Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thanks for Landlord-Tenant Session

Thanks to Maria Pellum for setting up a workshop on landlord-tenant rights and responsibilities Thursday (Feb. 28, 2008) at the YMCA.

It was a surprise to see Scotch Plains attorney Robert Kraus appearing to answer questions. Mr. Kraus is well-known to many Plainfielders for the cases he has represented over many years.

The turn-out was small and Mr. Kraus indicated he might be preaching to the choir, as attendees already seemed to be well aware of the rules.

But overall, the discussion was informative and was much appreciated by those who turned out.

As Mr. Kraus pointed out, booklets on tenant/landlord rights and responsibilities are available from the state. They are supposed to be provided by landlords to tenants, but most often are not.

Among the issues discussed Thursday were the tenant's right to know where security deposits are banked, heat regulations, remedies for needed repairs, posting of state-mandated registration notices, causes for evictions and rationales for rent increases.

The workshop was the first of several promised by the Crescent Area Neighborhood Association.

Plainfield once had 100 or more block associations to help neighbors band together for action on local issues and each historic district is supposed to have an association to do the same. But recently, modern demands on residents' time and other concerns have seemingly caused citizen involvement to dwindle.

It is never too late to take an interest in local issues, whether they be the rights of the city's 7,500 tenant households or the 7,500 homeowners' households. All of us end up paying to support the city.

Efforts such as this deserve credit. Maybe the next time, more residents will take advantage of the opportunity to get free advice from an attorney knowledgeable on issues that affect half our city's population.

--Bernice Paglia

On Reporting the News

This writer missed the City Council budget hearing Wednesday (Feb. 27, 2008) due to having to attend the Shade Tree Commission meeting upstairs in City Hall. Disclosure: I am a member of the Shade Tree Commission and serve as its secretary, an obligation that came about as a result of my involvement with the Ten Cities Tree Committee, after I retired but before I started the blog.

But never fear, Brandon Lausch of the Courier News was on hand to report on the budget hearing.

I look forward to reading his report.

On Tuesday, I was the only media witness to the school board budget discussion and duly reported it on the blog, although I had to stop and think about whether I would rather submit it to the Courier News as a freelance story for pay. I chose the immediacy of blog publishing over the 48-hour delay of print publishing for a fee.

This dichotomy is something I have been struggling with for some time and I still don’t know which is more valuable, letting people know the news early or getting print exposure and money besides.

I am on the verge of opening Plaintalker to moderated comments and that issue is at the top of my list for feedback.

There are so many more ways to disseminate and receive information now than there have ever been in my lifetime (and maybe yours). Have you ever heard of the Town Crier, a guy with a bell who would shout out the news as he walked through town? Once there were broadsides, handouts or posted sheets that gave out the news. In my childhood there were morning, afternoon and evening newspapers. We got reports on newsreels at the movies and on the radio. Years later, everyone watched the 6 o’clock news on television.

Today people get news on the fly, on little machines in their pockets or e-mail updates or other electronic means. And there is so much news! How do people decide what is important?

Plaintalker is what you call a hyperlocal blog. We only care about Plainfield, let the others report on Kajikistan, Pyongyang or Scotch Plains.

So if you have a particular focus on Plainfield and not the whole wide world, stick with us. And thanks for your interest.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bus vs. Low Wire - Almost

Traffic came to a halt Wednesday morning after a low-hanging wire drooped over East Seventh Street by the Masonic Building. Residents had noticed the low wires for several weeks, but something caused one to drop right down into traffic.
This bus was evacuated and the street was closed between Park and Watchung avenues.

The wires turned out to be telephone cables strung from a pole on the north side of the street to the Scott Drug building. The cable man came and fixed them higher and things went back to normal.
--Bernice Paglia

State Mandates School Tax Increase

Local school taxes have held at $17,683,906 since 1992, with outside aid currently paying more than 80 percent of school costs. As officials have predicted, the balance is about to tip in the 2008-09 school budget, with a state-mandated 4 percent increase in what city residents must contribute in school taxes.

The local school tax for 2008-09 will be $18,391,262.

The increase is the first step toward meeting a state “fair share” goal of Plainfield residents contributing about $33 million toward school costs, Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann said at Tuesday’s work and study meeting of the Board of Education.

Board President Patricia Barksdale reacted by saying, “It is sort of like a sticker shock.”

Barksdale said the news echoed Gov. Jon Corzine’s “cold turkey” budget message comment Tuesday on state spending.

With draft budget adjustments described Tuesday at a work and study meeting, the overall 2008-09 proposed school budget will be $122,460,540 million, an $185,000 increase amounting to a one-tenth of 1 percent, Ottmann said. The board must submit the budget by March 4 to Union County Schools Superintendent Carmen Centuolo, but will then have a few weeks to refine it before a public hearing on March 25. The budget will be up for a vote April 15, but even if it is defeated, the local school tax levy increase cannot be reduced, Ottmann said.

Ottmann said for 2008-09, the district projects 6,450 students in 13 schools from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. But he said the district is operating on an old business model based on an enrollment of about 8,000 students. In the past three years, the student population has dropped by 16 percent, or a loss of 1,500 students, he said.

Meanwhile, new fixed costs have grown by about $5 million, including salary increases, benefits and outside tuitions. A reduction in surplus and interest, along with the mandatory tax increase, will result in a shortfall of about $5 million, despite a 2 percent increase in state aid for 2008-09. In future years, state aid will be flat.

For all these reasons, the proposed budget includes numerous staff adjustments. Thirty-two academic coaches may be asked to return to classroom teaching for savings of $1,792,000. Thirty-four kindergarten assistants may be eliminated to save $1.22 million. Other possible reductions include five vice principals, five special education teachers, eight secretaries, nine parent liaisons, seven support staff such as middle school guidance and dropout prevention personnel, three security guards, four elementary assistants and one bus driver.

The total projected savings for these reductions would be $5,482,000. But built into the formula was a leeway of about $700,000 that will be the basis of dialogue among the board, school staff and residents in the coming weeks.

Even though Ottmann made his presentation at a public meeting, board members voiced concerns that the new situation would be misunderstood once it hit the media. Board member Lisa Logan Leach asked for the administration to develop a set of “talking points” so that all nine board members could address citizen concerns uniformly.

Besides the March 4 preliminary adoption, the board may take up budget concerns at a March 11 work and study meeting, a March 18 business meeting and the March 25 public hearing.

Plainfield is one of the state’s Abbott districts, about 30 deemed most needy among its more than 600 school districts. For many years, Abbott districts have received additional aid to address their problems. On Tuesday, board member Christian Estevez said the changes presented meant the Abbott extras “have just been dismantled before our eyes.”

“Almost everything here hits the classroom,” he said. “This is a shock to me.”

Eric Jones, president of the Plainfield Education Association that represents teachers and support staff, said, “This presentation is extremely disturbing, because out of 11 recommendations, only one affects administrators.”

Referring to the administrators’ union, he said, “If PEA takes a hit, then PASA should take a hit.”

Barksdale said concerns voiced Tuesday would be considered, but added, “This is going to be painful for all of us.”

Interim Schools Superintendent Garnell Bailey stressed that the tentative budget had to be submitted by March 4, but said it is still “a work in progress.”

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Double Yellow Lines on the Moon?

This crater-pocked site is not really on the moon. It is on West Eighth Street, one of many ranked as "very poor" when engineers reviewed the condition of city streets in 2004.

A five-year road improvement plan was launched in 2005 and West Eighth was in the second phase, slated for 2006. Nearby Evergreen Avenue, in similar condition, was also on the Year 2 list, but drivers say it is still in very bad shape.

Plaintalker filed an OPRA request recently for written reports of City Council committees that were to address specific issues, as per council rules adopted in 2006. They included Finance and five Special Oversight Committees for bridges, code enforcement, public safety and economic growth, road construction and technology. No reports had been filed.

Even though the committee system does not seem to be living up to its own stated requirements, the council made a complete set of appointments again in January. As noted in a prior post, the Roads Construction Oversight Committee consists of City Council President Harold Gibson and Councilmen Rashid Burney and William Reid. Perhaps in March the committee can give citizens an update on roadwork.

The engineers' ranking also indicated whether each road or portion of a road needed milling and resurfacing or reconstruction. West Eighth Street was deemed in need of reconstruction. The entire chart is on Councilman Burney's web site. Click here for the information. The plan is there, now all we need is an update on how things are going.

--Bernice Paglia

Five File for School Board Seats

Three incumbents and two others filed Monday for three three-year seats on the Board of Education, a small field in contrast to the 11 candidates who sought the seats in 2005.

That year, Agurs Linward “Lenny” Cathcart Jr., Bridget Rivers and Vickey Sheppard won out over eight contenders. In the April 15 school board election, the incumbents face only Yolanda Van Fleet and Jaclynne Callands in the contest for three seats.

The school budget for 2008-09 will also be on the ballot. At a work and study meeting tonight (Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008), the budget will be discussed. No details were included in the agenda for the 7 p.m. meeting in the Plainfield High School conference room.

The budget is for the school year that begins July 1. School officials are forecasting tight times ahead as state aid to the Abbott districts will flatten out or possibly decrease in future years. Currently, the Plainfield district gets more than $99 million in aid and only asks local taxpayers to kick in about $18 million toward the cost of running schools.

Changes in the school funding formula will be one of the challenges faced by incoming Superintendent Steve Gallon III when he takes office July 1. The district is also remedying faults found in state monitoring earlier this year.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, February 23, 2008

BOE Filing Monday, Meeting Tuesday

Anyone wishing to run in the annual school board election must have petitions returned to the business office at 504 Madison Avenue by 4 p.m. Monday. Three three-year terms are up for election. Incumbents are Agurs Linward "Lenny" Cathcart Jr., Vickey Sheppard and Bridget Rivers. One candidate, Jackie Callands, has already held a $25-ticket fundraiser. Plaintalker will report on the filings.

Three years ago, a field of 11 candidates filed for the three-year seats and five more filed for an unexpired term. It will be interesting to see how many people vie for seats this year, with all the many challenges before the board and district.

Meanwhile, one of those Saltine-sized legal notices turned up today (Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008) anouncing a work and study meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Plainfield High School conference room. The meeting notice was also posted on the district web site, but no agenda was on hand at the Plainfield Public Library or online. The subject matter is listed as "2008-09 Budget Discussion" with the notation that action may be taken.

Oldtimers may recall the days when budget information was given out early to the Citizens School Budget Advisory Committee (CSBAC) and many hours of discussion preceded putting a budget up for a vote on Election Day. This year's voting date is April 15, so anyone interested in budget details better hustle to get them.

--Bernice Paglia

When the Going Gets Tough, LOL

Bad news and bad weather made Friday the perfect day to escape into the phenomenon known as LOLcats, and also into the wonderful world of WikiHow.

The business of putting silly captions on pictures of cats or other creatures has boomed, if the increasingly dense pages of "I Can Has Cheeseburger?" are any example. A whole industry has built up around LOLcats and the site is crammed with ads, archives, comments and guides to LOLspeak. But it's still good for a laugh when you need one.

WikiHow is a compendium of how-to articles on seemingly every topic under the sun. The one that intrigued me as the weather report got worse Thursday was "How to Make a Ribbon Bookmark." I had started reading three books , so extra bookmarks seemed quite necessary. I am always intrigued by anything that could be considered fiber art, creating something decorative or useful out of string, yarn, ribbon or fabric.

Having some thin ribbon on hand, I followed the step-by-step directions and soon had a new bookmark. It was such a satisfying escapist project that I decided to make another.

Click here for the WikiHow home page. Recent topics include "How Not to Be Annoying" and "How to Survive a Volcanic Eruption."

--Bernice Paglia

A Snow/Slush/Ice Day

Heavy snow Friday made every tree a stand-out, but on the ground it was a hazard both for vehicles and pedestrians. The pristine snowfall was soon churned into a slippery mess. With any luck, it will all melt away on Sunday, when temperatures will rise into the 40s.

--Bernice Paglia

Muhlenberg Closing Caps Exodus

At her visit to the Senior Center Feb. 5, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said she had asked Gov. Jon Corzine to “help keep the doors open” at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center. She said she spoke to the governor at a meeting he held with all the mayors of Union County.

But as the dailies have reported, Muhlenberg expects to close later this year.

The mayor said one problem was that people from Perth Amboy were using the emergency room for health care. Mayoral mentor Assemblymen Jerry Green also spoke about the hospital Feb. 5, saying “We need Muhlenberg here in Plainfield.”

But he cited funding issues and said the state cannot afford to subsidize hospitals, claiming Muhlenberg was losing $50,000 a day.

Referring to people picked up for public intoxication, Green said they don’t get “locked up” but are instead taken to Muhlenberg because their problem is considered a disease.

Whatever the many burdens are on Muhlenberg, the hospital closing just caps a long, slow exodus of medical providers from Park Avenue. Doctors’ Row has become Real Estate Row, but where are those who settle here going to go for health care? Over the years we have seen a primary care physician move to South Plainfield, as did our ophthalmologist. The neurologist moved to Warren. A psychologist moved to Watchung. The dentist moved to Edison. Previously, all of these practitioners were within walking distance on Park Avenue.

Projections for redevelopment in Plainfield add up to many hundreds of new residents, presumably affluent enough to have health insurance. But now it is too late for them to leaven the mix of medical consumers and balance out the uninsured that have overwhelmed Muhlenberg and other New Jersey hospitals. And now market forces, cited as a factor in hospital failures, are depressing new housing construction.

Is there a way out of this downward spiral? Both the mayor and Green say they have tried to get help, but the trend seems inexorable. Health care, housing and other costs are forcing harsh choices on individuals and families. A Muhlenberg worker who lives in our neighborhood was mulling her choices recently and ultimately said loss of her job would mean moving halfway across the country to live with relatives until she can regroup. Multiply the misery by 1,000 – the estimated layoff number - and it is a looming disaster for the city.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, February 22, 2008


The city's moribund web site is finally showing signs of change.

There are bulletins on the front page. The photo of A. Raiford Daniels, the finance director who who left last year, has been removed. Click here to check for other changes.

However, the Channel 74 program guide is still stuck on July 2007 and while confidential aide Barbara James has a lengthy bio, there isn't one for her boss, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

We look forward to more improvements.

Meanwhile, the school district web site took a step up from directing parents to various means of getting school closing announcements. The message today is simply, "No School!"

--Bernice Paglia

City to Seek Brownfields Funding

To advance several redevelopment projects, the city intends to apply to a state program that provides $5 million annually for brownfields remediation.

Click here for an explanation of brownfields by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson said Thursday the board is being asked to endorse the application, which is due at the state Department of Environmental Protection by March 31. Municipalities must form a steering committee showing broad community support for designation as a “Brownfields Development Area.” Besides receiving funds that help attract developers by reducing remediation costs, designated cities get a case manager who monitors and expedites all its brownfields redevelopment.

Plainfield will seek designation for five redevelopment areas. They include the Marino’s tract on West Front Street, the site of a former car dealership; the North Avenue Historic District, which is being expanded to include a city parking lot; the East Third and Richmond site that includes the former Cozzoli Machine Company property; the former Disco Aluminum site; and a former gas station site that is targeted for the second phase of the Arlington Heights townhouse project.

The required steering committee must include stakeholders such as property owners, developers, city staff and legislators “that may shape the vision and support the implementation” of the Brownfields Development Area, according to a letter to the Planning board from Assistant Economic Development Director Jacques Howard. A public presentation on the Brownfields Redevelopment Area is planned for March, Howard said.

The city’s roster of redevelopment proposals swelled to nearly 20 in the past few years, but market conditions have caused a slowdown. The presence of contamination and the cost of cleanups can also be a deterrent to redevelopment. In cities chosen for the remediation program, the state DEP will work with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ Office of Smart Growth “to remediate and revitalize communities and neighborhoods, not just individual properties,” a synopsis of the Brownfield Development Area initiative states.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, February 21, 2008

PMUA Reorganizes

Carol Ann Brokaw will head the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority’s board of commissioners for a third year after her selection as chairwoman at Wednesday’s reorganization meeting.

Other officers chosen Wednesday are Harold Mitchell as vice chairman, Dave Beck as treasurer and Alex Toliver as secretary.

The commissioners approved hiring of professionals, the 2008 meeting schedule, official banks and newspapers and committee assignments as part of the annual reorganization. The commissioner board controls actions of the authority, which was established in 1995 to provide solid waste and sewer services to the city. Authority officials said they are exploring the possibility of serving other municipalities to offset or stabilize rate increases. Plainfield received a 22 percent rate increase last year.

The authority also provides recycling and litter abatement to the city. Resident Maria Pellum inquired about the Clean Communities program, which formerly gave $250 grants to block associations and non-profit groups for litter pickups. Pellum heads the Crescent Area Neighborhood Association and the group’s goals include beautification and litter control. But authority officials said currently the PMUA can only offer to pick up and dispose of litter that neighborhood groups collect. The Clean Communities grant funds may also be used for staff or operational costs, officials said.

Executive Director Eric Watson noted that as the authority begins its 13th year, it has lost four commissioners in the past five years. Watson suggested a memorial plaque to honor the service given by late commissioners Peter McDonough Sr., Gerard Lee Jr., Cassell Wood Jr. and Jo-Ann Sloane. The board agreed to the proposal.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Walk Right In

Here I am all flabbergasted at finding out Dr. Steve Gallon III, the newly appointed superintendent, is a Plaintalker reader.

The appointment was yet another "walk-in" item, meaning the printed agenda available at the Plainfield Public Library over the weekend did not include the resolution appointing the new superintendent. This meant that the public, the press and the bloggers all had to be on tenterhooks Tuesday to see whether the appointment would surface.

A person posting on the Plainfield forum took umbrage at this state of affairs, and well he or she might. In recent months, many newsworthy items have emerged as "walk-ins," last-minute resolutions passed out at board meetings after all other business has been concluded.

I did not cover school board meetings closely when the blog started in 2005, so maybe I missed something, but it seems to me this is a new development. I was the last citizen on hand June 8 when the board approved Peter E. Carter as interim superintendent and my curmudgeon level had increased dramatically by the time the news came out. Since then, board meetings at which there may be significant breaking news by way of walk-ins have tried my patience to the max.

Erik Darling and the Rooftop Singers are credited with the folk song, "Walk Right In," and here are the Janis Joplin lyrics. "Daddy, let your mind roll on" may have been a significant imperative in those hazy days, but now we want information ASAP with no mind-rolling. Once I sit right down at a school board meeting, I want the facts - all of them. There still must be votes, but why leave some surrounded by the purple haze of walk-ins?

If the board really wants more community engagement, perhaps members should rethink the value of transparency versus last-minute revelations. On Tuesday, the crowd had thinned out considerably by the time Dr. Gallon took the microphone to address the public. The electric quality of the announcement was shared by only a few of those who might have wanted to be there for the historic moment.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Steve Gallon III is New Superintendent

The promise of big news was fulfilled Tuesday when the Board of Education approved Steve Gallon III as the next schools superintendent.

Gallon will begin a four-year term July 1 at a salary of $198,000, with other contract details to be negotiated.

Before the vote, three board members who visited the Miami-Dade school district effusively testified that Gallon, the winner among 30 candidates and five finalists, possessed qualities hardly ever seen before in a chief school administrator in Plainfield. The meeting reached a crescendo when Gallon himself was introduced and took the microphone to give the kind of hope that the district has been longing for.

Gallon alluded to being a finalist for another superintendent position, but said he chose Plainfield instead.

“I want to be here,” Gallon said.

Among his credentials, Gallon survived growing up in Liberty City, one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods, and went on to achieve high recognition as an educator, motivational speaker, author and exemplar of success against all odds.

Board member Wilma Campbell described hearing person after person in the high-powered Miami-Dade district giving credit to Gallon for his work. While Plainfield has 13 schools in about six square miles, Campbell said Gallon was in charge of 29 schools in a 60-mile radius.

Board member Christian Estevez and Board President Patricia Barksdale also gave praise to Gallon for what they heard from his colleagues on the site visit, the final step in deciding to choose him.

William Foley, who retired about a year ago as Westfield’s schools superintendent, was present Tuesday and will serve as Gallon’s mentor as he takes on the Plainfield superintendent’s role. Gallon will also work with Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey in coming months to achieve a smooth transition.

Among the issues Gallon will face as chief school administrator will be improvement of student performance, possible loss of state funding and addressing the deficits identified in the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or NJQSAC report, that found the district lacking in four of five performance areas.

To learn more about Steve Gallon III, click here.

Brandon Lausch of the Courier News should have a news story Wednesday on the superintendent outcome.

In a fit of overstimulation or something, this writer went out with no pen, notebook or camera and so was unable to give blow-by-blow documentation of the event. Interestingly, Dr. Gallon cited the Plainfield Plaintalker as a news source, causing this writer to blush.

--Bernice Paglia

A Frosty Experience in the Yates House

Some of my pots of impatiens got knocked over in the squirrel invasion, but these plants actually died of frost inside the apartment. How could that happen? Many Plainfielders who live in apartments carved out of the city's Victorian mansions will understand.

My apartment is basically two rooms that once were second-floor bedrooms in the elegant home of shipping magnate Joseph Yates, one of the first council members. Each room has French doors that open onto a porch. On the 1976 tax card, a photo showed it enclosed only by screens, possibly for use as a sleeping porch. Somewhere between then and when I moved in in 1992, the porch was enclosed with plywood about waist-high and jalousie windows were installed. Each of the 10 windows got shelves propped up with fussy, unhistoric brackets.

The remodeling left plenty of fresh air coming in through cracks where the plywood didn't quite meet the existing structure. By the time I got there, the jalousie windows didn't close tightly, making the porch even more drafty. I kind of liked the feeling of being halfway outdoors, especially in summer.

A few years ago, a city inspector saw that the porch had no heat source and had the owner install baseboard heaters. The porch already had the best electrical outlets in the apartment, but was still sort of odd as living space. It was always at least 10 degrees cooler than the inside rooms. In recent years when the heat was spotty in winter, the porch tended to have temperatures in the 50s or lower.

Since the squirrel invasion forced me to close the doors and turn off the heater on the porch, the temperature went even lower. During the recent windstorm and cold spell, the porch temperature went down to 28 degrees one night and when I checked my plants, these two had died of frost.

I still have plenty of plants grown from cuttings and now I am making more cuttings from a couple of those plants. I should have a great crop by the time it is safe to plant them outside.

Meanwhile, I have one more quirky story about living in this converted mansion - the time we had a killing frost inside the apartment.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 18, 2008

Council Mulls Calendar - Again

Once again, the City Council will take up the question of when to meet in 2008.

The calendar is among items to be discussed at the agenda-fixing session at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Feb. 19, 2008) in City Hall Library.

The issue is whether to retain the Monday-Wednesday calendar adopted in 2006 or to revert to the traditional Mondays-only calendar. Those who favor the former say they like the weeks off that the calendar affords by having meetings in just one or two weeks per month. Advocates of the latter schedule say it is easier on the City Clerk’s office to have the meetings spread out with a full week between to prepare documents. The Monday-Wednesday schedule gives the clerk’s office barely more than a day to turn around results of the agenda-fixing session for the regular meeting.

The matter was on the Feb. 4 agenda, but City Council President Harold Gibson ordered it pulled.

Council members agreed there is a consensus to go back to the old schedule. Given that it has to be changed by ordinance on two readings with another 20 days before final passage, the schedule now most likely will not kick in until April.

Last year, the council never reached agreement to change and kept the Monday-Wednesday calendar all year long, even though members said it did not work well in 2006.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Joseph Santiago To Explain Police Director Role

Google Joseph Santiago and the number three entry is this New York Times article on his hiring as police director in Trenton.

Note well the quote from Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, "'I could've never gotten Joe Santiago if he wasn't damaged goods."

Joseph Santiago is being brought in Tuesday to testify on the role of a police director, presumably to bolster the administration's case for abolishing the title of police chief, now held by Edward Santiago.

Joseph Santiago's past record aside, the plan proposed by Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig is not to have a free-standing civilian police director, but to have an "executive officer" in charge.

Here is the exact quote from Hellwig's presentation on the reorganization he proposed last year: "Eliminate the Rank of Chief of Police. An Executive Officer from the rank of Captain is identified to run the day-to-day operations of the Police Division. He/she reports to the Director of Public Safety. Current Chief has option to revert to rank of Captain."

In effect, Hellwig himself is the civilian police director, having administrative powers over both the Police and Fire divisions.

This whole situation needs clarification, not testimony from a ringer whose position does not match the issue at hand.

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

-Bernice Paglia

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Superintendent in the Wings?

News hounds are hot on the trail of a big story – who will be the next schools superintendent – and a number of other stories that may take longer to break.

All signs point to a vote Tuesday on the finalist for schools superintendent. The board appears to be on track with the schedule set by the search firm. Now all we have to do is get hold of the agenda or, if the item is not on there, wait around Tuesday for a walk-in resolution. The meeting is 7 p.m. in the Plainfield High School library.

Since the last month of the 2006-07 school year, the district has seen numerous changes at the top and middle ranks of administration. Former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard quit unexpectedly in June and was quickly (maybe hastily) replaced by Peter E. Carter, an ebullient leader who formed a capable team. But this was no simple “interim” assignment – Howard and former business administrator/board secretary Victor Demming left the district just before the state Department of Education issued findings that Plainfield was inadequate in four of five performance areas.

Carter and his team took charge and began addressing the problems uncovered in the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum report. But they had some sort of falling-out with the board and all quit midway through the 2007-08 school year instead of staying on until the end. Human Resources Director Garnell Bailey is now also the interim superintendent.

Among other loose ends, the board has yet to produce the minutes of a June 8 emergency meeting where Carter was hired and board counsel Raymond Hamlin allegedly failed to disclose to the full board that Carter was his client in a lawsuit. The technical assistant that the DOE wanted Plainfield to hire to help Bailey has not yet been named. A search for a new high school principal failed last fall and is supposed to be reopened this spring.
The board and administration submitted a response to the state on the NJQSAC report and will face a review in a few months.

The community has high hopes and expectations for the new superintendent, as presumably they had for past superintendents – 18 since 1969-70, according to a list made by a veteran teacher. Improving student achievement is the most pressing need for the district. Click here to see the search firm’s ad and here to see the executive summary of the desired profile. Will we see the winner’s name Tuesday?

On the city side, residents are still waiting for upgrades of the municipal web site and local cable channel, two vital avenues of communication that are still faulty two years into the mayor’s four-year term. There is no director for the largest of three city departments, Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services. A permanent chief financial officer is needed. The Public Safety director wants the title of police chief abolished. Conditional designations for major redevelopment projects have expired. A five-year road improvement plan seems to be on hold and streets rated as “very poor” are becoming nearly impassable. There’s more, but let’s leave it at that.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, February 15, 2008

An Urban Bird Nest

I spotted this nest in a small weed tree along the Park Avenue driveway into Municipal Lot 7. A closer look revealed that it is made not just of twigs and grasses, but also bits of plastic litter.

Lot 7 was thoroughly cleaned about a week ago, but the prevailing winds have again blown plastic bags, paper, food wrappings and all the other usual urban debris into the fence at the rear of the parking lot.

Maria and I have been talking about litter and recycling a lot lately. Personally, I think litter pick-ups are something I would like to see obsolete, but so far urban life provides plenty of need for pickups. Maria regularly cleans her block and neighborhood. My neighbor and I used to pick up litter in the front yard, but quit in protest over numerous rent increases matched with cuts in services. We still patrol the back yard and gardens, where debris wings its way in from East Seventh Street.

We have lots of avian visitors in the middle of Block 832 but I seldom see nests. How sad to think that a small nest-builder around here has to resort to picking up trash to make a home. Maybe it is a perverse form of recycling.

For humans, a recycling destination is nearby in Fanwood. I hope soon to post a full article on the Fanwood Recycling Center along with pictures I took on one of our bloggers' "field trips," but meanwhile check this web site.

--Bernice Paglia

Susan B. Anthony's Birthday

Valentine's Day made me think of the days when some women put a little more weight on Susan B. Anthony's birthday the next day. The YWCA used to hold a breakfast to mark the occasion and a very diverse group of women attended. One of my favorite photos is of myself and my daughter at one of those breakfasts.
Women have come far from the days when Susan B. Anthony got arrested for daring to vote. But it's good to recall the struggle and honor those brave suffragettes who fought for our rights.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Council Introduces Amendments, Sets Hearing

An infusion of $800,000 in extraordinary state aid and about $100,000 in cuts will reduce the FY 2008 municipal budget impact to about $3.43 per $100 of assessed valuation, officials said after a special meeting Wednesday (Feb. 13, 2008).

The budget as introduced would have increased taxes by 8.2 percent, but after amendments, officials said it is down to about 6.7 percent. The final amendments will be published Feb. 18 in advance of a public hearing Feb. 27 on the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2007. The hearing will be held at 8 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

The amendments included a slew of grants that came in after the budget was introduced in September, as well as numerous changes in appropriations to run the city.

The governing body and administration clashed Wednesday over items such as police overtime and expenses for the mayor’s office. Councilman Cory Storch initially challenged the administration, saying, “This is the council’s budget. I’m having a hard time with how the administration is treating it.”

The process involved budget formulation based on initial department requests modified by the administration before submission to the governing body. A council Finance Committee made recommendations and sought administration response after the budget was introduced. Wednesday’s meeting was the refinement of the process.

Storch insisted the council’s job was not merely to put a stamp on the executive budget and said it appeared the council’s requests were not taken as seriously as the governing body wished.

“The council really has to own the budget,” he said.

Among the cuts:

The Recreation Division was spared a $75,000 proposed cut that brought a large group of protesters to a council meting last year, but will have $20,000 taken from salaries and wages. A cut that halved $20,000 for four community sports programs will be restored.

The council cut $10,000 from Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs’ budget, noting it had been increased by that amount over FY 2007.
“I think we all just got to share the pain,” Councilman Rashid Burney said. “I think the mayor and council should set a trend and example to the entire city.”
The administration had already cut the council’s own expense request by $40,000 and the council cut another $3,000 on Wednesday.

A beleaguered substance abuse program that was in danger of being shut down will now continue through a series of management changes. Dudley House, operated mostly through state and county funding, will be headed by the former assistant director of Public Works and Urban Development, who will also manage Plainfield Action Services. Both the former Dudley House director and PAS director have been cut from the budget, City Administrator Marc Dashield said.
The program still faces hurdles of meeting state licensure and certification standards, including making the Putnam Avenue facility accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.
Dozens of past and present clients attended council meetings last year to plead for continuance of what they called a life-changing program. But some council members objected to the fact that it serves both Union and Middlesex county residents and not just Plainfielders in need of treatment.

Dashield strongly defended Police and Fire division budgets against cuts and the council backed off, making only minor reductions. Dashield said the need for police overtime has increased due to staffing a new metal detector at Municipal Court and to investigating city shootings as if each one was a homicide, under the new Operation Ceasefire program. Overtime costs are already exceeding budget anticipation, with four months to go in the FY 2008 budget year, he said.

When it came to an unspecified cut of $350,000 that the council left up to the administration, Dashield said it couldn’t be done, short of cutting out a whole program. Storch said he was disappointed that the administration had not proposed additional cuts and said for next year, “We have to do some major, major planning.”

Dashield said the issue was “what services are you not going to provide,” but Burney said the administration should have proposed cuts and let the council decide whether to make them.

After the two-hour discussion, the council had to hold a voice vote on every single amendment, a process that took nearly another half-hour. Among the many grants included as amendments were six that added up to $209,270 to support Dudley House.

Budget documents are on hand at City Hall and Burney has also posted the introduced budget on his web site. Officials stressed the need to pass the budget as soon as possible, without further amendments, because the city is already eight months into the budget year.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Plainfield and How It Got That Way

Talking to a newcomer recently made me aware of how hard it is to understand aspects of Plainfield.

Take the city’s way of dealing with sewage and garbage, for example.

Plainfield’s sewer system was built in 1913 and for many years a sewer utility handled that vital operation that is mostly out of sight, out of mind (except when it backs up). In 1995, the city handed over that responsibility to a free-standing authority, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority. Later the PMUA took over garbage removal, first with a contracted operation and then with its own fleet and staff.

Plainfield also used to own most of a larger sewer system, the Plainfield Joint Meeting, which served about a dozen municipalities. After eight long years of negotiations involving about 17 attorneys, the city sold off its holdings for (Correction: $8.9) $1.8 million, a hotly-disputed amount that left many Plainfielders feeling they had been bilked. The money was supposed to be held for future sewer repairs, as I recall, but was frittered away in one-shot tax relief schemes until it was all gone.

The entity that replaced the Plainfield Joint Meeting was the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority. Each municipality’s governing body had to sign off on its formation, a time-consuming and nerve-wracking process. PARSA has always been, to my knowledge, a lean, efficient and exemplary operation that has served its members well.

But when you flush a toilet in Plainfield, it is not only the PMUA and PARSA that deal with your sewage. No, there is even a third authority, the Middlesex County Utilities Authority, which treats the sewage in a final step before its release into waterways.

In contrast to a municipality, which can only spend as much money as it can raise in taxes, an authority determines its needs and sets its rates accordingly. While the Plainfielder only sees the PMUA bill, be assured that the other two rates are passed along as costs to the PMUA. In fact, most of a recent PMUA rate increase was due to higher treatment costs that were being passed along.

For many decades, the city’s property owners contracted with private carters for trash removal. That all changed with the advent of the PMUA’s solid waste operations. Many carters went out of business. The PMUA is also in charge of recycling in the city.

So these are some of the changes that took place in Plainfield over the past 10-20 years. This account is anecdotal but based on the facts as I recall them. Let me know if you disagree or have more to add.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 11, 2008

Squirrel Update

This door to the enclosed porch doesn't close tight, hence the rather low-tech pink-and-silver ribbon bow for security while we figure out whether the squirrels are all gone.

Since the exterminator's last visit, I haven't heard any more noise in the ceiling. There are still some traps up in the dropped ceiling. Once they are checked, maybe we can tell whether it is safe to go out there without wary glances upward. I haven't seen any more squirrels outside lately.

Most of my plant crops survived the squirrel invasion but tonight it is only 30 degrees on the closed-off porch. I hope they make it. Last summer a friend (thanks, Deanna) gave me some "Purple Queen" Tradescantia, which I propagated and tried out as a ground cover. The big purple leaves and small pink flowers were very striking. I took cuttings and have several pots on the porch for spring and summer. I was surprised to see Purple Queen featured in the White Flower Farm Spring 2008 catalogue. It is a great addition to hanging baskets or planters.

Squirrels, snow squalls and windstorms notwithstanding, my window shelves hold a lot of promise for happy gardening ahead.

--Bernice Paglia

Former PHS Student Now a Mentor

One of Plainfield’s own will lend his talents to the current generation of students in workshops that are up for school board approval this month.

Motivational speaker Nashad Warfield is the chief executive officer of New Jersey Student Success. He honed his public speaking skills at Plainfield High School and went on to great academic success at Morgan State University on a full scholarship, according to the company’s web site. He earned a masters degree in Speech Communication at New York University, where he was number one in his class. Read more about Nashad and his high-achieving family here.

A resolution on the Feb. 20 and March 2 workshops is among items to be considered Tuesday at the Board of Education work and study session, 8 p.m. in the Plainfield High School conference room. Items moved to the agenda will be voted on at the business meeting, 7 p.m. Feb 19 in the Plainfield High School library.

The business meeting coincides with a City Council meeting the same night, presenting a dilemma for those who try to monitor both the board and the governing body. This month is the target for a vote on a finalist in the search for a new schools superintendent. Significant personnel items recently have been added on at the end of business meetings with no prior announcement. Only those who stay to the end get the news.

Anyway, the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting has no major revelations. But often, work and study meetings yield interesting items in remarks from the board president, interim superintendent or committee chairpersons. Copies of the Feb. 12 agenda are available at the Plainfield Public Library.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Budget Amendments Up Wednesday

The City Council will meet at 8 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall Library to discuss budget amendments, not on Monday as previously agreed.

The Monday meeting was to have been held from 7 to 9 p.m. and was more in the nature of budget deliberations. The way the legal notice for Wednesday reads, it will now be a special meeting to introduce amendments to the FY 2008 budget. Formal action may be taken, according to the notice.

If amendments are approved, they must then be published and a public hearing must be held on the amendments before final budget passage.

While there is a need to get the budget passed as soon as possible, the public deserves to know as much as possible about the amendments and their impact on city operations. The time to ask questions is Wednesday, because the notice for the public hearing will only contain a list with no indication of the rationale for each change.

As introduced, the budget reflected an 8.2 percent increase that the council intends to reduce to 3 or 4 percent.

A budget summary is posted on Councilman Rashid Burney’s web site, with prior year amounts for comparison. Click here for the link. This document doesn't tell the whole story, but there are some big increases and reductions that stand out. Thanks to Councilman Burney for providing easy access to this document.

The FY 2008 budget is for the fiscal year that began July 1. In 2005, the council held off budget passage until the new administration took charge in January 2006. Last year, vacancies in the cabinet caused delays in the budget process and final passage took place in early February. This year, budget passage may not occur until late February, again because of vacancies in key fiscal positions.

Considering that it will take months for a new person to learn how to run the Department of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services, the post should be filled as soon as posiible. The department includes all these divisions: Comptroller, Audit and Control, Community Relations and Social Services, Health and Social Services, Municipal Court, Personnel, Purchasing, Tax Collector, Tax Assessor and Senior Center. Currently, City Administrator Marc Dashield is handling the responsibility in addition to his other duties.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Plaintalker Sidelined by Squirrels, Illness

As many of you know, I do both my paid freelance writing and unpaid blogging from my modest abode in Plainfield. After months of scuttling around in a dropped ceiling, some squirrels invaded the premises Jan. 23 and made quite a mess. One was trapped, but the others came back. On Monday, a second one was trapped, but the disruption continues.

Meanwhile, I got sick and missed Wednesday’s City Council meeting. I tried to go to the Planning Board but only lasted a few minutes before going home. My ability to do freelance stories has also been affected by these problems and has dropped off to zero.

I apologize to my readers for the lapse and hope to be back on the job as soon as possible.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, February 07, 2008

"The Monarch" Takes Shape

Work appears to be progressing well on the new senior center and 64-unit condo project at 400 East Front Street. Dubbed "The Monarch," the project will feature $300,000 condos aimed at a market of young professionals and empty-nesters.
The new senior center will be built at no cost to the city. Developer Glen Fishman is backing the $15 million project with private funding.
Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs gives seniors an update each month when she visits the current center in leased space at 305 East Front Street.

Completion is scheduled for mid-2008.
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Council to Resume Budget Talks

In the weeks since the City Council last discussed the budget, several things have changed, officials agreed Monday.

Finance Committee Chairman Rashid Burney told the council Monday that any amendments to the FY 2008 budget must address new items brought up by the administration. But he said any changes at this point would be minor compared to the negative effect of not passing the budget as soon as possible.

The budget covers the fiscal year that began July 1, 2007. The council began budget deliberations in October and presented $350,000 in proposed cuts to the administration in December. But because Finance Director Ray Daniels quit and Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya retired in December, City Administrator Marc Dashield said he needed more time to review the impact of the proposed amendments.

The amendments were aimed at reducing an 8.5 percent tax increase that would add $327 more to taxes on the average $113,000 home.

Burney said the Finance Committee met Jan. 24 with the administration for feedback on the cuts. But the make-up of the three-member committee changed at the Jan. 1 reorganization. Meanwhile, City Council President Harold Gibson, a new member of the committee, had surgery that will keep him from taking part for another week, Burney said.

Dashield said Monday the administration found some errors and new things that must be considered, “a lot of changes in there.” But he said the administration is “trying to make it a net-zero effect.”

Burney said the first step will be a meeting to talk about the amendments, which then must be published before a public hearing and final passage. The council and administration agreed to meet Monday (Feb. 11, 2008) from 7 to 9 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

With each passing month, the budget process takes on urgency, as cuts can only affect the remaining months before the fiscal year ends June 30. With no FY 2008 budget yet in place, the council held a special meeting Monday to approve emergency appropriations to operate the city this month.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

SID Budget Foregoes UEZ Funds

Directors of the city’s Special Improvement District have given the City Council a new budget that foregoes the past match in Urban Enterprise Zone funds.

Over the past three years, the city was supposed to match a special surtax on district property owners with sales tax funds collected in the Urban Enterprise Zone and held by the state. With state approval, the city could apply the funds to projects in the zone. But of $350,000 allocated as matching funds, only about $130,000 was realized, the SID Management Corporation said in a budget narrative.

“Consequently, the SIDMC was forced to modify budget line items, eliminate or delay programs, and generally operate without the security of a reliable budget,” the report said.

The budget for the 2008 fiscal year omits the UEZ funding for one year and adds in SID tax funds that were received too late in the third fiscal year to be used.

The council may approve the budget Wednesday at its regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. If the council approves it, a public hearing on the budget will be held at the council’s March 5 meeting in the same location. The budget covers staff, office costs, promotional activities, a quarterly magazine and graffiti removal

Council members expressed support for the group as well as hopes that some UEZ funding could be added. City Administrator Marc Dashield told the council the administration has been meeting with the SID board and wants to add some UEZ funds, but there is a need to get the budget passed.

“What happened is unfortunate,” Councilman Cory Storch said. “They will not be getting money until April.”

The 2008 fiscal year began July 1, 2007 and the SID board approved its budget in November. The fiscal year will end June 30.

The budget for the downtown and South Avenue business districts will be mostly based on a 2.72 percent tax on property owners there, expected to yield $138,500, and other revenue that will add up to $147,300. Another $80,287 in carryover funds will bring the total proposed fourth-year budget up to $227,587.

Storch suggested that the council form an oversight committee for the SID that could track funding and spending. Councilman Elliott Simmons, who has a business in the district, said he thought the group had received its funding until board member Jeffery Dunn said they had not.

The council approved the formation of the Special Improvement District, but the late Council President Ray Blanco harshly criticized the operation in 2006. Board members who attended Monday’s meeting appeared pleased at the supportive tone of the council and administration.
Click here to see a previous Plaintalker post on the SID.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 04, 2008

Council Meets on Eve of Primary

On Jan. 24, when Councilman Rashid Burney heard City Clerk Laddie Wyatt announce the next City Council meeting would be Feb. 4, he said, “That’s the day before the primary!”

Burney is the lead person locally for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama and one can guess that the final hours before the primary are precious to him.

But the meeting was duly advertised in a legal notice.

So along comes the agenda, which Burney scans and publishes on his web site as a public service, and the proposed 2008 calendar has this week marked for an election hiatus for the presidential primary. Similar breaks are traditional for the June primary and the November general election.

Just another calendar glitch in the ongoing debate over when to meet …

If the council approves the calendar Wednesday, it will have to be changed by ordinance back to the Mondays-only schedule used for decades before it was switched in 2006 to a Monday-Wednesday plan. The change will not be complete for several more weeks.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Special Meeting Monday

The City Council will hold a special meeting at 8 p.m. Monday to authorize "emergency temporary appropriations" to run the city this month.

There is no budget in place for the FY 2008 year that started July 1, 2007. The council can make one three-month appropriation with the assumption that the budget will be in place by the time it expires. Then, each month, the council must make emergency appropriations equal to 1/12th of the prior year's budget until the new budget is final.

I don't recall any mention of upcoming budget meetings. The problem with passing a budget in the third quarter of the year is, obviously, the city has already paid out salaries and expenses for most of the year. That doesn't leave much wiggle room for cuts.

Those who attended the Jan. 24 meeting may recall a resolution to make emergency appropriations for February. Apparently there was a problem, or they wouldn't have to do it over. Probably it was the fact that there were only four of seven council members present, when five are needed for fiscal matters.

So the city will be four days into the month before money to operate the municipal government is appropriated.

At present, there is no new director of Administration & Finance. City Administrator Marc Dashield is covering that post in addition to his own, since A. Raiford Daniels left last year. Chief financial officer Peter Sepelya also left at the end of 2007 and there is someone holding that post in acting capacity.

Granted, the first February presidential primary is a distraction, but shouldn't the FY 2008 budget be front and center regardless?

The 7:30 p.m. agenda-fixing session and 8 p.m. special meeting will be held in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, February 01, 2008

They're Baaack!

Squirrels are back in my porch ceiling after a short absence.

Inspections has now launched the procedure that involves giving notice of a complaint, with time allowed to respond. Apparently the present time interval is 45 days. An exterminator tells me the rustling activity in the dropped ceiling means the squirrels are tearing up the insulation to make a nest.

I may have to suspend the blog for a few days while I deal with this further disruption.

Next week's schedule calls for a City Council agenda session at 7:30 p.m. Monday in City Hall Library, the Presidential primary on Tuesday, the council's regular meeting at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Municipal Court and also a Board of Adjustment meeting at 7 p.m. in City Hall Library. The Planning Board meets at 8 p.m. Thursday in City Hall Library.

If possible, I will post previews.

--Bernice Paglia