Sunday, August 31, 2008

More on Youth Commissions

In March 2006, two ordinances were passed forming youth commissions with two different purposes. At an Aug. 26 community forum, mayoral mentor and Assemblyman Jerry Green declared youth involvement a “top priority” of his, apparently unaware of the legislation already on the books. Only one of the commissions received appointed members and only four of 15 possible at that. The commission received and spent public money, although a meeting schedule was never published as required by law.

Now that it is 30 months later and youth involvement has been labeled a top priority, Plaintalker is offering details of the two enabling ordinances so that action may be encouraged. At the time of passage, there was some confusion, as both new groups were called “Plainfield Youth Commission” and one was alternatively called a “youth council.” For that reason, Plaintalker will refer to each by ordinance number.

MC 2006-10 was intended to foster “greater participation of the Plainfield’s youth community in the social, economic and political development of the city” by having youth liaisons working with city boards and commissions. Each board or commission could permit up to two high school students to become non-voting members giving input from the youth perspective.

Requirements:
Youth appointees must be public or private high school students residing in Plainfield.
Terms: One calendar year, maximum three terms.
Written parental consent required.
Application must be filled out based on timelines of each board or commission.
A minimum of two volunteer hours per month required, with a certificate issued each January for hours served.
The commission is to produce an annual report on its activities.

For example, a young person wanting to be a liaison to the Planning Board or Board of Adjustment would most likely have to apply and be appointed in advance of the board’s annual reorganization in January. The land use boards meet monthly and meetings run several hours, but young people need only put in two hours.

The ordinance does not indicate any requirement on meetings of the commission itself nor are there any limitations on numbers of members.

MC 2006- 13 calls for youth participation “in the social, economic and political development of the city” and “encourages its youth to become more involved in Plainfield’s government and political process while improving the civic responsibility of all youth in the city.” The mission is to provide youth input on government policies, recommend and foster initiatives “for and by youth,” and to be a link between Plainfield government and city youth.

The commission is empowered to request a budget of up to $20,000.

Membership was to be as follows:
Fifteen members, 11 being city residents between the ages of 15 and 19 and four from the public at large, ages 21 years or more, seated by mayoral appointment with advice and consent of the City Council. Adults include two City Council members and two at-large from the public. Youth members include two mayoral appointments, seven recommendations from the City Council and two at-large mayoral recommendations. Most terms were to run concurrently with that of the mayor.

Commission members were to advise the mayor and council on youth concerns, based on visits to community centers and other means of eliciting youth input. The commission was to report annually to the mayor and council. Service on the commission was meant to provide young people with experience in the workings of city government and leadership opportunities, among other outcomes.

Only four members were ever appointed to this commission. They were The Rev. Shannon Wright and her two children, as well as Devon Walcott, son of Democratic activist Johnny Walcott. Plaintalker has questioned a budget expense of more than $3,000 incurred one year, despite no public notice of meetings. Councilwoman Linda Carter has been the council liaison.

The administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, with Green as mentor, took office in January 2006. Both ordinances were passed during a hubbub of activity in March 2006, but obviously there has been little follow-through or even acknowledgement of the intention to involve youth. A close look at the two ordinances reveals flaws, such as a missing portion of MC 2006 -13 on establishment of staggered initial terms. However, they are on the books and provide a matrix for youth involvement. Given that the school year runs from September through June, appointments could be made under MC 2006 – 10 for youth liaisons to serve through December, with reappointments in January.

As for the Youth Commission established by MC 2006- 13, it could be fleshed out with additional members. The mayor’s term ends Dec. 31, 2009, but at least the commission could get going with its purpose to immerse youth in civic education and leadership opportunities. Its current status should be revealed and any past activities should be documented, especially those paid for with public funds.

The school board has had student representatives for several years. They sit in on meetings and are given time to speak at meetings. These links benefit not only the individuals, but the school community at large. Since July 1, new Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III has also set a precedent of showcasing student talent at board meetings, as a reminder that the district’s 6,600 students are its raison d’etre.

Students also are eligible for summer employment in city offices, where they gain exposure to the workings of government.

Parents or students are welcome to comment here on the Youth Commissions and are encouraged to check with elected officials on how the commissions can be put in working order.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Love A Parade?

I'm sure our neighbors in South Plainfield won't mind if your family wants to get a look at their annual Labor Day parade.

Check here for details and note how nicely they present the information.

Maybe the example will spur more people to help organize Plainfield's traditional July 4th parade. The committee that did it years ago here started planning practically the day after the parade to make sure bands were booked and so on. The South Plainfield parade will feature 12 marching bands!

Have a great time if you decide to include this observation of Labor Day in your plans.

--Bernice Paglia

Youth Groups Need Members

In answer to a resident's community forum question on getting youth involved in civic activities, Assemblyman Jerry Green named it "one of the top priorities."

Seeing Councilwoman Linda Carter in the audience Tuesday, Plaintalker inquired about the status of two youth commissions established by ordinance in March 2006. The first one, established by ordinance MC 2006-10, calls for youth liaisons to city boards and commissions. The young people who serve would receive community volunteer credits. A second Youth Commission, covered by MC 2006-13, would provide input to the governing body, suggest youth activities and serve as a link between city government and young people.

Four of a possible 11 appointments were made to the second one and none to the other one.

Carter said the second one was currently being reorganized.

These commissions were established soon after the mayor took office and at the time were no doubt a priority. Carter advocated for both commissions. Maybe a review of these exisiting means of involving youth is in order.

At some point, the entire portion of the Municipal Code dealing with boards and commissions deserves a review. The two youth commissions aren't the only ones lacking members. Other boards and commissions are defunct. Anyone interested in taking a look can do it online at Councilman Rashid Burney's web site. The Civic Responsibility Act was supposed to lead to compilation of a list of all the openings on boards and commissions, but that is another piece of legislation honored in the breach.

The current revitalization of the school district offers a partnering opportunity for the city to find young people who would enjoy knowing more about how municipal government works and what the responsibilities of a citizen are. Teenagers will soon join the electorate and in the future will produce our new lawmakers and public servants. The opportunity to join these youth commissions could be advertised on city and district web sites. Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III has already mentioned service learning as a component of education.

The online code does not seem to include the two youth commission ordinances, but in the near future Plaintalker will look them up and list the requirements to join.

--Bernice Paglia

Bureau of Unintended Ironies

After slide presentations on fiscal governance and public safety at Tuesday's community forum, a random bunch of images appeared on the screen.

There was a sunset scene, then a temple, a hummingbird, spools of thread, green swirls, pelicans - all interesting but seemingly irrelevant to the forum.

As the mayor and City Administrator Mark Dashield continued to try to sell the public on the efficacy of the current administration, another image flashed on the screen. Older folks will remember its connotations in popular culture of the past. It was none other than the Brooklyn Bridge.

Ooops! Better delete that one next time.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Town Hall Mostly Deja Vu

Those of us who already saw the unveiling of the school district's strategic plan for 2008-12 were looking for the new news in Thursday's Superintendent's Town Hall meeting at Washington Community School, one of four scheduled over the next few weeks. Click here for Plaintalker's prior post on the strategic plan and here to read the district's news release on the plan.

Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III held sway Thursday over an audience that was about half school administrators and staff, with a smaller representation of parents.The meeting date coincided with the historic juxtaposition of Barack Obama's acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination and the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which may have lessened the crowd at Washington Community School in favor of those watching television. Gallon called for a moment of silence in recognition of King's legacy.

The strategic plan has more than 80 metrics, reflecting Gallon's drive for "tangible and measurable" results in the district. Several items have already been accomplished, such as establishment of an electronic newsletter to improve community involvement.

Among the new information revealed Thursday:

- With 90 percent of administrators having less than five years' of administrative experience, professional development will be stressed.

- A new free-standing high school for talented teens is in the works, with auditions required and academic excellence demonstrated before admission. Gallon declared the proposed school will be "the first and only" program of its kind in Union County. A January presentation is scheduled on the new school.

- The district will also seek to have its own pre-school programs integrated with existing elementary schools for the convenience of parents. Currently, outside agencies provide programs at their own sites.

- All future school meetings will showcase students, as the forum did Thursday and the August business meeting did with a dramatic reading by students of Othell Miller. On Thursday, Maxson Middle School students took part. Jachai Simmons introduced Board of Education President Bridget Rivers and Joslyn Barco introduced Gallon.

- Student schedules will first reflect subjects required by the state, then intervention needed to increase academic performance, and lastly electives that enhance the learning experience.

"We need to improve the level of intervention built into the schedule," Gallon said.

Among answers to questions from the audience, Gallon said his strategic plan has been presented, but not yet distributed. He will present it to Plainfielders at three more town hall meetings. A summary of goals for the 2008-09 is also on the district web site.

"This is your plan," he said.

Middle school will not be eliminated, he said in response to another question. Gallon recently unveiled a plan for two elementary schools to change from K-5 to K-8, starting with addition of a sixth grade in September. But he said parents will have the choice of a middle school or K-8 setting.

"It will never be an either/or," he said.

Those who want to become involved in the schools can learn of opportunities through the office of Administrative Services headed by Assistant Superintendent Garnell Bailey, he said in answer to another question. Gallon said participation might range from mentoring and workplace shadowing to simply writing a check for causes such as recognition of student accomplishment.

To a parent's concern about special education, Gallon responded that the district's goal is to expand mainstreaming.

Gallon urged everyone to ask district leaders questions before speculating on matters of concern.

"Feel free to contact us about questions," he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Cosmos - A Pretty Sight

My purchase last year of "fancy cosmos" seeds at Smith & Hawken in Westfield resulted in another very rewarding crop this year. The range goes from scalloped, ruffled, double and picotee and the display is striking.

All the seedheads have been saved in hopes of a major display next year, either on Block 832 or wherever else I may find myself.

Serious gardeners must visit the Westfield shop for special seeds, tools and garden gear. Drive over or hop the No. 59 bus from the corner by City Hall to be let off at Broad and Elm in Westfield. It's a veritable wonderland if you are a fanatic gardener!

--Bernice Paglia

Blogs and Forums - A Big Difference

Webopedia, which bills itself as the number one online encyclopedia dedicated to computer technology, may be able to help us here in Plainfield sort out the confusion over what a blog is. Click here for the definition. At present, we have about a dozen blogs, each reflecting the viewpoint of a blogger, be it about city news, parental involvement, trees, historic preservation and community activism, an historic district or a potpourri of thoughts and memories by an 88-year-old Plainfielder.

But Plainfielders also take part in online forums, such as the ones set up by the Star-Ledger for residents of each hometown or county. These are open discussions, almost always with anonymous comments using nicknames. They tend to be fractious and gossipy, though sometimes factually informative. (At least one Plainfield blog is based on rumors and hearsay, which may be part of the confusion.)

Online forums tend to full of what Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III calls "noise," provocative comments that don't advance the discussion, but merely prolong it. Tonight a couple of us bloggers beseeched Dr. Gallon not to call forums "blogs," but to distinguish the work of one person blogging from the cacophony of voices in an online forum.

A person as busy as Dr. Gallon need not spend time every day checking out the Plainfield forum on nj.com, but one fast look might make the difference between a blog and an online forum quite evident.

Webopedia notes that "blog" is a shortened version of "web log," a journal by one person, often with daily postings. In the case of Plaintalker, putting together a post often means attending a meeting, taking notes, doing research at City Hall and writing something that informs the residents on issues related to the taxes they pay or the decisions of their elected officials. On the other hand, anyone can flip off on a forum with smart remarks and insinuations.

PEPTalk blogger Renata Hernandez and I both urged Dr. Gallon tonight to investigate the difference. And may all other readers please not tarnish bloggers by associating them with the worst behavior of online forum users.

--Bernice Paglia

New Blogger: Mapp

Former Freeholder and Councilman Adrian Mapp has launched a blog. Click here to see it.

Mapp and Annie McWilliams won the June primary and are now on the Democratic slate for the Nov. 4 general election along with Councilman William Reid. Mapp seeks the Third Ward seat and is unopposed except for a write-in campaign by Brenda Gilbert. McWilliams, daughter of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, is making her political debut as a candidate for the Citywide At-Large seat, opposed by Republican Deborah Dowe. Reid is running for the balance of the First Ward term. He was appointed to the seat in January after incumbent Rayland Van Blake became a Union County freeholder.

Mapp was denied nomination for a second term on the all-Democrat freeholder board. He is the object of enmity from the Regular Democratic Organization, although by winning the primary, he is now on the RDO line for the general election. His crime, as once described by a high muckety-muck of the RDO, is that he thinks for himself. The horror!

Mapp's RDO opponent in the primary was Councilman Don Davis. Annie McWilliams vanquished none other than City Council President Harold Gibson. The upset, by New Democrats, progressive Democrats or whatever one wants to call them, was a blow to the RDO. Of course, now that they have the line, they are putative RDOs themselves.

Hearing of the write-in campaign against Mapp, which Gilbert has confirmed, raised the wicked thought that there could also be a write-in against Reid. Currently, only Councilman Cory Storch is standing up to the machinations of the entrenched party. With McWilliams and Mapp, by January he might be able to count to three. With a progressive write-in candidate in the First Ward, he could count to four!

As former Mayor Richard L. Taylor often spake, the only thing that matters on the seven-member City Council is the ability to count to four.

Plainfield politics are always interesting. The sequence of terms is such that next year the mayoralty and the Fourth Ward seat will be up for grabs. I think it was Gilbert herself who once intoned at a council meeting, "Remember in November - stayed tuned in June!"

--Bernice Paglia

Crescent Group Improves Main Station

Some of the Grace Church irises found a new home at the main train station, which has been adopted by the Crescent Area Neighborhood Association. Maria Pellum and volunteers from the group clean the station's grounds and are embarking on a beautification project. While you are dashing to catch a train, take notice of this effort to partner with NJ Transit for a more attractive station.

As Maria and I surveyed the grounds, we saw one very overgrown section near a Watchung Avenue bar. This portion needs more than simple trash pickup or plantings. We saw evidence of vagrants camping there, just a few yards from the platform. It was kind of scary to think of hidden people watching commuters.
The Crescent group plans more plantings around various signs and can always use more helping hands for cleanups. Kudos to Maria for arranging the partnership with NJ Transit and toiling in the hot sun to make our main station look good!
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hellwig: Crime is Down

Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig offered charts at Tuesday's community forum to show crime reductions including a 25 percent decrease last year in serious crimes.

"That's almost unheard of," he said.

Hellwig, who is also the city's police director, displayed a graph showing 2,071 serious crimes in 2005, the year before Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took office. In 2006, the number climbed to 2,184, but last year the total dropped to 1,856. For the first six months of 2008, the rate is 1,135. (Note: That is 61 percent of the 2007 rate.)

Hellwig presented another graph on shots fired, a tally related to Operation Ceasefire, which investigates treats each shot fired as a potential casualty. The number dropped from 280 in 2006 to 204 last year, and at six months, the 2008 count is 88.

Homicides, an issue in the 2005 defeat of the late former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, stood at 15 that year. McWilliams lost the June 2005 primary in his bid for a third term, but mounted a general election write-in campaign that Robinson-Briggs countered with campaign fliers pinning the high homicide rate to his administration.

In 2006, there were 10 homicides, Hellwig said, and in 2007, four. The first half of 2008 also produced four, according to the chart.

Hellwig called the drop in crime rates "the result of good, strong, positive leadership."

Even pedestrian fatalities declined from five to one since a big increase in motor vehicles summonses, he said, noting "8,000 summonses to date." The increased enforcement is meant to overturn the perception that drivers suffer few consequences for speeding or other infractions in Plainfield, in contrast to stricter enforcement in neighboring municipalities.

Hellwig, who began his public safety career in 1968, became emotional as he described his successes in Plainfield "in the twilight of my career."

"There has been change, positive change, historic change, because of positive leadership," he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Peck to Residents: You Decide

New Finance Director Douglas Peck said Tuesday it is up to residents to say "what level of service you demand" from the city.

Speaking on "fiscally responsible governance," Peck said he has instituted a "service-focused budget process."

The city's 2009 fiscal year began July 1. While many costs are related to mandates such as maintaining public safety, Peck is putting it to taxpayers to say what optional city services they value most, and employees will be expected to respond in kind. Implicit in the formula is the possibility that some desired services will boost costs.

Peck said 66 percent of the budget "is staff," and he will be looking to cut overtime where possible. Those who did not attend Tuesday's community forum will soon be able to access Peck's budget reports on the city's web site.

To read Plaintalker's exclusive July interview with Peck, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Hospital Battle Continues

I have been sitting here for an hour now pondering what to say about Tuesday's forum. I didn't really want to attend, then decided to go just to witness the action. There is a straightforward report in the Courier News that sums up the main points. It is the gnarly nuances that stick in my mind, like Jerry Green's declaration regarding Solaris, "If you don't help us, then we're going to charge you $3 million in taxes."

This after he said, "Our strategy is we're going to take back our hospital."

Certainly strategies abound in the struggle to make state Health Commissioner Heather Howard and Solaris officials see things Plainfield's way. Green wants to hold up a $170 million bond issue for Solaris until all the community's questions about the parent company's dealings with Muhlenberg are answered. The mayor says there are four buyers in the wings. Meanwhile, Muhlenberg has surrendered its license to the state, so a new entity would have to start from scratch with licensing, as I understand it.

In answer to questions from the public, the mayor said she does believe the city did all it could do to keep Muhlenberg open. Green complimented People's Organization for Progress for all its activism to save Muhlenberg.

"They have brought us together," he said, even though a lot of the heat from POP was directed at elected officials.

Borrowing a street term to describe the new battle, Green said, "It's on."

The mayor, Green and about 30 activists at the forum did seem to be on more cordial terms than in the past, a feat in itself as the 2009 election season also seems to be "on."

Memo to JG: Don't bother to call me at home to yell at me. I have caller ID and I'm not picking up.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Non-Meetings and Community Forums

Like Dr. Yood, I inquired Monday about the City Council meeting agenda, only to be told there was no agenda and no meeting. No reason was cited.

My e-mail to Council President Harold Gibson asking the reason was not answered, but Gibson told Courier News reporter Mark Spivey "scheduling conflicts" were involved and that the meeting was not originally scheduled.

Lack of a quorum should have been known by Friday, barring any last-minute emergencies. And by Friday the agenda should have been ready to send out to council members. Furthermore, the Aug. 25 agenda session was on the council's published schedule. Because regular meetings are normally on the first and third Mondays of each month, agenda sessions are on the preceding Mondays. On Aug. 25, the council members would have decided on agenda items to be voted on at the Sept. 2 meeting. Because Sept. 1 is Labor Day, the meeting falls on a Tuesday. But now that meeting will also be skipped.

Something just doesn't sound right here. My calls to other council members were not answered. It is not like the council members, armed with their analog and electronic calendars, to be so dim about meeting dates. There should be a simple answer as to why the business of the city in September will now be compressed to one agenda session and one regular meeting as it was in June, July and August for the so-called summer hiatus.

Tonight is the mayor's forum, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Washington Community School. The school's official address is on Darrow Avenue, but access to the cafetorium is best made from the Spooner Avenue parking lot. Originally billed as featuring presentations on public safety and fiscal governance, the forum may turn out to be another session on issues related to the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center. The Save Muhlenberg group that meets every Monday is now the Restore Muhlenberg group and will attend the forum, activist Dottie Gutenkauf said Monday. If so, the Courier News will undoubtedly provide ongoing coverage.

On Thursday, Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III will lead a Town Hall meeting on the school district, from 7 to 9 p.m., also at Washington Community School. As Maria Pellum has pointed out, since July 1 the district is in full gear, communicating with staff, parents, and all other stakeholders in the school system. There are three other Town Hall meetings set at locations across the city, so some may wait until one is held in their own neighborhoods.

The newly-improved district web site includes a count-down clock to the opening of school, which one hopes will be much happier than the close of school in June. The Park & Seventh neighborhood at that time saw a full police response to dismissal from the high school over several days, with crowds of students running through parking lots and fights breaking out. Most older people around here try not to be out at dismissal time anyway, mindful of their frailty when large groups of youth are dominating the sidewalks, but the end-of-school disruptions were truly appalling.

The community will be watching as the 2008-09 school year opens, when students return to a district full of new promise among its adult stakeholders. The 6,600 students, especially the 1,800 at the high school, will be called on to do their part as learners and "the best human beings they can be," as the new saying goes. They, too, will be expected to deliver "tangible and measurable" results.

Note: I am advised by Chairman Peter Briggs that the Aug. 28 meeting was rescheduled to Aug. 21 and the next meeting may be in October. The first Town Hall date coincides with the August meeting date of the Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Board, which is scheduled to give a report this month on the three-year ascertainment portion of the franchise renewal process. Verizon has begun soliciting customers for its FIOS service, in competition with the current franchise holder, Comcast of the Plainfields. The board did not meet last month and people with questions about the local access channels may be looking for answers Thursday.

It's shaping up as kind of a spotty week for meeting mavens. But then there will be the three-day weekend to rest up and relax before school opens and the politicking for November and June begins in earnest.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 24, 2008

An Exemplary Community Event

As in the past, the Grace Church Peach Festival and Carillon Concert drew a diverse crowd Sunday of participants who enjoyed both the dessert food and the music.

Cleveland Avenue was closed for the event to allow listeners to line up.

Those who looked up could see the bell tower with the gargoyle rainspouts on each corner.
All praise to the Pittis family that donated the carillon and The Rev. Carolyn Eklund , who perpetuates and publicizes the Pittis family's contribution to Plainfield. Many of us appreciate its unique aspect of life in the Queen City.
--Bernice Paglia

Carnage in the Back Yard

One of our praying mantis crew in the back yard found a Monarch butterfly on a milkweed plant and invited the unsuspecting butterfly to lunch.

Unbeknowst to the butterfly, succulent butterfly guts were the main menu. So there, interlopers in the praying mantis territory!
--Bernice Paglia

Charlotte and Power

Today's Star-Ledger story on Hillside politics reveals what happens when community issues are set aside in favor of power struggles.

Plainfield in the past has been rent asunder by clashes between the administration and the governing body, perhaps the Mitchell era being the most glaring example.

The Democratic power brokers here still try to use Charlotte's playbook, demanding fealty to leaders over stewardship of public resources or even common sense sometimes. Political death can be the penalty for looking at an issue objectively and offering an intelligent solution.

Another recent name in the news, Hillside Board of Education President Nagy Sileem, recalled to this writer the odd situation of Plainfield being saddled with this person as assistant director of Public Works and Urban Development when there already was an official on the books with the same title and a similar salary. Was the idea to run off the incumbent, a former director, and install the politically-connected Mr. Sileem in her place? And never mind that Sileem was also listed on state records as holding a job in another municipality at the time. Fortunately, he has since left Plainfield and we now have just one assistant director in the department.

Power for power's sake may engender admiration or fear, but not good government. Besides being the Union County Democratic Committee chairman (her favored term), Charlotte is also executive director of the Union County Improvement Authority. The UCIA built the nameless building on the Park-Madison site but did not meet all the conditions imposed by the Planning Board, such as relocating the historic Park Avenue clock to the site.

To see where absolute power (and disregard of the rules the rest of us try to live by) takes government, read "The Soprano State" after you read the Star-Ledger article.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hispanic Commission - Make It Real

On Aug. 23, 2006, the City Council held its first regular meeting since the untimely passing of Council President Ray Blanco.

Blanco died on July 28, 2006 and with him died a degree of passion for serving the people that has seldom been seen since. Ray had a lot of ideas and was determined to reshape the governing body into a highly functioning group of legislators. He had already succeeded in seeing passage of the Civic Responsibility Act and the establishment of the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

It is this last legislation that Plaintalker would like to discuss today. The entire ordinance can be seen on Councilman Rashid Burney’s web site under Plainfield Codes, Boards and Commissions, pages 119 through 121.

The commission was to have seven members, including a mayoral appointee, a council member and five members of the public appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the City Council. No members were ever appointed.

One main duty of the commission was to advise the mayor and council on “the needs, concerns, accomplishments and contributions of the Hispanic community as well as the impact of legislation or the lack thereof and its effect on the Hispanic community.” This was supposed to be done by more or less taking its pulse through meetings with significant groups and leaders. The commission was charged with making an annual report to the mayor and council.

Four other aspects of the commission’s work were:
-To identify parts of city government which interact with the Hispanic community and to find ways to improve and expand services “through greater participation of qualified Hispanics in policy-making positions.”
-To improve communications among the mayor, administration, council and the Hispanic community by using available resources more effectively.
To identify and analyze important issues and recommend strategies for response in ways that encourage and support continued development of the Hispanic community.
-To educate Hispanic residents about opportunities to serve the community and to engender active participation on city boards, commissions and “political bodies.”

The most obvious start here would have been to appoint members to the commission.

At present, the council most often hears about concerns and needs of Hispanic community from Flor Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition. Gonzalez attends almost every council meeting and speaks on issues ranging from the safety of the largely Latino taxi cab drivers in Plainfield to the plight of families whose breadwinners have been deported, leaving women and children without resources. The whys and wherefores of the latter situation can be debated indefinitely, but the fact is it is happening and affecting city residents.

As an individual, Gonzalez sees problems of the Hispanic community on a daily basis. One of her grimmer tasks has been to help identify homicide victims and arrange for burial in their native countries. On a happier note, she organizes an annual Latino festival.

Another woman in touch with the Hispanic community is Carmen Salavarrieta, a Piscataway resident who for a time served as one of the mayor’s greeters in City Hall. Salavarrieta takes toys and medicines to Central and South American countries ravaged by earthquakes or other disasters. She was involved in the housing discrimination case in Bound Brook that resulted in a $600,000 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. She is quick to bring attention to her causes through Hispanic media. But as Maria Pellum has reported in the Crescent Times, she has stirred some resentment among Plainfield Latino leaders because she doesn’t live in the city, yet political leaders showcase her at public events.

Flor and Carmen may be highly visible in different ways, but there are other Latinas and Latinos in leadership roles. Pellum often uses her blog to advocate for more understanding of Hispanic concerns in the schools and Renata Hernandez is president of Parents Empowering Parents. Christian Estevez serves on the Board of Education. There are others on city boards and commissions, but given the increasing Latino population, is there enough representation? Of the incoming kindergarten class in 2007-08, 55 percent came from Spanish-speaking households. The Hispanic population stood at 25 percent in the 2000 census and surely has increased since then.

By ordinance, the commission is to be dissolved a year after U.S. Census reports show the Hispanic population has reached 45 percent and a minimum of 35 percent of city voters are Hispanic. It is intended to be a transitional tool. The population level may emerge in the 2010 Census, but at present only 10.1 percent of Latinos in New Jersey are registered voters, so the proportion of 35 percent in Plainfield may take longer. Click here for a report from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Burney’s recent proposal to have city forms available in both English and Spanish met with criticism in online news forums. But other governmental entities already provide information and forms in Spanish, recognizing that recent immigrants need some help in getting acclimated to American society. Obviously, a non-English-speaking person can’t serve on the Planning Board, but might need to know the city’s rules for property maintenance.

Ray Blanco’s love for the city and its people shines throughout his political legacy. The Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs is one part of that legacy. What we have now is two often-clashing figureheads and a smattering of others who represent the Hispanic community. What is the harm in honoring Ray by making the commission real, not just a piece of paper? How long can a vital and vibrant part of the Plainfield community be disregarded? Plaintalker awaits your opinions.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sights of the City

In the 1970s, citizens and institutions donated funds for tree plantings along Park and Watchung avenues and some other streets downtown. As you can see here, it's time for some new trees. This plaque is in memory of Katherine and A. Lodewyk de Leeuw, "who loved trees."
Scaffolding is being erected at City Hall, in preparation for exterior repairs with state historic preservation funding.

This huge thing on a flatbed showed up at Lot 7, but left after my neighbor protested having the truck's engine running right under her window. Then I spotted it in front of City Hall Thursday. It's a product of Detroit Diesel.

In the next block, the Stillwell Farms produce stand is very popular, especially with seniors and participants in the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, who get vouchers for free fruits and vegetables. It will be open on Mondays and Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. until Thanksgiving.

PSE&G workers and a network of lines contrast with the historic Grace Episcopal Church. A transformer blew, resulting in the telltale blinking clocks on radios and microwaves. Comcast customers had to wait for a service man to re-start their computers.
The loop on foot around East Seventh, Park, East Front and Watchung back to East Seventh always turns up some interesting sights.
--Bernice Paglia

"Nobody Cares"

This graffiti sign on a South Avenue building appears to deplore the killing of young men by other young men here at home. Maybe there will be an update Tuesday on the city's effort to to stem gun violence in Plainfield. The mayor is holding a community forum from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Washington Community School, according to an article in the Courier News.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Students Perform at BOE Meeting

Students of Othell Miller presented a spoken word performance Aug. 12 at Washington Community School in the first such presentation to showcase the talents of young people in the district.
All dressed in black and holding black roses, the students took turns performing stanzas from Laini Mataka's poem, "The Strong Black Woman is Dead." Click here to read it.

While looking up references to the poem, it was quite surprising to see Mataka's work or variations on it in many online sources, some of which said, "Author unknown." Kind of sad to see the work of a strong black woman paid homage in one way, but disrespected by not giving her credit. Add it to the ironies in her poem.
Each business meeting in 2008-09 will have a student presentation at the start. Sorry I did not get each student's name to go with the captions, but I had to hurry up and take notes on the meeting. Maybe performers can be recognized in upcoming agendas.
And remember, all meetings - work & study and business meetings - will be at 1200 Myrtle Avenue.
--Bernice Paglia

Irises: Divide to Multiply

Here's one big clump of irises from the bed in front of Grace Episcopal Church.

The challenge: Untangle all these roots.

Here are all the separate plants, untangled.

Four wheel barrows-full of irises, seen here with tops trimmed and roots clipped.

The finished product, divided by size and ready for re-planting. In three to five years, it's the same routine all over again when the rootstocks fill in.
--Bernice Paglia

Of Peaches and Irises

Grace Episcopal Church is once again offering the community a chance to enjoy peach desserts of all kinds and to hear its carillon that is normally played only on Sunday mornings. The carilloneur for this special concert will be David Maker. The event starts at 6 p.m. Sunday.

By chance, I spent a lot of time Tuesday lifting some of the iris plants that can be seen to the right of the church door. I had donated them with church permission a few years ago, after all vines and shrubbery were cleared from the front of the church, leaving the grounds rather stark.

Well, now it seems the iris bed has become ungainly and is a nuisance to the person who takes care of the lawn. He and I had a chat Monday after the council meeting and I said I would remove the irises. It was easier said than done, I found out. The roots had formed large clumps that defied my pitchfork and shovel for some time before I could wrestle them out of the ground. Finally I was able to load my wheelbarrow twice and take the plants to my yard for trimming and dividing.

The Rev. Carolyn Eklund came out at one point to take a look. She liked the irises, she said, but we discussed the need to keep church volunteers happy in their work. And anyway, there were plenty of plants if she could find a better spot on the grounds to put them.

The hours of toil gave me an opportunity to listen to my latest audio book from the Plainfield Public Library, poems of William Butler Yeats. The phrase "bee-loud glade" was so perfect a description of the sanctuary Yeats sought in Innisfree. Living in the "truck-loud 'hood," I was jealous.

Today I have to dig up the rest of the plants and will probably listen to the poems for the third or fourth time. Reading Yeats was one of the things on my post-retirement list; having his poetry read to me while out in the sunshine is even better.

So this is the story behind what will be a bare patch on the church lawn Sunday when you come to visit, have dessert and listen to the marvelous carillon donated by the Pittis family for all to enjoy. There may even be a few souvenir irises to take home.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Protesters Keep Up Heat on Muhlenberg Closing


Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center officially closed Aug. 13 despite months of protest, but on Monday opponents of the closing pressed the City Council to appeal and demanded details of the final arrangements.

The council passed resolutions forming a committee to deal with the hospital’s parent, Solaris Health Systems, and to demand “specific assurances” from state Health Commissioner Heather Howard on conditions she imposed as part of the closing. Outstanding issues include transportation to JFK Medical Center in Edison, access to medical records, a probe of Solaris finances and the value of the Muhlenberg property and the disposition of lifetime endowments to Muhlenberg.

Resident Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, who has long protested the presence of Albert Bierstadt’s “Landing of Columbus at San Salvador” in the municipal courtroom where the council meets, expressed doubt that Howard would respond fairly on the issues.

“It’s a lot like asking Cristobal Colombo to treat the natives in the New World as equals,” he said.

The painting depicts indigenous people bowing down to the Europeans.

Abdul-Haqq said the city's only hope to restore the acute care facility is an appeal of Howard's decision to allow the closing.

The two resolutions were part of a consent agenda to be passed in a single vote, but Dr. Harold Yood asked for a separate vote on each, saying they were "too serious a matter to be considered routine."

The closing of the 131-year-old institution affects not only the city, but about a dozen surrounding towns. Residents who have met every Monday night for months to protest the closing have faulted the governing body for not taking a strong enough stand against it.

"You probably have more power than you think you have," resident Margaret Minatee told the council.

Minatee specifically objected to a plan to charge patients $1 per page for their medical records from Muhlenberg, but added, "We need a hospital in this place."

The Rev. James Colvin said the hospital's license does not expire until December 2008 and questioned Howard's conditions on the closing, saying they may look good, ".... but who is going to be the ombudsman, who is going to be the watchdog?"

Protesters and officials have attempted to locate a buyer for the hospital, but resident Dottie Gutenkauf said Solaris has never yet disclosed a price for the Muhlenberg property. She said an appraisal is needed.

Gutenkauf also protested the cost of obtaining records, calling the proposed charges "obscene."

"These records ought to be free," she said.

Activist Carmen Salavarietta alleged that taxi drivers taking patients to JFK Medical Center and othe hospitals since the closing were illegally hiking their rates to take advantage of the situation.

Council members questioned the tax-exempt status of the Muhlenberg property since the closing, but Gutenkauf tangled with Councilman Rashid Burney after he said the new committee had asked for all financial records on the the closing "agreement."

"What agreement?" Gutenkauf called from the audience.

"The shutdown," Burney said, "whatever you want to call it."

Objecting to Burney's perceived light tone, Gutenkauf shouted angrily, "You don't joke about ropes in the house of someone who's been hanged!"

Besides speaking before the council vote on the committee and assurances sought from Howard, members of the public spoke again in the public comment portion at the end of the meeting.

Resident Gayle Jones said Solaris promised a plan of action for emergency response after the closing, but said she never received it. Jones said a shuttle bus is supposed to leave Muhlenberg for JFK Medical Center at 10 minutes before the hour and return at 20 minutes past the hour, but the last trip to JFK at 7:50 p.m. had no return service to Plainfield. She said she thought Howard had said there would be house-to-house transportation service for patients.

The protest group has held numerous marches and rallies since word of the closing became known earlier this year and continues to meet at 6:30 p.m. every Monday at Du Cret School of the Arts on Central Avenue.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, August 18, 2008

South Avenue Plan Withdrawn, Still Challenged

The ordinance that would have set the stage for a 5-story, 75 unit per acre residential project at Leland and South avenues was withdrawn from the City Council’s agenda Monday (Aug. 18, 2008).

Still, neighborhood protesters vowed to challenge it, saying the proposed parameters were out of line. Speakers said the site should have no more than three stories and should not have triple the current density.

Dubbed TOD-N, the ordinance set bulk use requirements for a portion of the area around the Netherwood train station. It included just the north side of South Avenue around the former G.O. Keller’s dry cleaning site.

“This ordinance will reduce the legal protections the city will have to say ‘no’ to developers,” said Tony Rucker, president of Netherwood Neighbors Association.

Rucker cited concerns over added traffic in the area, among other questions.

Jim Spear, another member of the association, said the group was “adamantly opposed” to the ordinance as written.

Spear said the group will be seeking support from other neighborhood associations to oppose the ordinance.

The next chance for the matter to be heard is in September. The City Council meets again for an agenda session on Sept. 8, with a regular meeting on Sept. 15.

--Bernice Paglia

Muhlenberg Now A Campus

Solaris Health Systems now has a link to the "Muhlenberg Campus." Click here to see what's left at the Randolph Road site.

Thanks to all who fought to keep the hospital open and who kept the community informed. The full impact of the closing remains to be seen as individuals try to adjust to the lack of acute care right here in the city.

Add hospital care to the list of losses for the city: Macy's and other retailers, supermarkets, Doctors' Row, bank headquarters, movie theaters, stationery stores, downtown restaurants, and more. It's a sad time.

But if in fact there is not much more to be done about Muhlenberg, interested residents can still put their energy behind causes such as improving the public schools and revitalizing civic involvement. Most of us don't want to move to Summit or Edison just to be near a hospital. We want to be in Plainfield. What can we do collectively to get through tough times and make the city better?

--Bernice Paglia

TOD-N Ordinance Up Tonight

A controversial ordinance setting land use parameters for a section of South Avenue will be up for first reading at tonight’s City Council meeting.

The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

At last Monday’s agenda session, Planning Director William Nierstedt told the governing body that the TOD-N ordinance reflects Planning Board objectives for the site and that council approval would set standards for development there. The target area includes the former G.O. Keller dry-cleaning site at South and Leland avenues. Nierstedt said the Planning Board has reviewed the ordinance “at least four times,” a comment backed up by the council’s current Planning Board liaison, Councilman William Reid.

But Councilman Cory Storch, who voiced objections to the proposed ordinance in July, asked why it did not cover the south side of South Avenue and properties north past the train tracks of the Raritan Valley Line.

In past talks on transit-oriented development, four zones around two existing and two former train stations were delineated, with half- quarter-mile radii around each.

At the Aug. 11 agenda session, Storch challenged the proposal, saying, “This is really what is called spot zoning,” and called for a “visioning process” to determine what residents want for the neighborhood.

“I advocate that we send this back,” Storch said, suggesting the Planning Board had not dealt with the rest of the zone around the Netherwood train station.

But Reid noted the Planning Board had already spent many hours of discussion on the topic.

Reid, who served as campaign treasurer for Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, was appointed to the council late last year to replace Rayland Van Blake, who became a Union County freeholder. He was also appointed council liaison to the Planning Board in January, replacing Storch. Board members also include the mayor’s confidential aide and one of her bodyguards.

The TOD-N ordinance permits buildings up to five stories high and a density of up to 75 units per acre for mixed use structures. One parking space and one bike rack per unit would be required.

Dennis Cooper of Omni Pointe, an Ohio firm that has presented a conceptual plan for a development in the proposed zone, said Friday the plan calls for a 5-story structure with 224 units and 30,000 square feet of retail space. Cooper said the company is “very hopeful” that construction can begin by March or April. The company does not yet own the G.O. Keller site, but is in negotiations with the owner, he said.

The current density in the neighborhood is 25 units per acre, but the increased height and density is in keeping with transit-oriented development standards that allow for such changes near train stations.

Click here for Plaintalker’s previous post on the proposed ordinance.

At the Aug. 11 meeting, Councilman Rashid Burney also called for more community input into the design of any project in the zone. In public comment, resident Chris Rutherford said he was hearing about a “huge 5-story apartment building coming in” and expressed concern about the impact on traffic and schools in the neighborhood.

“I just feel like we’re kind of out of the loop on what’s going on,” he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Commentary on Ottmann, 1200 Myrtle

A small legal notice Saturday heralds the possibility that Business Administrator Gary Ottmann’s contract may be up for renewal. The matter is to be discussed at the Sept.16 Board of Education business meeting.

Ottmann served 13 years in Plainfield before moving on to the Wayne school district, but was hired back in December 2007.

Ottmann knows the district intimately and may be considered one of its backbones as the district seeks to advance its goals.

His $155,000 contract at the time of his re-hiring was set to expire June 30, 2009, but any extension might be welcome as the district continues to try to meet state standards. New Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III has a four-year contract and just unveiled a three-year strategic plan for district improvement.

Of all the players in the district’s game to win new status, Ottmann must be considered among the most valuable.

Meanwhile, parents, residents and reporters must deal with the fact that all future school board meetings will take place at 1200 Myrtle Avenue, the former Jefferson School site where all administrative offices have been consolidated. Work and study sessions had formerly been held in the Plainfield High School conference room and business meeting locations varied from the high school library to various schools around the district.

A Google satellite view of the old Jefferson School shows little off-street parking, in comparison to Washington Community School or the high school. It might be more convenient for the administration to have school board meetings take place there, but it may be less so for parents and residents who want to attend. Personally, I will have to go by taxi, so I won’t take up a parking space. Meanwhile, I am still hoping somebody will take up reporting on the school board so I can drop back to focusing on City Hall.

Good luck to groups seeking parental involvement when attendance at all board sessions will be limited by parking opportunities at 1200 Myrtle Avenue.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Day Off

My neighbor planted morning glories this year and their ephemeral beauty is a reminder of time passing - each bloom lasts just one morning.

The passage of days can make us feel determined, as in the "one day at a time" philosophy of overcoming bad habits, or morbid, as in Hamlet's "To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time." Or we may seize the day for enjoyment or advancement.

Friday was the kind of day that just drifted on for me. I was sticking around, waiting for packages. One came from Seattle with a very funny comic book that my daughter created for a class, and also a book of poems from City Lights Books in San Francisco, where she visited recently. The other package, with David Carr's "Night of the Gun," didn't arrive.

So time passed and the day was over. Maybe the Amazon package will come today. Meanwhile, I had no blog thoughts except to think of two other plants whose flowers last just for a day.

This dayflower - a weed, really - has exquisite petals that catch the light in an extraordinary way. As a child spending summers with relatives in Plymouth, Pa., I marveled at these flowers that occupied a corner of the yard. My aunt and uncle indulged and encouraged my early forays into nature study and writing and these flowers remind me of them.

Spiderwort is another one of those plants that offer up brilliant flowers each morning and look totally nondescript by afternoon. The plant is in the same family that includes dayflowers, Tahitian Bridal Veil, Wandering Jew and my new garden favorite, Purple Queen.
Friday turned out to be simply a day off from serious matters. I thought the comic book was hilarious and called Audrey to say so. I did a lot of little chores and left others undone. It was the kind of day my ex-husband used to declare a Mental Health Day, time to bow out of the big world and all its demands and obligations. After all, they will still be there tomorrow.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Comment on Muhlenberg Coverage

Plaintalker was never meant to replicate news stories in the print media. At present, the Courier News virtually owns the Muhlenberg story and will continue to do so. This blog began to cover redevelopment issues and other topics that were not being covered closely in the newspapers.

Seeing these images this afternoon on the Plainfield Public Library's slide show of city postcards reminded me that I need to clarify Plaintalker's role vis-a-vis the hospital closing. Other blogs, such as Save Muhlenberg and Jerry Green's Page, are presenting information that augments or disseminates online what is in the print media. Plaintalker now has an archive of nearly 1,250 blog posts on many city issues that never made the print media or only did after Plaintalker broke the story.
So please realize that this blog has its own purpose. All the blogs have added a dimension to understanding Plainfield, each in its own way. Except for the aggregators who link to the work of others, blogs were never meant to be a hall of mirrors.
Any comments?
--Bernice Paglia

Somerset, Union Taxes Compared

To the reader commenting on Plainfield vs. Green Brook tax rates: See links below for 2001 rates in each county.

Somerset County

Union County

The Millman family moved from Plainfield to Green Brook in 2000. Greg Millman also noted that the city's Victorian housing stock had been "discovered" and prices had become "out of reach" for the family.

If anyone wants to expand upon the tax comparisons, please do so.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Former Plainfielders Author Book

When their oldest daughter was in second grade, Greg and Martine Millman made a decision to begin homeschooling. Their new book, on sale tomorrow, is a "journalistic memoir" of educating all six of their children at home and puts homeschooling in the context of the nation's political, economic and social systems, Greg Millman told Plaintalker.

The author of several books on financial markets and international financial events, Millman found the new book a lot harder than writing about other people.

"When I sat down to write my own story, suddenly it was an entirely different experience," he said.

He and his wife drew on their own memories of the venture and even had the children read drafts to get the story right. The book was "at least three years" in the making, he said. The family's goal is to describe what homeschooling really is, "to open a window," he said.

The Millmans came to Plainfield in 1986 and lived here until 2000, when the need for a more spacious home resulted in a move to Green Brook.

"We wanted to stay in Plainfield," Millman said, but the family found home prices "out of our reach" and taxes were too high.

In 1993, when the Millmans began homeschooling, the movement was small. The Millmans helped found co-ops and networks for homeschoolers in the area.

"It became evident that more people were getting involved in this," he said.

Currently, Millman cited statistics that place homeschooling at 2.2 percent of educational systems, but he said it continues to grow "by high single- or double-digit rates."

Of the six Millman children, three are now in good colleges and the younger ones, ages 10, 13 and 17, continue to be homeschooled. As part of his research, Millman interviewed college admissions officers to learn how they make decisions. By looking into trends while explaining homeschooling, Millman said, he was able to explain "things that affect all children."

Millman traced American notions of education back to the early days of public schools and discusses uses such as social control and assimilation that were prominent. But he says, "Homeschooling is a system. People built it themselves."

While avoiding the bureaucracy and other issues in public schools, homeschooling does not mean families are in isolation as they educate their children, he said. Homeschoolers form teams by interests such as debating or robotics, he noted.

To learn more about the book, click here. It is available from Amazon. The Millmans will be holding a book signing Oct. 4 at Borders Books in Watchung. To learn more about writer and our former neighbor Gregory Millman, click here. Congratulations to the entire Millman family!

--Bernice Paglia

Gallon Pledges Districtwide Change

Plaintalker really can't improve on Mark Spivey's report on Tuesday's school board meeting. By the time I got home from the meeting, the Courier News article was already online. Good work!

Meanwhile, here's my take for what it's worth.

When students arrive on Sept. 4, they will find a new climate in the schools, one that recognizes realities such as seven superintendents in seven years and test scores that don't meet state standards, but which offers a matrix for change.

"I believe we are at war for our children," Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III said Tuesday as he rolled out his strategic plan for the next three years.

Since July 1, Gallon has already laid the groundwork with a three-day retreat for administrators where he set the tone for his four-year stint at the helm of the district. Gallon wants tangible and measurable results from staff, parents, students and the community at large in meeting goals for improving learning outcomes, use of human resources, best business practices, a safe and productive learning environment and greater community and family engagement. He presented dozens of metrics for success, some of which have already begun, such as enhanced ways of communicating with the public through an improved website, a new electronic newsletter and a blog.

Among the many indicators of needed change, Gallon noted that at present the district has exactly one (Correction: Nationally board-certified)board-certified teacher and there is no online application process for new hires. A plan for measuring continuous improvement will start with Gallon himself answering the question, "Did I get it done?"

But the main focus will be on improving learning outcomes, as evidenced by test scores as well as students' personal development.

"This is the conversation," Gallon said. "If the conversation doesn't move this, it's noise."

New Plainfield High School Principal Brian Bilal used a quote from Gallon's book, "When Morning Comes," in summing up his intensive plan for uplifting the high school.

"The winds of possibility still blow, despite the cacophony surrounding urban education in America. We have to be quiet to hear them," Gallon wrote.

By now those following Gallon's entry into Plainfield have heard his watchwords often enough to anticipate them when he speaks, "tangible and measurable" being the main ones and stemming the "noise" of cynicism, apathy and other negative attitudes being another. Besides academic performance, district challenges include ever-tightening finances and a drop in enrollment.

"We're going after our 744 children in the charter schools," Gallon vowed.

Business administrator Gary Ottmann gave a budget presentation Tuesday that showed the district paid $6.5 million to charter schools in the 2007-08 school year and stands to lose another $1.6 million to a new charter school slated to open in September 2009. All three of the present charter schools in Union County are in the Plainfield district.

To further spread his message, Gallon is launching a series of town hall meetings starting with one on Aug. 28.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Muhlenberg Closing Prompts Outcry

A flurry of action from the administration and the governing body on the Muhlenberg closing met with disappointment Monday from a group of protesters who said the effort was too little, too late.

Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, an institution for 130 years, is slated to close officially on Wednesday, although activists have tracked evidence of shutting down for the past several weeks.

On Monday (Aug. 11, 2008), Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs told the City Council and public that she held a conference call with state Health Commissioner Heather Howard about a possible buyer for the hospital, which provided acute care for about a dozen Central Jersey communities before the closing. Robinson-Briggs called the talk “quite thrilling” and said the city will be asking for a 60-day stay of the closing. The mayor said three investors will be talking to Howard on Tuesday and Howard will be visiting Plainfield this week.

The council discussed two resolutions Monday, one to establish a three-member committee to serve as liaisons to all existing Muhlenberg groups and another to make seven requests to Howard for information on topics such as what services will be available in the emergency room, hours and capacity of proposed shuttle service, expanded ambulance service and disposition of Muhlenberg Foundation funds.

Both resolutions will be voted on at the regular council meeting next Monday at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

As the meeting proceeded, about 30 members of the Muhlenberg activist group filed in to City Hall Library. The protesters have been meeting every Monday for months, and that was one of their complaints.

“I’m so happy that you have come out from under your rock,” activist Gayle Jones told the council, noting the group has been presenting evidence since February of a plan by parent company Solaris to close Muhlenberg.

“All of you have just decided to ignore us,” Jones said.

Activist Nancy Piwowar named a multitude of unresolved issues related to the closing, including how endowments would be handled.

Protester Brenda Gilbert told the council, “I’m disappointed in you all. We came to you many times and you set silent.”

Gilbert banged on the council table and citing disrespect to the grassroots committee, asked the council members, “How can you sleep at night?”

Latin American Coalition President Flor Gonzalez claimed that Latino beating victims were taken to JFK Medical Center in Edison since the diverting of patients took place, but were only given aspirin and sent home. Gonzalez said she had to seek help for the victims at other hospitals.

Community activist Dottie Gutenkauf said an Alcoholics Anonymous group that met at Muhlenberg sought direction on the closing, but was given notice only on Friday, Aug. 10 that the program had to relocate after the regular meeting on the following Sunday. Gutenkauf called it an incident of “disrespect and disregard.”

Even though the new council committee will only be approved Monday, members plan to meet Thursday to discuss the crisis. As reported in the print media, patients will face emergency ambulance rides to remote hospitals that will be triple or quadruple the time it used to take to reach Muhlenberg. Activists say the prolonged time will result in needless deaths.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Be Informed for Monday Agenda Session

Anyone who plans to attend Moday's City Council meeting should take a look at the agenda that is posted on Rashid Burney's web site. Click here for the agenda.

The agenda-fixing session is where the council discusses various items and decides whether or not to put items from the various governmental departments up for a vote the following Monday. A few very important discussion items can be seen on the agenda, such as formation of a Muhlenberg sub-committee/ad hoc committee. The committee would consist of Council members Burney, Linda Carter and William Reid and their charge would be what is reflected in a proposed resolution (click here to read).

Another proposed resolution, "demanding specific assurances of Commissioner of Health and Human Services Heather Howard in relation to the closure Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center," does not seem to be among those scanned by Burney and so must be picked up at City Hall on Monday to get the full text.

Burney is also the sponsor of proposed legislation to establish a Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee. A proposed resolution calls for each council member to appoint two residents to the committee. The committee would deal with the FY 2009 budget for the fiscal year that started July 1.

All of these matters are important, but there are other big items that need explanation before the Aug. 18 business meeting. The most glaring one has to do with the issuance of $22,500,000 in bonds. It is unclear whether the resolution is setting limits on total bond issuance or whether that amount of bonds is up for issuance.

There are a couple of matters held over from July, one being a resolution on carrying over a tax abatement from Netherwood Village Apartments LLC to the new owner, Netherwood Village LLC, a Connolly Properties affiliate. Another is an ordinance creating special zoning for a portion of South Avenue. The ordinance has been criticized as making de facto decisions that should be left to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Sadly, there are not as many council-watchers as in the past. The gadfly seems to be an endangered species. The alternative to attending council meetings to speak out is to locate your elected representatives on the city web site and shoot off an e-mail to show your concerns about the issues at hand.

Every citizen has three council members who must pay attention. First is the Citywide Councilman at-large and current Council President, Harold Gibson. Next is your own ward representative, either William Reid in the First Ward, Cory Storch in the Second Ward, Don Davis in the Third Ward or Elliott Simmons in the Fourth Ward. Then there is the First and Fourth Ward representative, Linda Carter and the Second and Third representative, Rashid Burney.

In the past few years, information on city actions has increased tremendously with the innovations of online postings and multiple blogs. Plaintalker will endeavor to continue providing context and insight to the flow of raw information to the citizens. As always, real people are encouraged to show up and decide for themselves whether officials are doing their best to make the most of taxpayer dollars.

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

--Bernice Paglia

The Joy of Compost

Leaves, weeds and spent flowers have finally sat in the compost bin long enough to break down.
A few hours of sifting have yielded more than 30 gallons of fine organic material to add to garden soil. Sifting compost while listening to public radio or an audio book is a good way to forget the troubles of the world for a while. Click here for a tutorial on composting.
--Bernice Paglia

Urban Styles Dominate Downtown

Barber Foster "Butch" Webb augments his shop with Nu-Cut Fashions urban wear.

Balloon artist Amparo draws attention to sale items at Maritza Boutique.

Barack Obama's image stands out in a T-shirt display.

Skulls, as on these jean pockets, also appear on chains, belt buckles and lots of other apparel.


Phatish features "urban sexy styles," according to employee Maria Delcid, as she shows off a rack of camisoles.

I was looking for images for the Plainfield Public Library photo contest, but didn't find any that worked for me.

Store after store on the main shopping strip on East Front Street between Park and Watchung avenues features urban streetwear.

Shiny gold or silver overlays on garments are a favorite streetwear detail. I was a fashion anomaly Saturday with my Tom Bihn messenger bag, Orvis travel vest with pockets for camera and cell phone, Gap shirt and jeans and SAS handmade walking shoes. Oh, and the Smith and Hawken hat! Call the fashion police!
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Beware of "Tagged"

A person named Simone has sent multiple messages to Plaintalker regarding the networking site "Tagged." The first time this happened, I tracked her down by phone at the school where she worked and told her to cut it out. She apologized and I thought that was the end of it. But recently I received four more "Tagged" e-mails at the Plaintalker address. I don't know where to reach her now, but if and when I do, she is going to hear it from me!

According to Wikipedia, Tagged is a phishing site, meaning they are trying to get your information for their own purposes. By answering, you may be opening your address book to who knows who. Simone apparently found that out, but the trouble continues.

Here's one take on Tagged, with some positive but mostly negative responses.

Now somebody named Albert has got my name on another account. The thing is, when you click to make a response, you don't get a link to the person who supposedly Tagged you, just a link to Tagged.

Has anyone else had any experiences with this company?

I joined LinkedIn at my daughter's urging and soon found a bunch of people in journalism who wanted to connect. In my case, it's sort of water over the dam, but I can see why younger journos find it useful. At least LinkedIn is not going through your pockets to see all your stuff as Tagged seems to do.

And to Simone and Albert, I say, keep your stupidity to yourself, please. Take me out of your address book, if I was ever in there, and bug off.

--Bernice Paglia

Spider Plants and Shopping

This is a single flower of the familar house and garden favorite, the spider plant.

Here's the parent plant with a profusion of little "spiders" emerging after each flower fades.
Spider plants and shopping have nothing to do with each other except that today I finally got around to these pictures and today is also a prime opportunity to take pictures for the Plainfield Public Library's 2008 photo contest. The theme this year is storefronts and shopping, so if you want to scout for good images, go downtown for the sidewalk sale. An alternative is a block-long yard sale on Cleveland Avenue, organized by Grace Episcopal Church.
I think a yard or garage sale in Plainfield counts as shopping. Certainly the spring garage sale presented by Friends of Sleepy Hollow is a major shopping event for the region. FOSH has announced a fall sale as well this year.
I took a couple of walks downtown to look for interesting storefronts, but found some of the displays embarrassing. Low-end and urban streetwear garments predominate and the goods are often jumbled together. Maybe the sidewalk sales will show more of the human element of finding a bargain or just the right item.
Shopping is not one of my favorite activities (except for notebooks and pens). My daughter inherited all the shopping genes and can find gold in what looks to me like dross, whether at Value Village or Nordstrom Rack in Seattle.
Rules and forms for the photo contest can be found here. And if you happen to see any pretty flowers along the way, take a picture for your own collection.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Neighborhood House Expands

A venerable community institution is marking a new chapter with the addition of six Abbott pre-school classrooms in the refurbished East Front Street building that spans the block from Roosevelt to Westervelt avenues.

Neighborhood House Association Director Carol Presley said Thursday the classrooms will be open in September with a capacity for 90 pre-schoolers.

"It speaks to the need of the community," Presley said, citing a waiting list "that we can never satisfy."

For more information on the Abbott district pre-school program, click here.

Presley said the new program is part of an expansion that includes the addition of 14 classrooms at the original site on Fourth Street.

Neighborhood House began seven decades ago as an outreach of the Moorland YMCA to meet the needs of the community. Presley said in the late 1970s, the mission changed to early childhood education, "because of the need in the community." It currently serves infants, toddlers, afer-school and pre-school groups, she said.

The organization plans a reception Aug. 27 to introduce the new facility, Presley said.

--Bernice Paglia