfield faces rapid changes, Plaintalker directs your attention to a chronicle of days past.

See this web site to delve into the history of the East End.

I found this chronicle fascinating and I hope you find it the same.


-- Bernice Paglia

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Just Offal

Now that I shop on foot at Twin City, I have become much more exposed to cultural preferences for food other than the muscle meat that many older Americans grew up with.

Pot roast, pork chops, roast chicken, leg of lamb – quite familiar, even for those of us who went vegetarian in the 1970s.

Some of us even remember being forced to eat liver for health reasons in our youth.

But tripe, cow spleen, unmentionables? Not on my childhood menu!

A recent revelation of how other people eat came after a family from Central America moved into our six-family and soon wafted the aroma of mondongo throughout the building.

This is a breakfast dish involving tripe, or as described in Answers.com, “The rubbery lining of the stomach of cattle or other ruminants, used as food.” Cow or pig feet may be added.

There is a venerable Bessie Smith tune called “Gimme a pig foot and a bottle of beer.” I have never heard a musical tribute to tripe, but there was a boy band in the 1980s called “Menudo,” also the name of a Mexican tripe soup akin to mondongo.

The “meat” in our household is likely to be chick pea patties or other vegetable mixtures in lieu of hamburger. Only recently has my son decided he could stand to eat a center-cut pork chop occasionally, which has led to my new scrutiny of the meat cases that I have ignored for years. Some of the stuff displayed in shrink-wrapped trays is shocking to me and proves that in most countries, every last bit of an animal is prized as food.

Since shopping at Twin City, I have bought a tostonera and now know how to make tostones out of green plantains, with a sauce of olive oil, garlic and lime juice. Red beans and rice has always been a staple dish in our household and we have added “Moros y Cristianos” made with black beans. I still have to learn what all the big yam-like vegetables are and how to cook them.

But when it comes to ears, snouts and offal - I’ll stick with falafel!

--Bernice Paglia


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Budget Hearing Monday

The City Council will hold a special meeting Monday (Feb. 12, 2007) for a hearing on budget amendments and final passage of the FY 2007 budget.

Over the past several weeks, the council whittled down a proposed 8.2 percent tax increase for the fiscal year that began July 1 to 3.97 percent. Amendments were published in the Courier News Friday. The meeting will be 8 p.m. Monday in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Pending budget passage, the city has operated using one-twelfth of last year’s budget amount each month in emergency appropriations. Because the city is now eight months into the fiscal year, reductions will only affect remaining months until June 30, when the fiscal year ends.

Normally, the administration sends out blanket 75-day layoff notices in anticipation of having to cut some jobs. But at last Tuesday’s meeting with seniors, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said she did not want to send out the notices in October, when she said they should have gone out. They will now be issued, she said.

Officials have projected that savings will mainly be effected by not filling vacancies, but if anyone’s job is on the line, they most likely cannot be laid off until May due to the late notice.

Among the cuts: Salaries and wages, $30,000 from Engineering; Police, $125,000; Fire, $72,000; Inspections, $143,000. Expenses: Senior Center, $24,000; Inspections, $10,000.

The council cut $1,500 from “other expenses” for the mayor’s office but added $20,000 to its own “other expenses” line.

Maintenance of the Free Public Library was cut by $20,000.

The tax rate was increased July 1 to $3.19 for the last two quarters of 2006, so property owners have already been paying more toward the FY 2007 budget. The tax rate for bills due in February and May will be $3.24 per $100 of assessed valuation, or an increase of $56.50 on the average $113,000 home.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, February 09, 2007

Love in the Air

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs announced this week she will perform her first marriage ceremony on Valentine’s Day.

The mayor made the announcement during her monthly visit to the Senior Center.

“The floodgates have opened. A slew of people have come forward,” Robinson-Briggs said.

During her State of the City address last month, the mayor said she will perform civil union ceremonies for same-sex couples. Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation in December allowing civil unions. Mayors who perform marriage ceremonies must also agree to perform civil union ceremonies.

But same-sex couples will not be able to join in civil unions on Valentine’s Day – the earliest they can do so is Feb. 23. Here’s the official application.

Gay American and new Plainfielder James E. McGreevey has said he wants to have a civil union with partner Mark O’Donnell, but the former governor is still legally married to his wife, Dina Matos McGreevey. Until the pending divorce is final, he can’t enter into a civil union.

Meanwhile, expect to see some rice mixed with the ice melt pellets in front of City Hall on Wednesday.

--Bernice Paglia

Odds and Ends on Redevelopment, SID

A sliver of land just 10 feet wide is one of the more interesting parcels that Paramount Property Management acquired in its recent purchase of Pittis Estate properties in Plainfield.

The narrow band runs between two city-owned plots in Municipal Lot 6, behind Bill’s Luncheonette and other East Front Street businesses. The parking lot was under scrutiny for redevelopment in 2005 until Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson called a halt to all redevelopment until the new administration took over in 2006.

Now the parking lot and other parts of Block 316 have been declared “in need of redevelopment” as part of the proposed expansion of the North Avenue tract, along with the PNC Bank block to the west.

Besides being part of the study area, the unusual parcel is among 436 properties that were assessed a surtax to support activities in the Special Improvement District. Paramount will now be the biggest single contributor to the SID. In the assessment roll for 2004, the Pittis Estate chipped in a major portion of the SID tax, including $4.45 for the 10-foot-wide parcel.

The SID has been expanded and its budget for 2006-07 was approved late last year, but so far no new assessment roll has been published. Half the budget is supposed to come from the surtax and the other half is from Urban Enterprise Zone funds. Obviously, if the expanded SID tax is not assessed and collected, the budget on paper doesn’t mean very much.

Rambling back to the redevelopment issue, an expansion of the North Avenue redevelopment area will most likely impact talks that began in August with Landmark Development Corporation, which received a 90-day conditional designation and then a 60-day extension that runs out this month. The study that showed need for redevelopment of the PNC Bank block and the south portion of Block 316 will have to be followed up with a revised redevelopment plan before a contract can be finalized.

(Correction: the other one is AST for the Marino's tract.) The other developer whose extended conditional designation runs out this month is Capodagli Property Company, proposing 352 condos in five buildings at East Third and Richmond streets. Across the street from the site, the Richmond Beer Garden appears to have gone dark. All the signage is gone. No longer can one muse on the juxtaposition of a go-go bar with a fancy new condo project.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Fix PMUA Terms Now

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs offered a bunch of names this week for boards and commissions and all passed Wednesday, despite concerns that the information was not entirely accurate.

The appointees included Maria Pellum and Bill Michelson to the Historic Preservation Commission, myself and Bill Hetfield to the Shade Tree Commission, Gordon Fuller to the Planning Board and Nancy Piwowar, Francisco Ortiz and Mel Holston to the Cultural and Heritage Commission.

Blogger Dan Damon objected earlier to Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority nominations, saying one, not two, seats were vacant. The item was withdrawn Monday but passed Wednesday. Carol Ann Brokaw and Alex Toliver were approved as commissioners and Jo-Ann Sloane and Eugene Dudley were named alternates.

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the city’s special charter “trumped” state law that Damon had cited in disputing the nominations. The Authority reorganizes this month, so filling the vacancies was especially important.

Williamson also said the city must rely on records as kept by the city clerk. If the appointments later prove to be wrong, he said, they will be corrected.

Having followed Plainfield city government closely for more than 20 years, this writer knows how things are supposed to work. Except for new boards and commissions, which usually start off with staggered terms, each appointee succeeds somebody for a set term. In the case of the Cultural and Heritage Commission, each person was re-appointed to a three-year term, so that one was quite clear.

The PMUA has five commissioners, two alternates and a City Council representative. A document obtained by Plaintalker in August 2005 from the clerk’s office seems to uphold Damon’s view, because it states that the first five commissioners were to have staggered terms and subsequent appointments were to be for five-year terms. The alternates have two-year terms that expire on different years, according to the clerk’s document.

However, the same document indicates that the terms of Singleton and Brokaw expire this year, in contradiction of the summary at the top of the page. So the error happened some time after the Authority was established in 1997.

This may sound like nit-picking, but in the case of the PMUA, commissioners vote on sewer and solid waste rates that affect every property owner. They make decisions involving millions of dollars. And unlike most others who serve on boards and commissions, they are compensated with public funds.

Looking at the clerk’s list, it becomes obvious that either Singleton or Brokaw was holding a seat whose term should end in 2008, because the other terms end in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

There were other anomalies in the resolutions passed Wednesday, the PMUA resolution should be easy to research and fix.

The clerk’s office did fix the resolution that erroneously set forth five-year terms for Hetfield and myself, which shows that mistakes can happen and that they can be corrected.

All boards and commissions make important decisions, but the PMUA is exceptionally powerful. As redevelopment increases in Plainfield, so does the need for accountability by elected and appointed officials. Setting the record straight now is imperative.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Ooops! On The Job Before Contracts?

Monday’s (Feb. 5, 2007) agenda session brought forth two examples of work being done for the city before authorization was granted by the governing body.

It seems an “In need of redevelopment study” that was presented at a recent Planning Board meeting should have been authorized by the City Council before it was done. The study was for the expansion of the North Avenue Historic District to include the PNC bank block and the city parking lot behind Bill’s Luncheonette and other Front Street stores.

The second example was a contract for Information Technology work by a contractor named Drew R. Shearer for $17,000 starting Feb. 8 and ending June 30. However, as anybody who frequents City Hall may have noticed, the contractor has been on the job for a few weeks now.

“Is he here or will we get to meet him?” Councilwoman Linda Carter asked Monday.

New City Administrator Marc Dashield confirmed that Shearer was already on the job but had left for the day Monday.

Councilman Don Davis noted that a contract for an amount under $21,000 could be issued without bids.

Councilman Rashid Burney questioned how the contractor could be paid with funding from a capital bond for operations, but Dashield said it was acceptable because Shearer would be making a technology inventory.

Councilman Cory Storch said the city needs help but he hoped the city would not be using bonds for such purposes in the future.

Since the new administration came in Jan. 1, 2006, the city’s web site has been under construction. At present, it is not up-to-date.

Former city web site producer John DiPane sent an open letter to the City Council and Plainfield bloggers to say he created the city web site and would be glad to make it work again, but he has had no response from the new administration.

Due to the faulty web site, residents don’t know who is in charge of various departments and divisions in the city. Nor can they communicate with the city, DiPane notes.

The new administration hired several people last year to carry out public relations functions online, but reined some in when their efforts proved to be less than professional.

Citizens apparently still need a good online source to keep in touch with city government.

--Bernice Paglia

Senior Center: How Big?

Josiebelle Johnson was knitting a colorful afghan Tuesday (Feb. 6, 2007) at the Senior Center. Other seniors played cards or billiards. Some just chatted.

The question of when they will be doing these activities in a new center hinges on a raft of approvals that Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs explained at her monthly visit with the seniors. Although Dornoch Plainfield LLC has received final site plan approval from the city Planning Board to build a new center and 63 condos half a block away from the present center, not all permits and approvals from other governmental entities have been received. Construction is now slated for spring.

But another question is how big the center will be.

Early on, seniors were promised 17,000 square feet of space in the basement level of the former Tepper’s building, now called Horizons at Plainfield. Seniors rejected that offer.

In various presentations, Dornoch has mentioned square footage as low as 12,000 square feet for the new $15 million center/condo project. The center’s building committee intends to get to the bottom of the matter through its monthly Building Committee meetings with the developer and city officials.

--Bernice Paglia

Council's 2007 Calendar Unresolved

When to meet in 2007?

The City Council has yet to decide for sure.

So far, the council is sticking to a schedule that admittedly nobody likes. But what do they like? Nobody knows.

The choices are to meet on Mondays as the council has done for many decades, with regular meetings on first and third Mondays of each month and agenda sessions on preceding Mondays.

Or as the current schedule dictates, the council holds regular meetings on the Wednesday following the first and third Mondays of each month. Agenda sessions are on the preceding Mondays.

The third new radical option is to have a rolling schedule with regular meetings on Wednesdays and agenda sessions on preceding Mondays with a week off in between.. Now that many weeks have elapsed, the problem will be when to start the rolling schedule and how it will be described in the enacting ordinance, since there are no fixed dates.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf pointed out Monday (Feb. 5, 2007) that the present Monday-Wednesday schedule conflicts with Wednesday’s Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting. The board meets on the first Wednesday of each month and the council schedule will clash with the board’s again next month and three more times in 2007.

Gutenkauf and others usually attend zoning and planning board meetings in addition to council meetings to track land use decisions, including redevelopment approvals.

Several residents came out Monday despite bitter cold weather.

The council agreed to vote Wednesday on numerous appointments to boards and commissions, but Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson withdrew a resolution to name commissioners to the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority. Williamson did not state a reason, but blogger Dan Damon has raised questions about the validity of naming two new commissioners when it appears that only one term is up.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Stopped Clocks

The image of a stopped clock was a device often used in old films to signal the time of a dire event.

Plainfield has two stopped clocks downtown that mark not disasters but processes that seem to be stuck in time. One is the Park Jewelers street clock in the new plaza at Front Street and the other is nearby high up on the wall of PNC Bank.

The street clock was supposed to be refurbished and relocated as part of the Park-Madison office building project. A planning report notes this as one of more than two dozen incomplete items that the Union County Improvement Authority agreed to do at the time of approval for the project. See Plaintalker’s article here.

At PNC, formerly United National Bank, the handsome Roman-numeral wall clock has been stuck at two minutes to eight o’clock for several years now. Plainfield was stung by the relocation of United National Bank headquarters to Bridgewater several years ago. Since then, the bank still serves customers, but has a faded look.

The bank had been remodeled in 1926 in Classical Revival style, with red marble columns and bronze tellers’ cages, according to “Plainfield: 300 Years.” The interior is hopelessly out of date by modern banking standards, but its fate has not yet been declared. It is on a block that may become part of the expanded North Avenue redevelopment area.

Personally, while waiting in line at PNC, this writer likes to gaze at the cherubs and griffins on the ceiling and wonder how people dust the leafy capitals atop the two-story columns.

As for the street clock, I was a bit shocked last year to see the door to its innards hanging open and a smashed raw egg inside, along with other debris. Surely it can be secured while the powers that be work out its fate.

Another stock image from old movies is a calendar with its pages flying off to show the passage of time. A lot of time has passed since officials began mulling plans for the bank and for the street clock. Maybe 2007 will turn out to be the right time for positive change.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Planners Endorse Intersection Upgrade

A proposed makeover of a traffic island where three streets meet won Planning Board support Thursday (Feb. 1, 2007).

Residents near the intersection of East Ninth Street, Park Avenue and Prospect Avenue wanted the Union County redesign of a traffic island to include trees, grassy plots, floral plantings and benches along with pedestrian walkways. April Stefel of the city Planning Division and Union County engineer Paul Leso presented the plans and Crescent Area Historic District resident Maria Pellum explained how the concept was developed with the goal of adding green space to the neighborhood.

The intersection abuts both the Crescent district and the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District. It was up for a redesign to improve traffic flow and safety and residents asked to add the esthetic changes. The board’s decision on the capital project is advisory only, Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson said.

Leso said the project is part of a proposal to improve nine “signalized intersections” from South End Parkway up to Front Street. The county was approved for federal funding to pay part of the cost. The entire project is estimated to cost $2.7 million and the federal “earmark” of $1,255,206 would pay for the first phase, from South End Parkway to Ninth Street, Leso said..

The intersection now has only a concrete island, which would be replaced by a peninsula with the improvements sought by the community. Pellum said residents would take care of the plantings and would make sure proposed benches did not lead to loitering or illicit activity.

Pellum said she moved to the neighborhood about 20 months ago and has since organized a block association in the district. (Click here for map.) She said residents worked with Library Director Joe Da Rold and Police Chief Edward Santiago to rid Library Park of drug activity, with extra lighting being a key factor.

Stefel said the city could supply two benches left over from a downtown streetscape project. The peninsula would not be a park, she said but “a nice-looking pass-through.”
The county agreed to provide light poles in black to blend with those at Park and Seventh.

Leso said the county will use traffic control cameras to monitor traffic flow and will install LED lights that require less maintenance than other street lights. The traffic lights will have battery backup for emergencies. The county’s goal is “to get traffic to move more efficiently and increase the safety of the corridor,” he said.

In agreeing to the concept, the board asked for stamped concrete portions of the peninsula to be colored and textured to look like slate. Board member William Toth suggested finding a way to get a water spigot on the site for plant maintenance. Stefel requested conduits to be installed for such time as the city can purchase six decorative street lamps. Pellum said walkways should be wide enough to accommodate the many students who pass through the intersection. The county will provide enough Belgian block to edge the central landscaped spaces.

The board unanimously approved the stipulations. The improved intersection will become an “entrance to the district,” Stefel said.

--Bernice Paglia

A New Menu

People who see the bold black, yellow and green décor – the colors of the Jamaican flag – think Desmond Nembhard is offering only island fare in his new restaurant.

But a look at the menu reveals a wide choice of subs, salads, wraps and desserts as well as his fresh-baked Jamaican patties.

“It’s a combination of everything,” Nembhard explains.

He has named his restaurant “Juccie Subs – Tastie Salads.”

The restaurant and take-out place at 108 East Seventh Street opened in December after about six months of work to get the setting and equipment just right. Nembhard arrives an hour or more before opening to bake the patties, cookies and fresh bread for the subs. But he doesn’t have a long commute – he lives just blocks away in the Crescent Area Historic District.

Maria Pellum, who recently organized a block association in the district, is a supporter of the new venture and Nembhard says it is word of mouth that so far has been his best advertising.

“He lives and has his business in the neighborhood and he has made sure to have a neat, clean place for all, freshly baked bread included. I find that refreshing and good for our neighborhood and going hand in hand with what the neighborhood association is trying to do,” Pellum said.

For a limited time, he is offering free delivery locally and has built up a clientele among the hungry lunch crowd at City Hall, in Plainfield schools and among public safety workers.

Nembhard, 35, worked at a Blimpie’s when he first arrived from Jamaica 15 years ago, giving him an exposure to the ravenous demand here for take-out food. But he stresses his restaurant is not a franchise.

“I developed everything myself,” he says.

The result of his thinking and planning is “a sub shop with an island taste,” he says.

When the weather turns warm, he will be adding jerk chicken to the menu, cooking it outside in the traditional way.

His location near the city’s center at Park Avenue and Seventh Street places him in competition with a dozen or more take-out places of varying ethnicities, but Nembhard is confident he has something new. And novelty is what take-out success is all about.

--Bernice Paglia

OK, so the paper-whites don’t have anything to do with the topic of city government, but aren’t they a fine sight in mid-winter?

The lack of a permanent City Council calendar for 2007 and the frozen status of the city’s web site are causing Plaintalker to fret. How can residents take part in civic life when information is so hard to get?

The calendar issue may be resolved this month. The web site is another matter. It must be annoying for new City Administrator Marc Dashield to be without an up-to-date web site. His name isn’t even on it. And “Confidential Aide A. Jalloh,” who is listed, has relocated to the City Clerk’s office.

And even though Ray Daniels has been director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services, for weeks now, Carlton McGee is still listed as acting director.

It is not just residents who are inconvenienced by the faulty web site. A business owner or developer who might want to speak to the city administrator will find neither a name or phone number.

It is almost a reflex nowadays to look things up online as the first way to gather information. Though attractive, the web site is not useful as Plainfield’s “game face” to the world. Please, City Hall folks, make it a priority to fix it.

--Bernice Paglia