Thursday, January 31, 2008

OFAC Report is Online

John Paff, an advocate of open and transparent government, sent me a link to the full Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance report. He obtained it from the state Department of Education and put it online for all to see.
Click here to read it.

Saved from Squirrel Attacks

While my apartment was under siege from squirrels, my neighbor kindly took charge of my large amaryllis plants. Having lost the use of the 9- by 32-foot enclosed porch, I had to cram my crop of impatiens and other plants grown from cuttings into a 14- by 14-foot front room and there was no room for the amaryllises.

After week of disruption, it seemed safe to put the small plants back on their shelves on the porch and bring back the amaryllis plants. The Aphrodite was still producing its magnificent flowers and by now, a gift plant from my sister Ellen had produced its first flower on a 28-inch stalk. In all, this pot of bulbs will make at least 16 brilliant red flowers.

Most of the small plants survived the depredations of the furry invaders and with any luck will be ready to go outdoors in late April or early May. Keeping these plants going over the winter is always a challenge, even without the hazard of being knocked over by squirrels. Balancing heat, light and water is tricky and then sometimes at the last minute, white flies or aphids attack.

The reward, if all goes well, is a profusion of double pink impatiens in summer.
--Bernice Paglia

Learn How to Get Out the Vote

There are two reasons to consider Rashid Burney’s call to help get out the vote for Barack Obama.

If you support Obama for president, the first reason is obvious.

The second reason is that it is a chance to learn the skills that can make the difference in any campaign, from the highest office in the land to a local school board or council seat. All too often, I have seen people who feel their cause is just, but who don’t know how to do the gritty organizational work to get every last voter out to the polls.

As a reporter, I used to ponder the fact that no matter how much work went into a good story, the final link to the reader was the carrier. If the newspaper was flung into the rain gutter or a barberry bush, the connection was broken. The same goes for a political campaign. A candidate may make the most compelling speeches and have the best ideas, but it is the phone-banking and similar actions to get voters to the polls that matter in the end.

So if you are inclined, join in and learn something. Click here for Rashid's contact information.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

BOE Will Appeal

I'm told the Board of Education voted at the Jan. 22 business meeting to appeal the denial of its previous challenge to state findings that its general counsel improperly took part in the hiring of former Interim Superintendent Peter E. Carter.

The state Department of Education's Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance investigated actions taken in June to recruit and hire Carter and found irregularities. (See Plaintalker's Jan. 27 post on the subject.) The BOE appealed the report, but OFAC denied the appeal and gave the board the choice of accepting the findings and taking corrective action, or making a further appeal.

This writer was at the City Council meeting on Jan. 22. Unfortunately, the February business meeting will also fall on the same night as a council meeting and I will probably be going to see what the governing body is up to on Feb. 19. The school board meeting is 7 p.m. at Plainfield High School and the council meeting will most likely be 7:30 p.m. in City Hall library. The council is meeting on Tuesday due to the Monday federal holiday.

--Bernice Paglia

Progress in Plaza Cleanup

Here's a big mess at the base of the Twin City sign last week.
Here's how it looks now.
There were signs that the hedges all around the plaza had been raked free of debris. Now they just need to be trimmed.
This property is owned by a Somerville company, not by Twin City. The cleanup and placement of rodent traps is a good sign that the company wants to be a good neighbor at Park & Seventh.
If you have never been in Twin City, make a visit. Not all major brands are on hand, but there is a fresh fish market, deli counter, butcher shop and take-out food and cappucino bar inside. The store has specialties from almost every Central American country, a big array of herbs and spices, fresh bread and rolls, lots of interesting fruits and vegetables, housewares and canned goods.
A lot of local people get lunches and dinners there, either eating at the counter or to take home. I have learned to say, "Dos empanadas, por favor," to get a quick lunch for $2.
--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Voter Registration Set for Feb. 5 Primary

The Union County Board of Elections has posted voter registration figures for the first-time Feb. 5 Presidential Primary.

Democrats make up 46.5 percent of the 18,376 total, but in Wards 1, 3 and 4, there was a decline in Democrats since May 2007. Ward 1 lost 25, Ward 3 declined by 34 and Ward 4 saw a drop of 24, compared to an increase of 27 in Ward 2. The net figures are 8,609 Democrats in May 2007 and 8,553 now.

Republicans are also down since May 2007, when the total was 1,062. It is now 1,034, or 5.6 percent of all registered voters in Plainfield.

Unaffiliated voters increased from 8,497 in May 2007 to 8,785 now. They can take part in the Feb. 5 primary by declaring a party affiliation at the polls.

There is one registered Green Party member in Plainfield and three Libertarians.

Republicans have been on the decline for many years now and have no representation on the governing body. The GOP must reorganize this year, filling up to 68 city committee seats and selecting a chairman for the next two years after the June primary.

Although there is no significant two-party participation in Plainfield, Democratic factionalism persists, at least in the minds of Regular Democrats who still see a threat from the New Democrats founded by the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams and currently headed by former Freeholder Adrian Mapp. If there is viable opposition to the Regular Democratic Organization, it may surface in the upcoming school board election or more likely in the June primary.

The school board election is supposed to be non-partisan, but like avid bird-watchers, politicians attempt to identify New Democrats by their familial habits. After all, birds of a feather flock together, don’t they?

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 28, 2008

Lions and Sphinxes and Rams, Oh My!

Under the title of sights around town, here are some things you can see at City Hall. Two of these ornamental structures flank the entrance to City Hall.
Among the icons on the triangular structures are these rams.

There are also elephants.

Three crumbling lions hold up the structure.

And then there is the busty lion-eagle-snake-female sphinx.
A plan to restore the exterior of City Hall may also include restoration of these icons from an age when allusions to mythology were common. Now will somebody please explain the dolphins in the rotunda stairway?
--Bernice Paglia

Council members Named to Committees

City Council President Harold Gibson followed the example of the late Ray Blanco this month by naming council members to numerous committees.

The committee system was part of a comprehensive “Rules of Order” document adopted in 2006 at Blanco’s behest. While many Central Jersey governing bodies have a committee system, Plainfield did not have one until the 28-page city document was adopted. Previously, there had been certain council liaisons.

The rules call for one standing committee, Finance. Members for 2008 are Harold Gibson, Rashid Burney, William Reid.

Then there are five Oversight Committees that are supposed to stay in place “until their respective subject matter has been accomplished,” according to the rules. Details are not spelled out. For 2008, they are:
Bridges Oversight Committee: Cory Storch, Don Davis.
Code Enforcement Oversight Committee: Harold Gibson, Rashid Burney, William Reid.
Roads Construction Oversight Committee: Harold Gibson, Rashid Burney, William Reid.
Technology Infrastructure Oversight Committee: Rashid Burney, Harold Gibson, Linda Carter.
A fifth one, Public Safety and Economic Growth, was split into two:
Public Safety Committee: Harold Gibson, Linda Carter, Elliott Simmons.
Economic Growth Committee: Harold Gibson, Rashid Burney, William Reid.

Council liaisons to existing boards and commissions are as follows:

Mayor’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee: Harold Gibson, Linda Carter.
Planning Board: William Reid.
Board of Education/City Council Liaison: Don Davis, alternate Linda Carter.
Green Brook Flood Control Commission: Cory Storch, Elliott Simmons.
Union County Community Development Revenue Sharing Committee: Cory Storch.
Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Committee: Harold Gibson, Rashid Burney, Linda Carter.
Senior Citizens Center Funding Sub-Committee: Linda Carter, Elliot Simmons, Harold Gibson.
Plainfield Housing Authority: Linda Carter, alternate Harold Gibson.
Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority: Donald Davis, Harold Gibson.
Special Improvement District Board: Linda Carter, Elliott Simmons, William Reid.
Shade Tree Commission: Rashid Burney, alternate Cory Storch.

Only a few of these committees and liaisons made reports to the full council in 2007 as required by the Rules of Order. Cory Storch made several reports on Economic Growth and Planning Board activities. Storch asked to be on the Economic Growth committee for 2008, but was denied.

There are eight rules for committees and liaisons, covering duties, notice and agendas, too many to repeat here. The general council rules also include a comprehensive schedule of reports from all the committees and liaisons.

The Rules of Order in general were presented in a hasty way in March 2006 and although they are meant to reflect the council’s commitment to “open and transparent government,” few members of the public have seen them. Veteran council-watchers Dottie and Josef Gutenkauf got a copy and produced a point-by-point critique of the document, which contains both permanent rules and others specific to 2006. For example, at the time, the question of how to fund a new senior center was a hot topic. But a private developer is now building a new center at no cost to the city as part of a mixed-use condo project.

There are many more nuances in the Rules of Order that even after almost a quarter-century of covering City Council meetings, this writer would be hard put to explain succinctly. After Blanco’s untimely death in 2006, council adherence to some of the rules faded. For example, after three “working conference” meetings in 2006, no further conferences have been scheduled.

The rules call for each committee to develop a written agenda for the year stating goals and priorities. Plaintalker will check on whether committees did so in 2007. If these assignments are just more bureaucracy, they should be reconsidered.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, January 27, 2008

State Denies Board Appeal

A state Department of Education office has denied the Plainfield school board’s appeal of findings that the board attorney recommended his client for interim superintendent and did not tell the full board of his attorney-client relationship.

The DOE Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance investigated the matter in August based on a complaint from Assemblyman Jerry Green, who is also chairman of the Plainfield Democratic City Committee. In a report issued Oct. 31, the state office concluded there was a violation. The board’s Dec. 14 appeal was rejected by the office and now the board can either accept the denial or would have had to appeal it by Friday (Jan. 25, 2008).

If the board accepts it, a corrective action plan must be filed to make sure it doesn’t happen again and the board attorney must disclose to the board and public the prior relationship with the interim superintendent.

The conflict arose from a June 8 emergency meeting called after former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard abruptly resigned June 6. Peter E. Carter, now known to be a client of the law firm of Hunt, Hamlin and Ridley in another matter, was hired as interim superintendent in the Friday night meeting and in turn recommended a business administrator/board secretary to replace Victor Demming, who resigned in May.

The minutes of that meeting have yet to be made public and doing so is a condition of board agreement with the findings.

The OFAC relied on interviews taken in August with board President Patricia Barksdale and other school officials and on unpublished June 8 minutes to piece together the findings. Among the disputed findings, board members did not recall any disclosure of the attorney-client relationship between the law firm and Carter. Board member Martin Cox contacted Carter, according to Barksdale’s affidavit, but Carter told the investigators he heard first from Hamlin. Minutes taken at the June 8 meeting include comments in support of Carter from both Hamlin and Terry Ridley.

Another issue, Open Public Meetings Act violations at the June 8 meeting , was apparently cured by the fact that no one objected to the issue by the designated deadline. The emergency meeting was advertised only in one newspaper, not two as required by the Sunshine Law. But because no complaint was filed within 45 days, the actions taken that night were deemed valid.

Carter, interim business administrator Michael Donow and interim assistant superintendent Walter Rusak had all signed on in June to stay through the 2007-08 school year while the board searched for a permanent superintendent and business administrator/board secretary, but all three quit in December over an undisclosed dispute with the board.

Human Resources Director Garnell Bailey is now also serving as interim superintendent, and the board has hired former business administrator/board secretary Gary Ottmann to serve for two years. Ottmann previously held the post for 13 years before leaving for the same title in Wayne. The board is in the final stages of a superintendent search that began last summer under the direction of the Illinois search firm Hazard, Attea, Young and Associates.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Signs of Past Times

This "ghost" sign is on the Park Avenue building that was once a Courier News bureau, then Thomas Furniture, then Atkol. The sign at the lower center had two rods holding it to the building, but one came loose. I told Emergency Management Official Sheldon Green about it. My neighbor said it was gone when she went by last week. The large old sign could have done significant damage to people or property if it had fallen onto Park Avenue.
This sign is gone now following a partial collapse that led Green and others to order its emergency removal. It was that incident that made me take a look at the Thomas sign. I wonder how many other obsolete signs are hanging over city streets?
--Bernice Paglia

A Squirrel Tale

Last week I came home from a trip to City Hall only to discover that squirrels had gotten into my living space and created havoc.

Earlier that day, the squirrels that have taken up residence in a dropped ceiling were madly chasing each other, squeaking and chirping in some sort of mating frenzy. They crashed through a flimsy plastic light panel and ran amok in a 9- by 32-foot enclosed porch that is one-third of my small apartment. Plants, CDs, books and lots of other things were knocked over by the invaders while they tried to find a way out.

I was beside myself. My concerns about the squirrels in the ceiling had gone unanswered for more than a year. Anticipating a possible incursion, I had taken a large screen off one of the 10 jalousied windows, but I was too scared Wednesday to go out and open it.

Finally my neighbor came to my rescue. She went in and cranked open the window. Out they went, only to come back in the ceiling and peer down from the hole under the light fixture.

I had found out through numerous phone calls that no official help exists for the hapless renter with a squirrel problem, except through Inspections putting some heat on the landlord. An exterminator finally came and set traps, but because the hole was open, I left the window open in case one of the squirrels made its way into the porch again. The temperature went down to 30 degrees out there.

On Thursday, the landlord and a worker came to look at the situation and left. Nothing happened Thursday except that I could see one dead squirrel next to the hole. Early Friday, workers arrived and removed the squirrel and replaced damaged ceiling tiles, including the missing light panel. Chewed-up wads of insulation and squirrel mess rained down when they moved the panels.

All was quiet until 4 p.m. Then my heart clutched as I heard the familiar scuttling overhead. Another squirrel.

According to this web site, 2008 is going to be a boom year for the Eastern Gray Squirrel, so others should soon have their own squirrel tales if they have left any holes in the exterior unsealed. The soffits at this building have several holes where they can come in.

If you see a squirrel being chased by a bunch of others, you are looking at a mating pursuit in which male squirrels compete to mate with one female. The front-runner gets the lady - at least first.

In 2006, a squirrel had babies in the dropped ceiling.

The present ones are much larger adults.

In looking up information on the computer, I found that the gray squirrel is now displacing the red squirrel in England. It carries a disease for which the smaller "Squirrel Nutkin" variety has no resistance. Click here for details.

Squirrels also get in the news by way of self-immolation from chewing wires. Here's one story.

Besides red and gray squirrels, there are white and black ones as this web site explains.

All I know is that I don't want any more squirrels to drop in, no matter what color!

--Bernice Paglia

Calendar Change Vote Fails

The proposal to adopt a Monday-Monday City Council calendar failed Thursday (Jan. 24, 2008) in a 3-1 vote.

The move had a council consensus of support at Tuesday’s agenda session, but three council members were absent Thursday and the necessary four votes could not be mustered.

In 2006, the council switched from the traditional calendar of regular meetings on first and third Mondays with agenda sessions on preceding Mondays. The new calendar called for Monday agenda sessions with regular meetings on Wednesdays of the same week. The council then had a week or more off before the next Monday-Wednesday cycle.

The quick turnaround proved burdensome for the city clerk’s office, where meeting packets are prepared. Instead of having a week to get ready for the regular meetings, the office had barely more than a day.

In 2007, the council attempted to decide among the new schedule, the old one or a “rolling” calendar with no fixed dates each month. Unable to decide, the council just kept the Monday-Wednesday schedule that members said they didn’t like.

City Clerk Laddie Wyatt presented a Monday-Monday calendar at the council’s Jan. 1 reorganization this year, but Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the change could not be made by resolution, but only by amending the ordinance passed in 2006. The council next met on Tuesday (Jan. 22, 2008) due to the Monday federal holiday and consensus was reached to change back to Mondays. Because the ordinance would have to be passed on two readings and 20 days would elapse before it took effect, the change was not anticipated until April.

On Thursday (Jan. 24, 2008) council members William Reid, Elliott Simmons and Linda Carter voted “yes,” but Rashid Burney voted “no.” Council members Cory Storch, Don Davis and Council President Harold Gibson were absent. Davis had consistently advocated changing back to the Mondays-only schedule to ease the workflow in the clerk’s office.

Wyatt said the next council meetings will be on Feb. 4 and 6. The agenda session is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The regular meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Superintendent Search Narrows

Why, one might ask, did the Board of Education meet in closed session three times last week at city restaurants?

The answer is that the consulting firm for the superintendent’s search had recommended that when the board got down to three finalists, a dinner with each one would help the board decide on a sole finalist. So the meeting schedule indicates the board is on schedule with the process set forth by the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board also approved spending $1,800 for three members to visit one of five cities. It was a recommendation of the search firm that board members visit the district of the finalist. In an apparent tactic to preserve confidentiality, the resolution does not single out a city. Those named are Miami, Fla.; Chicago, Ill.; Racine, Wis.; Atlanta, Ga.; and Washington, D.C.

The search schedule calls for a vote on the finalist in February. The board’s stated goal is to have a new superintendent in place by July 1, the beginning of the 2008-09 school year.

Meanwhile, petitions are available at the district business office, 504 Madison Ave., for the April 15 school board election. Petitions must be filed at the district office by 4 p.m. Feb. 25. Three three-year seats are up for election. Incumbents in those seats are Bridget Rivers, Vickey Sheppard and Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 25, 2008

Chiefs, Residents Back Santiago

A one-sentence resolution could spell the beginning of the end of a 138-year police chief tradition in Plainfield.

Embattled Police Chief Edward Santiago took the microphone first Thursday night to protest a proposed layoff plan targeting him, then many others did the same before the City Council voted approval. The governing body then came in for a second round of condemnation.

By authorizing submission of the layoff plan to the state Department of Personnel, the council took the first step toward the administration's goal of eliminating the police chief's position in favor of rotating captains as police director. If the plan goes through, Santiago would have to end his police career in Plainfield by dropping back to the rank of captain or retiring.

Besides protesting the layoff, speakers resented the cloud of secrecy over the matter that was broken just Thursday by a newspaper article in the Star-Ledger. At Tuesday's agenda session, officials mentioned the layoff plan but gave no details. Asked after the meeting, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig said the plan affected only one person.

But Alexi Friedman's article supplied the missing context: It was Santiago, and the next step would be an ordinance to do away with the chief's title.

Santiago told the council he had never been consulted on the matter and asked to speak with the governing body in closed session. Councilman Rashid Burney, acting as council president in the absence of Harold Gibson, said he thought it was fair to do so. But the vote went forward anyway Thursday, with Burney, Linda Carter, Elliott Simmons and William Reid voting "yes." Gibson, Cory Storch and Don Davis were absent.

Hillside Police Chief Robert Quinlan, who is also president of the Union County police chiefs' association, said he was very disturbed by what he read in the newspaper. He called the proposal "illegal," "unethical" and "ill-advised." He said his group could offer information and guidance in the situation.
The change would leave the appointed public safety director in charge of the police division.
Quinlan said public safety directors are politically appointed and often "politically responsive."
"If you remove the chief, who will stand up for the law?" he asked.
Eliminating the chief's position would also send a message to captains that there was nobody within the division "fit to lead," he said. Due to the short notice, only chiefs from Scotch Plains and New Providence were present, but Quinlan said he represented all 21 police chiefs in the county.
Flor Gonzalez, preesident of the Latin American Coalition, pointed out about 25 Hispanic residents in the audience . Referring to Monday's Martin Luther King holiday, she spoke about injustice and called removal of the only Hispanic top leader as an injustice heaped upon the Hispanic population of the city.
Nimrod Webb, a 47-year resident involved for 31 years in his family's business in Plainfield, said, "The one person that we could always count on was Police Chief Ed Santiago."
Webb called it "a severe injustice and a travesty" to get rid of the chief.
Officials including mayoral mentor Assemblyman Jerry Green denied there was anything personal or racial in the matter. Green called it a fiscal issue, saying, "We have to tighten up."
But resident Maria Pellum said money could be saved by eliminating the mayor's two bodyguards and money spent on flowers and dinners through the mayor's office.
Others questioned whether, if the police chief's title was to be abolished, the fire chief's title should follow suit. The city's charter calls for three department heads, including the director of Public Safety. the police and fire division are under that department and each division has always had a chief.
Speakers warned of costly litigation that would outweigh any cost savings by eliminating the police chief title. Santiago already is in litigation with the city over suspensions by the current administration and issues with the previous leadership. On Thursday, he cited a 1991 case in Linden where a chief was demoted to captain but the court found that he should retain all his former "rights, powers, duties, privileges and responsibilities" that he formerly enjoyed as police chief.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chief's Job in Crosshairs?

Alexi reports that the City Council may take action tonight to start the process of eliminating the position of police chief.
See Plaintalker's earlier posts on the subject here and here.
The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Meeting Schedule, Rules Up for Votes

The City Council agreed Tuesday to revert to its historical meeting dates on Mondays, but the change won’t come about until March or April.

City Clerk Laddie Wyatt said the council had been meeting on Mondays for 90 years before a change in 2006 to a Monday-Wednesday schedule. The late City Council President Ray Blanco sought the change, and although council members said in 2007 they didn’t like it, they kept the schedule for lack of consensus on other choices.

The meeting schedule was changed by ordinance in 2006 and so must be amended by an ordinance passed on two readings, with an additional 20 days to take effect.

The change to agenda sessions on Mondays and regular meetings on Wednesdays of the same week in the revision meant that many community members dedicated to Wednesday Bible study could not attend council meetings. Public attendance dropped off dramatically after the change.

The Monday-Wednesday schedule, which kicked over to Tuesday-Thursday after Monday federal holidays, also conflicted with numerous Board of Adjustment and Planning Board meetings over the year.

Due to the controversy, the council did not publish an annual calendar at the end of 2007.

Among the issues, some council members felt one voting meeting a month would suffice. But City Administrator Marc Dashield said, “I think that would be difficult.”

The administration must prepare documents for the council to examine for discussion at the agenda-fixing session. If there are any questions, the council can ask Dashield or department heads for more information. Considering the volume of work, Dashield said, “It takes two meetings a month.”

The council already takes a summer hiatus in June, July and August and an election hiatus in November, cutting back to just one agenda and one regular meeting. But some council members felt the schedule could be stripped down in two or three other months. Councilman Elliott Simmons said he wanted more time to spend with his family.

As the discussion wore on, Council President Harold Gibson called for an end to the indecision and Councilwoman Linda Carter asked for a consensus on the Monday-only schedule. Four of the seven members agreed, so it will be up for a vote Thursday. The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.

Another bone of contention was re-adoption of rules of order for the council, first passed at the same time as the schedule was changed in early 2006. Created by the late Council President Ray Blanco, the rules pinpointed everything from the role of the council president to when and how council members could speak. It also established an intensive committee system, with a schedule of reports to the full council.
The rules call for three “working conference” meetings in addition to council meetings, and three were held in 2006, but none in 2007.

Residents Josef and Dottie Gutenkauf wrote a point-by-point critique of the 28-page rules document and some council members, including Don Davis, bristled at the perceived dictatorial tone of the rules. After Blanco’s untimely death in August 2006, adherence to the rules dropped off.

On Tuesday, Davis said, “I didn’t like it when it was introduced two years ago and I don’t like it now,”

The rules will also be up for a vote Thursday.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Trash Piles Up at Plaza

The plaza at Park & Seventh, owned by Moorehouse Seventh Corporation of Somerville, still has trash problems. Get a little closer to this shrubbery at the corner and here is what you will see.
Here's another view.

And another. The trash includes bottles, food wrappers and scraps, plastic bags, cast-off items including a suitcase and other odds and ends.
The company was supposed to trim back the shrubbery at the end of the growing season. The overgrown bushes invite littering and dumping. It is unfair to the store and to the neighborhood to have these trash piles in plain view.
--Bernice Paglia

PMMA Contract on Council Agenda

City managers will receive a retroactive 3.75 percent raise for 2007 and raises of 3.50 percent annually through 2010 under an agreement up for City Council approval this week.

The Plainfield Municipal Management Association is one of seven city bargaining units and includes division and unit heads under the three departments mandated by the city’s special charter. More than half of the proposed salary agreement is taken up by a drug policy attachment. Other details include sick day, vacation, insurance, clothing allowance and related employment policies.

The agreement and an accompanying ordinance group the managers by titles into four “salary bands.” By 2010, those on the lowest rung will earn from $62,982 to $90,696 and those at the top will receive from $78,491 to $108,180. The salary ordinance requires two readings and takes effect 20 days after final passage.

Tonight’s agenda also includes numerous appointments, council liaison assignments and acceptance of the Planning Board’s study of the Netherwood redevelopment study and recommendation to authorize a plan to redevelop 15 properties including the city’s Public Works yard on South Avenue. Officials have not yet revealed an alternate site for the city yard.

The council will also be asked to approve a $5 million emergency appropriation to operate the city in February while the 2008 budget is finalized.

The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The entire agenda and accompanying resolutions and ordinances are online here.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Frontiers Breakfast Monday

As Pressgrrrl I wrote an article for the Courier News about the Frontiers International event Monday. It is online under News now and is expected to be in the print version today (Sunday).

Click here to see the article. As it happens, I caught the Ron Daniels show on WBAI at 12 a.m. overnight Wednesday and he mentioned the event several times. The show, Night Talk, is very informative. There is no information on the WBAI web site about it - the station has certain program slots that change unexpectedly and that slot is still listed as 'Round About Midnight with Playthell Benjamin.

Anyway, Ron Daniels is a great speaker and promises a cogent presentation Monday. I'm told that Frontiers member John Brinkley, a big WBAI fan, arranged to have Daniels as the guest speaker.

--Bernice Paglia

BOE Meets Tuesday

School board agendas were available at the Plainfield Public Library Saturday, but the information was not yet online. The Board of Education business meeting is 7 p.m. Tuesday at Cedarbook School, 1049 Central Ave.

Meeting mavens will have to choose between the school board and the City Council Tuesday. The governing body meets at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave., to set the agenda for its regular meeting, 8 p.m.Thursday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

Several personnel changes are listed in the Board of Education agenda, among them the appointment of Science Supervisor Beth Ebler to serve interim director of Curriculum & Instruction, science teacher Tara Dowdell to serve as interim supervisor of science; Robert Burkhardt to be interim supervisor of Special Programs. In addition, the board will be asked to approve the transfer of Delores BrownJohnson from supervisor of Teacher Induction and mentoring to Supervisor of Staff development. All the changes are for the balance of the 2007-08 school year.

A resolution regarding four part-time security guard positions seems to be an Abbott district housekeeping matter related to state-mandated “position control.” The guards’ pay will come from the budget of the respective schools where they work.

At first glance, this resolution was puzzling and sent me to the state DOE web site for clarification. There I found a truly scary list of acronyms and terms that did not include “position control.” After more cogitation, it dawned on me that they were talking about clarifying who’s on the job roster and how they get paid. Recent agendas have had other items mysterious to the layperson, but the board and administration have quickly answered questions from the public at the meetings. With the ongoing shifts due to restructuring to meet NJQSAC findings, there will undoubtedly be many more such resolutions, but explanations are forthcoming to anyone who asks.

The board will be asked to approve naming the Washington Community School gym for a beloved and exemplary teacher who passed away suddenly in December. The school wishes to “honor and recognize Joann Riley’s irreplaceable passion, dedication, commitment and unflagging school spirit” by naming the gym for her.

The agenda also contains a five-page chart of the board’s responses to QSAC findings on governance, one of the five performance areas studied in early 2007. Once approved Tuesday, the response will be sent to the DOE for review. Plaintalker has a blog post on this topic from the Jan. 15 meeting.

These are just a few of the items on the 40-page agenda. If it is not online Tuesday, it can be picked up at the library.

The board has been busy meeting with superintendent candidates in closed session and appears to be on track with a schedule that calls for a vote next month on a finalist. Click here for a file of Plaintalker posts on the search. The board has a goal of having a permanent superintendent in place by July 1. The search for a permanent high school principal was inconclusive last fall and is scheduled to be re-opened in the spring.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, January 19, 2008

New Beat at the Senior Center

The throbbing beat of the Electric Slide pulsed out of a boom box Friday and dancers gyrated to the music.

No, it was not a party – just the new, everyday way to get seniors moving at the center on East Front Street.

Center Director Sharron Brown furnished the mix tape and the encouragement to get up out of chairs and onto the dance floor. Seniors have learned a variety of dances, including the Cha Cha Slide, the Cupid Shuffle and the Mississippi Mud Slide.

“There’s too many of our seniors who do not want to leave the building at all,” Brown said. “This is home. They sit and talk – they need something to do.”

Quite a few seniors have taken up the challenge, Brown said. Her daughter Shona and god-daughter Ashley came in last Tuesday to teach the Cha Cha Slide and Brown said, “They know how to do it today.”

The center’s male members watch the dancing and some say they will join in, but never do, Brown said, adding, “They need to do just that.”

In keeping with the center’s theme, “It’s all about you,” Brown said, she is trying to get holdouts to give line dancing a try.

Shirley Crawford is the main person,” Brown said. “She likes to sit. My goal is to get her moving.”

This writer has been a senior center member since turning 55 in 1993, but pleaded a lack of coordination Friday to avoid embarrassing myself on the dance floor. Besides, I do a lot of walking.

--Bernice Paglia

Planning Board Reorganizes

The Planning Board held its annual reorganization Thursday and approved Ken Robertson for another term as chairman.

Ron Scott Bey was named vice chairman and Rosalind Miller will continue as secretary. Longtime Planning Board attorney Michele Donato was named for another term and the board welcomed F. Robert Perry of Remington & Vernick as planning consultant for 2008.

The Planning Board is gearing up for a year that could bring significant development. Barbara James, the mayor’s designee to the board, said Thursday, “There is a lot we have to do in the city. There is a lot we want to do. We have ideas we want to place out there and have them materialize.”

Among projects or proposals in various stages are the Landmark plan to redevelop several blocks around the main train station and the Marino tract proposal that may include a major supermarket. There are more than a dozen others that have been detailed on Plaintalker over the past two years.

There are four vacancies on the board. The terms of board member Donna Vose and alternate William Toth expired Dec. 31. A one-year City Council liaison has not been named and a one-year city official appointment must be made. Councilman Cory Storch was council liaison for the past two years and one of the mayor’s bodyguards, Police Officer Richard Brown, served last year as the city representative.

The board usually meets on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Its next meeting is Feb. 7 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 18, 2008

Senior Housing Proposal Questioned

A developer who proposed five stories of senior housing behind the present senior center must return next month to continue a Planning Board hearing on the project.

The hearing will resume at 8 p.m. Feb. 7 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Owner Steven Chung seeks to subdivide the property bounded by East Front Street, Roosevelt Avenue, Westervelt Avenue and homes on Orange Place. The 5-story building would have up to nine stores or offices on the ground floor along with services for the building. Chung proposes 80 1- and 2-bedroom rental units on the upper floors.

The Planning Board heard more than two hours of testimony Thursday (Jan. 17, 2008) on the application before deciding unanswered questions warranted a continuation of the application to Feb. 7.

The sticking points are the small size of the apartments and whether the new building might be better placed fronting on Roosevelt Avenue rather than on one-way Westervelt Avenue. The apartments do not meet the minimum of 750 square feet for 1-bedroom and 900 square feet for 2-bedroom apartments.

The discussion also included the board’s desire to see more landscaping. But architect George Jones said that could only happen at the expense of parking spaces.

Asked why the senior housing could not be built over the existing one-story East Front Street building, Jones said the current structure could not support the weight of four more stories. The plan called for splitting the expansive lot behind the one-story building and putting the new one across the middle of the block.

This writer broke the story in the print media last week. As a blogger, I was following up Thursday.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mighty Aphrodite

My amaryllis bulb from White Flower Farm just bloomed, with astonishing details including a green throat, picotee red edges and subtle coloration on each petal.

What better way to forget the travails of recent days than to drink in the beauty of this flower.

Mother Nature has a lot of tricks up her sleeve, but in winter this is one of the best.

--Bernice Paglia

J.M. Benjamin Interview Online

If you missed Tuesday's NJN interview with Plainfield author J.M. Benjamin, you can see it online here for a while. It will also be on NJN Channel 23 on Comcast at 11:30 p.m. Friday (Jan. 18, 2008).

In a city where hundreds of parolees come home each year, J.M. Benjamin is a good example of how to make positive, life-changing decisions. In the interview, he cites a book by Randy Kearse, "Changin' Your Game Plan," that offers a way to use incarceration for redemption.

Among Plainfield's very diverse population, a significant number of people are dealing with issues of incarceration or having a family member or loved one incarcerated. It's easy to dismiss people who made bad choices, but these individuals are our neighbors and need our acknowledgement and encouragement to find new ways to make money and rejoin the community.

Thanks to J.M. Benjamin for telling us how he learned to make new choices.

--Bernice Paglia

Car-less in the Transit Village

A tow truck came Wednesday and took away the 1991 Ford Escort that had been sitting around here since November 2006, when it was declared beyond repair.

Click here for my January 2007 post on becoming a pedestrian while I pondered whether or not to get another car.

I guess you could say I have voted with my feet, because I could never decide on a new car. I kept up my insurance payments for a long time, thinking it would be easier to transfer the policy if I got a new car than to cancel and start over. But when yet another renewal bill came late last year, I had to admit there was no new car on the horizon.

I made a few feeble stabs at checking out cars , but my dread of the car sale process took over. I recalled the guy with the diamond pinkie ring on Route 22 who told me a noise in the car he just sold me was the carburetor. Never mind that the car didn't have one. That car also had bad tires, a broken windshield wiper and other faults that only came out after I took possession of it. It was not the first time that I suspected parts had been swapped out in sort of a reverse detailing after the sale.

My failed attempt years ago to get a new Geo Metro came after promises by a car saleman in Westfield who, after receiving a large down payment, pulled a bait-and-switch trick on me. He dramtically unfurled a long computer printout that, he said, showed the car I wanted could not be had. Then he tried to foist off on me a used car from his lot.

To thwart the well-known custom of car dealers to take advantage of women buyers, I once enlisted my daughter's boyfriend to come with me to a dealership. Unfortunately, he showed up in Birkenstocks and shorts that made him seem no match for the ruthless salesman. Once, I even asked my ex-husband to be the symbolic male in another transaction.

Having aged into the little old lady who mainly used a car for weekly grocery shopping, the thought of car payments, insurance, repairs and gas bills tended to make me agree with the proposition that taking public transportation or even using taxis will never cost as much as owning a car.

Perhaps the most chilling factor was my experience soon after I retired when I took my car to my trusty mechanics here in Plainfield for an inspection. I got a call that "something happened" and I needed a new transmission. Luckily, they knew where I could get one for $1,700. But the process took 18 days and when I got the car back, it shuddered mightily when I braked for left turns and stop lights. Turns out it needed three motor mounts for another $300. Or maybe it was something else. So much for trust in my mechanics.

Over the past year, even without a car, I was able to do just about everything necessary to do freelance reporting in addition to blogging. From Park & Seventh, it's easy to get around to the post office, library, school board and council meetings, train and bus routes and places to shop.

The car that most intrigues me is the Smart Car, but I want to see how it fares on the street in the USA. Locally, I see more and more SUVs and even big trucks being used for travel around town. And then there are those noisy racing cars that speed at 60 miles an hour on city streets. Will there be a place for the sensible but tiny Smart Car and its automotive kin? I will be watching from the sidewalk to see how things work out on the road in 2008.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Board Meets Governance Standards

School board members applauded vigorously Tuesday (Jan. 15, 2008) after Nancy Stern of the New Jersey School Boards Association announced they had completed every aspect of an action plan to meet new state monitoring requirements.

Stern and Nancy DiBartolo of the association helped the board finish two last items Tuesday. The board will vote Tuesday (Jan. 22, 2008) to approve the plan and then it will be sent to the state Department of Education for review.

The new monitoring program, New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or NJQSAC, involved visits from state teams in early 2007 to examine five performance areas in the district. The administration was responsible for four of them and the board was responsible for governance.

In August, DOE Commissioner Lucille Davy said Plainfield’s scores were 8 percent for Instruction and Program, 11 percent for Governance, 32 percent for Fiscal Management, 38 percent for Personnel and 61 percent for Operations. Scores over 81 were considered adequate, but those under 50 percent triggered the need for remediation and possible state intervention.

Since the scores were released, district officials have been working hard to address, and in some cases, refute the findings.

School Board President Patricia Barksdale Tuesday repeated her questioning of why 15 districts out of more than 600 were monitored without prior instruction, while now others will receive training in advance to carry out self-assessments.

Barksdale also questioned the new school funding formula passed in a lame-duck session with last-minute language changes.

As one of the state’s 31 poorest “Abbott” districts, Plainfield receives 80 percent of its school funding from the state, a formula that suburban districts have sought to upset. Many wealthier districts pay most school costs from property taxes. The new formula is based on aid per pupil need rather than by district.

In another issue on state testing, board member Agurs Linward “Lenny” Cathcart Jr. said he wanted people to know that seven schools had met Adequate Yearly Progress standards under the federal “No Child Left Behind” program.

Plaintalker has aleady summed up the results at least twice, but for those who missed them, here they are again:

Among the elementary schools, Dewitt D. Barlow met the AYP standards but must do so again next year to get out of Year 2 status. Cedarbrook met the standards for two years and is out of Year1 status. Clinton met the standards but is on hold in Year 3. Frederic W. Cook met the standards and is out of Year 1 status for Language Arts. Emerson met Mathematics AYP standards, but not Language Arts and is Year 1 status. Evergreen met the standards and is on hold in Year 3 status. Jefferson met Mathematics standards but not Language Arts and is on Year 3 status. Charles H. Stillman met mathematics standards but not Language Arts and remains in Year 3 status since the 2003-04 school year. Washington met both standards and is on hold in Year 2 status. Woodland met AYP standards for the second time since 2005-06 and is not in status.

The school district still has many more chores, including filling top administrative posts and finding a permanent superintendent. A search has been underway since August and may yield a vote by February. Meanwhile, new Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey is in charge.

--Bernice Paglia

BOE Meets Tonight

The school board will hold its work-and-study meeting at 8 p.m. in the Plainfield High School Conference Room tonight. The agenda (picked up at the Plainfield Public Library) did not seem to have any major items, but often the remarks of the board president, superintendent and committee chairs reveal some interesting news.

Board and district goals are listed on page 23 of the agenda. Click here to view tonight's agenda.

The board has extra executive sessions this week to deal with the superintendent's search. According to a revised schedule, the board will meet from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and from 5:30 to 8:45 p.m. Thursday in closed session. Both meetings are at the Emerson Swing School, 1700 W. Front St.

The business meeting on Jan 22 coincides with a City Council meeting. The agenda should be available at the library by Saturday and Plaintalker will attempt a preview.

--Bernice Paglia

Bloggers at Loggerheads

Uh oh.

The Needler in the Haystack is removing Plaintalker from his roster of links.

Coincidentally, Max Schmid of WBAI just played an episode from the Vic and Sade show called “The Demise of Bernice.”


Turmoil is in the air. Or, as the late Ray Blanco used to say when describing Plainfield's peculiarities, "It's in the water."

--Bernice Paglia

Legal Notices Yield News

Where does news come from?

Sometimes the starting point is a legal notice. When it comes to redevelopment and governmental matters, those fine-print items in the back of the newspaper are literally all the notice necessary to let people know what’s up. Salary raises, new storm water rules, rate increases, contract awards, the creation of new city jobs, hearings on proposed development and a whole lot more are heralded in these small notices. Interested citizens can then show up at public meetings to speak out and see how officials vote on these matters.

When I saw a legal notice Jan. 5 about a proposal for a new, five-story building with 80 residential units downtown, it struck me as possible news. I filled out an Open Public Records Act form and asked to see the documents on file in the Planning Division.
The documents fleshed out the proposal and included the developer’s phone number. I made a call and got comments from him. Then the question was, should I write it for the blog or should I pitch it as a freelance story? Based on the fact that I get paid for freelancing, that decision was easy.

So soon there was an A-1 story in the newspaper that was a lot more eye-catching than the legal notice. The application is up for a hearing at the Planning Board Thursday. The board may approve or deny the application, but at least people who want to follow the action know enough to attend the meeting.

On Sunday, a neighbor tipped me off to something going on downtown. I walked over and gathered information and comments for another A-1 freelance story.

Both of these stories are still online at the Courier News under “Past week’s news.” They will soon go into the paid archive. Click here and here to see them now.

I must say that
I have often felt inclined
to scoop the newspaper
once I spot
a newsworthy legal notice item.
You have to know what you are looking at and then you have to be able to convert it to a readable story. In 2007, I was able to get out news both on the blog and in the newspaper. In my current malaise over blogging, I am more inclined to go for the check than for the warm fuzzies. Either way, I still get the brickbats, but if I get paid, I can go shopping and forget about my detractors.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Blogger's Dilemma

For the past few days, I have been pondering the future of Plaintalker.

It started in June 2005 as a service to the public. I was the chief writer and used my background as a reporter to bring out city news. After co-founder Barbara Kerr left in January 2007, I continued writing and taking photographs on my own.

Gradually people went from asking, "What's a blog?" to reading mine and others, along with the newspapers that some call "mainstream media" or "legacy media."

Currently there are many blogs in Plainfield, each with its own outlook or angle. Mine continues to be focused on news and events of interest to Plainfielders, a "hyper-local" kind of blog.

Many of my blog posts can be read in a few minutes. That's the idea - to sum up highlights of a long school board or council meeting in a readable way. It is not a blow-by-blow, item-by-item rendition of what happened. That would be a transcript. To see some typical posts, click here for last January's Plaintalker. Yes, there are sidelights on gardening, both indoor and outdoor, over the year. And sometimes there is commentary.

Plaintalker is based on facts, sometimes gleaned from public documents as well as actions of elected and appointed officials. Rumors and gossip are titillating, but until they emerge as verifiable facts, we try to steer clear of them. Another city blogger has made rumor and innuendo his trademark and unfortunately the rest of us are sometimes lumped together as "the bloggers" without regard to our differing approaches.

It is a bit irksome to those of us who research topics, attend meetings all the way to the end and otherwise give of our time and energy, to have our work subsumed under the banner of someone else who merely opines on the findings. Worse yet is when a fellow blogger takes a leap from the facts into fantasy and drags the original writer into controversy.

In this day and age, anything posted online is subject to being copied or linked to another online source. I frequently provide links to sources that add context to my original articles. Some blogs are nothing more than a series of links.

The blog reader always has the choice to bypass the aggregators of other writers' work and just to bookmark the original blogs one likes. There is no need for a nanny to tell you what to read.

Over the weekend I was mulling how much I owe to the people who have told me they rely on my blog for information and how much I owe to myself in terms of how I spend my so-called retirement. On Sunday, while freelancing a breaking news story, I met a very nice gentleman from New York who, it turns out, knew of Plaintalker from doing online research on Plainfield, where he owns property. I think it was his compliment on the blog that made me decide for now that I will continue Plaintalker for those who get something out of it. I have heard from readers in Germany and Japan as well as from city residents who look forward to daily posts.

I don't make any money doing the blog, but I do get paid for freelancing. So to see what I do while wearing my other hat, look on the front page of the Courier News today or click here to read the story.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

City Author on NJN

Plainfield's own literary success in the field of urban fiction, J.M. Benjamin, will be featured in an interview on NJN next week. Click here for details.

The author was previously the subject of two freelance articles by this writer in the Courier News and also a recent New York Times article by Kevin Coyne.

He has opened a book outlet inside Music N Motion at 204 East Front Street.

J.M. Benjamin has traveled nationwide to book signings and urban fiction conferences since bursting onto the scene with his first award-winning book, "Down in the Dirty." Most recently, he held a book-signing at the new outlet for his new work, "Ride or Die Chick."

Though controversial, the urban fiction genre is credited with engaging young non-readers with the written word. J.M. Benjamin's books depict the violent world of the drug trade, with many scenes set in Plainfield, and teach the lesson that bad guys ultimately do not win, but may suffer imprisonment or death in the pursuit of money and fame on the street.

--Bernice Paglia

Senior Center Building Update

Progress is evident on the site of the new senior center on East Front Street.
The elevator shaft is taller and steel girders have appeared at the site of the Dornoch Plainfield project that will have 63 condos over a new senior center at 400 East Front Street. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs usually reports to seniors on the first Tuesday of each month, but due to the New Year's Day reorganization meeting, she has rescheduled her visit to the current senior center at 305 East Front Street to Friday, Jan. 18 at 12:30 p.m.
--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Closed Meeting Topic Was Superintendent

Tuesday's special Board of Education meeting began at 5:30 p.m. and a couple of us, intrigued by the "action may be taken" tag on the meeting notice, showed up and hung around.

But hours later there was no evidence of a public portion, so we went home.

What we did know is that Dr. Marvin Edwards of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates was present, along with state and county officials and perhaps candidates for the post of superintendent.

Maybe we have to wait a while until the five finalists who best match the profile for Plainfield are winnowed down to three. Or may be we have to wait for the single finalist before we learn who will be the next chief school administrator.

This quest for a new superintendent began with hiring the Illinois firm last summer for the search and letting them develop criteria based on Plainfield's profile for its next superintendent.

Here's what is posted on the search firm's web site as Plainfield's criteria:

This was derived from meetings with the community last fall.

One stated goal is to have a new superintendent up for a vote in February, but a board goal voiced recently is to have a superintendent in place by July.

The sooner the better, we say. The district now has a degree of stability with the hiring of former school business administrator/board secretary Gary Ottmann for a new term. Ottmann knows Plainfield and knows school business administration.

A capable new superintendent can address issues of curriculum and instruction, high-performing staff, response to state and federal demands for accountability and more.

The right superintendent can do wonders for this troubled district and whoever gets the post should be given free rein to solve its problems without political interference. Given the threats of reduced state funding and even more demands upon teachers and administrators, the next leader must be astute and clever in formulating solutions to these issues.

--Bernice Paglia

Remembering Phyllis Mason

Friends and fans of the late Phyllis Mason may have been taken aback to see a campaign sign for her at West Seventh and Central last week.
It turns out that someone had obtained a bunch of her signs at an estate sale and they were recycled with new covers to advertise a recent house tour. Wind and rain apparently uncovered at least this one, which organizers of the tour intended to remove.
The campaign sign was for a contest many years ago for the 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large seat. Ms. Mason is not coming back from the hereafter to challenge Don Davis for the 3rd Ward seat. Davis and incumbent Citywide at-large Councilman Harold Gibson, also this year's council president, must defend their seats against those who file by the April 7 deadline.
Phyllis also got mentioned when Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs asked in her state of the city address for a moment of silence for notables who passed in 2007. That gave some people a start, since she actually died in 2006.
One thing we know for sure - Phyllis would have little interest in local politics if she were still here this year. Her friends would be getting long phone calls about her views on the presidential candidates. When it came to national politics, a moment of silence was her least favorite thing.
--Bernice Paglia

Plaza Hedges Still Unkempt

The Somerville company that owns the Twin City Plaza promised in August to trim back the unruly hedges around the parking lot. Recently, the tall weed trees have been chopped back to the level of the shrubs, but no further landscaping maintenance has taken place.
The unsightly hedges are full of trash and food wrappers, a possible sanitation issue.

For whatever reason, people are just stuffing their take-out plates and containers in the bushes.

Perhaps if these evergreens were neatly sheared into shape, people would not shove their trash into them. These hedges need a good trimming and clean-up.
To see the August blog post with contact information for the property owner, click here.
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Look Back and Forward at Schools

A Janus-like look backward at the past six months and forward to the remainder of the school year will be part of a community forum Thursday (Jan. 10, 2008). Supervisors and directors will handle that part of the forum, which will also include presentations from all school principals on what they are doing to help boost test scores. At the end of the meeting, those who attend are encouraged to give their thoughts on the session face-to-face with the principals and administrators.

The meeting is from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Washington School cafetorium. The school is located on Darrow Avenue, but the cafetorium is best entered from Spooner Avenue.

Considering that the district has 13 schools and numerous supervisors and directors, the format is somewhat ambitious. How much "face time" will there be, realistically? Maybe I have sat through one too many ill-conceived community forums to believe this will be worth a night out.

For those with more optimism, I would suggest a short review on what Adequate Yearly Progress means before setting out to hear how each school leader is preparing children to do well in 2008. Click here for a Q&A on AYP from the DOE.

Here is an excerpt from a prior blog post on AYP:

In Plainfield, the high school, middle schools and three elementary schools did not show adequate improvements. The high school and Maxson are in Year 5 status. Hubbard is among 38 schools statewide that are in Year 7, a category for which the No Child Left Behind has no provisions, but Commissioner Lucille Davy said the DOE “must continue working with these schools.” Individualized action plans will be developed.

Among the elementary schools, Dewitt D. Barlow met the AYP standards but must do so again next year to get out of Year 2 status. Cedarbrook met the standards for two years and is out of Year1 status. Clinton met the standards but is on hold in Year 3. Frederic W. Cook met the standards and is out of Year 1 status for Language Arts. Emerson met Mathematics AYP standards, but not Language Arts and is Year 1 status. Evergreen met the standards and is on hold in Year 3 status. Jefferson met Mathematics standards but not Language Arts and is on Year 3 status. Charles H. Stillman met mathematics standards but not Language Arts and remains in Year 3 status since the 2003-04 school year. Washington met both standards and is on hold in Year 2 status. Woodland met AYP standards for the second time since 2005-06 and is not in status.

As noted above, Hubbard has not met federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards for seven years. Former Interim Superintendent Peter E. Carter said when top state DOE officials came to Plainfield, they spent an hour out of a 90-minute meeting talking about Hubbard Middle School.

Carter, before his early departure in December, had promised to see test scores rise this spring. The new Interim Superintendent, Garnell Bailey, was named to the post just weeks ago and must pick up where Carter left off. Bailey called for Thursday's forum to let the community learn where things stand.
Students must also take state assessment tests in the spring. Previous scores for all schools are on "report cards" on the DOE web site.
The school district web site has a link for each school. Perhaps each principal could use that means to explain what is being done to improve test scores. Meanwhile, ignore this writer's less-than-sanguine view of community forums and head on over to Washington Community School Thursday. As the district press release states, "...we need the entire community to be aware of where we are and where we are going!"
--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Special BOE Meeting Tuesday

Plaintalker has been watching the school district web site for news of January meetings. Well, here's a puzzler: there is now a notice for a Jan. 8 special meeting with a closed session in which "action may be taken."
I thought the board had various topics that could be discussed only in closed session, but that action could only be taken in public session.
The stated time for the meeting is 5:30 p.m. in the Plainfield High School conference room. When or if the board may emerge to take action on personnel, contracts or other matters is not indicated.
Oh well. My church book club's selection for January is 529 pages long. Maybe I should bring it along if I decide to wait around for any news or outcome Tuesday.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 04, 2008

Emerson School in Progress

Here are some views of the new Emerson School, which is still awaiting opening. At present, Emerson students are attending class in the swing school at Rock Avenue and West Front Street. The school looks very capacious and has nice landscaping. Grass is growing in patches.

Here's a glimpse into a classroom. All the clocks are set at 12, whether a.m. or p.m. we can't tell.

This amphitheater seating around a flagpole (or whatever it is supposed to be) is an interesting design.

Another view of the flagpole area.

What is the cupola for?

Another entrance to the building at East Third and Emerson Ave.

We couldn't figure out this signage. If this is the ramp, what's up with the steps?

We noted four busted windows on one side of the building. Will vandalism be a problem in the future?
According to the state Schools Development Authority web site, "The school consists of 24 classrooms, a gymnasium, cafetorium, media center and art room. The final design is 66,642 square feet, which accommodates a maximum of 437 students from kindergarten through grade 6." Click here for more information.
I found it quite impressive. It is apparently a bit behind schedule but once it is open, I think it will be a big asset to the community.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Rubberstamp Syndrome

When I was a poor single housewife in the 1970s, one of my minor thrills was to put rubber stamps on envelopes to all my creditors. Some may recall the rubber stamp and mail art movement of that era, which gave excitement to many daily activities such as paying bills.

I had lots of rubber stamps that served to express my interests and ideas. Every time I pressed one on an envelope or postcard, I felt empowered ( a 1970s concept of individuality).

But today, the image above reminds me of Plainfield's traditional political adage that a city power broker must only be able to count to four to make things happen (or not happen) in the city.

Right now, rubber stamps remind me of another meaning - the mindless approval of one person's point of view dominating the dialogue on public events.

Must my elected representatives be required to rubber-stamp decisions of party leaders?

I hope not.

--Bernice Paglia

Boards and Commissions Need Informed Members

At Tuesday’s reorganization, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs had staff hand out applications to serve on boards and commissions. This scatter-shot approach reminded Plaintalker that an important part of the Civic Responsibility Act has never been fulfilled.

The 2005 legislation called for a form to be created for applicants and also a directory of seats on boards and commissions, including duties, terms, vacancies and other information so an applicant could make an informed choice of where to serve. The form was indeed created and can be obtained at City Hall or downloaded from the city’s web site. But the directory was never established.

The mayor has made numerous appointments since taking office in January 2006, but many boards are lacking members. Click here for a large file of blog posts on the vagaries of the Civic Responsibility Act (it will include the current post).

Applying for a board or commission with no knowledge of what the commitment entails is not a good idea. Most appointments involve a two- to five-year term. Some, such as the Planning Board, require state-mandated training. Somebody has to run the meeting and somebody has to keep minutes. Boards and commissions must adhere to the Open Public Meetings Act.

Among the boards that have only partial membership are the Plainfield Youth Commission, the Human Relations Commission, the Citizens Advisory Committee and the Plainfield Television Advisory Committee. No members have ever been named to the Environmental Commission. The Beautification Committee can have up to 40 members, but presently has none. Another youth council for liaisons to other city boards was created, but never implemented, nor was the Hispanic Affairs Commission.

All the information on boards and commissions was to have been posted on the city’s web site by April 2006. That web site is still awaiting an overhaul after two years.

Mayoral mentor and Assemblyman Jerry Green promised seniors civics lessons in December 2006, as he urged participation on boards and commissions. But what people really need is knowledge of what they are signing up for.

Plaintalker has a suggestion. At the next community forum, display in large format the requirements for selected boards and commissions and then have a “speed-dating” style match-up of volunteers. The resulting applications would still need screening and maybe interviews before the mayor could offer nominees for City Council advice and consent, but at least the ball might get rolling.

Meanwhile, anyone who wants to investigate independently can look up “Boards and Commissions” in the Municipal Code at City Hall or on Councilman Rashid Burney’s web site and submit an application for one that seems like a good fit for one’s talents and interests.

There is one other problem that would have to be handled within City Hall. Several people who applied for boards and commissions in the past two years have had their applications lost or misplaced and have had to re-apply multiple times. The mayor’s office needs to fix this problem so that people who want to volunteer are not discouraged. There are plenty of non-governmental agencies in Plainfield that welcome volunteers and the city could lose out if forms and resumes keep getting lost.

Finally, the Planning Board, Zoning Board and Historic Preservation Commission need the very best, most dedicated members they can get as the city moves forward with redevelopment. The decisions of the land use boards will be with us for many decades, so they had better be well-informed and solid. These boards need people who will ask questions and not just assume good faith on the part of developers. Those who follow the land use boards can tell you that some developers will try to “get over” both in Plainfield and elsewhere, painting a picture of competence and wherewithal that is largely an illusion.

Thus endeth the sermon.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Green Helping, Not Leading Board Change

Assemblyman Jerry Green called Plaintalker to say he is not leading the move to return to an elected school board, but will help any citizens who are interested in finding out how the process would work.

Green earlier mentioned researching a referendum to go back to an appointed school board. But no change is likely by Feb. 25, when petitions to run for the school board must be filed by 4 p.m. at the board office, 504 Madison Ave.

Those whose terms expire in 2008 are Agurs Linward “Lenny” Cathcart Jr., Vickey Sheppard and Bridget Rivers. On April 15, voters will choose three people to serve three-year terms.

Although school board elections are supposed to be non-partisan, recent elections have had an undercurrent of political support for candidates from two factions, the New Democrats or the Regular Democratic Organization. The search for a new superintendent was designed to be free of politics, but depending on those board members who get the final say, that decision could still reflect political leanings. The board may be given five finalists as early as this month and will then select three before naming one the new superintendent.

--Bernice Paglia

Gibson Wins Council Presidency

Harold Gibson became City Council president for 2008 and council members Linda Carter and Cory Storch were sworn in for second four-year terms at Tuesday’s annual reorganization.
Gibson recounted the tale of how he and his brother stood as children in a segregated waiting room in Enterprise, Ala., in 1940 before departing for Newark. His brother, Kenneth, later became mayor of Newark and Gibson rose from police ranks to a political career that included serving Plainfield as city administrator and public safety director. He most recently served as Union County’s public safety director for 10 years, but as of today will head the newly-created Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Gang Reduction in Sheriff Ralph Froelich’s department.

Thanking family and friends for their support, Gibson promised to do his best for the city.

“We were elected,” he said. “None of us was anointed.”

Carter, who was also named chairwoman of the whole for 2008, said one of her priorities is budget stabilization.

Storch said, “I look forward to serving the people above all else – the people of Plainfield.”

On Gibson’s presidency, Storch and Councilman Elliott Simmons voted “no,” while Carter, Rashid Burney, William Reid and Gibson voted “yes.”

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs gave special thanks to Assemblyman Jerry Green for his help in securing extraordinary state aid for the city. Green, also chairman of the Democratic City Committee, helped the city get $800,000 for tax relief.

Starting with her theme of “Growth by Unity,” Robinson-Briggs gave a detailed overview of each city department’s accomplishments in 2007. Among innovations for 2008, the Recreation Division will have a new program to combat childhood obesity. The Inspections Division will continue team-building staff meetings as they are “putting themselves back together,” she said.

Robinson-Briggs said economic development effort will focus on three projects in 2008. They are the senior center/63-condo project that is now underway at 400 East Front Street, an expanded Historic North Avenue redevelopment plan and the Teppers II project that calls for 12 condos on West Front Street.

The city is still trying to sort out who should receive about $700,000 in tax overpayments, the mayor said. The money has been placed in surplus while possible claims are being investigated. First announced in 2006, the issue remains contentious, but Robinson-Briggs said the city must determine whether past or present owners or mortgage companies should properly receive the overpayments.

The council will meet again on Jan. 22 for an agenda session, with the regular meeting to follow on Jan. 24. A plan to switch back to the traditional Mondays-only meeting schedule will require legislation that must be passed on two readings, taking effect 20 days later. Realistically, a calendar change cannot come about until March, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said.

Among comments from the public, Maria Pellum offered congratulations to Gibson on behalf of the Crescent Area Neighborhood Association, which began the historic preservation movement 30 years ago. Noting approvals of several public defenders Tuesday, Pellum also asked the council to seek a Latino public defender next year.

Resident John Campbell praised Gibson, his longtime friend, as someone with “a good mind and a good heart” and “a stand-up brother who will do the right thing.”

Green, who will be speaker pro tem in the Assembly for 2008, said he was very pleased with all the ceremony Tuesday. But he also cautioned the council, "I watched how you voted - I watched the body language."

Among other remarks, he noted Plainfield only had “single-digit murders,” compared to high numbers in other cities. He said many Hispanics had been taken advantage of in the recent mortgage crisis, resulting in houses on the market rising from 300 to 400. Green also touched on the problem of day workers congregating on city streets and inequities in school aid.

“Let’s stop playing politics. Let’s sit down and get down to business,” he said to the council.

Former Union County Freeholder Adrian Mapp raised several questions about investigations of past employees, but Gibson said council members would not be allowed to comment on any investigations by the prosecutor’s office.

The Rev. Shirley Cathie expressed love and hope for the city, and said the elected officials can count on the Concerned Urban Clergy for prayer.

--Bernice Paglia