Saturday, June 30, 2007

How It's Done

Well, June 30 came and went with no web site update for the Queen City. Nor has there been any public explanation of why this problem persists.

Former web site manager John DiPane predicted the self-imposed deadline of the new administration would not be met. Nor has the administration responded to his offers of help, he says.

Check here for an example of how to run a municipal web site.

Friday, June 29, 2007

City Needs Its Own Voice

I was unable to attend the June 27 forum on redevelopment, but from what I heard there was some blogger-bashing going on.

Blogging is a phenomenon that is quite new. Rebecca Blood , an early blogger, details the advent of blogs in the late 1990s in her book, "The Weblog Handbook: Practicval Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog."here.

In Plainfield, depending whom you ask, bloggers started spouting off in about mid-2005.

Recently Dan Damon claimed two years’ worth of blogs based on his service to council members with e-mailed clips of noteworthy articles. It did not go public until November 2005.

Plaintalker began in June 2005 with myself and Barbara Kerr in charge. Barbara subsequently left, leaving me to be the blogger-in-charge.

Maria Pellum started a blog this year devoted to the Crescent Area Historic District, but with larger concerns about the Plainfield community and its Latino members.

Recent new blogs include Dr. Gregory Palermo’s tree blog and the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District blog. Both Second Ward candidates, incumbent Cory Storch and challenger Tony Rucker, made campaign blogs

So the format is there for anybody inclined to make a blog on whatever subject.

There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about a blog. The effect of any given blog is a blend of the blogger’s intentions and the readers’ perceptions. Plaintalker was created to fill in what I perceived as a news gap, especially regarding redevelopment. It was the Downtown Station South proposal that set me off.

As luck would have it, I am now writing both a blog and freelance articles for the Courier News. Up until recently, most of my newspaper stories were about local cultural institutions or school events. Lately I have done some news articles as well. Here again, perception plays a role. People tell me, “The Courier only prints bad news.” I then mention some of my freelance articles that show the community and schools in a positive light and the critic acknowledges reading them. But then again I hear that the Courier only prints bad news.

At present, the city’s ability to communicate is impaired by a broken web site and other shortcomings. Until the city improves its own communications with the public, the field is left to newspapers, blogs and gossip in the street or in online forums. An overhaul of the web site is promised by tomorrow. If it’s good, the city will be able to communicate with the public in a useful way.

And if it’s bad, you can bet the blogs will be all over it. The city simply cannot flourish without effective communication with the public. It is a heartache to those who want Plainfield to succeed that its web site, local channel and other means of communication are faulty. In these times, a city’s web site is its face to the world. I look forward to improvement.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Summertime Stars

These Black-Eyed Susans are the legacy of a foray onto a bank of wild flowers at Schmiede Tree Expert Company on South Avenue many years ago. Mr. Schmiede gave me permission to collect seedheads after the flowers had bloomed.
Some have petals in shades of yellw, others have markings in brown.

Some have double rows of petals.

Some are very large. All are a happy sight in summer. Thanks again, Mr. Schmiede!

Hot, Humid, Hazy

This is day two of three days of 90-degree weather, officially a heat wave.

Anyone who does not have air conditioning at home should consider finding an air-conditioned place to stay for a few hours, be it the Senior Center, a shopping mall or a public building.

On the National Weather Service map, an ominous red patch has been edging up toward us from the Philadelphia area. It indicates an excessive heat warning, so maybe it will get worse here before it gets better.

Neighbors or relatives should look in on seniors or others who may be in danger of dehydration or heat exhaustion. Things will change by the end of the week.

The heat has left this writer with a mental haze of sorts. A few possible stories have fallen through or are not ready yet. For example, I thought it would be interesting to do a story about young people going to work at an amusement park in the new $75,000 bus whose purchase the City Council approved. Alas, the bus won't be here until the end of the summer.

A quest for details on the July 4th parade and celebration also came up short. Details will not be final until later in the week.

Just now, my attempt to put up a gallery of Black-Eyed Susan photos was thwarted by Blogger.

Oh well. Maybe a trip to the air-conditioned retail palaces of Westfield is in order.

Don't forget the redevelopment forum 7 p.m. tonight at Washington Community School. I will miss it due to another obligation.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mayor's Forum on Redevelopment

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has scheduled a forum on redevelopment for 7 p.m. Wednesday (June 27, 2007) at Washington Community School, 427 Darrow Ave.

The mayor recently promised to have a forum in response to community questions about redevelopment. Concerned business owners from the Netherwood study area, merchants from North Avenue and property owners affected by a redevelopment proposal for the East Third/Richmond tract have all asked for a more open process.

Public hearings are part of every phase of redevelopment, but only a small legal notice is required to alert the public to the opportunity to comment. The new tide of redevelopment proposals has left residents and business owners curious and sometimes worried about effects on their property.

About 20 years ago, the main redevelopment targets were the 600 block of South Second Street, Park-Madison and Tepper’s. The Park-Madison block now has a four-story office building, stores and a parking deck on it. The former Tepper’s department store has been converted to 75 apartments, with stores and other uses on the ground floor. There are still parcels on the block that need redevelopment. The 600 block is currently a temporary parking lot for a nearby church.

During the eight years of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams’ administration, several more projects were added. Some are small, single lots and others include dozens of properties. Since Robinson-Briggs took office in 2006, the focus has shifted to transit villages, which are dense residential and mixed-use projects centered on train stations or mass transit hubs.

The City Council agreed in 2006 to let the Union County Improvement Authority take charge of redevelopment. With council approvals at each juncture, the authority has made studies, plans and agreements with developers.

So far, the only developer to get to the point of site plan approval is Dornoch Plainfield LLC, with a privately-funded proposal to build a new senior center along with 63 two-bedroom condos at 400 East Front Street. Construction is slated to start July 3. The city-owned tract was turned over to Dornoch for $1 in January.

Other proposals are being pursued under state redevelopment laws that allow for taking of property by eminent domain. The city must take all the steps laid out in the state statutes, starting with an “in need of redevelopment” study. The area, whether it is one lot or several acres, must meet at least one of eight criteria in order to be declared in need of redevelopment. Most have to do with deterioration or blight, but just being in the city’s Urban Enterprise Zone is enough reason to move on to the next step of creating a redevelopment plan. Each property’s status must be documented in the study.

The completed plan offers parameters for the types of uses in the redevelopment area. At this point, no development entity is named. As developers come forward, the city may choose one for “conditional designation” and set a time frame for an agreement to be struck.

In August, the city approved a 90-day conditional designation for Landmark Development as redeveloper of the North Avenue Historic District. Landmark proposes a new entertainment plaza and 415 residential units while retaining the ornate facades of the district’s 1880s buildings. AST Development Corp., which built the new Park-Madison downtown office and retail complex, also received a 90-day conditional designation to redevelop the West Front Street Marino’s tract, named for an auto dealership that vacated the site. A 70,000-square foot supermarket is planned for the West End site.

Landmark received two extensions before an agreement was signed in May. There is no agreement yet with AST Development Corp. for the Marino’s site.

The agreement spells out what the developer intends to build, as well as various obligations of the parties involved.

An agreement is still in the works for the East Third/Richmond development, where Capodagli Property Company received conditional designation for a proposal that includes 352 residential units in five buildings, with 700 parking spaces at ground level.

Besides the main projects, there are many others.

Twelve-unit luxury condos are proposed for a lot at West Second Street and Madison Avenue and also for a lot on the Tepper’s block on West Front Street.

A North Avenue extension includes the PNC Bank block and the East Second Street half of the block between Park and Watchung avenues.

The 600 and 700 blocks of South Second Street were to become part of a revitalization plan related to a new middle school, but the failure of the School Construction Corp. has held up the plan.

An East Second Street commercial neighborhood redevelopment plan is still conceptual.

Plans for the Macy’s block have not been discussed lately. The former department store is now a Supremo supermarket.

A needs study has been ordered for more than 90 properties around the Netherwood train station.

An auto repair site on East Fifth Street is slated for redevelopment, as is a former aluminum factory nearby.

The Arlington Heights project has 12 condos on one lot and six more are proposed for another lot northwest of the first block.

The 197 properties redevelopment plan involves scattered sites around the city. A Westfield developer was given permission to build on about 67 lots, but only built on about half of them before dropping out.

In the McWilliams administration, the deputy city administrator was in charge of economic development. Currently, there is an Office of Economic Development within Public Works and Urban Development, but the UCIA is now the main driver of redevelopment. Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier is the city’s point person for redevelopment. Most documents pertaining to redevelopment are on file in the Planning Division on the second floor of City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave.

Park-Madison and Tepper’s received substantial city givebacks. On Park-Madison, only the retail portion yields tax revenues. The Horizons at Plainfield development on the Topper’s block received tax abatements. A key question to ask for future development is how each project will benefit the city in terms of tax revenues contrasted with impact on city services.

I will be unable to attend the forum Wednesday due to another meeting that I must attend. I hope those who go to Washington School will be enlightened and become motivated to keep track of all the proposals in the future. The city could change radically if the new transit village concept is carried out.

Stay strong and pay close attention, as they say on WBAI.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, June 25, 2007

Coyote in Plainfield?

Someone who posts on the Star-Ledger forum reported seeing a coyote recently at Central Avenue and Randolph Road with animal prey in its jaws. Another resident also saw the coyote and called police, she reported.

Maybe that explains the smelly, mauled carcass that Maria and I encountered a few weeks ago on the Randolph Road border of Cedar Brook Park. I surmised that a hawk may have made the kill, never imagining that a coyote might be in the vicinity.

Coyotes are not always brown, as I thought. They can be black, blond or red, according to the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. They hunt both day and night.

Read more here.

Anyone who sees a coyote is advised to notify both the police and the Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Many people see deer in the city and on my block near Park & Seventh we have seen skunks, raccoons and opossums. Sometimes a rabbit can be seen nibbling grass in front of Municipal Court on Watchung Avenue. A few years ago, a black bear wandered into the West End and climbed a tree on Grant Avenue. Coyotes have increased in number and it is quite possible that they are invading urban areas.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sale Benefits Districts

Two of the city's residential historic districts are joining forces for a garage sale that continues this afternoon (Saturday, June 24) until 5 p.m. and tomorrow (Sunday, June 24) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 829 Park Avenue.
The event was organized to raise funds for new Crescent Area Historic District signs. An old one is at the right and the bigger, new one is on the left. Parking is available in the south lot of the Plainfield Public Library across the street from the sale site.
Each of the six residential historic districts is supposed to have a district association that interfaces with the Historic Preservation Commission, but only a couple are organized and active. Both the Crescent and Van Wyck Brooks districts now have blogs to share their news with the public. Click here for Crescent and here for Van Wyck Brooks.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Council Makes Annual Liquor License Decisions

Eight bars, one social club and one package goods store will be in limbo as of June 30 since the City Council decided June 20 to take no action on their liquor licenses.

Each license holder will have to take out temporary licenses until the governing body, which acts as the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control board, grants or denies renewal.

In its annual review of all the liquor licenses, the council voted to renew licenses for four social clubs, six bars and 12 liquor stores.

The council also approved a person-to–person transfer of a license for the Rusty Spigot to Mahamatie Beni, trading as Latino Heat Sports Bar & Grill at 308 Watchung Avenue.

The Richmond Beer Garden’s consumption license was renewed, but no mention was made of an application to have a store there instead of a bar. The building was closed months ago and is under renovation.

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the non-renewals of four inactive licenses will most likely be appealed to the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is within the Attorney General’s office. The city may deny renewal of an inactive or “pocket” license after two years if the owner has not found a location, but because a liquor license is valuable, the state generally tries to work with the license holder to protect the investment.

Two licenses that the city renewed are for establishments that are facing suspensions imposed by the state. The Anchor Bar on West Front Street had its license renewed pending an 89-day suspension and a store called San Homa Liquors at 1001-03 East Second Street won renewal pending a 62-day suspension.

Councilwoman Linda Carter said Wednesday the report of police calls at each licensed establishment in the city was in a code that she could not decipher. Carter said previously the report had been in a format that she could interpret. She asked for a new version of the report in understandable language.

Carter also asked for more frequent reports on police calls at place where liquor is sold or consumed, perhaps quarterly or twice a year rather than just once a year at license renewal time.

Resident Sheldon Green again asked the City Council to straighten out the matter of the proper address for a Grant Avenue liquor store. Green said he has asked the city for the past few years to get the proper address on the license, but nothing has happened. Mail is misdelivered and people at the address on the license have been inconvenienced by the mix-up. Williamson said police will check on it, but City Clerk Laddie Wyatt said the address on the license comes directly from tax records. City Administrator Marc Dashield said those records will be checked as well.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Maybe it was the enchanting perfume wafting across Watchung Avenue from a linden tree in full bloom.

Maybe it was the sheer bulk of the City Council agenda.

Something ineffable has interfered with my ability to blog today, so I am declaring it a mental holiday.

If you want to be similarly transported out of quotidien concerns, stand under the linden trees in front of Plainfield High School or at the bus stop near the Salvation Army and inhale. This is a far preferable method to boggling one's mind with the volume of council decisions.

Wait, I just figured it out - it's the summer solstice!

Throughout antiquity and even today, this day calls for a break in the daily routine to make time for revelry and celebration of nature. Indulge yourself!

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Meet Peter Carter

Interim Superintendent Peter Carter met some of the city's most outspoken members at the June 19 school board meeting. Carter was hired June 8 at an emergency board meeting following former Superintendent Paula Howard's June 6 resignation. Howard them sought to rescind her resignation June 10. Speakers at the June 19 meeting generally applauded the board for quickly putting Carter in place and hiring Michael Donow as school business administrator/board secretary to replace Victor Demming, who left the district June 1.
--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Carter Gets Warm Reception

It was standing room only at Interim Superintendent Peter Carter’s first school board business meeting Tuesday, but the crowd was not there to question the whirlwind events that brought him to Plainfield.

Instead, the school board received a standing ovation for the June 8 votes to accept the June 6 resignation of former Superintendent Paula Howard, to hire Carter and then to approve his recommendation of Michael Donow to fill the vacant school business administrator/board secretary position.

Carter, a career superintendent who retired in 2004 from the Ringwood district, said he is in Plainfield only “for people who are 3 to 18 years of age.” Recalling the years when he lived in neighboring Piscataway, Carter remembered meeting with former superintendents Larry Leverett and the recently deceased Annette Kearney.

“At one point, I said I wish I could afford to live here,” he quipped, alluding to Plainfield’s historic mansions.

“And I remember your children – beautiful children,” he said in asking for support. He pledged, “I will do everything I can while here.”

Most of the speakers who came to the microphone in public comment supported the board’s decisions.

Retired educator Geraldine Boone likened Howard’s sudden resignation to a “temper tantrum” and with the board’s acceptance of it, she said, “It’s over.”

“I think the change is good,” Boone said.

Others concurred.

“I stand behind the board 100 percent,” activist Brenda Gilbert said.

Gilbert later guided the wheelchair of former Mayor Richard L. Taylor, an amputee due to diabetes, to the microphone, where he gave his “unequivocal support” to the school board.

But not all agreed.

The Rev. Tracey Brown, a former board member, did not speak publicly but said privately she felt some board members who took Howard’s side in the past acted in a two-sided and fickle way by endorsing the sudden change. “I’m really appalled,” she said.

Dissenters to the decision to accept Howard’s resignation, including former board members, had met last week with Union County Schools Superintendent Carmen Centuolo in Assemblyman Jerry Green’s Watchung Avenue office. But their concerns were eclipsed Tuesday by the outpouring of support for the board’s decisions.

In further changes, the board accepted the resignation of Howard’s Chief of Staff Angelina Chiaravalloti Tuesday effective July 31, but in a “walk-on” item also abolished the title of chief of staff effective July 1. In other last-minute changes, the board approved hiring an assistant superintendent, Walter F. Rusak, at $600 per day.

The board approved hiring of Garnell V. Bailey at $135,000 per year to serve as Human Resources director starting in September.

Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley, the minority law firm that previously replaced Weiner Lesniak as general counsel, will now also replace Weiner Lesniak as labor counsel effective July 1.

After a presentation on test scores, Carter said, “Those are not my test scores,” and vowed to seek improvement.

Carter already wangled a calendar change that will have students returning on Sept. 6 instead of Sept. 10.

Meanwhile, the district will undertake a search for a new permanent superintendent and if he’s lucky, Carter will return to his daily routine of observing the Atlantic Ocean from Rehoboth Beach, Del.

--Bernice Paglia

Summer Hiatus Supersizes Council Agenda

Monday’s City Council agenda was jam-packed with reports, presentations, discussion items, 88 resolutions and four ordinances, with more items from closed session to be added for Wednesday’s regular meeting. The lengthy meeting was the price to be paid for having only one voting meeting this month.

The regular meeting will be at 8 p.m. Wednesday (June 20) in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. It will most likely be much shorter than Monday’s session, as many items will be approved in a single “consent agenda” vote.

Among Monday’s items:

Councilman Don Davis, who serves as liaison to the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, said solid waste and sewer rates will increase as of July 1. The authority approved rate hikes in April that will increase solid waste charges for a single family home from $133.02 quarterly to $159.65 and sewer charges from $106 to $127.25. The 20 percent increases come after three years of flat rates and were due to higher costs for fuel, maintenance, disposal and benefits. Davis said the authority tried to stave off increases through staff furloughs.

Councilwoman Linda Carter described plans for a multi-event “National Night Out” that will run several weeks. Among the events are a July 17 “Taste of Plainfield” and nights when each of the city’s four wards can demonstrate against crime, a Youth Day and an appeal to churches to recognize National Night Out. Volunteers are asked to attend a June 26 meeting at the Save a Life Today headquarters at Liberty and West Sixth Street. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. The culminating event will be a “big block party” at City Hall, Carter said.

The council will be asked to give final approval Wednesday to amendments to the Land Use Ordinance. The changes deserve a story of their own but suffice it to say for now that several have to do with increasing density. The document is on file in the Planning Office and the City Clerk’s office.

The city plans to establish a new communications center on the fourth floor of City Hall Annex. It will include a “server farm” and will link City Hall, the Annex, police headquarters and Municipal Court. Finance Director Ray Daniels said police and fire already have their own systems.
“This will close the loop,” he said.
The mention of three remote “home office“ connections caught this writer’s eye. Daniels explained that nobody will be telecommuting, it is just an option that may be used for emergency services.

Next up was Public Affairs & Safety Director Martin Hellwig, who gave a PowerPoint presentation on his proposed reorganization of the Police Division, including elimination of the position of police chief. There is a preliminary post on Plaintalker from last night, but a further explanation will be posted later.

“Changes are needed,” Hellwig said. He outlined how each of the five bureaus would be restructured and said he would place an “executive officer” in charge of the division instead of the chief. Current Chief Edward Santiago could then retire or go back to being a captain, Hellwig said.
Santiago gave comments outside the meeting.

While reporters were outside with Santiago, the council discussed several other items, including new state storm water regulations and a raft of liquor license matters. Appointments for the Planning Board, Plainfield Public Library Boardand Cultural & Heritage Commission will be up for a vote Wednesday.

Budget matters included setting a 2.48 percent increase in the municipal tax for the first and second quarters of the 2008 fiscal year that starts July 1.

A revised redevelopment resolution for the North Avenue extension may be up for a vote, as well as a fireworks agreement and several other Public Works & Urban Development matters.

The council was asked to approve liens against 12 properties that had to be cleaned up at public expense because owners did not remove trash and debris or clear tall grass and weeds. The lowest lien was $243.21 and the highest was $5,496.85. The liens total $28,475.47 and the moral is, clean up your property yourself.

Three bond ordinances will be up for first reading Wednesday. One is for $7 million to repair roads, the second is for $1.2 million to pay for information technology upgrades and the third is for various improvements at a cost of $1.3 million.

There were even a few more items on the agenda. Almost every one could have been developed into a separate news story. I will try to break some out in the next few days. This situation of too much on the platter will happen again in July and August, each month having just one regular City Council meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

BOE meeting at PHS

Despite the listing on the Plainfield District web site, the meeting tonight (June 19) is at the Plainfield High School library.

The agenda includes many personnel approvals, including the resignation of Chief of Staff Angelina Chiaravalloti effective July 31.

The resignation of her boss, Schools Superintendent Paula Howard, is still a matter of controversy.

The Board of Education took it at face value, accepting Howard's resignation on the date it was tendered, June 6.

Howard has since attempted to rescind her resignation on June 10.

The school board meeting is 7 p.m. tonight (Tuesday) at the Plainfield High School Library, 950 Park Ave., Plainfield.

A large public turnout is expected for this meeting, which represents the first opportunity for public comment since Howard resigned.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hell to the Chief

As Police Chief Edward Santiago looked on Monday, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig told the City Council Monday his new reorganization plan calls for an “executive officer” to be in charge, leaving the chief the choice of retiring or reverting to the status of captain.

Santiago, who has eight years to go before mandatory retirement, said outside the meeting, “What you see is a dangerous politicization of the police department.”

Santiago disputed the statistics in Hellwig’s Power Point presentation and called it “embarrassing,” saying he had no “heads-up” that his job status would be part of it.

Both Hellwig and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs denied that it was an attack on Santiago, but the chief said it was set up since the beginning of the mayor’s administration in January 2006 “to get rid of the chief of police.”

The dispute over who should be in charge of law enforcement goes back a decade or so.

The city charter calls for a civilian public safety director, currently only in charge of police and fire operations, but one question explored in a 1990 charter study was elimination of the public safety director.

Since the new administration took charge, the argument has veered more toward replacing the police chief. Hellwig proposed having a captain in charge, although when Santiago was suspended by the mayor previously, a low-ranking lieutenant was put in charge over five captains and several higher-ranked lieutenants.

Council members were unsure of their role regarding the recommendation and it was unclear how it might be implemented.

Santiago said outside the meeting it would require a change in the city’s special charter, but later said it might mean a change in the municipal code.

Hellwig’s presentation covered changes and proposed innovations in the Police Division’s five bureaus, mainly geared toward getting more officers on the street. But in one example, Santiago said the state Department of Corrections mandates officers on duty in the city jail and that all civilian staff opens the city to liability.

Santiago has the backing of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police, which on its web site spells out the differences between chiefs and civilian public safety directors.

The dispute is far from over. Interested citizens should try to inform themselves.

Meanwhile, Plaintalker will try to expatiate all the proposed and actual changes in another post.

--Bernice Paglia

A n Interesting Summer Sight

In my travels Sunday I came across this Smoke Tree in the 500 block of West Sixth Street. Its clusters of panicles do seem to be on the verge of dissipating into the air like smoke. Like lightning bugs that also come out around this time, it is one of Mother Nature's more quirky concoctions.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Special Event Draws Hundreds

On Sunday (June 17, 2007) Plainfield became only the third city in the United States to receive a blessed image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas.

The event was marked by ethnic dances, a procession, a Mass with dignitaries from Mexico where the sacred relic of the Virgen de Guadalupe resides and a joyful celebration afterwards for the community.

Previously, only Los Angeles and Chicago received specially blessed images that were tied to the 16th century event in which a poor Indian, Juan Diego, received a miraculous message from the Virgin Mary, who appeared in the form of an apparition, addressing him in his native Nahuatl language. The Virgin asked for a church to be built and sent Juan Diego to petition the bishop to do so. To counter the bishop’s skepticism, the Virgin directed him to a place where he found roses growing in the cold. He gathered the roses in his cloak and took them to the bishop, who found an image of the Virgin in his coarsely-woven cloak.

The cloak, or tilma, is the artifact that is preserved in the Basilica in Mexico City, attracting thousands of pilgrims annually. The image that came to Plainfield was touched to the tilma and blessed. The city received an image of St. Juan Diego, also blessed.

About 1,000 of the faithful crowded St. Mary’s Church, for the Mass. Monsignors Pedro A. Rivera Diaz and Jose Luis Guerrero of Mexico took part.

Church administrator Vincent Nunez said the idea was to give local people a chance to worship here when realistically they could not go back to their home villages to carry out their religion.

Among the day’s events, the group used the plaza at the Union County Office Building to good effect, event though no rules have been established for that space.

There was more controversy on West Sixth Street, where the one-way street was blocked without a permit, then cleared, then allowed to be used once again for the feast.

To this writer, the most important thing was the overwhelming expression of faith. Dancers came from all the way from Danbury, Conn. to demonstrate their faith.

The introduction of the images of La Virgen de Guadalupe and San Juan Diego brought some of the faithful to tears.

One woman knelt on the pavement behind the Park-Madison complex in homage
The event gave Maria Urena “Mucho alegria,” or much happiness, she said.

More images from the celebration;

Flags of Central American nations were carried.

This image of St. Juan Diego and that of Our Lady of Guadalupe were framed with dozens of fresh roses.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Yates House

It has been my privilege since 1992 to live in a building that was once the home of one of the city's first council members. Shipping magnate Joseph Yates came to Plainfield in the mid-19th century and was on the original governing body in 1867.
I can only imagine the life of its inhabitants before the building was lifted and turned sideways, making way on the block for some rather nondescript apartment buildings. Nowadays it is a six-family, but because of its configuration on a very deep lot, we enjoy more green space than anyone else on the block.
Unfortunately the building is just outside the Crescent Area Historic District and has none of the protections afforded by the Historic Preservation Ordinance. Its exterior is crumbling due to water damage. We often find bits of the decorative woodwork in the yard. Without better intervention, time will take its toll and maybe the building will be replaced by another nondescript apartment building (or some condos - it's only a short walk to the main train station).
The clock is ticking for the Yates building. I sense it every time I see a new crack in the stucco facade or watch birds and squirrels invading the eaves. Whatever its glorious past, it is headed for an ignoble future. To those who enjoy the fruits of the historic preservation movement in Plainfield, I say, be glad. The expense of replacing "like with like" and other strictures may feel like burdens at times, but those who comply are ensuring a legacy of outstanding architecture for generations to come.
Wherever I go next, be it another communal household like the old Rainbow group on West Eighth or some form of senior housing, I will remember with joy the 10-window porch room whose light wards off Seasonal Affective Disorder, the gardens that literally bring me back to earth, the cardinals and goldfinches that visit our yard and the intricate workmanship that I see in details of the building.
Meanwhile, I will stay on in this location that lets me walk to City Hall, the Plainfield Public Library, Plainfield High School, the post office, the downtown and train and bus stops. I'm living the transit village life, thanks to the Yates house.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Getting the News Out

Freelancing is taking up more and more of my time lately. Most of it has been feature stories, but I have also been reporting some news. I hope my readers can keep track of the ongoing subjects such as redevelopment and the school leadership situation whether the stories are here or in print. Thanks to everyone who has given me kind words lately.

The school situation is far from settled. Many questions have come up over the action taken Friday night (reported on the blog). About five times the usual number of attendees came to the work & study meeting Tuesday, but the format did not allow for questions to be asked other than those regarding agenda items. The public will have a chance to ask general questions at next Tuesday’s business meeting. That meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. at Cedarbrook School, but the location may be changed. I will be checking the legal notices for any special meetings.

Some residents are questioning the process by which Superintendent Paula Howard’s resignation was accepted. The board accepted it on Friday (June 8), effective June 6, the day it was tendered in writing. An interim superintendent and interim school business administrator/board secretary were hired Friday and were on the job Monday. Some think Howard should have had 60 days more on the job.

The precipitating factor in the new hires is said to be the need for a new business administrator since Victor Demming left the district June 1. The agenda for the board’s June 5 meeting had a resolution to hire a new BA/BS, as well as to hire an interim BA/BS and to engage a firm for financial matters through the end of June. But the board took no action on any of the items and Howard gave her written resignation the next day.

The dilemma supposedly then became that there was no superintendent to recommend a new BA/BS. Hence the emergency meeting Friday to accept the resignation, hire an interim superintendent and upon his recommendation, hire an interim BA/BS the same night.

There are lots of questions here for all involved. Lawsuits are on the horizon. And all this is happening just as state officials are scrutinizing the way the district functions. Sorting it all out may take a while.

Meanwhile, the City Council will resume its meeting schedule next week with a 7:30 p.m. agenda session Monday at City Hall Library and a regular meeting at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Municipal Court. Redevelopment contracts and liquor license renewals are among likely topics.

The council was on election hiatus for the June 5 primary. Incumbent Second Ward Councilman Cory Storch won over contender Tony Rucker and Storch will now face Republican Deborah Dowe in November. The Democratic City Committee held its reorganization Monday and Assemblyman Jerry Green retained his seat as chairman of the Regular Democratic Organization.

As I reported for the Courier News, Paramount Property Management has several new tenants downtown since purchasing the Pittis Estate, and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has announced a simultaneous groundbreaking and start of construction July 3 at the East Front Street site where Dornoch Plainfield LLC will build a new senior center and 63 condos. I also reported the sad news of Cassell “Sonny” Wood’s death in a car crash.

If I hadn’t been so busy, I would have taken a photo of the portrait of Anne Louise Davis in the room named in her honor at the Plainfield Public Library. I’m hoping people will remember her today, Flag Day, for her devotion to the flag and the ideals it represents, as well as for her total dedication to the city of Plainfield. If you are new to the city, ask an older resident about Anne Louise and her headstrong ways when she had an idea about how to better the Queen City. The portrait shows a lovely young Anne Louise, but even in her older years she cut an elegant figure as she went about her business of public service and advocacy for her causes.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Trade Plants, Save Money

On my way to a charter school Monday for a press assignment, I passed a yard with lots of sundrops. The cheery display reminded me of how glad I was to receive a bunch of these flowers several years ago from former resident Mahendra Budhan. I had admired his garden while on an assignment to discuss the cricket team he led (the one that meets Sundays in Cedar Brook Park).

I forget what I gave him in return from my garden, but it was a good trade. Sundrops can spread into a large colony, but they are easily transplanted to new locations. After flowering, they are best cut down to the rosettes that turn reddish in fall. The late spring show of blooms doesn’t last long, but it’s quite a sight.

Plant trading is fun and saves money. I think it is an ideal way to beautify one’s neighborhood or to acquire new plants at no cost. It requires a bit of planning to make the transfer, but then so does a trip to the nursery to buy plants. Give it a try this summer.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Where's the "Public" in Public Education?

According to the Plainfield School District web site, the school board will meet Tuesday, June 12 in the Plainfield High School conference room with an executive session at 6:30 p.m. and a work & study meeting at 8 p.m.
The business meeting will be 7 p.m. June 19 at Cedarbrook School.

Usually there is a legal notice in the Courier News that confirms the date, time and place.

For those who are not familiar with school board meetings, the work & study meeting is the one where board members and the superintendent discuss items and decide whether they will be moved to the agenda for a vote at the business meeting. The work & study sessions often yield valuable background information as well as individual members’ views and concerns.

Often items are added to the agenda for the business meeting, mostly personnel matters that may have been discussed in closed session. There is a mechanism for board agendas to be published online, but most often this does not happen. Printed copies are usually available at the Plainfield Public Library, at a table to the left and rear of the reference desk.

This writer’s main gripe with trying to attend board meetings is that the posted opening time for public sessions doesn’t mean much. The board actually opens the meeting at 6:30, then immediately goes into closed session. Depending what they have to discuss, the closed or executive sessions can drag on past the 7 or 8 p.m. stated time to resume public session.

On Friday, there was a legal notice for a 6 p.m. executive session and a 6:45 p.m. business meeting and as required for emergency special meetings, the items to be considered were stated, albeit it in acronyms: “CSA proposed resignation. Appointment of interim CSA. Appointment of interim BS/BS.”

Even though I scoured the paper for Plainfield legal notices that day, I missed that one. It was right in the middle of the page. This was not the first time that I had a hard time seeing a legal notice that was in plain view. There’s something about 230 square inches of legal print that fools the eye. When I looked at the same page later, the notice leapt out at me.

The point is, it’s not easy to find out when and where the meetings are, let alone what’s on the agenda. And the frequent need for the board to adjourn into closed session can make the pace of these meetings daunting to the average citizen.

When Plaintalker started two years ago, it became clear that covering both the City Council and the Board of Education meetings was going to be a huge challenge. We tried to see whether we could get anyone who would cover the BOE meetings and report stories in a factual and objective way. We did not find anyone who was willing to take it on, even among those few who already attended most meetings.

Newspapers nowadays are short-staffed and can’t send reporters to meetings that go on for many hours. Deadlines are earlier than ever and there is no way to assure that the anticipated news story will unfold in time to be filed for the next day. Bloggers have more flexibility, if they can stand to put in the time to get the story.

At times, various community groups have sent representatives to meetings in order to report back on the issues. But even that commitment can become onerous.

If board meetings were recorded and played on the local cable channel, maybe more people would be able to follow the action on their own schedule. Or maybe it would still be too much trouble.

The coming years may hold a lot of changes for the school district. Abbott districts may see their funding reduced. The new monitoring system could result in actions as drastic as state takeover, depending on the findings. Teacher turnover is a big issue. Then there are issues of gangs and violence in the schools, lack of parental involvement, accountability of the administration and more. Coverage and analysis of these issues may be spotty at best, even though the school budget dwarfs the municipal budget.

The district now faces a search for a new superintendent. History tells us that there can be a superintendent who will challenge and engage the community to participate in public education, who can get contracts settled without rancor, who can be honest with parents, students, taxpayers and politicians and who sincerely understands and embraces the opportunity to make urban education work.

Is there another such leader out there? For Plainfield’s sake, we hope so.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, June 08, 2007

Howard is Out, Carter is In

In a marathon executive session punctuated by brief public portions Friday, the Plainfield Board of Education accepted Schools Superintendent Paula Howard’s resignation, hired an interim superintendent and then hired an interim business administrator.

In the emergency meeting Friday night, the board accepted Superintendent Paula Howard’s resignation effective June 6, the date she tendered her resignation by letter.

The board approved hiring of Peter Carter effective Friday around 9 p.m. and after another executive session approved the appointment of Michael J. Donow as interim school business administrator/ board secretary, effective Friday. Carter will receive $850 per day as interim superintendent and Donow will receive $700 per day.

Carter, who retired in 2004 from the Ringwood school district, was previously the Essex County schools superintendent, he said.

On the face of it, the district will see new leadership on Monday morning.

The emergency meeting was based on the fact that after Victor Demming resigned as business administrator/school board secretary effective June 1 and Howard subsequently resigned, there was no authorization to pay school district bills, including paychecks, according to Assemblyman Jerry Green.

The emergency meeting followed a failed meeting Tuesday at which the board was asked to approve Evan S. “Steve” Gillingham as interim business administrator/board secretary at $100 per hour. Another proposed resolution would have authorized payment of up to $10,500 for financial advisory services through June 30.

There was also a blank resolution Tuesday to hire a “Business Administrator/ Chief Financial Officer/Board Secretary,” a dubious title, at an unknown rate of pay and duration of service. But the board came out of executive session and took no action before adjourning the meeting.

On Friday, the board went into executive session at 6 p.m. as advertised in the emergency notice in the Courier News, but the stated 6:45 public meeting did not start until after 7 p.m.

That was when the board accepted Howard’s resignation.

At 8:55 p.m., the board considered the resolution to hire Carter.

About half an hour later, Carter exercised his power as superintendent to recommend Michael J. Donow as school business administrator/ board secretary.

All this took place on a Friday night where one had to be there by 6 p.m. and stay until nearly 10 p.m. for the outcome.

At the end, there was only one member of the public (me) to witness the events.

Anyway, there is more for the public to follow in upcoming meetings where school board officials must declare their intentions. A school district with such a large budget must inform citizens of the rationale for decisions and must say what the district’s long-range plans and goals are.

--Bernice Paglia

Madison Playground Repairs Coming

Playground improvements will be made to this site near the new county complex, a representative of Schoor DePalma told the Planning Board Thursday.

Jeff Marsden was unable to attend a May meeting with the board and his substitute, Eric Mattes, told the board only a portion of the playground upgrade could be done due to lack of funds. But Marsden assured the board Thursday that founding sources had been found to complete the work. The project has been advertised for bids and Marsden said the work could be completed by late August. He said the biggest problem for the successful biidder might be having enough lead time to get equipment and materials to do the project.

Meanwhile, an annual basketball tournament is scheduled for the end of July.

If necessary, temporary repairs will be made to the parking lot to allow people to stand and watch the game, Marsden said.

In May, Mattes said the 11 parking spaces would be expanded to 36. A discussion of the change revealed that about half the spaces might be leased to residents of a proposed 12-unit condo development on a vacant lot across the street (top left in photo). Marsden said the number of spaces would be 27, including a handicapped parking stall.

Plans call for two play areas, one for children ages 2 to 5 and another for children ages 5 to 12. A seat wall will be erected between the two areas. A 4-foot steel fence will be installed around the play area.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, June 07, 2007

While walking home from the Senior Center, I spotted this wildflower in a planter near the Strand Theater.

It is one of my favorites, called Venus' Looking Glass. I have never found out why this relatively inconspicuous flower has such a fancy name, but to me it is part of its charm. The color is lovely and I like the way the leaves clasp around the flower.

For a closer look, click here.

It's always a pleasant surprise to find a special wildflower, whether in a meadow, forest or downtown planter. When I first began studying wildflowers, I read my guides over the winter in hopes of recognizing the plants in their habitat and blooming season.

Another small but interesting flower is called Poor Man's Weather Glass. It is salmon-red, with purple markings. One of its other names is Scarlet Pimpernel.

The common names of wildflowers obviously came from a time when people were much closer to nature and had time to study each plant's qualities. Discovering a wildflower always makes me think of those simpler days.

--Bernice Paglia

Howard Resigns?

Now we know what happened in the closed session that preceded Tuesday’s odd Board of Education meeting.

Star-Ledger reporter Alexi Friedman reports that Schools Superintendent Paula Howard’s resignation was confirmed by Union County Schools Superintendent Carmen Centuolo and that Centuolo will meet with Howard and some board members privately today.

If Howard’s resignation sticks, the district will be without a superintendent as well as a business administrator, since Victor Demming already left June 1.

This writer will be delving into the matter, either as a blogger or a reporter, later today.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Storch Wins Primary

Incumbent Second Ward Councilman Cory Storch overcame a primary challenge from newcomer James “Tony” Rucker, garnering 329 votes to Rucker’s 174.

Rucker said he will still stay involved in city affairs, especially in plans to develop the downtown, where he proposed building a technology center.

Rucker said he hopes to make a “multi-generational bridge” between young people and professionals in the community.

Storch could not be reached for comment, but Assemblyman Jerry Green credited party loyalty for the win.

“It was a team effort,” said Green, who is also the Democratic Party chairman. “People went in and they voted the line.”

Both Storch and Rucker created blogs to put forth their views. While Storch primarily stuck to issues, Rucker veered into posts that compared incumbents to trough-swilling hogs and denounced blogger Dan Damon for his perceived support of Storch.

On Tuesday, Rucker supporters sat at polling places with inflammatory signs that said Storch wanted to throw Park Hotel residents out on the street.

The blogs are still up, Storch here, Rucker here, if anyone wants to review them.

Storch covered a lot of territory – code enforcement, development, quality of life, public safety and sustainability, stating concerns and offering his solutions – while Rucker tended to generalize. Instead of a simple retort to Damon, he launched into a lengthy diatribe. He said the city accepted money for other towns’ fair housing obligations when it has always been a point of pride in Plainfield to refuse such arrangements. As for his vision of a technology center downtown, maybe he is not aware of past efforts to build a corridor on North Avenue for such applications.

If Storch wins in November over Republican Deborah Dowe, constituents have a road map in the blog to his goals for a second term.

In Plainfield’s system, Rucker could run next year for the citywide at-large seat. Asked about it last night, he demurred, saying that was “way ahead of the game” and voicing respect for incumbent Harold Gibson. Rucker said he might be interested in serving on city boards and he wants to be part of a conduit or platform for people to invest in downtown Plainfield.

Rucker certainly has a passion for Plainfield and its future. If he can learn more about the community and leave off the vitriol, he could play a significant role.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

BOE Meeting a Bust

The agenda for Tuesday’s special school board meeting included a resolution to appoint a new business administrator/board secretary, but after an hour in closed session, members emerged and board President Patricia Barksdale said no action would be taken.

Former business administrator/ board secretary Victor Demming left the district June 1 to take a similar post in East Orange.

The resolution Tuesday had blanks for the name, date of hire and salary of the new individual.

The agenda Tuesday also included a resolution to hire Evan S. “Steve” Gillingham as interim business administrator/board secretary at $100 per hour and one to hire Lerch Vinci & Higgins to provide financial advisory services for the district until June 30, but no vote was taken on either of those items. The firm was to have helped the district respond to the state Department of Education’s request for more information regarding the 2007-08 budget at a fee not to exceed $10,500.

The meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m., at which time Homeland Security Director Don Moye opened the door to the nearly empty school library and announced there would be a 20-minute delay. Although the library was fitted out for a crowd, only Plaintalker and a staff member to operate the sound system were present. As time passed, two other people came in.

Just before 8 p.m., board members entered. After the Pledge of Allegiance, Barksdale said no decision was made in executive session and no action would be taken in public on any of the items. The meeting was then adjourned.

The meeting clashed not only with the June primary, but also the school district’s “Laws of Life” awards ceremony Tuesday at the high school. In addition, the agenda for the meeting was not placed online. Those who bemoan poor attendance at board meetings might take this as the “poster child” example of how not to engage the community. Call a meeting, don’t let folks know what it is about on the official web site, set the date to conflict with other important events. And then don’t take action.

The average citizen who might have sat around for an hour only to find there was no outcome will surely opt for staying home with TV the next time and figuring the system is just too cryptic to follow.

Prom Styles

Plaintalker went to the Plainfield Public Schools web site Monday in search of an agenda for tonight's Board of Education meeting. According to a legal notice, the special business meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the Plainfield High School library.

There was no agenda posted for tonight's meeting, but there was a rather lengthy slide show of students dressed up for the prom.

Having forgotten to go to the Plainfield Public Library today to look for a printed agenda, Plaintalker tried the web site again in the wee hours, but the latest available agenda was for the May 15 meeting.

It's a bit annoying to have a school district web site that doesn't help citizens find out what matters the school board will be discussing. Not everybody has the time to go to the public library and look for a printed copy.

Meanwhile, the prom photos seem to have been taken down off the web site. Too bad the agenda could not have been posted while somebody was in there.

On the city side, the stuck-in-time municipal web site that doesn't even have the new cabinet members hired in January is supposed to be fixed by June 30. We'll see.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Eyesore Mars City Crossroads

In contrast with the neat borders of the Shakepeare Garden, the thousands of people who pass through the center of Plainfield daily see this unsightly array of weed trees and overgrown shrubbery around the Twin City lot.

The supermarket does not own the property. It is owned by a Somerville firm. The lot is cleaned up on a regular basis, but the shrubbery has not been trimmed for some time. A holly tree has grown six feet high in the in the shrubbery along Park Avenue and at the corner, ailanthus trees have shot up through the landscaping.

A consultant once told city officials that one big impediment to economic development is visible neglect, as evidenced here by these gangly weed trees. The city has the authority to make the owner get rid of the weeds and trim the shrubbery.

Hundreds of people who visit the Shakespeare Garden take away a lovely memory of Plainfield. At this crossroad in the region, is it too much to ask that commuters and residents see a well-kept commercial property instead of a weedy mess?

The Inspections Division also might take another look at a nearby Park Avenue lot where a Hillsborough owner has kept a truck and a car with two flat tires for many months. And on West Sixth Street, a collapsing building that was to be taken down weeks ago is still slowly falling apart.

Some say Inspections needs more staff. Others say it needs better strategies. The results of a state study of the division's functioning have not yet been made public. Meanwhile, Plaintalker suggests that the division and its leaders may simply lack the will to pursue these blatant violations.

Whatever the reason, these out-of-town property owners feel no compunction to obey the city's maintenance code. What does that say to those who are being courted to build here and those who will be invited to buy condos here? Certainly there are many individuals here who show great pride in their property and set high standards for themselves. But if developers see that the city can't or won't uphold its own standards, some might be attracted by the ability to cut corners and others may be put off by investing in a rundown block or neighborhood where newcomers might not want to live.

The problems with Inspections go back decades. The time to solve them is now.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, June 02, 2007

June 5 Primary

When I was a fulltime reporter covering Plainfield, people would ask me, “Who do you think will win the election?”

My stock answer was, “Ask me on Wednesday.”

This was partly because reporters are not supposed to express opinions. We leave that up to the editorial page writers.

Blogging is different and has no rules except those self-imposed on the blogger.

Plaintalker set out to be spin-free, primarily offering factual information for the reader. The blog did not start until after the 2005 primary. In the turbulence of the rest of 2005, my former blog partner and I did not always agree on how to proceed. My view is that Plaintalker should not endorse candidates or show support for individuals before Election Day.

On Wednesday, I think an analysis of the outcome is fair.This year is unique in that there are more blogs than ever about Plainfield, including two by the primary contenders themselves. The Second Ward’s 2,250 registered Democrats have plenty of information on which to base their selection. The Crescent Area Neighborhood Association even held a forum featuring the two Democrats and the Republican the winner will face in November.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. Each voter should have received a sample ballot by now that indicates the polling place. The ballot also includes candidates for the Democratic City Committee in each voting district. On the Monday following the election, the committee will choose a chairman to serve for two years.

As for what I think about the election … ask me on Wednesday.

Bernice Paglia