Friday, November 30, 2007

Hoodies with Masks?

Cooler weather has spared us the sight of urban fashion devotees' boxer shorts sticking out of their low-slung jeans. But are you ready for the new trend?

Having recently read on Boing Boing about hoodies with face masks, I was surprised to see some on sale in downtown Plainfield. The local mask style resembles the homicidal film character "Jason."

So instead of seeing all too much of someone's underwear, we can now look forward to seeing none of their facial features.

This trend, which dates back to 2005 according to online sources, is expected to explode this winter. There are all sorts of face masks in the U.K. and the trend has spawned a debate over whether a person must show his or her face in public. Critics argue that someone in a burqa cannot be identified by public security cameras, so what's the hassle over zip-down face masks?

Others say the masks are nothing more than a hooligan's tool to do harm anonymously.

Personally, in my pedestrian travels around the Queen City, I would not want to encounter an individual wearing a hoodie face mask.

One wag suggested the trend could be defused in the U.K. by distributing such garments to old age pensioners for health reasons. The usage would then deflate the hype.

Others noted that people in Japan have no compunctions about donning surgical masks in public to avoid germs, so what's the difference?

The Book of Ecclesiastes may say there is nothing new under the sun, but this one caught me unawares.

--Bernice Paglia

Planners Probe Land Use Issues

Future development should feature higher buildings with more density around four city transit hubs, planners agreed Thursday, but split over the preferred kind of land use.

In a special meeting Thursday (Nov. 29, 2007), the Planning Board discussed aspects of the land use element of the master plan. The city has committed to transit-oriented development, meaning tying proposed projects to rail and bus links at two existing train stations and two former ones. While many of the proposals are for residential development, some Planning Board members asked for more consideration of “community commercial” and light industrial development along the Raritan Valley Line rail corridor.

Community commercial development might include businesses such as Home Depot alongside the tracks, and light industrial development would continue the historical uses of rail-side buildings.

Board members agreed that the tallest buildings and highest density should be in the central business district, which includes the main train station on North Avenue. They favor six stories as the maximum height, although a developer has proposed higher buildings behind the existing historic commercial buildings around the station. For the Netherwood station, board members envisioned a height of four stories. For development at the sites of former stations on Clinton and Grant avenues, the board agreed that development needed to produce enough density to convince NJ Transit that the stations should be restored.

The discussion was keyed to the concept of transit-oriented development, a popular notion along rail lines statewide. Seventeen “transit villages” have been designated by the state Department of Transportation, but only a few have progressed to development, Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said.

Nierstedt presented a chart comparing the heights, density and other statistics in the 17 designated locations and a few others. But board members asked for more statistics showing how Fanwood and Westfield set parameters for their transit-oriented growth.

The question of where to put parking was discussed. Plainfield currently relies on parking lots, but underground garages or parking decks may have to be built to accommodate new development. Planning consultant George Stevenson of Remington & Vernick said he knows the city is planning a six-story parking deck off East Second Street between Watchung and Park avenues.

Board members Donna Vose and Cory Storch stressed the need for some light industrial or commercial development to provide jobs. So far, most proposals have been for residential development.

Late in the discussion, the issue of putting multi-story residential buildings right next to the train tracks emerged. Storch recalled how the board disagreed with a proposal to put a middle school next to the train tracks and said, “Now we’ve done a kind of 180 flip here.”

Board member Gordon Fuller, a railroad executive, agreed.

“There is nothing that strikes terror into my heart like building residential right up against the tracks,” Fuller said, citing complaints about noise from train whistles, bells and idling engines.

Fuller said noise can be buffered by trees and landscaping, but only up to about three stories. Those living on higher floors would get all the noise.

The board then discussed having community commercial uses along the north side of the tracks east of the main station, as suggested by board member William Toth, an architect. Toth also suggested adaptive re-use of the existing industrial buildings along the tracks, Nierstedt countered with concerns about land cost and brownfields problems.

Besides what will go in the clusters around the transit hubs, board chairman Ken Robertson and others questioned what would be built between the four circles. Robertson said he didn’t want “a wall of apartments” all along the rail line.

Still unresolved is where the city’s Public Works yard will go if displaced by a proposal to redevelop the north and south side of the tracks between Richmond and Berckman streets. City Administrator Marc Dashield said the city is looking at some sites, but none has been selected.

Discussion of the land use element will continue at the board’s Dec. 20 meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Senior Center Progress

I'm not sure what this structure is, but maybe the mayor will explain at her monthly meeting with seniors on Dec. 4.
Look to the rear to see a big backhoe or somesuch atop a really big pile of soil.

More progress, to be explained Dec. 4. The mayor will meet with seniors at 10:30 a.m. on that date at the current senior center, 305 E. Front St.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Holiday Cheer

As I walked on Park Avenue toward Front Street today, I heard the plaintive notes of Charlie Brown's Christmas song. I wondered if it was coming from the music store on the corner, but then spotted trumpet player Ron Michaels in front of Casanova Pizzeria.

Michaels explained he has been performing in public since he was in 7th grade.

"That's all I do," he said.

He mentioned doing studio work for an Aleve commercial and performing as first trumpet with the Somerset Valley Orchestra and I knew I was looking at one of those all-around musicians who are the bedrock of the performing arts.

A Bound Brook resident, Michaels said he is friends with the pizzeria owner and likes visiting Plainfield. He said the benches on the plaza across the street fill up with listeners who sometimes call out requests. And with a hefty canvas bag full of songbooks, he's likely to oblige.

So if you think you're hearing a live trumpet performance of "Happy Holidays" while you're stopped at the light, you're right. If you are shopping, honor the tradition of live street music by dropping something in the tip can.

Santa is sharing this window with La Virgen de Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, whose feast day on Dec. 12 will have the full attention of Plainfield's burgeoning Mexican and Latin American population. The poster next to the yellow phone card signs proclaims four days of celebration at St. Mary's Church.

The jolly old elf will still get his share of adulation later on, especially from those who have been nice. The naughty ones (we won't name names) will have to brace for lumps of coal (or target letters).

Take a break from the mall or online shopping soon and check out the window art downtown. And spend some dollars in the Queen City! Suburban Jewelers has been a destination for shoppers for about 50 years and now there are some new stores to browse. And Special Improvement District President Lisa Cohen says the popular horse and carriage rides will be better than ever this holiday season, with free drawings for lots of good giveaway items donated by merchants and groups.

--Bernice Paglia

No Action at Saturday Meetings

A legal notice today clears up a few things about the Saturday Board of Education meetings.

First of all, the executive session to discuss legal/personnel contracts will be held at 8:30 a.m. in the Plainfield High School conference room, not at night as stated on the district web site. Then there will be a special meeting at 9 a.m. in the same room "to establish Board goals for 2007-08."

No formal action will be taken at either meeting, according to the legal notice.

At least we won't have to march upstairs and say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag before finding out no action will be taken.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

All Hands on Deck

The image above was one I pasted into the front of my assignment book in 1988, my first full year at the Courier News. I was juggling a lot of responsibilities and such things reminded me to have courage.

When Interim Superintendent Peter E. Carter spoke to the community one evening, he compared the district to a listing ship when he arrived and saw his task as righting it. His comment reminded me of my 1988 watchword and I got out my old book to have another look.

Unfortunately, circumstances have brought on heavy seas and the district is again looking more like a shipwreck. But now the Parents Empowering Parents group is using a nautical rallying cry for its upcoming meeting: "All Hands on Deck!" The meeting is from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday (Nov. 30, 2007) at Washington Community School on Darrow Avenue. Questions from residents on the state monitoring report, the searches for new administrators and other topics will be addressed to panelists from the district, municpal government, clergy, teachers, local business owners and state government representatives.

At the bottom of the district web site, there is a list of other upcoming events that include a special meeting at 9 p.m. Saturday (Dec. 1, 2007) , a work-and-study meeting on Dec. 11 and a business meeting on Dec. 18. However, no further details are included, such as the locations. Clicking on the link next to meeting dates only brings up the November schedule.

At least it's a little heads-up. Maybe the board schedule grid can only do one month at a time. If so, the December schedule would only show up the day of the unusual Dec. 1 special meeting.

Kinda reminds me of a Friday night in June ...

--Bernice Paglia

Grace Church Welcomes New Choir Director

The Rev. Carolyn Eklund tells us that Grace Episcopal Church will hold a reception after the 10:30 a.m. service Sunday (Dec. 2, 2007) to celebrate the arrival of Robert H. Gangewere Jr. as organist and choir director. He will also be director of the Plainfield Community Girlchoir.

From her press release:

Mr. Gangewere will develop adult and children’s choir programs as well as perform on the church’s Casavant organ. He holds a Master’s degree in Organ Performance and a Bachelor’s degree in Choral Direction from Westminster Choir College, as well as having studied organ privately for two years in France. He comes to Grace Church having worked at Fanwood Presbyterian Church for 19 years. There he developed multiple adult and children’s choirs as well as the hand bell choir. Mr. Gangewere says one of his proudest moments at Fanwood Presbyterian was the youth production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” He comments, ”The kids were so motivated to produce the show that they even made their own costumes.”
The Rev. Carolyn Eklund, rector of Grace Church, says,” Mr. Gangewere will bring a diversity of music to Grace, while at the same time keeping what’s best of our traditions. He has a passion for giving children an important role in worship and in the life of the parish.”
Mr. Gangewere, a resident of Plainfield, has also accepted the position of director of the Plainfield Community Girlchoir. In 2006 the choir ended its concert season with a prize-winning performance at the Toronto Music Festival. Girls wishing to audition for the choir may call 908 756-7897 for an appointment. The Plainfield Community Girlchoir is a division of Plainfield Community Outreach, Inc., the nonprofit corporation of Grace Episcopal Church.
Grace Church will celebrate Mr. Gangewere's arrival at a reception after the 10:30 a.m. Sunday service on December 2, 2007. They invite the community to join us in our welcome of Mr. Gangewere.
For more information, please call The Rev. Carolyn Eklund, Rector of Grace Church at 908-756-1520 or Jane Wilson, President of Plainfield Community Outreach at 908-756-7897.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

County Clerk Heralds Presidential Primary

I saw this brochure at the Plainfield Public Library and my mind played a trick on me. I thought I was looking at leftovers. Today I was more alert and realized the familiar yellow brochure that as a reporter I always anticipated in January was out early because New Jersey will, for the first time, hold a presidential primary in February.

The last day to register to vote in the presidential primary is Jan. 15, thus the early edition. The Presidential Primary Election Day is Monday, Feb. 4.
There will still be an April school board election, a June primary for state, county and local candidates and of course the general election on Nov. 4.
Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi does a bang-up job of informing voters and this brochure is no exception. Pick one up at the Plainfield Public Library and be informed of all the filing, registration and voting dates for 2008.
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 26, 2007

Update on Park & Seventh

A new signal box and the base of a lamp post are evidence of the 5 a.m. accident that snarled Park Avenue traffic for about five hours Monday (Nov. 26, 2007).

Police Chief Edward Santiago said the new signal box cost about $10,000 and the city's Signal Bureau had it fixed by noon. The PSE&G street lamp has not yet been repaired.

Police collected pieces of a vehicle that apparently caused the destruction, but Santiago said the type of vehicle was not known as of Monday afternoon.

Here's a close-up of the light stanchion base. The city has ornamental period lamps north of the intersection, but none were damaged. By late afternoon, a displaced wrought iron waste receptacle was back in place and the corner had been tidied up.

Authorities promised an update on the type of vehicle involved as soon as details are available.
Many people see the Signal Bureau hanging banners and putting up holiday lights, but this is the vital kind of work they do the keep regional traffic moving through the city. Hats off to the Signal Bureau!
--Bernice Paglia

Finance Director Resigns

A. Raiford Daniels, the city’s finance director since November 2006, has resigned from his job for personal family reasons, City Administrator Marc Dashield confirmed Monday (Nov. 26, 2007).

Daniels was in charge of the largest of three city departments. The Department of Administration & Finance, Health and Social Services includes the comptroller, Division of Audit and Control, Division of Community Relations and Social Services, Health and Social Services, Municipal Court, Personnel Division, Purchasing Division, tax assessor, tax collector and Senior Center.

Dashield said he will serve as acting department head in addition to being city administrator until a successor is named to the post.

“There will be no interruption in terms of the department,” he said.

Dashield said the resignation was submitted within the last week and he believes Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has accepted it. The mayor did not return two phone calls Wednesday.

Daniels is leaving just as the City Council is finalizing the FY 2008 budget and the long-awaited new senior center is under construction. Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya is also leaving Dec. 31 for retirement and a search is on for his successor.

Daniels kept somewhat of a low profile in the cabinet. No bio or resume was ever made public at the time of his appointment and the page on the city’s web site for him has no background information, while the other two department heads, Martin Hellwig and Jennifer Wenson Maier, do have resumes posted.

Since January 2006, Daniels is the third person to have been in charge of the department. Former City Administrator Norton Bonaparte Jr. stayed on in the new administration after Jan. 1, 2006 as head of the department, but left in March 2006 to become the first city manager of Topeka, Kan. Carlton McGee, the mayor’s choice for city administrator, then informally served as department head until he left in October 2006, leaving both posts to be filled.

Dashield, formerly the chief financial officer in Franklin Township, said an employee in the Plainfield department also holds the certification and will serve as acting chief financial officer.
--Bernice Paglia

Vehicle vs. Light Pole

North-south traffic on Park Avenue was detoured Monday (Nov. 26, 2007) after an early-morning incident that knocked down a large light pole at Park and Seventh. The light pole had been removed by the time I got out to take this photo, but debris can be seen strewn along the corner as Signal Bureau employees work on what appears to be a new signal box.

More details later.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Theater Experience Right Here

As publicity person for the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, I sent out a press release and wrote a feature story for the Courier News about Joe DiPietro's play, "Over the River and Through the Woods," about an Italian family's need to keep family close despite the temptations of fancy jobs and new opportunities.

Someone at church asked me whether I was planning to see the play and I demurred, saying I was not a theater person. But then I was intrigued by my own story about attorney Renato Biribin, who received the gift of acting lessons from his family on his 60th birthday, reviving a youthful ambition.

So my neighbor and I went to see the play today and found it completely enjoyable. We only had to walk across Municipal Lot 7 to get there, but it's worth a trip from anywhere. Tickets are $15 and performances will take place at 8 p.m. on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at the church, 724 Park Ave.

Church member Art Lieberman took the cast photo above, which features L-R: Sheila Harding of Plainfield, John Boucher of Somerset, Victor Lucariello of Union, Michelle Morin of South Plainfield, Jean Dembaugh of New Providence and Renato Biribin of South Plainfield.

The Act IV company is carrying on one of the longest community theater traditions in Plainfield and is definitely a city asset.

--Bernice Paglia

Good News

Click here for some good news, courtesy of the Plainfield School District web site.

The district web site is one that residents might want to bookmark, because there is a lot of good information on it. Click here for the home page.

Some of us have enjoyed Peter Carter's letters to the community since he came on board. There may be only one or two more to go and we will miss them.

The web site has agendas and minutes from school board meetings and a lot more useful day-to-day information. It actually does serve a purpose for the community. You can dig down into information for each school.

Currently Plainfield taxpayers are only asked to come up with less than $18 million in local school taxes, while the state kicked in $99,967,767.99 for the 2007-08 school year. In years to come, Plainfielders will be asked to do more, as pressure builds to change the school funding formula. In most suburban districts, property owners pay most of school costs.

Ooops! Better quit before we go from good news to not-so-good news.

--Bernice Paglia

Winding Down - What's Next?

This should only be the middle of the school year but it feels like the end, with the district's top administrators on their way out. Searches are on for a new superintendent and high school principal. The district will soon also need a new board secretary/business administrator. The board approved the title of assistant business administrator, for an added focus on fiscal matters, but that post must also be filled.

On the city side, Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya is leaving and the search is on for his successor. This is a key position, but Sepelya also brought to it a deep understanding of Plainfield as a municipal entity. It's the only urban center in a sea of suburbs and has its own special fiscal situation.

Who will fill all these posts? In coming weeks or months, we will find out. Besides bringing the skills of their professions, we hope the new people will "get" Plainfield and appreciate its unique personality.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Finding Cheer

For those of us who tend to slide into gloom from December through March or April, the local situation doesn’t help much. Uncertainty and disarray in the school district, a certain clumsiness two years into the city administration and the everyday tension arising from gun violence across the East End and West End tend to make life feel more dicey than usual to the glum among us.

The antidote is finding little rays of sunshine wherever one can. I rely in part on the porch with 10 windows that is in my portion of this former one-family mansion, now sliced-and-diced into six apartments. Out there, I can fuss with my fall cuttings and coddle them until spring arrives. A few shelves of greenery go a long way to dispel the feeling that the seasons are not turning fast enough.

Another cheery thought for this weekend is that author J.M. Benjamin of Plainfield is scheduled to be the subject of a New York Times interview and video tomorrow. He used his time in prison to develop his writing skills and is now selling his books instead of drugs. I wrote two Courier News articles about his personal success as an urban fiction author as well as the growing interest in the genre itself. He told me the articles have engendered interest from other media, for which he is grateful

Me too.

And while ordering some double amaryllis for relatives, I was entranced by this White Flower Farm description of the Amaryllis “Aphrodite”: “Named for the Greek goddess of love and beauty, these fully double blooms with lightly ruffled edges are demure but magnetic. The snow-white petals with pink brushmarks and darker pink tips will draw you irresistibly closer.”

I added one for myself to the order and expect to spend many hours of anticipation and enjoyment in the next couple of months from this plant.

Winter is always a good time for a creative project. In sorting some fabric, I came across an iridescent blue-black scrap from a reverse-applique design I made several years ago. Reverse appliqué means cutting through layers of fabric to reveal the colors below, as opposed to putting a motif on top of a background fabric. It is precise work, as anyone who has seen a mola can attest. My project had been a vest that had the symbols for weather elements on the back in reverse appliqué. The changing shades of the iridescent fabric added to the symbology. I wore it to the “Weather” show of the old Tweed Art Gallery, back in the day when Plainfield had three art galleries downtown.

Grow something, make something, help somebody. And before you know it, spring will arrive.

--Bernice Paglia

Please Confirm

Gossip in Plainfield tends to be about 95 percent accurate when it comes to city government.

The trick is to get the powers-that-be to say the words.

Maybe on Monday that will happen. Calls went unanswered on Wednesday.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, November 23, 2007

Christmas Tree Lighting Nov. 30

The invitation to the annual Christmas Tree Lighting advises people to “dress for the weather,” but who knows what it will be.

It was balmy for Thanksgiving Day and in cleaning up some files, I found a Gmail page that I saved as evidence that it was 72 degrees on Jan. 6 in Plainfield. Maybe layers will work. Start with a summer outfit and bring a fleece jacket.

Inside City Hall last week, people were admiring the handiwork of Phyllis Ali, who decorates the rotunda and an indoor Christmas tree each year. The compliments ran from praising her ingenuity to appreciation for mélange of ribbons, ornaments and lights that resulted in a beautiful focus for the visitors who will come to see Santa on next Friday.

The evening will begin on the front steps of City Hall at 6 p.m. with special guests, caroling and choir performances. Children and parents will then file in for Santa visits and gifts. There will also be a light meal offered to the public. The Division of Recreation is looking for volunteers to help. Call (908) 753-3097 to sign up.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 22, 2007

PHS Principal Vote Fails

A vote to appoint John Martucci as interim principal at Plainfield High School failed Tuesday (Nov. 20, 2007).

The resolution called for Martucci to receive $134,960 on a pro-rated basis, plus $2,000 longevity, for the 2007-08 school year. The appointment would have been effective Dec. 10. Those who voted “yes” were Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, Lenny Cathcart and Christian Estevez. Wilma Campbell, Lisa Logan Leach and Bridget Rivers voted “no” and Board President Patricia Barksdale and Vickey Sheppard abstained.

At present, Interim Assistant Superintendent Walter Rusak is also the interim high school principal. A recent search for a new high school principal yielded no results and officials said a new search will begin in the spring.

But Rusak has resigned, effective Dec. 31, so there is some new urgency to get a high school principal.

The school board did approve the appointment of Deborah Cummings Celestand as vice-principal at the high school Tuesday.

Celestand was listed on the district web site as interim vice principal, along with four vice principals, including Martucci.

- Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Carter Speaks on Shooting Response

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter recounted how district officials learned of the tragic shooting of 16-year-0ld Marquise Randle, a Plainfield High School student.

Carter said Interim High School Principal Walter Rusak was at a school dance Friday evening when he was informed of the shooting. Officials immediately began strategizing “what to do on Monday to help,” he said.

An open line to the young athlete’s hospital room was arranged “so the football players could talk to their team-mate,” Carter said.

“It is a police matter, but it is also a human matter,” he said. “We can hug the children and tell them everything is going to be as all right as possible.”

Staff members went to the hospital and were at the young man’s side Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Carter said.

“That’s the kind of humanity we have here in Plainfield,” he said.

Marquise, the son of Plainfield Police Officer Khisha Bethea, suffered partial paralysis when he was shot in the stomach Friday by a Roselle police officer. The circumstances are under investigation by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. Carter left it to the press to give updates on the progress of Marquise’s recovery, but he said, “Be assured, my people, the human side of this administration pervades everything, every day, for as long as we are here to do it.”

--Bernice Paglia

Top School Administrators Still Leaving

Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter said Tuesday (Nov. 20, 2007) he may stay on after Dec. 31, but he said both Interim Assistant Superintendent Walter Rusak and Interim School Board Administrator/Board Secretary Michael Donow “have not altered their intentions” to leave the district on that date.

The departures will leave the district with fractured leadership unless new administrators can be found quickly. A superintendent search is underway, but a candidate may not emerge until early next year and may not be able to take over until later.

Carter, Donow and Rusak came to the district shortly after the sudden resignation of former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard in June. Former School Board Administrator/Board Secretary Victor Demming had resigned earlier, leaving the two top administrative jobs vacant. Rusak’s post was created by resolution and later he was also named interim principal of Plainfield High School.

The board took no action Tuesday on accepting any of the resignations that were submitted Nov. 7. Carter had been expected to stay on until June 30.

The “post-6/11 team,” as Carter styled himself, Rusak and Donow, soon found themselves dealing with a harsh state monitoring report on district performance. They appeared to be doing their best to address the deficits that preceded their coming to the district when something went wrong in a recent closed session with the school board.

Ever the gentleman, Carter described the falling-out as “a bit of a FAMILY MISSTEP” (his emphasis), but he declined to give details.

Carter called his colleagues’ decision “a serious deterrent to my remaining with you too much longer after December 31.” He promised to clarify his decision in his December 1 letter to the community.

“For now, Plainfield, let me close by saying what I stated a week or so ago, I still love the job, I love the kids, I love the community.” Carter said.

The news of the team’s resignations was leaked to the press Nov. 8 in a possible breach of board conduct. So far, the board member who sent the letter to the press has not been identified.

In another report related to the June events, board attorney Raymond Hamlin said a state Department of Education compliance investigation found that his firm recommended Carter for the post.

“We did not recommend him,” Hamlin said Tuesday.

Hamlin said the firm has 45 days to file an appeal, “which we intend to do.”

Carter was retired and living in Rehoboth Beach, Del., when he received a phone call on the beach, as he related in past meetings. But the question of who called him was never resolved. Howard’s resignation was submitted June 6 and accepted June 8 in an emergency meeting with no printed resolutions. As Plaintalker reported, Carter’s June 8 hiring was followed by his recommendation to hire Donow the same evening.

Hamlin said Tuesday there was an allegation of a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act regarding the emergency Friday night meeting June 8. But no one filed a challenge within the time limits and the matter is now beyond challenge, he said.

Assemblyman Jerry Green raised a question at the time of Carter’s hiring, saying Hamlin had represented Carter in a legal challenge to Carter’s failure to win a top post with the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. Carter was one of four finalists and a lawsuit alleged he was passed over due to racial discrimination.

Whatever the issues are, as of Dec. 31 or shortly thereafter, the district will be left with large gaps in the administration. An interested observer Tuesday was Union County Schools Superintendent Carmen Centuolo, who could be seen taking notes and nodding her head in agreement on some issues. Recently named executive superintendent for Union County, Centuolo may have extra sway in getting the situation settled in Plainfield.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Kingmaker Takes On Queen

John Campbell promised to be like a "broken record" on the topic of tax overpayments owed to residents and last night's City Council meeting was no exception.

The overpayments, totaling $809,984, date back to 1996 and range from $5.40 to $18,292. Owners of property in the 907 accounts can claim the money if they can prove the overpayments. In 2006, former Tax Collector Constance Ludden proposed putting the money into surplus, but Councilman Cory Storch, who was owed $3,000, and other council members asked for more notice to be given to those on the list.

By March 2007, only $29,919 came back to those who overpaid, less than 4 percent of the total sought in February 2006. The council agreed to put $780,065 into surplus, with the proviso that anyone with proof of overpayment would still be able to get a refund.

Campbell, a real estate broker and former councilman, launched his campaign several months ago and recently took the step of personally notifying by mail all those on the list. Despite repeated claims that notices were sent out, Storch and other residents say they never got any notices. See Plaintalker's January 2006 story here.

Campbell's parting shot when he left office many years ago was that he wanted to be the kingmaker, not the king, and he has continued to be a political force behind the scenes. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, effusively called the "queen of the Queen City" by an official at the recent Operation CeaseFire launch was not amused by Campbell's letter-writing campaign and criticized it in her Nov. 7 visit to the Senior Center. She said she disagreed with the letters because they say nothing has been done.

On Monday, Campbell rounded off some of the figures, saying the amount owed was $800,000 to $1 million and that 10 percent of property owners were affected. He said the situation "reflects on the credibility of the tax collector," although Ludden left in 2006 and the new tax collector, Marie Glavan, only took over in April. After Ludden left, the city had a part-time tax collector who was only in on Wednesdays.

"People are talking about class-action lawsuits," Campbell said Monday.

Wilma Campbell echoed her husband's concerns and said Spanish-speaking people were especially in need of help to seek their refunds.

The mayor left the council chambers and came back with copies of the Campbell letters. Speaking at the end of the meeting, she said the situation was "not a negative" but a positive, because the administration was trying to trace eight years of information.

Robinson-Briggs said two versions of the letter went out, one with John Campbell listed as chairman of a realty organization's political action and government relations committee and "a cleaner version" naming him as broker/owner of his Century 21 office.

"The community is being confused," she said, and took special offense at the letters' claim that there had been no results and no refunds within a year.

The issue appears to be making a political rift between the mayor and the Campbells. Before becoming mayor, Robinson-Briggs served on the school board with Wilma Campbell, who won re-election in April. John Campbell frequently makes his views known at City Council meetings and is considered an astute political power broker in the city.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 19, 2007

Van Blake Resigns

City Council President Rayland Van Blake, pictured above at the 2007 annual reorganization, has resigned as of Friday, according to a letter released at Monday's agenda session.

The letter gave no reason but said he was announcing the resignation "with extreme mixed emotions."

In the Nov. 6 general election, Van Blake won a three-year term on the Union County Freeholder Board, but normally would have stayed on in Plainfield until Jan. 1, when he will assume the new post.

The Democratic City Committee must now submit three names to the council to fill the vacancy in the 1st Ward, which Van Blake represented since 2002 after vanquishing 16-year incumbent Elizabeth Urquhart. The council expects to interview the nominees in closed session Dec. 3 and may vote on someone to fill the vacancy at the Dec. 5 regular meeting.

OK, now Plaintalker will veer into speculation.

Although possible nominees were not identified Monday's council meeting, two Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority commissioners are believed to be in the running. They are PMUA vice-chairman William Reid and treasurer Alex Toliver. It may be that Richmond Towers President Hattie Williams is the third name.

Whoever fills the vacancy will have to run in the 2008 general election to serve for the balance of Van Blake's term, which expires at the end of 2009.

In past political practice, the device of appointing someone for a vacancy has served to showcase the person for the upcoming general election. But seldom has the need arisen before Jan. 1.

By stepping down, Van Blake loses not only the balance of his annual $10,000 council salary for the next 45 days, but also his city benefits.

A call to his number Monday evening was not returned as of 11 p.m.

The 1st Ward occupies the city's northeast corner among the four wards and has not been as politically active as others. It includes residential areas as well as part of the downtown.

One thing to watch for is a possible trend to fill vacancies with loyal Democrats who will never question council decisions. The free flow of opinions is greatly to be desired in Plainfield, where once the Democrats offered three members of the Scott family to fill vacancies. The council at that time perversely picked a junior member, when they knew the senior member was the desired choice. There were reasons why the mother/wife could not serve.

Let us hope there will be a free and fair decision on the council appointee, without political machinations.

--Bernice Paglia

First Snow

Big feathery flakes Monday morning gave a snow-globe effect to city views. Then the temperature rose and it was all over.

Frost has nipped the impatiens and nasturtiums, but the classic "killing frost" has not yet happened. Garden clean-up is still on the to-do list, along with Thanksgiving cooking and Christmas shopping.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Amaryllis Time

Red, white, pink, striped, single, double, picotee.

The choices abound. Whether you get a very pricey but high-quality amaryllis bulb from
White Flower Farm in Connecticut or the Smith & Hawken store in Westfield, or just a cheap kit from the local Drug Fair, try growing one of these plants to dispel the winter blues.

When I was a child taking violin lessons in East Orange, I only knew "Amaryllis" as a rather insipid melody to pluck out on the strings. Little did I know what the word meant in the plant world!

Give or get some amaryllis bulbs and spread the joy. The transformation from a big green bulb to a magnificent flower is mind-boggling. The power of nature is seldom more eloquently displayed.

--Bernice Paglia

Angela Perun Passes

A great fighter for human rights and the truth in all matters has passed away.

The Rev. David Leonard told the congregation at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield Sunday that member Angela Perun had died.

A lawyer and chemist, Angela served on the Plainfield City Council from 1978 to 1981 and was a state Assemblywoman from 1982 to 1985. She served on the Plainfield Board of Education for part of a term starting in 1989 and was involved in many community organizations.

She was known to be very outspoken and often made her views known during the portion of the church service known as “Milestones,” where members may speak on important personal events. Hers were most always political.

Angela famously switched parties in 1985. See the New York Times article here.

On Sunday, Rev. Leonard noted the American flag on display in the sanctuary, something Perun had fought for at the church over objections of those who said it should more properly be displayed in the Parish Hall.

Rev. Leonard called her “a good patriot” who believed the flag did not stand for the government, but for “our democratic way of life and for love of the country and the people who live in it.”

Angela was very close to the late City Council President Ray Blanco, who worked on her early campaigns and who was equally passionate about all his causes.

After all her achievements and honors, including being named to the YWCA Academy of Women Achievers, Angela kept up a keen interest in politics and governance. She campaigned last year for a City Council seat.

Though not a good photo, the one above shows her in a typical forceful moment of making a point at a campaign debate. When she had something to say, she said it with all her might. She was a formidable opponent, but more than that, a staunch and tireless advocate for people and causes she believed in. There was only one Angela Perun.
--Bernice Paglia

Police Contracts Top Council News

Many years ago, I used to hang around the City Clerk’s office on Friday evenings until the agenda was finished. Sometimes it was not done until 8 p.m. Then I would go home and write a preview or two for the Monday meeting.

At some point, someone decided I should not have access to the packet before the council members received it and that was the end of my citizen alerts. Still, even by picking up the agenda on the day of a meeting, I had time to make phone calls and gather background information for stories that then needed only the council votes and some quotes from the meeting to round them out.

Now that Councilman Rashid Burney has pledged to put council documents online by Friday evening, citizens and reporters can look them over for themselves and print out any interesting items. Click here to go to the web site.

The trade-off is that you will be using your ink and paper to print out what you want. The agenda for Monday’s meeting runs to 10 pages and each resolution or ordinance is several pages more. To me, the top story appears to be settlement of the police contracts and I only printed out the pages that summarized the increases.

Luckily for me, I have a blog archive from the last settlement in 2005, so I can tell you the prior top salaries from the 2005 settlements. However, my former blog partner Barbara Kerr used to do all the graphics and I still don’t know how to make charts on the blog. Barbara left the blog earlier this year.

Anyway, both the rank-and-file police officers and the superior officers of Police Benevolent Association Local 19 have settled on salaries for 2007 through 2009. The increases are 3.75 percent for each year. Police officers who had a 5-step salary range of $34,927 to $72,505 in 2006 will have a range this year of $36,237 to $75,224, increasing to $37,596 up to $78,045 in 2008 and $39,005 to $80,972 in 2009.

In case the low wage for rookies bothers you, consider that those who stayed on under the old contract received a 52 percent pay increase in the second year. The steps were not indicated on the new chart but the second-year increase for new officers should be similar.

In 2006, the top salaries for superior officers were $84,358 for sergeants, $97,074 for lieutenants and $111,981 for captains.

For 2007, the range for sergeants will be $64,716-$87,521, increasing to $67,143-$90,803 in 2008 and $69,661-$94,209 in 2009.

Lieutenants will have a range of $74,547-$100,714 in 2007, $77,343-$104,491 in 2008 and $80,243-$108,409 in 2009.

The range for captains will be $85,967-$116,180 in 2007, $89,191-$$120,537 in 2008 and $92,536-$125,057 in 2009.

There are other modifications in longevity pay and prescription plans. The projected total cost of the wage increases is $1.3 million over three years. For more details, see the web site.

The contract should be up for a vote Wednesday, less than a year after the last one expired. Negotiations for the last contract went on from 2002 through 2005, and it expired at the end of 2006.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Three Accused in Homicide

Three young city men are in police custody, two charged with murder, after an investigation into the Nov. 4 beating death of Guatemalan immigrant Lazaro Tista.

Muhammad Glasper, 20, of 432 E. Sixth St. and Gregory M. Greene Jr., 19, of 1276 Oxford Ave. have each been charged with first degree murder, felony murder, first degree bias intimidation and first degree robbery. They were arrested at 5:30 a.m. Monday and are each being held on $1 million bail in the city jail, awaiting transfer to the Union County Jail.

Willie Anthony Greene, 18, also of 1276 Oxford Ave., was charged with first degree robbery, first degree bias intimidation and third degree hindering apprehension. He is being held on $40,000 bail, which may be set higher on the robbery and bias intimidation charges.

Law enforcement officials credited Union County Prosecutor Michael Henn with guiding the investigation. According to a press release Saturday, Plainfield Detectives Edwin Rivera and Johnny Henderson and Union County Investigator Jorge Jimenez led the investigation and received arrest warrant approvals Friday. Further charges may emerge from the ongoing investigation, police said.

Lazaro Tista was walking home to North Plainfield early on Nov. 4 when he was attacked. His body was found in the 10 block of Grove Street. After the homicide, Latin American Coalition President Flor Gonzalez raised funds to send his body back to Guatemala, where his wife and seven of his eight children live.

The community effort allowed a wake to be held for Mr. Tista at the Salvation Army building on Watchung Avenue Friday. His body will be flown to Guatemala Monday, police said.

Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow stressed a “zero tolerance” for violent crimes and said any bias crime will incur “significant enhanced penalties.”

Police said Mr. Tista’s family was grateful for the investigation and arrests and will continue to be informed of developments in the case.

--Bernice Paglia

Speak Out on Council Schedule

The City Council will soon be preparing its 2008 calendar. If you favor a return to the traditional Mondays-only schedule, now is the time to speak up.

For many decades, the City Council held its regular meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month, with some modifications for federal holidays, elections and summer months. In 2006, the council changed to a schedule where the agenda sessions were on Mondays and the regular meetings were held on Wednesdays. This gave the council members a busy week followed by a week off. But it made an extremely bust week for City Clerk Laddie Wyatt and her staff, giving only a short turnaround to convert the agenda session decisions into the format for thr regular meetings.

This year, the council started off with the same schedule simply because members could not agree on which of three alternatives they wanted. The matter came up a few times and then was simply dropped in favor of the Monday-Wednesday schedule that most members said they didn’t like

Residents complained that the Wednesday regular meetings forced a choice between Bible study and council meetings. Many city churches traditionally hold Bible study on Wednesdays. Sure enough, council attendance dropped and public participation waned.

Some people believed the new arrangement was created to suit the needs of Jennifer Wenson Maier, who became the city’s director of Public Works & Urban Development in 2007. She was also council president in Rahway and needed to be there on second Mondays.

Yet another issue was the clash of the new schedule with Board of Adjustment meetings, held on first Wednesdays, and with the Planning Board on some Thursdays in weeks with federal holidays. The shift for federal holidays also produced a few conflicts with Tuesday Board of Education meetings.

Whatever you think, now is the time to speak out. The council will meet Monday and Dec. 3 for agenda sessions, with regular meetings Wednesday and Dec. 5. A final agenda session will be held Dec. 17 for the annual reorganization in January, at which the 2008 calendar may be adopted. The Monday meetings are 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. and the regular meetings are 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 15, 2007

BOE: "No Action Taken"

“This is a Rubik’s Cube!”

That was the comment of one of about 25 people who showed up for Thursday’s special Board of Education meeting, which convened and adjourned within a few minutes with no action taken.

The 8 p.m. public session was supposed to include goal-setting by the board and discussion and possible action on personnel, contract and legal matters.

The school board received resignations of its top three administrators last week, according to press reports. They are Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter, Interim School Business Administrator/Board Secretary Michael Donow and Interim Assistant School Superintendent and Plainfield High School Principal Walter Rusak, allegedly over compensation issues. The meeting notice suggested that there might be an outcome this week.

But on Thursday, board members emerged from a 6:30 p.m. closed session in the Plainfield High School conference room at about 8 p.m. and directed the public upstairs to the high school library. After the board led the attendees in the Pledge of Allegiance, Board President Patricia Barksdale announced no action would be taken. In effect, the meeting was over.

Board members Lisa Logan Leach and Wilma Campbell attempted to allow the public to speak, which is not normally allowed at a special meeting. But a majority of the board voted it down.

“There will be no action whatsoever,” Barksdale repeated as the board began to move into closed session. But board members then disagreed about where to hold the executive session, saying some of the proposed meeting rooms were too hot.

Meanwhile, resident Dottie Gutenkauf attempted to organize a citizens’ meeting in lieu of the board meeting.

Barksdale stayed on to assure the attendees no disrespect was intended, but that the board had to follow certain procedures required by law to conduct the public and private portions of the meeting.

Whatever decisions come out of the closed sessions may become public at the Nov. 20 business meeting, Barksdale said. That meeting is 7 p.m. in the Plainfield High School Library, 950 Park Ave.

None of the administrators attended Thursday’s meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Oaths: Made to be Broken?

What's wrong with leaking executive session information?

First of all, a board member makes certain pledges. Here's one: "I will recognize that authority rests with the Board of Education and will make no personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the board."

Here's another: "I will hold confidential all matters pertaining to the schools which, if disclosed, would needlessly injure individuals or the schools. In all other matters, I will provide accurate information and, in concert with my fellow board members, interpret to the staff the aspirations of the community for its school."

In other words, the board as a whole, not any individual, works out those matters of personnel, contracts and possible litigation that are protected by the rules for executive session. The board always has to vote in public at some point on these matters and that's when a dissenter can vote "no" or express an opinion.

Leaking such matters is simply breaking the rules.

Waiting for an official decision might have only staved off the dismay that many felt at this new sign of trouble in the school district, but both the administrators and board members who obeyed the closed session rules would at least know they upheld their oaths. The post-6/11 team did not go public in a press conference. But while the outcome is still unknown, now they are being portrayed in online forums as "bandits" ruled by greed. Speculation is taking the place of facts. Once again, Plainfield is coming across as a lawless place where anything goes.

Pulling strings and pushing buttons are two of Plainfield's favorite indoor sports. But who benefits? Not the community. And maybe not even the string-pullers and button-pushers, who can find themselves the next victims of the everyone-for-himself mentality.

Next time an elected official raises one hand to take an oath, somebody should look behind his or her back to see whether the other hand has its fingers crossed.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Meeting Update

The Board of Education meeting tomorrow night (Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007) will include an executive session at 6:30 p.m. in the Plainfield High School Conference Room to discuss "personnel, legal/contracts" according to a legal notice today and then an 8 p.m. special meeting to establish board goals and to discuss personnel, legal/contracts. Formal action may be taken, the notice states.

The school board has received a joint letter of resignation from three top interim administrators who were hired after former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard submitted her resignation in June. The board accepted Howard's resignation within days and replaced her with Interim School Superintendent Peter E. Carter. Interim School Business Administrator/Board Secretary Michael Donow and Interim Assistant Superintendent Walter Rusak, also the interim principal at Plainfield High School, state their intention to resign effective Dec. 31 over issues of compensation, according to press reports.

The leak of the resignation letter set off more tumult, as reported in Plaintalker earlier today.

--Bernice Paglia

Barksdale Condemns Resignation Letter Release

In the first school board meeting since top administrators’ resignations were leaked to the press, Board President Patricia Barksdale expressed outrage Tuesday and said the Union County Prosecutors Office will be asked to investigate the matter.

In addition, Barksdale said the issue will be taken up in closed session at a special meeting Thursday that had been advertised as a goal-setting session for the board. The meeting is 6:30 p.m. Nov. 15 in the Plainfield High School Conference Room.

Barksdale said she was traveling last week and was somewhere between Interstates 66 and 95 when she began receiving calls from reporters about the intended resignations of Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter, Interim School Business Administrator/Board Secretary Michael Donow and Interim Assistant Superintendent and Interim High School Principal Walter Rusak, effective Dec. 31. Reportedly, the interim administrators felt they needed more compensation for the unforeseen duties in addressing massive deficiencies in the Plainfield school district.

Barksdale said she had not yet seen her board meeting packet that included the letter and was “appalled” that a board member would furnish the information to a newspaper. It was a headline story Friday in the Courier News, based on the letter, and Plaintalker also had a commentary Thursday, but did not receive the letter..

“No one – no one had the right to provide that letter to the media,” Barksdale said Tuesday.

Barksdale said the matter “found its way to the newspapers before the board could convene to discuss it.”

On Tuesday, she thanked Carter, Rusak and Donow, “whether they stay or go,” but said, “We’re not going to let anybody take down the district.”

Carter was next on the agenda to give remarks, but said only, “Mr. Carter just says, ‘Hear, hear, Madame President, well-stated.’ ”

Even though Barksdale said the matter would be referred to the prosecutor’s office, the more usual venue for such issues would be the School Ethics Commission. But first of all, the board would have to identify the board member in violation in order to press the case. So far, no board member has been identified as the miscreant.

For an example of a school ethics case, click here.

To see the School Ethics Act, click here.

If in fact the top administrators resign, there may be a gap between Dec. 31 and the time when a permanent superintendent, identified through a search, takes office. According to the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the search initiated recently may not yield candidates until January and may not produce a finalist until February.

Eric Jones, president of the 1,200-member Plainfield Education Association said Tuesday the problem was an ”in-house issue” between the school board and the top officials.

“The association will continue to educate the students of Plainfield,” he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What Next?

Courier News reporter Brandon Lausch quotes Interim Schools Superintendent Peter Carter as saying he can't continue working with the school board. It made me wonder how things came to this pass. My blog reports in June covered the past turmoil with Paula Howard and the warm reception Carter enjoyed. See these reports here and here.

Going through the June 2006 reports also reminded me that the city's self-declared deadline to get the web site in order passed June 30. It still is not upgraded. June was also the month when Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig announced his plan to reorganize the Police Division without a chief. The proposal blind-sided Police Chief Edward Santiago, who was in the room but knew nothing of the plan.

There was another June blog post on the difficulty of following the school board's meeting schedule. Click here to see it. Residents will have to pay attention in coming weeks to see what becomes of the district's leadership situation. Tonight's work-and-study session is 8 p.m. at Plainfield High School. See you there.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Day 2007

World War II veteran Royce Motley was one of about 30 people who took part in the Veterans Day observance Monday (Nov. 12, 2007) at the War Memorial on Watchung Avenue.

Motley served in the U.S. Army and the Air Force for four and a half years. He then worked for the Veterans Administration for 36 years before retiring and has spent 15 years as a volunteer, helping veterans navigate the VA bureaucracy.

"People don't know where to go," he said.

Motley said he helps people get assistance from veterans' hospitals in Lyons and East Orange.

Now 84 years old, Matley had lots of stories about his service in New Guinea and the Philippines during World War II.

"We used to take pilots to the air strip aand wait for the planes to come back," he said. "We would count how many planes were lost."

Matley is looking forward to the promised Veterans Center in the new building at 400 East Front Street that will also house a new senior center and 63 market-rate condos.

"That'll be nice," he said.

Currently, veterans' organizations meet in diverse locations including Elks and Masonic lodges in the city.

Veteran Frank Coit led the ceremonies, which followed observances the day before, on the classic eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Thgere was apparently no publicity for the Sunday ceremonies. Veteran Robert Dixon said he left church to take part Sunday. The Dixon family had a special reason to mark Veterans Day, as granddaughter Jessie Dixon returned home Friday from service in Iraq.

Those who took part Monday made sure proper respect was given to all who served.

Still. it was a small turnout, perhaps because of the overlapping events.

Here's the whole crowd on Monday. Let's do better next year.
--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Speak Out on Redevelopment

This was the map presented this summer in Westfield showing the quarter-mile and half-mile radii from each of four transit hubs in Plainfield. It was shown to the Raritan Valley Coalition. Have you ever seen this map? Do you know how it affects your neighborhood? The administration wants to build high-density structures around the two existing train station and the locations of the two demolished train stations at Grant and Clinton. Last week, the Planning Board was given maps of these four places with indications of the high- and lower-density areas around them. So far, only one contract has been signed for redevelopment and that is for the three blocks near the main train station. But that area is going to be expanded to include the parking lot behind the stores on East Front Street, between Watchung and Park avenues. Next time you are down there, imagine a five-story parking deck and buildings eight stories or higher.
The three original blocks are in the lower right corner of this map. The expansion itself has gone through a few changes and I myself have lost track of where it stands. The Netherwood study has been scaled down from 93 properties to 16 and is still at the stage of an "in need of redevelopment" study. But a redevelopment plan may be offered before the end of the year. The print media is not covering Plainfield redevelopment closely and even the blog can't include every detail. Residents who want to track it should try to keep abreast of Planning Board and Board of Adjustment meetings, where details emerge eventually from the administration's weekly closed-door meetings on redevelopment. Also there are only two voting meetings left for the City Council this year, Nov. 21 and Dec. 6. Keep an eye out for redevelopment news at these meetings. Each is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Planners Question Proposed Density, Uses

The next time planners see a depiction of the Netherwood redevelopment study area, they said, they want to see color keys to brownfields, vacancies, residential use and other indicators of conditions on the 16 target lots. And they want to know what plans the city has to relocate the Public Works yard that is one of the targets.

At a special meeting Thursday (Nov. 7, 2007) George Stevenson of Remington & Vernick displayed a map that showed the whole area in battleship gray, without any distinction of existing conditions or use. The study area, reduced from more than 90 lots, is now between Richmond and Berckman streets on both sides of the Raritan Valley Line and extends east to the boundary of the city yard across South Avenue from Central Street. Neither Stevenson nor mayoral representative Barbara James could say Thursday where the city intends to relocate the yard.

The planners also want to know what exists on all four adjacent sides of the study area.

In questioning, Stevenson confirmed that there is a suggestion of five-story residential buildings for the site. That set off more questions about density closer to the Netherwood train station. The theme of transit-oriented development is high density around train stations, phasing to lesser density in a widening radius. But most of the proposed Netherwood target area is outside the quarter-mile range. Planning Board member Ron Scott-Bey asked whether five-story construction there would mean a higher density of 12 stories around the station.

Planners received four quarter-mile maps Thursday for discussion of the four transit hubs - Netherwood, the main station on North Avenue and two sites of former stations at Grant and Clinton avenues.

Planners said the process seems to be “project-driven” and “developer-driven” rather than reflecting what the community might want in redevelopment. Planning Board member Donna Vose said the city needs industry that will provide jobs, not all residential development.

Planning Division Director Bill Nierstedt said planners must consider what concessions they want from developers in return for higher density, such as ground-level plazas or other amenities.

Around the main train station, a 2000 redevelopment plan only included three blocks north of the tracks. But with recently proposed expansions to the west and south, the North Avenue Historic District redevelopment area is now to be known as the “North Avenue Expanded Area.” The historic 1880s buildings of the city’s first commercial district will be preserved, but high-rise construction behind them is proposed.

A large redevelopment area south of the main train station was studied, but is not part of the plans now under consideration. Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson said the Downtown Station South study was sent to the City Council, but the board received no response.

The Planning Board will not meet on Nov. 15, due to the League of Municipalities meeting. The next meeting will be Dec. 6.

--Bernice Paglia

Operation Ceasefire Outreach Workers Graduate

State Attorney General Anne Milgram praised eight city volunteers for putting “faith over fear” in the battle against gun violence, and Criminal Justice Director Gregory A. Paw called them “up-standers – people who will stand up and say, ‘Enough.’”

The new community outreach workers are the last piece needed to launch “Operation Ceasefire” in Plainfield, a collaboration of law enforcement and city residents. They were honored in ceremonies Friday in the Plainfield Public Library.

“Our role is to stop the next shooting,” Milgram said, calling Plainfield as the “perfect type of city for us to work in” because of the high level of commitment she sees to curb gun violence.

“Everyone is engaged so sincerely and passionately with us,” Milgram said at the graduation ceremonies for the volunteers, who took 40 hours of training, including 10 hours of late-night street observation in Newark, Irvington and Plainfield.

Liberty Community Development Corp., affiliated with Mount Olive Baptist Church, is the lead agency working with law enforcement to launch Operation Ceasefire.

“We feel empowered.” executive director Angela Piggee of Liberty CDC said, noting the church has been in the West End for 137 years, but the community doesn’t like seeing “young people sitting there looking hopeless.”

Piggee said the West End has its own culture, but some of it needs to change.

Piggee and seven others received certificates to mark their graduation from the Operation Ceasefire training. The other graduates are Arlinder Harris, Ethel Wheeler, Eric Spann, George Brown, Amy Concepcion, Tawana Fields and Wanda Lyles. They will offer gun violence victims grief counseling and conflict resolution, among other forms of assistance.

“Most important, we are offering them options,” Piggee said.

In talking with individuals and families, the outreach workers will try to find out what they need to change their lives for the better, whether it is employment, health care or other help.

“We’re not afraid, because we know we will go out in groups,” she said. But she also said, "I ask those of you who believe in prayer to keep us in your prayers."

While homicide rates have gone down, the number of shootings has increased in Plainfield and many of the victims are young males caught up in gangs and gun violence, authorities have said. Operation Ceasefire began in Irvington and State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes praised Plainfield Friday for being the first city to come forward when state law enforcement officials decided to take the effort statewide. It is now operating in 14 cities, Fuentes said, noting no other state has taken it statewide.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, November 09, 2007

Planners Ponder Transit Village Concepts

Planning Board members were asked Thursday (Nov. 8, 2007) to consider guidelines for four transit hubs, each a quarter-mile from current or past train stations. The discussion centered on appropriate amounts of density around the stations, phasing out to lesser densities radiating to the edges of the circles.

Remington & Vernick representative George Stevenson points out the parameters of the newly revised Netherwood study area. The study was reduced from more than 90 properties to 16 off South and North avenues along the Raritan Valley rail line.

Plaintalker will have more on this later due to an overload of blog, freelance and volunteer assignments.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

An Un-Journalistic Commentary

Putting your business on the street – abhorrent.

Word on the street – delicious.

The juicy morsel dropped Thursday was that the post-611 team of Carter, Donow and Rusak has tendered its mass resignation as of Dec. 31. The issue is compensation, one source said. Three sources who should know confirmed the team’s stated intention to quit.

Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter did not return an e-mail inquiry. School Board President Pat Barksdale was traveling and returned a call while I was at a Planning Board meeting, but left no comment. It should be noted that district schools and offices were closed for the NJEA convention.

For those who have not followed the news, Michael Donow is the interim school secretary/business administrator and Walter Rusak was hired as interim assistant superintendent and later given the job of interim Plainfield High School principal.

If I were still in the newsroom, I could not report this without someone or several people going on the record. Even as a blogger, I try to hold up a journalistic standard. But this alleged turn of events is just too strange to wait for all the facts to be in.

First of all, after the initial frisson of possible big breaking news, there is the horror of what this could mean if it plays out as currently portrayed. The post-6/11 team came to a district in desperate, immediate need of succor and appeared to be offering just that, a calm and methodical approach to fixing what could be fixed and giving comfort for the community.

On Thursday, Assemblyman Jerry Green pinned the onus on the school board, saying he met with Carter and agreed to work with him. But he said that accord triggered discord with the board, whom he characterized as “all New Democrats,” a code term for followers of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams.

Green is Plainfield’s face in Trenton, where, as he says, there are “too many dishes on the table.”

They range from what the district will gain in a revised school construction plan to the future of Abbott district funding to how best the district will respond to a state monitoring report that found it deficient in four out of five performance areas.

One of those ratings was for governance, meaning the school board itself. The Plainfield board received a rating of 11 percent out of a possible 100 percent.

Except for one new member, it is the same board that renewed former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard’s contract, then accepted her June 6 resignation after some closed -session dispute. Two days later, the board approved the hiring of Carter and Donow, closely followed by the hiring of Rusak.

“My concern is that we have to start over,” Green said Thursday.

If in fact the post-6/11 administration departs even as the district is searching for a new superintendent, business administrator, high school principal and other administrators, the search may be thrown into turmoil. Who will be in charge? The state?

Whatever comfort level people were beginning to enjoy with the post-6/11 team, how depressing is it to think they may be gone?

Green suggests starting over with a new board, not legally possible when only three seats come up for election each year. Under the new state monitoring system, outside board members may be added, but there is no provision for a whole new board, short of state takeover.

Whatever happened in closed session may come out in the next two weeks in board meetings, or maybe not. It is worth noting that board members are not supposed to leak happenings from closed session, but somehow the word gets around. This propensity to go public adds to the evidence that the board is indeed lacking in the understanding of governance.

If this new disruption actually takes place, outsiders will not probe the nuances but will merely add it as evidence that Plainfield is dysfunctional and will continue to be so.

--Bernice Paglia

Six in Fire Division Receive Promotions

Six men with a total of 130 years’ experience in the Fire Division moved up a step Thursday as friends, colleagues and family members applauded their promotions.

Municipal Court was packed with well-wishers as Firefighters Robert Hughes, John J. Pellegrino and Pietro Martino received their lieutenant’s badges and Fire Lieutenants Michael J. McCue, David V. Locke and Charles S. Mills became fire captains.

“It was a hard nine months, but we made it,” said Fire Lieutenant Bernard Blake, who heads the Fire Officers Association.

The promotions had been held up for budgetary reasons, he said.

Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association No. 7 President Joseph Franklin congratulated the three firefighters who were leaving his union and bid them farewell.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs administered the oaths.

“We love to be able to promote folks,” the mayor said, but noted it was not always possible due to budget constraints.

The afternoon ceremonies were punctuated by a fire call crackling over radios and soon the wail of sirens was heard outside, pointing up the relentless call to duty the firefighters and their families live with.

Public Affairs & Safety Director Martin Hellwig said the Fire Division was able to save almost $200,000 through a restructuring of battalion chiefs. There are four battalions in the Fire Division, but there were five battalion chiefs until one retired. Hellwig said instead of having one battalion chief assigned to administrative duty and four to fire suppression, now all four will handle administrative matters while they are on duty. He said the officers work for a full 24 hours, then have three days off.

“There will be no effect on fire suppression,” he said.

One battalion chief is already trained to do administrative work and Hellwig said he has directed Fire Chief Cecil Allen to have that person train the other three.

After the ceremonies, new Fire Captain Michael McCue talked about some of the changes he’s seen over 29 years in the Fire Division.

“Fires are getting hotter and hotter and hotter,” he said.

McCue said energy-efficient double-paned windows, which have a layer of air trapped inside, are increasing the chance of flash-over, a condition where heat build-up causes a room to burst into flame.

On the good side, he said, “People have more smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors."

In an older city like Plainfield, McCue said, there are still a lot of balloon frame buildings. This type of construction can allow a fire to race up walls and was not used after the 1950s.

Computers are “definitely a benefit,’ he said.

Along with modern reference books, they let firefighters formulate plans ahead of time for various fire responses. And, he said, “With experience, you know what type fire you are going in to.”

“What helps us, and helps citizens, are automatic sprinkler systems and devices that alert residents that there is a fire,” he said.

Over the years, he said, Plainfield’s experienced firefighters learn more and more about neighborhoods – whether homes are close together, for example – and on the way to a fire can anticipate strategies to battle the flames and save lives.

--Bernice Paglia

Green Gains Assembly Leadership Post

Assemblyman Jerry Green was named Assembly Speaker pro tempore Thursday. See the press release here.
Green won re-election Tuesday for another two-year term. He has served in the state Assembly since 1992. He is also chairman of the Plainfield Democratic City Committee.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Senior Center Update for November

After hearing Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs' report on the new senior center's progress, I walked over to take a look. Each month the mayor reads an update prepared by Isaac Kirzner of Dornoch Plainfield LLC and as was stated, the foundation has been completed. Anchor bolts for the steel columns have been installed. Still to come are stair and elevator shafts this month.

While watching the workers, I noticed one person who seemed to be operating a small machine without actually touching it. Back at home, I looked it up and sure enough, it is a radio-operated compacting machine to press down the loose soil. In concept, it reminded me of those Radio Shack remote-controlled toy cars, but as you can see, this little rugged machine is a workhorse.

According to a contracting industry publication, the advantage of radio control is that the operator is safer than if he were physically running a machine to compress the soil in tight work spaces.
Here's another view of the work site at 400 East Front Street.
The mayor usually visits the seniors on the first Tuesday of each month, but was at the center today due to the elections yesterday.
--Bernice Paglia

Van Blake Wins Freeholder Seat

City Council President Rayland Van Blake will join incumbent Freeholders Daniel Sullivan and Bette Jane Kowalski in January, triggering the need for an appointee to replace him on the council. The need may come earlier if Van Blake chooses to resign.

The young actor was the hometown favorite, with 2,662 votes to Kowalski’s 2,405 and Sullivan’s 2,249. Countywide, the incumbents drew more votes than Van Blake, but the Democrats easily bested Republicans and squashed a challenge from a slate led by incumbent Freeholder Adrian Mapp, shunned by the Democratic organization for his ongoing loyalty to the New Democrats. Mapp got 1,020 votes in Plainfield, but his running mates got far less and the slate came in dead last countywide.

Despite the mailing and Election Day handouts to vote Column A, Democrats appeared to pick and choose candidates on the slate. Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green got 2,597 votes for another term in the state Assembly, but his running mate, incumbent Assemblywoman Linda Stender, got 2,798 and incumbent state Senator Nicholas Scutari got 2,820 in the city. Van Blake even got more local votes than his party leader.

Republicans generally got fewer votes in the city than Mapp’s slate, but made a much stronger showing countywide.

The appearance of Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority Commissioner William Reid at the Oct. 30 budget meeting might be a clue as to who will succeed Van Blake. Reid is treasurer of the Democratic City Committee and has served as campaign treasurer for the Democrats. He has none of the New Democrat taint that still seems so worrying to the Regular Democrats. In fact, if memory serves, he was passed over for reappointment by the late former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams and only got reappointed to the PMUA last year.

Or then again, maybe he was just an interested citizen. Given that only three other citizens were there, he swelled the ranks by 25 percent.

Speaking of percentages, about one-fifth of the city’s eligible voters turned out Tuesday to vote.

An Election Day sidelight: According to observers, the half-day closing of City Hall yesterday angered property owners who showed up eager to pay back taxes before a tax lien sale. The frustrated taxpayers were reportedly vocal in their protest and tried to organize a petition drive, observers said.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


As I wrote in my post yesterday, today (Nov. 6) is Election Day and your chance to have a say in who is running your local, county and state government. Be thankful for those who fought for your right to vote and think about those many places in the world where people don't have that right. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Vote!

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 05, 2007

Late Bloomers

It's fall, right? We changed the clocks and all, so summer is way over.

Most of my sunflowers have gone to seed long ago, but new blooms are still appearing.

This plant grew and bloomed within the past few weeks. And while trimming the back lawn, I saw a white violet in bloom. The seasons seem to be running into each other while we wait for frost.

What would Vivaldi say?

--Bernice Paglia