Monday, December 31, 2007

More 2007 in Review

Plaintalker has already dealt with the school issues and redevelopment plans for 2007. There are several more events and issues that marked the year.

City residents mourned the untimely death of former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams in April. McWilliams died of renal cancer at age 53, leaving his wife, Darlene, and five children. But his political legacy, including being the first two-term Democratic mayor in 114 years, remains an example of positive confrontation to bosses who denied him the line for a third term bid in 2005.

Among other notable deaths, the city also lost firebrand activist Angela Perun, who served on the City Council, in the state Assembly and on the school board. An octogenarian in 2006, she nonetheless ran again for a council seat. And philanthropist Mary Vic Griswold, who quietly worked over many decades to help major city agencies and institutions, died at the age of 97.

Safe housing took a hit in 2007 when the City Council repealed an ordinance aimed at curbing overcrowding and a special Inspections Division unit to address occupancy issues was disbanded. Inspections, once called the city division that generates the most citizen complaints, was studied by the Department of Community Affairs, which found staff lacking in job skills such as data entry and even showing up on time. In December, Assemblyman Jerry Green promised an end to favoritism toward landlords in 2008, in effect confirming what the city’s 7,500 renters already surmised about how Inspections works.

Now in its second year, the administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs found itself without a finance director again after A. Raiford Daniels quit in November with less than one year’s service. Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya’s retirement created another gap in fiscal management. Marc (Correction: Dashield)Daniels, on the job as city administrator since January, is now also acting director of Finance, Administration, Health and Social Services. Communication with the public is still a problem, as the administration has yet to solve the ongoing issues with the city’s malfunctioning web site and community television channel.

The school district’s 1,200-member staff finally settled a contract after many months of acrimony, including dueling newspaper ads by the Plainfield Education Association and the Board of Education. On the city side, the Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association signed a contract retroactive to 2003 with increases of 3.25 percent that year, 3.85 percent in 2004, 3.95 percent in 2005 and 4 percent in 2006 and 2007. It expires today (Dec. 31, 2007). Police, who last year won a similarly long overdue contract, agreed this year to raises of 3.75 percent for 2007, 2008 and 2009.

The city’s increasing Latino population became more evident as schools noted high enrollment of children from Spanish-speaking homes. Plainfield also became one of only three cities in the United States to have a specially blessed image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, revered as the Patroness of the Americas. The faithful held several processions to St. Mary’s Church, where the image is now enshrined.

All the several hundred Plaintalker posts for 2007 can be viewed in its archive. For the Courier News, I covered the McWilliams funeral; the fatal car crash of Cassell “Sonny” Wood; the fire at 1003 Park Avenue that displaced 37 people; the sale of 45 Pittis Estate storefronts to Paramount Property Management of Bayonne; the YWCA’s plan to convert the Catherine Webster home into transitional housing for eight women and up to 30 children, later dropped; the refurbishing of the YMCA under the direction of new President Addy Bonet; the final meeting of the Monday Afternoon Club, founded in 1888; the Democratic Party’s rejection of Freeholder Adrian Mapp for a second term; the student assault on a Plainfield High School vice principal; former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard’s denial of school violence; stalled school construction funding; transit village plans; and a bunch of “good news” features. Those stories are only available online in a paid archive.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dornoch Leads 2007 Development


A plan to build 63 condos over a new senior center took shape rapidly in 2007, while a raft of other proposals remained in early stages.

In January, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs signed a contract with Dornoch Plainfield for the new senior center/condo complex and happy seniors celebrated a ground-breaking in July. Construction is underway, with developer Glen Fishman footing the $15 million bill and donating the center at no cost to the city. Seniors receive monthly updates from project manager Isaac Kirzner.

The privately-funded project is the first of many condo proposals linked to transit hubs in the city. The others are all being shepherded through the redevelopment process by the Union County Improvement Authority. The process calls for “in need of redevelopment” studies of each project area, followed by redevelopment plans. Both the City Council and Planning Board must approve the steps.

One major proposal that has reached the stage of a contractual agreement with the city and the authority is Landmark Developers’ plan to build 415 residential units and 130,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, with buildings as high as eight to 10 stories, on blocks around the main train station on North Avenue. However, an expansion of the redevelopment area is under consideration, including replacing a current city parking lot with a six-story parking garage. Merchants have hired a prominent eminent domain attorney to challenge the plan.

Eminent domain court decisions last summer have led to the city backing off on a study of 93 properties around the Netherwood train station. Now just 15 properties midway between the Netherwood and main stations are under consideration for redevelopment.

A developer for the Marino’s site on West Front Street is still working on financing for the project, which is expected to include a major supermarket.

Not much has been heard lately about a five-phase condo project at East Richmond and Third streets. That one was supposed to start with the former Cozzoli property.

All these and more have been reported on the blog. In all, there are nearly 20 proposals in various stages, too many to rehash yet again while awaiting progress. Suffice it to say that the Gallenthin vs. Paulsboro decision on eminent domain and uncertain market conditions have slowed things down.

All the studies, plans and agreements achieved so far are also on file in the Planning Division, for those who want more details. The Dornoch project is to include solar panels and a roof garden. Planning and Zoning board members have made it a point to ask developers to make energy efficiency a priority in any new construction or adaptive re-use.
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Top 2007 Story: School District Woes

Having made a couple of passes at putting together a “year in review” piece, I realize that I covered several big stories as Pressgrrrl instead of Bloglady. This is complicating my list-making. Overall, I think the the story of the year, with many chapters, is the turmoil in the school system. I did some of the reporting for the Courier News and some for Plaintalker.

A state monitoring team visited Plainfield in early 2007 as part of a new program called New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or NJQSAC. In April, incumbents Wilma Campbell and Martin Cox won re-election for three-year terms, along with new board member Christian Estevez. In May, Patricia Barksdale became school board president for the year and Bridget Rivers became vice-president. At the end of the month, Business Administrator/Board Secretary Victor Demming left the district. High School principal Frank Ingargiola also left the district.

In June, Schools Superintendent Paula Howard suddenly resigned after a board meeting where her recommendation for an interim business administrator/board secretary was rebuffed. Within days, the board accepted her resignation and hired Peter E. Carter as interim superintendent and Michael Donow as interim business administrator/board secretary. The board soon approved hiring Walter Rusak as assistant superintendent and he also served as interim high school principal.

Carter learned in July that the state Department of Education had found the district deficient in four out of five performance areas studied in the monitoring. While awaiting release of the full report, Carter began weeding out uncertified staff and making other personnel changes. The monitoring report, released Aug. 20, showed that Plainfield met only 8 percent of standards for Instruction and Program, 11 percent for Governance, 32 percent for Fiscal Management, 38 percent for Personnel and 61 percent for Operations Management

Carter’s “post-6/11 team,” as he called himself, Donow and Rusak, then had not just to keep the district afloat pending searches for a permanent chief school administrator and business administrator/board secretary, but had to address the state findings. In October, something happened between the team and the board that resulted in all three submitting their resignations effective Dec. 31. News of the resignations was leaked to the press. Barksdale condemned the leak of confidential information, apparently by a board member.

A search for a new high school principal failed in the fall and was to be taken up again in the spring.

In December, the board asked Carter to step down 10 days earlier than planned and gave the duties of interim superintendent to Human Resources Director Garnell Bailey. State officials met with the board in a special meeting about the assignment and decided Bailey should have a state-assigned official to give her “technical assistance” in the dual role.

Gary Ottmann, who formerly served 13 years as the Plainfield district’s business administrator/board secretary, was hired back in December in permanent capacity. Meanwhile, screenings were conducted by the Illinois firm Hazard, Young and Attea for a permanent superintendent. The board’s stated goal is to hire a permanent superintendent by July 1, 2008. John Martucci was named interim high school principal.

Before he left, Carter submitted responses to the state monitoring reports on Instruction and Program, Fiscal Management, Personnel and Operations Management, with plans to address all deficiencies. The board also set goals to address the Governance report.

The state is expected to return in March to check on the district’s progress. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Jerry Green is calling for a return to an appointed, not elected, school board. A new school funding formula portends changes in the amount of money local taxpayers may have to come up with to support local education. State aid now makes up about 80 percent of the school budget.

Carter’s team had been expected to stay on through the 2007-08 school year, but now Bailey will have to work on filling gaps in the administration while seeing to the personnel needs of the 1,200-member staff.

In one more fillip adding to the disarray, the DOE’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance found that the district’s general counsel, Raymond Hamlin, had improperly interceded in Carter’s hiring and had failed to disclose an existing attorney-client relationship with Carter. The report was forwarded to the New Jersey Bar Association for investigation of possible ethics violations. The board was also found to have violated the Open Public Meetings Act by not giving adequate notice of the emergency Friday night meeting in June where Howard’s resignation was accepted and Carter and Donow were hired.

Despite it all, Plainfield students distinguished themselves in several areas, as reported on the district web site. Click here and scroll down to see the press releases.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, December 28, 2007

Forum Reveals Issues, Hopes

Speakers Thursday envisioned Plainfield as a state-wide leader in being “green,” a mecca for shopping, dining and entertainment and a place where people of all economic and ethnic backgrounds could find a place to live and raise families.

The setting was a community forum at Washington Community School, the latest in a series planned by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs to plumb the feelings and dreams of the community. Due to short notice and winter break, only a few community members came out and only four spoke. Most of the points were made by Assemblyman Jerry Green, the mayor and other elected officials and city staffers.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf endorsed the call of the mayor’s husband, Peter Briggs, for the city to show leadership in adopting “green” policies for both operations and new construction. Gutenkauf also seconded Green’s stance on preserving the city’s unique stock of residential and commercial historic buildings. In a third point, Gutenkauf asked officials to “keep Plainfield affordable for working families,” echoing Green’s call for more first-time home owners and decent housing for all.

Green also said any favoritism toward landlords in the Inspections Division will come to a halt in 2008.

Frank D’Aversa, a resident since 1973, said he wants to see redevelopment projects completed within five years. Responding to City Administrator Marc Dashield call to project 20 years into Plainfield’s future, D’Aversa said, “At age 73, I don’t want to project 20 years.”

He also would like to see city residents embrace the idea of upscale housing instead of saying it can’t happen because of drugs and other negative factors in the city. Finally, he called for a more demanding school system, both educationally and in standards of behavior, and for trade schools to return.

Maria Pellum, who has taken up several community causes since moving to Plainfield two years ago, thanked officials for expressing support for historic districts. In one of her efforts, Pellum organized a neighborhood group in the Crescent Area Historic District to increase cohesion around issues of crime, historic preservation, beautification and other quality of life concerns.

“I would like to see Plainfield become a family community,” she said.

Commenting on the city’s influx of Spanish-speaking households, Pellum said, “Don’t be afraid to talk to the Latino community. We’re the same people. We have the same basic needs.”

Noting that the school population is about 64 percent Latino, Pellum urged the community at large to overcome fears of language barriers and cultural differences.

“We are humans,” she said. “We can talk.”

Resident Melvin Cody, a longtime block association activist in the West End and a new team member of the Operation Ceasefire effort to curb gun violence, said when he goes to city meetings, he sees small turnouts of older residents.

“The seniors come out, not the taxpayers,” he said, urging more general citizen participation.

By the end of the meeting, the ratio of officials and staff to citizens had dropped from about 10 to 1 at its start (20 public employees to two bloggers) to about 7 to 1 as more people came in late.

Council members Harold Gibson and Rashid Burney gave their projections of the city’s future and Green spoke on a range of state and local issues.

Gibson, said to be in line for City Council president, said the city needs more “cross-cultural connections.” He said the city’s disparate image is evident to anyone who drives down Front Street from Terrill Road to the Dunellen border.

“I’d like to see us work at mending fences that we may not see as broken,” he said.

Gibson said his watchword for 2008 is “believe.”

“There comes a time when we have to believe,” he said. “Somehow the weather changes when you come to Plainfield in terms of believing.”

Burney said he did not want to lose the city’s diversity and hoped for the city to recapture its former glory as a destination to shop. He also wanted Plainfield to become a draw for dining and entertainment, such as a jazz festival on North Avenue or concerts on the new county office building’s plaza on Front Street.

Dashield, who moderated the forum, wrapped it up by saying, “I think this is a very successful evening.”

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays to All!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Clarification

In an attempt to solve the issue of school/city costs for events, school board member Lenny Cathcart Jr. showed Plaintalker a printout Thursday (Dec. 20, 2007) that indicated only 10 out of 35 events in 2007 were charged to the city.

The events that resulted in charges were held on weekends, which caused the board to hire staff.

The issue arose after Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs commented at a City Council meeting that the Board of Education should share costs with the city.

--Bernice Paglia

A Commentary on Board Actions

Twice last week Board of Education President Patricia Barksdale rolled out her New Year’s mantra: “Mitigate in ’08. then elevate.”

At least it’s a step up from the “bloviate, then obfuscate” approach that left more than one seasoned board member in the dark over the true nature of the recent report from the state Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance. It was briefly discussed in open session, but until Plaintalker got a copy and wrote a blog post about it, the full implications were not clear even to the whole board.

One of the state officials who came to Plainfield for Thursday’s meeting with the board emerged from closed session wearing a button with the previous slogan, “We’re serious about learning.” While it was a nice gesture of the official to accept the button, given the NJQSAC findings, the state apparently would beg to differ.

We don’t know what went on in closed session, but this writer got the impression that the board managed to wangle a different leadership solution than what DOE Commissioner Lucille E. Davy, Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer, Assistant Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks and Union County Schools Superintendent Carmen Centuolo had in mind. The closed session was only supposed to take half an hour, but took three times that long, hinting at some serious bargaining.

The way it stands now, Garnell Bailey, hired as Human Resources director at $135,000 per year starting in September, will also serve as interim superintendent at an extra stipend of $1,200 per week as of Dec. 21. Bailey, a well-regarded and popular city native, has held high-level posts in several districts, but has never been a chief school administrator before. So here we have an untried person newly hired to head a district that failed to meet four out of five performance areas, including a score of only 38 percent for Personnel.

The upshot was that the state and county officials agreed to support Bailey in the interim superintendent position, with technical assistance from an outside skilled administrator.

With no offense intended to the board or administration, this appears to be a victory in a clash of wills. But getting one’s way may or may not be the bottom line. Residents and taxpayers need to pay close attention to interactions between the district and the state in coming months.

--Bernice Paglia

Consultants Help District Comply with Standards

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, two presenters explained how they are helping the district address problems uncovered by state monitors.

Nancy Stern of the New Jersey School Boards Association said her work helped the board show that the district was actually in compliance in many areas that monitors found deficient. The board applauded her draft plan.

The school board received a score of only 11 percent for governance, reduced from the evaluation team’s score of 22 percent because ethics disclosure forms were not filed on time.

Stern said she is assisting in updating the board’s policy manual and formulating a professional development plan. She gave the board a step-by-step list of actions the board must take to comply with the state standards for governance. In addition, she gave the board a “four seasons” timetable of board tasks.

A Dec. 1 meeting on goal setting yielded four items, including hiring a new superintendent by July 1; hiring a board secretary/business administrator and high school principal as soon as possible; starting the compliance process for the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, in which the district failed to meet four of five performance standards’ and adhering to all board policies, including confidentiality.

Late Tuesday, the board approved the hiring of Gary Ottmann as board secretary/business administrator through June 2009 at a salary of $155,000. Ottmann previously served the district in the same role for 13 years before leaving to serve in the Wayne school district.

Stern said the board had made a good start on goals that are realistic and attainable.

In the second presentation, Phil Esbrandt of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators gave a slide show on Leadership Energies, a performance improvement agency that uses a medical model of diagnosis and prescription. Esbrandt said the NJQSAC compliance process could be seen as an “improvement performance opportunity.”

Plainfield’s scores were 61 percent of indicators met for operations management, 38 percent for personnel, 8 percent for instruction and program and 32 percent for fiscal management, in addition to the previously noted 11 percent for governance. Scores over 81 percent were considered satisfactory, while those under 50 percent were to result in state assistance. In an August report on the scores, Department of Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy said the district had to make an improvement plan in conjunction with state staff and could face partial state intervention because four of the areas fell below 50 percent.

Esbrandt developed a chart for the district with a “compliance key” for each improvement needed. Click here for more information on Leadership Energies.

Board member Martin Cox said the state monitors marked some areas incomplete when in fact they were done. Board President Patricia Barksdale said just 15 out of more than 600 school districts were monitored by the state and the rest will perform self-evaluations.

“Plainfield was not afforded that opportunity,” she said.

Barksdale also was dismayed to learn that the presentation Tuesday wrapped up two months of assistance. She said she thought the aid would continue for a year. Stern said she couldn’t answer Barksdale and suggested that the board take up the question with members of the state Department of Education.

At the same meeting, Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter lauded “our own Dr. Phil” and distributed responses to the state and corrective action plans for instruction and program, personnel, finance and operations management. He said, “Ninety percent of the noes became yesses, because we have fixed them.”

The state may revisit the findings by March, he said.

Carter’s last day in the district was Friday (Dec. 21, 2007). Human Resources Director Garnell Bailey will also serve as Interim Superintendent while the search for a permanent superintendent continues.

--Bernice Paglia

Arrest in Lot 6 Shooting

The arrest of a young man in connection with the shooting death of Bukhtiar Katchi reminded me of an assignment I had the day before that brought me to the same location where the stray bullet struck the victim.

I had attended a press conference at Democratic headquarters in the basement of the Mirons building. A bunch of elected officials and Democratic City Committee members had entered from and would exit to Municipal Parking Lot 6. It was the same location where Mr. Katchi took the bullet that one teenager allegedly fired at another in an afternoon battle between two youth groups at Gavett Place and East Second Street. The March 13 homicide was the first in 2007.

The thought of gun violence taking an innocent life in one of the city’s most popular parking lots is chilling. So is the recent incident in which a boy, 9, brought a cocked and loaded gun to Clinton School.

Operation Ceasefire was announced in December 2006 and is finally underway. I hope the effort results in getting guns off the street and especially out of the hands of young people.

The print media have already reported the facts of the Dec. 13 arrest of a city youth who was only 17 at the time of the shooting. The investigation is ongoing, with more arrests possible. Anyone with information may call Detective Jean Calvin at (908) 753-3036 or Detective Suzi Deegan at (908) 965-3810 or call the Union County Anonymous TIPS Line at (908) 654-8477. Calvin and Deegan, along with Union County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Henn are credited with the nine-month investigation that led to the arrest.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter is Here

For those of us who celebrate the turning of the seasons, the Winter Solstice is a major holiday.

In times past, the shortest day of the year was marked with fires to encourage the return of the sun.

Indoor gardeners may see the results as plants start becoming energized by the slowly increasing light.

For others, winter is a time of travail as snow and ice impede our travels. I came across a web link to some really interesting photos of winter in the city many years ago.

Here's the link:

http://travel.webshots.com/album/16543362NcyvopGhWc

I think this is a fascinating glimpse into Plainfield's past.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, December 20, 2007

State Will Support New Interim Superintendent

The Plainfield school district will receive “technical assistance” from the state Department of Education while new Interim Schools Superintendent Garnell Bailey serves until hiring of a permanent superintendent, officials said Thursday.

A crowd of about 150 people including clergy, staff, parents, past board members and elected officials conversed for an hour and a half in the Plainfield High School Library while the school board met in closed session with state DOE Commissioner Lucille E. Davy, Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer, Assistant Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks and Union County Schools Superintendent Carmen Centuolo while the board remained in closed session.

The 6 p.m. executive session went on until nearly 8 p.m., well past the advertised 6:30 p.m. start of the public session.

Given that the district faced loss of its top officials in June and again this month, members of the public turned out in force to hear about “the future direction of the district,” as the meeting’s topic was billed in a legal notice Wednesday.

Former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard resigned in June, following the May resignation of school business administrator/board secretary Victor Demming. The board approved hiring of Interim Superintendent Peter E. Carter June 8, and accepted his recommendation that night to hire Michael Donow as school business administrator /board secretary.

The board also soon hired Walter Rusak as assistant superintendent and later made him interim principal at Plainfield High School as well. But Carter is out as of Dec. 21 and Donow and Rusak will be gone Dec. 31. The board did hire former school business administrator Gary Ottmann Tuesday to serve as school business administrator/board secretary from Jan. 2, 2008 until June 2009

Davy was ill and went home after the closed session, but Spicer said the DOE had offered to support the district during the superintendent search “for six months or as long as it takes.” Spicer said the state will ask a person with experience in New York “cluster schools“ and who is also a professor at Johns Hopkins University to help out.

“He is an expert in teaching and learning,” she said, but declined to name the person as the decision to ask him for help only took place that night. If the individual agrees to the task, the district and state will each pay half of the cost, as yet unknown, to engage him.

The district has a search underway for a permanent superintendent and five finalists may be available for board screening by January.

In public comment, speakers questioned whether the district was being placed under state monitoring and asked how new state funding plans would affect Abbott districts, the 31 poorest in the state. Plainfield currently receives about 80 percent of its budget from state funding, but may have to shoulder a larger tax burden as formulas shift.

The new funding plan is online and calls for a two-year freeze in Abbott funding, after which funding may be reduced if student performance does not improve.

“If the district fails to make progress with assistance, then the local district may have to raise taxes,” Centuolo said.

The great cry from wealthier districts has been that the huge influxes of funding to Abbott districts have not produced improvements. Assemblyman Jerry Green, who has been warning of the changes for many months, repeated his warnings Thursday.

The pledge of state assistance did not go over well with Eric Jones, president of the 1,200-member Plainfield Education Association, who told the board, “It appears you are cutting her knees off before she begins,” referring to Bailey.

But Spicer said, “You lost an experienced superintendent and you are getting a new one.”

Centuolo noted that Bailey will still be performing as director of Human Resources while being interim superintendent and said, “We want to make sure Mrs. Bailey has an opportunity for success.”

--Bernice Paglia

What Next for District?

Whose feet will be treading these steps after winter break? The sense of tentative calm that built up while the post-6/11 team of Carter, Donow and Rusak toiled here is dissipating. Once they have left the building, will there be a team of equal competence and professionalism? Certainly, Gary Ottmann's return as business administrator/board secretary will be most welcome. It may well be that the increasing state and county focus on Plainfield will help the district strengthen its leadership team.
Meanwhile, people are compiling lists of the many chief school administrators who have passed through these portals. The only constant is change, somebody once said, but the Plainfield school district has had more than its fair share. It is regrettable that the post-6/11 team had to cut short its tenure. Maybe Department of Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy will offer some good advice tonight when she speaks on the future direction of the district. The meeting is 6:30 p.m. in the Plainfield High School library.
--Bernice Paglia

Names in the News

If you haven’t already recycled Wednesday’s Courier News, take a look at the Community section and read Millicent Brody’s review of the Stonehouse Restaurant in Warren. The makeover of the former Chanticler Chateau was done by Frank Cretella, who is also the head of Landmark Developers, the group that has an agreement with the City of Plainfield and the Union County Improvement Authority to redevelop the blocks around the main train station on North Avenue.

Frank and Jeanne Cretella own Liberty House in Liberty State Park and have been involved with numerous other restaurants including The Boathouse in Central Park.

There is no link that I could find to Brody’s article, but the Star-Ledger also published a review (click here).

Not much work is evident yet on North Avenue. The proposed redevelopment area expansion is being challenged by merchants who oppose the proposed siting of a multi-story parking garage on a parking lot that currently serves stores on the block bounded by East Front Street, Park Avenue, Watchung Avenue and East Second Street. Landmark proposes condo development along with an entertainment center across from the train station.

In other news, former Plainfielder Chris Onieal, owner of Oniel’s bar in Hoboken, appeared in the Courier Sunday in an article on a new directive from Attorney General Anne Milgram. Milgram wants police to ask drunk drivers where they last imbibed. Oniel’s bar was sued for serving a man who had an accident and was deemed intoxicated, but the suit was dismissed after the bar’s security camera showed the man leaving the bar hours before the 3 a.m. accident, according to the Associated Press article by David Porter. Whatever the topic, it was nice to see a photo of Chris, who was quite involved in city matters before moving to Harding Township in 2006. Mark O’Donnell, the partner of former Gov. James E. McGreevey, bought Onieal’s former Prospect Avenue home. Click here for Plaintalker article.

--Bernice Paglia

Reminder: Remove Ice and Snow

Now that Councilman Rashid Burney has put the Municipal Code online, it is easy to find rules such as this:
"The owner of a building occupied by more than four (4) dwelling units shall remove all snow and ice from the driveways and parking lots of the premises and from the walkways between the public sidewalks, parking lots or driveways and the entrances to the dwelling units within twelve (12) hours of daylight after the snow or ice has fallen or formed thereon."

Several days after the ice storm, there was still plenty of ice in the driveway and parking lot of the six-family building where I have lived since 1992. I finally got out my handy Wilkinson Sword swoe, a garden tool with an angled flat blade, that does a neat job of lifting up ice so it can be shoveled out of the way. This is the kind of thing that tenants face when landlords don't obey the city code.

The same section of the code, Sec. 13:7, states that the city may remove snow and ice on public sidewalks and certify the cost, which can then become a lien on the property. As a pedestrian, I for one appreciate the efforts of those who do clear their sidewalks in a timely way. Walking on ice gets scarier as one gets older.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

City Council Calendar

If you bought a 2008 calendar, you may have to hold off on penciling in the City Council meeting dates, because the matter is up in the air.

City Clerk Laddie Wyatt presented the council with a proposed calendar for 2008 that started with a reorganization meeting on Jan. 10 and meetings on the traditional Mondays-only format.

For decades, the council held regular meetings on first and third Mondays, with agenda sessions on preceding Mondays. But in 2006, then-Council President Ray Blanco called for a schedule that had agenda sessions on Mondays with regular meetings on Wednesdays of the same week, and then a week or so off.

The council agreed early in 2007 that they didn’t like the schedule, but could not decide among three options and ended up keeping the objectionable one.

On Monday, the council rejected Wyatt’s proposed reorganization date in favor of Jan. 2. A council majority favored returning to the traditional Mondays only schedule.

In addition, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson reminded the council that the Monday-Wednesday schedule was adopted by ordinance on two readings and so the same would have to take place for any revision.

So it appears that the New Year will start with special meetings until the council can fix its calendar.

--Bernice Paglia

Davy to Spell Out Future of District

State Department of Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy will come to Plainfield Thursday (Dec. 20, 2007) for a special public meeting on the “future direction of the district,” according to a legal notice today.

The board will meet in closed session at 6 p.m. and the public meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Plainfield High School Library.

On Tuesday, Board President Patricia Barksdale thanked Interim Superintendent Peter E. Carter and his “post-6/11” team, Interim Business Administrator Board Secretary Michael Donow and Interim Assistant Superintendent Walter Rusak, who also serves as interim high school principal. Carter’s last day in the district is Friday and Donow and Rusak are leaving Dec. 31.

“We are at a better place than pre-6/11,” Barksdale said.

The team took over the troubled district after the sudden resignation of former Superintendent Paula Howard and resignation of former business administrator/board secretary Victor Demming. It was only after coming on board that the team learned results of state DOE monitoring conducted earlier in the year. The New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum report found the district failing in four of five performance areas and it was Carter’s team that had to address the findings.

On Tuesday, Carter distributed reports on actions taken or planned to fix problems in operations management, instruction and program, finance and personnel. The board must address the fifth category, governance.

Carter was supposed to stay on until June 30, but the whole team decided to cut their terms short after what Carter called “family missteps” in dealings with the board.

The DOE Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance found that general counsel Raymond Hamlin improperly interceded in the hiring process that brought Carter to Plainfield from Delaware. On Tuesday, Carter again alluded to the fateful morning when he was walking on the shore at Rehoboth Beach, Del., admiring the Atlantic Ocean, and got the phone call that launched his post-retirement employment in Plainfield.

Carter noted he would soon again be walking on the beach and looking at the ocean. Turning to Hamlin, he quipped, “Counsel, no phone calls, please.”

--Bernice Paglia

Ottmann Returns to District

Gary Ottmann, who served the Plainfield school district for 13 years as school board secretary/business administrator, will return Jan. 2 in the same role.

Ottmann won a unanimous vote Tuesday to serve as permanent board secretary/ business administrator until June 30, 2009 at an annual salary of $155,000.

“I’m excited to be returning to Plainfield where I previously worked for 13 years,” Ottmann said after the late-evening vote. “I’m anxious to serve the citizens and students of Plainfield.”

Attendees applauded Ottmann’s return to the district after a stint in the Wayne school district. The quick turn-around was unusual, but Ottmann said the Wayne district was aware of his plans.

The appointment brought a note of stability to the district, which has been in flux since former school board secretary/business administrator Victor Demming resigned in May and former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard resigned in June. In a June 8 emergency meeting, the board hired Interim Superintendent Peter Carter and Interim school board secretary/business administrator Michael Donow. Later, the board hired Walter Rusak as interim assistant superintendent and he was also named interim high school principal.

The three officials that Carter dubbed the “post-6/11 team” soon found themselves dealing with negative findings by a state Department of Education report based on studies before they arrived. But the team had to formulate responses to the report. They won applause Tuesday for bridging the gap.

At Tuesday’s business meeting, district responses to four of the five New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum findings were available to the public. The topics were finance, instruction and program, personnel and operations management. The last category was governance, which the board had to address.

Board President Patricia Barksdale said many of the state findings were found to be already addressed. Barksdale also objected to the process that caused 15 of more than 600 school districts to be subject to outside NJQSAC audits, while others received training to do self-evaluations on meeting the state standards.

Among other late-night votes, the board approved appointment of John Martucci as interim Plainfield High School principal, with a $2,500 stipend not to exceed six months. A previous vote last month denied Martucci the post.

The board also awarded Interim Schools Superintendent Garnell Bailey a stipend of $1,200 per week. Bailey is also holding down the post of Human Resources director.

The district is still searching for a permanent superintendent and may be interviewing candidates as early as January. The process calls for the Illinois search firm of Hazard, Young and Attea to produce five finalists from among candidates who fit a desired profile for the Plainfield district. The school board is expected to choose three finalists and then a single winner for the post by February.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Role for Gibson

Councilman Harold Gibson, who campaigned for the citywide at-large seat on his record of 50 years in public service, will have a new Union County role Jan. 1.

Currently the county’s director of Public Safety, Gibson will head the newly created Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Gang Reduction within the office of Sheriff Ralph Froelich.

Here is an excerpt from the county press release:

Gibson will now be responsible for prioritizing prevention programs to provide the county’s youth with opportunities that help them resist gang involvement by addressing the full range of personal, family and community factors contributing to juvenile delinquency and gang activity.
Gibson will utilize the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Gang Reduction Program, which has several key concepts:


Identify needs at the individual, family and community level and address those needs with a coordinated, comprehensive response.

Inventory human and financial resources in the community and create plans to fill gaps and leverage existing resources to support effective gang reduction strategies.

Apply the best research based programs across appropriate age ranges, risk categories, and agency boundaries.

Encourage coordination and integration both vertically (federal, state, local) and horizontally (across communities and program types).

The time has come to focus as much on prevention as punishment” stated Froehlich, “and in Harold Gibson, we have the right person to lead the way."

Click here to read the full press release.

Meanwhile, Gibson may be campaigning again for the citywide seat in the New Year. He was first appointed in 2006 to fill the vacancy created by the untimely death of City Council President Ray Blanco, then had to run for the balance of the term. In 2008, the 3rd Ward seat now held by Don Davis and the citywide seat are up for election, as is the unexpired term of Rayland Van Blake, who won a county freeholder seat. William Reid is the appointee for the 1st Ward council seat Van Blake vacated by resignation last month.

Protesters Come Out En Masse

Residents protesting a Planning Division staff cut had to share the soapbox Tuesday with a crowd of Dudley House supporters and a passel of people concerned about a proposed budget cut to the Recreation Division.

About 80 people, including a large number of children, jammed City Hall Library for a public hearing on the FY 2008 introduced budget. The $30,000 cut of a principal planner from the Planning Division was in that budget. The $75,000 cut for Recreation was proposed by the City Council but was under study by the administration for its impact. The council discussed cuts last week but has yet to formulate budget amendments.

The Recreation Division reduction was based on a finding that allocations for seasonal workers were unexpended and council members assured people that no program cuts were contemplated.

The issue of funding for Dudley House is far more complex, involving the city, state and two counties and a problem with licensure. The city-owned residential substance abuse recovery facility is not handicapped accessible and under new state law is out of compliance for licensing. The dilemma has left about three dozen men in recovery anxious about where they will land up if the facility must be closed. But City Administrator Marc Dashield said the city is working on solutions and is in communication with other funding agencies. A staff layoff notice that was to take effect this week has been extended, Dashield said.

“Our intention is for the program to continue,” Dashield told the clients and supporters who showed up Monday, echoing concerns from several previous turnouts.

In public comment on the proposed Recreation Division budget cut, a young boy nearly cried as he said, “Why take it from us?”

The boy said city neighborhoods had drug dealers and shootings.

“In the schools you say, no child left behind – what do you want us to do? Sell drugs? Shoot people?”

Others testified with almost religious fervor about how the Recreation Division programs had saved them from the streets, either through athletic training that resulted in sports scholarships and college opportunities or by mentorship that took them away from looking to gangs for acceptance.

Councilman Rashid Burney told the supporters of youth programs that the city has included in its capital budget funding for a new teen center.

“Not enough is being done,” he said. “Kids need love. They are going to get love from us or love from the streets.”

One mother called the physical activity of sports programs vital in a society where young children are plagued by asthma, diabetes and obesity.

A program of placing monitors in city parks has displaced drug dealers who used to be bold enough to sit in lawn chairs at one playground and service drive-up customers, another speaker said.

On the Planning Division issue, speaker Charles Sporn gave three examples about the dangers of outsourcing. First, he cited the role of Blackwater USA in the war on Iraq, calling it a “rent-a-soldier” operation “acting as a rogue operation.”
Next, he cited the outsourcing of automobile inspection several years ago, resulting in long lines. His last example was the outsourcing of garbage collection to the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, which can set its own rates.

“And we all know how cost-effective that has been,” he said.

He asked for the Planning Division cut to be tabled and studied.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs thanked everyone for coming out, but said, “We’re in a terrible, horrific tax situation. We are trying to keep taxes down.”

The mayor suggested that school board members who attended the meeting could see to it that the board would make a policy of providing free programs to young people.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 17, 2007

Proceed with Hope and Caution

The sun came out for a brief moment while it was still raining Sunday and I hurried to look out the east window opposite the sun’s location. Sure enough, there was a rainbow arching over the city.

It was nice to see that symbol of hope, if only fleetingly. The city needs some hope right now with so many gaps in leadership.

Meanwhile Dottie G. is trying to keep hope alive that the administration will not cut a position that the Planning Division wants retained in the FY 2008 budget. She is urging people to come to the City Council meeting tonight to speak out on the subject. The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall. That layoff was already on the table, but last week City Administrator Marc Dashield cautioned that the council’s proposal to cut the budget by $350,000 could result in more layoffs. The discussion may not result in amendments by tonight, but may go over into January.

Residents as well as Planning Board members are increasingly perturbed by the shift of redevelopment studies and plans to an outside agency. There is a sense that decisions are being made before they come up for Planning Board or City Council votes. The two bodies still have the deciding votes, but they have to be careful not to miss anything in the proposals.

Here’s an example: The Netherwood study approved this month was quickly followed by a draft plan, even before the council asked for one. Now, with the administration’s great desire for redevelopment, it could be assumed that the two bodies will follow through on all the steps in due course, so a little foreshadowing does no harm.

But one element in the Netherwood draft plan needs thorough consideration. It is the call for a Revenue Allocation District. Plaintalker in November 2006 described a presentation by attorney Thomas Hastie on New Jersey’s RAD statute. It deserves a careful review before Plainfield authorizes any such district.

Click here to see the Plaintalker post and click here to see Hastie’s presentation.
Hastie called himself the “Pied Piper” of RADs. Before following anyone piping this tune, take a good look at what it means.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Clarification

Let me clear up a possible misunderstanding. By “value of all city property,” I am talking about the total assessed valuation of all property. This does not refer to the property value of individual homes.

The total assessed valuation can go up if new construction brings in more taxable property. It can go down if buildings are taken off the tax rolls, such as in the case of the swing school that was formerly an office building. New construction of schools does not add to the overall total because they are tax-exempt. Most of the new Park-Madison governmental office building downtown is tax-exempt, but the stores and commercial offices are new ratables. If a house is demolished, the city can only assess taxes on the vacant land. Tax appeals can be used to reduce the taxable value of a building.

These are some of the variables in determining the total assessed valuation. Obviously homes and other property can increase in value over the years. Sorry for any confusion.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Personnel Decisions Still Unsolved

The agenda for the Dec. 18 school board meeting was available at the Plainfield Public Library today (Dec. 15, 2007) but it did not contain resolutions on the big personnel questions that parents, staff, taxpayers, the press and others want answered.

The meeting is 7 p.m. Tuesday at Cook School, 739 Leland Ave. It is unclear right this minute whether I will be covering it as Pressgrrrl or Bloglady (leaning toward the latter).

The big questions may only be answered through walk-on resolutions that have become an increasing trend at school board meetings. That means to find out what happened, you have to attend the school board meeting or read the blog the next day, or read the daily a couple of days later.

The board in its wisdom, or lack thereof, apparently wrested an early resignation for Interim Superintendent Peter E. Carter in a vote taken at the end of the Dec. 11 work & study session. (Another question: Can the board take votes at agenda sessions?)

Carter will be leaving Dec. 21, 10 days earlier than his announced departure date. The board also agreed to name Human Resources Director Garnell Bailey as interim superintendent, effective Dec. 21.

While wishing Bailey well, Carter declared himself “speechless” at the board’s decision in an e-mail response to Plaintalker last week.

The resignations of Carter’s post-6/11 team-mates Michael Donow, the interim business administrator/board secretary, and Interim Assistant Superintendent Walter Rusak (also the interim Plainfield High School principal) have not yet been accepted. On Dec. 11, former 13-year former BA/BS Gary Ottmann was in attendance, raising hopes that he might return to the district. But no action was taken then and there is no resolution on the Dec. 18 agenda to hire anyone for the post.

There may be no need to replace Rusak as assistant superintendent, a title that is on the books at the state Department of Education but has not been used in Plainfield for many years. However, there is a need for an interim high school principal. A search last fall fell through and a new search is expected in the spring.

Due to the retirement of the city’s chief financial officer Peter Sepelya, who was also the board’s treasurer, someone must be found to fill that role as well.

So let us perhaps see on Tuesday how all these roles will be filled.

--Bernice Paglia

State School Funding Hard to Decipher

There is a lot more to the school funding story than the fact that Plainfield is slated to get a 2 percent increase under a proposed new formula, but after spending a few hours trying to line up some of the issues, I gave up. The last straw was realizing the aid figures in the new report don’t agree with state aid figures posted on another section of the Department of Education web site.

There used to be a lot more citizen participation in both the school district and municipal budget process. Later it dwindled to the point where even some board members complained they didn’t have access to the full budget. Now that neither the city nor the district have permanent financial staff in place, it’s going to be even harder to find out what is going on and what the new formula means to taxpayers.

Plainfield has had the same local school tax levy for many years, $17,683,906. It has gone up slightly as the value of all city property has decreased. State aid ($99,967,767 for 2007-08) makes up most of the district’s funding. Officials had warned that this proportion would change as suburban districts put pressure on legislators for more funds. In the new formula, that appears to be happening in Union County.

The new funding formula shows a 2 percent increase in funding for Plainfield even though it indicates a 6 percent reduction in the number of students. My comparison of 2004 enrollment with the current pupil count shows a 16 percent drop. But the district’s figures don’t reflect the number of Plainfield students in charter schools. The formula is applied per pupil and charter schools are public schools that receive something like 90 percent of district per-pupil cost. It would be nice to see the numbers lined up in a more comprehensible way.

In 2007-08, Plainfield had a zero increase in funding, so 2 percent is still better than nothing. The unknown factor is how soon the local tax levy will increase and by how much. Taxpayers better keep an eye on the 2008-09 budget process.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, December 14, 2007

Council, Board Wrap Up 2007


Monday’s City Council meeting is the last one scheduled for 2007. It will be a combination agenda-setting session, special meeting and budget hearing on the introduced budget. It is not clear whether amendments to the FY 2008 budget will be ready for review Monday.

The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

On Tuesday, the Board of Education will hold its last meeting for 2007. The district is ending the year with yet another change in leadership after the board voted Tuesday (Dec. 11, 2007) to accept Interim Superintendent Peter E. Carter’s resignation effective Dec. 21, 10 days earlier than the date his team set for their departure. The vote took place at the end of a work-and-study session, with Board President Patricia Barksdale and members Lenny Cathcart, Martin Cox, Bridget Rivers, Vickey Sheppard and Christian Estevez voting “yes.” Wilma Campbell abstained, Rasheed Abdul-Haqq voted “no” and Lisa Logan Leach was absent. The board then approved Garnell Bailey as interim superintendent effective Dec. 21 in the same 6-1-1 vote.

The Dec. 18 meeting is 7 p.m. at Cook School on Leland Avenue.

Over the council’s holiday hiatus and the school district’s winter recess, those who closely follow the doings of these elected officials will be free to concentrate on shopping, gift-giving, feasting with family and friends and making resolutions for the New Year.

The elected officials themselves would be well advised to make a couple of resolutions, first and foremost to fill vacancies in their top echelons. It may be that Tuesday’s meeting will bring forth a new business administrator/board secretary, but the district also needs a new treasurer since the departure of Peter Sepelya, who was also the city’s chief financial officer. The district’s legal staff is in need of attention as well. The firm of Hunt, Hamlin and Ridley was named general counsel for the school year, but its temporary assignments as labor and workmens compensation counsel ran out Oct. 31. No high school principal has been named to replace interim principal Walter Rusak and there are also gaps in the supervisory ranks.

The city needs to find a permanent chief financial officer and a new finance director. One of three department heads mandated in the city’s special charter, the finance director is in charge of city divisions including health and social services and the senior center, in addition to all its fiscal operations.

The city also needs to make good on a two-year promise to improve both its local cable channel and its web site, both potentially valuable ways to communicate with citizens, but so far largely ineffective.

Diwali and Hanukah came early this year, so over winter break we wish all a happy Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa and especially a Happy New Year.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Certificates of Occupancy, Compliance Not the Same

Throughout a City Council discussion Wednesday, speakers mixed up the state-required Certificate of Occupancy with the city's requirements for a Certificate of Compliance. The first is menat to show compliance with state building codes and is administered by the municipality's construction official. The second refers to a city ordinance that requires a home or apartment to meet the city's own property maintenance code at the time of sale or transfer. It was passed by the City Council about 10 years ago and is upheld by the Division of Inspections.

The information below is excerpted from a web site on New Jersey permits.

WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS FOR A CERTIFICATE OF OCCUPANCY?
NJAC 5:23-2.23 (a through e) and (j)Certificate Requirements(a) New buildings: A building or structure hereafter erected shall not be used or occupied in whole or part until a form of certificate of occupancy shall have been issued by the construction official.1. The enforcing agency shall upon application by the owner issue a certificate of occupany when all requirements of the regulations have been met.(b) Building hereafter altered: A building or structure hereafter enlarged, extended or altered shall not be occupied or used until the certificate of occupancy shall have been issued by the construction official certifying that the work has been completed in accordance with the provisions of the approved permit, except as is provided in the regulations. Any use or occupany which was not discontinued during the work of alteration, shall be discontinued within 30 calendar days after the completion of the aleration unless the certificate of occupany is secured from the enforcing agency.(c) Existing buildings: Upon request of the owner of an existing building or structure, the construction official, with the approval of the subcode officials, shall issue a certificate of continued occupancy provided that there are not violations of law or orders of the construction official pending and it is established after inspection and investigation of available municipal records that the alleged use of the building or structure has lawfully existed. The certificate of continued occupancy shall evidence only that a general inspection of the visible parts of the building has been made, and that no violations on NJAC 5:23-2.14 have been determined to have occurred and no unsafe conditions violative of NJAC 5:23-2.32(a) have been found. Nothing in this subsection shall prevent the continued lawful use and occupany of any such lawfully existing building or structure.(d) Change of use: After a change of use has been made in a building or structure, the reestablishment of a prior use that is not legal in a new building of the same type of construction is prohibited unless the building complies with all applicable provisions of the regulations. A change from one prohibited use for which a permit has been granted to another prohibited use shall be deemed a violation of the regulations.(c) Temporary certificate of occupany: Upon the request of a holder of a permit, the construction official may issue a temporary certificate of occupancy for a building or structure or part thereof before the entire work covered by the permit shall have been completed, provided such portion or portions may be occupied safely prior to full completion of the building or structure without endangering life or public welfare.


The Certificate of Compliance is in Plainfield's code book, which is available in PDF format on Rashid Burney's web site. To read the entire ordinance, you have to open the link to the section on buildings and then advance to page 28.

Among reasons for the Certificate of Compliance, Plainfield's major asset is its housing stock, much of which is older than 30 years. Protecting the housing stock is a priority. Either the buyer or seller of a home can agree to make needed repairs at the time of sale. In the case of apartments, the landlord is supposed to bring the unit up to code before a new tenant moves in.

The City Council has already repealed a safe housing ordinance aimed at preventing overcrowding. Watering down adherence to the property maintenance code, in Plaintalker's opinion, will make it easier for slumlords to make a lot of money off substandard dwellings. Half of the city's householders are renters and they currently have very little advocacy or protection from rapacious landlords except for the Certificate of Compliance ordinance, in our opinion.

--Bernice Paglia

Council Frames Budget Cuts

Lacking both a permanent finance director and a chief financial officer, City Administrator Marc Dashield told the City Council Wednesday he may need more than a couple of days to analyze the impact of $350,000 in proposed cuts to the FY 2008 budget.

Finance Director Ray Daniels and CFO Peter Sepelya, both key figures in the budget process, left City Hall this month. Dashield said Wednesday he feels he has adequate staff to deal with the proposed amendments, but it might take time. A budget hearing on the introduced budget is scheduled for Monday (Dec. 17, 2007) but approval of amendments and final budget passage may not take place until January.

As introduced in September, the budget reflects a 43.6 million increase that translates to $327 more in taxes on the average $113,000 home.

Among the proposed cuts are $75,000 in seasonal employee pay from Recreation, $105,000 in overtime from the Police Division and $80,000 from the Fire Division. Rashid Burney, chairman of the council’s finance committee, also suggested doing away with the certificate of occupancy process, calling it duplicative of private home inspections at the time of sale.

(This writer commented on the discussion, which appeared to be more about the city’s Certificate of Compliance ordinance than the certificate of occupancy requirement. More on that later.)

The proposed elimination of a principal planner position was also discussed at length, with council members Cory Storch and Burney speaking in favor of retaining the position. Planning Director Bill Nierstedt submitted a memo to the council urging retention of the position in the overworked Planning Division, but Dashield upheld the administration’s view that the position must go.

Storch reminded the council that the ultimate decision rests with the governing body.

Only four citizens attended the budget session, even though taxpayers are facing an 8.5 percent increase unless cuts are made. The proposed cuts, along with the infusion of $800,000 in extraordinary state aid, would lessen the impact to about a 5 percent increase.

(Due to meeting fatigue, Plaintalker did not take highly detailed notes Wednesday. Generally, the current City Council is carrying out the budget process in a sensible, collegial fashion. Each member summed up his or her views at the end of the meeting. Noting the very small public turnout, Councilwoman Linda Carter said residents will face a tax impact and the governing body needs to educate them on it.)

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Garnell Bailey is New Interim Superintendent

Late Tuesday (Dec. 11, 2007) the Board of Education voted to accept the resignation of Interim Superintendent Peter E. Carter on Dec. 21, 10 days earlier than previously anticipated.

The board then approved the appointment of Human Resources Director Garnell Bailey to serve as interim chief school administrator, effective Dec. 21.

The actions came after an executive session that followed a work-and-study meeting. Even though votes are normally taken at business meetings that follow the work & study meetings, Board President Patricia Barksdale noted the legal notice for Tuesday’s meeting stated, “Action may be taken.”

Carter left before the vote and was not available for comment. He had been receiving $850 per day since June 11 to serve as interim chief school administrator. His term was to continue through June 30, 2008, but due to an unexplained contretemps at an October board meeting, Carter, Interim Business Administrator/Board Secretary Michael Donow and Interim Assistant Superintendent Walter Rusak all decided to quit Dec. 31.

Bailey, a product of Plainfield schools including Washington Elementary School, served in administrative roles in Newark and Camden before being named Human Resources director in Plainfield for the 2007-08 school year.

After being named interim superintendent, Bailey said, “We’re going to hold it together for the sake of the children. Mr. Carter designed the road map. All we have to do is hold it together till the new superintendent is appointed.

“We can do it,” Bailey said.

The district has been without a permanent superintendent since Paula Howard resigned in June. Business administrator/board secretary Victor Demming resigned in May.

The board approved hiring Hazard, Young & Attea in August to conduct a superintendent search. After eliciting a desired profile for the next superintendent in October, the firm projected a screening that would result in finalists for consideration early in 2008.

Among the more unusual attendees at Tuesday’s meeting were former school business administrator/board secretary Gary Ottmann, who served in the administration of former School Superintendent Larry Leverett. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs also attended, along with her confidential assistant Barbara James and bodyguard Police Officer Richie Brown. Both Robinson-Briggs and James are former board members, but neither spoke during the meeting.

Ottmann declined comment on why he attended, but normally personnel matters emerge at the business meeting, which this month is scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 18 at Cook School on Leland Avenue.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Buy Laughing

A small ad in The New Yorker caught my eye recently and reminded me of a great place to go shopping. I was also grateful that they have not sent me multiple catalogues, as major retailers have done this gift-giving season.

The company is called The Unemployed Philosophers Guild and I did purchase a silk Emily Dickinson scarf from them several years ago. It comes in handy to have poetry around your neck ready for reading when a public meeting gets really boring.

I just looked at their web site and it made me laugh almost as much as my daily fix of LOLcats. Guess whose picture is on a tin of National Embarrassmints (hint: he's also on Impeachmints). Pour some tea into your Civil Rights mug and watch them disappear, "thanks to the Patriot Act," the catalogue says. The "Bush-its Sticky Notes" kit includes one pad labeled "Mission Accomplished."

Sigmund Freud looms large in the offerings. Need a pair of Freudian slippers? There are also collections of Frida Kahlo, Shakespeare, Einstein and Van Gogh items.

My other favorite shopping guide is Not Martha, although I am not much of a shopper.

Thanks to the avalanche of catalogues, I will have to take time out of my busy schedule of scribbling diatribes and propagating plants for next summer to call those toll-free numbers and advise those retailers to BACK OFF! I don't want your lousy $400 briefcases and pricey sequined party get-ups! If I haven't bought anything from the last six catalogues you sent, take the hint! Bah! Humbug!

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 10, 2007

Winter is Coming

This image of snow dusting a firethorn bush on Park Avenue gives us a hint of weather to come.

Winter will not officially arrive until Dec. 22, but we are already pondering what kind of season to expect.

Years ago, Mayor Mark Fury was no sooner sworn in than 17 winter storms hit the city. Since then, we have had more luck, but as the saying goes, one never knows, do one?

--Bernice Paglia

Procession of the Faithful

Particpants carried flags, banners of La Virgen de Guadalupe and San Juan Diego and statues in a procession Sunday (Dec. 9, 2007) from Library Park to St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church.
As the procession assembled, mariachis offered songs to La Virgen de Guadalupe.

The large instrument is a guitarron, a fretless bass. Marchers joined in the songs.

The march proceeds along West Eighth Street to the church, where Bishop Edgar Da Cunha was to celebrate Mass accompanied by mariachis.
Tonight (Dec. 10, 2007) a torch will arrive in Plainfield on its way from the basilica in Mexico City to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. A Mass will be celebrated in honor of the torch and San Juan Diego.
The six-day observance will culminate with an overnight ceremony Wednesday and a 5 a.m. Mass with mariachis Wednesday.
--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Q&A with Adrian Mapp

Plainfielder Adrian Mapp is currently completing a three-year term on the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders. Click here to see bios.
His term ends Dec. 31. Mapp served on the City Council for seven years. Plaintalker sent him a list of questions recently and here they are with his answers.

Q. What is your current employment?
A. I am the Chief Financial Officer for the Borough of Roselle.

Q. In a county controlled by the Regular Democratic Organization, where do you stand politically?
A. I am a Democrat, an independent democrat with no allegiance to the current party bosses.

Q. You ran off the line for re-election to the Union County Freeholder Board. Your running mates have tried often to buck the Democratic organization. Why is it important to you to do so?
A. Someone must always be willing to stand up and speak truth to power even when the odds appear to be insurmountable. Someone will hear your voice, however faint it may be, will believe in your cause and will join your struggle. And, in the end, regardless of how long it takes and in spite of defeats along the way, the forces of good will triumph over the forces of evil. Capitulation is the enemy of perseverance; and acquiescence is the antithesis of dogged determination.

Q. You stayed on as president of the New Democrats even after winning a freeholder seat with party backing. What is the current status of the New Democrat organization?
A. The New Democrat organization has been most successful as a loosely structured organization; it is in the organization's best interest to function in that fashion and in the spirit of its founder. The organization will continue to be a force for change in Plainfield. New Democrats are alive and well and will come together and stand together as the need dictates.

Q. In your letter to supporters, you allude to a third phase of public service after serving on the City Council and the county freeholder board. Please explain.
A. I will spend the next several months planning for life after the freeholder board. I will be paying very close attention to the activities of the mayor and council. I believe Plainfield lacks leadership and is in need of a strong leader who will lead from the front, not from in the shadows of a mentor. I want to provide the leadership that is currently lacking in Plainfield.

Q. What is your concept of "public service" and how will you present it to voters?
A. Public service is serving the community by making personal sacrifices and elevating the interest of the public above that of your own. But, most importantly, it is catering to the essential needs of the public. Public service is a noble calling; it is what one is willing to do in order to make the community better for contemporaries, for the children and for generations yet unborn. It is a way to give of oneself, one's knowledge, expertise, and experience to build a stronger, prosperous and vibrant community. I will present my concept of public service to the voters in my own inimitable style.

Winds of Change

Plainfield is facing lots of changes in the coming weeks, especially in the school district, where the top leadership is leaving Dec. 31.

Officials are talking about the possibility of reverting to an appointed school board instead of an elected one.

On the city side, the finance director and chief financial officer have both left.

Downtown redevelopment plans are being challenged by merchants who say their needs are not being considered. Other proposals for development along the rail line are under scrutiny for their relevance to the city's character and economic needs.

The Dornoch project, a bellwether for the success of condo sales in Plainfield, will soon show early results.

There's a lot more. The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, the Public Works yard and a badly needed new middle school may be vying for the same few large parcels of land.

All the above items need our attention as the New Year approaches. Plaintalker will strive to keep you informed.

--Bernice Paglia

Procession at Noon Today

Devotees of La Virgen de Guadalupe will hold a procession from Library Park to St. Mary's Church at noon today. The procession has been a local custom for about seven years, but will be significant this year because Plainfield is one of only three locations in the United States to have a specially blessed image of the saint, whom the faithful revere as the Queen of the Americas.

The church received City Council permission last week to hold the procession and other events culminating in a late-night sidewalk procession Wednesday and overnight ceremonies witha 5 a.m. Mass on Thursday, the Feast Day of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Besides being a religious observance, the processions and related events bring a new cultural aspect to Plainfield, where the Latino population is increasing every year.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Tour Showcases VWB Talent, Dedication


Many people go to historic home tours for the glamour of tributes to past eras – the Victorian décor, the painstaking reconstruction of fabulous mansions and the craftsmanship that can never be duplicated at modern-day costs.

Behind the scenes on the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District’s Old Fashioned Christmas House Tour, there is another aspect of life in Plainfield that deserves recognition.

That is the commitment of talented individuals to making the most of their designated historic district association.

There are six residential historic districts in Plainfield, but not all districts rise to the level of the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District. Here, members regularly meet, hold events, keep track of negative influences and demonstrate a cohesive approach to what such a designation means.

A look at the district’s web site, http://vanwyckbrookshistoricdistrict.blogspot.com/, shows the dynamic approach of its members both toward responding to challenges (the Abbott Manor Nursing Home expansion) and keeping up the interest (Coriell Bed & Breakfast plans).

This is what all of the historic district associations should strive for.

The Van Wyck Brooks District seems to be especially favored in that it has many professionals in its midst who are willing to take the time to promote it.

In her research on the Crescent Area Historic District, Maria Pellum was surprised to find the number of apartment buildings and thus of renters who may not have the same awareness or interest as homeowners in other districts.

Look here for more information on all the historic districts: http://www.plainfieldhistoricpreservation.com/index.htm

Any invitation to the public to visit homes in these districts is worth taking up, depending on when district associations are ready to entertain.

Ticket fees are mostly plowed back into district improvements. The Van Wyck Brooks District in the past has used proceeds to plant trees throughout the district.

So come to admire the old-fashioned Christmas atmosphere, but keep in mind the network of dedicated individuals who are preserving the Victorian legacy for future generations.

http://2007christmastour.blogspot.com/

Friday, December 07, 2007

Police Promotions Evoke Warm Support

Well-wishers crammed City Hall Friday for promotion ceremonies and vigorously applauded new Police Captain Michael Gilliam and Police Sgt. Kevin M. O’Brien after Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs administered their oaths.

Police Chief Edward Santiago read lists of their accomplishments, addressing them by their nicknames within the division.

O’Brien, known as “OB,” joined the force in 2000 and soon won recognition a year later for helping in a narcotics investigation and assisting at Fresh Kills after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

O’Brien later received commendations from Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne Forrest and South Plainfield Police Chief John Ferraro for crime fighting. The South Plainfield incident resulted in three arrests and confiscation of two handguns and four kilos of cocaine.

In 2005, he was commended by Major Edward M. O’Neill, commander of the State Police Office of Intelligence, for concluding an investigation with arrests of 31 persons, “effectively dismantling (the) influence the ‘Cash Money Brothers” criminal street gang held within the city.”

In 2007, he received two more commendations. His wife, Yvette, and children, Taylor, Michael and Eric, joined in the applause Friday for his promotion.


Gilliam, a 19-year veteran of the division, has been involved with Tae Kwon Do for 30 years, hence his nickname, “Master Mike.” He has been recognized for his performance in a hostage situation in 1998 and a burglary arrest in 1994. He received the Meritorious Service Award in 1995 for arresting a person who fired a gun at him and received an Excellent Duty bar for apprehending and armed person.

Plainfield Police Sgt. Francess Bennette gave a tribute to Gilliam, noting they were friends before they joined the division.

“You made an excellent, excellent choice,” Bennette said.

Gilliam’s son, Martesse, was also present for the proud occasion.

Gilliam and O’Brien also received kudos from Assemblyman Jerry Green, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig and Councilman Don Davis.

The event gave a glimpse of the professional camaraderie among Plainfield’s finest. Colleagues snapped dozens of photos of the event and law enforcement officials, including retired Plainfield Police Captain Ronald Law, attended to show their support.

--Bernice Paglia

Netherwood Tract "In Need of Redevelopment"


The Planning Board Thursday (Dec. 6, 2007) found 15 properties between Richmond and Berckman streets in need of redevelopment.

NB: Plaintalker has consistently reported the number as 16 parcels, which is wrong! It is 15!

The decision came after a detailed presentation by Union County Improvement Authority attorney Edward Boccher and Remington &Vernick planner George Stevenson.

The board will now recommend to the City Council that a redevelopment plan be made for the target properties.

The properties include large industrial tracts, a few homes and the city’s Public Works yard.

A draft redevelopment plan obtained by Plaintalker Thursday calls for five-story residential development on the parcels, which are dominated by industrial buildings that are now considered obsolete since the decline of freight usages along the Raritan Valley railroad line.

Many of the buildings are vacant or up for sale, including the former Edward Paul and Royal Apex buildings and the defunct Sunrise Club.

Some Planning Board members reacted to the reasons given for redevelopment by saying they needed to know more about the future plans in order to give context to the findings on the present uses, but Boccher said the board could only address the study, not any possible plans for the area.

But the existence of a draft plan seemed to indicate a fast-forward determination of redevelopment plans, just as happened when Stevenson once previously inadvertently flashed a slide noting a full plan when the board was only at the stage of approving an “in need” study.

The city currently has about 20 redevelopment proposals in various stages of approval, most tied to the newly popular concept of “transit village” development.

Planning Board members and others have voiced suspicions that the present redevelopment proposals are driven more by developers’ schemes than by the wishes of the community. The current target area on North and South avenues is outside the optimum quarter-mile radius of both the main train station on North Avenue and the Netherwood station, but was described as being “in walking distance” of both.

The specter of a challenge to redevelopment around the main train station was in the air Wednesday.

Boccher downplayed the challenge voiced to the City Council Wednesday by Princeton Peter D. Dickson, who successfully argued the Gallenthin vs. Paulsboro case. In that case, a property owner challenged the borough’s planner’s findings that the property was in need of redevelopment based on certain criteria. After the Supreme Court decision in June, several other towns backed off on plans to take property by eminent domain.

The Paulsboro planner was the same George Stevenson of Remington & Vernick who is now handling redevelopment studies for Plainfield. The North Avenue study was revised after the decision and the Netherwood study area was reduced from 93 parcels to 15.

Boccher took the proposed legal challenge as a good sign, indicating redevelopment was going to happen in Plainfield.

“You’re going to find a lot of lawyers crawling out of the woodwork,” Boccher said.

He said it was not necessarily a bad thing.

“They want to make money,” he said, but assured the board that the North Avenue study was “very solid.”

There are eight criteria that may be applied in determining a need for redevelopment. Boccher said, “Since Gallenthin, some of the standards have focused more and more on the detriment to the public, criteria e.”

Boccher invoked the theories of Jane Jacobs, author of “Death and Life in American Cities,” asking Planning Division Director Bill Nierstedt to describe them. Nierstedt cited two aspects, the presence of short block and mixed uses, that result in people interacting. Boccher said the tract in question, where former industrial uses have declined, has no “eyes on the street” and is no longer vibrant.

The tract between Berckman and Richmond streets is close to another proposed redevelopment area, the East Third & Richmond tract where Capodagli Property Company proposes 352 residential units in five buildings at East Third and Richmond streets, with 700 parking spaces at ground level. The Pompton Plains company plans to phase in development, starting with the former Cozzoli Machinery site.

At the time that plan was under discussion, Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier said the new residents could ride bicycles to the train station, which was just out of optimum walking distance.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Public Asked to Help

This sign near the corner of Park & Seventh asks people to report anything related to the Nov. 26 crash that took out a signal box and street light at the corner.

The early morning crash caused $10,000 damage to a city traffic signal box and unknown damage to a PSE&G light pole.

Anyone with information is asked to call (908) 753- 3033.

Police believe the vehicle may have been a silver Nissan XTerra, based on evidence left behind at the scene.

--Bernice Paglia

Reid Appointment, Dickson Appearance

Due to circumstances, I was asked to convert from Bloglady to Pressgrrl to report on the appointment of William Reid and also the challenge to redevelopment plans today.

There will be a story tomorrow in the Courier News about William Reid's new City Council role and tonight there was an online alert about a challenge to proposed redevelopment downtown that will be amplified tomorrow.

News is news, however it gets out.

I hope all will follow the developments, especially about redevelopment.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Quilting Gift Heralds Holiday Bazaar

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs received this Christmas quilt as a gift Tuesday (Dec. 4, 2007) along with two pillows created by the Senior Center quilting group directed by Adell Baker.

More quilted creations and other wares will be on sale this week as the Senior Center conducts its Holiday Bazaar on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Hours as posted in the Senior Center newsletter are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday and 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

--Bernice Paglia