Thursday, May 31, 2007

Candidates Have Their Say

Two Democratic primary contenders and a Republican who will be on the November ballot shared their views with about 50 people Wednesday at a forum sponsored by a Second Ward neighborhood group.

Participants were James “Tony” Rucker and incumbent Councilman Cory Storch, vying for the Second Ward Democratic line, and GOP choice Deborah Dowe. Storch has the backing now of the Regular Democratic Organization, running for re-election with First Ward incumbent Councilwoman Linda Carter. If Rucker wins the primary, he will become the RDO candidate for the November 6 general election.

The Crescent Area Neighborhood Association hosted the forum in the Plainfield Public Library.

In opening statements, Rucker said his campaign is based on economic development and called the Second Ward the most diverse of the city’s four wards. Storch described his family’s service to the city and said the city has not fully used its assets. Dowe said Plainfield holds “an incredible human resource that we haven’t been able to tap.”

Questions ranged over familiar ground: Code enforcement, economic development, taxes. Newer issues, including a focus on transit villages and City Hall’s weak technology, also came up.

On keeping up property code standards, Rucker spoke in favor of having more inspectors, but Storch said the city needs “strategic application” of its current staff. Dowe said people want a more even-handed approach to enforcement, with emphasis on major violations.

Asked how downtown development would affect the Crescent neighborhood, Rucker cautioned against overloading the business district with high-density housing, adding, “We need to increase the commercial footprint.”

Storch said the downtown, which now appeals to low-income families, must become more appealing to middle-income families. Dowe voiced a concern for better education and for the city and school board to work together.

“We need more incentives to provide for the behavior we want,” she said.

On what to do about $850,000 in unclaimed tax overpayments, Rucker said the problem is “another example of not being able to manage information.”

Taxpayers will get the money back if they can document the overpayments, but so far only about $30,000 has been claimed. The city wants the money to go into surplus.

“I think surplus is a good thing,” Storch said, noting it can boost the city’s bond ratings and loans will be needed to carry out a 15-year road improvement program.

On the controversial call to close the Park Hotel residence for deinstitutionalized mental patients, Dowe said a statewide solution is needed for such housing.

On the administration’s push for high-density development around train stations, Dowe said she was concerned about any project that would generate children and overburden schools. Recalling transportation promises made when a health center was moved from the center to the edge of the city, Dowe urged caution in supporting the untried transit village concept.

“If you build it, they will come. But who will come and how will they occupy it?” she asked.

Skeptics question an influx of $350,000 condos, fearing lack of sales will cause them to become rental units.

In all, the candidates answered about a dozen questions submitted by the audience and presented by the moderator, library Director Joe Da Rold.

Rucker and Storch will vie June 5 for voter approval and the primary winner will go on to the November 6 general election, facing Dowe and any independent candidates who file June 5. The winner in November will get a four-year City Council term starting Jan. 1, 2008.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. June 5.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

It's Hard Telling Stories

One day in the newsroom many years ago, I realized the new reporter next to me was 40 years my junior.

If that wasn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is. Curiously, Kyle bailed for brighter and less taxing opportunities and I plugged along until full retirement age (actually, by that time, it was more like a short sprint).

Filling in today on a crime story made me remember how hard it is to be a reporter. Limning the human tragedies that make front page news is a skill, but not one I would wish on anybody. When I worked for the city weekly “Plainfield Today” in the 1980s, we had the luxury of not having to cover breaking news such as homicides.

Hardcore newsies talk about “a fatal” in a completely different way than it is perceived by a grieving family. The task of a reporter is to bridge the gap between humanity and news value.

It’s not easy and perhaps never will be. To see helicopter photos of one’s home on television or to see locator maps of a block that show crime, but not all the community efforts to beautify the neighborhood, that’s a challenge.

On my walk to and from the crime scene, I saw lovely gardens, religious shrines, wildflowers that I wanted to dig up and take home and many more highlights.

As someone who has taken up walking for the past six or seven months, I advocate getting to know one’s neighborhood.

There may be some sad stories to tell, but maybe even more celebrations of one’s neighborhood to discover.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Right to Bare Arms

Warm weather and a fashion throwback to the 1970s have produced a trend where women and girls of all shapes and sizes are wearing next to nothing above the waist.

Halters, tube tops and bustiers can be seen all over city streets, even in cool mornings and evenings. Many of the garments look like underwear, making one feel that Park Avenue has become a big dressing room. Or maybe an examination room.

A store downtown has a wall full of these get-ups, slathered with lace, sequins and beads. Maybe they look good, if still inappropriate, on women with perfect figures. But matrons who would look better in Mother Hubbards are also wearing them.

Schools and camps, not to mention businesses, ban these garments almost uniformly. But the dress codes don’t mean much to girls and women who embrace the look.

Somewhere between the burqa and the bustier, there must be a compromise for everyday street wear.

Remembering Those Who Gave Their Lives

"Please recognize how fortunate we are to live in freedom," American Legion Post 219 Commander Dan Channel told those who gathered Monday at the War Memorial on Watchung Avenue.
Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs thanked the veterans "for being loyal to a government that was not always loyal to you" and prayed for those serving in Iraq.

"It's time for them to come home, God," she said. "That was not their war."

Sunday, May 27, 2007


LOLcat, kitteh, cat macros – call them what you will, they are a funny new online phenomenon.

One site, I Can Has Cheezburger?, is named for the image that may have started it all.

The technique of putting silly ungrammatical captions on photos of cats has expanded to walruses, other animals and recently, presidents.

The possibilities abound. (I can has transit viilge?)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

New Garden Fave

My neighbor and I are already plotting to spread columbines from this border to other spots in the yard. I want to add some blue and purple ones to the group, which includes tall white ones, spectacular large yellow ones, these large red and pink ones, small nodding pink and very small red-and-yellow ones. The seed capsules are forming and I can't wait to make a new bed for them.

Our former neighbor, Edna, brought back flowers every time she visited South Carolina. She planted irises in many colors and in tribute to her generosity we have shared them in turn with others. There are stands of iris in full bloom at two nearby churches that came from Edna's original crop and we will be giving away many more to help beautify the neighborhood.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, May 25, 2007

Tax Lien Ad Fixed

The second publication of the tax lien list is only a page and a half and cost $4,519, down from $9,000 when it was published the first time with extraneous information included.
In a $66 million budget, $4,500 may be just chump change to some people, but added to other erroneous costs for legal notices this year, it's enough to warrant more careful attention to preparation and submission of legal notices.
Plaintalker takes note that the original notice was to run on May 17 and 24. The revised notice is now set to run May 24 and 31. Another $4,500 down the tubes?

Shakespeare in Bloom

As Pressgrrl I visited the Shakespeare Garden for a story that will soon be published in the Courier News. It was a most enjoyable assignment, both for the beauty of the garden and the conversation with Garden Club members who were weeding the flower beds.

The Shakespeare in Bloom event on from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on June 2 will include guided tours and flowers will be marked with quotes from Shakespeare. There will also be a tour of three private gardens as a fundraiser for the club's work in preserving the garden. Tickets for the private tour are $15; the tour of the garden in Cedar Brook Park is free.

The Shakespeare Garden is an excellent place to take visitors in spring, summer or fall as an example of Plainfield's attractions.

Swallowtail Spa

On my way home from the Shakespeare Garden this week, I saw this butterfly that kept fluttering over a muddy tire track. Then it would settle and rest as if this patch of mud was the most desirable place in the world. Maybe it was the moisture that attracted the beautiful visitor. I watched for a while and then decided the contrast of this elegant creature and its gritty choice of landing spots was worth capturing and sharing. Make your own allegory.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Another Look at the Park Hotel

Knowing that United Family & Children’s Society is involved with the Park Hotel, Plaintalker reached out to Executive Director Thomas Reedy for more information.

In an interview Wednesday, Reedy said the agency has five staff members who are housed within the hotel itself to operate a Community Support Program. The staff offers support and advocacy through a contract with the state Division of Mental Health Services.

“They are very much a part of the fabric of the life of that hotel,” Reedy said.

Among many activities, clients have a softball team that is in a league with similar agencies. Residents take van trips, such as to Spruce Run and to New Hope for shopping ands sightseeing this month. Other trips have taken them to Round Valley, Seaside Heights and Flemington.

Reedy gave a lengthy roster of groups and clubs, covering current events, exercise, books, art, men’s and women’s issues and a movie of the week. Vans daily take about 50 clients to partial care facilities and some work at an occupational center in Roselle. Each December, art students of staff member Pedro Martinez take part in an art show at the agency.

“We are interested in helping those residents get a mainstream kind of life,” he said. “They are a vulnerable population, but not a dangerous population.”

Reedy said the people are “very nice.”

“We know them very well. We’re here to support them and help them be successful in the community,” he said.

The population of about 170 residents is able to live outside institutions because of advances in psychotropic medicine that keep their conditions under control. And he said, “They have a right to live in the community.”

Residents also receive visits from a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse and are under “intensive case management.” If a resident’s condition changes, local hospitals are prepared to treat them, he said.

Beyond what agencies and medical practitioners do for the residents, Reedy said it is a little known fact that they receive support from many churches “inside and outside Plainfield.” One church provided shoes for residents and another donates gifts for those celebrating birthdays at monthly parties. United Way volunteers help out at the annual residents’ picnic in September, he said.

“There are many people trying to support these residents to be successful and happy and to participate in society,” he said.

Reedy said some have lived at the hotel so long that Plainfield is in fact their home.

On Monday, Assemblyman Jerry Green asked the City Council for support in seeking the closing of the Park Hotel and relocation of its clients to group homes.

Reedy said Wednesday there would be “a tremendous cost to reposition these clients.”

As reported in blogs and print media, the Park Hotel’s annual license is up for renewal Aug. 31. The facility has no violations that would preclude renewal, according to a spokesman for the Department of Community Affairs.

Plaintalker will report on future developments regarding the Park Hotel.

Jazz Group Enlivens Downtown

Belated kudos to Lisa Cohen of Suburban Jewelers for bringing these musicians downtown for the "Treasures of the Earth" event.
The Clazzical Saxophone Quartet added elegance and sophistication to the afternoon. We hope to see and hear them again in the Queen City.

Selling Wolf Tickets?

Assemblyman Jerry Green’s imprecations against the Park Hotel Monday made me wish for more facts.

So here they are, courtesy of the Department of Community Affairs:

-The Park Hotel license expires on Aug. 31.

-It will be renewed unless “significant violations” are found. Currently, there are no violations.

-The license is renewed annually. (Since Assemblyman Green took office in 1992, it has apparently not been an issue.)

-Anyone objecting to the license renewal can write to the Department of Community Affairs in Trenton.

-The entity that grants renewal is the Department of Community Affairs, Division of Codes and Standards.

Green’s issues with the hotel and its inhabitants struck me as a bit spurious, given that I live a block away and see every day what goes on at Park & Seventh. Of all the bothersome folk at that corner, the Park Hotel people are possibly the least of my worries.

Every day I encounter so-called “street people” with varying ranges of hostility toward others. I tend to keep my head down and walk quickly past the disturbed parolee who demands to know, “What are you looking at?”

On my block we have also had juveniles who think nothing of destroying property (such as a $300 car windshield) or accosting people to shake them down for money.

The only legal parking permit-holder in Lot 7 was attacked by the juveniles, who also ransacked her car and allegedly tried to steal a school bus parked there.

We also had a man who brought trash and debris to a nearby parking lot and had workers breaking it up on Sunday morning, as members and guests were making their way from Lot 7 to my church.

We also have numerous homeless people, who conduct their lives and meet their various physical needs in public.

Assemblyman Green suggests that group homes should replace the Park Hotel. But the number of group homes needed to replace the 182-person Park Hotel facility may never materialize.

During the Whitman administration, there was a concerted movement by advocates for developmentally disabled people to get funding for such homes. The advocacy groups succeeded in getting the funding passed. But then the state emptied out several institutions. By dint of these people being homeless, they rose to the top of the waiting list for placements.

So that meant that disabled people living with aged parents again fell to the bottom of the list.

As you can see, there are lots of details and nuances to providing services for those in need.

Several groups and individuals support the Park Hotel in ways that are not necessarily public, but come from a humanitarian urge to help people in need. There are companies and groups that provide food and others who help the residents celebrate holidays.

Meanwhile, the community suffers from the large number of disaffected street people who do not have any support, whether through choice or neglect.

The Park Hotel and its clientele have been targeted as an impediment to redevelopment, but what about these other categories of socially impaired people?

This topic needs a lot of consideration before anyone points a finger.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Correction from Cory

From Cory:

Thanks for educating the community about development in Plainfield. I do have a correction for you: I suggested the Council consider giving qualified property owners in redevelopment areas the right to become partners with a designated redeveloper. Your blog said they now have that right. They do not and the Council would have to make that part of a redevelopers agreement. We did not do that for the original North Ave development area but going forward with new areas is a different story.
Cory Storch

2nd Ward Councilman, Plainfield

More Time for Two Developers

The City Council will vote Wednesday on extending conditional designations for two developers who first won endorsement in August 2006.

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

AST Development Corp. will get 60 more days to work out a redevelopment agreement for the Marino’s tract on West Front Street, where the city hopes to have a major chain supermarket as the anchor of the former car dealership site.

Capodagli Property Company needs 60 more days to work on issues of contamination on the former Cozzoli Machinery Company site, officials said. The site is part of the East Third/Richmond redevelopment tract and is where the five-phase project for condo development is projected to start.

Both extensions will expire on July 22.

Without getting into details of the agreement, Councilman Cory Storch noted that AST had several unresolved issues in the company’s role as developer of the downtown Park-Madison building development, such as the disposition of an historic street clock.

The new county office building also needs dead shrubbery replaced.

City officials said the extension will allow for questions to be answered.

Redevelopment issues in general dominated Monday’s council meeting.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said the administration is putting together an economic development/redevelopment forum in June, with a date to be announced.

Storch said he applauded the partnership, but reminded the mayor that the council, not the administration, has the power to approve redevelopment.

Resident Maria Pellum in turn applauded the call for community involvement, but also asked for an exploration of what people want in the way of redevelopment, possibly led by a land use professional.

Storch, the council liaison to the Planning Board, said the board had several concerns, including the need to look at the whole rail corridor for balance in planning the city’s future.

If the plan is not balanced, he said, the plans may be skewed toward residential development when in fact the real advantage might be commercial development that would produce jobs.

Storch said the Planning Board wanted special consideration for three structures in the expanded North Avenue redevelopment zone. They are the historic PNC Bank, the former Elks building at 116 Watchung Ave. and the Sutphen House on West Second Street on the PNC parking lot.

He said another consideration was that all new buildings meet LEED standards for energy use.

The owner of a Park Avenue business in the North Avenue expansion plan said he has plans to build on top of the one-story building.

Alluding to eminent domain cases elsewhere, Tikal owner Gabriel Aguila said he didn’t want to see a situation where the police come and drag the owner away.

Storch said business owners in the path of redevelopment have the right of first refusal, but have to prove they have the wherewithal to carry out their plans.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Give Civic Involvement a Chance

Next week, the City Council meets on Monday and Wednesday. Then the governing body goes on election hiatus and won’t meet again until mid-June. In June, July and August, there will be only one agenda session and one regular meeting.

Maybe that will make it easier for people to focus on what the council is doing, or maybe vacations and such will take attention away from such meetings.

For several years, newspapers have retreated from covering meetings, but the truth is that some very important decisions take place at council, planning and zoning meetings. The city is in the midst of a new approach to redevelopment and the specter of eminent domain is haunting property owners who have plans of their own. A recent turnout of business owners from the Netherwood redevelopment study area shows that people can make time for meetings if they feel that council action will affect them directly.

But not all council decisions are as dramatic as authorizing a study of more than 90 properties for redevelopment. Many are more subtle, such as the repeal of the so-called Safe Housing ordinance. On the face of it, the repeal saves landlords a lot of money and bother. They no longer have to know or say how many people are living in their buildings or whether the buildings are safe. The state only checks every five years, so there could be an illegal basement or attic apartment for some time before it is discovered. Some have been exposed tragically through fires and deaths.

The council meetings are where taxpayers find out how their money is being spent, what policies the governing body favors or rejects and how elected officials behave. Do they ask questions or is everything foregone? Who asks the questions? How does the administration answer?

The summer agenda sessions are June 18, July 16 and August 20. The regular meetings, at which votes are taken, are June 20, July 18 and August 22. Groups such as business organizations and block associations can send representatives to attend and report back. Lately, the meetings have been short, sometimes less than half an hour.

Plans for council newsletters or televised meetings have yet to materialize. People still have to go see for themselves what is going on. It’s important for the governing body to see citizens watching what goes on. Civic interest can support good government action and ward off or temper bad decisions. Give it a try.

Friday, May 18, 2007

More Blogs!

Dottie Gutenkauf alerts me to a new blog about the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District just in time for people to schedule a walking tour of the district this weekend.

Thanks, Dottie!

Here's the link:

--Bernice Paglia

Plaintalker Marks Milestones

Plaintalker hit one milestone today with the 600th entry and will mark two years of publication on June 5. In blog years, that's a lot.

Early on, when I mentioned the blog, many people asked, "What's a blog?" Now there are several Plainfield blogs and their readership is growing. The most popular topic currently is redevelopment, but blogs also offer glimpses of city life that help us understand each other as the city changes.

Both candidates for the Second Ward City Council seat, Tony Rucker and incumbent Cory Storch, have started blogs. Former city spokesman Dan Damon blogs about City Hall antics and Maria Pellum highlights the Crescent Area Historic District. Dr. Gregory Palermo has begun a blog about Plainfield trees.

Blogging is very easy to start, but demands a lot of time. to keep it up. Gathering information can take many hours. When the effort exceeds a blogger's enthusiasm or ability to post, the blog is over.

So far, this writer is inclined to continue, albeit with a few more breaks than in the past. Thanks to all the readers who have said they enjoy Plaintalker and rely on the blog for information.

--Bernice Paglia

Tax Lien Sale Coming Up

Yesterday’s Courier News contained a $9,000 tax lien sale ad that might have been a few thousand dollars cheaper if lines noting square footage had not been included. Normally, these notices list only the block and lot, name of owner, address and the type and amount of taxes amount owed on each property. The additional lines pushed the notice to three full pages.

The June 7 tax lien sale will be the first conducted by the city’s new tax collector, Marie Glavan. For many months, the city has been getting by with a part-time tax collector. David Marshall, the fulltime tax collector in Orange, served Plainfield only on Wednesdays.

The tax lien sale in past years has been a source of revenue to help balance the budget. Successful bidders on the debts pay the city the taxes owed and then the debtor owes the lien holder the back taxes with up to 18 percent interest. But this year, nearly all the amounts are for sewer taxes owed to the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority.

It is always interesting to see who turns up on the list. Several city officials and employees, attorneys, a judge, prominent real estate brokers, a state official, school district employees and some churches are listed. In fairness, the amounts cited may be due to oversights or unsettled disputes.

Bidders must register by May 31 to take part in the tax lien sale. This year’s notice says that instead of four newspaper notices, there will be two. The other notices will be mailed directly to each owner and the cost will be added to the sale price.

Any liens not sold will revert to the city and may be charged 18 percent interest, according to the notice.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Property Owners: "Information Please"

A quick tally of old and new redevelopment proposals shows that the list has grown to about 20, some many years old.

In the last administration, some proposals involved only one lot. The administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs is looking at large swaths of land around train stations as “transit village” hubs. Progress is being made. Several projects have made it through the phases of needs studies, formulation of redevelopment plans and designations of developers. One private project, the senior center with 63 condos on upper floors, has received site plan approval.

Maybe because the Park-Madison and Tepper’s blocks took around 30 years to redevelop, the newer recent proposals did not register with the public until recently. There was a sense that nearly all the new ideas were for condo development at market rate prices. Still, with nothing built, the impact is only speculation.

Plaintalker has tried to map the proposals to get a visual sense of the impact. The most striking was the concept of four transit villages that would encompass everything along the Raritan Valley Line and would overlap numerous other proposals. That one has gone back to the drawing board, but the new proposed Netherwood “needs study” area alone is striking in its scope.

Instead of radiating out evenly from the Netherwood station as indicated on transit village maps previously displayed, the study area’s 93 properties start less than a block east of the station and extend several blocks west. Getting a grip on the extent of the study area meant sitting in the public library with a city map and eight tax maps and a bag of colored pencils. Industrial properties from Leland to Richmond along the tracks are included, along with the city Public Works yard and two lots owned by Sal Carfaro, who envisions condo development on each site.

Even though a study is only a study, several property owners in the Netherwood area turned up at last week’s City Council meeting to voice concern about possible taking by eminent domain at the worst or having business plans in limbo at the least. Of course, there were no answers and will not be until that study is completed and a redevelopment plan drawn up. Then the public can comment on the particulars.

The mayor has promised more public input besides the required hearings at various stages of the redevelopment process. That is a welcome idea. Members of the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce and the Special Improvement District have also asked to be consulted or at least informed of pending changes.

Change is in the air, whether it be Paramount Property Management’s handling of the former Pittis Estate storefronts or the city’s transit village plans. People just want to be able to understand what is going on instead of worrying about the unknown.

--Bernice Paglia


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Board to Vote on Forum Speaker 's Pay

Tonight’s school board meeting will begin at 8 p.m. in the Plainfield High School library, not 7 p.m. as previously advertised and as listed on the new calendar available at City Hall.

The agenda contains many personnel items, including acceptance of the resignation of Plainfield High School Principal Frank Ingargiola and the appointment of Frank Asante as principal of Cedarbrook School.

The very last item, on page 49, solves a small mystery. It is a resolution for Dr. Lenworth Gunther to serve as moderator of a community forum. The forum actually took place April 24. Gunther will receive $1,500 for his service as moderator “to mediate the dialogue between the public and the panel.”

This is the forum that was announced to follow up on a state-mandated community forum on March 23 and a previous one on Feb. 10.

As Plaintalker previously reported, the forum was supposed to be held from 6 to 8 p.m. It started late and due to the format, the public did not get a chance to speak until 7:20 p.m. Gunther was engaging and entertaining as a speaker and also held a dialogue with each member of the public who spoke. The quality of his service as moderator is not at issue. The issue is why there was such haste to have the forum that Gunther was hired before a full board vote authorizing the expense.

Most of the audience that night consisted of staff members. There was a bit of blame cast on the community for not coming out in larger numbers. Had the public known that Gunther was speaking, his reputation might have brought out more people just to hear him.

So there were a few things wrong with this hastily-contrived forum. The format was unclear. The speaker was hired without prior approval, just the kind of thing that gets people upset with Abbott districts. And to some extent, the value of the speaker was squandered through lack of publicity.

Tonight’s business meeting is the first one since the April 17 election. Voters chose two incumbents, Martin Cox and Wilma Campbell, who were often on opposite sides of issues last year. Newcomer Christian Estevez, who was passed over for a City Council appointment earlier, also won a board seat.

Over the next three years, the board will have to deal with ongoing problems of school safety, possible funding losses, state scrutiny for performance in all district functions and lack of parental involvement. If in the last year any decisions were made ad hoc without knowledge of the full board, the board now can set a better tone.

The Plainfield district has suffered from an all-around lack of trust in recent years. The board’s conduct can either increase the level of trust or add to the cynicism.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, May 14, 2007

Tinderbox Downtown

No, it is not autumn downtown. These shrubs at the Park-Madison complex are dead or dying. Replacement of dead trees and shrubs is something that was supposed to take place, but obviously has not. Dry, windy, hot weather will make this spot not just an ugly sight, but also dangerous.
Maybe the dead shrubs should be removed pending replacement in order to avoid a fire hazard.

Marino's Plan Faces Changes

Wednesday’s City Council meeting included five resolutions regarding redevelopment. All five had been added at Monday’s agenda session with minimal explanation of what they meant, although Councilman Cory Storch elicited fuller descriptions from Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson.

One referred to a “first amendment” to the redevelopment plan for the Marino’s tract. Wlliamson said it was to “cure a slight problem.” After Storch asked for more information, Williamson said the resolution asked the Planning Board “to go back in time and take care of housekeeping matters.” He explained that a significant piece of property was excluded in the plan and that Brown’s Funeral Home would be included in the plan.

Storch noted that design standards were also changed.

While this edified the public to a degree, I wrote down my conclusion: “They want the whole block.”

I had obtained the text of the resolution but it was so densely written in redevelopment jargon that it was of little help to clarify for the average person what was going on.

Ex: “Realization of goals and objectives within the redevelopment plan, now in place for six years, have yet to be achieved. From consultation with the private sector, the City recognizes there is a distinct possibility that the realistic redevelopment potential of the area can be enhanced through consolidation and resubdivision as necessary of all parcels within the block, necessitating acquisition via the exercise of eminent domain, or in the alternative, negotiated settlement.”

The attached map shows the whole block, bounded by the Raritan Valley Line, West Front Street, Plainfield Avenue and Waynewood Park, up for property acquisition.

The design changes state what is being proposed but not what the original standards are. So I will have to go to the Planning Division office and look at the file. It appears that parking standards are being relaxed. The maximum lot coverage is being increased to 90 percent, but the resolution does not say what it was before.

The Marino’s tract is the one where officials have been hoping to put a supermarket. The firm that received conditional designation as developer in August is AST Development Corp. of Lavallette, which also built the Park-Madison office building. Like the North Avenue developer Landmark, AST received 90 days in August and two subsequent 60-day extensions to allow time for an agreement to be forged. Landmark’s agreement was approved Wednesday.

All this just goes to show how hard it is to follow the action on redevelopment. Walk-on items with vague explanations must be pursued by interpreting the language and then checking the file at City Hall. It’s all public information, it just doesn’t inform the public without a little digging and lining up of facts to get the picture.

The outcome may be great, a supermarket finally coming to the West End after a process that started with a study in 2000. But it would be good to know more, in plain English, about these changes to the plan.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day to all who nurture others!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Garden Tales

Bees may be scarce elsewhere, but one border in my garden is abuzz with small, ground-nesting bees.

Because they are nesting next to a pathway used by children, I was concerned about their presence. But apparently they are valuable pollinators that are not usually a threat to humans. Their homes are holes that look like someone poked a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil into the dirt.

I like to sit on the path and weed this border, but I think I will wait until the bees are done with their seasonal business. The border has iris, spiderwort, daylilies, purple coneflower and lychnis. Chickweed, bindweed and grasses flourish unless I bring out the Cape Cod weeder or the talon-like linoleum knife to pick them out. Sweet alyssum volunteers also need to be dug up from random spots and moved to the front of the border.

The bees have mainly taken over a spot where yellow Japanese irises were planted, but did not do well. The sparseness left bare ground which is the bees’ favored site for setting up housekeeping. Planting grass or groundcover is apparently one way to deter future incursions.

I like bees very much as symbols in jewelry or fabric design, but tend to keep my distance from live bees or wasps. Usually unfortunate encounters with them come from being in the wrong place, such as in the flight path of yellowjackets. It pays to note where they live.

A few years ago, a cicada killer dug a nest in another part of the garden. This large wasp paralyzes cicadas and other insects and puts them in its nest as food for its offspring. It normally does not bother humans, but its presence can be scary due to its size, up to two inches long.

One day I forgot to pay attention to where I was standing and was startled by a buzzing noise in the loose pants I was wearing. I had time to dash inside and rip them off, letting out the unhappy cicada killer. It was just one more garden adventure in the middle of the Queen City.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Vines Gone Wild

In the middle of my block, there is a mini-forest of sorts, home to feral black cats and a stop-off point for migratory birds.
Each spring, this grove of trees takes on an exotic look as the wisteria entwined in its branches bursts into bloom.
Wisteria can be dangerous to a home when its massive weight burdens a roof, but in these trees it is just a striking sight. Later, the flower clusters turn into pods that release hundreds of seeds over the winter in explosive bursts that sound like pop-guns. The brown, coin-sized seeds spawn vines that can slither 10 feet or more along a garden wall and need harsh methods for removal.
Still, the sight of these vines unchecked in a tall tree in spring always reminds me of the power of nature. The host tree fades into mere background for these purple clusters in a transitory display that fools the eye while pleasing the viewer.
If you are on East Seventh Street between Park and Crescent, look down the driveway of the apartment buildings on the south side to get a glimpse of trees sporting the vine. Having once been married to a jazz musician, I know that "vine" was a slang term for clothes, and these flowers are very fine clothes indeed!
--Bernice Paglia

Property Owners Voice Redevelopment Fears

As the City Council prepared to vote on several redevelopment matters Wednesday, residents and business owners urged the governing body to make the process more open to those it will affect.

Speakers cited long-term investments in Plainfield and one person noted he had just received land use approvals for a project that now might be in limbo.

The main concern was a proposed “in need of redevelopment’ study of more than 90 properties around the Netherwood train station. The study is related to the “transit village” concept endorsed by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs since she took office in January 2006. It calls for high density development around two existing and two defunct rail stations on the Raritan Valley Line.

On Wednesday, the council approved a redevelopment agreement for the North Avenue tract by the main train station. That plan calls for more than 400 residential units and retail and entertainment space around the main train station.

But the Netherwood proposal brought out most of the comments.

“Do we have a vision?” resident Maria Pellum asked. “Do we have benchmarks?”

Business owner Gery Ventriglia asked whether his business of 45 years would have to clear out and questioned how much residential redevelopment would take place along the railroad tracks.

Attorney Barbara Schwartz, speaking for her client, Hyper Harry’s, raised numerous questions about the impact of development, including job loss and impact on minorities and low-income residents.

Dave Wuest, executive director of the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce, offered to do whatever he could to facilitate communication between the city and the business community

Resident Tony Rucker, who is challenging incumbent Councilman Cory Storch for the Second Ward seat, said, “It all comes down to what kind of city we want to live in.”

Rucker said he wanted to distinguish between “development and economic development,” citing education cost that could arise from adding 500 residential units.
Rucker noted that 85 percent of the city’s tax revenues currently come from residential properties and asked why more burden should be put on tax payers.

Reacting to a consultant’s recent comment that downtown buildings should be built higher, Rucker said, “We don’t need six stories.”

Rucker and other predicted that developers will build, take their profit and leave the city with increased need for services and other problems.

Several speakers voiced concern about the scope of the Netherwood study.

“It looks like we are enlarging the concept of the transit village,” Jim Uffer of Truck Tech said. “I know if you put in a transit village, a lot of industries will be displaced.”

In all, 15 people came to the microphone to speak out before the vote.

Dashield reminded them often of the mayor’s concerns for business owners and for making sure everyone has input. Council members took time to assure speakers that they would be heard at every step of the process .

Storch, who is council liaison to the Planning Board, said there is a transit village vision.

“The problem is, it’s not a shared vision with the community.”

Storch said a lot of things coming from the administration are “pieces of the puzzle.” He called for creation of a more inclusive process.

“Our problem right now is that residents and the buisiness community don’t feel they are part of the vision.”

Storch said he and others on the council’s Economic Growth committee may seek a moratorium on sending recommendations to the Planning Board “until we have created a process for community input and have gone through that process.”

His comment drew applause from the residents and business owners.

All current redevelopment tasks – studies, plans and agreements – are in the hands of the Union County Improvement Authority, which the city designated in August 2006 as its redevelopment arm. The work is being done at no cost to the city, Councilman Don Davis reminded the public. At every step, there are public hearings, but speakers complained they don’t know about them because only small legal notices are required to publicize them.

Plaintalker, Pellum’s Crescent Times and Dan Damon’s Plainfield Today blog have all put a spotlight on the process recently. In general, the administration’s communication with the public has been a sore point. The city has not been able to fix its web site and many residents feel the city’s local cable channel is underutilized, despite increased staff.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Heed Storch on Redevelopment

Councilman Cory Storch correctly chastised me for not mentioning that he asked Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson to slow down on a list of addenda to Monday’s agenda, which will be on the regular meeting tonight for approval.

Williamson rattled off a bunch of items, some quite significant, such as the redevelopment agreement for North Avenue.

Storch asked for brief descriptions of each item, including problems with the Marino’s tract plan for four acres on West Front Street and the North Avenue project by the main train station.

Among his points, Storch wanted it known that he hoped for language supporting LEED standards in the North Avenue contract.

For the uninitiated, LEED means “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” and projects can be rated for their adherence to principles endorsed by the The U.S. Green Building Council.

Storch also demanded details on the Arlington Avenue redevelopment site and plans for a study of the Netherwood train station area.

Storch, who is also the council’s liaison to the Planning Board, said there is a strong consensus to look at the whole rail corridor through Plainfield.

“Without looking at the whole rail corridor, there might not be balance,” Storch said.

He said the Planning Board felt there had to be a “visioning process” for the entire stretch of the rail link, from Terrill Road to the western border.

No one else on the council raised questions about the process.

As Planning Board liaison, Storch has two views of proposed projects, both from a land use perspective and from that of the governing body. Plaintalker respects his views and suggests that citizens can profit from them.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Of Jitters and Vision

The City Council will vote Wednesday on authorizing an “in need of redevelopment” study for blocks around the Netherwood train station.

The area to be studied appears on tax maps from Leland Avenue to Richmond Street, dipping down the East Seventh and going north in one section to East Second Street. At first glance, it seems huge. But then on each tax map in the council packet, the properties are marked and they mostly cluster next to the train tracks. Still, more than 90 parcels are involved, including residential, industrial and commercial properties.

By now, many of us know the redevelopment drill: first, order a needs study. Next, make a plan for all those parcels found to be in need of development. Next, find a developer. Then negotiate and approve a developer’s agreement. Only after land use approvals can acquisition, demolition, relocation or construction begin.

(Someone will correct me if I skipped a step.)

Most of the work, including the developer’s agreement, will be done by the Union County Improvement Authority, which was designated in August as the city’s redevelopment arm. The City Council, Planning Board and Zoning Board all still retain powers of approval.

Two big gripes have emerged since the UCIA took over. One is a perception that those whose property is in the path of redevelopment are not being heard sufficiently. The other is that the public at large is having a hard time following the action. But technically, all that is needed to inform the public is a legal notice on hearings along the way.

Speakers Monday talked about the uncertainty that arises when one’s block, business or home is on one of these maps. What does the future hold? How soon will one have to decide on selling or moving? Will value be lost to eminent domain?

New targets for study join a dozen or so already in place.

Never mind a six-burner stove, it comes across as a 12-burner stove with all the pots boiling. But what’s cooking?

Fellow (or sister) blogger Maria Pellum is on a vision quest – not the kind where you go out in the desert to meet your spirit animal, but the kind that says what Plainfield will become in 10 years. So far, she has no answers.

Besides what was on the agenda Monday, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson had some other items to add for Wednesday, including a developer’s agreement for the North Avenue tract around the main train station downtown. Landmark Development Corp. has proposed more than 400 residential units, a 500-car parking garage, an entertainment center and more around the historic station. If the agreement is approved, Landmark will then have to present site plans for Planning Board approval.

A recent walk through the North Avenue Commercial Historic District, as the tract between Park and Watchung along North Avenue is known, revealed quite a few vacant properties. Landmark’s stated goal is to preserve the historic facades of the 1880s buildings while building behind and above them.

Meanwhile, there is a proposed expansion of the tract to include the PNC Bank building and property and the south half of the East Front Street block between Park and Watchung. That’s where the parking garage may go.

One can just imagine the scenarios that go through property owners’ minds as they ponder these changes.

Next up are the “transit villages” at Grant and Clinton avenues, where train stations once existed. So far, nothing has been proposed, not even a study. These sites may have to hinge on bus or jitney hubs instead of trains, as it is unlikely that NJ Transit would restore train stations there.

These are big changes indeed and all of us must pay attention. Or move to Titusville or Green Village and forget the whole thing.

--Bernice Paglia

Labels: ,

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sticker Shock at the Dollar Store

It took me a long time to set foot into the Family Dollar store that replaced the CVS in the Twin City plaza.

First of all, I was upset that the CVS moved to Route 22 in North Plainfield. I was used to buying all sorts of things there, just half a block from home. Furthermore, the idea of another “dollar store” coming in seemed like a step down for the plaza.

When I finally got around to looking inside, I was pleased to find quite a few bargains. The biggest one for me was $1 notebooks.

These notebooks made in India were similar to those I had been buying for decades to use as journals. Each kind had 80 pages, spiral-bound, but the ones I had been buying cost as much as $1.89. Having retired from the newsroom, I was not about to buy reporters’ notebooks, so the dollar store notebooks looked good for tasks such as taking notes at council meetings.

Imagine my surprise when I picked up three last week and they rang up at $1.69 each! I bought them, but I couldn’t get over the 69 percent price increase on a simple notebook. Searching out some old sales slips, I went back to ask for a refund, which I got.

Still incredulous, I went to the Family Dollar on Front Street, only to find the same thing: $1 price on the shelf, $1.69 at the register. Again, I complained and got three books for $1 each. The cashier explained that the shelf price could not be changed until the company sent the new shelf signs.

Later, I received an e-mail from Family Dollar explaining that duty policies on imports and the cost of domestic paper pulp will result in price increases on paper products all around. Sad news for a notebook fanatic!

Maybe I will have to try what people did in World War II, scribbling in tiny script on every square inch of airmail note paper. But then my old eyes probably couldn’t read the notes later on. As it is, sometimes I can’t read my hasty normal-size handwriting.

I know for sure I won’t be buying the pricey Moleskine reporter’s notebook, cachet notwithstanding.

Hmm. I think a chunk of my next free-lancing check is going to go for a whole bunch of cheap notebooks.

--Bernice Paglia

Planners Unhappy With Park Process

A presentation on improvements to the Madison Avenue playground raised many questions at Thursday’s Planning Board meeting, the biggest one being how the project got moving without prior approval of planners.

The site, bounded by the Raritan Valley Line, Madison Avenue, Central Avenue and West Second Street, is on the city’s Recreation and Open Space Inventory and any changes should have been monitored by the Planning Division. The Planning Board should have reviewed the project both for the capital cost and for consistency with the master plan before work began.

Instead, the city engineer approved the project and parking spaces were increased in what may turn out to be a benefit for a condo project across the street.

In the first of many phases of the project, the number of parking spaces more than tripled, from 11 to 36. However, the $145,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding was only enough to pay for construction up to the point of paving. The new lot is now filled with “dense aggregate,” Eric Mattes of Schoor DePalma said.

Besides finding funds for the paving, money must be found for future phases such as a playground with sections for children ages 2 to 5 and 5 to 12. The design calls for a seat wall with a planter between the two sections. More paving will be done under an existing shelter and sidewalk paths will be made.

Mattes said main concerns included removing a lot of existing asphalt in the park, retaining an existing basketball court and saving several mature oak trees on the site. A four-foot steel picket fence will surround the park.

Planners first asked for a flat rail instead of spikes on top of the fence, but then raised larger questions.

Board member Donna Vose asked why the number of parking spaces was increased to 36 and Mattes said it was requested by the city.

‘That’s why we need a review first,” Vose said.

Board chairman Ken Robertson called the increase “an extraordinary number of parking spaces, because it is eating up green space.”

Robertson asked whether the spaces were for downtown parking, but without a clear answer, he turned to Planning Director Bill Nierstedt and asked, “What are we here for, chopped liver?”

Nierstedt noted the park is almost entirely paved. He said the original design concept was for a parking area off Central Avenue. There was a concern for more green space after the Park-Madison office building was built nearby on a block that had been a park for several years.

Robertson said his question was not answered and pressed to know why the engineer was involved instead of the Planning Division.

“And I’m not going to answer that question,” Nierstedt said.

Robertson asked whether the city knew how many people used the park. Nierstedt said the only thing people could do there was to play basketball, because the rest of the park was asphalt.

Eventually, the discussion turned to the total estimated cost of the project ($500,000) and where the money would come from (unclear). Another concern was whether the project had received state Department of Environmental Protection review.

The 12-unit condo project, which was on the agenda Thursday for memorialization of board approval, had three options, to provide parking on-site, use the Park-Madison parking deck or get city permits. With 18 spaces in two bays at the park, the city might rent out half, which would then involve the Parking Bureau.

The discussion ended as it began, with officials expressing dissatisfaction with the process.

While it was not mentioned at the meeting, the discussion reminded Plaintalker of the flap that arose when the temporary Park-Madison green was inadvertently included in the state DEP roster of green space. A group of open space advocates sued the city and held up construction of the new office building for several years. If in fact it turns out that public funds were expended with the notion of helping a developer get parking for a condo project, sidestepping planning and state approvals, might that also be a problem?

We’re just saying.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Help Shape the City's Future

Plaintalker offers kudos to all who came out and spoke at the public hearing Thursday on the North Avenue extension proposal.

There were many concerns and speakers framed their questions well.

Planning officials were attentive and seemed responsive to the concerns.

Plaintalker only wishes that more members of the public had come out and weighed in on the issues. The magnitude of redevelopment proposals now on the table means that everyone will be affected somehow. There could be hundreds more people and cars downtown, affecting major north-south and east-west routes. They will need city services. And even though developers claim new housing will produce very few school children, it’s likely that schools will be affected.

And that’s the good news.

Some fear the specter of half-finished construction or buildings that will not attract buyers, but will fill up with renters.

Whether the coming changes are good, bad or mixed, it’s important to pay attention and voice opinions. Public hearings are built into the redevelopment process. Your views are valuable!

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, May 04, 2007

Redevelopment Caveats Aired

The Planning Board agreed Thursday that parts of two blocks near the North Avenue redevelopment tract are also in need of redevelopment, but only after board members, merchants, property owners and residents voiced numerous concerns about the needs study’s findings.

Many of their concerns will be forwarded to the City Council as recommendations along with the board’s decision.

The sites may be added to the existing North Avenue proposal that calls for hundreds of new residential units, an entertainment complex, a 500-car parking garage and more in a sweeping overhaul of the city’s only commercial historic district, next to the main train station.

One area studied includes Municipal Parking Lot 6 behind stores facing on Front Street between Park and Watchung avenues, along with the former Elks building, Investors Savings Bank, a day care center, Planned Parenthood, a chiropractor’s office and a store. The other site includes the PNC Bank building and parking lots, an 1855 building formerly used as the bank’s community education center, Appliance-Arama and a couple of stores.

The needs study, conducted by George Stevenson of Remington & Vernick, found that the sites met four of eight criteria for redevelopment, including unsafe or unhealthy conditions, underutilization, being in an Urban Enterprise Zone and consistency with “smart growth” principles.

Stevenson, who said he intended to demonstrate “with enthusiasm and feeling” why the sites were in need of redevelopment, joked about a “log cabin” where someone was selling handkerchiefs.

“You could say you have a viable structure and business,” he said, but in fact it would be under-utilized and would not meet “the vision the city has for the central business district.”

Stevenson said six-story buildings are permitted downtown, but noted many existing ones are only one- or two-stories high and some are dilapidated.

“Intense development is anticipated,” he said, but noted, “Existing conditions are detrimental to the welfare of the city.”

Stevenson showed photos of what he deemed unsafe and under-utilized properties, including large empty parking lots and hazardous driveways, and described deterioration at the Elks building, among others.

Planners first questioned Stevenson about discrepancies in two versions of the study and went on to challenge some of the findings. The historic Elks building came in for special concern from board members who wanted to see it preserved.

Councilman Cory Storch, the governing body’s liaison to the Planning Board, said he hoped to see adaptive reuse of the building, but said its inclusion in the plan might be more of a safeguard than not having it under the redevelopment umbrella.

Others had similar concerns about the PNC Bank building, which goes back to the turn of the 20th century.

Even though the issue before the board was strictly to vote on the needs study, Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said it could add recommendations to the council.

In public comment, speakers said merchants should be consulted on redevelopment plans, as their livelihoods might be affected. Some of the study findings were more like code violations than blight, others said.

Al Pittis, the longtime manager of many downtown properties, told Stevenson he was “appalled” by the findings.

“You criticize every last piece of property,” he said.

Pittis objected to Stevenson’s finding that Investors Savings used only 50 percent of its lot, saying banks need space for parking and drive-in windows. On Stevenson’s negative contrast of the sites with the Park-Madison building, Pittis said, “I think with all the properties shown on this map, the city gets more revenue per square foot than it is getting from Park-Madison for the (payment in lieu of taxes).”

Property owner and real estate appraiser William Hetfield questioned whether Stevenson had made any marketability or feasibility study of the sites.

“Is the marketplace going to support this vision?” he asked.

Stevenson said no study had been done.

“I love the log cabin,” Hetfield said, repeating Stevenson’s comment that it might be viable and making money.

“But there is no marketability or feasibility study to take away that log cabin,” Hetfield said.

Hetfield said buildings were bulldozed down in a previous renewal effort that failed because it wasn’t economically feasible.

“I believe strongly that Plainfield’s future will be determined by what we do in the next two years,” he said, urging a bold move to go north and south of the train station.

“You will get 2,000 people downtown,” he said.

Flor Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition, cited an influx of Hispanic businesses that since 1985 have restored the downtown district and cautioned against proposals that could drive them out.

Resident Maria Pellum echoed the need to keep Hispanics involved in redevelopment and for officials to be more cognizant of Hispanic culture.

“We need redevelopment, but we have to do it right,” she said.

Jeff Brand of Planned Parenthood said flatly that if his agency is displaced, “Twenty-five thousand of the poorest women will lose their health care.”

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf noted that a previous economic development official had listed all pending redevelopment proposals.

“The list was quite a long list and it didn’t include this,” she said.

At the time, she said, officials wanted to “slow down and take a good look” at all the plans “and see how they fit with each other.”

Gutenkauf warned against “permanent stagnation” if hasty redevelopment takes place.

Resident Sandy Gurshman also turned the log cabin allusion back on Stevenson.

“it’s not so bad to have one or two log cabins,” she said. “It reminds us where we came from.”

Gurshman said she didn’t want to see cookie-cutter construction and added, “I would not hold up Park-Madison as an example. It will not stand as an example of architectural history.”

In the end, the board approved the study with recommendations that it should be integrated with other development, community involvement should be increased, small businesses should be protected, adaptive reuse encouraged for historic buildings and economic impact should be assessed.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Board Leader Has Tough Job

Within minutes of being chosen Tuesday to serve as school board president, Pat Barksdale had a test of her mettle.

A young teacher, angry and in tears, came to the microphone to describe her path from being a 1996 Plainfield High School graduate to receiving a masters degree from Howard University and returning to the city to “give back” in the classroom.

“I was happy to give back,” she said. “I was happy to come to work every day,”

But just as she was about to buy a house, she was laid off.

“I was homeless. I had no job,” she said tearfully.

She cautioned the son of a board member who had just promised to finish college and “give back” that there is “personal bias” in the district.

Mentioning her long hours as a track coach, she told the board, “It hurts me for everybody to be unified. Nobody helped me out.”

Next up was a resident who demanded an answer on whether a speaker at a recent community forum was paid and if so, how did the hiring occur without a prior board vote. As a parent, she also asked why there were no textbooks at her son’s school.

On the first issue, she was told that her pending Open Public Records Act request on the matter would be ready today or tomorrow.

Schools Superintendent Paula Howard said some classes do not use textbooks. She said math classes may use journals and science uses kits, for example.

When the resident continued to press for answers, Homeland Security director Don Moye approached and appeared after a few minutes to be ready to take down the microphone.

School board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq then took her part, saying to Barksdale, “She asked a question and nobody answered.”

Board member Lisa Logan-Leach also commented, “I’m not sure the question was answered on how the decision was made. I would hate for the taxpayer not to get the information.”

Howard explained the OPRA process in which a citizen asks questions in writing directed to a particular authority that can answer, but Abdul-Haqq said, “She asked a question here. She asked a verbal question here.”

Another resident then asked the board about the process of not allowing follow-up questions after a citizen has had three minutes at the microphone, specifically if a question was not answered or “dodged.”
“The question was not dodged,” Barksdale said. “We cannot dodge any question because we are a public entity (operating) with public funds.”

Finally, after more explanation of privilege of the floor, Howard asked past president Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr. to comment on the forum decision, which was made under his presidency.

Cathcart said as board president he had requested a community forum and had asked Howard to get a speaker. The resident who pressed for an answer noted the response was different when he asked, Another resident commented that a lot of Latino parents “have asked questions that are not being answered,”

Finally, after Logan-Leach said she hoped going forward there would be a “true dialogue,” Barksdale said, “This is not a ‘gotcha session.’ “

Barksdale noted that outside auditors are now combing the Plainfield district in a way other districts aren’t seeing, relating the intensity to the district’s Abbott funding status. She also said people with questions can go to “504,” the board’s headquarters at 504 Madison Avenue.

“A lot of times some of those concerns can be addressed long before they get to a board meeting,” Barksdale said.

“We need everyone’s effort,” she said, asking for help instead of controversy.

Logan-Leach said moving forward, she hoped “all nine board members” would know prior to a forum who the speaker was and the process of hiring the person.

“Hopefully, we won’t have some type of non-unity,” she said.

Board member Vickey Sheppard reminded the board about mandated training that members must take and said some districts don’t even allow privilege of the floor.

“Sometimes we’re not trying to dodge a question,” she said, but the board wants to respond in a “non-confrontational way,” again urging members to take training.

“We are not just looking for problems, we are looking for solutions,” Barksdale said.

The lengthy exchanges pointed up a few things, one being the range of concerns residents may bring to the board at public meetings. Some, such as personnel matters, cannot legally be discussed in public. Others may reveal a split among board members, even though the board ideally presents a unified front on its role in policy and budget matters. The school board, like the City Council, Planning Board and Board of Adjustment, has an attorney present in part to remind members of the parameters of their roles under the law.

Presiding over the board or council is not easy. Citizens often come up to speak in anger or frustration. Once they are at the microphone, some are tenacious in seeking answers. Timers may go off before a citizen is satisfied and then there is the delicate matter of how to move on. A security guard or police officer may be asked to intercede, which sometimes only escalates the emotional state of a speaker.

Public meetings can have a “warts and all” quality when tempers flare and citizens or elected officials or both move from decorum to “kitchen-sink” flinging of accusations punctuated by the gavel before the discourse sinks to one’s mother’s choice of military footwear.

Plaintalker offers best wishes to Ms. Barksdale, vice president Bridget Rivers, school board election winners Wilma Campbell, Martin Cox and Christian Estevez and all the board members, administration and citizens as the district moves into what may be a very challenging year of outside scrutiny.
--Bernice Paglia