Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Proposed Outsourcing Questioned

A city budget meeting Tuesday revealed a rift between Planning Director Bill Nierstedt and his boss, Jennifer Wenson Maier, who is in charge of Public Works & Urban Development.

Nierstedt disputed Wenson Maier’s claim that the work of a principal planner in City Hall could be done at no extra cost by the planning and engineering firm of Remington & Vernick, which already has several city contracts. Nierstedt said the planner’s $30,000 salary represents an hourly rate of $35, while the outside firm charges $138 per hour. The Planning Division has been understaffed for years, he said, and layoff of the principal planner would only make it worse.

Nierstedt gave numerous examples of how the $30,000 cost could be made up, such as by increasing fees for in-house planning services. He began to question some of Wenson Maier’s stated facts, but City Administrator Marc Dashield stopped him.

Wenson Maier had given the City Council a long list of planning tasks that she said could easily be taken over by Remington & Vernick. She said hourly rates could range from up to $140 for a principal in the firm to $90 for a licensed person. Wenson Maier said she is a licensed architect and could even do certain things herself.

Councilman Cory Storch noted the city previously went from outsourcing to in-house staff and asked how efficient the proposed plan would be. Councilman Rashid Burney also asked how the firm could take on extra tasks on the same budget and said as a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, he is aware of the strain on the Planning Division.

The four-member staff serves the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Historic Preservation Commission. Nierstedt said he was also named zoning officer last year, a title formerly held by the late Jocelyn Pringley. The outsourcing proposal comes at a time when the city has almost 20 redevelopment projects in the works.

The other position targeted for layoff is that of Wenson Maier’s assistant director.

Last year, the administration hired Nagy Sileem of Hillside as assistant director at $82,000 when there was already an assistant director earning about $90,000. While employed in Plainfield, Sileem was also listed as the construction official for Irvington on the Department of Community Affairs’ official roster.

--Bernice Paglia

Day of the Dead

Maria Pellum has put together a display at the Plainfield Public Library to mark El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a special holiday to honor the deceased. Click here for lots of information on the holiday.
Sugar skulls are part of the tradition. Here is one in remembrance of someone named Ray.

This figure is well-known as a symbol of the holiday. Read more here.

The Virgen de Guadalupe is revered throughout the Americas. Plainfield is home to one of just three blessed images of the saint that were touched to the original tilma, or cape, of Juan Diego that was miraculously imprinted in 1531 (read more here). St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Plainfield received the image earlier this year. The others are in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Look closely at the display after reading about the holiday and you will see many more of its symbols, such as marigolds, candles, food offerings and special decorations.
--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Everything's Real

This T-shirt by Leonard Benjamin of Ghettofficial Designs declares, "Everything's Real in Da Field." You can get your own for $5 at Music N Motion on East Front Street. I was there to interview a city author who recently began selling urban fiction at the store. My feature story for the Courier News may appear soon.

The story is a sequel to one in the Courier last year about author J.M. Benjamin, a former drug dealer who began writing while incarcerated. I purchased his book, "My Manz and 'Em," a story of street betrayal set in Plainfield, and now I know what beef and broccoli Timberlands are, among other fascinating facts. For example, my ex-husband's jazz colleagues in the 1950s called a car a "short," but now the street term is a "whip."

Reading "My Manz and 'Em" and "On the Road: The Original Scroll" at the same time is very interesting for the similarities in male outlaw behavior and the influence of subcultures on mainstream America. Neither book is likely to be selected by my church book club, but I am intrigued by these glimpses into past and present male worlds.

--Bernice Paglia

Leadership Profile Revealed

Last night I covered the leadership profile meeting for the Courier News. It should be in the newspaper tomorrow. As you may recall, the Board of Education hired an Illinois search firm that specializes in finding school superintendents. On Oct. 11 and 12, Marvin Edwards of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates interviewed people from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Oct. 11 also conducted a public forum to learn what Plainfield wants in its next superintendent. Edwards gave his report Monday and now the recruiting will begin.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kids Enjoy Safe Halloween Event

What is this? An event where people volunteer to show up with car trunks stocked full of candy and children need only make the rounds without approaching strange households.

The event took place at the Salvation Army headquarters in Plainfield and featured free food, face painting and games in addition to the opportunity to fill bags with treats.
Pumpkins and cat whiskers were among the favorite face painting themes.

This little one cried at the face painting but later showed his pride.

The Scotch Plains-Fanwood DECA club helped out with activities such as a beanbag toss for prizes. See the red beanbag? That's a winner!
Some participants sported costumes as they welcomed children to choose treats from the trunks.

Salavtion Army Lieutenant Henry Thibault shakes hands with a green-masked donor whose trunk featured a fluttering ghost.

The Renegade Riders (Correction: Rugged Renegades motorcycle club) of Plainfield took part in the event aimed at giving children a safe and happy Halloween. Lt. Thibault estimated the crowd at 350 people, with 35 or more participants opening their trunks full of treats. Individual volunteers from across Union County and Central Jersey also welcomed the children.
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, October 27, 2007

About Plaintalker

I don't know how a simple entry on Plaintalker got blown up into a major brouhaha described as a "relentless stream of negativity by a handful of citizens" using "speculation" and "rumor" for "political reasons."

I do know that blogs in Plainfield tend to get lumped together, partly because one includes the content of others. For the record, Plaintalker mainly tries to present factual information on city issues, along with some gardening stuff and commentary. Keeping track of redevelopment, City Council doings and most recently the changes in the school district have been primary goals of this blog. I have been told that since it began in June 2005, Plaintalker has become a trusted news resource to many readers.

Click here to see how Plaintalker marked the PMUA's 10th anniversary.

As blogs go, Plaintalker falls into the "hyper-local" category, closely covering just one city. Some such blogs have come about as other media have turned away from consistent tracking and reporting of events and decisions that affect the lives of residents. The blog is an uncompensated effort to provide context on subjects such as what is happening downtown, the city's changing population, its celebrations and its concerns. Keeping the respect of my readers is very important to me. And that's all I have to say.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, October 26, 2007

Superintendent Search Profile to be Revealed

City residents will learn Monday what came out of two days of interviews on the qualities Plainfield wants in its next schools superintendent.

Marvin Edwards of the Illinois search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates conducted interviews in 18 one-hour sessions on Oct. 11 and 12. The district’s nine board members each got an hour and the balance was for groups including staff and community organizations. On Oct. 11, Edwards conducted a public forum open to anyone, attracting parents, community activists, clergy, retired teachers and former school board members.

Edwards also collected survey forms that contained 14 qualities for respondents to rank in order of importance.

The forms will be analyzed and Edwards said he would develop an executive summary from the interviews and forum, which he will present at 8 p.m. Monday (Oct. 29) in the Plainfield High School auditorium.

The profile of qualities will then be used to screen candidates in a process that the firm says is politics-proof. Candidates will be matched anonymously to the desired profile to come up with five finalists. After the New Year, the school board will interview the five finalists to select three, then one finalist.

The need for a new superintendent arose in June when former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard abruptly resigned and the board immediately accepted her resignation. At the time, the board was trying to fill the vacancy created when school board secretary/business administrator Victor Demming resigned as of June 1.

At an unusual Friday night emergency meeting June 8, the board hired Peter E. Carter as interim superintendent and then Carter recommended Michael Donow to replace Demming, which the board also accepted. Carter and Donow were on the job June 11, beginning what Carter likes to call the “post-6/11” chapter of the Plainfield district’s history.

The new superintendent may be approved as early as February and is expected to take over when Carter leaves at the end of the 2007-08 school year in June. As chief school administrator, that person will deal with issues including possible decreases in state Abbott funding, improvements needed to overcome faults found in state monitoring and replacement of numerous interim administrators.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 25, 2007

All the News That Fits, We Print...

Well! What should I see this morning under “Breaking News” online at but an article based on my tax lien story from yesterday!

Curious enough was the byline, “By the Star-Ledger” and more curious the link directly to yesterday’s Plaintalker article. It is curiouser still that the so-called newspaper of record for the state should give a back-handed compliment to Plaintalker by using it as a news source. But then again, newsgathering is getting curiouser and curiouser.

I have been known to grumble that folks who put together blogs based on the work of others are nothing more than content-stealers. I will not be so curmudgeonly here (at least not until I think about it for a while) but it was definitely a surprise.
In case you are wondering why George Bush is sharing a shelf with Tinky-Winky above the monitor, Bush is talking about "Strategery" and how "A dangerous plan is better than no plan."
Sounds like today's news biz to me.
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

November Tax Lien Sale Set

The city will hold a tax lien sale Nov. 28 in hopes of recouping $1.8 million in back taxes to boost revenues for the 2008 fiscal year that began July 1.

Mishaps in April delayed the traditional sale and caused the tax collection rate to drop from 95 percent to 93.5 percent, Tax Collector Maria Glavan told the City Council at Tuesday’s budget talks. At a tax lien sale, bidders buy the liens and pay the back taxes to the city. The property owner then owes the lien holder the debt, at interest as high as 18 percent, and can eventually face foreclosure if the debt is not paid.

Councilman Rashid Burney, who heads the council’s finance committee, urged Glavan to aim for an even higher collection rate.

“Ninety-five percent is very good, but how do you get to 97 percent? Can we ever get there?” he asked.

Glavan said “due diligence” on collection could raise the rate. For example, she said, some property owners declare bankruptcy when faced with paying back taxes. But they may fail to follow through on the bankruptcy procedures and a judge may dismiss the case. Glavan said as soon as she gets a dismissal, she tries to get the back taxes.

“You don’t want to keep anything on your books,” she said.

Municipalities must hold funds in reserve against the amount of back taxes owed, and having to set aside a large amount for FY 2008 is part of the reason for an anticipated 8 percent tax hike in the administration’s proposed budget. The council is holding budget deliberations to see where cuts can be made to get the increase down to no more than 4 percent.

Glavan said when she was the tax collector in Irvington, she was able to increase a collection rate “in the eighties” to rates over 90 percent.

“Keep everything up to date,” she said. “The problem is where you let things just sit.”

Glavan was hired earlier this year. The city had been operating with a tax collector who worked fulltime in another city and was only in Plainfield on Wednesdays.

Other divisions of the Administration & Finance Department studied Tuesday were Municipal Court, the Senior Center, Bilingual Day Care Center and Dudley House.

Revenues are declining in Municipal Court because crime is down, Chief Municipal Court Administrator Marylene Sheppard said. Five staff vacancies will not be filled unless the need increases. Work is being covered using flex-time and overtime. Two part-time workers do not incur benefits costs, she said. Another issue is that the court can’t use a program to automate parking tickets because the city has a parking bureau, not an autonomous parking authority, she said.

Senior Center Director Sharron Brown said work on a new center is going well. The center is being constructed at no cost to the city by developer Glen Fishman. It will occupy the ground floor of a new building at 400 East Front Street that will have 63 market-rate condos on three upper floors. A review of records reduced the number of members from 1,900 to 1,600, but new members are joining all the time, Brown said.

Bilingual Day Care Center Director Eva Rosas-Amirault said the program operates almost entirely with outside funding. City Administrator Marc Dashield said there has been a decrease, but the city is looking for other sources. The program has won 11 state and national awards and over 29 years has become a mainstay for working families, Rosas-Amirault said.

Dudley House Director Steve Holmes won praise from the council for the results of the substance abuse program, but its future is in doubt despite the good it does in turning lives around. Past and present clients have come out in force to recent council meetings to call for its continuance, but the facility needs to be made handicapped-accessible to meet new licensing rules. Without a license, Dudley House faces loss of public funding. The staff of five has received layoff notices while the city seeks a solution to the dilemma.

The next budget meeting is from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 30 in City Hall Library. Budget documents may be examined in the City Clerk’s office at City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Garbage Truck vs. Flowers

Apparently the driver of PMUA truck No. 218 needed more than a 19-foot-wide driveway to back up this morning, as these tire tracks over the Black-Eyed Susans attest. Oh well, the frost would have gotten them soon, anyway. Still trying to find out why PMUA trucks are coming every day down the driveway our six-family shares with the much larger apartment building next door.

Budget Session Tonight

Tonight the City Council will resume budget deliberations from 7 to 9 p.m. in the teachers’ cafeteria at Plainfield High School, 950 Park Ave.

At the last scheduled meeting on Oct. 9, only two of seven council members showed up. There was also a mix-up over public notices, resulting in the city paying $804 for two legal notices for a non-existent budget hearing. These incidents kind of watered down the fervor the council expressed earlier when faced with halving an 8 percent tax increase.

Realistically, the budget sessions will continue into November as the city awaits word on how much extraordinary aid the state will allocate to Plainfield. There should be enough time for the governing body to hear from all major departments and divisions in order to decide what can be cut. The council has already heard from Police and Fire divisions, which account for the largest expenditures. See Plaintalker’s report here.

At the other end of the spectrum, even small commissions are supposed to conform to the budget process as outlined in the Administrative Code. That means accounting for how they spend public money. More later on that topic.

The tax rate in the budget proposed by the administration is $3.48 per $100 of assessed valuation, or more if the state aid doesn’t come through. There will be an increase of $327 in taxes on the average home assessed at $113,000, unless the council can effect cuts.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 22, 2007

Step Up from Dollar Stores?

When I was downtown recently, a business owner pointed out two storefronts with big $5-and-up signs in the windows. By his estimation, the downtown is still depending on people with limited means to shop there. The styles still have an urban, youth-oriented flavor that sends some Plainfielders out of town to get more conservative outfits for office or professional wear.

The two stores, which appear to be under one ownership, replaced these separate businesses selling jewelry and linens. There are lots more changes coming downtown, as some longtime business are up for sale.

Meanwhile, the new downtown plaza at Park and Front has become overgrown with weeds that all but obscure the small shrubs.

Low-end goods and high weeds - not likely to please the coming transit village crowd. What can Plainfield do to make the downtown more inviting to a broad range of shoppers?
--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Saving Seeds

Fall is the time to save seeds for next year, if you are a thrifty gardener. Separating the seeds from the plants can be very time-consuming, but I find it rewarding. Here are the seeds of sweet alyssum, so small that one source online states it takes more than 1.1 million to make a pound. This batch is what remained from a dishpan full of clippings of the small white flowers, seen below on the right. The process (the way I do it) involves drying out the clippings, then using various-sized strainers to sort the seeds from stems and casings. When I get down to just the seeds, I pack them up in small envelopes.

Of course, the alternate way is just to toss the dried clippings where you want to sow the seeds. They will, over time, fall out of their papery capsules into the soil.

Every flower has a different way of protecting its seeds. These Black-eyed Susans make cone-shaped seed heads that can be clipped and put in brown paper lunch bags to dry. Eventually the purplish-black, rod-shaped seeds fall out. Or you can rub the seed heads to make the seeds come loose. Here again, the volume of raw material to seeds ready for packing is somewhat amazing. No less amazing is the fact that each seed, about 1/8-inch long, will produce a plant two feet high with large, showy flowers all summer.

Purple coneflowers (Echinacea) have even a more formidable barrier of sharp points around the seeds, which resemble small wooden pegs. Here again, the seed heads can be dried in bags and eventually the seeds will fall out. Gardeners in a hurry can cut the seed heads apart with pruning shears and pick out the seeds.
Not realizing late summer temperatures would linger so long, I took cuttings of the double pink impatiens weeks ago. They grew roots in moist vermiculite and are now all potted up for wintering-over indoors.
Having grown up in a city where my main nature study resource was a vacant lot overgrown with chicory and Queen Anne's Lace, I treasure the time I am able to spend in the garden. And no matter what else takes place, it is reassuring to know that I have my seeds stored up and ready to go when the wheel of the seasons rolls back to spring.
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, October 20, 2007

What Do Statistics Tell Us?

I was an impressionable teenager in 1954 when Darrell Huff’s book, “How to Lie with Statistics,” came out. Looking it up just now, I see that the cover image is one of a person sweeping things under a rug.

Huff’s point was that numbers can be arranged lots of ways, depending on the desired effect on the viewer. The lesson that raw numbers are sometimes little more than playthings has stayed with me.

Statistics can be used both for sins of commission and sins of omission. For example, if violence and vandalism go unreported in a particular school, it comes off as a haven of peace compared to the school where staff reports every thrown eraser and each scribble on a desk.

Without a lot more detail, it is hard to understand the statistics on incidents of violence and vandalism in Plainfield schools for 2006-07. Of 127 incidents of violence, Plainfield High School had 34. The next highest are 30 at Cedarbrook Elementary School and 25 at Hubbard Middle School. Cook Elementary School reported 22 incidents. The numbers drop off to six at Maxson Middle School, five at Evergreen Elementary School, two at evening high school and none at Stillman, Barlow, Emerson, Jefferson, Washington and Woodland elementary schools.

No vandalism was reported at Woodland, Jefferson, Evergreen, Emerson, Barlow or Stillman, with single instances at the evening high school, Cedarbrook, Cook, and Washington. Five incidents of vandalism at Maxson were topped by eight at Hubbard and 34 at the high school, totaling 52 in all.

Weapons were reported four times at the high school, three times at Maxson, twice at Hubbard and once at Cedarbrook, Emerson and Woodland, with none at the other schools. Substance abuse was reported twice at the high school and once at the evening high school and Cook.

For all these infractions, there were 196 short-term suspensions, but no expulsions or detentions. The high school had 62, Hubbard had 46, Cedarbrook had 42 and Cook, 23. There were seven at Evergreen, six at Maxson, five at the evening high school and four at Clinton.

Most of the incidents took place in the classroom (71 of 195), with 46 at other locations inside the school and 31 on school grounds.

Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter said “any human being,” not just students, could have been involved in the reported incidents. So we don’t know from the Department of Education report whether an incident of violence at the high school may have been outsiders having a fight on school grounds. From newspaper reports, we do know that a teacher was attacked and a vice principal was assaulted last year at the high school.

In the NJQSAC report, this startling number turned up:

“It should be noted that testimony at the district’s public forum indicated that last year there were over 500 calls to the local police department regarding student incidents at Plainfield High School. Many interviewees mentioned disruptive student behavior at this school …”

Notice that the report is quoting “testimony” from a member of the public. When Plaintalker asked Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig about the number, he said an individual had made an Open Public Records Act request for police logs on the high school. The total included everything from car crashes on the block to helicopter landings. Tripped alarms and other incidents requiring police response added to the total. Hellwig estimated the number of actual responses to student disruption at 20 to 30 for the year and the state report cited 34 reported incidents of violence last year.

When Carter gave his response to the NJQSAC report, he said he spends a lot of time in the schools. His way of taking the pulse of student behavior is based on what can be seen and heard, he said. He also believes in setting limits and enforcing the rules. Teachers are reporting a much calmer atmosphere at the high school and staff morale is improving.

Can these things be quantified in numbers? The state Department of Education will be back to assess the district in coming months and the tallies of reported incidents will be released again next year. Adequate Yearly Progress scores and many other statistics will be gathered and studied. The state has just declared Plainfield to be a “district in need of improvement” and numbers will be used to measure whether things get better or worse.

The real test of whether the schools are getting better will most likely be an amalgam of those numbers and what parents, students and staff are experiencing day-to-day in the schools. Statistics without context and interpretation can only tell part of the story.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Carter Cites District Improvements

What a state monitoring team found seven months ago and what exists now in the Plainfield schools are two entirely different things, Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter told about 50 people who came to hear his response to the team’s scathing report.

Hired in the wake of former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard’s abrupt resignation in June, Carter arrived just in time to hear that Plainfield had failed in four out of five categories of performance. Since then, Carter said he and the administrators he calls his “post-6/11 team” have made changes that he said have gone far to overturn scores of 61 percent for operations, 38 percent for personnel, 32 percent for fiscal management, 11 percent for governance and 8 percent for instruction and program.

Holding his thumb and index finger about a half-inch apart, Carter said, “The Trenton forces were about this close to running your school district.”

But since June 11, he said, dismissal of uncertified staff and proper placement of others in line with their certification, along with improved staff development, has put personnel more likely at the 95 percent mark.

On fiscal management, Carter said in the first five days his team was able to get more than $500,000 in federal funds for free and reduced lunches released to the district. With other efforts, he said, “We are easily at 75 percent at this point.”

Governance, or how the Board of Education functions, has improved and three of seven “no” responses are being re-examined by the state Department of Education as possibly mistaken.

On operations, which include student conduct, school safety and security, Carter said, “Plainfield does it,” but he said monitors may not have received correct answers to specific questions. For example, the code of student conduct is on the district web site, but apparently monitors were not made aware of it. Carter said staff will do a “thorough walk-through” of the state tally sheet on operations to verify conditions.

Carter called the 8 percent score for instruction and program “shameful” and said monitors found classrooms lacking in plainly displayed curriculum goals.

“Why was it eight? It’s so simple, it was embarrassing,” he said.

Over the summer, administrators toiled to produce the curriculum statements, but Carter said the effort was not final. In remarks before his response to the state report, Carter said the state could not figure out what the district was teaching. But he said the district will work on having not only a curriculum for all subjects, but also a “scope and sequence” so parents can see what their children are expected to be learning in all grades.

Carter concluded his response with an appeal for those in attendance to sign up to help with long-range planning or work on operations or instruction for the district.

Before giving his response to the state monitoring report, Carter spent about an hour regaling the audience with anecdotes from his decades of experience in education, family stories and his philosophy of education. Wearing a lapel microphone, he sat on a stool or paced around in the style of a performer, drawing laughter and applause. Carter said he retired at age 60 at his daughter’s request and only came out of retirement after receiving a call to serve the Plainfield district. He said he has not applied to be a candidate in the national search that is currently underway for a permanent superintendent.

Among his special concerns were the district’s middle schools. Hubbard has not met federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards for seven years, placing the school among only 38 out of more than 600 in the state in that category. Maxson has also failed to meet AYP standards. Carter said when top state DOE officials came to Plainfield, they spent an hour out of a 90-minute meeting talking about Hubbard Middle School.

In response to citizen comments on curriculum and instruction, Carter said he has 33 applications for the post of director of Curriculum and Instruction and he hopes to make a recommendation soon to the Board of Education.

Teacher morale has improved since June, Plainfield Education Association President Eric Jones said in response to resident Maria Pellum's concern that morale was declining.

At the end of the meeting, Carter thanked all for “fellowshipping” and said, “There is something churchly about what we’re doing. It’s about saving souls.”

Meeting quotes from Chief School Administrator Carter:

“What we do, what I do, is only about children.”

“I and my team do not do politics. I do children only. I am not that good with adults and really bad with politicians”

“Your children here in Plainfield are very good children.”

“We are letting children know we are not tolerating misbehavior.”

“I can’t live pre-6/11. I just refuse to.”

--Bernice Paglia

Citizens Voice Many Concerns

Residents jammed the City Council chambers Wednesday with a myriad of causes ranging from tax overpayments, the fate of Dudley House, redevelopment issues and citizen access to information.

On tax overpayments, residents protested the complicated process required to get refunds.
Former tax collector Constance Ludden had asked the council in 2006 to approve putting $809,984 in overpayments of taxes into surplus. But by March 2007, only $29,919 came back to those who overpaid, less than 4 percent of the total sought in February 2006.
According to Plaintalker archives, the overpayments date back to 1996 and range from $5.40 to $18,292. Owners of property in the 907 accounts can claim the money if they can prove the overpayments.

Resident Dana Jefferson said he got his money back, but he said even as a person in the mortgage industry, he had to work hard to document his claim.

Real estate broker John Campbell said Monday he is owed $8,000. Campbell said Wednesday his company had “taken the liberty” of sending out reminder letters to 800 people on the list. But he said he had met with City Administrator Marc Dashield and felt he would come up with help. Still, Campbell said, like a broken record he intended to repeat his concerns again and again until satisfied.

Wilma Campbell voiced another concern her husband raised Monday, about high fees involved in selling a house. She said the city increased fees a year ago when home sales were brisk, but she said, “The boom was last year. It’s over. The bubble has burst.”

She said the city’s “red tape” is killing sales. Several other real estate brokers were in the audience in support of the Campbells’ causes.

Resident Robert Darden held up a newspaper full of foreclosure notices and said he had a stack more at home.

“People in Plainfield are losing their homes because of taxes,” he said. “People are struggling to pay mortgages.”

Darden also warned against residential redevelopment proposals for condos costing $300,000 or more, saying the plans would run minorities out of town.

One client and one former client of Dudley House asked the city to keep the substance abuse treatment program open. A large group of supporters attended the meeting. The Putnam Avenue facility serves Union and Middlesex county residents, but can’t get a state-mandated license because it does not meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Lacking the license, it cannot receive governmental funding. Some funding was approved Wednesday and Dashield said he is working with officials to get money for the needed improvements as well as operational funding.

Resident Maria Pellum asked when she was going to get an answer to her Open Public Records Act request regarding what happened to period street lamps that were originally included in the design of a traffic peninsula at the border of the Crescent Avenue Historic District. Dashield said there has not yet been any decision on Community Development Block Grant funds for the project, but that he might know more next week.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf said she was shocked to hear that the OPRA request went unanswered since August 10 and cautioned that there have been court cases against municipalities that did not respond to OPRA requests in a timely way.

In other matters, Councilman Rashid Burney asked residents to look for information on Halloween plans in the city. Last year’s celebration was marred by incidents of violence and vandalism. Burney said there will be police patrols and any resident who has a problem should call police. There will be a voluntary 7:30 p.m. curfew, he said.

The council will not meet again until Nov. 19, due to a hiatus for the general election.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Firefighters Will Become First Responders

Six firefighters will begin two weeks of first aid training Oct. 22 to launch a plan to increase the number of “first responders” in the city.

Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig said those trained will in turn train fellow firefighters with the goal of having “nearly everyone” in the Fire Division able to stabilize victims until they can be transported to a medical facility. The Fire Division itself will not provide transportation, he said.

The American Red Cross will provide the training and the cost will be borne by the Fire Division. Firefighters will learn first aid techniques such as how to resuscitate people, aid those in shock and stop bleeding while waiting for an ambulance.

Hellwig said the city purchased defibrillators last year and the firefighters will train employees at City Hall, Police and Fire stations and Public Works buildings to use the defibrillators.

Having a new cadre of first responders will mean adjusting some emergency procedures, Hellwig said. Once the firefighters are trained, dispatchers will then be able to call on them if the Plainfield Rescue Squad or mutual aid is not available. Hellwig said he will be talking to the rescue squad, police and fire personnel to come up with a plan.

Residents Want Answers

Two residents delivered ultimatums Monday to be carried out at tonight’s City Council meeting if they are not satisfied.

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

Resident Maria Pellum, who has revitalized a neighborhood association in the Crescent Avenue Historic District, wants answers on the fate of historic street lights that were to be part of a new traffic peninsula. Pellum and others worked with city and county officials on the design of the new peninsula to make sure it will fit in with the historic district. It will replace the existing traffic island at the junction of Park Avenue, East Ninth Street and Prospect Avenue.

Pellum said she filed an Open Public Records Act request to get information, but has not received it. If her questions are not answered by today, she said, she will make a complaint to the Public Advocate.

OPRA requests are supposed to be answered within seven days. If that is not possible, a governmental agency must say how soon the request will be honored. Click here for more on OPRA.

Former Councilman John Campbell, who owns a real estate agency and is also a self-styled political “kingmaker,” found his influence lacking recently when he went to show a home and met a pit bull instead. Campbell made a point of telling how he called his attorney, who happens to be Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, as the pit bull had him backed up against the Watson Avenue house. Williamson advised him to call Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig, who sent police to his aid. Campbell said neighbors told him they had complained about problems on the block without any response from the city.

But Campbell’s main concern was with tax overpayments. Campbell said he is owed $8,000 and has tried for a year to get paid back.

“I can’t get a telephone call back from Administration and Finance,” he said.

He promised to bring members of the North Jersey branch of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers to tonight’s meeting to back him up.

“I am prepared to litigate this matter,” Campbell added.

Campbell also complained about the high cost of dealing with foreclosures, saying there were 32 foreclosures in the city and fees for a certificate of exemption as well as a certificate of occupancy were burdensome.

Pellum also said the historic district can’t get city help on dilapidated houses and dead trees that are marring the neighborhood. She questioned a series of tax liens imposed on owners for high grass and overgrown bushes, when the larger problems went unaddressed.

Resident Robert Wilson also questioned what the city was doing about a rundown house on Franklin Place, saying Faith, Bricks & Mortar would like to rehabilitate it. Wilson cited a former rooming house on East Seventh Street that the housing group had transformed into a duplex. But City Administrator Marc Dashield said the houses mentioned by Pellum and Wilson were privately owned and the owners had “strong property rights.”

Dashield said the city was upholding the property maintenance code.

“We’re on them all the time,” he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Hearing Tells Little

Tuesday’s public hearing on violence and vandalism proved to be more of a lesson in the vagaries of education reporting than an enlightening session.

The hearing was described vaguely on the district web site and I wasn't sure what it was all about. Not having followed Board of Education meetings closely since my retirement in August 2003, I thought I finally had the bottom line Tuesday morning when the agenda showed up online announcing a public hearing on the Annual Violence and Vandalism Report. I scoured the state Department of Education web site and located an August 29 release on what I thought was the relevant information. I then toiled over a chart making comparisons of the incidence of violence and vandalism as a percentage of enrollment.

Well, I should have gone outside and taken a walk on a very nice autumn day, because as we often found out in the newsroom, the state releases statistics two ways – an official report of past years’ data and an up-to-date communication with the district.

It turns out I was looking at 2005-06 official state data when what was passed out at the meeting at Hubbard Middle School was data from the 2006-07 school year. This syndrome was a chronic problem in the newsroom when reporting test scores, because the state would release old scores just as the district was receiving new (and possibly better) scores and everyone would be upset..

The good news here is the number of violence and vandalism incidents went down from 205 to 195.

The dubious news is that the raw data doesn’t mean much, no matter what year it is, but the school board is mandated to hold a public hearing.

Only two people commented at the public hearing (hint: both are bloggers) and Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter noted that the state gave no recommendations regarding the statistics.

In fairness, the full state report notes a number of resources to prevent or deal with violence and vandalism.

Board member Wilma Campbell asked whether the district did “threat assessment,” a term Carter said he didn’t understand until Campbell explained further. Carter then said over his 38 years of school administration, he called it “good intelligence” and keeping eyes and ears open for problems.

Carter said he recently spent time at Plainfield High School at dismissal time and noticed students “clustering.” He went over to one group assuming “they were clustering for something other than discussing the gross national product” and diffused a possible incident.

Carter said in his years as an administrator he could read a simple change in lunchroom habits as a portent of trouble. But in a response to Campbell, he said these “on the spot decisions” could not be quantified into a formal process to sense problems.

But when board member Vickey Sheppard asked whether the “see something, say something” policy was still in effect, Carter said, “Absolutely.”

The 2006-07 report passed out at the meeting showed 127 incidents of violence in 2006-07, 52 incidents of vandalism, 12 weapons incidents and four substance abuse incidents in the 10 elementary school, two middle schools, one high school and then-evening high school. But Carter pointed out that even adult transgressions, such as selling drugs on school grounds, would become part of the statistics.

My chart, showing that Plainfield’s ratio of incidents per enrollment was 2.87 percent, while the ratio for North Plainfield was 2.88 percent and for South Plainfield was 2.02 percent, brought a comment from Carter that he didn’t believe in such comparisons, but only in Plainfield against itself.

In a special moment Tuesday, the board and public applauded Maxson School Principal Christopher Lommerin and educator Liena Halkova of the Czech Republic for their roles in an exchange plan.

The pair is among only 20 administrators worldwide selected by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and the United States Department of State for the Fulbright Administrator Exchange Award. Halkova will observe Lommerin’s administration for six weeks beginning Nov. 1. Lommerin will do the same in the Czech Republic starting in February 2008.

Officials also reminded the public that Carter will lead a forum Thursday on the state monitoring report known as the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or NJQSAC. A monitoring team visited the district in late winter to examine five performance areas. Scores of 80 or higher are considered proof of high performance, while scores below 50 trigger state assistance to improve in the new monitoring system. Plainfield’s scores were 61 percent of the indicators for operations management, 38 percent for personnel, 8 percent for instruction and program, 11 percent for governance and 32 percent for fiscal management.

Carter described Thursday’s 90-minute session starting at 7 p.m. in the Emerson Swing School as a “chat” with the community at which the district may “sign many of you up” to be part of the effort to improve the schools. The Emerson Swing School is located in the former National Starch building at 1700 West Front Street.

Carter said district officials will meet Oct. 31 with members of the agency that replaced the Schools Construction Corp. to discuss a five-year plan for Plainfield schools. He said the two-hour meeting would be with “the folks with the money – or maybe not,” summing up the uncertainty of getting more construction done. When the SCC ran out of money, Plainfield was in the midst of plans for a new middle school in the West End, among other projects that fell through. Districts across the state will be vying for funding to get their stalled projects completed by the new agency.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Netherwood Redevelopment Study Reduced

A proposed “in need of redevelopment”study of more than 90 properties around Netherwood train station has now been reduced to just 16 parcels, including the city’s Public Works yard.

The new study proposal will be up for a vote at the City Council meeting 8 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 18) in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

When the scope of the Netherwood study became known in May, business owners voiced fears of displacement and job loss in the largely industrial section along the train tracks. The new study area spares many established businesses, but the steps from a study to a redevelopment plan for the 16 parcels may be expedited, officials said at Monday’s agenda session.

The city named the Union County Improvement Authority as its redevelopment entity in August 2006 and it is now shepherding numerous projects through the steps of “in need” studies, redevelopment plans, conditional naming of developers and formulation of redevelopment agreements. The steps depend on approvals back and forth between the Planning Board and City Council. Up until Monday (Oct. 15, 2007), no mention had been made of any shortcuts in the process.

After the meeting, Councilman Cory Storch, who is the council liaison to the Planning Board, said attorneys disagree on how strictly municipalities must adhere to the formal redevelopment process.

The 16 parcels include two off North Avenue between Berckman and Richmond streets, the city yard and and 10 properties on South Avenue between Berckman and the intersection of central Street and two large lots on South Avenue between Richmond and Berckman streets.

UCIA attorney Ed Boccher gave an update on redevelopment projects Monday, reminding the council that while the authority is the redevelopment entity, “We are your agent.” The council has received briefings in closed session and all redevelopment approvals have been made in open public meetings.

In commenting on the five-phase East Third/Richmond proposal, Boccher said the redeveloper has been in close communication with property owners in one phase. He said he expects to have a draft redeveloper’s agreement for action by the November council meeting.

Capodagli Property Company proposes 352 residential units in five buildings at East Third and Richmond streets, with 700 parking spaces at ground level. The Pompton Plains company plans to phase in development, starting with the former Cozzoli Machinery site.

Boccher also said he expects to have a redeveloper’s agreement for the Teppers II site on West Front Street next month, in addition to the Marino’s site on West Front Street. The Marino’s developer, AST Development of Lavallette, needs more financing, he said.

The report Monday put a positive light on what seemed last month to be a stalled situation with Marino’s and the East Third/Richmond tracts. Conditional designation, first for 90 days and then for two 60-day extensions, had expired for both AST and Capodagli.

Among projects in Plainfield, the privately-funded Dornoch proposal for 63 condos above a senior center at 400 East Front Street is the only one to move to the construction phase. Others are still in the study or planning stage.

After Wednesday’s regular meeting, the City Council will go on hiatus until after the Nov. 6 general election. The schedule will resume with an agenda session Nov. 19 and a regular meeting Nov. 21.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hearing Tuesday on School Violence

Tuesday’s school board meeting has two aspects.

On the district’s web site, it is billed as a business meeting at 7 p.m. (Oct. 16) in Hubbard School. But scrolling down to the bottom of the home page reveals it is also the time of a public hearing on violence and vandalism in the schools.

School Board President Patricia Barksdale confirmed that a public hearing will take place.

Considering that a teacher was attacked in his classroom and a vice principal was assaulted last year, one would think that the topic would have been given more prominence.

Most recently, Plaintalker has been told there were assaults on security officers in connection with picking up truants.

But the NJQSAC report citing 500 police calls to Plainfield High School was erroneous, according to Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig, who said the list was raw data on responses to everything from medical helicopter landings to car crashes on the block. Hellwig said there were maybe 20 to 30 actual police calls for disturbances at the high school.

Still, violence in the schools is a major issue and anecdotally has been a prime reason why parents tend to pull their children out of the public schools before sending them to middle school. The emergence of gangs in recent years has only added to the fear of violence.

No agenda was online at the district web site nor was one available at the public library Saturday. The public hearing was listed under “District Events” at the bottom of the home page.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, October 14, 2007


I put up an image of an autumn scene as my desktop background a couple of weeks ago, but then I didn't like it. Maybe it was all those fallen leaves and the work associated with them! I swapped it for the image above, spring ephemerals including forget-me-nots, small red columbines on the left, dancing pink-and-yellow ones on the left and a spray of yellow buds with one blossom in the center. I try to enjoy the seasons as they come around, but late fall and winter are too dark and cold for me. If you want the image above as a background, just right-click on it and set it as your desktop.
My neighbor and I got a lot of enjoyment out of watching these large columbines develop and unfurl. It was the first time we had them in the garden.

A former neighbor planted these white columbines and we always think of Edna when they bloom. Their form, which resembles a group of white doves, gives the flowers their name.

Ephemeral they may be, but their fleeting beauty is worth taking time to appreciate. After I cleared away the fleshy volunteer sunflowers and black-eyed susans from this part of the garden, there were the delicate leaves and roots of this perennial, waiting for spring to dazzle us once more.
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mary Vic

A week ago Thursday, I spent eight hours in the Emergency Room with excruciating pain around my middle. While I awaited an answer on what might be the cause, I glanced out and saw a plaque stating that a nearby room had been built with a donation from Dr. Merton Griswold and Mary V. Griswold. Just the sight of those names made me feel better as I thought of that good-hearted pair.

Dr. Griswold, who could have driven a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, chose a green Checker cab as his signature vehicle. It brought a smile to the faces of many to see that jaunty cab on the streets of Plainfield and to me it represented a bit of whimsy that set off the Griswolds' mostly sensible outlook on life. Clues to their good deeds are all over Plainfield, but they were not dour do-gooders. Mary Vic could laugh with delight over discoveries in the garden or tales of a yellow-crowned night heron sighted in the pond at Cedar Brook Park. She enjoyed conversation and sharing opinions, even at an age when others might prefer to be silent sages. Life always seemed new to Mary Vic, with more to know and and enjoy.

Dr. Griswold left us some time ago, and now so has Mary Vic. I for one will miss her uncomplicated personality, her simplicity, her goodness. The Audubon Society has something called the Rare Bird Alert that brings droves to marvel at a unique winged creature. In Plainfield there are hundreds of people who knew Mary Vic as a rara avis in their midst - one of a kind, a treasured human being, never to be forgotten.

A memorial service will be held for Mary Vic at noon today in the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, 724 Park Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, October 12, 2007

Turn in Surveys!

Today is the last day to return surveys on what you want in a new schools superintendent!
Forms are available in English and Spanish at the Plainfield Public Library. Follow the directions in ranking the 14 traits on the second page (do not repeat numbers).
Turn in completed forms at the Board of Education, 504 Madison Ave.

Superintendent Search Forum Brings Views

Barely a dozen people were on hand Thursday at the start of a community forum on what Plainfield wants in its next schools superintendent.

The number swelled to about 40 an hour into the session, but several residents deplored the poor turnout, citing a lack of notice and a conflict with a special school board meeting across town at Clinton School. That meeting was mandated by state Department of Education officials to discuss the board’s rating of 11 percent for governance in state monitoring that took place earlier in the year.

Officials said there had been adequate notice of the forum in newspapers, online and by fliers sent home with children. Bob Burkhardt, who was introduced as interim supervisor of special programs, said the other meeting at Clinton School was not open to the public, something that was not indicated on the district web site’s list of meetings.

Forum attendees included parents, community members, former school board members, retired teachers and a couple of bloggers.

Marvin Edwards of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates collected survey forms that will be used to develop a leadership profile for the next superintendent and also took notes on comments from the forum attendees. Edwards said the forms will be used as an instrument in the search, but comments from the forum and two days of interviews with individual board members and constituent groups will be the basis of an executive summary that he will deliver at a meeting on Oct. 29.

Edwards said his firm believes in “front-loading” information for the search and does not work for people looking for jobs, but for boards seeking people for top posts.

“I’m going to listen to you,” he said, and he got an earful.

Speakers warned of political pitfalls and of hiring untried superintendents. They cautioned against candidates who don’t understand the role and those who fail to connect with the community. Some alluded to cronyism.

”What happens when the superintendent starts hiring incompetent administrators and uncertified administrators?” one speaker said. “What is the responsibility of the board?”

Edwards said the board can’t take on an administrative role and must rely on administrative review of credentials.

Recently, the district has had to remove a number of unqualified administrators under the direction of Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter, who was hired in June after former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard resigned.

Resident Maria Pellum raised a basic question about the form, saying the title of “superintendente” to some Spanish-speaking residents meant a custodian, not the chief school administrator. Others disputed her claim, saying it was generally understood that “superintendent” meant the person in charge of schools.

Among other issues raised:

--A retired teacher said he served under 18 different principals and 14 different superintendents during his tenure.

“One main thing was community input and we’re still where we were 40 years ago,” he said.

--The Rev. Gerald Lamont Thomas of Shiloh Baptist Church said candidates need to know “this is a tough nut to crack,” with many issues, “cultural, political and spiritual, as well as educational.” The new superintendent must have a “proven track record,” he said. Thomas also cited politicization of the school board, the possibility of state takeover and Plainfield’s isolation from its more suburban neighbors as problems.

Thomas said as part of a group called Leadership New Jersey, he learned that 60 percent of African-American males who enter 9th grade do not graduate. He said Plainfield High School went from being the number one high school to now standing .02 percent from being “the worst in New Jersey.” Thomas said he shared the report with former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard “and five days later, she resigned.”

Edwards said one of the first questions he hears from candidates is why the last superintendent left.

Howard had presented a replacement to the school board for former business administrator/board secretary Victor Demming at a June 5 meeting. But after a closed session, the board emerged without Howard to say there would be no vote. Board members later said Howard gave her verbal resignation that night, which she followed with a letter of resignation as of June 6.

In an emergency meeting on Friday, June 8, the board accepted Howard’s resignation, voted to hire Carter as interim superintendent and approved his recommendation to hire Michael Donow as interim business administrator/board secretary. Carter and Donow were on the job Monday, June 11.

Howard’s letter stated no reason for her resignation.

A state monitoring team that visited the district in early 2007 informed Carter that Plainfield was deficient in four of five performance areas. Carter has since had the task of making staff changes and other moves, with board approval, to address the findings. Carter will give his formal response to the state report at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Emerson Swing School, Rock Avenue and West Front Street.

After Edwards gives his executive summary of the leadership profile on Oct. 29, the Illinois search firm will launch a national search over six to eight weeks. Five finalists will be presented to the school board for narrowing to three, then one.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Two Meetings Tonight

If you had to pick between a forum on what Plainfield wants in its next schools superintendent and a Board of Education meeting with state representatives to probe why Plainfield got only 11 percent for governance in a state review, which would you pick?

Some question.

Tonight a representative of the superintendent search firm will meet with community members and staff to collect information on what Plainfield wants in a new superintendent. That meeting is 7 p.m. in the Plainfield High School auditorium, 950 Park Ave.

The other meeting is billed on the district’s web site as starting at 6:30 p.m. at Clinton Elementary School.
The stated purpose is “TO ESTABLISH BOARD GOALS FOR 2007-2008.”

Good luck to the few who try to track these developments for the rest of us.

Those going to the superintendent search forum should bring their filled-out surveys on qualities they wish to see in the next superintendent. These forms can be downloaded from the district web site or picked up either in English or Spanish, at the Plainfield Public Library.

Some residents received first-class letters inviting them to fill out the form. But even though the letter said the form was enclosed, it was not. So another round of first-class letters went out, with the forms this time. This little episode raises questions not only about why the effort was faulty and wasteful, but why a selected group received a special invitation. Are these the movers and shakers of Plainfield? Who compiled the list? Why wasn’t I on it?? (Just a joke, folks.)

The importance of the forms is that the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, will rely on them to come up with a profile of the type of chief school administrator the community wants. Those who apply to be superintendent will then be compared to the leadership profile to pick the five top candidates. That group will be presented to the Plainfield Board of Education for refinement to three, and then a single finalist for board approval in February.

The process is supposed to eliminate politics from the equation.

As for the governance issue, Plaintalker previously reported some of the findings. In contrast to the chief school administrator, the nine-member board can undergo shifts every April, when three seats are up for election. Any political leader with five supporters on the board can then influence actions taken and the future of the district. The board is supposed to be non-political, but an astute observer can detect leanings, if not outright allegiances, among the members and candidates.

Plainfield is among the 30 or so most needy districts in the state, the Abbott districts that receive copious amounts of state aid. Local school taxes here account for only $17 million of the budget. By contrast, Plainfield’s state aid for 2006-07 was $99,967,767. This formula is under attack by suburban districts where the proportions are reversed. In general, non-Abbott districts don’t see much bang for the buck in terms of student performance in the Abbott districts.

As Assemblyman Jerry Green has often warned, the state aid formula could change, demanding more from local taxpayers for school costs. Board members must become better stewards of public funding. That’s one reason why tonight’s session on governance is as important as the search for a new superintendent.

There may be some shamans and swamis that can be in two places at once, but I don’t have those skills. I am picking the meeting within walking distance of my home and I am hoping someone will go to Clinton School and report on that meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Book Event

The Dean of Trinity Episcopal Church, Newark, will be in Plainfield for a reading and book signing at 7:30 p.m. tonight. The Very Rev. Dr. C. David Williams wrote the book under the pseudonym “C. David Priest.” It is called “The Adversary” and is an Afro-centric novel about supernatural forces of good and evil. He will give a reading.
The event will take place at Grace Episcopal Church, 600 Cleveland Avenue Refreshments will be provided
Call 908-756-1520 or see for more information.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Budget Session Fails

Tuesday’s City Council budget meeting to cover Public Works & Urban Development as well as Economic Development fell through when only two of seven council members showed up.

After 15 minutes from the scheduled time, the meeting was considered failed for lack of a quorum. But in an informal session, council members Cory Storch and Linda Carter, administrators and members of the public heard from Public Works Superintendent John Louise and acting Inspections Division Director Oscar Turk on their respective budget requests.

Louise had few quibbles with the budget allocations, though he noted his division is “weather-driven” and thus subject to unexpected budget demands.

Turk voiced more concerns, ranging from dwindling staff to lack of software to modernize the division’s work.

“It is as if we are still in the stone age,” Turk said in requesting a software upgrade.

Turk also called for more manpower to carry out the division’s charge of maintaining upkeep of the city’s housing stock and educating property owners in the city, including those in its nine historic districts.

Because the meeting failed and the discussion was only informal, the budget talks on the Department of Public Works & Urban Development will be continued at 7 p.m. Oct. 30 in City Hall Library.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Small Miracles

For many months, I and others had asked to have the trucks, disabled car and pizza oven removed from this lot on Park Avenue. The truck in the foreground has Hillsborough identification on it. The car had two flat tires and an expired inspection sticker. The inexplicable pizza oven can be seen against the wall in front of the truck in the foreground.

The church in the background is trying to attract new members but has had an uphill fight with various quality of life issues that make people fearful or dubious of the surroundings.

Imagine my surprise to see first the trucks and car gone and then the whole lot cleared recently!

In March, I reported for the Courier News on a roof collapse in the 100 block of West Sixth Street. The city's construction official ordered the building to be demolished, but nothing happened.

Lo and behold! This week I saw heavy equipment on the block and the building was demolished! Better late than never.
I don't know what precipitated the sudden push for compliance with city rules, but I do appreciate it.

Now if only the city can get that Somerville company to trim the bushes at the Twin City plaza ...

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 08, 2007

Mentor Jerry Green

As the debate on dual office-holding rages statewide, we here in Plainfield know well that our special charter forbids such a practice. Therefore, for example, Assemblyman Jerry Green could not also be mayor of the Queen City.

But as we also know well, Green has created a unique role for himself in Plainfield. He is the mentor of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

Mentor Jerry Green has a say on lots of decisions, large and small, that are made in City Hall. Many of the staff members that came on in January 2006 had formerly served up the street on Watchung Avenue as legislative aides to Assemblyman Green and now presumably serve Mentor Jerry Green.

Mentor Jerry Green was at the side of Mayor Robinson-Briggs almost every time she visited the Senior Center in 2006 and took his own turn at the microphone to speak on city affairs. Mentor Jerry Green, we hear, sits in on many City Hall meetings on redevelopment and other topics. Newspaper reporters were much more likely to quote Mentor Jerry Green than Mayor Robinson-Briggs in the first year of her administration.

Part of Mentor Jerry Green’s prominence has come about by the mayor’s reluctance to return phone calls for official comment. By default, Mentor Jerry Green ends up speaking for the city.

According to the state web site, District 22 includes the following municipalities: Clark Township, Dunellen Borough, Fanwood Borough, Green Brook Township, Linden City, Middlesex Borough, North Plainfield Borough, Plainfield City, Rahway City, Scotch Plains Township, Winfield Township. Maybe it is a compliment that Mentor Jerry Green has chosen to apply his knowledge and expertise on municipal government to such a degree here in Plainfield. Or maybe it is a way to get around that pesky charter.

Assemblyman Jerry Green has gone to great lengths recently to assert he has no conflicts of interest and has been quoted on his wish to “eliminate any gray areas.” Mentor Jerry Green may want to make sure his unique role does not fall into that category.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Burney's Blog on Redevelopment

Councilman Rashid Burney has begun a very informative and useful blog called “As I See It.”

I just checked it and as I wished on my blog post for Sept. 25, he has provided a graphic depiction of where redevelopment projects currently stand. I missed the Planning Board meeting Thursday due to an emergency situation, but I have heard a summary was given out there.

Even though tracking redevelopment was one reason for starting Plaintalker, I had lost track this summer. Councilman Burney, who is even closer to the action, said he had also lost track and had a concern about how citizens can keep abreast of the various plans. His very elegant solution is a color-coded chart.

Thanks to Councilman Burney for thinking of the constituents who have a big stake in a positive outcome of these major plans.

It’s good to see there are now so many bloggers out there covering different aspects of city life. Maybe I can retire soon!

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, October 05, 2007

Operation Ceasefire, Tepper's Updates

In remarks during her monthly visit to the Senior Center Tuesday, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs gave an update on Operation Ceasefire.

Click here to get previous Plaintalker posts on Operation Ceasefire.

The mayor said the city is at the point of recruiting outreach workers to help the effort by canvassing the community to pass out fliers. The job will pay up to $12 an hour, she said.

Presentations on the program have been made at block associations, NAACP and Elks meetings and at churches, she said.

The target date for the program to launch was mid-2007, with the goal of reducing gun violence.

Among other topics, the mayor said she toured the recently finished Tepper’s basement space that the city owns.

“It looks very good,” she said. “It’s a very, very large space.”

The city awarded nearly half a million dollars to George Lattimore’s firm, Solid Rock Construction, to fix up the 17,000-square-foot space, which still has no identified use.

Robinson-Briggs said she is meeting with the City Council and the community to get ideas.

The federal grant money used to finish the space was about to run out in July. It was supposed to be used to put a senior center in the Tepper’s basement, but seniors rejected the plan several years ago. The former Tepper’s department store at Somerset and West Front streets was renovated with 75 apartments on its upper floors, commercial and retail uses at ground level and the city space in the basement. Each component is part of the building’s condo association.

Robinson-Briggs said possible uses for the city portion includes council meeting and office rooms, a community conference room or a main home for city block associations. She said there will be a grand openings “as soon as we do a few other things.”

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Public Safety Budget Notes

After another look at my 17 pages of budget notes, let me assure you the council was nothing if not thorough in questioning police and fire representatives Tuesday.

I will not attempt to report everything (that would be a transcript), but will give some highlights.

General issues included staffing, workman’s compensation, phone systems, quality of life issues and equipment needs. The council will hear from each of the city’s three departments and then amend the budget as necessary.

Each council member received a large budget binder earlier, but since then five positions have been eliminated in the Fire Division, Administration & Finance Director Ray Daniels said. They include one deputy chief, one battalion chief, one lieutenant and two new firefighters. In all, there are 79 firefighters. The Fire Division proposed budget is $8,801,743, up $486,576 from last year.

Police officers have been reduced from 115 to 112 and one civilian post has been eliminated. The Police Division’s proposed budget is $12,856,778, down $856,729 from last year.


In the Police Division, Chief Edward Santiago said detectives are having to type up reports for lack of sufficient clerical help.

“We’re hurting for employees,” he said.

Captain Siddeeq El-Amin said dispatchers are also needed to answer 911 calls around the clock. Captain Steve Soltys said a minimum of nine are needed. Councilwoman Linda Carter’s suggestion to use interns would not work, officials said, because 911 dispatchers have to take two weeks’ training and then must be supervised for three months before working on their own.

City Administrator Marc Dashield said the proposed budget includes 10 fulltime and two part-time dispatchers.

In the Fire Division, Councilman Cory Storch noted there are 31 management positions and 81 non-management positions. Three management positions are being eliminated, but Storch asked if more reductions could be made. But Allen said, “We are at the lowest level we can get.”

The city’s emergency management coordinator will be moved back into firehouse duty part of the week as a fire inspector.

Due to staffing issues, the Police Division projects $51,000 for overtime and the Fire Division anticipates $46,000, which may be reduced once promotions are made.

Storch questioned the need for two fulltime police officers to be assigned as bodyguards for the mayor, saying he was asking “in the spirit of getting every possible officer on the street.”

Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig said one of the officers is a sergeant and in a proposed reorganization will have some supervisory responsibilities, so the mayor’s security detail will be less than two fulltime officers.

“Have you done it yet?” Storch asked.

Hellwig said he had not. But then Councilman Harold Gibson questioned why Storch was making the inquiry, saying security should not be discussed in open session.

“If the administration feels it’s an executive session item, let’s put it on,” Storch said.

Workman’s Compensation

Councilman Don Davis asked both Fire Chief Cecil Allen and Santiago about workman’s comp expenses. Davis said he could understand cases where people suffered injuries, but disputed recent claims which he said were based on dropping a pen, closing a door or walking down stairs. Davis also objected to cases where a person collects benefits and then sues the city as well.

“I believe some are fraudulent,” he said. “Our insurance premiums are really going through the roof.”

Hellwig said the administration is looking at stretching exercises to prevent lower back injuries.

Phone Systems

Davis asked both Police and Fire divisions about their phone service providers and wanted to know whether the whole city should have the same system.

But the two public safety divisions have special plans that allow for speedy connections with multiple users, something other city divisions do not need. Soltys said the Police Division provider also crosses “multiple platforms,” meaning the division can connect with various law enforcement jurisdictions without a problem.

Quality of Life

Storch said he wants to see “measurable objectives” to combat speeding, but officials cautioned against goals that could be taken for speeding ticket quotas. But Storch said every year the council talks about measurable objectives.

“I would like to nail it down,” he said, asking for a quarterly report.

Dashield said the city would have to build a baseline of statistics first. Storch said he wanted court data taken into account.

Council members also talked about the use of radar guns and cameras to track infractions.


The Fire Division needs to have two engines and one heavy duty rescue truck replaced. In addition, the self-contained breathing apparatus devices need to be replaced at some point and the division needs more thermal imaging cameras.
The SCBA replacement will cost about $100,000 (not in the current budget).
The Police Division is working with the Fire Division on development of a global command center and the type of equipment needed to respond to major events is still being formulated.

Other news flashes Tuesday included word that the auxiliary police are nearly defunct. These are trained, unpaid officers who do not carry weapons and mainly help out with traffic at big events or in case of emergencies such as hurricanes. Santiago spoke in favor of their usefulness, but Dashield called the program “dysfunctional.”

The City Council will hold its next budget session from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 9 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The Department of Public Works & Urban Development, which also includes economic development, is up next. As you can see, these sessions are interesting for what comes out in the discussions.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Budget Talks Start

The City Council began deliberations on the FY 2008 budget Tuesday, hearing from Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig, Fire Chief Cecil Allen and Police Chief Edward Santiago.

Salaries and wages for the two public safety divisions are the city's largest costs. The Police Division budget for FY 2007 was $13,713,507. The budget request is for $12,856,778, a decrease of $856,729. The Fire Division's adopted budget last year was $8,315,167 and the request for this year is $8,801,743, for an increase of $486,576.

The meeting started with a discussion of the schedule for subsequent meetings. A legal notice in the Courier News and Star-Ledger was erroneous, as was a large notice about a budget hearing. There will be no meeting Thursday as listed in the ad. The next meeting will be Oct. 9 in City Hall Library, then Oct. 23 in the teachers' cafeteria at Plainfield High School and the last one Oct. 30 in City Hall Library. All are from 7 to 9 p.m.

The budget hearing will not be Oct. 17, as noted in the other ad, but will most likely be in November, after the city finds out how much extraordinary state aid is allotted.

I will have to do a follow-up story on highlights of the budget discussion a little later, when I have time to go over my notes. Please check back later.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Senior Center Progress

Concrete is being poured for the foundation of the new senior center and condo complex.

The building will have a new senior center on the ground floor and condos on three upper floors.

At her monthly meeting Tuesday with seniors, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said the Senior Center building committee has asked for modifications in the plans, such as an extra bathroom stall and sink, which the developer has agreed to provide.

The current Senior Center is in leased space at 305 East Front Street and the new building will be erected at 400 East Front Street.

Meanwhile, the old center building, which spans a city block and also includes a police mini-station and governmental offices, has had a face-lift.

A new tenant is a spiritual center that promises relief from all sorts of ailments.

The downtown is constantly changing. Take a walk and see what you think.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, October 01, 2007

Dudley House in Peril

On the eve of budget talks aimed at whittling down an $8 million shortfall, more than 40 people crammed City Hall Library to plead for funding to keep a 33-year-old city halfway house open.

Dudley House, a 15-bed facility on Putnam Avenue, serves men from Union and Middlesex counties who suffer drug or alcohol dependence. But financial constraints and licensure issues could shut it down. City Administrator Marc Dashield said Monday the city is submitting a layoff plan to the state that includes all five employees of the program. Meanwhile, the city will seek funding to keep the program alive, he said, but must initiate the 120-day notice "to be prudent."

The program has operated without a license for many years, but new regulations call for the building to be handicapped accessible under terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other provisions. Dashield said the modifications could cost $250,000.

In moving testimony, more than a dozen people spoke about how the program had transformed their lives.

"Look around you - you're looking at miracles," one Dudley House resident told the council.

"My life is completely changed now," another person said.

Speakers told of their struggles with addiction and how they came to be responsible parents and productive members of society through Dudley House.

One past member who now lives nearby and is in training to become a substance abuse counselor said, "I feel safer knowing that it's there. It's given me some solace."

Others spoke of the difference Dudley House made between choosing crime to support their habits and gaining a larger world view.

"It's something great. It changed my life around," one man said.

Having been caught up in drugs and alcohol abuse and now knowing the difference, speakers expressed concern for young people now at risk.

Resident Robert Wilson agreed, saying "it's cheaper to educate than to jail" youth in the city.

Although fiscal problems are great for the current budget year, resident Dottie Gutenkauf said, "There are some things that are so very much worth saving that if you have to scrimp on something else, it's worth it."

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said that after the city found funding was coming to an end, "We became extremely proactive."
City officials have since met with the program's director and Union County officials, she said, to examine the problems.
At the end of the meeting, Assemblyman Jerry Green took another tack, saying he met with state Attorney General Anne Milgram to see what the state could come up with to help the program. Even though it is currently under Addiction Services in the state Department of Human Services, Green said that might change. He also said he is calling for persons with police records to have them expunged so ex-convicts can get jobs.

"If you paid your debt, I want you to have a clean record," Green said.

Green said he first approached Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center about helping out, but he said hospitals are facing their own problems.

"This issue is bigger than just Dudley House," he said.

Meanwhile, people with carpentry skills who benefited from Dudley House may try to build the ADA ramps, speakers said.

Earlier Monday, Plaintalker spoke with a Middlesex County official in addiction services who said relocating men in treatment would not be easy, if it came to that. The process would require putting out a bid to other facilities and then sending people to the successful bidding agency.

Meanwhile, clients could lose in their battles to keep addiction at bay. Speakers talked of battling daily for up to 30 years to keep on the straight and narrow. Even more telling, many said virtually every family has some members who are alcoholics or drug abusers.
Plaintalker will follow this story as it continues.
P.S. The images are from T-shirts worn at the meeting.
--Bernice Paglia