Wednesday, April 30, 2008

SID Needs Better City Help

An erroneous legal notice on assessments of property owners in the Special Improvement District was recently blamed on the Courier News, but a closer look raises questions.

The SID assessments are special taxes that are used to fund promotional efforts in the downtown and South Avenue business districts. Each year, there must be a public notice of assessments published in local newspapers. Property owners are thus informed of their obligations to support the program.

City Administrator Marc Dashield told the City Council that the Courier News made a mistake in publishing the April 25 notice, which said the public hearing would be held Dec. 20, 2006. Obviously this was an error.

SID officials were told that the city submitted a dummy report in order to hold the space for the real report. But if that is the case, why were the assessment listings in the fake report identical to those in the ad for actual 2008 actual assessments?

It smacks of the simple error of not updating stale information at the top of a stored document.

Last year, the office charged with setting up these notices apparently submitted information in March 2007 that included three categories of facts on the properties, but not the actual assessments. A revised notice published on April 9, 2007 had the proper column headings for the assessed value of the property and the SID assessment.

These errors only complicate the SID’s ability to do its job. For this fiscal year, the SID will formally receive its funding at the tail-end. The SID submitted its budget in November and should not be penalized for delays and errors on the city side that result in a six-month delay of funding.

--Bernice Paglia

School District Sets Muslim Holiday

In October, the Plainfield school district will have its first closing for a Muslim holiday.

At its reorganization meeting Tuesday, the Board of Education adopted a calendar for 2008-09 that includes an Oct. 2 closing for Eid Al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Observant Muslims fast from sun-up to sundown during Ramadan and at the end hold a feast.

Board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq sought inclusion of both Eid Al-Fitr and also Eid Al-Adha, a holiday that celebrates those who have made the Hajj, or holy pilgrimage to Mecca.

Abdul-Haqq said Wednesday he would have liked to have both holidays on the calendar, but said because observances are based on a variable lunar calendar, future holidays might happen on times when school is closed anyway.

Abdul-Haqq requested the holiday inclusion at a March BOE meeting, but other board members said the extra days would have to be negotiated with employee bargaining units. Apparently the talks were successful.

Imam Abdul Wali Muhammad of Masjidullah in Plainfield said, Wednesday "First, it is a good thing, and we are happy about that."

He added, "Our goal is to have both dates, but we are grateful to have one for now."

The imam said more and more school districts are honoring the Muslim holidays and most do both.

He called the first holiday the "small Eid," a "victory over self" for the 30 days of denying oneself food during the day and other prohibitions.

Eid Al-Adha is "the big Eid," he said, which is held after those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca return. That holiday is marked with an animal sacrifice, he said. This year it falls on Dec. 9, starting at sundown the night before.

Click here to see the previous post on the issue.

--Bernice Paglia

Howard Gets $30k

The action taken after the Board of Education’s closed session Tuesday (April 29, 2008) turned out to be approval of a payment to former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard for various items.

Plaintalker did not stick around for the board to emerge from the closed session, but Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann said Wednesday the board authorized payment of $30,333.34 to Howard for vacation pay, an annuity and unpaid salary.

Howard abruptly resigned June 6, 2007 and two days later, the school board hired an interim superintendent and a business administrator in an emergency Friday night meeting.

After Howard’s resignation, Interim Superintendent Peter E. Carter received board approval for several dismissals of unqualified administrators and supervisors hired by Howard.

Carter subsequently quit and Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey took over. The board is now awaiting the July 1 appearance of Steve Gallon III of the Miami-Dade school district as the new permanent superintendent.

--Bernice Paglia

Rivers Wins BOE Presidency

As a large group of her family and friends looked on, school board members chose Bridget B. Rivers Tuesday to serve as president for one year. Rivers thanked all who supported her re-election on April 15 and said, “Hold us accountable.”

Rivers said the past year was a rough one for outgoing president Patricia Barksdale, who faced numerous staff changes and a harsh state monitoring report. Filling Barksdale’s shoes would be hard, she said, but added, “We’re going to move this district to a premier district.”

Rivers, Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr. and Vickey Sheppard were all sworn in for three-year terms before the vote. All three were incumbents who over came challenges from Yolanda Van Fleet and Jaclynne Callands in the election contest. The board also chose Martin Cox to serve as vice president.

While most of the votes at the annual organization meeting were perfunctory, such as naming bank depositories and signatories for school accounts, Rivers grew testy when a discussion of school attorneys bogged down and became confusing.

“I don’t even know what we’re talking about,” board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq said at one point.

“A lot of times it’s like a circus up here,” Rivers said. “I can’t have that.”

Rivers admonished the nine-member board to work out its disagreements “behind closed doors,” saying the audience, including children, was noting the disarray.

“It’s not going to happen this year,” she said. “I’m gonna get respect.”

The board was to have held an executive session before the open meeting, but did not. An executive session then followed the open portion and Rivers said when the board emerged from the closed discussion of legal and personnel matters, “Action may be taken.”

Plaintalker did not wait for the board to return, but will check today on any votes taken after the closed session.

--Bernice Paglia

Street Memorials Present a Dilemma

At Monday’s City Council meeting, the executive director of a non-profit housing organization cited the group’s success in 11 projects. But sale of the latest one, in the 900 block of West Third Street, is being impacted by the presence of a street memorial to a person who died a violent death several months ago.

Should such memorials be removed? If so, how and when? Surely such displays are disconcerting to prospective homebuyers in a particular neighborhood. But they mean a lot to those who erect them.

Street memorials to fallen victims of gun violence spring up spontaneously, as do memorials to those who die in car crashes and, in one highly organized effort, bicyclists and pedestrians who are victims of traffic accidents. Another question is whether the shooting or gang-related death memorials are different, and if so, why?

I have not seen the display on West Third Street, but we have one right on our block on the fence outside the Scott Drug parking lot. It consists of various items of clothing hung on a fence, with “RIP” messages for a person who died of gunshot wounds in South Plainfield.

Obviously, “Mu Mu” was well-known to people on Block 832. The memorial includes candles, various liquor bottles and tributes inscribed on shorts and T-shirts with a marker pen.

There is no house for sale in our immediate vicinity, but there are people who come to a nearby church for worship services, plays, community events, weddings or memorial services inside the church.

This display makes them wonder how safe the neighborhood is, if there are tributes to those fallen to gun violence. Might there be shootings while church people are only trying to get to a meeting or other event?

Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig promised to look into the problem, which he agreed has sensitive aspects. Certainly it is necessary to honor the intent of those who made the memorial, but then there is the public perception of what it implies.

This is definitely an issue that invites comments.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Road Repairs Coming Soon

Road work on some of the city’s worst streets will be done this summer, City Administrator Marc Dashield said Monday.

In 2005, the city launched a five-year plan to resurface or reconstruct streets deemed by engineers to be in poor or very poor condition. But only the first year’s work was completed. Now, design work for the second year has been done and construction is expected to take place in August and September, Dashield said in a presentation to the City Council. Some roads will have the top layer removed by milling and a new surface will be put in place. Others must be completely dug out and rebuilt. The cost for the second year will be about $7 million.

Dashield said the administration is in the process of bonding for the third year’s work.

Roads were assessed in 2004, but Dashield said some modifications will be made to the year-by-year list that was developed. Councilman Rashid Burney asked Dashield to provide the Shade Tree Commission with the list of roads so that removal and replacement of trees can be planned.

The numerous potholes on some streets have slowed down speeders on some of the city’s notorious straight-aways and repairs might make speeding worse, council members said. Councilman Cory Storch asked for traffic calming measures such as rumble strips to be included in future road work. But no one wanted bump-outs, the sidewalk extensions that narrowed South Avenue to slow traffic in a past road project. The bump-outs caused numerous accidents when they were first installed and some drivers say they avoid South Avenue altogether.

Councilman Elliott Simmons asked for curbing to be installed on West End streets in the plan, but was told it is not included in the project. Former Councilwoman Joanne Hollis spoke in support of Simmons, saying many West End roads have potholes.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, April 28, 2008

BOE to Organize Tuesday

With last year’s June 8 emergency meeting issue still unresolved, three incumbents will be sworn in for three-year terms and the Plainfield Board of Education will choose a new president tomorrow for a one-year term.

The annual organization meeting will begin at 8 p.m.Tuesday (April 29, 2008) in the Plainfield High School library, 950 Park Ave.

Incumbents Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr., Bridget B. Rivers and Vickey Sheppard won re-election on April 15.

The organization meeting includes numerous other resolutions for the 2008-09 school year, including naming of legal counsel. A proposed resolution names the firm of Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley to serve as counsel for Workers’ Compensation and Labor/Personnel “until a selection is made with regards to the RFP (Request for Proposals) that was previously distributed.” But there is no mention on the agenda of who will serve as general counsel for 2008-09.

By coincidence, minutes of the controversial June 8 meeting were finally posted on the district web site yesterday. It was at that meeting almost a year ago that attorney Raymond Hamlin allegedly improperly took part in the hiring of interim superintendent Peter E. Carter and failed to let the board know that Carter was his client in another matter, according to findings of the state Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance.

The agency also said in its October report that the June 8 minutes must be made public.

The emergency meeting took place just weeks after Patricia Barksdale was chosen to serve as board president. Superintendent Paula Howard had resigned June 6 after an abortive board meeting the night before. At the June 8 meeting, the board accepted Howard’s resignation and hired Carter, who in turn recommended Michael Donow as interim business administrator. According to the October report, Barksdale was the only board member who knew of Carter’s relationship with Hamlin.

In January, the state DOE office denied the school board’s December appeal of the report’s findings, but the board made a further appeal.

Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley will still serve as general counsel until the school business year ends June 30.

To read the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance report, click here. To read the June 8 minutes, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, April 27, 2008

IT - You're It!

The updated city web site became both the good news and bad news this weekend after people questioned how it came about.

Those with questions about IT contracts, shared services and the present state of the web site would be well advised to bring their concerns directly to the administration, which put forth the plan, and city officials who approved the arrangement.

The City Council will hold an agenda session at 7:30 p.m. Monday (April 28, 2008) in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. Members of the public may ask questions on any topic at the end of the meeting. And thanks to the improved web site, there are phone numbers where you can call your elected officials with queries.

The web site,, also has e-mail links to City Council members.

The shared services agreement includes more items than just updating the web site, but some of the questions received by bloggers are based on how the responsibilities are divvied up. Others asked about RFPs, or Requests for Proposals, by service providers. Certainly there are many IT professionals in Plainfield who would leap at the chance to fix up the city web site for decent compensation.

Maybe the controversy will bring more people to council meetings in coming weeks. Besides Monday’s agenda session, the council will have a regular meeting May 5, an agenda session May 12 (when I will be in Seattle celebrating my 70th birthday), and a regular meeting May 19 before the election hiatus for the June 3 primary.

The June agenda session will be on the 9th, with the regular meeting June 16.

The IT pilot contract is supposed to expire June 30, so questions between now and then will be especially important.

--Bernice Paglia

City Communications Need More Work

After the shock of seeing some long-awaited changes on the city’s web site, reality has set in and generated some questions.

First of all, inquiring minds want to know exactly how the “shared services” agreement with the school district is working. Is it an informal, ad-hoc thing or are the hours and fees spelled out and documented? And how can just one person do all that work? Are there helpers?

On closer observation, the material on the web site has been enhanced with meeting dates for the City Council, Planning Board and Zoning Board, but all three are on a City Council link, even though the land use boards are free-standing entities separate from the governing body.

The mayor’s photo has finally been cropped but there is still no bio with her information. Martin Hellwig is still pictured in a T-shirt and Jennifer Wenson Maier in a tank top. There is no photo of the third department head, Douglas Peck.

I’m sure the Needler in the Haystack will do his own analysis of the utility (or lack thereof) of the upgraded city web site, and I’m equally sure this is not the finished product. But readers are right to inquire about the cost and how much other money is being thrown at communication functions of the city. Another “shared services” deal will bring on PMUA resources to augment the city’s PR efforts, and a consultant was hired months ago to help shape up Channel 74.

Public relations and communications are broad headings that assume those hired have a spectrum of skills, ranging from being able to write proper press releases to developing mailing pieces or handouts with photos, graphics and engaging text. Residents nowadays expect web sites with downloadable forms for common needs such as permits, and consistent information for various city departments in order to better understand the workings of government. The city’s local origination cable channel also needs people with specific expertise to make it effective.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has asked for an expansion of the communications staff. Consultants have been hired and partnerships formed with other official entities. Still, not all bases are being covered adequately. Meanwhile, one member of the city team is also operating his own media enterprises and takes photos at weddings conducted in City Hall.

Maybe the management needs to decide its goals and priorities for communications and public relations and to make sure the right team with the needed skills is in place. More than half the sand has run out of this administration’s hourglass. It’s time to take stock and shape up for the remainder of its term.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, April 26, 2008

City Web Site Overhauled

Holy cow! By the time I started listening to On the Media with Media Player and the end of the show just now, the city's web site was completely transformed. I can click back to the old one on one browser or look at the new one on another.
Here's the new one.
Good work, Chris Payne!

Arbor Day Celebrated

Arbor Day was duly celebrated Friday with tree plantings and ceremonies.

(Disclaimer: I am a member of the Shade Tree Commission.)

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs led the celebration at First-Park Baptist Church, where three Japanese Tree Lilacs from Four Seasons Nursery & Landscape Company of Englishtown were planted on the Central Avenue curbside of the property. The church, which is celebrating its 190th anniversary, also received two Cleveland Callery Pears and one Redbud from Home Depot for its grounds, as well as a Crabapple from Union County and annuals from Williams Nursery in Westfield. New Jersey Youth Corps members assisted with the planting.

Children from New Covenant Christian Academy took part in the ceremony, reciting Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees” for the audience that included a contingent of members of the Plainfield Senior Center.

The Shade Tree Commission noted two specimen trees for 2008, a Northern Red Oak believed to be 150 years old, located on Fernwood Avenue and a Pin Oak estimated at 100 years old on Watson Avenue.

The Arbor Day 2008 tree plantings also included eight flowering Yoshino Cherry trees on West Third Street at Rushmore Avenue and six flowering Kwanzan Cherry trees at West Third Street and Muhlenberg Place.

The mayor also noted the planting this month of 50 trees on Leland Avenue.

Both the Courier News and Channel 74 covered the event.

The Shade Tree Commission meets monthly on fourth Wednesdays in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. Chairman Gregory Palermo, past member Barbara Sandford, member Jan Jasper and I were present for the event. There is currently one vacancy for a five-year term, succeeding Mrs. Sandford. Applicants may download a form from the city web site and send it to the mayor at City Hall.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, April 25, 2008

Jim and Dina Now Tell All at Library

I just this minute finished reading the Dina Matos McGreevey book, “Silent Partner.”

I had read former Governor James E. McGreevey’s book, “The Confession,” twice. The second time I took it out, I noticed my penciled corrections from the first time. But I was concerned that Dina’s side of the story was not in the library. Thanks to the staff member who took notice of my concern, got the book and even sent me a reminder to pick it up.

While both parties had the benefit of ghost writers or whatever the PC term is nowadays, the stories are compelling, but need to be read together.

Anyone who has experienced a failed marriage, let alone one that grabbed headlines for weeks, will feel the pain of these recounts, even after deducting points for veracity.

Thanks to the Plainfield Public Library for obtaining both books so that readers can see for themselves the former partners’ points of view. There is much to ponder in these stories.

--Bernice Paglia

Comcast Expects Automatic Franchise Renewal

When Comcast of the Plainfields’ 10-year city franchise ends in 2009, the company will invoke a 5-year automatic renewal, a representative told the Cable Television Advisory Board Thursday.

Charles Smith III, director of Government and Community Affairs for Northern New Jersey, told the board, “Comcast will exercise that option. That’s the way we look at the franchise.”

Among topics the board discussed Thursday (April 24, 2008) was the process set forth by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, which calls for franchisees to begin a study of cable service delivery three years before the time of franchise renewal. The board is expected to deliver a report on the cable franchise this year, but the automatic renewal clause may make the process moot.

Still, the board may hold a public hearing on the community’s level of satisfaction with Comcast services.

While the Comcast franchise is running out, Verizon has gained state approval to hold franchises in many communities, including Plainfield. Smith said that when Verizon’s ability to serve customers reaches 60 percent of the Plainfield market, franchise fees will double from 2 percent to 4 percent due to state legislation. The city currently receives as much as $120,000 in franchise fees to operate the city’s local origination channel.

But while officials wrested the commitment for two local channels from Comcast in the past franchise renewal, the implementation has been spotty. Only one channel, based in City Hall Annex, is currently operating. A studio built at Maxson Middle School has languished.

Besides the operational aspects of the local channels, programming was another topic addressed by the board. Much of the local channel’s content is public service announcements and outside programs such as Democracy Now and White House Chronicles, but Public Information Officer Jazz Johnson said consultant Parris Z. Moore has launched a pilot program called “Hello Plainfield” and has several more in the works. They include “Plainfield at Work,” about day-to-day city activity on behalf of its citizens; “Plainfield Profiles,” about interesting residents; and “Plainfield Update,” a news format program.

See for the Channel 74 schedule. The board's next meetings will be 7 p.m. on May 22 and June 26 in City Hall Library.

Board members asked Johnson when the City Council meetings would be televised. Johnson said Channel 74 was ready to record the meetings, but the council was holding off.

Johnson said her goal is to have 70 percent local programming in the future.

“It is there. It is in the works,” she said.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thanks, Plainfield Police!

Thanks to the Police Division for recent attention to the problem of open-air drinking in Municipal Parking Lot 7.

This lot is heavily used by members of two churches and pedestrians, including many students, passing to and from Park Avenue and East Seventh Street. But it is also a place where groups of men gather to drink, starting in the morning and continuing all day. Litter and public urination are the concomitants of this activity. Sometimes individuals fall asleep or pass out after indulging in drink for long hours.

It is both embarrassing and frustrating for the churches to face this quality of life issue when trying to attract new people or visitors to events. It leaves an impression of Plainfield that outsiders take away as they return to neighboring towns where such behavior is not tolerated.

So thanks to the police for letting these individuals know their activities will bear consequences. Alcoholism may be a disease that demands compassion, but the fact is there are laws on the books against public drinking, public urination and littering. It is these laws that the police can and must address if the city's quality of life is to improve.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Plainfield Births May Dwindle

As a child growing up in the radio era, I often heard the Jack Benny show, featuring Mary Livingstone of Plainfield, New Jersey. It was all a fiction, of course. Jack Benny’s wife and comedic partner Sadye Marks aka Mary Livingstone was born in Seattle and raised in Vancouver, B.C.

But there are many real famous Plainfield natives and several thousand people born in Plainfield, merely by dint of the change from home births to hospital births. Click here and scroll down for a list of famous Plainfielders.

The possible (or probable) closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center after 130 years made me think of the change it will make in future news and obits. One’s birthplace may bear no relation to one’s hometown, as I can attest. My daughter was born in Glen Ridge, even though we lived in Montclair at the time, and my son was born in New Brunswick while we lived in Piscataway.

The cachet of a Queen City birthplace may soon shift. In testimony Monday, speakers said of about 1,100 annual births at Muhlenberg, obstetrical services at JFK might be able to handle only about 400. The other 600-plus would have to take place at other hospitals.

The drop in Plainfield births may impact the city’s Vital Statistics division at some point as well. There could be a sharp drop-off of people seeking birth certificates if no more official births took place here.

Worse yet, expectant mothers may have fewer choices of obstetric care in the region.

From what I hear, fear of litigation has reduced the pool of obstetricians markedly in the metropolitan area. The simple and natural process of giving birth is now rife with issues of costs (ex: the drive-by delivery) and bizarre implications that may leave children born as American citizens without a mother who gets deported for not being documented.

Plaintalker has no suggestions or advice for this situation, but maybe readers can offer comments that will enlighten us.

--Bernice Paglia

Solaris CEO: No Money for Muhlenberg

About 150 people chanted, some holding candles, in a rally Monday (April 21, 2008) at Municipal Court to prevent the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center. But once inside at a City Council meeting, they heard a presentation that basically said 10 years of deficits have dug a hole from which the hospital can’t realistically climb out.

“I wish Muhlenberg had the funds to get through this crisis, but it doesn’t,” said John McGee, chief executive officer of Solaris Health Systems, which acquired Muhlenberg in 2007.

Negative forces include the burden of uncompensated care for illegal immigrants, low reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid programs and battles with insurance companies for payment, presenters said. Muhlenberg not only has an $18 million deficit, but was bolstered by $22 million in loans from Solaris partner JFK Medical Center.

The decision to close the hospital still rests with Heather Howard, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Senior Services. A hearing set for May 6 will allow residents of Plainfield and neighboring towns to give testimony on why the hospital should not close. Howard could not take part Monday, but Deputy Commissioner William Conroy was present to answer council questions.

The litany of why the hospital could not remain viable was compelling, but council members’ questions still probed the possibilities of a sale to an outside entity. However, a buyer would have to prove not only having the wherewithal for a sale, but also the ability to operate the hospital and deal with the financial obligations.

If it lost acute care functions, Muhlenberg would still retain numerous services, including a satellite emergency room, imaging and lab services, the school of nursing, its mobile intensive care ambulance, and non-clinical functions such as retention of medical records. A new transportation service would be added, McGee said.

“Our first priority is getting through the process,” he said.

The hospital’s closing costs have been tabbed at $70 million. Of about 1,000 jobs, only 300 might be saved.

City Council members raised numerous questions about the closing and pressed for some way to save the hospital.

“This community’s hurting,” Councilman Rashid Burney said. “This is our family. Muhlenberg is our crown jewel. We don’t want to see it go.”

But McGee’s responses all came back to the same bottom line. The hospital was not only losing money each year, it owed $22 million to JFK Medical Center for cash infusions to keep it afloat. The debt was causing bond insurers to threaten JFK. Since 1997, when state hospital grants went flat, 18 hospitals closed.

“There’s no money,” McGee said.

A task force formed by Assemblyman Jerry Green has been working with area hospitals and other entities to deal with effects of the closing. Jay Jiminez of St. Peter’s Health Care said a gap exists in services including obstetrical care, mental health and primary care. Five sub-committees are still studying ways to address the gap as well as transportation issues and loss of employment.

Although Green and McGee both professed respect for each other, Green still called for a probe of Solaris financial records and the role of the past city administration in addressing the hospital’s mounting problems since 1997.

After the presentation, residents spoke out against the closing.

“It’s a sad day today for the poor people,” Nancy Piwowar said, noting Muhlenberg began as a free hospital to serve medical needs.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, April 21, 2008

State Report Details Health Care Issues

As city residents prepare for the May 6 hearing, it might be good to take a look at a new report on the state of health care and hospitals in New Jersey.

Click here to see the New Jersey Commission on Rationalizing Health Care Resources, Final Report 2008 broken down into chapters that are easier to read or download than the entire document all at once.

The May 6 hearing will be from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Plainfield High School auditorium. Each person will be allowed three minutes to speak. Comments may also be sent to the New Jersey Department of Health and Human Services Office of Legal and Regulatory Affairs, Market & Warren Streets, P.O. Box 360, Trenton, NJ 08625-0360.

An appendix to the report, "Issues to Address in Closing a Hospital" is very comprehensive and might suggest some very specific questions for Solaris CEO John McGee, who is scheduled to appear at tonight's City Council meeting. Click here for that part of the report. The council meeting is at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, but attendees are encouraged to get there early.

One good point in the report is that the mish-mosh of charges for various procedures confounds the idea of the patient as consumer. It likens the hapless patient trying to make intelligent choices to a "blindfolded shopper" in a department store. There are lots of other thought-provoking findings about New Jersey's health care system.The relationships of doctors to hospitals and the practice of "hydraulic" cost-shifting are two factors worth exploring.

The report notes there are 96 community health centers statewide that were intended to provide the care that unfortunately many people seek in emergency rooms instead. But health centers may not be able to provide specialized care. And of course the problem of low Medicaid reimbursement remains to be resolved.

Some answers about the fate of Muhlenberg may emerge tonight, but the State Health Planning Board is only taking comments May 6, not questions.

The new proposal to buy the hospital may raise hope, but also raises some questions. Buying a hospital and running one in the current health care climate are two different things. Looking at the checklist for closing a hospital gives an idea of the many considerations in opening a new one.

As for rallies, my personal enthusiasm for them faded away several years ago after spending too many hours standing around Park-Madison waiting for Rev. Al to arrive in his purple jumpsuit. Thanks to all who have the energy to rally for the Muhlenberg cause.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Changes Continue Downtown

A new restaurant, The City, has opened in the block-long building on East Front Street between Roosevelt and Westervelt avenues. The menu is an eclectic mix that matches the city's ever-broadening diversity of cultures.

Next door is a Papa John's pizzeria that opened recently. A bustle of construction at the east end of the building heralds more tenants for this site, which stands out for its distinctive new facade and unified signage.
Owner Steven Chung has also received preliminary site plan approval to erect a five-story building on a portion of the large parking lot at the rear. It will have stores at ground level and 80 age-restricted apartments on the top four stories. Chung was too busy to talk last week when reached by phone, but Plaintalker will try again to get an interview.
Meanwhile, Paramount Property Management, the company that acquired the Pittis Estate's 45 storefronts last year, has renovated many of them, but not all are leased. The company has changed its name to Paramount Assets. Some longtime business owners are still being forced to move as their old leases expire and Paramount triples the rent for renewal. New Paramount tenants include a carpet store on Park Avenue and a store selling electronics and music equipment on East Front Street.
The board of the Special Improvement District recognized numerous businesses and individuals on April 10 at the HeardOne Complex for their contributions to success of the downtown and South Avenue business districts. Unfortunately, the SID team has not yet received funding due from the special assessment for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The administration and City Council have promised a more timely process for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Can Muhlenberg Recover?

Plaintalker has left reporting on the Muhlenberg maelstrom to the dailies and the Needler in the Haystack. It remains to be seen whether the hospital is circling the drain or whether the roiling waters will be stilled somehow.

Solaris CEO John McGee will speak at the City Council meeting Monday and on May 6, the State Health Planning Board will hold a hearing in the Plainfield High School auditorium. Maybe some questions will get answered Monday. The May 6 session is for comments only.

I was in the hospital recently and overheard a staff member telling a patient that if the Department of Health and Senior Services decides not to close Muhlenberg, the hospital will declare bankruptcy and close anyway. It sort of confirmed my sense that rallies were not going to save the day. The health care system itself is the problem here, and until there is better policy at federal and state levels, investors will continue to make money off a skewed approach to patient care.

Politicians have used the Muhlenberg issue to cast blame, and in the weeks before the June primary, there will undoubtedly be more of the same. Hospital officials have also set a date in June to begin downsizing. The shouting may well be over by the end of June. Meanwhile, it might be prudent to know where all the local docs-in-a-box are, and maybe even a few curanderos.

--Bernice Paglia

Cell Towers Alter Rooflines

As pay phones disappear from city streets, cell phone towers are topping buildings. Here's one array on an apartment building near City Hall.

This one may be very useful as we all rely more on cell phones, but it looks way out of place on top of the Masonic Building, clashing with the distinctive sculpted shell trim.

The detritus of past technologies, including old television antennas, can still be seen all over the city even as buildings become more and more festooned with small satellite dishes and garlands of cable wire. Nobody seems to clear out the old stuff before adding the new contraptions.

Even air conditioners become redundant when through-the-wall ones fail and people stick new ones in the windows. When will the accumulation of tech-dreck end?

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, April 18, 2008

Public Drinking Mars City Life

Outside my polling place Tuesday evening, one of the poll workers was moving her car just as one of Block 832’s all-day drinkers staggered up the street. As the poll worker was getting out of the car to return to her duties, the man grabbed a nearby street sign and then slid to the ground.

I watched in embarrassment and anger to make sure she got back inside without being accosted. The man got up with the help of an equally inebriated female, took about 20 steps and fell down again. Other people helped him up and I walked home with my head spinning over what can be done about this problem of public drinking.

Every day I see this man and up to four others sitting behind Connolly’s fenced-in trash container on East Seventh Street. Starting in the morning, they toss back tall cans of beer, hurling the empties into the bin that holds mattresses and other castoffs from renters in the many apartment buildings nearby. They are trespassing, but they don’t budge even when a worker sweeps up all around them. Their encampment has been cleaned up several times, but there are always more chairs to fish out of the bin and more cinder blocks, buckets and boxes to use for seats.

They think they are out of sight, but anyone looking out the east windows of our building can see them. Looking out the west windows, we can see other drinkers, as few as one or as many as eight, sitting on a curb in Lot 7 or huddled by the Dumpsters behind Scott Drugs. Sometimes police break up the group or they may just move on by themselves.

I ask myself why these sights are so annoying. After all, I could pull the curtains closed or just not look at the drinkers, who also use these venues to relieve themselves in public. As Assemblyman Jerry Green has pointed out, calling police to deal with a passed-out drunk on the steps of a building or one sprawled on the parking lot may only result in an ambulance ride to Muhlenberg, taxing both the Rescue Squad and the hospital.

Over the years I have heard arguments that nothing can be done for these individuals unless they want to change their behavior. We are also told that the best that can be done is to disperse them, knowing they will most likely come back within days or weeks.

It boils down to a quality of life issue. Why should schoolchildren, seniors or anybody have to pass by unruly drunks in a city parking lot or on the street across from City Hall? As we see in the police blotter in the newspapers, other municipalities enforce laws against public urination and open-air drinking. When will Plainfield be able to do the same?

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Punctuation for the Ages

Among the more curious blogs I have come across is one dedicated to the exposition of unnecessary quote marks. On a recent foray downtown for images, I took a close look at the sturdy metal cover of a fiber optic installation and realized the Queen City has a prime candidate for that blog.
Unlike the scrawled signs in store windows and flimsy menus overburdened with quote marks, this one will be with us for many decades. I thought of submitting it to the nitpicky punctuation blog, but couldn't quite comprehend the legal disclaimer for submissions. Dear readers, feel free to do a screen grab and submit it if you wish. Click here to see The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.
--Bernice Paglia

Senior Center, Condos Rising Higher

The second story of "The Monarch" is now under construction at 400 East Front Street. The ground floor will be the site of a new senior center and there will be three stories of market-rate condos above it.
Here's the west side of the building, which will have 63 condos and a roof garden accessible both to seniors and condo residents.

Here's the Front Street facade. The developer, Dornoch Holdings, gained city permission to use a vacant, city-owned lot across the street to house a sales trailer, but as of last week the trailer was not yet in place. The project is scheduled for completion in 2008.
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Incumbents Prevail in Board Race

I went to vote yesterday at about quarter to seven and I was only number nine at my polling place, a clue to the lack of interest in the school board race. The number matched the amount of residents who came out to the annual League of Women Voters candidates’ forum, which ended up featuring only two of the five candidates.

Having spared myself the agony of dialing up the City Clerk’s office for the results, I see that the online Courier News reports all three incumbents as winners. Three years ago, the slate faced eight other contenders for the three three-year seats. This year, there were just two others. Given the slew of problems in the 2007-08 school year, it is little wonder that people were not beating down the doors at 504 Madison to get petitions.

Interestingly, the 2005 top vote-getter, Agurs Linward “Lenny” Cathcart Jr., came in second this time. Cathcart won in 2005 with 1,320 votes, with Bridget Rivers receiving 935 and Vickey Sheppard getting 913. This time around, the Courier News reported 699 for Rivers, 656 for Cathcart and 626 for Sheppard.
Maybe it is a hint for Cathcart to polish up his board skills for the coming term, which promises to be as daunting as the past year. The board and new superintendent Dr. Steve Gallon III will be asked to do more with less, as state aid goes flat. The district is still in the process of dealing with state monitoring that found major deficiencies in four out of five performance areas. Gaps in the administration remain to be filled. Enrollment is declining as parents with the ability to seek other means of education step away from the public school system.

Voters were wise to return seasoned board members to the task of dealing with all these problems. Having had training on their roles, these three board members are more likely than newcomers to aid in the transition to a new chief school administrator. And of course, this time next year there will be another chance to run for the board. Yolanda Van Fleet, Jaclynne Callands and anyone else interested in serving on the school board can start this month to come out to meetings, learn the issues and gear up for 2009.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, April 14, 2008

Lights to the Peninsula!

As explained by city officials Monday, a resolution regarding a traffic peninsula at East Ninth and Park Avenue reflects funding for decorative lighting, plumbing for a fountain, benches and shrubbery. This is what community activist and fellow blogger Maria Pellum has been advocating for over several months. Despite her probing, Maria was not able until now to see what was to be provided.

Maria has also undertaken other projects to enhance the community, with mixed results in terms of support. It is this uncertain feeling about lack of support that makes energetic community activists feel frustrated and sometimes leads to burn-out.

Why must some people always be picking up after others? Why do some view litter and trash as a city problem and not a personal negative choice of the litterer? The trash comes out of somebody's hand, every snack wrapper, beer bottle, soda can, paper plate and so on.

At tonight's City Council meeting, resident Jeanette Criscione said the one-year delay in the garage sale project would allow "another year to pretty up Plainfield."

Criscione pointed out several examples of uninviting sights and called for people to pick up garbage, groom their lawns and remove dead trees that give the city a negative appearance.

--Bernice Paglia

Citywide Garage Sale Put Off to 2009

A City Council discussion on waiving permits for a proposed June citywide garage sale concluded with an agreement that more time is needed to plan such an event.

Officials said more planning is needed for advertising the event, deciding on an optimal date and resolving what City Administrator Marc Dashield called "operational issues."

The garage sale issue arose when some officials decided the success of the annual Friends of Sleepy Hollow garage sale should be expanded to a citywide sale with permit fees waived. But FOSH organizers pointed out the fact that their fee covered not only the city permit cost, but also regional advertising that drew hundreds of bargain hunters to participating homes. The group sought not a fee waiver, but just more streamlined processing of the many permits needed.

For a successful citywide sale, the city would have to replicate the approach used by FOSH over the past 15 years.

Meanwhile, there is nothing to stop anyone inclined to hold a garage sale from doing so for a small permit fee. Click here for a very comprehensive tutorial on how to hold a successful garage sale.

Yours for stuff reduction,

--Bernice Paglia

"Olddoc" is New Blogger on the Block

It's never too late to become a blogger, as I found out when Dr. Harold Yood slipped me his Blogspot address Monday.

Certainly the longer one lives in Plainfield, the more informed one's perspective becomes on city issues. As a physician, Dr. Yood has a special vantage point on the Muhlenberg situation and related health care concerns. But personally, I would be interested in anything he has to say on any topic.

To view Doc's Potpourri, click here. And enjoy!

--Bernice Paglia

Mayor Seeks Council Consent for Peck

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs will seek City Council advice and consent next Monday to the appointment of Douglas Peck as director of Administration and Finance, Health and Social Services.

Peck, who will be relocating from Ohio, was introduced to the public Monday (April 14, 2008) 10 days after being named to the post in acting capacity. The acting designation carries a 90-day limit. If approved by the council next week, Peck will serve concurrently with the mayor’s term, which ends Dec. 31, 2009.

The department is one of three mandated by the city’s special charter. It has the largest number of divisions, including Comptroller, Division of Audit and Control, Division of Community Relations and Social Services, Health and Social Services, Municipal Court, Personnel Division , Purchasing Division, Tax Assessor, Tax Collector and Senior Center.
Peck is the fourth person to serve as director of the department since the mayor took office.
Former City Administrator Norton Bonaparte Jr. held the post from January to March 2006, when he left to become the first city manager of Topeka, Kan. Then City Administrator Carlton McGee informally added the department head duties to his job until he left in October 2006.

A. Raiford Daniels served from December 2006 to November 2007. After he left, City Administrator Marc Dashield assumed the extra duties.

On April 9, the City Council approved a stipend of $12,000 to cover the cost of Peck’s relocation from Ohio to New Jersey. Peck has some familiarity with Plainfield, as he had previously done two projects with the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority.
--Bernice Paglia

Another Fine Sight

My polling place is City Hall Annex and I look forward to having another look at this beautiful Flowering Quince outside the building. If you vote there also, or even if you are just passing by on Watchung Avenue, take a moment to view this lovely shrub.

Tidiness at Park & Seventh

Whoopee! At last this corner looks neat!

Thanks to all who called Moorehouse and took other action to get this parking lot at the city's crossroads cleaned up. It only took a year or so!

School Board Election Tomorrow

The annual school board election will take place Tuesday, April 15, 2008. Five candidates are competing for three three-year terms. The Plainfield League of Women Voters has compiled candidate information and answers to three questions on the league web site. Click here and scroll down to read what the candidates have to say.

Polls open at 2 p.m. and close at 9 p.m. Your polling place is indicated on the sample ballot you should have received in the mail if you are a registered voter.

Mondays-Only Council Meetings Resume

Tonight the first City Council meeting under the revised Mondays-only schedule will take place at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

The traditional schedule was reinstituted over the objections of some council members who preferred the late Council President Ray Blanco's 2006 innovation of meetings on Monday and Wednesday of the same week, with a week or more off until the next paired sessions. Residents had objected that they would be forced to choose between Wednesday Bible study, a staple of most city churches, and the regular council meetings. Attendance dropped off after the change, and City Clerk Laddie Wyatt also said it was a strain on her office to get out all the paperwork for two meetings in one week.

Because council meetings are not yet televised, physical attendance is the only way for citizens to see for themselves what their elected members of the governing body are up to. Councilman Rashid Burney has been posting the agendas on his web site, so residents can at least preview them.

Tonight's agenda includes a discussion of a possible citywide garage sale sometime in June. The Friends of Sleepy Hollow neighborhood group is holding its 15th annual garage sale on May 18, and its success was the trigger for a previous council discussion of waiving fees for both the FOSH permits and anyone else who wanted to hold a sale the same day. But all FOSH had requested was a more expeditious way for the city to handle the 80 or so permits its sale engenders.

Other concerns raised about a citywide sale were how it would be publicized. For $25, FOSH facilitates city permits, takes out advertising and provides maps and balloons to mark participating homes. Cleanup after the sale was another issue, if it was broadened to the whole city.

Also on tonight's agenda is an ordinance that would require background checks for employees or volunteers who deal with children. Officials posed it as a liability issue when it was up for first reading at the April 9 meeting. It will be up for second reading and final passage at the April 21 regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. The ordinance would in effect do away with a city director's discretion in hiring parolees at playgrounds, for example. Residents may speak tonight and next Monday on the proposed ordinance.

There are 25 council meetings scheduled for the remainder of 2008. It would be good if residents can find time for at least one, to observe how things go. The council does take notice of new faces and especially of groups that come out to council meetings.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, April 12, 2008

FOSH Sale Does Not Need City Help

A highly popular garage sale event marking its 15th year was almost the recipient of some love gone wrong when officials proposed waiving fees.

The garage sale is a premier event of Friends of Sleepy Hollow, a neighborhood group in the city’s southeast section. The group charges participants a $25 fee that not only includes a city permit but also extensive advertising to draw residents of the metropolitan area to the Queen City for treasure hunting. The group provides maps and balloons marking participating households.

Part of the sale’s mystique is that it showcases Plainfield as a city renowned for its Victorian housing stock. Buyers get to see the non-gritty side of the city as they browse antiques, collectibles and other items that residents want to pass along.

This year, officials took it upon themselves to propose a citywide waiver of the permit fee in a somewhat misguided effort to hang on FOSH coattails to attract bargain hunters.

FOSH organizers pointed out that unless the city was going to replicate the advertising and promotion efforts of the neighborhood group, giving everyone a free permit on May 18 was only courting disaster.

Luckily for FOSH, the matter did not come up at the April 7 council meeting for a vote and hopefully is moot at this point.

Councilman Cory Storch pointed out that all FOSH wanted from the city was an expeditious handling of the 80 or so permit requests to the City Clerk’s office. A blanket approval for the permits would avoid delay and stress on staff to process each permit individually.

The sale is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 18, rain or shine, and potential sellers must register and pay by April 18. Contact phone numbers are Kathleen at (908) 668-1595 or Susan at (908) 561-5619.

This event has always been very well-organized and has resulted in positive publicity for Plainfield. To broaden it citywide with no fees may be well-intentioned, but it overlooks the organizational aspects that make the sale viable and productive.

--Bernice Paglia

Getting Paid in the PPD

The question of compensation came up in Alexi Friedman’s article on transitions in the Police Division last week.

Public Affairs and Safety Director Martin Hellwig was quoted as expecting a raise as he also becomes the first civilian police director. Chief Edward Santiago’s layoff was to take effect Friday and as he reverted to the title of captain, Santiago was expected to earn more than he did as chief.

Over the years, as unions gained settlements, a group of non-union top administrators and officials received comparable raises in a separate ordinance. The list included police and fire chiefs, the city clerk, the chief financial officer, city engineer, corporation counsel, city administrator, deputy city administrator, the three department heads, health officer, municipal court judge, personnel director and superintendent of public works. As far as Plaintalker can tell, the last time there was a salary ordinance for that comprehensive list was in 2004.

In March 2006, only City Clerk Laddie Wyatt and Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya received salary increases by ordinance, retroactive to 2003. Their maximum pay increased from $91,785 in 2003 to $101,498 in 2006. Sepelya retired in 2007 and Wyatt is eligible for retirement.

Two new positions were created by ordinance in February 2006, secretary and confidential aide to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. The ordinance listed maximum salaries by 2008 of $59,991 for the secretary and $65,803 for the confidential aide.

A listing of salaries for 2006 shows Santiago making $102,437, while captains were receiving $111,981. According to the 2004 ordinance, “salary bands” for both the police and fire chiefs were to range from $75,677 to $110,528 in 2005.

The salary range for director of Public Affairs & Safety, unchanged by ordinance since 2005, is $81,024 to $117,258. All three directors used to get the same pay, but a quirk in the rules requires the Public Affairs & Safety director to make a certain percentage higher than the police chief who reports to him. But Hellwig’s salary in 2006 was only $90,000 and has not been changed by ordinance. No salary range has been passed by ordinance for the civilian police director. Normally, a person holding two top administrative posts gets the higher salary, not both.

In any case, Hellwig appears to be due for a raise. As for the other two department heads, the director of Public Works and Urban Development is listed as earning $98,000. The 2005 range for both that post and director of Administration & Finance was $74,261 to $102,460. No salary was ever announced for A. Raiford Daniels, the former finance director, or Douglas Peck, hired as acting finance director April 4.

The reason for this jumble of circumstances is not known. There have been past incidences of administrations holding off on non-union salary increases, notably one that put the fire chief’s compensation on a par with the police chief several years ago. Both the fire chief who was retiring at the time and the new chief benefited by that action.

As Bob Ingle reported in his book, “The Soprano State: New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption,” the compensation of an elected or appointed official becomes very important as the official nears retirement, because pensions are based on final years of pay. If in fact this administration held off on a salary update for Santiago, reverting to captain at a higher salary could be serendipitous for him, at least in terms of compensation.

Besides the list of non-union employees above, recently the titles of public information officer, executive director of Economic Development and executive assistant have been added to the roster.

Plaintalker has based this article on documents. If anyone has better information, please use the comment function for corrections or explanations. And of course, your general comments are welcome.
--Bernice Paglia

Friday, April 11, 2008

Representin' Da Field for May Day

Block 832 in Plainfield has gained national recognition with this piece on the tradition of May baskets.
Grit, a magazine dedicated to "Celebrating the rural community since 1882," spotted Plaintalker's May Basket image online and asked for permission to use it. Flattered beyond words, we said yes!'
I made the May Basket and took the picture, with my neighbor holding it up. We split the proceeds for the fee and were both just tickled that a picture from the vicinity of Park & Seventh became an icon for a rural tradition. Click here for more information.
Plan ahead to make a basket out of a paper doily or whatever and fill it with early spring flowers to hang on a neighbor's doorknob to greet the new season!
--Bernice Paglia

Van Blake Named to Hall of Fame

School board members lead a standing ovation for Plainfield tennis guru Donald Van Blake, who will be inducted into the United States Tennis Association's Hall of Fame on April 18.

Van Blake, who served for over 22 years as the boys' tennis coach at Plainfield High School and founded the Plainfield Tennis Council, became emotional as he described his commitment to tennis in Plainfield.
The board's April 8 resolution honoring Van Blake cited his motto, "Tennis, Tennis, Tennis, Tennis Everyone" while acknowledging his latest honor.
Board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq recalled Van Blake's influence when he started playing tennis 30 years ago and also Van Blake's attention to his late son.
"He worked with my son and my son loved him," Abdul-Haqq said.
After the meeting, several adults and students came up to Van Blake to give hugs and kisses and congratulations.
Van Blake called the honor the best way to end turning the age of 86.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Signs of Spring

As I walked along Park Avenue to and from a visit to a doctor at Muhlenberg, I found many interesting trees in bloom. Above is a maple tree.

I'm not sure what this one was, but it was very lovely.

This one had almost an abstract look.

Here's a magnolia just off Park on Crescent, ready to bloom.

A cherry tree on West Eighth was just beautiful. In days or weeks, all these blossoms will be gone, so enjoy them while they last!
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Mysterious Hedge Reduction

Something has been nibbling or somebody has been trimming the infamous Moorehouse hedgerow at Park & Seventh! One section is now neatly aligned with the edge of the lot.

But on the outside, the shrubs are still scraggly and unkempt. A reader once promised to do a little guerilla clipping, so maybe that was the start of the cleanup. Moorehouse of Somerville promised to trim the hedges at the end the growing season last fall, but that never happened. So go for it, midnight neatniks!
--Bernice Paglia

Textbook Use in Question

Even as she presented a comprehensive overview on the status of textbooks in the district, Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey downplayed their importance in today’s learning process.

“Books are really outdated,” Bailey said, noting that many districts equip students with laptops by the time they reach middle school.

The textbook issue heated up recently amid complaints that students can be seen leaving school with no books to help with homework. Both board members and parents questioned how the district supplies and uses textbooks, sparking Bailey’s explanation, which will be posted on the district web site.

Textbooks are reviewed and recommended by the Content Curriculum Committee. Content supervisors then review and recommend book lists to the school board for adoption. Principals in each school are responsible for ordering the books and keeping track of them.

On Tuesday, board member Lisa Logan Leach broadened the concern from taking books home to questioning their use in the schools. Logan Leach said she observed students passing from class to class without any books, notebooks, pencils or other materials. She said books are kept in classrooms and students must use them by “time-sharing.”

Board member Wilma Campbell said textbooks should not be disregarded even if laptops are used, because they are “reference points.” Campbell asked why Bailey would downplay the use of textbooks when the board was at the point of approving new ones.

Bailey defended her viewpoint and said incoming Superintendent Steve Gallon III would be addressing Campbell’s questions.

Students use science kits, CDs, computers and worksheets as well as textbooks in the district. Each year, district students benefit by donations of notebooks, pencils and many other school supplies. But Logan Leach said she saw students with no such materials last week and felt classroom teachers should be able to furnish paper and pencils to children who lacked them.

Bailey’s presentation included lists of all textbooks used in the district. Board members also questioned how lost or ruined textbooks are replaced and whether parents are held responsible for replacement costs. At the April 1 meeting, Curriculum & Instruction Director Beth Ebler said she found 200 ruined books recently at a school. Teachers are responsible for making annual inventories of textbooks.

--Bernice Paglia

Barksdale Ends BOE Presidency

Patricia Barksdale marked her last meeting as school board president Tuesday by recounting the year's many challenges and thanking everyone who helped her get through them.

Barksdale presided during a turbulent term that saw numerous changes in the top administration, issuance of a harsh state monitoring report, budget woes and attacks on the Abbott designation that brought special funding to the district.

In June, Superintendent Paula Howard quit and Peter Carter was hired as interim superintendent. Carter had to begin to address the findings of the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, which found the district deficient in four of five performance areas. Then Carter and the team he assembled to lead the district all quit in December, a turn of events that was leaked to the press, putting Barksdale in the hot seat to deal with the media.

Garnell Bailey was named interim superintendent in December and meanwhile a search begun in August yielded finalist Steve Gallon III as the new superintendent. Gallon was hired in February and will take over July 1.

State legislation aimed at funding fairness resulted in the first increase in the local school tax levy since 1992 and the district faced state challenges to the 2006-07 budget for several months while three different people held the seat of business administrator/board secretary. Gary Ottman, formerly business administrator/board secretary for 13 years, came back to the district in January.

Barksdale also cited “investigations and infiltrations” during the 2007-08 school year, which included 49 board meetings.

Through it all, she wore her “We’re Serious about Learning” button and welcomed state and county officials who met with the board to address the monitoring report and other issues.

“It has been my absolute, absolute pleasure to serve as president of the Plainfield Board of Education and most important, to serve the interest of the children,” she said Tuesday.

After the April 15 election, the nine-member board will meet to reorganize and select a president to serve until the 2009 election. Incumbents Agurs Linward “Lenny” Cathcart Jr., Bridget Rivers and Vickey Sheppard are all seeking re-election to three-year terms. Challengers are Jaclynne Callands and Yolanda VanFleet. The polls are open from 2 to 9 p.m.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Mayor Names Peck Interim Director

Monday’s City Council agenda had an addendum in the form of a letter from Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs informing City Clerk Laddie Wyatt that the mayor was naming Douglas Peck as acting director of Administration and Finance until such time as the post can be filled permanently.

During the meeting, the council members agreed without discussion to move to the agenda a resolution allotting $12,000 in relocation funds to Douglas Peck. The resolution will be up for a vote Wednesday at the regular meeting, 8 p.m. Wednesday at Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

By way of explanation, City Administrator Marc Dashield said Peck currently lives in Ohio. He said “language will be added” to the resolution to specify the time by which the relocation must be done.

Dashield has been acting department head in addition to his other duties since the departure of A. Raiford Daniels late last year. The city has a 90-day limit on acting appointments. The mayor has the power under the Municipal Code to make such interim appointments without seeking council advice and consent.

No salary or other information was given Monday. If Peck receives advice and consent of the City Council, his term would end Dec. 31, 2009, when the mayor’s term ends.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, April 07, 2008

Late Mayor's Daughter Seeks Office

A day after the first anniversary of two-term Mayor Albert T. McWilliams’ death, his daughter Annie filed to run for City Council under the New Democrats banner her father first unfurled to challenge the Regular Democrats.

Annie McWilliams is challenging City Council President Harold Gibson in the June primary for the citywide at-large seat. Last month, Annie McWilliams gave a presentation on a public memorial sought by family and friends of her father, who died of renal cancer at the age of 53. The group had hoped for a council resolution in time for a commemorative church service April 6, but at the March 19 regular council meeting, Gibson exercised his power as president to remove the resolution from the agenda. (Plaintalker’s coverage engendered a letter from Gibson and comments from the mayor’s widow, Darlene, and others. See the March 28 blog post.)

Adrian Mapp, a former city councilman and Union County freeholder, also filed for a council seat, opposing incumbent Councilman Don Davis in the Third Ward. Mapp drew the wrath of both local and county Regular Democrats by retaining leadership of the New Democrats after winning on the party line. Resident Olive Lynch is also making her first political bid for the Third Ward seat under the slogan, “Democrat for Change.”

Councilman William Reid is unopposed in the primary. Reid is seeking a two-year unexpired term representing the First Ward.

Republican Deborah Dowe is unopposed for the citywide at-large seat and no GOP candidates filed for the other two seats.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Council Asked to Pay Relocation Money

One proposed City Council resolution for Monday’s agenda fixing session is sure to raise eyebrows among the small pool of people who try to keep tabs on council doings. It is a $12,000 stipend to reimburse “Acting Director” Douglas Peck for expenses in relocating to Plainfield. According to the resolution’s title, Peck is the new acting director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services.

Among the questions this proposed resolution raises:
Who is Douglas Peck?
From where is he relocating?
How did he find Plainfield or vice versa?
Why would the city pay a guy $12,000 to relocate for a 90-day acting appointment that does not seem to be backed up by any official announcement from the mayor?

Thank heavens for Google. In my youth, the only Google I knew was Barney Google (with the goo-goo-googly eyes). But today I can Google and find out that Douglas Peck is the principal of a Cleveland, Ohio company called DPMG Associates that numbers the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority among its clients. The firm takes credit for the “successful implementation” of the shift from side yard to curbside collection for 16,000 households and also for running a two-day retreat for PMUA board and management on “mission and vision development” as well as how “productivity innovations” could be used to improve operations.

An e-mail from Plaintalker seeking comment from Douglas Peck bounced back from the DPMG web site, so further information may have to wait until this week’s council meetings. The agenda session is 7:30 p.m. Monday (April7, 2008) in City Hall Library, 515 Watching Ave., and the regular meeting is Wednesday (April 9, 2008) in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The Department of Administration and Finance is one of three mandated by the city’s special charter. The other two are Public Works, and Public Affairs and Safety. When former Mayor Mark Fury took office, he rearranged divisions within departments and added Health and Social Services to Administration and Finance, and gave the post to Steve Holmes, whose background was in social services. Holmes was later shifted to other duties, but the department was never restored to its original mission.

Since the current administration took office, the Department of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services has seen several transitions. In January 2006, former City Administrator Norton Bonaparte was named to the post. He left in March 2006 to become the first city manager of Topeka, Kan., and the new administration’s City Administrator Carlton McGee added the department’s responsibilities informally until A. Raiford Daniels became department head in December 2007. No credentials were ever made public for Daniels and he left the job within a year. Since then, City Administrator Marc Dashield has also been acting head of the department, but the 90-day acting limit has elapsed.

The mayor has the power to make 90-day acting appointments, but then must seek advice and consent of the City Council for the appointees. In the case of department heads, if confirmed, they serve concurrently with the term of the mayor, in this case ending Dec. 31, 2009.

Why should we care about all this? These department heads have tremendous power over what happens in the city. They must be well-qualified and capable if the city is to move forward. They must understand Plainfield and know the citizens’ concerns, not just be guided by the wishes of a political in-crowd.

Pay close attention, as speakers urge on some Plainfielders’ favorite radio station, WBAI. The city cannot afford to give in to possible political agendas.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Visitors Run Afoul of Parking Rules

Members of a dozen churches as far away as Atlantic City spotted this empty parking lot across from Grace Episcopal Church Saturday and parked here while attending a "hip-hop mass."

Had they gone halfway up the lot, they would have seen this sign. Still, who expects to be ticketed on the weekend? But many were, including performers for the event.

Municipal Lot 7 once had many pricey meters installed at more than $300 apiece. Then one day, all but a few were removed and most of the 70 spaces were striped in yellow for permit parking.

In 10 years, only one person seems to have actually taken out a permit for $25 per month. Meanwhile, people attending Grace Episcopal Church or First Unitarian Society, including volunteers and out-of-town visitors to plays, special events, weddings or memorial services are liable to get tickets unless special arrangements are made with the Parking Bureau.

Seven metered spaces, one permit holder, more than 60 empty parking spots where unwitting visitors face getting slapped with parking tickets - is that any way to run a parking lot? Will people remember the cultural or church events that drew them to Plainfield or only the nasty shock of a ticket on the windshield? There is something very wrong here.
--Bernice Paglia

Friday, April 04, 2008

Dems Back All Incumbents

The Democratic City Committee endorsed all three incumbent City Council members Friday night for the June primary, despite a cloud over one candidate’s head.

Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green spoke at length about his decision to back Third Ward Councilman Don Davis, who was arrested about a year ago on drunken driving charges. Green, also an Assemblyman representing the 22nd District, chalked up the charges to “bad luck” and noted the year-long court process which has still not resolved all the issues related to the incident.

While Green endorsed Davis for a second term, he cautioned that Democratic candidates in the future had to be “doubly careful” not to cause trouble or embarrassment for the party.

The councilman’s parents are stalwarts of the committee and were in attendance Friday.

Davis was absolved last month of possibly the worst charge, refusing to take a Breathalyzer test, but still faces charges of illegal parking, driving while intoxicated and failure to provide proof of insurance. That trial is to take place May 14 in Scotch Plains Municipal Court.

Davis said Friday he had “given my all” to Plainfield and mentioned accomplishments such as helping to bring in a low budget increase, supporting an increase of police equipment and backing road improvements as reasons why he should be re-elected.

City Council President Harold Gibson sought re-election based on his implementation of a generic prayer for council meetings and other changes that he felt were significant.

“Change is what we are all about,” said Gibson, a candidate for the citywide council at-large seat.

Council appointee William Reid said he had learned a lot about being a councilman in the past four months and asked for support in seeking the unexpired term of Rayland Van Blake, who vacated the First Ward seat to become a Union County freeholder. Reid, a former Housing Authority official, said of the council experience, “It is hard, but it is invigorating and a lot of fun as well.”

The filing deadline for the June primary is 4 p.m. Monday. Republicans have not responded to questions on the results of their screening for council seats.

Only registered Democrats and Republicans can file to compete in the primary. Independents may file June 3, the date of the primary.

--Bernice Paglia

Cable Increases, Franchise Renewal Up for Questions

Comcast of Plainfield began charging 19 percent more for its basic rate Jan. 1, even though the “proposed” new rate has not yet been approved by the state’s Board of Public Utilities.

Don’t fret, it’s legal, and if the BPU fails to approve the increase, cable customers will get the money back with interest.

Furthermore, according to a legal notice today, subscribers and other members of the public can weigh in on the increase by writing to a judge in the Office of Administrative Law. The deadline to comment is May 4 and the address is:
Honorable Richard McGill
Administrative Law Judge
Office of Administrative Law
33 Washington St., 7th Fl
Newark, NJ 07102

Comcast of Plainfield, which serves North and South Plainfield in addition to the Queen City, applied for the annual rate increase Oct. 1, 2007 as permitted by law. A bill from last year shows a total of $14.17 for the cable rate plus various fees. The bottom line now is $16.88. The cable fees alone were $13.80, increased to $15.80 per month.

The notice reminded Plaintalker of another issue, the cable franchise renewal process. According to a BPU report, more than 12,000 households had cable in 2005. The three-year process to determine how well Comcast has served Plainfield should have begun in August of 2006, with a report due in August of this year. The franchise expires in August 2009.

The Plainfield Cable Television Board was supposed to hold monthly meetings during the ascertainment period, make annual reports, report regularly to the mayor and council and generally to be involved in any activities having to do with local cable television, including the city’s own Channel 74.

Plaintalker has harped on this subject since December 2005 but there is not much progress to report. Click here for a file of past stories.

As an advisory board, the group probably is exempt from the Sunshine Law, but no reports have come forth. The board was established by ordinance four years ago and some members were appointed in 2006. In January, Council President Harold Gibson and City Council members Rashid Burney and Linda Carter were named liaisons to the committee.

Meanwhile, Verizon won the right to have franchises throughout New Jersey and according to the BPU, Verizon’s franchise here extends to December 2013. The clinker is that FIOS lines have not yet been installed everywhere, but lately FIOS trucks have been seen around the city. It would be interesting to know how the potential new competition will affect Comcast’s franchise renewal chances. At one point, a Comcast official alluded to an automatic five-year renewal when the 10-year franchise expires. But changing times may prevent a slam-dunk renewal.

There are lots of questions here that deserve a little explanation and updating. According to the council’s own Rules of Order, the Cable Television Advisory Board liaisons are supposed to report to the full council every four months. For 2008, could that be just about now?

--Bernice Paglia