Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Citywide at-large Candidates Debate

On Tuesday (May 27, 2008), the Netherwood Heights Neighbors presented a candidates' forum with incumbent City Council President Harold Gibson and challenger Annie McWilliams, daughter of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, both seeking the citywide at-large seat in the June 3 primary.

The forum took place at the Plainfield Public Library, with attorney and city resident Joan Van Pelt as moderator.

Van Pelt received numerous questions from the audience, but specified that each would have to be answered by both candidates. Topics included redevelopment, crime, public safety, taxes, inclusion of Latinos, education, bridging political gaps and plans for the city's future.

Throughout the evening, Gibson pushed his decades of experience in municipal and county government, while McWilliams based her appeal on a need for change and new energy.

The audience of about 70 people appeared to be split between supporters of the late mayor's New Democrats and backers of Democratic City Committee Chairman Jerry Green's Regular Democratic Organization.

Among the pitches:

In his opening statement, Gibson cited his former service as Plainfield Public Safety Director and City Administrator as well as his service in Newark and Union County. He also took credit for introducing a generic prayer at City Council meetings.

Annie McWilliams, a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and now employed by Citigroup, said in her estimation, Plainfield is not headed in the right direction and she would bring her business skills to the task of righting the "failed leadership" that she now sees in place.

In terms of what each has done personally to impact the issue of the Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center closing, Gibson said he took part in rallies and has done "everything in his power."

"I still stand for a full-service hospital," he said.

McWilliams called the proposed closing of the acute-care facility "more of a symptom than a problem" and said it came about over time because the city doesn't have "pro-active leadership."

On economic development, Gibson said he intends to do just what he was doing in the past, working with developers to do what is profitable for the citizens, not just for business itself. But he also cited the present economic situation that "does not lend itself to a whole lot of development."

McWilliams said she hasn't seen much movement downtown and again questioned city leadership.

On a question of whether South Avenue buildings should exceed two stories, both candidates continued to spar over development issues until Van Pelt re-stated the question and asked for a yes or no answer. Gibson said yes, but McWilliams said she would have to see the plans.

On public safety, Gibson cited a 15 percent decrease in crime as evidenced by Uniform Crime Reports, while McWilliams retorted, "I don't know that I feel 15 percent safer."

On outreach to Latinos, McWilliams said city needs to "include all in a meaningful way." Gibson said African Americans were once not invited, but got involved and "became part of the solution rather than part of the problem."

The two wrangled over the question of what city government can do to help education, with McWilliams mentioning her mentoring program for middle schoolers and Gibson citing his new post in the Union County Sheriff's Office, where he addresses issues including juvenile delinquency. McWilliams said the city needs to "make a statement about where it stands with kids" and Gibson pointed out liaisons already exist with the Board of Education.

Other topics included the condition of city streets, with McWilliams charging that a road repair plan developed during her father's administration is now stalled and Gibson saying there is a plan that is being followed. A question on mayoral bodyguards brought Gibson's emphatic insistence that they are "an absolute necessity," but McWilliams asked why "two particular officers" got the assignment.

McWilliams called for ethics training to avoid corruption in public office and said her campaign was financed by grassroots contributions "from citizens sick of the status quo." Gibson refuted her guess that "a lot of out-of-town vendors" may have contributed to his campaign, saying, "I don't owe anyone anything, except the citizens of Plainfield that have been so kind as to fund my campaign."

Asked what special qualities each would bring to office, McWilliams named her family's devotion to Plainfield and said, "I think experience is great, but energy is even better."

Citing an "infamous jail break" that took place under Gibson's watch as Union County public safety director, McWilliams said, "How about giving the new generation a chance - we need leaders in Plainfield, not followers."

"First and foremost, I am not a follower, I am a leader," Gibson replied, citing community service such as playing Santa Claus for Delta Sigma Theta's annual Christmas event and supporting the New Horizons College Club.

His comment, "I don't believe that government should be a location for on-the-job training," drew both boos and applause from audience factions.

On the divide between New Democrats and the Regular Democratic Organization, Gibson said, "Democrats are not in a fierce fight as far as I'm concerned."

McWilliams said unity will come when Plainfielders are "on the same page on what we want" for the city, but Gibson said, "No one is ever going to show me a city or a county where everybody is on the same page."

Besides their contrasting views, the candidates are separated by a half-century age difference. Gibson has the Democratic party line, while McWilliams represents the New Democrats. The winner on June 3 will face Republican Deborah Dowe in the November general election. Independents may also file June 3 to run in the general election.

There is also a primary contest in the Third Ward, pitting incumbent Councilman Don Davis against former freeholder and New Democrat Adrian Mapp and political newcomer Olive Lynch. All three were present Tuesday, but were not part of the forum.

First Ward Councilman William Reid, an appointee, is running unopposed for the unexpired term of Rayland Van Blake, who replaced Mapp as freeholder on Jan. 1.

Polls will be open June 3 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

--Bernice Paglia


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I felt really insulted by one particular comment Gibson made that you quoted here. In discussing Latinos and mentioning that African Americans were once not at the table, he then said that they "became part of the solution and not part of the problem" as you quoted. So Latinos are still a part of the "problem" in his eyes. No wonder nothing has been done in this city.Even if this was just a case of unfortunate phrasing it says something about how he views 25-30% of the population. It's even worse since he is only sitting in the at-large council seat because of the tragic early death of Ray Blanco, the first Latino to serve on the city council. Time to go, Harold. You are out of touch!

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope everyone takes a good look at Gibson and his comments to see how ineffective he is. Here is my very quick summary based on my opinion:

1- Gibson brought in Generic prayer. What he doesn't get is that there should be NO prayer before meetings. It is called separation of Church and State

2- He is doing "everything in his power" to keep Muhlenburg open. Going to rallies is his idea of everything in his power? And, as far as I know it is still not staying opened. Does not seem like he has much power.

3- Economic Development - he will stay the course. Is this what we want?

Please above all VOTE on June 3rd. But I ask that you really consider your vote, and perhaps get out of your comfort zone and vote for change.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bernice - thanks once more for posting a fair and unbiased run down of the candidates forum last night. It is important for people like myself who work in NYC and unable to attend to get a synopsis. We can always count on the facts from you without any bias... whcih is more than can be said for "other" so called Plainfield blogs. Keep up the good work!

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent coverage ... Thank you!

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How come Harold didn't say anything about the Commission on Hispanic Affairs, which was created by Ray Blanco when he was on the city council when Mayor McWilliams was in office? Does he not believe in this commission? Does he not even know it exists? I remember that Don Davis was AGAINST this commission saying it wasn't necessary. He then went on to make a bunch of rambling statements about his skin complextion contrasted with Rayland Van Blake's complexion. It was very weird to listen to. I am sure that Ray is looking upon us and saying, what happened? Sad, truly.

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's always refreshing to get honest reporting and commentary from you rather than the continual stream of clumsy propaganda pushed by some other local bloggers. Many people I know have simply stopped looking at one of them--the best comment I heard from a friend was "I have better ways to waste my time."

Keep on keeping us informed, Bernice--we need you!

9:54 AM  
Blogger Madera said...

This information was critcally important in making my informed decision for Tuesday. Thank you for the wonderful coverage, for I could not attend the meeting personally.

Madera Edwards
Netherwood Heights

3:24 PM  

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