Monday, March 31, 2008

No Council Meeting Tonight

Don't bother to stop by City Hall tonight. I'm told there is no City Council meeting until next Monday. That would seem to indicate there is yet one more Monday-Wednesday sequence to go in the big transition back to a Mondays-only schedule.

Anyone who tried to check the City Council portion of the city's web site for meeting dates would find under "Agenda" two dates from mid-2007. Then there is a calendar link, which brings one to just that: A blank calendar for March 2008 with no meeting dates.

My thought had been that second reading and final passage of the Mondays-only ordinance on March 5 meant it would kick in by March 31. I even have a council calendar that says so. Oh well. I'm sure it will all work out.

Televising the council meetings is another idea that has not yet become a reality. The only way to see the City Council in action is still to attend the meetings.

Now that Plaintalker allows comments, I would be interested to know why people attend or don't attend City Council meetings. Some very important decisions take place at these meetings and one can also see how the governing body behaves toward citizens and toward each other.

Please leave a comment if you wish.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Council Filing is April 7

There's still a week left to meet the filing deadline for a City Council seat.

To qualify, a person must be a "legal voter of the City" and a resident of the ward or wards up for election for at least one year prior to election, according to the City Charter. This year, the 3rd Ward seat and the Citywide at-large seat are up for four-year terms beginning Jan. 1, 2009. In addition, the unexpired 1st Ward term of former Councilman Rayland Van Blake is up.

Incumbents are Don Davis, 3rd Ward; Harold Gibson, Citywide at-large; and William Reid, 1st Ward.

Plainfield has four wards and seven council representatives. The Citywide at-large person can be from any ward. Each ward has a representative. The other seats are 1&4 at-large and 2&3 at-large. The four-year sequence for elections is 1st Ward and 2&3 at-large; then 2nd Ward and 1&4 at-large; this year, 3rd Ward and Citywide at-large; next year, 4th Ward and Mayor. (The mayor must have been a legal voter in the city for four years prior to election.)

Petitions may be picked up at the City Clerk's office and signed petitions must be returned there by 4 p.m. April 7. Only Democrats and Republicans can file that day. Independent candidates can file on June 3, the day of the primary election. If there are Democratic and/or Republican primary races, the winners June 3 will go on to the November general election along with any independent candidates.

This year, Republicans must file committee candidates for 68 seats, a male and female from each of 34 voting districts. The committee covenes after the primary to elect a chairman for two years.

Some people prefer to get involved at the committee level and learn the ropes before running for council or mayor. Others plunge right in. Anyone running without party backing generally needs a team of supporters and a source of campaign funding to make a significant run.

As of last week, neither Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green nor Republican Party Chairwoman Sandy Spector had responded to Plaintalker's inquiry on party screenings for council candidates. Currently, the mayor and all seven council members are Democrats.

With so many newcomers in the Queen City, one hopes they will take an interest in the workings of government. New faces at council meetings, new forces demanding the best of elected officials and new figures on the campaign trail could all help bring about the positive changes that so many residents say they desire.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, March 29, 2008

BOE Meets Tuesday

The Board of Education will hold a work-and-study meeting on April 1 and a business meeting April 8, once again heralded by a small legal notice.

It seems the “Upcoming Meetings” list on the district web site goes month by month, so the meetings won’t be up there until April 1 – the day of the work-and-study session. Normally the board meets on the second and third Tuesdays, but the annual school board election is on April 15.

These two meetings are the last before the election, at which voters will choose three people to serve three-year terms on the nine-member board. Those vying for the seats are Yolanda Van Fleet, Jaclynne Callands and three incumbents, Agurs Linward “Lenny” Cathcart Jr., Vickey Sheppard and Bridget Rivers.

Getting the hang of following the school board is not easy. The annual calendar posted on the web site shows school holidays and closings, but not the dates of board meetings. So far, Plaintalker has not found a reliable alternative to checking the legal notices, which means one must subscribe to a local newspaper in order to plow through the fine print.

Later today I will check the Plainfield Public Library for an agenda for the work-and-study meeting and will preview any major items.

I missed the social Friday night due to having a bad cold. Maybe one of the forum posters will give a report.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, March 28, 2008

City Council President Responds

City Council President Harold Gibson has sent Plaintalker a letter regarding his action in removing an item from the agenda at the March 19 council meeting:

Ms. Paglia:
I do not normally respond to criticism of any action I take. It is however important to me to make sure the record is clear relative to my action regarding the late Mayor McWilliams memorial.
First and foremost there was never any formal action taken by the Council to place the memorial on the agenda. Although I was absent from the prior meeting due to my being hospitalized, I took the time to inquire of each member of the City Council as to whether the normal processes had been followed to place the issue on the agenda for a vote. What actually took place was the City Clerk placed on the proposed agenda a "Proposed Resolution" dealing with the memorial. There is no such thing as a "Proposed Resolution". I therefore took the appropriate action as President of the Municipal Council, and removed the item from consideration.
I am not under any pressure to support nor deny support for any action relative to memorializing the late mayor. History will show that my wife served as a campaign manager during Mayor McWilliams first campaign. It is rather easy for those persons who wish to remain anonymous to throw darts at me as an elected official. I stand behind my decision(s) without any reservations whatsoever.
Any person who has negative feelings about this issue should take the time to go through the history of not only Plainfield, but also this country. There is no celebration or memorialization of the death of any public figure. To compare the late mayor to Sheriff Ralph Froehlich, who has been elected and re-elected for 30 years or the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and accomplishments have been memorialized with a national holiday celebrating his birthday, not the date of his assassination, is more than absurd.
One individual raised the issue of the naming of a street for former Mayor Richard L. Taylor. If that was what the McWilliams family and friends were seeking there would be less reluctance to consider such an action. But what we as the governing body have been requested to do goes far beyond an honorarium of a street name, and we must consider the impact of any action we take.
Finally, for the record, I would vehemently oppose the naming of the area selected by the McWilliams Memorial Committee as the Gerald Green Memorial Square, or the Sharon Robinson-Briggs Memorial Square. My commitment is to the more than 48,000 citizens of Plainfield, not to any individual or group of individuals.
Harold Gibson

Click here to read the article that appeared on the blog.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dr. Gallon May Visit Social Friday

The Superintendent’s Social may now be the Superintendents’ Social.

The event was originally billed as a free community gathering sponsored by Parents Empowering Parents and hosted by Interim Schools Superintendent Garnell Bailey. But yesterday the district announced that the incoming superintendent, Steve Gallon III, might also attend. I’m hearing that parents and guardians also received a recorded phone message to that effect from the school district.

Even though it’s somewhat late notice, it offers an opportunity that was lacking the night Gallon was hired in February. The item was not on the agenda, but was a “walk-in” at the Feb. 19 business meeting. At the end of the meeting, when the crowd had thinned, board members who went to the Miami-Dade district testified enthusiastically on the high recommendations they received from Gallon’s colleagues. After the vote, Gallon himself appeared from the back of the room and gave a rousing speech.

The sequence of events in the superintendent’s search hewed precisely to a schedule laid out by the search firm, Hazard, Attea, Young and Associates of Illinois. Some of us expected the vote on Feb. 19, but others felt a bit left out at missing the big moment.

So Friday may make up for it, if Gallon appears and dozens of parents and especially children can see the person who will become the chief school administrator on July 1.

The evening promises free food, socializing, dancing to music by DJ Star Child, information on school programs and the chance to rub elbows with not one, but two, superintendents. It will be held from 7 to 11 p.m. in the Plainfield High School Cafeteria, with parking and entry off Kenyon Avenue.

Click here for the Feb. 19 story.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Muslim Holidays Sought for School Calendar

Two Muslim holidays may be included on the 2008-09 school year calendar, if staff and administrator unions agree.

School board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq raised the issue at Tuesday’s board meeting, just before a vote on the 2008-09 calendar. Abdul-Haqq said he had brought up the question previously, but the two holidays, Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha, were not on the calendar presented for approval.

Objectors said the two extra days would have to be negotiated with the Plainfield Education Association, which represents about 1,200 school employees, and the administrators’ union. Board member Lisa Logan Leach said if holidays were to be added, Juneteenth and Jewish holidays should also be considered. But others said approval for those holidays had not been sought for the 2008-09 school year.

After some discussion, the board suspended the vote and Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey agreed to meet with union leaders. Bailey acknowledged that Abdul-Haqq had brought up the question earlier in the year and that in fairness it should be pursued with the unions.

For more on Eid ul Fitr, click here. For more on Eid ul Adha, click here.

Abdul-Haqq mentioned several school districts that have Muslim holidays on their calendars, including Piscataway, Paterson, Hillside, Irvington and Newark. The holiday dates vary from year to year, as they are based on a lunar calendar. The anticipated date for Eid ul Fitr is Oct. 1, 2008 and Eid ul Adha is anticipated to start on Dec. 8. The exact date depends on sightings of the new moon.

--Bernice Paglia

School Board Approves Budget Tab

Only two people commented at a public hearing on the school budget Tuesday (March 25, 2008). After one question from a teacher and lavish praise from a student leader for their hard work, school board members approved a general school tax levy of $6,095,314. Correction: $18,391,262.

That figure - a 4 percent increase mandated by the state - will appear on the April 15 ballot, but Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottman told the crowd of about 50 people that taxpayers will see an increase of only 1.2 percent on their bills, because debt service dropped by 70 percent.

The school tax increase is the first in the district since 1992. As in several recent presentations, the challenges and cost savings measures were spelled out in a Power Point presentation that was also given out as a handout to ensure public understanding of the new situation.

The final figure represents financial challenges including $3.6 million in salary increases for 2008-09, $700,000 more in fringe benefits, $225,000 to launch the new Emerson School, $200,000 in tuition increases, $1 million more in charter school aid plus an added $313,814 in charter school aid.

To offset the challenges, cost saving measures include the following reductions: nine district administrators, 1.5 IT staff, eight secretaries, one bus driver, one security officer, 51 non-tenured teacher, 17 kindergarten assistants, seven certified support staff, a 50 percent reduction in the Faces/School-Based Youth Services program, four clerical assistants, six parent liaisons and four as-yet unspecified positions.

The proposed reductions were first presented on March 11 and refined over the ensuing weeks in what Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey called "war room" talks with administrators and staff. Among the guiding forces, the district has experienced a 16 percent drop in student enrollment since the 2002-03 school year, down from 7,734 to the current 6,420 pupils. Bailey urged class consolidation and strategies to better use the district's "human capital" in light of that change.

Although voters will have their say April 15, the state's last word is that the 4 percent increase will stand even if it is rejected at the polls. In future years, Plainfield will be asked to pay more in local school taxes to support district costs, 80 percent of which are now paid by state and federal aid. In surrounding suburban districts, property owners must come up with the bulk of school funding. The increase for Plainfield and other urban districts is a first step toward local property owners shouldering more of a "fair share" of school costs.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

School Budget Hearing Tonight

The Board of Education will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. tonight (March 25, 2008) in the Plainfield High School library for a public hearing on the 2008-09 school budget.

For the first time since 1992, the local school tax levy will increase. Voters on April 15 will be asked to approve a levy of $18,391,262, a 4 percent increase. But even if voters don’t approve it, the increased tax levy will stand, because the state is requiring it as a first step toward meeting a fair share of the property tax burden to support schools. Plainfield previously only contributed $17.7 million, with outside aid making up 80 percent of the budget.

Despite a 2 percent increase in state aid for 2008-09, the district will face a $5 million shortfall that will require staff reductions. Those affected will be notified by May 14.

In coming years, state aid will be flat and the district may have to make further adjustments. One change suggested by Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey was to eliminate very small classes and aim for class sizes of 18 for kindergarten and 24 to 28 in upper grades.

On April 15, voters will also choose three people from five candidates for three-year terms. Those running are incumbents Bridget Rivers, Vickey Sheppard and Agurs Linward “Lenny” Cathcart Jr. and newcomers Jaclynne Callands and Yolanda VanFleet.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, March 24, 2008

Are "Acting" Limits Passe?

A few years ago, in one of the Queen City’s classic tugs of war over “acting” appointments of top officials, the City Council approved a 90-day limit on how long a mayoral appointee could serve without council confirmation.

It comes to mind now that the current mayor has named Public Affairs & Safety Director Martin Hellwig as the city’s first civilian police director, replacing the police chief. As Dan Damon points out, the ordinance abolishing the chief’s post has not actually taken effect, for one thing. The other thing is that the ordinance establishing the office of police director allows for an interim appointment of up to one year.

It is also more than 90 days since A. Raiford Daniels vacated the post of director of Administration and Finance, Health and Social Services. City Administrator Marc Dashield is serving as acting department head in addition to being in charge of day-to-day operations of the city. That burden was cited as part of the reason for the delay in passage of the 2008 fiscal year budget.

The point of having separate individuals carrying out major functions is that it contributes toward the checks and balances of government. If all we wanted was a czar or Dear Leader, we wouldn’t need the branches of government nor the structure outlined in the city’s special charter.

The past furor over acting appointments came about when the governing body perceived the mayor’s actions as a ploy to sidestep the “advice and consent” process by which the council has a say in confirming or rejecting mayoral nominees for top posts. There is no such outcry now, but any longtime observer of the city might ask, what has changed? Is it that the new folks don’t know about the time limit or that nobody cares any more?

The net effect is that we have two top officials in dual roles where they essentially report to themselves. The city administrator/department head situation is a lot of work for one person, especially because that department has the most divisions to supervise. The department head/civilian police director combination, at the very least, diminishes objectivity about how the new entity is working out.

Nobody wants to see a return to the days when the mayor and council were always at loggerheads, but are citizens willing to see the governing body pass on enforcing checks and balances? It’s something to think about.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Walk in the Park

Winter has not been kind to Cedar Brook Park, my neighbor and I found out on a walk around the park Sunday.

We saw severe erosion, many fallen trees and branches and other debris that made us think a big cleanup was in order.

The pond has been stripped of all its shoreline vegetation, although there are some new plantings marked off by orange streamers.

The water seemed quite clear in the pond and the brook, but whether that was due to recent heavy rains or improvements made by Union County, we couldn’t say.

We saw many early-blooming trees with yellow blooms. I always thought they were Spicebush, but tree expert Dr. Greg Palermo says they are a form of Dogwood. Upon seeing the four bracts and clusters of small yellow flowers, I think I must concede that they are either Cornus Officionalis or Cornus Mas. Above, my neighbor holds a branch in her gloved hand.

We saw lots of robins, a male mallard, a song sparrow pair and mourning doves on our walk, which was a very enjoyable way to clear the cobwebs of recent dark and dank weather.

Plainfielders have two very lovely county parks to enjoy, Cedar Brook and Green Brook. If time allows, take a walk with your senses open to new spring sights and sounds.

--Bernice Paglia

Happy Easter!

Whether you are a Christian celebrating the greatest feast in the liturgical calendar or someone who marks the Easter season as a time of rebirth and renewal, have a very happy day!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Plaintalker Hits Milestone

This blog began in June 2005 and certainly we have had many stories to report in the changing life of Plainfield since then. Political changes, new neighbors bringing their cultures to our community, losses of significant citizens, big dreams of redevelopment, shifting fortunes in the schools, and even the rise of city blogs themselves have given us a lot to think about. Plaintalker has tried to help by gathering and reporting news and commenting at times on what's going on. We have also tried to highlight aspects of life in the city that demonstrate its diversity and the devotion of its residents to Plainfield.
Once nobody knew what a blog was, and at some point the current array of city blogs may thin out or even disappear in favor of some other innovation. Since I arrived in Plainfield in 1983, I have reported on the city in weekly and daily news media, and now on the blog. It's still a fascinating place to me and I'll keep blogging as long as I can. Thanks to everybody for your support and interest.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, March 21, 2008

Don't Blame JWM

A reader comments angrily that Jennifer Wenson Maier should have made the public more aware of the Brownfield Development Area proposal. Well, maybe nothing was in the print media about it, but Plaintalker began mentioning it in December. Click here for the past stories.
Perhaps if the city's web site was a more viable means of communication, the BDA opportunity could have been showcased there. Or maybe the well-compensated PR staff could have alerted the newspapers.
It seems the opportunity to comment proves sometimes more of a chance to vent. I urge readers to use the search function at the top of the blog to check Plaintalker for coverage. You can key in a name or a term and all the related stories will come up. Plainfield has plenty of secrets, but the BDA wasn't exactly one, at least not on the blog.
Please note that comments do not appear instantly, as they do on the forum. I have to take a look at them and I am not online all the time. So they appear after I have reviewed them. Thanks to all who have commented.

--Bernice Paglia

Happy Spring!

Just when the winter holiday amaryllis frenzy was over, Smith & Hawken came out with spring amaryllis bulbs. I chose one called "Lemon Lime' which in due time produced two stalks, one short and one 22 inches tall. Once the shorter stalk's flowers opened, the weight of the blossoms caused it to fall over. Here's the rescued flower head in a jar, sharing space on a window shelf with a pot of double pink impatiens raised from fall cuttings. This exquisite flower was certainly a treat for the eyes and the spirit after some rough news weeks in the Queen City.

--Bernice Paglia

Consultant Explains Brownfields Opportunity

Thursday’s brownfield informational meeting drew about a dozen members of the public, mostly business owners interested in what the plan would do for them.

The point of the meeting was to explain to property owners the advantage of the Brownfield Development Area designation that the city is seeking. A successful grant application could bring as much as $5 million annually to the city to convert contaminated land to sites ready for redevelopment.

The opportunity hinges on forming a broad-based committee to leverage brownfield remediation into community revitalization. Two such committees have already been organized, officials said. Five redevelopment locations have been targeted, with 14 brownfield properties identified, encompassing 19 acres.

The deadline for submission is March 31. Michael J. Meriney of Excel Environmental Resources gave Thursday’s presentation on the city’s proposal, stressing the need for support for community support. Competition for the grant funding is highly competitive, he said, with only three awards in the last round of 16 submissions.

But once a municipality wins an award, it is renewable annually, he said.

Jennifer Wenson Maier, director of Public Works and Urban Development, said of the program, “When I heard about it, I thought I struck gold.”

The designation can mean a grant of up to 75 percent of cleanup costs for land designated for recreational or open space use, up to 50 percent for affordable housing use or up to 75 percent for any end use within a brownfields designated area. It can basically transform an unfavorable property into one worth redeveloping.

Meriney said once the application for brownfields designation is submitted, it could take 8 to 10 months before winners are known. But successful applicants will be assigned a case manager to coordinate all activities. Those designated can then apply for grants to clean sites for redevelopment. In Plainfield’s case, the application covers five sites covered by redevelopment plans. They are the Marino’s site, the North Avenue expanded redevelopment area, the East Third/Richmond site, the former Disco Aluminum property and the Arlington Heights redevelopment area.

Many of the questions from the public veered off onto redevelopment issues unrelated to brownfields concerns, and Meriney referred those complaints to city officials.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Reports: Hellwig is Acting Police Director

To the readers:
I wrote the item below before setting out for a 6:30 p.m. meeting at City Hall. And what should I discover online when I got home at 9 p.m. that the acting civilian director and the director of Public Affairs and Safety will indeed be one and the same! Rather prescient of Plaintalker, don’t you think?

March 19 marked the last of Wednesday council meetings. On March 31, the City Council will hold its first agenda session in the restored Mondays-only schedule. Maybe then we shall see who the administration wants to put in charge of the Police Division. The person would have to be voted on April 7 to be in place by the April 11 layoff date of Chief Edward Santiago.

Meanwhile, a spin through the state Department of Personnel’s job title listing did not turn up the title of police director. The answer to an e-mail query was that the title was no longer in use. The “jobspecs” response said that the write believed the uniformed version of the function is a police chief and the civilian title version is Director of Public Safety.

Excuse me, don’t we already have one of those?

The ordinance states that the Director of Public Affairs and Safety may also serve as Police Director. The Police Director needs approval of the Director of Public Affairs and Safety to carry out his recommendations.

Maybe a chat with the man in the mirror while shaving will suffice if these two entities are one and the same.

Because the e-mail response was informal, I called Assemblyman Jerry Green’s office to see whether the language in the ordinance had been vetted by the state Department of Personnel, because Green has stated several times that he checks everything out with that agency to make sure the city is on firm footing with job titles. Green did not return the call.

--Bernice Paglia

Gibson Pulls Memorial Resolution

The family and friends of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams Jr. attended Wednesday’s City Council meeting expecting approval for a plan to place a memorial to the two-term mayor downtown, but the resolution had been yanked by City Council President Harold Gibson.

The group had sought approval in time for an event marking one year since the former mayor died of renal cancer at the age of 53.

Resident Inez Durham questioned why the item was not on the agenda and Gibson said he had asked for it to be removed. Later, Jahaad Martin rose from his seat beside Annie McWilliams to say he felt the word “elected” was being forgotten.

“Too many people are feeling entitled,” he said.

Gibson bristled and said, “I am entitled as council president to make the decision that I made.”

Later, Gibson told Plaintalker he was in the hospital Monday and missed the presentation by Annie McWilliams on the memorial plan formulated by a special committee. He said upon his release Wednesday, he reviewed the agenda and had the item removed for reasons he had explained just before the meeting to Annie McWilliams.

The late mayor’s wife, Darlene, daughter Annie and others gathered outside the Municipal Court to express their dismay. Annie McWilliams said she had been assured that morning that the item was on the agenda.

The group was expecting the approval in time for an April 6 service at Shiloh Baptist Church, where the former mayor’s funeral had been held.

But Gibson said after the meeting he was concerned about “how far we go into it as a governmental agency” and said, “There is not the kind of precedent anywhere for what they’re looking for.”
--Bernice Paglia

Chief's Job Abolished

In a split vote Wednesday, the City Council agreed to abolish to position of chief of police, and then approved creation of a civilian police director post.

While some have called it a personal political vendetta and others have deemed it a necessary move for better management, the reorganization will take effect at about the same time in April that a layoff plan targeting Police Chief Edward Santiago kicks in.

Council members Cory Storch and Linda Carter voted “no” to abolishing the post. Council President Harold Gibson abstained and council members Rashid Burney, Elliott Simmons, Don Davis and William Reid voted “yes.”

In the second vote, all but Storch agreed to establish a civilian police director.

But pulling the job out from under him will not remove Santiago, who said he will take the option of reverting to captain status while he awaits a decision on an injunction to negate the governing body’s action.

The prelude to the vote included pleas from residents and business owners to drop the plan. Santiago also took to the public microphone to read a resolution from the State Assembly supporting him. But he said the support he enjoyed from 1998 to 2005 later vanished when he was then branded as “not a team player” by Assemblyman Jerry Green at a meeting with a local business group.

Santiago alleged Green told the business group he would not help them unless they helped him remove Santiago and said three people will testify to that account.

Santiago supporters Wednesday included Dr. Harold Yood, who said, “I don’t see how the city can benefit” if the Police Division comes under the control of “a political appointee.”

The new law calls for a civilian police director appointed by the mayor to serve concurrently with the mayor’s four-year term. In contrast, once appointed, a police chief may serve through many administrations.

Business owner Nimrod Webb said the city may have bad roads and schools, but he has always been able to rely on the chief.

“You’ve got a man here who’s put his life here,” Webb said. “I’m begging you, table this matter. This is a bad move.”

John Kavanaugh, business owner and president of the city’s Special Improvement District (Correction: Lisa Cohen is president and Nimrod Webb is vice president), offered a family anecdote about his grandfather, who suffered various injustices as a police chief for his stand on human rights versus politics.

“Please keep our police chief,” Kavanaugh asked.

Santiago said he hoped to keep the cell phone number that he has given out to many residents.

“I will still be here for you,” he said. “I’m here for you irrespective of what happens tonight.”

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Police Chief Leaders Argue Against Civilian Director

The head of the county police chiefs’ association asked the City Council Monday to consider tabling ordinances that would do away with the city police chief’s position and put a civilian director in his place.

“This is a very, very major change you are about to make,” Hillside Police Chief Robert Quinlan said.

The two ordinances are up for final passage Wednesday. If approved, they would leave Police Chief Edward Santiago with the choice of moving down to captain’s rank or leaving the Police Division.

Quinlan, president of the Union County Police Chiefs’ Association, and Mitchell Sklar, president of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police, both spoke Monday to refute assertions made in favor of the change by Trenton Police Director Joseph Santiago. (By coincidence, Joseph Santiago was ordered Monday to vacate the post for which he has refused to take residency in Trenton as required.)

Quinlan called the Trenton director’s arguments “seriously flawed and biased” and, as many residents have argued, he called the looming action “personal – directed at the police chief and the police chief only.”

The county organization has a “very strong interest” in Plainfield’s law enforcement leadership, Quinlan said, because its municipalities depend on each other for mutual aid and chiefs network to share ideas and expertise. Having at civilian director has led to failure and conflict in other places, he said, adding, “We don’t want to see that happen in Plainfield.”

Sklar said the state has 20 civilian directors and 440 police chiefs, as well as some situations with both.

“I’m going to confine my remarks to the law,” Sklar said.

Referring to the Trenton director’s argument that municipalities have a limited ability to remove a chief due to a tenure law, Sklar said, “There is no such act.”

Sklar said tenure rules apply to all police officers and there is a process that protects all from arbitrary or unreasonable removal. The law was created to address actions of “a certain elected official,” adding the case “predates anyone here.”

Police officers must receive a notice and hearing on any allegations of not doing their job and the process must be conducted “with fundamental fairness,” he said.

Sklar cited a case in which a mayor was dissatisfied with a chief, alleging lack of cooperation and leadership. The mayor’s right to make allegations was not in question, he said, but whether the lawful process was followed. The chief could not be removed or demoted without just cause, Sklar said.

Chief Santiago first found out about the plan for his removal when Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig was giving a Power Point presentation last summer on a proposed reorganization and “Eliminate the rank of Chief of Police” came up on the screen.

“Current chief has option to revert to rank of Captain,” the slide read.

Despite rallies in favor of Chief Santiago and protests from residents and business owners, the ordinances to effect the change passed on first reading March 5. The administration also sought state approval to lay off Chief Santiago effective in April, when the ordinances take effect if passed Wednesday.

Santiago has asked for a closed-door talk with the council, but it has not been granted. Instead, the administration brought in the Trenton director to bolster its case for the change. Quinlan asked earlier this month for time to address the council on the chiefs’ perspective.

On Monday, Sklar concluded his presentation by naming numerous municipalities that tried having civilian directors.

“Each experimented for a period of time,” he said. “Each has returned to leadership by a sworn chief of police.”

But after the presentation, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson defended the city’s position.

“This is about a business decision to run the city of Plainfield,” he said. “It’s not about demoting anybody. It’s about reorganizing the Police Division and using a management style.”

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, March 17, 2008

Buy "The Soprano State"

"The Soprano State: New Jersey's Culture of Corruption" is well worth reading. Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure expose the politicians and players who have brought the Garden State to its current condition. My copy arrived from Amazon late last week and I zipped through it. There are lots of familiar names mentioned, including our former governor.

I had saved the 47-page indictment of David D'Amiano out of curiosity on what would become of some of the officials mentioned in it. One, referred to as "Former Senator," has since gone to jail. Click here to read it and you will see that "State Official 1" was indeed mentioned 83 times, as Ingle said in his book.

It's a bit of a delicate situation to have the former governor as our neighbor. On the one hand, we want to be welcoming. On the other hand, we see the headlines. Little did I know when I saw him in a church procession Sunday morning that I would see yet another sensational headline online later that night.

In contrast to Mother Carolyn, who radiates good will towards all, reporters tend to be cynical about human nature. It's no wonder, seeing what Ingle and McClure have uncovered in their work. New Jersey is absolutely pullulating with scandal and reform is long overdue. As you will see in "The Soprano State," schemers have made fools of the decent citizens. When will honesty get to be the norm and not the exception?

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Church Members Support Muhlenberg

The Rev. Carolyn Eklund leads Grace Episcopal Church parishioners in a Palm Sunday procession witnessing support for Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center.

A light rain did not deter the participants, who circled the church's block before the 10:30 a.m. service Sunday (March 16, 2008).

On Saturday, a reported crowd of 500 people rallied outside the hospital to protest its closing. The church members offered palm leaves Sunday to passersby as they marched.

Parishioners, including former Gov. James E. McGreevey of Plainfield (not shown), enter the church after the procession. Another public rally to save the hospital will be held April 5 in Trenton, according to Larry Hamm of People's Organization for Progress.
--Bernice Paglia

Downtown Station South Plan is Back

Update: The resolution and 50-plus page document on the Downtown Station South were apparently informational only and have been taken down off the council agenda posted on Councilman Rashid Burney's web site.
The revised Downtown Station South study up for discussion at Monday's City Council meeting is still massive - 161 properties over 18 blocks. When first presented a few years ago, it was the most ambitious study on the books. The council will consider whether to authorize development of a redevelopment plan based on the revised study results.
The study covers blocks south and west of the main train station. Click here to read Plaintalker's earlier story. More later on this topic.

--Bernice Paglia

Happy Sunshine Week

The Open Public Meetings Act is one of the citizens' best tools in finding out what elected officials are doing with public funds and how well they are upholding the public trust. The governing body as well as boards and commissions must give public notice of when and where they are meeting, with some indication of the topics. My reading of the daily newspaper starts with the legal notices and often big news is heralded by tiny legal notices.
The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government is holding events in Trenton and Newark to mark Sunshine Week. Get details here.
John Paff is perhaps the most relentless Sunshine Law activist in New Jersey. Click here for an interview with him.
This blog was started to help bridge the gap between the legal minimum of governmental compliance with public notice laws and the citizens' right to know in more practical terms. We will continue to alert the public to what turns up in those eensie-weensie legal notices.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Plaintalker Takes Comments

Readers can now leave their comments on Plaintalker blog posts. Comments will be moderated.
Readers have always been able to send comments to Plaintalker through njplaintalker "at", but some people have been frustrated by not being able to use the "comment" function right on the blog. That was a decision of Plaintalker co-founder Barbara Kerr, who designed the site and did many other technical things that I don't know much about. Barbara has since left me in charge of all aspects and I have decided to give the "comments" feature a try.

--Bernice Paglia

No Conspiracy on Budget Hearing

School Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann recently began an explanation of the 2008-09 budget process by saying it is "no sinister plot" that the March 25 public hearing will fall during Easter break.

The budget schedule is mandated by the state, and the date of Easter, based on lunar cycles, can vary considerably. Click here for an explanation from the U.S. Naval Observatory.

The school board met March 4 to vote on preliminary budget adoption. On March 11, Ottmann presented refined figures based on talks with school staff and administrators. Next week, the budget will be discussed at the March 18 business meeting and a March 19 budget workshop. The March 25 public hearing is the last stop before the budget goes on the April 15 ballot.

This year's budget process is unique in that the state has mandated a 4 percent increase in the local school tax levy. Ever since 1992, Plainfield property owners have had to come up with just $17,683,906 to support the cost of schools, while the state most recently kicked in aid to the tune of $99 million.

Now the state wants the district to pay more toward a "fair share" and is mandating a 4 percent increase in the local tax levy - one that residents can't vote down on April 15. The district faces a $5,781,500 shortfall, the reason for projected cuts affecting administrators, teachers and other staff for the 2008-09 school year.

Even if parents will be away on spring break, this week affords time to learn more and have a say on the budget. Tuesday's meeting is 7 p.m. at Barlow School and Wednesday's meeting is 7 p.m. in the Plainfield High School library.

Regarding Easter, March 23 is the earliest date in a long time, according to online sources. The date is based on an algorithm related to cycles of the moon. There is a lot of information on the holiday in general that is worth looking up and discussing with the family, whatever one's beliefs or non-beliefs. On the secular side, The Seattle Times will publish results of its "Peeps" contest on March 16. The Washington Post also holds such a contest, in which people arrange the popular marshmallow creatures in tableaux. Click here for the WP's 2007 winners.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Mini-Escape

Today a couple of us bloggers bailed out of a school candidates' forum to visit Green Brook Park and exhilarate for a few moments in signs of spring.

Besides a few hundred all-year-round Canada geese, we saw dozens of newly-arrived robins, some very showing-off Red-Winged Blackbirds flashing their red epaulets, and a few young deer.

It was a lovely afternoon and made us forget all the human troubles of the city.

Thanks to Mother Nature for a reminder that life goes on regardless of the machinations of politicians and others who would impose temporal concerns on us.

We are very fortunate to have two well-designed county parks that allow such escapes and we hope all will make time to enjoy both Green Brook Park and Cedar Brook Park as spring approaches.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Newspaper of Record to Blog: Nom Nom Nom

To borrow a term from "I Can Has Cheeseburger," The Star-Ledger ate up a blog post "nom nom nom" on Thursday by posting my story with the byline of its "Continuous News Desk."

Instead of waiting a decent interval to let their reporter catch up, as has happened in the past when Plaintalker gave breaking news, the article went up at 7:05 a.m. Thursday with a link to the blog. It could be viewed as a compliment in one way, but considering that I gather news for free and they have a paid reporter to cover Plainfield, whassup wid dat?

In response to my e-mail pointing out the discrepancy, the "Continuous News" editor took down the entry.

This was the second time the S-L mistaked me for something like the Associated Press.

Click here for the other example.

The point is, my uncompensated self sits around in long, boring meetings to decipher the news and then I have to spend more hours writing it up, while the print media may or may not assign a reporter to these meetings.

Many times they just check to see what us non-wage slaves turn up and then make a few phone calls to earn their salaries by filing stories.

In one recent instance, Plaintalker has reported several times on the important changes in the local school tax levy that has not changed in 15 years until now, but the print media has yet to tell you about it.

This is the value of a hyperlocal blog that people with computers can access, but for those who do not go online, the dereliction of the print media to cover major stories is what? Reprehensible? Impracticable? Tough luck for the reader?

A fellow blogger would remind you that you can go to the local public library and get access to online information about your own city. It's easy, you just have to get a library card. And now I believe the library has more public access computers. Do you want to take part in decisions affecting your neighborhood? Do you want to hold your elected officials accountable?

Soon the voters will be asked to pick three people to serve three years on the school board. And then soon voters will be asked to pick two people to serve four-year terms on the City Council and another to fill an unexpired term.

In future years, these are the people whose actions will be reported on the blog and perhaps in the print media as well. Will they come across as dedicated public servants or lackeys of the political system?

Today I received my copy of "The Soprano State: New Jersey's Culture of Corruption." by Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure. I look forward to gaining some additional perspective on why appointed and elected officials do what they do.

We all need to pay attention to the results of our political involvement, be it a letter to an official or a major protest such as that regarding the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center.

Read all you can and form your opinions. Then advocate your point of view. It is only with the informed opinions of the electorate that the city's future can be achieved.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Judge Dismisses Major Charge Against Davis

A Scotch Plains judge tossed out a charge Wednesday (March 12, 2008) that Plainfield Third Ward Councilman Don Davis refused to take a Breathalyzer test after a March 28, 2007 DUI stop.

Judge Antonio Inacio based the dismissal in part on Plainfield’s failure to submit records requested by Davis’ attorney James Trabilsy, who also sought proof from Fanwood that the testing equipment there was in working order and that all officers involved were properly certified to administer the test.

According to state motor vehicle laws, obtaining a driver’s license carries “implied consent” to take the test if arrested on DUI charges. Refusal carries very heavy penalties, including loss of the license for up to one year, multiple stiff fines and attendance at an Intoxicated Driver Resource Center.

When Davis was stopped in Plainfield nearly a year ago, he was taken to Fanwood for the test because the city’s equipment wasn’t working, Trabilsy said. The attorney said he asked Plainfield authorities on April 10 to preserve dispatch tapes from March 28. In early December, Trabilsy asked Inacio to sign an order giving the two municipalities 45 days to come up with 34 other items related to the case. Scotch Plains Prosecutor Thomas Russo issued reminders to both Jan. 16 that the deadline was approaching.

But Trabilsy said he only got some documents from Fanwood and none from Plainfield. The request apparently “fell through the cracks,” he said.

Russo said he knew Trabilsy made the April request to save the tapes, but he said the case was first listed on the docket “many months after that.” (As is common practice with charges involving elected or appointed officials, the case was moved out of the councilman’s hometown.) Russo said he had no knowledge of the existence of the case until last fall.

“I don’t know what happened to the tapes or whether they were preserved,” Russo said.

The attenuated timeline was due in part to Trabilsy’s three-month hospitalization for a kidney transplant after he was hired to defend Davis.

Trabilsy said Wednesday the information he requested, but did not get, was necessary “to
show everything was proper” had Davis agreed to take the test. He also cited a 1992 case that resulted in the Appellate Court outlining “a procedure for everyone to follow” to rule out judges’ arbitrary decisions in such situations.

In one testy moment, Inacio asked what if a defendant refused to take the test and the equipment wasn’t working properly, but Russo said, “That’s not the case.”

Inacio then reviewed the timeline of the case, saying the duration actually worked in favor of the municipalities by giving them more than 45 days after he issued the December order.
“What is it that Mr. Trabilsy is supposed to do, cartwheels? Stand on his head? What is Mr. Russo supposed to do, beg for it?” Inacio said.

He then dismissed the charge of refusal to take the test, based on failure to comply with the Dec. 5 order.

Davis must return to court on three other charges arising from the incident, including driving under the influence and failure to show proof of insurance. He was accompanied in court by his wife, Rose. Three top officials of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, to which Davis is council liaison, also attended.

Davis is completing a four-year term on the council and must file for the June primary by April 7 to seek re-election as a Democrat.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

School Budget Refinements Continue

Tuesday's work and study meeting included an update on the budget situation that leaves the school district with a $5.8 million shortfall. Salary and fringe benefit increases, the cost of moving students from a temporary school into the new Emerson School, tuition increases and increased charter school costs make up the "financial challenges" the district faces for the 2008-09 school year.

The newest budget report emerges from what Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey calls intensive "war room" talks with principals and other officials on reductions.

The $5 million shortfall is due to a state mandate that Plainfield, one of 31 needy Abbott districts, must begin to pay its “fair share” of property taxes toward school costs. The district has paid only $17,683,906 annually local school taxes since 1992, even as state aid increased to $99 million. In most suburban districts, the proportions are opposite, with property owners paying most of school costs.
For 2008-09, the state is requiring Plainfield to increase the local tax levy by 4 percent, to $18,391,262, as a step toward contributing about $33 million for a fair share.
To prepare the budget for submission to the state by March 6, the administration proposed cost-saving changes such as returning 32 academic coaches to the classroom, a reduction of $1.7 million. Another $1.2 million in savings was proposed by eliminating 34 kindergarten assistants. Other proposed cuts targeted 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.
But on Tuesday (March 11, 2008), the list of cuts had changed to these reductions: Nine administrators to save $1 million; 1.5 information technology staff, $100,000; eight secretaries, $408,000; one bus driver, $47,000; one security officer, $47,500; 45 non-tenured teachers, $2,280,000; 17 kindergarten assistants, $561,000; seven certified support staff, $392,000; four clerical assistants, $132,000; and nine parent liaisons, $485,000. In addition, the Faces/School Based Youth Services program would be cut by half to save $376,000.
The administration will hold further meetings with principals and department heads today through March 17 to "maximize efficiencies" in closing the gap. Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey presented class size figures for nine districts indicating a "best practice" number of 18 children in kindergarten classes and 28 students for most classes and 24 for science classes in other grades, while Plainfield currently has some very small classes.
"There is no need for classes to be occupied by six children," Bailey said.
The budget will be discussed again at the March 18 business meeting and a March 19 "school budget workshop" before the March 25 public hearing for budget approval. The final figure will be on the April 15 ballot, but because the reduction is mandated by the state, it will stand even if voters reject it.
All affected staff must receive non-renewal notices by May 14, Bailey said.
An overflow crowd Tuesday caused the meeting to be moved from the high school conference room to the cafeteria. Among comments from board members, Lisa Logan Leach called the proposed cuts "bottom heavy," but Bailey said the district administration was "already at bare bones."
Board member Martin Cox repeated School Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann's earlier finding that the district has lost about 1,400 students in recent years.
"So we have a very outdated model," Cox said.
In questions from the audience, Washington Community School Principal Anthony Jenkins asked what the district is doing to recruit students back to the schools. Bailey said even though charter school test scores are about the same as the district's, "Parents perceive that the (charter) schools are safer."
Bailey said the district must develop a "brand name" so parents know district schools are safe.
"All of us are the greatest marketing representatives for the district there is," Board President Patricia Barksdale said.
Barksdale said people have to show they believe in the children and "believe they can excel."
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, March 10, 2008

Brownfields Committee Gears Up

The new Brownfields Development Area Steering Committee will meet at 6:30 p.m. March 20 in City Hall Library, according to a legal notice (blown up 200 percent here so you can read it).
This committee could prove to be very valuable if the city receives a Brownfield Development Area designation from the state DEP. The designation brings as much as $5 million annually to remediate contaminated properties for redevelopment.

Plaintalker has reported on this opportunity previously and in the interest of time will offer entries from past articles. There is a U.S. EPA link that describes more fully what brownfields are.

Given the market slowdown and the stagnation of other revitalization efforts, this is one worth watching.

From the Feb. 22 blog entry:
“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.”

From the Dec. 4 blog post:
“The rationale for the new committee is to have a broad-based group of community members who can help identify Brownfields Development Areas that will be eligible for state funding for remediation. Proposed members include Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs’ confidential aide, Barbara James, to represent the mayor; a council member; Planning Director Bill Nierstedt; Al Restaino, who is in charge of the city’s Community Development Block Grant process; Jacques Howard of the city’s Economic Development office; attorney Ed Boccher from the Union County Improvement Authority; property owner Andrew Arditti, who owns the E. Paul building; Howell Electric; a consultant from Excel Environmental Services; Dornoch Plainfield and Cecil Sanders, representing developers; and Frankly Green as a local business.”
It's an odd time for a meeting and some of us will have to do a double-header, as the Planning Board meets at 8 p.m. in the same location, but this new opportunity deserves some attention.
--Bernice Paglia

Director's Residency in Court

Residency – once such a burning issue for highly paid officials in Plainfield – is proving to be a thorny issue now in Trenton.

As reported in The Star-Ledger, Trenton Police Director Joseph Santiago is facing a judge’s decision on his refusal to move to Trenton and Mayor Doug Palmer’s backing of his refusal. If the judge decides Joseph Santiago must take residency and Santiago continues to live 50 miles away from Trenton, he could lose his job.

Heaven forfend that he should come knocking on the Queen City’s door, where residency has been waived by the City Council for department heads who live in Nutley and Rahway and former ones who lived in Jersey City and Piscataway. The city administrator apparently hasn’t moved to Plainfield either.

Even the mayor got a pass when a judge ruled that she made up her required four years’ prior residency in dribs and drabs over an unspecified amount of time. After all, the city’s special charter did not say it had to be four years’ prior residency all in a row, now did it?

A local merchant reminded us that we could have Joseph Santiago’s motto embroidered on jackets, caps, totes or practically anything else. Maybe a security blanket from Palmer?

In case you didn’t see it before, after talking about transparency and accountability, Director Santiago told the council on March 3, “The only thing that gives politics a bad name is people who practice it poorly.” And by the way, the reason he has to live 50 miles away, as recounted in The Star-Ledger, is that Palmer issued a waiver because of “alleged threats against Santiago” from unnamed subordinates.

A leader of men – but perhaps not a great leader or a dear leader – Director Santiago’s fate will emerge within a week or two.

Meanwhile, top officials here needn’t worry about moving into Plainfield. They’re set until 2010 or maybe longer, if the mayor gets a second term and the council continues to be biddable.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Crafty Reader Responds

Look what somebody made! Thanks for the early Christmas pillow!

Director Santiago's Credo

Before I close up my notebook with the March 3 discussion item on the value of a civilian police director versus a police chief, let me share this quote from Trenton Police Director Joseph Santiago:

"The only thing that gives politics a bad name is people who practice it poorly."

Wow. If I knew how to do needlepoint, I would put that on a pillow ASAP. It would also make a good refrigerator magnet.

Curiously, it came up in the midst of comments about "transparency" and "accountability."

Let all who would practice politics take heed.

--Bernice Paglia

PEA Sets Candidate Forum

Plainfield Education Association President Eric Jones has announced a forum next week for school board candidates.

Just five people - the three incumbents and two newcomers - filed by a Feb. 25 deadline for the three three-year terms. Incumbents seeking re-election are Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr., Vickey Sheppard and Bridget Rivers. Yolanda VanFleet and Jaclynne Callands are also running.

The union that represents teachers and support staff will hold the forum at 4:15 p.m. Thursday (March 13, 2008) at the Educational Support Complex (the old Jefferson School) at 1200 Myrtle Avenue.

This year's school board election is taking place in a climate of major changes and challenges for the district. Dr. Steve Gallon III of Miami-Dade schools was just hired as the new superintendent. The state has mandated a 4 percent increase in the local school tax levy, the first increase in 15 years, which will require at least some staff cuts. The district is still in a state monitoring process called New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or NJQSAC, that found deficiences in four of five performance areas.

The PEA welcomes district employees, parents and the community to its forum, Jones said.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, March 06, 2008

District Vows to Alert New Schools Chief

School district officials are keeping incoming Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III informed of budget changes for 2008-09, such as the news Tuesday that the $5 million shortfall announced Feb. 26 has grown by $1 million more as of Friday.

Gallon, an administrator in the Miami-Dade district, was hired Feb. 19 after a nationwide search. He takes charge of the Plainfield district July 1, the day the 2008-09 fiscal school year begins. Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey said Tuesday the district is in communication with Gallon about the budget.

“We don’t want him to be sideswiped,” Bailey said.

The $5 million shortfall is due to a state mandate that Plainfield, one of 31 needy Abbott districts, must begin to pay its “fair share” of property taxes toward school costs. The district has paid only $17,683,906 annually local school taxes since 1992, even as state aid increased to $99 million. In most suburban districts, the proportions are opposite, with property owners paying most of school costs.

For 2008-09, the state is requiring Plainfield to increase the local tax levy by 4 percent, to $18,391,262, as a step toward contributing about $33 million as a fair share.

To prepare the budget for submission to the state this week, the administration proposed numerous cost-saving changes such as returning 32 academic coaches to the classroom, a reduction of $1.7 million. Another $1.2 million could be saved by eliminating 34 kindergarten assistants. Other proposed cuts targeted 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.

Between budget submission and final board approval on March 25, the exact cuts will most likely be decided through discussions among the administration, staff, board and community. But even if voters reject the 4 percent increase on April 15, the state mandate will stand.

District officials learned of the additional $1 million shortfall Friday, when the state released charter school funding figures. The district had allowed $6.9 million for charter schools, but they will actually cost the district $7.9 in 2008-09. Business administrator/board secretary Gary Ottmann pointed out that Union County has only three charter schools, but they are all in Plainfield.

Budget options will be up for discussion at board meetings on March 11 and 18. Bailey has also called for a “School Budget 101” informational meeting for the public before March 25.

The district must also decide whether to handle staff reductions by non-renewal of contracts or by a blanket “reduction in force” notice. Either way, the action will take place before Gallon comes aboard.

(Shout-out to Dr. Gallon: Thanks for letting us know Feb. 19 that you read the Plaintalker! We'll also do our best to keep you informed!)

--Bernice Paglia

Council Approves Director Title Over Chief

A pair of ordinances aimed at replacing the police chief with a civilian director passed on first reading at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

One abolishes the title of police chief that has been on city books for 139 years. The city has already asked state permission to lay off incumbent Chief Edward Santiago, who came up through the ranks over 30 years and was named chief about nine years ago. Council members Rashid Burney, Don Davis, William Reid, Elliott Simmons and Linda Carter voted “yes” to abolish the chief’s title and Councilman Cory Storch and Council President Harold Gibson abstained.

The second ordinance creates the title of police director with a term concurrent to that of the mayor appointing the person to the post. The police director will have no police powers as defined by state law and will be in charge of day-to-day operations of the Police Division. The ordinance also allows for a table of organization that almost doubles the possible number of captains, more than triples the number of lieutenants, more than doubles sergeants and adds about 100 patrol officers to the current 153.

Burney, Davis, Reid and Simmons voted “yes” and Storch and Carter voted “no.” Gibson sought the opinion of Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson on whether the ordinance would put the person in charge of emergency management on the same level as the fire chief and police director. Assured that it would not, Gibson then voted “yes.”

The votes came after several objectors deplored the change.

“You are sowing the seeds of the future here,” resident Sandy Gurshman said, adding, “I don’t think it’s a good future.”

Dairy Queen owner Donna Albanese said she and many others have Santiago’s cell phone number and can call him at any time.

“I think that kind of service is extraordinary,” she said. “I’m uncomfortable with what is going on. It feels political.”

Flor Gonzalez of the Latin American Coalition predicted an adverse effect on the Police Division, where captains would never be able to attain the rank of chief.

“Why do this to your police department?” she asked.

The ordinances will be up for second reading at the March 19 meeting at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Protesters: Save Muhlenberg

A parade of protesters confronted the City Council Wednesday, some to object to replacing the police chief with a civilian director, but more to call on the governing body to prevent the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center.

The proposed closing followed a reported attempt to find a buyer for the hospital, which faced a burden of charity care costs that infusions of state aid have not been able to overcome.

Speakers called for an accounting of financial decisions after Solaris Health System took over Muhlenberg, alleging the parent organization manipulated patient care to steer insured patients to JFK Medical Center to the detriment of Muhlenberg, which had to accept anyone needing care regardless of ability to pay.

Plainfield resident Nancy Piwowar said Muhlenberg saved her life in 1974, and she vowed to bring crutches from that incident to every public meeting until the hospital is rescued.

Xavier Jesus Delvi said he came to the meeting Wednesday after reading the Bible.

“We must stand together,” he said, suggesting Plainfield would see “nothing more than cemeteries” if the hospital closes.

Other speakers questioned where local Route 22 accident victims would receive emergency care and deplored the loss of many other services.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf spoke about services such as pediatric care that have been transferred to JFK, noting there is a state program to fund it. Displaying a sheaf of brochures on Muhlenberg programs, she asked officials to keep the hospital open. As her “last exhibit,” she pointed out her husband, Josef, noting a cardiologist at Muhlenberg saved his life in 1993.

Josef Gutenkauf later railed against the proposed closing and called on the council to lead a delegation to Trenton.

“Let’s go see the governor,” he said.

Speakers said the proposed closing would affect not only the uninsured or underinsured, but even those with insurance who might lose life-or-death minutes in transport to other medical facilities.

A woman who came to Plainfield to care for her elderly mother said both she and her mother were born in Muhlenberg, along with many other relatives. She said hospital staff had saved her mother’s life four times over 10 years of strokes. She contrasted to the cost of the war in Iraq to the “need to morally to stop this trend of hospitals being about business.”

Each testimony drew applause from audience members including the Peoples’ Organization for Progress, which held a rally outside the hospital Saturday and is planning more.

After the many outpourings of concern, Councilman Don Davis said the governing body had been reaching out to authorities on the issue and hoped the protesters would join in with the same “zealous feeling” expressed Wednesday.

Muhlenberg is applying for state approval to close. Several other hospitals have had to close due to debt and failing finances.

--Bernice Paglia

Senior Center Takes Shape

Here's the latest picture of the new senior center at 400 East Front Street. The center will be on the ground floor and three floors of market-rate condos will be built above it.

As planned, this corner will hold an entry to the lobby for the condos. The senior center entry will be at the east end, with a bus drop-off, according to the site plan.

Seniors get monthly reports on the building's progress and are looking forward to its opening sometime this year.
--Bernice Paglia

Charter School Costs to Force More Cuts

Last-minute charter school news tacked another $1 million onto the proposed 2008-09 school budget that had to be approved by the Board of Education Tuesday, and so will mean more scrutiny for cuts before the March 25 budget hearing.

The preliminary budget is now $146,648,645, with a local tax levy of $18.4 million.

The district was already reeling from a state-mandated 4 percent increase in the local tax levy, the first change in 15 years. Under a new funding formula, Plainfield taxpayers must take the first step toward a $33 million “fair share” of school costs. In contrast to suburban districts that pay 80 percent or more of school costs, Plainfield residents had contributed only a single-digit fraction, $17,683,906 annually, since 1992.

Click here for Plaintalker’s coverage of the Feb. 26 Board of Education meeting where the mandated increase was announced.

While budget cuts had to be indicated on the document sent to the state, the district can make modifications until the March 25 budget hearing, after which the budget must be published in time for a public vote April 15, when school board candidates will also be elected. But School Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann has already stated that even if the public votes down the local tax levy, the state-mandated 4 percent increase will stand.

On Tuesday (March 4, 2008), Ottmann made a presentation that dealt with three items.

One he tagged as the “State Aid Windfall Myth,” refuting published reports that Plainfield was getting $13.8 million in state aid for 2008-09. Ottmann said the district was getting $14 million in pre-school aid next year, but it only reflected a change in title from similar aid received this school year. The 2 percent increase in state aid for 2008-09 is $1.9 miliion and will be flat in future years.

In what he dubbed the “Tax Levy Surprise,” Ottmann said the current year combined levy of $18,389,614 included both the general fund that is up for a vote and debt service that is not on the ballot. For next year, the combined levy of $18,614,294 is an increase of only 1.1 percent, Ottmann said.

Moving on to the “Charter School Surprise,” Ottmann said the district received word Friday that last year’s $6.9 million tab for charter schools would increase to $7.9 million next year. There was no time between Friday and Tuesday to come up with changes in the preliminary budget to be sent to the state, he said, but the district must now identify another $1 million in cuts before March 25.

Charter schools are public schools that receive 90 percent of costs per pupil from the district, even though the charter schools report directly to the state and the district has no oversight into their operations. Ottmann pointed out that all three charter schools in Union County are in Plainfield.

The preliminary budget included tentative cuts as described in Plaintalker’s previous post, but Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey said she met with principals Tuesday to discuss further options. The board will also discuss the budget cuts at meetings March 11 and March 18.

Budget information will be posted on the district’s web site and will be sent home to parents. Bailey also proposed a “School Budget 101” informational meeting between now and March 25.

Only about 20 people were on hand at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, with several more arriving later. Speakers called on the board to save the jobs of kindergarten assistants and family liaisons from cuts. Eric Jones, president of the Plainfield Education Association, said none of the concerns Tuesday dealt with the “top-heavy” administration.

“If they don’t affect children directly, they have to go,” he said.

Others called for rallies in Trenton against the mandated local school tax increase, restoration of the Citizens’ School Budget Advisory Committee and a letter campaign to protest to legislators about the new state funding formula.

Click here to see the district’s web site, which has information on the 2008-09 budget process and will be updated as necessary. The site also has meeting schedules and locations.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Dornoch Plans Sales Office

Dornoch Plainfield, the company that is building 63 condos over a new senior center at 400 East Front Street, is seeking City Council approval to lease this city-owned lot at East Front Street and Westervelt Avenue for $500 a month for seven months.

The company plans to put a trailer on the site to serve as a sales office.

The item will be up for City Council approval at the meeting to be held 8 p.m. Wednesday in Municipal Court.

Dornoch won approval for the $15 million project in January 2007 and is constructing the new senior center at no cost to the city on the building's ground floor. The current senior center is in leased space in the block-long building at left.

The new condo development, The Monarch, is expected to be marketed to empty-nesters and young professionals rather than families with children. Completion is scheduled for mid-2008.

--Bernice Paglia

Grackles Arrive

A sure sign of spring in the Northeast is the return of the Boat-tailed Grackle, a large black bird with many interesting habits. Yesyerday I heard the familiar "gggrackk-ll" call and looked up to se some new arrivals in the large ash tree at the rear of our lot. If you see a grackle walking around in search of food, take a close look and admire its iridescent feathers. Click here to learn more about the Boat-tailed Grackle.


Chief vs. Director Debate Continues

Embattled Plainfield Police Chief Edward Santiago and half of his Union County peers sat stolidly against the west wall of City Hall Library Monday as Trenton Police Director Joseph Santiago touted the advantages of a civilian director over a tenured chief.

“What you’re looking for is executive power,” Joseph Santiago told the City Council.

Other advantages of having a police director as head of local law enforcement person are being able to draw candidates from a wider pool than just the top three who passed the chief’s test and not being bound by state laws that protect police chiefs, he said.

“At some point in time, stability may become stagnation,” the Trenton police director said.

The council was considering two ordinances, one to abolish the title of police chief after 139 years and another to create the police director post. The council has already agreed to submit a layoff plan to the state for just one individual – the chief – that will become effective April 15. If passed on first reading Wednesday and on second reading March 19, the two ordinances will take effect at about the same time as the layoff kicks in. Under a plan announced previously by Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig, the chief could choose retirement or reverting to the rank of captain.

While Police Director Joseph Santiago was careful not to target Chief Edward Santiago, he said sometimes the good intentions of state legislature that protect chiefs’ rights have the unintended cumulative consequences of insulating chiefs from accountability. But police directors’ powers are “derivative,” he said, established by the governing body.

Civilian directors have no police powers, can’t make arrests and are not allowed to carry guns, but Joseph Santiago said civilian authority has been accepted in the United States since its inception, citing the president’s role as commander in chief.

Later in public comment, Hillside Police Chief Robert Quinlan, also president of the Union County Police Chiefs’ Association, asked the City Council to allow the group to present their side of the argument. Quinlan said his association gave a presentation at the same League of Municipalities convention last year where Joseph Santiago spoke in favor of police directors.

“We feel there’s a lot of things that Mr. Santiago said that are very debatable,” Quinlan said.

The council did not give an immediate response.

Among the provisions of the new proposed ordinances, the Public Affairs & Safety director could also serve as police director. As department head under the City Charter, the director currently has authority over the Police and Fire Divisions. The new plan replaces one proposed last year in which police captains might serve in rotation as “executive officer.”

That title appeared in Hellwig’s slide show on police reorganization last summer that blindsided Chief Edward Santiago as the phrase “Eliminate the rank of Chief of Police” popped up on the screen.

Some, including former Union County Freeholder Adrian Mapp speaking Monday, called the proposed changes a vendetta against Chief Edward Santiago.

Another controversial issue was a portion of the ordinance creating the police director post that allowed for expansions of police titles, subject to budget considerations. In contrast to the current six captains, the proposed ordinance allows up to eight. Lieutenants, currently seven, could increase to 24. The present 24 sergeants might one day increase to 50 and the number of police officers, now about 153, might swell to 250.

Officials said the ranges were only possibilities, but the city would have to come up with something like a 23 percent budget increase to cover the possible increases.

The council will vote Wednesday on first reading of the ordinances at the regular meeting 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave,

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, March 02, 2008

No Post Today

I have three church publicity chores hanging over my head and so will not be doing a post today.


Queen City Woes Pile Up

Plaintalker is leaving the Muhlenberg coverage to others except to say the nation’s health care system took a turn for the worse when the doctor-patient relationship became tainted by big pharma, health insurance company investors and other factors long before the latest wave of immigrants arrived. The state’s charity care policies are obviously flawed as well. However, it is beyond the intended scope of this hyperlocal blog to take on such large topics.

On the local level, I took some donations to the Nearly New shop Friday and it made me think of the ways the hospital closing will affect Plainfield beyond the loss of acute care. The shop’s proceeds go to Muhlenberg, but it also allows people of limited means to get nice clothing and household items at low cost. I have also been told that seniors can get nutritious meals at low cost in the hospital’s cafeteria. These are among the subtle losses to the community that people will begin to experience along with the more dramatic ones.

Add to the bad news about Muhlenberg the revelation of a 4 percent school tax increase, a 6.5 percent municipal tax increase and the promise of higher county taxes and it’s no wonder that people are nervous. Why has the school district enrollment dropped 16 percent over the past three years? Will we ever get a new middle school? Questions abound.

Meanwhile, the City Council will meet on Monday and Wednesday of next week. The Wednesday meeting will conflict with the Board of Adjustment. The school board will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday for a special 2008-09 “Preliminary Budget Business Meeting” in the high school library. There will not be a Planning Board meeting next Thursday, it will be held March 13 instead.

The mayor will meet with seniors at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the center, 305 East Front Street.

Change is in the air in Plainfield, not in a good way. Those of us with gardens look forward more than usual to seeing the cheery spring flowers come up. The wheel of the year rolls on despite human miseries, and the new season can’t help but bring us hope.

--Bernice Paglia