Thursday, July 31, 2008

Homeless Question Deserves Exploration

In the interest of furthering discussion on homelessness, Plaintalker is posting some links on the subject, including some “best practices” to deal with the issue.

An update on the church problem: The president of the Board of Trustees arrived early Thursday to clean up the mess. I happened to be weeding the garden in the roundabout at the time. The unsanitary debris was removed and discarded, but the shopping cart with what the church official deemed personal objects was left behind for the porch people.

And now for some links to explorations of the problem.

Click here for a Wikipedia article on homeless people throughout history and around the world.

Here is a list of New York City’s best initiatives and here is one story from San Francisco.

All comments and ideas are welcome.

--Bernice Paglia

Homeless Target Church

Flattened cardboard boxes and two pillows are somebody's bed right under a "No Trespassing" sign at a Park Avenue church. This alcove on one of the city's most historic churches has become a chronic target for squatters, despite efforts by members to encourage them to seek help. The church provides food at the end of each month, but has no means of giving shelter to the homeless in the neighborhood.

An interim minister is starting Friday and he will have to go no farther than the church grounds to witness one of the city's most intractable problems. Someone has hidden two shopping carts behind this holly bush and has strewn stinking food remnants and liquor bottles around. Squatters were recently kicked out of an unsecured office building nearby, but as we know from our experience on Block 832, they don't go far. Now church members will be left to clean up this mess.
The pastor of another nearby church believes a homeless alcoholic is living in the churchyard shrubbery. Across the street, someone put carpeting and a tarpaulin on top of a garage roof, apparently to sleep on. A woman was using the hose at a nearby lawyer's office to wash herself.
The Lot 7 al fresco drinkers were in full effect Wednesday, with six lined up on the curb when I came home from the public library. I'm told the drinking crew that used to meet behind Connolly's trash bin on Block 832 is back and when shooed, they just go across the street to a yard across from the YMCA.
If all this is happening around Park & Seventh, what else is going on in neighborhoods around the city? There are lots of resources to help these individuals, but resources come with rules. The dozen or so people with problems in this neighborhood do whatever they want, wherever they want. Public Works and property owners are left to clean up after them.
The Park Avenue church has as one of its principles to affirm and promote "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." If only these individuals could find that glimmer of human dignity within themselves, maybe they could accept a helping hand and move up from rock-bottom.
--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Green with Enmity No More

Drumroll please!

Plainfield's ever-expanding blog roll - Dan, Bernice, Maria, olddoc, Rashid, Cory, Renata, Greg, VWB, Augustine - has a new entrant, none other than our own Assemblyman Jerry Green!

Yes, the man to whom blogs and bloggers are anathema has now got his posting on with "Jerry Green's Page," billed as featuring "plain truths, real solutions" about his role in the Queen City and in Trenton.

The tone of the blog is refined and moderate. He welcomes comments and asks that you bring an open mind to his new little corner of the blogosphere. Maybe it's a case of "if you can't fight 'em, join 'em."

Considering that Green has to run for election next year along with his protege, the mayor, it's a clever way to showcase what he's done for the people. His chairmanship of the Democratic City Committee is also up just after the June 2009 primary.

The blog doesn't exactly have the voice we are most familiar with from Jerry. Right or wrong? But it's a voice, and there's plenty to talk about between now and next June.

There's no initiation ritual that I know of for bloggers. But just as military folks make an archway of swords for welcoming rituals, maybe all of us bloggers can make a virtual arch of pointy sticks or somesuch and cry "Huzzah!"

--Bernice Paglia

Taking A Break

There's not much news in the Queen City this time of year. The sound track of summer in my neighborhood is the pounding of jackhammers as repairs are being made to the water system. Walking around is a little tricky, what with temporary hoses snaking around the curbs and situations like the water hazard at Crescent and Seventh, pictured above. Lots of water is gurgling and spraying out of these hoses. There was rather a spectacular fountain shooting out over Gavett Place a few days ago.

The company doing the repairs, J. Fletcher Creamer, has a motto in what appears to be Portuguese on all its trucks. Organization and Progress - two ideals that are eluding me in these days of extreme heat and thunderstorms.

So for the time being I plan to listen to my Fleet Foxes CD and EP for about the hundredth time. My vacation in May reminded me that when you are retired, you have to assign yourself days off from all the unpaid work that retirees seem to get into, like blogging.

Readers who have been on vacation in the past week or so are invited to check out recent Plaintalker news posts on the finance director and a South Avenue apartment building proposal.

--Bernice Paglia

More Taxi Info

A reader asked for the taxi rate chart to be scanned in. Plaintalker has no scanner, but here's an image of the rate chart. Copies are available in the City Clerk's office. Every taxi must have the chart prominently displayed as well.
The entire taxi ordinance, including the section on fares, is online at Rashid Burney's web site. Click for the Municipal Code's section on licenses and go to page 130 for the taxi rates.
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, July 28, 2008

Taxis: Taking Folks for a Ride?

Every taxi cab has a rate card prominently displayed in a window, but who has the time to peruse it while jumping in?

Out of curiosity, Plaintalker obtained a copy of the rate card and some interesting facts emerged.

Five zones are drawn within the city, with separate rates for those under 55 and those over 55. The lowest rate, $3 for passengers under 55, applies to a broad area bordered by the Green Brook, Johnston Avenue, Woodland Avenue, Hillside Avenue, Randolph Road, Plainfield Avenue, Sherman Avenue and Grant Avenue, which turns into West End Avenue. Seniors over 55 pay $2.50, according to the chart. Presumably this is because the taxi companies are all based in the central business district within Zone A.

Then to the east and west, zones B, C and D spread out. Zone E is from the Dunellen border to Rock Avenue.

Surprise number one: The senior rate for zone E is misstated on the rate map as $2.75 when it should be $3.25.

Another surprise: Rates have not increased since 2000.

Maybe that’s why drivers seem to have a do-it-yourself approach to rates and round everything off to $4.

My ride from Park & Seventh to Washington Community School should have cost me $2.50 at the senior rate. No wonder the driver seemed so surprised when I added a generous tip to the $4 fee. The ride back, after 9 p.m., should have been $3 due to a $.50 surcharge for late-evening rides.

My son’s $4 ride each way to and from the Plainfield Health Center should have been $3.50.

Realistically, even though the rate chart is in effect, how many people are going to be able hold the driver to the letter of the law? It took this writer a while even to figure out the zones. The rate chart is in English only, which makes it even harder for people with other languages to decipher the zones.

Residents with cars seldom need to take taxis. The population that needs to take taxis often is the one that might benefit by learning the proper rates for different zones.

Meanwhile, it’s a wonder that the taxi companies have not sought a rate increase in eight years!

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Channeling Channel 74

After receiving the new schedule for Channel 74, I was able to catch the City Council meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Here is Police Director/Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig explaining a police reorganization plan to the council. The audio suffered greatly from a noisy air conditioner in City Hall library and so not much could be heard. This was the June 10 agenda-fixing session.

On Wednesday, I told someone the council meeting was scheduled for 8 p.m., but it turned out another show was on.

I had hoped to see the June 30 school board meeting again, but on Saturday the screen froze into this interesting mosaic for a while and I went on to other things.
These are more or less trial runs for school and council meetings. Since June 30, there was a July 8 school board work-and-study session and a July 15 business meeting that I don't think were recorded. The City Council met on July 14 and 21, again with no recording that I know of.
Last week I ran into Parris Z. Moore, the consultant who is producing shows for Channel 74. He mentioned the time it takes to edit shows, but I said I thought the governmental shows were "gavel-to-gavel" and didn't have to be edited. It turns out he was talking about the hours needed to edit the new shows (Hello Plainfield and Plainfield at Work, for example) and there was only one person doing the editing.
Meanwhile, interest is building on getting the promised educational channel up and running. But there are many, many questions about how that could be accomplished. The Cable Television Advisory Board, which oversees Channel 74, has been meeting on fourth Thursdays, but two board members who tried to attend last Thursday found there was no meeting.
According to a Board of Public Utilities schedule, a report on the ascertainment process is due next month. This report is part of the franchise renewal schedule. The ascertainment phase begins three years before renewal and so should have begun in August 2006. It is supposed to include getting feedback from cable subscribers on how well Comcast is providing service. The franchise is up in 2009, although Comcast officials say they have the right to an automatic renewal.
A new issue - Verizon's FIOS availability - may soon also be on the table.
Considering that about 70 percent of city households have cable subscriptions, the local origination channel(s) could be a valuable communications tool. What would it take to make it happen? Any comments?
--Bernice Paglia

A Fallen "Volunteer"

Top-heavy with seed heads, this big sunflower tipped over in last week's heavy rains. Its shallow root system could not counterbalance the weight of its flourishing leaves, flowers and developing seeds. This plant was one of those volunteers that just show up, often in wrong places.

The tall sunflower and a shorter one decided to flank my topiary basket and were actually overshadowing it. Now I'm inclined to move the smaller one and let the basket star on its own.
I saved two big seed heads for the goldfinches that have enlivened the yard with their bouncing flight habit and cheerful calls. About a dozen sunflowers have grown up along a back fence and are now going to seed, so the goldfinches will still have plenty to dine on. All those sunflowers are tied to the fence and are less likely to topple over than the freestanding ones by the walkways.
Seed heads can be removed and stuck on top of a fence or be made into wreaths for the birds, thus relieving the weight on each plant. The goldfinches are very clever about finding them and eating the seeds. They will hang on upside-down if necessary to get every last one.
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Capodagli Proposes New Project

A developer who was recently released from an agreement to build a 352-unit project at East Third and Richmond streets is now proposing a 33-unit building on South Avenue.

An application on file in the Planning Division names George Capodagli as the sole owner of Plainfield South LLC, the company that is seeking Zoning Board approvals for a four-story building at 1400-06 South Avenue. The proposal exceeds density and height allowances and is not a permitted use in the “neighborhood commercial” zone. The building would replace a one-family dwelling on one of two lots at the site, which is south of the Plainwood Square park across from the Drug Fair. South Avenue splits around the small park.

Plans call for a four-story building with a parking garage on the ground floor. Although 66 single parking spaces are required, the developer proposes 21 single-space parking stalls along with 21 “tandem” spaces in which one car would be parked behind another.

The proposed building site is half a mile from the Netherwood train station.

According to a legal notice by Weiner Lesniak, the applicant’s attorneys, the developer expects to be heard at the Aug. 6 Zoning Board meeting. The board meets at 7 p.m. in City Hall Library. Anyone who is interested can look at the plans and documents in the Planning office on the second floor of City Hall.

The East Third & Richmond proposal was the subject of a flurry of action in 2006, including an “emergency” Planning Board meeting on a Saturday in September to push through an “in need of redevelopment” study. A couple of weeks later, the board approved a redevelopment plan. Capodagli received conditional designation as the developer on Dec. 6, 2006.

Despite at least two extensions of the conditional designation, the developer and the Union County Improvement Authority, which is in charge of the city’s development activities, could not agree on terms of an agreement. The City Council agreed last month to let Capodagli withdraw.

Developers have eyed sections of South Avenue ever since Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs began promoting transit-oriented development in early 2006. A condo project on the site of Carfaro’s Auto Body failed to win Zoning Board approval. A proposed study of more than 90 properties around the train station was scaled back to 15 sites. A plan to redevelop two industrial buildings on South Avenue was floated, but no action ensued.

Recently, an ordinance to change the zoning of a site at Leland and South Avenue was withdrawn before council action. The proposed ordinance drew criticism for appearing to set the stage for a developer that has offered a conceptual plan for apartments and stores on the G.O. Keller site.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, July 24, 2008

New Finance Director Expects Overhaul

There’s a new budget sheriff in town.

Douglas Peck, the newly appointed director of Administration & Finance, Health and Social Services, wants the FY 2009 budget to be tied directly to “measurable outcomes.” To that end, he has launched a job analysis process to determine the “capacity and skill set” of each city employee. Managers will be held accountable to identify gaps between “what the city expects, what the citizens expect” and what is currently in place.

The process is expected to uncover “tools, resources and skills” not currently being utilized as well as gaps.

The unprecedented scrutiny jolted the bureaucratic status quo, Peck indicated.

“It was a wake-up call for everybody,” he said.

The examination of municipal employee functioning faces potential barriers including union rules as well as individuals’ sense of comfort or entitlement due to tradition, family ties or possible patronage, Peck admits.

“I’m up against a history and culture I had nothing to do with,” he said, stating the average employee tenure is 20 years.

Cynthia Smith, president of the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association, said evaluations have taken place, but any future action must take into account Civil Service rules on employee rights.

Noting his way had never been tried before and that he has only been with the city for 90 days, Peck nonetheless insists, “I’m steering us to be the best we can be.”

Plainfield city operations are carried out by divisions within three departments. The bulk of funding goes for salaries, with public safety – police and fire – taking the lion’s share. Each year, division and department heads must submit budget requests to the city administrator and mayor, who can then modify them to make an executive budget to present to the City Council. The Planning Board also submits a capital budget for items such as vehicles, building repairs and acquisition of equipment for long-term use.

While the city administrator and the mayor have power over the budget, as finance director, Peck said he sees himself as the top executive in charge of the process.

Once the City Council introduces the budget, it can then hold budget hearings and make its own recommendations before final passage. Peck said he plans to meet with the council’s three-member Finance Committee to discuss the new process.

“The idea is to count, and for managers to manage,” he said. “That which gets counted, gets done.”

Managers will be evaluated on their ability to evaluate employees, he said.

Peck said he sees as the biggest issue that decisions are being made about the budget “that are not informed decisions.” He notes there is no budget office to furnish analysis and forecasting, just an Audit & Control division to keep track of finances. Similarly, the New Jersey public employment system results in people getting a “position by examination.” He wants to tie the budget to levels of service, he said. Voters and elected officials can then prioritize spending, he said.

“I know how to do it, I know how to work it, but it’s not as easy as one would think,” Peck said.

His observations of public policy began at age 14 when he was a summer worker in the City of Cleveland’s planning department, he said. Peck went on to earn an undergraduate degree in urban planning and a graduate degree in public administration. During the 1980s, he served as assistant to the city manager of Cincinnati, Ohio, he said.

For 10 years starting in 1998, Peck also ran his own consulting company specializing in helping government entities to improve operations.

The City Council approved a $12,000 stipend for Peck in April just before Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs appointed him for 90 days. He has since received advice and consent for a term to run concurrently with the mayor’s term ending Dec. 31, 2009. Peck said the stipend was not a relocation package. His wife and three children remain in Cleveland while sale of their home and purchase of one here can be worked out.

Meanwhile, Peck is also aiming to increase the tax collection rate from its current 97 percent to 100 percent, he said. To that end, he hopes to bring in a coach on best collection practices to boost the rate. Historically, up to 10 percent of property taxes have remained unpaid and the city has held tax lien sales to recoup the revenues.

Peck also plans to review all city rates and fees for possible changes.

He also wants to get graduate students to perform research for the city and is looking into more shared services, including perhaps a shared chief financial officer. The city has not had a permanent CFO since Peter Sepelya retired in December.

Peck said the mayor is planning a series of interactive meetings across the city, starting in August, to talk about “what can be done, at what cost.”

“We want the public to hold us accountable,” he said. “Once we build confidence, we think we will be moving toward increased confidence to do even bigger and better things.”

--Bernice Paglia

Council Approves Settlements

Three city employees will share in a $500,000 settlement with the city over working conditions under Health Officer Jadwiga Warwas.

Earlene Belle, Carolina Martinez and Priscilla Pyke-Angoy alleged the stressful and hostile working conditions began in 2003.

The settlement was among several approved by the City Council Monday.

The family of Fausto Ramos will receive $99,000 in a wrongful death case. Ramos was struck by a police cruiser April 22, 2006 on West Front Street.

Other settlements approved Monday include $8,694 for claims arising from Detective Francis Wilson’s injuries from a fall into a pothole; $15,939 to Police Sgt. Kenneth Reid for injuries to his left leg while on duty; $20,000 to Freddie Cisson Jr.; $27,000 in workman’s compensation to Priscilla Pyke-Angoy; and a payment of $24,508.79 to the Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund in the matter of Paul Newborn vs. the City of Plainfield.

--Bernice Paglia

Pointing the Way

This roadside weed is named Compass Plant for its leaves that are turned sideways and seem to point directions like those signposts in cartoons. It can grow to seven feet high, according to my trusty "Beginner's Guide to Wild Flowers," by Ethel Hinckley Hausman.

This book was my constant companion on walks with the children when we lived alongside the Raritan River in New Brunswick and later in the Possumtown section of Piscataway. We also lived near the Great Swamp in Morris County for a time and found many special wild flowers on the byroads of what what then Passaic Township.

But even in the big city, there are lots of wildflower treasures to find in vacant lots, parks and ungroomed curbsides.

Here's close-up of a single flower on a Compass Plant at the edge of Municipal Parking Lot 7.

--Bernice Paglia

FOSH Fall Sale Challenged

Organizers of a very popular multi-household May garage sale want to duplicate the effort in October, but do not want it to clash with a proposed free citywide garage sale.

Councilman Cory Storch floated the idea at Monday’s City Council meeting, only to be met with a challenge from Councilman William Reid.

“Why not have the citywide sale on the same month? It seems like it will be a benefit for them.”

Storch explained that the Friends of Sleepy Hollow charges a fee for the sale that not only covers permits, but also extensive marketing.

“In other words, they want to benefit from their advertising and keep other people out,” Reid said. “It’s better to benefit the whole city.”

When Storch demurred, Reid said if the group is saying they want to have the sale by themselves, they are saying they don’t have any interest in the West End.

Sleepy Hollow is in the southeast corner of the city and contains some of the city’s most desired homes. The West End is in the northwest corner and contains public housing as well as some poverty-ridden neighborhoods. The East End-West End dichotomy has been raised in the past as a code for racial and socio-economic discrimination.

Storch attempted to keep the question to whether FOSH could hold an October sale, saying they would have to start planning “just about now.”

A survey of permits showed most people hold garage sales in August, Storch noted, adding FOSH did not want to hold its sales on the same date as a citywide sale.

“I’d have to think about it,” Reid said. “It’s not fair to cut everyone out.”

Councilwoman Linda Carter retraced the original situation that led to the apparent ongoing controversy over what FOSH should do. The group had merely asked in April for expedited processing of the 80 or so fees involved in their garage sale, she said.

Council President Harold Gibson had then suggested that all fees be waived and that the sale should be held citywide. It was explained at the time that the FOSH fee covered the permits as well as ads, maps, markers and more to attract and welcome local and out-of-town buyers. To make a free citywide garage sale as successful as the FOSH sale, the city would have to replicate the publicity effort.

Officials decided in April that operational issues needed more time for planning and put off the citywide garage sale until 2009.

On Monday, Carter said all seven council members should be in on the new discussion and only four were present. The council may take it up as a discussion item at the Aug. 11 agenda-fixing session. The next regular meeting is Aug. 18.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

City to Gain Parking Revenues

The City Council agreed Monday to permit use of 45 parking slots in Municipal Lot 7 to accommodate a Fifth Street property owner.

Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier explained that 110 East Fifth Street LLC needed room for 45 employees of an unnamed state agency that will be occupying the building at that location. The building is among a number acquired by Paramount Property Management under various subsidiary names.

Wenson Maier said the permit arrangement is for two years and the income will pay for resurfacing and re-striping of the municipal lot. There is currently only one permit holder, a resident who lives nearby. The lot has about 70 parking stalls, with about eight parking meters and the rest for permit use only.

The lot adjacent to the building at 110 East Fifth Street is much smaller and is in disrepair.

At $25 per month for 45 parking slots, the city should receive $13,500 annually, up from $300 for the lone permit holder.

The last major permit-holder was the Division of Youth & Family Services, which was formerly located in the building at 700 Park Avenue. The agency had to relocate due to conditions at the building, which has since changed hands.

Under the new proposal, employees of the unspecified new agency will have to walk two blocks north to the building at 110 East Fifth Street.

--Bernice Paglia

Garden Show-Offs

These Black-Eyed Susans are doing their best to resemble a fireworks display.

All the early summer flowers have bloomed and are spent, causing a lot of clean-up work. Seed collecting has started, although my pride at being able to produce free flowers from seeds and divisions is now being tested by the wish for a new look next year.

We have a lot of volunteer sunflowers, some of which have grown in odd spots. Next season I plan to be less lenient with plants that decide where they want to grow, even if they are too tall for the location. They will be summarily transplanted to a location of my choice or just be pulled up and discarded like the weeds they are.

A weed, as gardeners will tell you, is any plant that grows in the wrong place. Pigweed, mugwort, carpetweed and field garlic are always on the most wanted list of garden outlaws, but even Black-Eyed Susans and sunflowers may be shown the garden gate when they behave like weeds and just pop up anywhere.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Clean Sidewalks, Dad-Gum It!

The proposed purchase of an $11,000 power washer to clean downtown sidewalks revived the Great Bubblegum Controversy of 2005. No sooner had sparkly new white sidewalks been installed that summer than they became marred with globs of spit-out chewing gum.

Click here for Plaintalker’s report.

Rasheed Abdul-Haqq spoke again on the subject Monday, saying even if the gum can be removed by the pressure washer, stains will remain. He proposed using asphalt for sidewalks instead of concrete, citing such use in Middlesex.

Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier defended the proposed purchase, saying she saw a demonstration that proved the machine’s effectiveness. She called the use of asphalt “a very creative idea,” but pointed out that black asphalt retains heat and can cause discomfort.

Resident George Gore, a frequent traveler, said Singapore imposes a $500 fine for spitting out gum on a sidewalk and a second infraction brings a jail term. Gore called for better enforcement to deter those who would deposit gum on city sidewalks.

Click here for a view of one gum-removing machine. Singapore notwithstanding, gum on sidewalks is a problem in most major cities.

Chewing gum sales are reported to reach billions of dollars nowadays. For an early inquiry into chewing gum issues, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Council Puts Off Bond, Zone Ordinances

A controversial $1 million engineering bond ordinance was among three items deferred at Monday’s City Council meeting.

The no-bid contract would have gone to Remington & Vernick, the firm the administration chose last year to replace the former in-house engineer. Professional service contracts are exempt from bidding, but Councilman Cory Storch had questioned the size of the contract as well as the plan to use a bond ordinance to finance it. The firm would have been asked to re-examine city streets to determine priorities for repairs. A citywide road repair program was based on a 2004 study by another engineering company, but officials said the rankings needed to be reviewed and possibly revised.

Also deferred were resolutions to use $345,000 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds for the third phase of a sign and façade program and an ordinance amending the city’s land use ordinance to create a transit-oriented development zone at South and Leland avenues. Storch had questioned the zoning changes that included increased height and density at the location, which is near the Netherwood train station. The ordinance appeared to be pinpointing one location and setting the stage for a developer who so far has only sought conceptual approval for a plan for residential and commercial development at the site.

Only four of seven council members were present Monday. Council President Harold Gibson and Councilmen Elliott Simmons and Rashid Burney were all on vacation, and neither City Administrator Marc Dashield nor Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson were present for the meeting. Council members Cory Storch, Linda Carter, Don Davis and William Reid made up a quorum, but Storch voted “no” on a resolution seeking $100,000 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds for extra downtown maintenance, causing it to fail.

A “no” vote from Storch also sank a resolution approving a list of qualified vendors. The list was made up of vendors who responded to a request for qualifications that appeared only on the city’s web site for a brief time and in some categories yielded just one name. The request for qualifications was not published in any newspapers, but city officials said vendors knew to check the web site and the practice of using only the web site was common in other municipalities.

A resolution transferring a tax abatement from Netherwood Village Apartments LLC to the new owner, a Connolly Properties affiliate, was tabled.

The council is on summer hiatus and only holds one meeting per month instead of two. The next agenda-fixing session will be held Aug. 11 and the regular meeting will take place Aug. 18.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, July 21, 2008

Protesters Call for Council Appeal

A large number of protesters of the proposed Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center closing attended the City Council meeting Monday (July 21, 2008) . The group had hoped to see the council endorse an appeal to the closing, but no such resolution was on the agenda.

In public comment, speakers stated the issue as one of racism and predicted that suburban hospitals would not welcome Plainfielders, but would try to foist them off on other urban hospitals such as Trinitas in Elizabeth. Resident Deborah Dowe vowed to take the case all the way to the United Nations for relief of what she called the 'geographically undesirable" population seeking health care.

Dowe said a city activist was "near death" on Friday due to a heart attack and was admitted to a "stripped-down" cardiac ward at Muhlenberg.

"They are steering people based on race and zip code," Dowe alleged, claiming the response was inadequate.

Speaker Carrie Faraone likened the situation to the worst thing that happened to the city since the 1967 riots.

Other speakers, including Nancy Piwowar, said the group has many important documents to sway the case, and offered them to the council.

Speakers said the city was not being asked to join a lawsuit, but only to sign an appeal.

The council did not answer while in session, but after adjournment, Councilman Don Davis insisted the council was "100 percent" in support of the protesters.

But he said, "You really should help us help you."

--Bernice Paglia

New Cable Schedule is Out

The new Channel 74 schedule for the rest of July is up on the city's web site. Click here to view it.

The school board meeting will be aired on Mondays at 9 p.m., Tuesdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays at 11 p.m., Thursdays at 9 a.m., Fridays at 6 p.m., Saturdays at 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Although the listing says only "School Board," I'm told it's the June 30 meeting and reception for Dr. Steve Gallon III. Dr. Gallon made an inaugural speech at the reception.

Public Information Officer Jazz Johnson said the listings can only be changed on the first and 15th of each month.

There is also a listing for City Council on Mondays at 1 p.m, Tuesdays at 9 a.m., Wednesdays at 8 p.m., Thursdays at 9 p.m., Fridays at 3 p.m. and Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. To my knowledge just one meeting was televised, an agenda session on June 10. Conditions were not ideal in terms of lighting and placement of speakers. It will be interesting to see how it comes across on the screen.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Commune Founder Passes

The passing of Twin Oaks commune Kat Kinkade cannot go unmentioned here in Plainfield, where for years a similar experiment took place.

There was an intentional community on West Eighth Street that this writer joined in the 1980s. My son and I were newcomers, but wanted to share a household with like-minded folks. We met people involved in music, poetry and other creative arts. We shared tasks and enjoyed each others' company greatly.

The thing I liked was that we could share so many household and garden tools without having to replicate the whole array for each of us. It was also interesting to learn about new food habits and spiritual interests of others.

I was not here for the beginning, but the group founded a food co-op and alternative school in addition to the communal house.

The present times lead us to the question of why we all need to be off in our own corners to meet our basic needs. It might not work for everybody, but shared living arrangements can cut costs while increasing community.

The movements of the 1970s live on in such efforts as The Farm and the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Check it out.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Channel 74 Airs BOE Tape

Surprise! The June 30 meeting and reception for new Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III showed up on local cable Channel 74 Saturday (july 19, 2008), just days after the school board questioned the city's rules for submissions.

The meeting and reception were recorded by former Community Relations Director Louis Rivera on his last day on the job. The meeting in the Plainfield High School Library was held to discuss Gallon's contract, which had to be modified slightly due to increased state scrutiny of superintendent contracts and new laws on such contracts. An outcry over the $700,000 buyout package of a retiring superintendent's contract led to review of all superintendent contracts. Click here to see Plaintalker's previous posts on the issue.

After the board approved the revised contract, there was a reception in the school cafeteria for Gallon that was also recorded. This writer had to leave for a meeting at City Hall before Gallon spoke, so the opportunity to see the speech today on Channel 74 was appreciated.

However, having checked both the Channel 74 schedule posted on the city web site and the district web site for announcements of the airing, Plaintalker found no advance notice. It was only the heat wave that caused this writer to be parked in front of the television and flipping channels by chance when the show was being aired.

If it is to be aired again, some advance notice would be good. Dr. Gallon gave a forceful speech that deserves a wider audience than those who attended June 30.

On Tuesday (July 15, 2008) board members expressed dissatisfaction with Channel 74 rules that meant a month might elapse before airing of a submitted tape. Because a franchise agreement with Comcast included provisions for both a municipal and an educational channel, the board may explore setting up its own channel.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for the June 30 program. As the camera pans those present at the beginning of the reception, I'm the camera-shy one hiding behind a notebook.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, July 18, 2008

Boys and Their Toys

The project at Park & Seventh has brought some unusual equipment to Municipal Lot 7, next to my building.

Apparently this scary apparatus is meant to chew up streets. The machine itself had some missing teeth and other signs of wear, but was obviously still effective.
However, it is not without its warnings, due to its massive powers.

The dangers abound.

The street-chewer-upper made only a cameo appearance last week, but we were still impressed. The project is still adding to the traffic snafus in the middle of Plainfield, but the results may well be worth the inconvenience.
--Bernice Paglia

Personnel Moves Hard to Decipher

Those who are trying to figure out who's here and who's gone from the school district have several challenges.

First of all, new hires, resignations and retirements are spelled out on board agendas with names, but resolutions on terminations do not include names. State monitoring last year uncovered some invalid titles in the administration of former Schools Superintendent Paula Howard and others were found not to be qualified for their titles, so those individuals are gone. Then there is the matter of the recent new titles and how they correlate to those that were abolished.

In a way, one could say what does it matter who's gone, the task now is to create a strong team by the time school opens in September to serve that other main ingredient, the students. But of course any major shift of employees causes not only curiosity but even anxiety among those left (as witness Gannett Blog, where a former reporter and editor tracks recent personnel changes and other shifts in the company).

As someone commented, there is a teachers' union looking out for the interest of teachers and may I add, there is also a union for administrators. The school board has placed its trust in Dr. Gallon, but also has remedies in case that trust is not upheld. There are plenty of checks and balances all around, so perhaps the focus should shift away from the tumult of the 2007-08 school year and toward the opportunities of the 2008-09 school year.

It is not unreasonable to ask for an organizational chart that reflects changes for the 2008-09 school year. People want to know the echelons of responsibility for practical reasons. They want a matrix. Let us hope that soon a new chart will be produced and disseminated, so all parties can see where they stand. It could serve as a major way to clear the air that is currently fogged with worries and questions.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Not Your Granny's Petunias

What I really wanted my topiary forsythia basket to hold this summer was a bouquet of those fancy, cascading petunias that have become so popular.

Alas, due to my self-imposed travel limitations, I never came across one. Imagine the thrill of finding just such a basket recently at the farm stand near City Hall! And such a pretty one! Each tiny blossom is a marvel of striated colors, in pink, orange and yellow.

When I was young (a long time ago) petunias were mostly purple. More recently, growers have created pinwheel varieties, a wide range of colors and the entrancing "wave" type that spills so gracefully out of containers.

I don't think I have the time or you have the patience to enjoy every single flower in pictures, but here's one close-up example.

Woo-hoo Mother Nature! Who knew there could be such a treasure in one basket!

--Bernice Paglia

A Rainbow of Taxis Hits Plainfield

Taxi rides to and from Washington Community School boosted my year-to-date travel costs, but the total is still below $50.
Plainfield has several taxi companies now and indeed may hitting the limit of one per 1,000 residents. I had hoped to do a freelance story on the taxi situation, but my ability to freelance has dwindled away. The expansion of the taxi industry in Plainfield and nearby towns is still a very interesting topic. Most of the new companies are Latino-owned and represent a large start-up investment. Besides the cost of vehicles themselves, there are fees for owning and driving taxis as well as insurance costs. Anyone who checks traffic can see the cabs in many colors, red for Liberty, white for Quick, blue for United, orange for Caribe and rather improbably, green for Yellow. Purple cabs from Dunellen and black ones from north Plainfield can also be seen around the city.
Certainly for those without cars, taxis are the way to go for medical appointments, employment, shopping and other necessary travel that may not be possible by bus or train. The taxi rides Tuesday were my first ever in Plainfield, except for one I took as part of a Courier News enterprise story on taxi fares many years ago.

On Tuesday night, the cabs arrived promptly both ways and the fare was $4 as established by city ordinance. I might have been able to wrangle a senior discount, but I haven't picked up the rate chart yet from City Hall.

The fees must be a welcome source of revenue for the city. After a strict taxi ordinance went into effect several years ago, the number of taxis dwindled. As I recall, there was a time when there were no taxi companies in Plainfield. The resurgence is impressive.
The new taxi drivers faced some of the dangers that the previous ones did, mainly being directed to out-of-the-way spots where they were beaten and robbed. The new owners formed a group and were able to get cameras installed after one driver was severely injured in an attack.
This is by no means a comprehensive report. A more journalistic effort will have to wait. But maybe now you know a little bit more about those busy taxis you see zipping around Plainfield.
--Bernice Paglia

A Clarification and Some Thoughts on Comments

Muhlenberg protesters who confronted the City Council after public comment closed on July 14 say they were under the impression that the meeting had adjourned and the council was still holding a discussion.

The end of the meeting was tumultuous and confusing. It did appear that the meeting was adjourned, but maybe the council was voting to close public comment. Those who to whom it is of concern can certainly listen to the tape. There was a motion to adjourn just after one protester said, "Job Male must be rolling in his grave."

As far as comments on blog posts, Plaintalker began allowing comments as an experiment. However, it seems that frequent posters on the Star-Ledger's Plainfield Forum have taken their issues to the blog. I am urging those who wish to comment to focus their statements on what is reported, not on their opinions of each other. And of course, the forum is still there for those who want to use it.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

School Cable: TV or Not TV?

In light of the new issue over local cable programming, Plaintalker is offering a review of past blog posts on the subject. Click here for a report on the new issue and several past articles on Comcast and local channel concerns.

--Bernice Paglia

Gallon: Plan Will Create "Dashboard"

More than 40 new administrative posts were filled Tuesday as part of new Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III’s vision for the district. Click here for Plaintalker's prior article (and 21 comments from readers) on the new assignments.

Gallon is also consolidating administrative staff at 1200 Myrtle Avenue, the former Jefferson School, vacating the historic building at 504 Madison Avenue. He has launched a shift to a K-8 grade configuration at two schools and reassigned principals. Last week he held a retreat with administrators to develop a strategic plan for the district.

But even though he has a four-year contract to lead the district, Gallon said Tuesday it’s not about him. Gallon said he is aiming to create a “dashboard” for the district “regardless of who is in this seat.”

At next month’s meeting, he said, he will provide a comprehensive update “with metrics.” Gallon’s watchwords for change are that it must be “tangible and measurable.”

About 60 people attended Gallon’s first business meeting Tuesday at Washington Community School. Only five people had questions, though some were extensive. Gallon answered all, although resident Laura Shoemaker was not satisfied. Among her questions, she asked when job descriptions would be released for the new titles and Gallon said that had been done in March. He also said a use would be found for the building at 504 Madison Avenue.Gallon assured Alma Cruz that a program for teen mothers and other students at risk would continue with qualified leadership. In answer to teacher Molly Banta’s question about vice principal vacancies for Social Studies and English content areas, Gallon said they will be filled.

In naming his five goals for the district, Gallon called “learning outcomes” the core mission. Meeting state measures for student performance has remained one of the district’s prime challenges. Gallon also listed Human Resources, business practices, a safe learning environment and community and family engagement as key areas for improvement.

His aim for students is to become “the best human beings they can possibly be,” he said.

“As we move forward, our product will be second to none,” Gallon said.

--Bernice Paglia

BOE May Seek School Channel

Frustrated by dealings with city communications staff, the school board may try to revive its own local cable channel.

In franchise negotiations with Comcast about 10 years ago, officials sought two local origination channels, one for the school district and one municipal channel. A studio was built at Maxson Middle School, but the school channel never came to fruition. The city’s Channel 74 saw spotty use and was recently overhauled with the help of consultant Parris Z. Moore. The city now publishes a monthly schedule on its web site.

On June 30, former Community Relations Director Louis Rivera taped a special school board meeting, which officials gave to the city’s communications staff for airing on Channel 74. But board member Patricia Barksdale said she was told it could not be aired because the July schedule was already in place.

Barksdale said she spoke with Public Information Officer Jazz Johnson and Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson regarding a shared services agreement the district has with the city, and she intends to discuss it also with City Administrator Marc Dashield as well.

“This can’t happen,” board member Christian Estevez said. “We can’t give a tape and wait a month. I don’t think we should be treated this way.”

Estevez said anyone is supposed to be able to submit tapes to the public access channel and have them aired. He said he will speak to Councilman Don Davis, the City Council liaison to the school board.

Barksdale suggested engaging students in television production and activating the district’s own channel in the future.

"We're entitled to a channel that we control," board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq said.

Channel 74 has been plagued with both technical and production issues for years. At present, programming consists of re-runs of community events and new “Hello Plainfield” and “Plainfield at Work” segments developed by Moore and city communications staff. The channel also airs “Democracy Now” and some other outside shows. Click here to see the July schedule.

--Bernice Paglia

35-Year Educator Retires

Matlyn Joyce Alston received a standing ovation and accolades Tuesday (July 15, 2008) as the school board accepted her retirement after 35 years of service.

Alston, a math coordinator at Evergreen School, said her work had "truly been a pleasure" and thanked everyone, saying, "It has been the best 35 years of my life."

Cedarbrook School Principal Frank Asante came to the microphone to laud Alston.

"She was my mentor 15 years ago," he said, and named several others who achieved administrative roles with Alston's help.

"She's a principal-maker," he said. "Thank you, Ms. Alston."

Ellen Wilson Murray, an elementary teacher at Cedarbrook, also retired with 10 years of service. Board of Education Vice President Martin Cox read the resolution accepting the retirements into the record.

Numerous other personnel matters were passed in a single vote. The board briefly went into closed session to discuss a resolution on terminations of unnamed individuals, then emerged to vote without disclosing further information. The names are on file with Board Secretary Gary Ottmann, according to the resolution.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Council Mulls Transit Village Zone Ordinance

Proposed zoning changes for a portion of South Avenue drew suspicion Monday that they were geared to a developer in the wings.

The TOD-N ordinance would affect the north side of the street only, between McDonald’s to the east and Central Street to the west. The zone is within a quarter mile of the Netherwood train station and reflects tenets of transit-oriented development by allowing increased density of 75 units per acre and building heights up to five stories. Rules call for mixed use, commercial at street level and residential above. The parking ratio would be one space for each unit and one bike rack space as well.

Although no applications are on file, there has been talk for weeks of an Ohio firm being interested in the G.O. Keller property at South and Leland avenues. Omnipointe has sought a conceptual hearing by the Planning Board of its plans. Click here to learn more about Omnipointe.

On Monday, the council was asked to decide whether studio apartments should be included. Council members had no objections, but preferred ownership of residential units to rentals. Planning Director William Nierstedt also brought up a new issue, a Supreme Court decision that came down just last week regarding open space. The new zoning would allow a developer to pay for open space somewhere else in the city in lieu of providing it on site, but the court had ruled against such arrangements, Nierstedt said.

Councilman William Reid, who was appointed in January to replace Councilman Cory Storch as liaison to the Planning Board, assured members that planners had thoroughly examined all aspects of the zoning change. He said the change would create the “first of the transit-oriented districts” and that perhaps people who work in New York would choose to live there.

Storch said the city should not just look at “narrow strips,” but should look also across the street and at North Avenue. He said having the zoning changed before a developer filed plans “strips us of our elbow room” to negotiate terms. Storch called for more community input, saying ”I don’t want to go ahead with this.”

In public comment, Netherwood Neighbors Association President Tony Rucker spoke against the proposed changes.

“When we lower the bar so low they could crawl over it,” he said, there would be no way to say “no” to a developer.

The council agreed to put the ordinance up for a vote on first reading July 21, but it was unclear whether there would be enough votes to pass it. Click here to view or download the ordinance.

--Bernice Paglia

Road Projects to be Launched

The administration is heeding citizen outcry on the condition of city roads, but a plan to borrow $1 million for road-related engineering costs left some council members fretting.

At Monday's agenda-fixing session, the council agreed to vote July 21 on contracts for two road repair projects. Jenicar Builders Contractors Co. of Kearny won bids on two phases of a multi-year road repair program, one for $747,591 and the other for $1,636,151.

But since the original assessment of road conditions occurred in 2004, the administration wants the council to approve a $1 million bond ordinance to pay for an update of road repair needs by the city engineering firm, Remington & Vernick. Councilman Cory Storch said he felt "very strongly" that the contract should have been put out for bids.

"It's not a competitive process," he said.

Councilman Don Davis asked for more details on the overall program, saying he wanted to see more of a plan than "just borrowing." He likened the bond issue to use of a credit card.

Residents have complained bitterly about potholes and crumbling roads all over the city. The five-year road program was launched in 2005, but fell behind its timetable after the current administration took over in 2006. The whole program is outlined in detail on Councilman Rashid Burney's web site (no longer available).

Instead of years, the program's schedule is now divided into "phases." At present, early phases will adhere to the streets deemed in very poor condition in the 2004 study, but the Remington & Vernick update will identify roads that have slipped to that status in the meantime.

Davis asked the administration to provide a breakdown soon of how much of the original bonding has been spent and how much is left.

--Bernice Paglia

UEZ Funds Sought for Cameras, More

A proposal to use Urban Enterprise Zone funding for downtown surveillance cameras provoked concerns that the city will have to pay for the program in future.

Urban Enterprise Zone funds come from sales tax generated by certified retailers in the zone. Retailers are permitted to charge only half the normal 7 percent state sales tax and the tax monies accumulate in an account that can later be tapped for projects in the zone.

The council will vote next Monday on whether to seek approval from the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority to use $1 million for the surveillance project, which is intended to reduce crime.

The 18 pole-mounted cameras will cost $355,790. Monitoring will require two staffers from the Police Division. The cameras may be located in either the basement of the former Tepper’s building or in police headquarters. A feasibility study is planned to determine operating costs.

Councilman Cory Storch balked and said he could not vote on the project without a “ballpark figure” on costs.

“That’s why you have the feasibility study,” City Administrator Marc Dashield said.

Dashield said, “All this does is give authorization to allocate the money,” and assured the council that all contracts for the project would be subject to their approval.

If the council agrees to seek the funding, it could take four months to get state approval, Dashield said.

Among other applications for UEZ funds, the city wants $24,000 for a “purchase assistance program” that would provide half the amount of costs for downtown merchants who want to install inside surveillance cameras. Applicants for funding would have to be certified retailers in the UEZ program.

Another application is for $1,000 to finance downtown maintenance and yet another is for $10,955.84 to buy a commercial quality hot water pressure washer that can remove gum from sidewalks. The last three benefit the Special Improvement District. Dashield said the city is not giving the SID any funds this year, but will work to achieve projects benefiting the district.

The SID had been receiving half its budget from a special assessment on property owners in the district and half from UEZ funds. But because the UEZ funds were coming through so late, the SID board decided to forego them for the year ending June 30. However, due to delays in assessments and other glitches, the SID had not even received that funding by very late in the budget year.

Another UEZ application is for $345,000 to continue a sign and facade program that helps merchants improve their storefronts. The total amount sought is $2.9 million

City staffer Jacques Howard reported that after the five requests outlined Monday, the city would have $3.5 million in its UEZ account. Asked how much it is replenished yearly from sales taxes, Howard said the amount is currently $300,000.

--Bernice Paglia

Muhlenberg Advocates Demand Council Help

A push to get the City Council to sign an appeal against the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center got a little too pushy when shouted comments caused the council to drop talks and adjourn.

“Show you care,” resident Dottie Gutenkauf yelled as the council attempted to confer with Corporation Council Dan Williamson on the legalities of signing an appeal seeking a stay of the closing.

“Go visit that baby in Trinitas that is dying,” resident Nancy Piwowar shouted, referring to the Elizabeth hospital that is now trying to handle births no longer accommodated at Muhlenberg.

“You won’t even let us have a meeting,” Councilman Rashid Burney said as the gavel came down and the yelling continued.

Earlier, the “Save Muhlenberg” advocates had jammed the rotunda of City Hall while waiting for the agenda session to start. Holding signs, the protesters filled up City Hall Library and sat through more than two hours of other council business before seven of them were able to speak.

The Rev. James Colvin noted the group had met every Monday night since March, held nine or 10 rallies, took part in four hearings and now wanted stronger council support.

“It is tijme to do it,” Colvin said. “We have put our heart and soul into it. We want you to put your heart and soul in it.”

Josef Gutenkauf asked the council to “sign on and support Bennet Zurofsky’s appeal,” referring to an attorney who represents People’s Organization for Progress in the “Save Muhlenberg” movement.

“Our efforts are being noticed all over the United States,” said resident Brenda Gilbert, chiding the elected officials by adding, ”In November we will remember. In June, stay tuned.”

“We need you to stand up for us,” Piwowar told the council.

Piwowar alleged that Trinitas is being overwhelmed by Plainfield maternity cases, with 27 babies born on July 23 (correction: July 3) alone.

The protesters and other speakers used up the 30 minutes allotted for comment just as former Freeholder and Councilman Adrian Mapp came up to speak. Councilman Cory Storch called for a 30-minute extension, but then the council got into a debate over whether it should be 30 minutes or only 15. Then Councilman Don Davis heatedly defended the council's involvement and that of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

Resident Gayle Jones stood waiting her turn as the council wrangled over extending public comment. When granted time to speak, she said, ”I think we all got to see fine leadership at its finest.”

“You’re not with us,” Jones said. “You’re not marching, you haven’t signed the petition. Who has to die for you to understand?

Dottie Gutenkauf closed the comment session with an impassioned demand for the council to sign the appeal and to put signing the appeal on the agenda.

“Make it happen and make it happen before it’s too late,” she said.

The council members then asked Williamson to explain whether the city could join the appeal.

“The short answer is yes,” Williamson said. But he cautioned, “Once you sign on, you sign on for the long haul, so there are some consequences.”

Councilman Elliott Simmons said he wanted city residents to make the decision on whether to join a legal appeal.

“Put it to them. It’s not our money, it’s their money,” he said.

Storch said, “We don’t know all the advantages and disadvantages of the appeal.”

Williamson said besides the legal issues, there were also political issues, but Storch said he just wanted to sort out the legal “upsides and downsides.” Williamson said the real question is how the city will deal with the consequences of the closing.

City Council President Harold Gibson said he did not want to subject the citizens to possible “massive amounts” of legal costs. As the council members voiced their views and concerns, the Gutenkaufs and Piwowar began yelling at them from the sidelines. Unable to continue, the council adjourned.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, July 14, 2008

Thrift in the Garden

This large geranium came from a cutting made last fall.

As times get tougher, learning how to propagate plants will become an important skill. It takes time for geranium cuttings to send out roots but the end result is worth the wait. Cuttings must be placed in barely moist vermiculite or sand. Check occasionally for roots. When they appear, pot the cuttings in potting soil and pinch back the newest leaves to promote new growth.

Cuttings can be wintered over using plastic cups or cut-off soda bottles with holes punched for drainage. All you need is a sunny window for light. Turn the plants for even growth. It may seem like a long time from November to late April or May, but once you put the plants outside, they will flourish with all the extra light and you will have a nice display for just the cost of some potting soil.

--Bernice Paglia

UEZ Money Tapped for Cameras

The most eye-catching item on Monday’s City Council agenda (to me, anyway) was the proposal to seek $1 million in Urban Enterprise Zone funds for closed circuit cameras in the most crime-ridden parts of the downtown district.

The equipment itself will only cost $356,000. Apparently the balance will go for fiber-optic cable installation and expansion of the city’s 911 center to accommodate the new system.

Downtown cameras have been discussed for a long time. Sticking points have included where they should be placed and who should monitor them. The city-owned space in the basement of Horizons at Plainfield (formerly Tepper’s), recently refurbished for $500,000, but with no purpose yet announced, was once considered as the surveillance center. Members of the Special Improvement District board researched what other municipalities do and, as I recall, came down in favor of camera monitoring outside the police station.

Now it seems the decision is to expand upon police emergency functions.

For those who don’t know much about the Urban Enterprise Zone program, here’s a link to get caught up.

I don’t know what the current fund balance is, but I do know the past major contributors of UEZ sales tax are long gone. The main one was Macy’s, which closed here due to a bankruptcy judge‘s decision about 15 years ago. Appliance-Arama is supposed to be among the city’s biggest retailers contributing sales tax to the fund nowadays and Walgreen’s may be another.

The point is, the fund is not what it used to be and so big draw-downs must be weighed against the diminishing returns from certified retailers within the zone.

There are several other proposed uses of UEZ funds on Monday’s agenda. To see the agenda, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Who's on Third?

Although former Councilman and Freeholder Adrian Mapp defeated incumbent Third Ward Councilman Don Davis in the June primary and will now run unopposed for the seat in November, Plaintalker is hearing that Democratic party enmity toward the independent-minded Mapp may lead to a write-in campaign in an attempt to recapture party control.

But one way to do that is to take a page from the playbook of the late former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, also a party nemesis for his independence. Denied the party line for a third term in 2005, McWilliams tried everything including a write-in campaign and actually received nearly 3,000 votes in the general election, though not enough to prevail.

The write-in campaign was bolstered by new election laws that allowed voters to submit absentee ballots without having to state a reason. Mail-in ballots are very popular in other states and indeed, some require them. According to Union County rules, all the absentee ballots are optically scanned in on Election Day. One must apply for the absentee ballots and write-ins must be correctly printed, no stickers allowed.

If write-ins take place at the polls, voters must spell their candidate's name exactly. The McWilliams team offered ads and fliers on how to do it right, although later some leeway was allowed on the results.

The decision here is whether to broadly educate the public on how to do write-ins or rather to mount a stealth campaign to assure enough voters to upset the results. In one school board election, Veronica DeNoia won a seat with just such a stealth campaign. As a reporter, I followed tips and intuition enough to be able to reach her for a comment, even though her name was not even in the phone book.

If the rumors about a Third Ward write-in campaign are true, I can probably tell you right now who the candidate is. But I won't. Y'all figure it out.

--Bernice Paglia

School Posts Up for Votes Tuesday

The Board of Education agenda for Tuesday, July 15 includes many personnel decisions. The meeting is 7 p.m. in Washington Community School and agendas are available at the Plainfield Public Library and will be available at the meeting.

At the top of the list are two new assistant superintendent positions. Garnell Bailey is named assistant superintendent for Administrative Services at a salary of $149,550. Bailey had been the Human Resources director and for the past six months also served as interim superintendent. Angela Kemp is named assistant superintendent for Educational Services at a salary of $142,750, with a start date to be determined.

A long list of new titles was approved by the board on May 5, but on June 17, some names were approved just for the month of July. Action taken July 15 will extend jobs through the 2008-09 school year ending June 30.

On the July 15 agenda, names and salaries are as follows: Ron Eddy, coordinator, Compensation Administration, $81,720; Nat McBean, coordinator, Accounting, $112,550; also named to the same title, Cynthia Lam, $75,030; Yolanda Henry, $79,490; Bruce Banner, $79,490.

Other titles:
Coordinator, Business Administration – Jinni Wu, $122,500; Coordinator, Community Engagement, Public Information & Marketing – Eric Jones, $85,940 (Jones was president of the Plainfield Education Association for the past school year).

Coordinator, Grants Administration was changed to Grants Administrator and Dawn Ciccone is named at a salary of $121,500.

Coordinator, Human Resources & Support Services – Carletta Jones, $71,330. Three personnel assistants are on the list for Tuesday, Analyn Acosta and Martha Guardado at $60,324 each and Lenee Clarke at $50,969.

Coordinator, Information Technology and Support Services – unfilled. Coordinator, Professional Development & Support Services – Leslie Borge, $107,360, start date to be determined; Coordinator, Purchasing – Corine Richardson, $99,500; Coordinator, School & Community Programs – Deborah Boyd, $85,680.

Coordinator, Special Projects & District Affairs – unfilled. Coordinator, Student Athletics & Activities & Support Services – unfilled. Coordinator, Student Health Related Services & Support – unfilled.

Coordinator, Student Truancy & Support Services – Yvonne Watts, $78,260; also Social Worker, Student Truancy & Support Services - Denise Mayo Moore, $77,530.
Director, Early Childhood Programs & Services – Evelyn Motley, $115,230; Director, Educational Services – Beth Ebler, $134,300.

Director, Guidance Student Intervention & Family Support Services – this may have been a typo on the May 5 new job list – the July 15 list has Director of Guidance - Lisa Clark, $113,230, start date to be determined and Director, Student Intervention & Family Support Services - Anna Belin-Pyles, $118,680. Also Social Worker, Student Intervention & Family Support Services - Danice Stone, $85,680; Coordinator, Student Intervention & Family Support Services - Denise Shipman and Stacey Green, both $85,680.

Director, Information Technology & Support Services – Norman Payne, $118,680.

Director, School Safety & District Security – unfilled.

Director, Special Education, Gifted, & Psychological Services – no name listed on July 15 agenda. Supervisor, Assessment, Data Collection, & School Improvement – Lalelei B. Kelly, $113,550, start date to be determined; Transportation Dispatcher – Lorraine Musto, $55,513.

The new roster calls for several vice principals for content areas. Those named so far are Vice Principal, Science - Rosa Salinas, $99,020 and Vice Principal, Math – Sancha Gray, $94,250. Others are VP, Early Childhood Programs & Services – unfilled; VP, Arts, Talent & Life Skills Education – Angela Bento, $96,450; VP, Bilingual Education and ESOL – Wilson Martinez, $103,090; VP Special Education, Gifted & Psychological Services – Antoinette Adams, $116,050. VP, Student Athletics Activities and Support Services – Daniel Cone, $98,600.

A new title on the July 15 list is Coordinator, Community Involvement & Support Services – Rose Davis, $85,940. Also, Supervisor, District Facilities & Grounds – Lawrence Martin, $121,000; Licensing & Credential Specialist, Kim Artis, $65,000.

The May 5 list was alphabetical by title. The one-month job assignments approved June 17 were in no particular order and the year-long assignments on the July 15 list are alphabetical by the person’s first name, so if I made any mistakes in correlating the information and anyone wants to retrace the three agendas and offer corrections, feel free.

On June 17, principals were hired but not assigned to schools. The July 15 list is as follows: Wilson Aponte, Evergreen; Frank Asante, Cedarbrook; Yvonne Breauxsaus, Washington; Delores BrownJohnson, Clinton; Caryn Cooper, Barlow; Janet Grooms, Emerson; Anthony Jenkins, Maxson; Gwynetta Joe, Hubbard; Shirley Johnson-Tucker, Alpha Academy; Christopher Lommerin, Cook; Christy M. Oliver, Jefferson; Gloria Williams, Woodland; Doris Williams, Special Projects/District Affairs; Phillip M. Williamson, Stillman.

A number of 2007-08 staffers received notices of non-renewal. A blanket resolution on terminations is up for a vote Tuesday, but does not indicate names, saying only that they are on file with the board secretary.

--Bernice Paglia

State Officials to Comment at BOE

Late Friday afternoon I went to get a copy of the agenda for Tuesday's Board of Education meeting, mainly to see what was listed under Human Resources. But besides the usual opening remarks from the superintendent and board president, the notice of "Remarks from State Education Officials" definitely caught my eye.

I will be writing about the many personnel changes in a separate post, but surely we all want to know what the unnamed state officials will have to say. The meeting is 7 p.m. July 15 in the Washington Community School Cafetorium.

Agendas may be picked up at the Plainfield Public Library Saturday between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Elmwood Gardens Renewal Proposed

The problems at the Elmwood Gardens public housing complex have been so pervasive that a past mayor declared the project should be demolished. Now the Housing Authority of Plainfield is suggesting the same.

Citing ongoing issues of crime and vandalism at the site, largely from outsiders, Housing Authority official Lewis Hurd told the Planning Board Thursday that the agency is considering demolishing the 1960s 120-unit complex in favor of 80 new townhouses with both back and front yards and individual parking spaces. The proposal is only in the earliest stages, but Hurd said the authority has concluded that Elmwood Gardens is an “albatross” it can no longer bear.

Despite an agreement with police to patrol the area, the current building configuration allows too many ways for criminals to elude police, he said.

Hurd met with the Planning Board to discuss possible issues that might concern the board as the plan goes forward, including density, parking, design and open space. The current structure does not meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, another concern.

William Reid, the City Council liaison to the Planning Board and a longtime Housing Authority executive in other cities, raised numerous technical questions about financing, HUD regulations and whether new construction would be better than the mid-20th century buildings. Ron Scott-Bey asked how the reduction in units would affect the city’s COAH obligation. Not all the questions could be answered Thursday.

Residents in place at the time of demolition would be eligible for relocation housing anywhere in the nation. The new slots would be open only to “residents in good standing,” Hurd said.

Board members said they did not want to see the buildings left vacant for any length of time, due to fear of more vandalism and crime. Hurd said if the plan is approved, construction could take between three and five years. The Housing Authority of Plainfield has established a community development group that can undertake both non-profit and market-rate development, he said.

Among the historical facts about Elmwood Gardens, former Mayor Rick Taylor once lived there. As a reporter, I recall several homicides taking place there. J.M. Benjamin, whom I interviewed as the author of several urban fiction books, used a façade of Elmwood Gardens, specifically 524 West Second Street, as the front cover image of his book about the drug dealing that landed him in state and federal prison. (Now he is a very successful urban fiction author with book sales downtown in the former Jesus Book Store on Front Street.)

City residents who see scrawled “116” tags on buildings should know that they refer to 116 Elmwood, a possible gang location.

Another anecdote is that there was once a community garden near the project that was productive until the lot became part of the “197 Scattered Site” redevelopment plan. A Westfield group that got special consideration to develop 67 of the sites eventually reneged and the site remained undeveloped.

All these concerns, both official and non-official, may play into the outcome of the Housing Authority’s wish for better things to come at Elmwood Gardens.

--Bernice Paglia

Got Weeds? Get Goats!

Dealing with weeds lately made me remember a curious sight in Seattle.

A herd of goats was busy on a rocky hill devouring all the greenery. A sign on the truck parked nearby read, "Rent-A-Ruminant." Click here to learn more.

Yes, the clever solution to ridding the hill of rampant weeds was to put herbivorous goats to the task. In old cartoons, goats were frequently depicted eating tin cans, an allusion to their indiscriminate appetites. Seattle has special problems with invasive weeds, including English ivy, holly and blackberries. The excellent gardening climate benefits both wanted and unwanted vegetation. Goats to the rescue - for a fee. Rent-A-Ruminant's tab includes portable fencing and a goat wrangler. Another company, Healing Hooves, offers portable fences and a shepherd.

My small patch of weeds wouldn't warrant more than a single goat, but it certainly is a good way to clear a couple of acres or a rocky hillside, with no noise or chemicals. It's just one more reason to love the way people think in the Pacific Northwest.

--Bernice Paglia

New Approach, Personnel Changes Coming

In his first news release, new Information Coordinator Eric Jones describes a retreat for school administrators conducted by Dr. Steve Gallon III, the new superintendent.

Gallon sets forth a “systems thinking approach” based on ideas of Peter Senge in his book, “The Fifth Discipline.” Online I ran across a summary of the book and thought it was worth a link if it is to be a linchpin of the new superintendent’s tenure. Click here for the summary.

Jones is the former president of the Plainfield Education Association. He apparently is replacing Louis Rivera, whose job title was one of more than 40 abolished in May. The school board approved a new roster of administrative titles the same night, but only a few have been filled and some only for the month of July. After Tuesday’s meeting, the board went back into executive session to discuss personnel. It is expected that next Tuesday’s meeting will include numerous personnel assignments.

The title of “Coordinator, Community Engagement, Public Information & Marketing” is one that has not been filled through board action. Could somebody have jumped the gun?

I made a chart of all the titles and filled in names as they received board approval. The wholesale change of titles and personnel is very hard to keep track of, even for a retiree with lots of time. I don’t know how school staff is doing it. Two new assistant superintendent positions are on the list, one for administrative services and one foe educational services. Maybe those names will be revealed next Tuesday as well.

The meeting next week is at Washington Community School, a bit of a trek at night for this writer. I am strategizing on how to attend. Plainfield has a relatively high walkability score, but even public safety officials caution me about walking home from a meeting late at night. If the agenda is available over the weekend and if personnel resolutions are included, I will certainly do an advance article. Of course, there are often “walk-in” items at the last minute.

The sooner all administrators are in place, the better. Job insecurity is a serious deterrent to embracing the new regime.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Chat with Jerry

My ingestion of toast and coffee was interrupted this morning by a call from Assemblyman Jerry Green.

“Why don’t you tell the truth?” he asked.

It turns out he was referring to the mention of Woodland School in my blog. The Schools Development Authority announced an allocation of $26 million for expansion and renovations at Woodland, but Green said the district’s top priority had been a new middle school. However, due to the “chaos” of the past school year, he said, “They (the district) didn’t have their paperwork in place.”

Green thanked former Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey and new board president Bridget Rivers for “giving out information as quickly was possible” and credited Assemblywoman Linda Stender and Sen. Nicholas Scutari for helping him to secure the funding for Plainfield.

Board member Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr. questioned Tuesday night why the middle school was not funded, but none of the issues raised by Green came out in the meeting. Green brushed aside my point that I could not report on something that was not made public.

“You know everything,” he retorted.

I told him the new superintendent was drawing a line between the past and the future and recriminations or blame at this point would serve no purpose. Besides, I did not want to call the accused individual for comment and then perhaps have to sit around waiting for a callback. I wanted to go shopping in Westfield.

The situation was all too familiar from the “he said-she said” practice of a political figure blaming an official for this or that debacle and the reporter was then expected to get the other side.

“Put that on your blog,” Green insisted as he made his accusation.

Well, for one thing, the blog is an unpaid avocation, not a job in the newsroom, and for another, maybe Dr. Gallon is right to think that hashing over past errors is not as important as fixing things in the future. And furthermore, I really want to go shopping in Westfield today. So there.

--Bernice Paglia

Gallon Gets Kudos at First Meeting

Some board members were near tears after new Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III made presentations at his first school board meeting.

“It’s our time,” was all board member Lenny Cathcart could say, after Gallon outlined a strategic planning process intended to turn the district around.

Past board president Patricia Barksdale, also emotional, said Gallon’s plan meant the district “will no longer be a joke.”

“What you’re bringing to this district is a legacy,” Board President Bridget Rivers said.

Gallon dazzled both the board and about 35 others at Tuesday’s meeting with his plan listing “learning outcomes, Human Resources, business practices, the learning environment and community and family engagement“ as priorities. But he said all stakeholders – parents, students, school staff, community members and students – must sign on to the plan.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,” Gallon said.

He noted a three-day intensive retreat with administrators this week will yield results for years ahead. The outcome of the retreat will be given to the board, which will hold its own retreat from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday in the Emerson Swing School at 1700 West Front Street.

Gallon’s stated buzz words for any district issue are to determine what is “tangible and measurable.”

On the job only one week, Gallon revealed a plan to halt the exodus of young students from the district, presenting statistics that showed, among other things, the loss of 5th grade students from Cook and Cedarbrook schools in 2006-07 was 32 percent.

The two schools will begin expanding from the traditional K-5 model to K-8 grade configurations, in part to stem the drop-off rate at middle school or below and also to explore a new K-8 model for urban districts that takes into account the needs of young adolescents for self-esteem and stability.

The plan may go district-wide in the future. Its selling points are that it offers choices to parents who do not want their children to enter middle school, for fear of violence and other strains. The district is already competing with private and charter schools for young adolescent students.

Principals Frank Asante and Doris Williams gave a presentation on the plan, which calls for the addition of grade 6 in the coming school year. Williams said she surveyed Cook School parents and students to get their views on the change. Parents who want their children to go on to middle school may do so, and children from other schools may take part in the new plan if there is room. Asante said at Cedarbrook he wants to “put the onus on the community” and wants the sixth graders to feel “exclusive” and “special.”

In a facilities projects update, Gallon deferred to School Board Secretary/ Business Administrator Gary Ottmann, who said a new state funding formula allowed only for additions and renovations at Woodland School.

Cathcart noted a past list of school construction priorities and said he hoped new middle school was a priority. But Ottmann said in this first round of new funding, only Woodland was included.

In a discussion of what the district can do for a group of students who did not graduate, Gallon invoked his mantra of knowing what is tangible and measurable. The issue was raised by board member Wilma Campbell, who chairs the Curriculum & Instruction committee. After listening to the concerns, Gallon noted the number of students was not known nor could anyone state the district’s legal obligation to students who don’t graduate. A summer school plan could hardly be mounted in July without knowing the cost, staff availability and other facts. Even the possibility of catching up through a computer program was nebulous, and having the failed graduates return in September needed more research.

For that concern or any other, Gallon called for a “systemic” approach.

“We don’t want to be chasing the wind,” he said.

During the evening, board members expressed relief at having Gallon in charge of the district. Rasheed Abdul-Haqq said he recalled a district credo from the 1990s: We can successfully teach all children. He said people believed it, but it wasn’t carried out.

“Now we have someone who believes it and can provide the leadership,” Abdul-Haqq said.

Gallon said as he holds himself accountable, all need to be accountable.

“I guarantee I will do my part if you give me that same guarantee,” he said.

--Bernice Paglia