Saturday, November 29, 2008

Keep Continuity in Government

Reflecting on the problems of governmental transition, Plainfield’s issues have not been as severe as past Jersey City situations with glue in locks and urine on carpets, but there have been situations where those newly in power seek to purge the ranks of employees suspected of loyalty or partisanship to the last administration.

The thing is, there exists a fundamental level of service employees who may have no political axes to grind, but are committed to keep government going while changes take place at the top. These employees are the municipal government bedrock.

While they may go along with the goals of a new administration, they all have day-to-day tasks that more pointedly connect to state obligations. These employees may be challenged by newly-elected employees who have no concept of their obligations, but act out of perceived powers to over-ride the rules.

The current administration may prevail in 2009-10 or someone else may take over. The point is, this city needs ongoing stewardship regardless of who is in charge. Kicking out middle management with familiarity of municipal government is not a good thing. There must be some continuity, no matter what the politics suggest.

It is not too early to start thinking about the dynamics of the 2009-10 government. The involvement of 16 talented citizens in the FY 2009 budget process is a plus for ongoing understanding of future governmental scenarios. The other resource is the knowledge of longtime employees who know the way things work vis-à-vis state government regulations.

Maybe the time has come for the sharp division of one administration to another to fade in favor of addressing collaboratively the issues before city government.

--Bernice Paglia

Change! Can I Do It?

The antediluvian monitor with the beaded fringe and sticky notes is moribund.

I went so far as to purchase a modern flat-screen model, but my technophobia is in full effect and I can't get up the nerve to do what all techno-sassy vs. techno-sissy types say is a rudimentary task. Blogging may be spotty while I recite mantras for courage.

It has been about 30 years since I could compose a honey-do list and expect anyone to comply. Even before that, the honey in question later became known jokingly as a lemon picked on the tree of love and was notoriously non-compliant on many fronts.

So it's been, and is, all up to me.

Considering that it took me a couple of months to plug in a new toaster, getting my computer stuff together is still problematic. Magic formulas and words of encouragement are welcome.

The fact that my sign is Taurus has nothing to do with this resistance to change! It's just a coincidence! Don't judge!

--Bernice Paglia

In From the Wild

One little feral cat has decided to embrace civilization, such as it is. He permitted me to pet him and stand guard while he ate, fending off his food-snatching buddies. When he clawed his way up my jeans leg to sit on my lap, I knew he had acquiesced to a different life.

In collaboration with a neighbor who knows the ways of cats, I got him to a vet about a week ago. At about six months, he weighed in at 2.9 pounds. Since agreeing to live temporarily in my extremely humble abode, he has gained 8/10 of a pound and may have to be re-named from "Mousie" for his runt status to a more suitable moniker for a handsome young kitty.

Mousie outside was a forlorn little creature, often sitting alone in the vast expanse of the driveway with no ambition or playfulness. Inside, he has proven to be conversational, curious and given to drama when confronting a crumpled paper ball or a crocheted spider.

Although I continue to protest that I am not currently capable of nurturing any higher form of life than a house plant, some people are insisting that Mousie was meant to be my companion. We'll see.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, November 28, 2008

Commentary on Budget Process

The outcome of the FY 2009 budget process may be known by Dec. 22, the new target for adoption. Meanwhile, the report of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee raises numerous questions about the next time the administration, council and possibly a citizen group will tackle the budget.

Foremost among the questions may be how the city can avoid the embarrassment and distress caused by a $1.7 million typo in the official budget statement that was sent to the state Local Finance Board. The repercussions at this end included shock on the part of the citizens committee and the need to find ways make up for the error on top of already 9.5 percent projected tax increase. One wonders what the state board had to say about such an egregious mistake on a document that was prepared by city auditors and approved by several top officials.

The advisory committee recommended an earlier start to the budget process, as early as February or March, for the budget year that begins July 1. Unless there is a better way of presenting budget requests of the various departments and divisions, it won’t matter how early the process starts. The committee deemed the presentations “sloppy” with good cause. Charts did not match text in the PowerPoint slides and handouts, for example. The City Council also cut two budget sessions short, leaving officials including the tax collector and fire chief sent packing after patiently waiting their turn to speak. Why waste their time that way?

Also an early start in 2009 could run afoul of the fact that the FY2010 budget spans an election year and the possible advent of a new administration. In 2005, an attenuated budget process ground to a halt in order to defer decisions to the administration that took over in 2006. In Plainfield, a Democratic June primary win generally spells success in the November general election. If a new mayoral candidate emerges in June, maybe that person should shadow the budget process at least to the same extent that a citizens budget advisory committee does.

Much of the budget work in the past had been handled by former Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya, who served two stints in Plainfield and knew the city inside out. Sepelya had originally planned to retire at the end of 2005, but stayed on until the end of 2007. So the city had two years to seek a new CFO. A temporary CFO was named and more recently the city hired a part-time CFO. Meanwhile, Finance Director Douglas Peck is the fifth person in three years to be in charge of the department of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services. Peck presided over the sessions that the advisory committee found inadequate for their task. Besides City Administrator Marc Dashield, who will provide even minimal continuity if Peck goes through the revolving door?

Another consideration regarding an early start is the fact that extraordinary state aid for fiscal year municipalities is not announced until December. It was suggested that the city revert to a calendar year, but it was not spelled out how that would take place. It certainly couldn’t happen in the middle of this fiscal year. If memory serves, the option of changing to a fiscal year came from state government under the Florio administration and cities that took the option were permitted a one-time chance to use state aid for operating costs, not just for tax relief. If anyone has more details, please comment. The change required a six-month transition budget.

The city’s special charter was not amended and still indicates a calendar year schedule. Ideally, the budget should be passed within three months of the start of the budget year, but calendar-year municipalities did not get word of their extraordinary state aid amounts until July, according to online news clips. So both calendar and fiscal year budgets have a built-in six-month delay, if they seek extraordinary state aid for tax relief. Then again, given state government conditions, there may be no extraordinary state aid for anybody in 2009-2010.

The budget committee did receive orientation on the budget process. Whether it included any information on the state’s role is not known. The big budget binder provided to committee members was a city document and did not include revenues, which show up on the official budget document sent to the state (and where the $1.7 million error occurred).

All these factors deserve consideration the next time around.

--Bernice Paglia

Tree Lighting Dec. 5

To reader GB: You're right, there is no information about the city's tree lighting on the official web site. I am not on the list of people who receive press releases from City Hall, however I did receive an e-mail from Drake House noting the museum's tree lighting next Friday has been canceled and urging people to join in the City Hall celebration at 6 p.m. on Dec. 5. Maybe there are some flyers out on the event.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Holidays

The holiday season is here and Plaintalker wishes everyone happiness and peace.

About 50 people gathered Sunday to give thanks for the past and ongoing efforts of community activists to save Muhlenberg. The Rev. Carolyn Eklund welcomed them to Grace Episcopal Church for a joint service with The Rev. M. LaVerne Ball of Rose of Sharon Community Church, The Rev. Jim Colvin of United Church of Christ Congregational and The Rev. Tony Johnson of First Unitarian Society of Plainfield.

Rev. Johnson is the interim minister for a year while FUSP conducts a ministerial search and it was heartening to see Plainfield through his eyes in the very warm and diverse group that came together to raise prayers for the city and the community. The other ministers have been in the ranks as the long struggle took place before the hospital's closing. Groups are still meeting to monitor progress on an agreement with Solaris and other talks on health care provision.

Even in hard times we can be thankful for the hope and strength of the community.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Way Off Broadway, But Still Great

For $15, you can enjoy a theater experience right here in Plainfield. The location is the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, 724 Park Ave., and you will see some of the best community theater talent.

Think about working off that big dinner by laughing madly at the Neil Simon play offered by Act IV Productions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Here's an article I submitted to the media about featured actor John Boucher:

For John Boucher, the fourth time was the charm.

The veteran community theater actor had been nominated three times before for a “Perry” award from the New Jersey Association of Community Theaters It was finally his role in Act IV Productions’ “Over the River and Through the Woods” that won him the 2007-08 Perry for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play.

“I was thrilled,” Boucher said. “I was delighted.”

Boucher, 81, came to New Jersey from Massachusetts 32 years ago. While attending community theater events here, he said so many times that he’d like to try acting himself that his wife one day handed him the local newspaper and pointed out an audition notice. Soon he was a member of Franklin Community Players and launched on a 30-year love affair with the stage. He estimates he has been in 40 plays, both drama and comedy, and has worked with four or five theater groups.

Asked why he took up acting after the age of 50, Boucher quipped, “I ‘m a show-off, that’s why.”

But he added, “I love theater. It’s just thrilling to be on the stage.”

NJACT honored the 2007-08 nominees and winners with a gala in September.

Boucher’s next performance will again be with Act IV, as the cranky retired vaudeville star Willie Clark in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys.” Willie reluctantly agrees to a reunion with his partner, Al Lewis, played by Renato Biribin, to bring back their act, Lewis and Clark, for a television show on the history of comedy. But the partners’ off-stage dislike for each other stands in the way and creates the humor that has made the Simon play a hit over more than 30 years on stage, film and television.

Besides Boucher, a Franklin (Somerset) resident, and Biribin of South Plainfield, the Act IV production includes cast members Frank Doran of Roselle Park, Peter Jones of North Plainfield, Milt Rowan of Dunellen and Gail Sweeney of Clark. The director is Cass Cochrane of Colonia and producers are Gail Pollak of Westfield and Barbara VanSavage of Fanwood.

If you go: Performances are 8 p.m. on Nov. 21, 22, 28 and 29 and 3 p.m. on Nov. 30 in the Parish Hall of First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, 724 Park Ave., Plainfield. Tickets are $15. Call (908) 756-0750 for reservations or more information.


For a glimpse at the production that led to the award, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Citizen Committee: No Budget Increase

A 16-member citizens’ budget advisory committee has identified $2.5 million in cuts and recommends no budget increase, Chairman Bill Amirault told the City Council Monday (Nov. 24, 2009).

Amirault said given the short time the committee had to work and the fact that the city is already five months into the 2009 fiscal year, its findings may serve mainly to guide future budget prioritizing. Councilman Rashid Burney, chairman of the governing body’s Finance Committee, said several of the proposed cuts made their way into documents the council is now using to finalize the budget. A public hearing on the budget will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 15, when amendments will also be offered. The council hopes for final passage on Dec. 22.

At present, the budget reflects a 9.5 percent increase that is expected to be offset by extraordinary state aid to be announced next month.

Much of Amirault’s presentation had to do with the way the city operates in general, with a report card laden with C’s, D’s and F’s in five areas. The group deemed public safety most important, with improved schools, economic development, communications and beautification as other targets for improvement. Amirault acknowledged that the school district was not under city control, but in comments after the presentation, Council President Harold Gibson expressed surprise that there would be any reference to the educational system in the report.

Besides recommending no budget increase, the committee suggested a salary freeze for non-contract employees for 15 months, a half-day weekly reduction in work hours for several weeks, removal of Dudley House from the city payroll and perhaps hiring more firefighters to cut down on overtime costs. Amirault credited committee member Nancy Piwowar with identifying $1.7 million in savings in the “other expenses” category, which covers items such as bottled water and supplies.

Committee members sat in on budget sessions led by Dashield and Finance Director Douglas Peck, but Amirault flatly called the presentations “sloppy.” Peck was not present Monday, but Gibson expressed disappointment with what he saw as “subjective criticism.” Noting his tenure ends Dec. 31, Gibson said it will be up to the other council members to decide how they want to handle the budget process next year.

Because a public hearing was advertised for Monday, the council permitted public comment, but most speakers expressed concern about Dudley House, a grant-funded program for addicted men. The program required only $28,000 in city funds until this year, when repairs had to be made to make the Putnam Avenue residence handicapped-accessible. Speakers said they want the program to be restored because it has saved lives.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf asked that the report be made available to the public on the city web site and in print. The session was taped using new sound equipment and will be broadcast on the city’s local Channel 74.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 24, 2008

Dudley House Battle Continues

Questions on Dudley House swirled again Monday, but City Administrator Marc Dashield said he expected the residential treatment center to regain its license by the end of the year.

One item on the agenda was rejection of a bid by Management Options LLC of Cedar Knolls to operate the program, but Dashield said the agency was the sole bidder. The administration was seeking council approval to reject the bid for “insufficient response.”

He said a former director, Carol Anderson, was presently working with the city to restore the program.

An institution for about a quarter-century, Dudley House has changed the lives of hundreds of addicted men for the better, as several testified Monday while seeking answers on the program’s fate.

Most of the program costs are paid through grants.

“Everyone that comes to Dudley House comes with a grant,” Dashield said. “When the grants run out, the clients run out.”

But due to new regulations last year, the residence on Putnam Avenue needed to become handicapped accessible to keep its license with the Division of Addiction Services within the state Department of Human Services.

The deadline elapsed without compliance and funding was withdrawn. The last client left in May, but work on accessibility did not begin until September. In answer to a former client’s question, Dashield explained that the city received Community Development Block Grant funds for the repairs, but action could be taken only after the grant year began in September.

The program is largely grant-funded, except for $28,000 in city costs, which expanded to about $148,000 this year to pay for the renovations. A citizens’ budget advisory group recommended turning the program over to a non-profit agency, a notion that some council members have endorsed, saying a mission-driven agency could garner funding beyond what a municipality could raise.

One problematic issue has been the proportion of Plainfielders who take part in the program. Objectors want to see more city residents in the program, while others recognize the need to be away from familiar haunts while battling addiction.

The sharing of personal tales of transformation Monday left little doubt that the program has turned many Central Jersey former drug and alcohol addicts into productive and successful citizens. The outcome of the program’s viability remains to be seen.

Among comments, a Linden graduate of the program said, “This house works the way it is.”
“That place saved my life,” said a Piscataway resident who took 20 years to get clean, but has succeeded for two years now.

Others cited friends who had gone on to reunite with families or pursue careers in business or education.

Dudley House advocate Dottie Gutenkauf likened the current confusion to a “hamster in a wheel” producing lots of noise and excitement, but not getting anywhere.

As officials have said, results may be known by 2009.

--Bernice Paglia

No Budget Report Tonight

According to the City Council agenda for tonight, there will be no report from the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee. BIG CORRECTION: Yes, there was a report tonight 11/24. It was the budget hearing that was deferred to another date. It is likely that budget passage will now take place in January.

The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library.

There isn't much on the agenda. Click here to view it. Note that an agency's bid to operate Dudley House was rejected. What will be the fate of Dudley House, now that repairs are being finalized to bring the building into ADA compliance? Is it too little, too late? Stay tuned.

Items approved tonight will be voted on at the Dec. 1 regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Extreme Thrift in Seattle

My daughter attended the "Glitter Sale" at Goodwill in Seattle and among other treasures scored this St. John top with paillette detail for a fraction of its Nordstrom cost. Plaintalker previously published a link to the Glitter Sale, which alas is over now.

The top had the original Nordstrom markdown tag still on it. The starting price wasn't listed, but still a markdown from $259 to $39.99 is rather remarkable. St. John, as we Jerseyans may recall, was a favored designer of Dina Matos McGreevey.
Audrey thought the top might be good to wear at Richard Hugo House readings, for a little glamour to go along with the literary atmosphere.
Local bargain mavens responded to my article on the exodus of thrift shops from Plainfield by recommending regional shops and advocating "Free-Cycling," a sort of exchange where people post their unwanted items for others to acquire.
In Seattle, a lot of apartment buildings have free goods in laundry rooms or other common areas and it makes good sense. Some of our acquisitions turn out not to look too good in retrospect and why shouldn't others profit by our mistakes or changed tastes?
Among favored thrift shops in Central Jersey is the Frippery Thrift Shop of Wilson Memorial Church at 40 Hillcrest Road in Watchung, just up the road apiece. Call (908) 561-8298 for details.
Other listings in the phone book are the Holy Cross Thrift Shop in North Plainfield at 40 Mercer Street. Call (908) 753-2888 to check on hours, etc.
The Thrift Shop of Fanwood-Scotch Plains at 1730 East Second Street, Scotch Plains, (908) 322-5420 and The Thrift Shop of the Westfield Service League at 114 Elmer Street, Westfield, (908) 233-2530 are also good bets.
Click here for more information on Freecycle. Passing along unwanted possessions is really a very good community thing. In months to come, we may all be looking for such sharing as we come to grips with reduced income, higher consumer costs and other economic woes.
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, November 22, 2008

New Charter School Adds Middle School Choice

A new charter school is targeting middle school students, aiming to enroll 160 by its opening in September. The same age group is also a target of an innovation by new Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III, who proposed last summer to convert one K-5 elementary school to K-8, starting this year with sixth-grade classes.

Gallon’s gambit was to give parents a choice, given that families seem to be OK with public schools until their children approach middle school age. Then it’s off to parochial, private or charter schools, a situation that has contributed to a 16 percent overall drop in enrollment over the past few years. Here’s a quote from Plaintalker:

“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.”

The Dr. Ellen G. Pressman Charter School will open with 60 students each in grades 6 and 7. Charter schools are public schools, receiving allotments of district funds minus some administrative costs. Most charter schools have themes, and the new school will emphasize “music and high academics,” according to announcements for its open house meetings. One took place Nov. 17 and another will be held at 7 p.m. Monday (Nov. 24, 2008) in the Community Room of the Plainfield Public Library. Mark Spivey filed a story for the Courier News on the school and its founders. It should appear in print and online tomorrow or Monday.

Middle schools in Plainfield have grades 6, 7 and 8, but also a reputation for trouble. Mixing pre-adolescents and adolescents in middle school and treating them all as what used to be called “junior high” students has fallen into disfavor among educators who feel the nurturing atmosphere of elementary school is best extended through eighth grade. Decades ago, all elementary schools were K-8 configurations.

So parents in Plainfield will have two new choices in September, in addition to other charter schools and existing middle schools. For a 2005 Plaintalker story on the other three charter schools in Plainfield, click here.

Some feel it is unfair that, of 21 municipalities in Union County, Plainfield should have all four of the charter schools in the county. The amount of public school money allocated to charter schools has increased significantly with each new opening. And even though they are public schools, the district has no relationship with them except to budget the funding and provide certain administrative functions. Charter schools report directly to the state Department of Education’s Charter School Division.

It was the state that shut down the city’s first charter school, Career Academy for Lifelong Learning and Achievement. At the closing, some parents said they would send their children to stay with relatives and be schooled outside Plainfield rather than put them in the public schools.

Gallon, on the job since July 1, rolled out a strategic plan that includes recapturing students from other venues. The district no longer includes school population counts in the Board of Education agenda, so there is no casual way to study trends.

Meanwhile, another charter school has announced an open house for next week. The Central Jersey Arts Charter School will launch applications for the 2009-10 school year with an open house from 5 to 7 p.m. at 35 Watchung Avenue. According to newspaper ads in English and Spanish, the school will take applications until Dec. 5, either online or dropped off at the school. As with all charter schools so far, enrollment will be set by lottery.

--Bernice Paglia

Water Repairs are Wrapping Up

New Jersey American Water finally unhooked the orange temporary water hoses on our block. Here they are in the shadow of a maple tree on our front lawn. Of course, then we had the water main break, but that has been fixed. So water service should be back to normal now.

It's good that the operation is almost over, because the puddles caused by leaks had turned to ice in the past few days. A big patch could be seen Wednesday on Watchung Avenue. Now all that remains is for the roads to be fixed. Park & Seventh north of the intersection is especially damaged. City officials have pledged to keep after the water company to complete repairs.

Now all we have to do is keep after city officials to make sure the five-year municipal road repair program stays on track! It has resumed after a few years of inaction. To see the entire plan as posted on Councilman Rashid Burney's web site, click here. And thanks to Councilman Burney for keeping citizens informed while the city web site is still in a rudimentary state.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 20, 2008

504 Will Become Family Success Center

In local shorthand, “504” was the historic Madison Avenue building that had become the seat of school board and district offices. The 19th century site was vacated in August after new Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III decided to consolidate all administrative offices in the former Jefferson School at 1200 Myrtle Avenue.

At Tuesday’s school board business meeting, 504’s future was spelled out. As explained by staff members Anna Belin-Pyles, Denise Shipman and Gary Ottmann, the Family Success Center currently housed in the North Building of Plainfield High School will relocate to 504 Madison and with other agencies will become “one of the largest comprehensive one-stop support centers.”

Among its resources will be access to education, training, employment, family literacy, referrals to mental health and substance abuse programs, youth development and many other services. Eight agencies will be involved, including United Way, Proceeds Inc., The Union County Youth Services Bureau and Union County Vo-Tech and the New Jersey Youth Corps.

Ottmann traced a timeline that calls for facility improvements leading up to an April 2009 open house. Because the phone system was relocated to 1200 Myrtle Avenue, a new one must be installed. Other upgrades include restroom improvements, painting, flooring repairs and making the site handicapped accessible.

Once known as Whittier School, the building dates back to 1898, according to Shipman. According to its status, it cannot be used for educational purposes, Gallon said. School board member Patricia Barksdale questioned whether the support program could be expanded to the Lincoln School building, but Gallon said he wanted to reserve existing educational buildings for educational purposes.

Lincoln School formerly contained an alternative school program which has since been moved to the so-called “swing school” building at 1700 West Front Street and re-named the Plainfield Academy for Academic & Civic Development.

In his three-year strategic plan, Gallon has proposed a new school, the Plainfield Academy for Arts & Advanced Studies, which may possibly end up being located in the Lincoln School.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Cold? Enough to Make a Cat Laugh

Block 832 has more than its fair share of feral cats. These resourceful felines have all sorts of tricks to deal with adverse weather conditions. As any cat owner knows, there must be a gene for finding the warmest spot. This sunny leaf pile provides not only solar power, but insulation against the wind. Can you spot all the cats in here?

A gray cat and a golden-brown tabby have found a place to snooze together.
Here are two black cats and a gray one in the middle.


Hidden behind some sticks is a gray tabby. Look for the ears.

Cats are very adaptive. My grandcat, Ichiro in Seattle, used to sit right up against a heat vent on the pillow I made for him at one location. Maximum heat!

In a new house, Ichiro still upholds the motto that dogs have masters, but cats have staff. My work-from-home daughter gets frequent memos from Ichiro - Let me in. Let me out. Let me in again, etc., etc.

And so it goes with cats.

--Bernice Paglia

Track Club Seeks BOE Backing

Advocates of the Tsunami Track Club – parents, coaches and young participants – told their personal stories to the Board of Education Tuesday in an effort to reclaim use of high school hallways for practice.

The club previously used Plainfield High School for indoor practice over three years, but was denied by the new administration over liability issues. In a presentation to the City Council Nov. 10, Coach Kevin Turner and others told the governing body they have insurance and there have been no problems with use of the school.

Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III was present at the council meeting, but refused to make a decision in that setting. Club leaders will be meeting with Gallon today, but board member Wilma Campbell reminded the group Tuesday that the matter has not come to the board for consideration.

Club membership has given students chances to visit major colleges and universities for meets, afforded personal opportunities to excel at regional and national competitions and provided a support base of concerned adults for their success in school, athletics and life in general, speakers said. All 14 coaches are volunteers who devote countless hours and even vacation time to training and competitions.

Nancy Jordan traced the club's evolution from her late husband's efforts to involve young people in athletics.

"Anyone with longevity will remember 'Steve the Cop,' " Jordan said.

Besides organizing sports activities, she said, Steve Jordan attended many events to show support.

"People that knew him knew that track was his passion," Nancy Jordan said.

More than a dozen speakers praised the organization and its benefits.

“I’ve never seen a program such as this,” parent Mike Simmons said. “Tsunami just tops it all.”

“We would never take a program away from kids,” Board President Bridget Rivers said. “I’m sure the outcome is going to be great.”

But when it will be resolved is not known. Speakers said some students have turned to other clubs for training while talks over use of the school continue.

Several board members said they were greatly moved by the testimony of the young people, their coaches and parents.

“My heart is very full,” Lisa Logan Leach said.

“Don’t ever second-guess our support for children,” Patricia Barksdale said.

Rasheed Abdul-Haqq said he had “a very difficult time not shedding tears” after hearing from the club’s children and adults.

Gallon listened very attentively, but did not comment. As chief school administrator, he holds the power to decide on use of the high school and to recommend board approval. The board’s next business meeting is Dec. 16.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Board Member Resigns

School Board President Bridget Rivers announced with sadness Tuesday the resignation of board member Vickey Sheppard.

No reason was given, but since being re-elected in April for a second three-year term, Sheppard has missed a number of meetings over the summer and fall, participating by phone in at least one meeting.

The announcement means the board must appoint someone to replace Sheppard until the next school board election in April.

The last time the board had to take such action was when former school board member Sharon Robinson-Briggs was elected mayor and had to vacate her post in January 2006. The board chose David Graves from among three candidates to serve as appointee, but Graves lost the balance of the term in the April 2006 school board election to Patricia Barksdale.

Whoever is appointed to the seat will have to run in the April 2009 school board election for the unexpired term to 2011. Incumbents are Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, Lisa Logan Leach and Barksdale, but because the filing date is in February, it is not known which of them may want to run again for full three-year terms.

--Bernice Paglia

Council Seeks Spending Controls

The City Council gave initial approval Monday to a 4 percent salary increase for two unions, but officials and residents both said city employees may have to share in belt-tightening in the future.

The 4 percent increase for members of the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association and a small group of Public Works employees was negotiated long before the recent economic collapse that is causing massive job losses and other cutbacks in the private sector. But the city’s ability to control its spending is hindered by a budget process that almost every year ends up with salaries being paid for two quarters before the budget is passed. The FY 2009 budget covers the fiscal year that began July 1 and due to a wait for extraordinary state aid, may run over into January before final passage.

Councilman Cory Storch suggested a hiring freeze as one way the city can limit spending, and said the city must find a way to implement other kinds of controls.

The largest part of the budget is salaries and wages, with Fire and Police divisions taking the biggest share. The city has half a dozen bargaining units in all.

“We have been trying to move the whole budget up,” said Councilman Burney, who heads the governing body’s Finance Committee.

But he said the extraordinary state aid for fiscal year municipalities is announced in December, which holds up the process.

On a wry note, Burney added there may not be any such state aid next year.

Burney has posted the revised budget schedule on his blog, “As I See It.”

Resident Robert Darden spoke about increasing foreclosures and a lengthy tax delinquency notice in the newspapers.

“The nation is reducing its budget, the state is reducing its budget,” he said, but not the city.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 17, 2008

City Council Meets Tonight

At tonight’s City Council meeting, the governing body will vote on two Housing Authority appointments, the Special Improvement District budget and two salary ordinances giving employees 4 percent raises.

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

Pamela Dunn-Hale is up for appointment to a five-year term on the Housing Authority, replacing Veronica Taylor-Hill, and Hattie Williams is up for reappointment for a five-year term.

The proposed Special Improvement District budget is $234,054 and includes management and office costs, projects to improve the district’s appearance and to beautify it, marketing and advertising and special events including concerts and car shows. The funds come from both a special surtax on property owners in the district, Urban Enterprise Zone funds, advertising and a small amount of interest.

The Special Improvement District includes both the downtown and South Avenue business districts. The program is now in its fifth year. A public hearing will be scheduled on the budget.

The two unions that have settled are the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association and the United Service Worker Union Local 255, whose members are Public Works employees. As explained by Human Resources Director Karen Dabney, the PMEA had language in its past contract that linked salary increases to cost of living figures. Because the cost of living increase from October 2007 to September 2008 was 4.35 percent, the salary increase will be 4 percent.

For PMEA, new salary ranges go from a low of $32,319 - $43,202 to a high of $68,426 - $90,824. Public Works employees will have salary ranges of $28,851 - $39393 to $52,701 - $72,048. The ordinances will be up for first reading tonight, with a public hearing before a final vote on second reading.

At last Monday’s tumultuous meeting, a protest by parents and coaches over use of the high school for indoor track practice eclipsed some council matters. In a discussion item, Police Director Martin Hellwig reported on Halloween safety measures. Hellwig said assaults three years ago triggered a response the next Halloween that included reaching out to schools. Still, he said, there was a “crime spree” with paintball guns that resulted in car windows being broken. This year, residents met with police to make plans that included an 8 p.m. curfew, strategic placement of the Mobile Command Center near City Hall and alerting middle and high school students to the curfew with the help of Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III.

Hellwig said police were reassigned to have a greater street presence and 52 cars were stopped for suspicious activity. Two paintball guns were confiscated and a juvenile with a BB gun was taken into custody. Two handguns were also taken off the street, Hellwig said.
Residents were told to call police if anyone rang their doorbell after 8 p.m., but there were no calls.

Hellwig said the successful community effort was based on setting an “expectation of acceptable behavior.”

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Deer Killed on Park Avenue

Many of you may have seen the dead deer in front of 1010 Park Avenue. It is not the same as the one that pranced around Park & Seventh. No word yet on whether that one got hit by a car on city streets. I took a picture of the dead deer, but decided not to post it.

Anyway, now that it is rutting season and given that we have deer in the southeast part of the city as well as in Green Brook Park, drive carefully, especially at dusk.

The state-wide deer herd is estimated at 150,000. As with black bears, the encroachment of new housing and other development into formerly untouched habitats is causing a clash between people and the state's wild creatures. Some rural towns hand out information on how to deal with bear encounters. Hunters have been allowed to cull deer herds, even quite close to populated areas.

Years ago the Courier News used to publish what I called the "deer at sunset" photos, so evocative of the former shyness of deer. It was a hallmark of rustic living to see a herd of deer grazing at the edge of a forest.

But no more. Even here in Plainfield, people can recount tales of herds coming right up to their backyard windows as if to say, "Who are you guys and what are you doing on our turf?"

Click here for a link to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Wildlife page, which has many more links on deer, bears, foxes and more. It is a little too heavily oriented toward hunting for my taste, but certainly very informative.

--Bernice Paglia

Read the Fine Print

For those of you who took note of the Nov. 24 PMUA rate hearing and regular meeting, please cross them off your calendar.

A new set of legal notices Saturday announced that both the 6 p.m. rate hearing and the 7 p.m. regular meeting have now been canceled. No new dates were mentioned.

So Plaintalker will have to continue scouring those legal notices to find out what's next.

The regular meeting had already been changed from Nov. 13 to Nov. 24. Boards, commissions and authorities normally publish annual calendars when they reorganize. The City Council reorganizes in January, the school board in April and the PMUA in February. So interested citizens have to pay attention. Besides being published, many such calendars are posted in the City Clerk's office and other public places. Changes can be made, providing notice is published.

Here's another interesting legal notice from Saturday: The Board of Education will be discussing Board Secretary/Business Administrator Gary Ottmann's contract renewal at the Dec. 16 school board meeting. Ottmann, who formerly served 13 years in Plainfield in the same role, was hired back last December. So there is some future news to monitor, whether Ottmann will stay on, for how many years and at what salary.

Big changes are in the works at most newspapers, including the Courier News, and Plaintalker wonders how things will shake out in terms of legal notices. Online sources don't seem to have the local legal notices, which Plaintalker finds so useful as heralds of possible news. Under the Open Public Meetings law, all a governmental entity has to do to alert the public to an important hearing is publish notice. If you don't see it, too bad. The letter of the law has been fulfilled and the entity is free to take action after the hearing.

So if you want to find out about PMUA rates and speak on any proposed changes, or find out when other decisions are upcoming, keep watching those pages of fine print. Plaintalker will also be watching.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Oh Deer!

My blogging was interrupted this morning by a call from my neighbor to say there was a deer in our yard.

Now, I know there is a herd of deer in the southeast part of the city, but at Park & Seventh? Yes, I looked out to see a young male deer in the driveway. While I tried to get a photo from a window, the deer made its way to Municipal Lot 7 and then across Park Avenue to a churchyard. There, someone shooed the deer, causing it to leap a fence onto West Seventh Street. The deer was last seen heading downtown.

Why would a young male deer be wandering around the city? I recalled my great fear of doing cop runs in Somerset County when I was a reporter, especially in late fall. As I approached one particular police station, herds of deer would be crossing the road. In rutting season, they were definitely not looking both ways before crossing. The thought of a collision scared the heck out of me.

Click here for a comprehensive article on the dangers of car vs. deer encounters, especially when bucks are chasing does in rutting season.

Maybe this deer was simply looking for love in all the wrong places. With all the drivers on cell phones already not paying attention, the streets of Plainfield are even more likely to be hazardous to a deer than a country road. So, wild thing, good luck. Psst! There are does in Green Brook Park, if you can get there.

--Bernice Paglia

Tax Lien Sale Coming Up

As promised, Tax Collector Maria Glavan will conduct a tax lien sale Dec. 2 to recoup delinquent taxes for the city.

Those who purchase the liens will pay the city the back taxes owed. The delinquent taxpayers will then owe the debt to the lienholder, who can charge up to 18 percent interest and can move to foreclose on the property if the debt remains unpaid.

This time around, the list of delinquent property owners ran to three pages. Taxes owed to the city and the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority were included, along with unpaid Special Improvement District assessments and other unspecified charges. Sometimes having one's name in the paper will spur owners to pay up back taxes before the sale.

These pages hold many untold stories. School board members, city employees, well-known business owners and institutions are on the list, mostly for small amounts. But an absentee landlord from Watchung and his partner owe more than $50,000 on their properties. A Hillsborough man who bought a highly visible office building several years ago owes more than $25,000. An official of the Special Improvement District owes more than $20,000, including a SID assessment. Whatever the private reasons for their failure to pay, the names are now there for all to see.

The first name on the list looked very familiar. A search revealed why. Click here for the story.

The list will be published again next Tuesday, if you want to take a look.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, November 14, 2008

Downtown Sights on a Rainy Day

"Sunshine on a Cloudy Day" was my reaction to this ginkgo tree's bright yellow foliage. We are now in the season where gloomy skies and waning light can make a person feel down in the dumps. But it's just about six weeks until the winter solstice, after which the days begin to get longer and windowsill plants respond to the increasing light.

All the recent talk of bank closings made this facade an interesting image, with its colorful neon beer signs. This building has been through many transitions and is now a nightclub/restaurant with an entrance from the back parking lot.

Posters are up for the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe on Dec. 12, a very important celebration to many people in Plainfield, Mexico and across Latin America. The observance includes processions, a torch relay and overnight religious ceremonies with songs and tributes to the patron saint. Check a Spanish television station on Dec. 11 for views of the celebration in churches and cathedrals in Latino communities in the United States and other countries.
--Bernice Paglia

Commentary on TV Board Meeting

Wednesday's meeting of the Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Board was a depressing reminder of the need for better communications in the city.

Click here for Dan's report.

The board is supposed to oversee cable television activities, make recommendations and reports, serve as liaison with Comcast and "encourage and promote full utilization"' of cable television resources and more. The full ordinance, with all 16 duties and responsibilities, is posted on Councilman Rashid Burney's web site. Scroll down to Article 26.

Both the web site and the programming on Channel 74 remain weak, with little more than a year left to go in the current administration. On Wednesday, Public Information Officer Jazz Clayton-Hunt gave the board an overview of the programming on Channel 74, including coverage of seminars on business and home ownership, Plainfield Symphony performances, "Hello Plainfield" and "Plainfield @ Work" programs and community events.

But ongoing coverage of City Council meetings is still in the works. Board members said they often get requests for such coverage, but Clayton-Hunt cited technical issues. Staffing is another issue, board member Peter Briggs noted. The board asked Clayton-Hunt to prepare presentations on the programming and council coverage, possibly to be given at the Nov. 24 City Council agenda session.

The "Music in the Plaza" summer events were taped, but attendance was low, Clayton-Hunt said. In response to a board member who said she didn't know about the music events, Clayton-Hunt said they were publicized on the city's web site. True, but event listings are under "Community Resources," a link that sounds more like social service agencies.

Clayton-Hunt said her office also wants to invite "intellectual resources" in the city to take part in interviews, but there is no studio available. Board member Dottie Gutenkauf suggested checking the schools for space. Other possibilities discussed were the YWCA, the YMCA or Harvest Radio studios in Plainfield. School board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, who asked about the status of an educational channel provided for in the Comcast franchise, was asked to check on possible studio space in the schools.

Clayton-Hunt also presented a four-page "wish list" of equipment to improve communications, one page of which contained items needed immediately. Board member Jan Massey asked her for an inventory of current equipment, but she didn't have one. It is unclear how the wish list could be addressed now anyway, because the FY 2009 budget for the year ending June 30 is now being finalized

The board itself needs a chairman, more members and a meeting schedule for the coming year. Briggs, the husband of the mayor, was the chairman but had to step down due to board bylaws. The board does not have a list of current members, terms and vacancies. According to the Municipal Code, the board is supposed to have 11 members, but only three were present Wednesday.

Anyone wishing to serve on the board may download an application from the city web site and submit it to the mayor's office.

The next Cable Television Advisory Board meeting is 7 p.m. Dec. 16 in City Hall Library.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Footnote to Election Day

Third Ward write-in campaigner Brenda Gilbert received a total of 31 votes, 23 in voting machines and eight more on absentee ballots in the Nov. 4 general election.

Plaintalker confirmed the tally with the Elections Division of the Union County Clerk's Office today.

Former Councilman and Freeholder Adrian Mapp was the only one of three council candidates to be challenged in the general election. Gilbert publicly announced her write-in campaign several months ago and was permitted to take part in the annual candidates' forum conducted by the League of Women Voters of Plainfield. She ran to give voters a choice, she said.

Gilbert's name did not appear on the ballot, where the Democratic line was topped by Barack Obama for president.

Mapp and citywide at-large council candidate Annie McWilliams overcame the Democratic incumbents, Third Ward Councilman Don Davis and Citywide at-large Councilman Harold Gibson, in the Democratic June primary.

Citywide at-large Republican candidate Deborah Dowe dropped out after the primary, leaving McWilliams unopposed in the general election. First Ward Councilman William Reid was unopposed in the Democratic primary and won the balance of former Councilman Rayland Van Blake's unexpired term on Nov. 4.

To see all official results for Union County, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Thrift in Seattle and in Plainfield

My daughter the thrift store maven just sent me a link to an extraordinary event in Seatlle.

Unfortunately, it is this coming weekend and the cost of flying out might eclipse all the savings. But it is a great example of both Northwest values (in two senses of the word) and of how to showcase a non-profit.

Click here to learn more.

My daughter also shops at Value Village and scored a bunch of items at a sale there on Tuesday.

Here in Plainfield, we have lost two former assets for thrift sale devotees. The Nearly New shop, which benefited Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, closed down when the hospital did. Even before that, the Salvation Army store on Watchung Avenue moved to Green Brook.

The Second Time Around consignment shop is still on Somerset Street in North Plainfield. Does anyone know of other good, local thrift shops?

One problem with donations to resellers in Plainfield has been raids on the collection boxes. While getting clothes free is the ultimate in thrift, those who steal from the boxes are also stealing from the non-profits that rely on the donations as a revenue stream. And then the thieves often dump what they don't want, leaving a mess for someone else to clean up.

Speaking of thieves, somebody has been stealing newspapers from our porch lately. My neighbor and I have considered dropping our subscriptions because every few days the newspapers are missing. We suspect somebody is re-selling them to make money, or homeless people are using the papers as insulation in their clothes. Or worst of all, someone in or near our building is just taking the paper.

The poor driver is getting a bad record through no fault of his own. Maybe that is why my doorbell rang at 4:58 a.m. today and I went downstairs to see a paper stuck in the mailbox. I decided to put a decoy paper on the porch for the thief and then saw the driver had left two back-up papers as well.

All of us - the driver, my neighbor and myself - are very frustrated with this situation. The driver is getting messages about missed stops, a back-up driver has to bring a new paper and my neighbor and I are annoyed that people feel entitled to rip off even a newspaper from somebody's porch.

During the Great Depression, desperate people used to steal garments off clotheslines and pies off windowsills where they had been set to cool. We seem to be headed once again to a greater divide between "haves" and "have-nots." With fewer places here to practice thrift, will more needy people revert to outright theft?

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans are Honored

A small band of the faithful honored veterans Tuesday with prayers, song, salutes and tributes.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took part in the brief ceremony at the memorial on East Seventh and Watchung.
All those who served their country should be remembered by everyone today, and the nation must pledge to do the right thing for those most recently wounded in spirit and body in Iraq and Afghanistan.
--Bernice Paglia

When Will It End?

Unless hip boots are part of your everyday outfit, don't try to get around the city on foot.

You will encounter water hazards such as this one at Cleveland and East Seventh. In fact, trying to step off the curb anywhere along this stretch means wet feet if you are wearing normal footgear.

New Jersey American Water has promised this ordeal will end this month. Let us hope so. Then we can laugh about the waterspouts, sprinkles, floods, potholes and general mess we have been enduring for many, many weeks.

--Bernice Paglia

Track Club Pleads Cause to Council

Simeon Wilcher, 4, has his neck draped with medals won by his brother and other members of the Tsunami Track Club.

Parents, children and coaches came out in force Monday to seek City Council support for the Tsunami Track Club, portrayed as an icon of Plainfield’s venerable track tradition.

At issue was the school district’s denial of the use of second floor hallways for indoor training, which protestors linked to the new administration of Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III. Gallon was present at the council meeting at the governing body’s request to speak on school issues and his impression of Plainfield.

Gallon spoke first, detailing his initiatives such as a strategic plan for the next few years, with elements tied to five goals that he has previously described in four Town Hall meetings and at a State of the District Address. Hired in February, Gallon took charge of the district July 1 amidst a number of personnel and administrative changes.

But when given his chance to speak, “Coach Kevin” Turner told the council, “I love change just as everyone else, but all change is not necessarily good.”

While recognizing the council had no powers over school district issues, Turner insisted, “Sometimes you have to do the right thing.”

In this case, Turner said, it was continuing a program that was keeping kids off the streets, supporting academic achievement and giving young people an opportunity to earn recognition as athletes in local, regional, national and even global competition.

The district’s denial, he said, was stated as being based on liability issues, but he said the group had insurance and had used the premises over the past three years without incident.

Gallon, given a chance to rebut the protest, said, “The commitment to these children is not the question.”

“I support this program and this initiative 150 percent,” Gallon said.

But Gallon went on to link the situation on communication issues.

“We will do right by these children,” he said. “However, let this be a lesson to all of us.”

Gallon said all parties have to do better in communicating and said as he took blame, so must others. He urged the protesters to contact his office and make appointments to meet with appropriate staff to resolve the issue.

“This is not about a denial based on change,” he said.

Although as chief school administrator he has the legal authority to make decisions on day-to-day operations of the schools, Gallon declined to do so on the spot at the council meeting.

“I don’t make decisions through fear and I don’t make decisions under duress,” Gallon said.

City officials voiced support for the cause, while pointing out the council and administration had no direct influence in the outcome.

After the meeting, Board of Education president Bridget Rivers said the board was already in the process of taking care of the situation.

But in an online forum, the group had already urged a further protest at the Nov. 18 school board meeting.

Before the debate, parent Jonathan Anderson said he came out to show support for the track club and what he called “an institution” going back 40 years.

“It’s a tradition,” he said.

The council changed its agenda to let the track club supporters speak just before Bill Amirault, chairman of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, was to present the group’s recommendations to the council for the FY 2009 budget. A slide show was ready to go, but after the protest when the council sought to resume the presentation, Councilman Rashid Burney, chairman of the Finance Committee, told the council that while waiting his turn to speak, Amirault received a message that his mother-in-law had passed away and so had to leave the meeting.

The council had hoped to finalize the budget by Dec. 3, but the timeline has now changed to include two special meetings, with a vote later in December.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 10, 2008

Autumn Bounty

The farm stand at Watchung and Sixth will be up for a few more Mondays and Thursdays.

Stop by and get some fresh brussels sprouts, broccoli or even a purple cauliflower.

Try lightly steaming the brussels sprouts, then cut them in half and toss with olive oil and herbs to roast in the oven. They will be sweet and delicious!

Fresh green beans are also ready for steaming or blanching. They can be served cold with Italian dressing or warm with butter and herb seasoning. Or, if green bean casserole is on your Thanksgiving menu, get a basketful here.

On Monday, purple-and-green ornamental cabbages were also on sale.

The farm stand is definitely an asset for city residents, especially seniors and low-income families who get vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, November 09, 2008

PMUA Sets Rate Hearing

In the Fall 2008 PMUA newsletter, the effect of rising costs was spelled out. Fuel and oil costs are rising, as well as fleet maintenance costs, solid waste operating costs, sewer operating costs and corporate insurance.

The part you didn’t hear was that there is a public hearing scheduled for 6 p.m. on Nov. 24 at the Authority’s offices at 127 Roosevelt Avenue “to discuss and take action with respect to adjustments to certain sewer charges and solid waste rates, fees and surcharges.”

The Authority has also rescheduled its regular meeting on Nov. 13 to 7 p.m. Nov. 24.

It has been this reporter’s experience that, unlike other authorities, PMUA does not post ads in newspapers noting the present rates and those proposed. You have to be there to see what happens. True, experts give presentations with rationales for changes in rates, but reporters have to take notes darn fast to get the details at these meetings.

Here is the clinker: Nov. 24 just happens to be the date of a City Council agenda session at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, several blocks away from the PMUA headquarters. This reporter has made the trek from 127 Roosevelt to 515 Watchung in the past, once in a snowstorm, and it is not fun.

With City Council meetings on Nov. 10 and 17 and Board of Education meetings on Nov. 11 and 18, plus a Planning Board meeting Nov. 20 and this clash of meetings Nov. 24, put me down for meeting fatigue.

But among all these meetings, it may well be a citizen’s best bet to show up at 6 p.m. Nov. 24 and hear what the PMUA proposes to cover its costs. A public hearing means that you, the public, can have your say. So go for it!

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Reflecting on the Season

Lots of flowers are still in bloom in my yard and even the butterfly bush has produced a spray of purple blossoms. Crickets can still be heard at night and frost has not yet struck.

Maybe the collective sigh of relief over the election of Barack Obama has warmed the atmosphere. I turned on Channel 74 for yet one more look at the program on the Mayor's Summer Youth Program and instead saw a tape of election night at Democratic headquarters, where the mood heightened to a jubilant mix of tears, dancing and chants as the victory played out. (I can't tell you when to look for the program again, because there was no notice of it on the city web site.)

Among Central Jersey winners, Public Works Director Jennifer Wenson Maier won re-election to the Ward 5 council seat in Rahway. Once again she beat her rival, James A. Pekarofski, this time by a higher margin than in 2004. On Nov. 4, she got 898 votes to Pekarofski's 526, up from 799-623 the last time.

Barack's success was hailed on WBAI's show Labbrish early Saturday (3 to 5 a.m.) with a fascinating medley of tribute songs in all sorts of styles, from reggae to R&B, presented by host Habte Selassie. In fact, every single radio host has commented on the historic win and what it means now and for the future.

Right this minute on WNYC, Plainfield film maker Byron Hurt is projecting Obama as a new example of masculinity for young men. Let us hope! I still see all too much of strangers' boxer shorts in my travels around Park & Seventh.

No doubt every church in Plainfield will resound Sunday with prayers for the president-elect. His work ahead is more than challenging, it is crucial for the future of millions here and around the world. For the time being, we can enjoy the season's lingering warmth and the joy of Obama's achievement before girding for the cold, hard times ahead.

--Bernice Paglia

Netherwood Proposals a Mixed Bag

The defeat last week of the Plainfield South proposal for a four-story, 33-unit apartment building served as a reminder of other plans related to the Netherwood train station.

In September 2006, Maxim Development failed to win approval for 64 condos on South Avenue, in part because there was no retail component in the plan. The East Third/Richmond plan was farther away from the train station and called for 352 condo units and parking for 700 cars. Tying it to the transit village concept, Public Works Director Jennifer Wenson Maier suggested that residents could ride bicycles to either Netherwood or the main train station. But nothing became of the proposal and the developer was recently granted release from the commitment.

A study of more than 90 properties on both sides of the tracks around Netherwood was scaled down to 15 properties, which were found to be "in need of development" in December 2007. Meanwhile, an Ohio firm, Omnipointe, floated the concept of a five-story, 224-unit structure with 30,000 square feet of retail space. An ordinance that would have increased density only on the target area north of the tracks and west of Leland Avenue was offered for City Council approval, but then withdrawn.

Last week's defeat of the apartment building proposal added another chapter to the unfinished Netherwood development saga. After the word got out about the massive Omnipointe concept, neighbors banded together to protest intense development in the area.

Some of the development proposals have surfaced only after talks behind the scenes. The public has received glimpses - a drawing here or there, a vague map - and few details until the time when developers must appear before land use boards. The variety of approaches to development around Netherwood has only one common thread, increased density. Neighbors will be watching closely to make sure any development is done right for Plainfield, not just for some developer's desire to jump on the transit village bandwagon.

Plaintalker hopes to do an update soon on all the redevelopment proposals out there. And as all the legal notices say, anyone may examine documents on file in the Planning Division to get details of proposals up for hearings before the Board of Adjustment or Planning Board.

Forewarned is forearmed when it comes to development.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, November 07, 2008

Apartment Plan Wins First Approval


The Planning Board granted preliminary site plan approval Thursday (Nov. 6, 2008) for a proposal to create eight two-bedroom apartments in vacant space over the former Eiseman’s lighting store on Park Avenue.

The applicant, 419 Park LLC, faced tough questions from Planning Board members regarding how parking, waste removal and open space would be provided. Company representatives said offsite permit parking in a nearby city parking lot would be included in the lease. Each apartment would have a storage closet for garbage and recycling, and there would be a common collection point alongside a stairwell to the second floor. Waste and recycling would only be placed on the street immediately before a scheduled pickup, company representatives said.

“We understand the appearance of Plainfield is very important,” said Richard Dunn, the company’s vice president of operations.

The property, one of many acquired by Paramount Property Management under various separate corporate names, has modernized retail space on the first floor.

The board discussed the possibility of balconies or other means of providing open space, but nothing was resolved. Balconies, if created, would merely look out onto brick walls next door, company representatives said. The newly-refurbished Madison Avenue playground, about three blocks away, was mentioned as an alternative play source for children.

Another concern was emergency escape. The company said a proposed rear fire escape could be augmented by restoration of a front fire escape that would serve two of the apartments, thus reducing possible crowding at the rear in case of a fire or other emergency.

Asked why they settled on two bedrooms, company officials said one-bedroom apartments attracted transients and three bedrooms tended to become overcrowded. The two-bedroom apartments were ideal for families, their target tenants, they said.

Board members pressed for amenities such as a laundry room and community room, but company official Maurice Levy said, “I’m not in the Laundromat business.” Later, Levy agreed to place a washer and dryer in each apartment, deemed a safer alternative than a common laundry room.

The applicant must return to the board later for final site plan approval.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Out with the Old

As a 25-year customer of the bank formerly known as United National, I have spent many minutes in line studying the cherubs and gryphons on the ceiling at 202 Park Avenue and even the birds and flowers on the bronze trim around the teller windows. Where did all the marble come from, I wondered. And are those massive columns solid marble?

This week I walked in only to find a big vacant space to the left where the marble walls and teller windows had been reduced to rubble. The remaining portion was scrawled with lines and arrows and the word "OUT."

Out of fashion and now out of time, the elegant appointments of the bank are headed for the dump. What is next? The bank is in the path of downtown development and talk of relocation has gone on for years. Wherever it goes, I just hope it will be within walking distance of Park & Seventh, for the sake of both downtown merchants and us "transit-village" pedestrians.

--Bernice Paglia

Yes, We Can Have a Motto

Family mottoes are a longstanding tradition, as are political slogans. Watchwords can guide our lives or just get us through hard times.

When my ex-husband stopped paying child support and took off for California to rediscover life as an artist and musician, I got in the habit of posting such expressions on a small bulletin board. One was, “Si je puis,” a French phrase meaning, “If I can.” I was none too certain that I could cope with single parenthood on a very small salary.

Things eventually got better and the bulletin board became more likely to hold favorite New Yorker cartoons and other more whimsical stuff.

When the Spanish slogan, “Si, se puede,” came into public use, I kept getting it mixed up with the French one and had to keep reminding myself that it stated boldly, “Yes, we can.”

Of course, by now we have all heard that slogan in English about a million times in the Obama campaign.

Most recently, new Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III came up with a motto as he took on the task of fixing a district in turmoil: “Yes, we will!” The district web site has an endless list of things that will be done – we will learn, teach, love, create, explore …

Of course, neither my very tentative “if I can” nor the hopeful “yes, we can” is any guarantee of results. And “yes, we will” certainly ups the ante by promising results. Still, a slogan or motto, to my mind, beats hell out of a mission statement when you need a quick reminder to keep on course.

Upward and onward, Plainfield!

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

South Avenue Proposal Denied

The Board of Adjustment tonight (Nov. 5, 2008) denied variances needed for a proposal to build a four-story, 33-unit apartment building on South Avenue near Terrill Road.

The applicant, Plainfield South Avenue LLC, needed variances for height, density, the size of the structure on the site and lack of a commercial use, attorney Glenn Kienz of the law firm Weiner, Lesniak told the board.

The structure was proposed for a site south of the small park on South Avenue and would have abutted four single-family homes on East Seventh Street.

Expert witness Joseph Gurkovich, a professional planner, said the 100- by 300-foot parcel was within a half-mile of the Netherwood train station and one-sixth of a mile from the Fanwood station, thus fitting the concept of greater density in transit-oriented development.

But Board of Adjustment attorney Richard Olive noted that while the concept has been discussed for a couple of years or more in Plainfield, officials have not agreed on whether TOD guidelines apply to a quarter-mile or half-mile from transit hubs.

Gurkovich and Kienz rejected board members’ views that the building could have some commercial uses, saying it was out of the way behind the park, among other reasons. The anticipated renters, young people and empty-nesters at a rate of $1,500 for a two-bedroom unit, would not sustain suggested enterprises such as a concierge service, they said. Planning Director Bill Nierstedt also downplayed the factor of commercial use, saying the site was “off the beaten track” and that putting in a commercial use would make the application worse.

The proposed density of 49.1 units per acre was nearly double the permitted density of 25 units per acre. In public comment, city resident Jim Spear, who said he was representing a local neighborhood association, brought up the issue of another nearby application for massive development on the north side of South Avenue between the former G.O. Kellers site and McDonalds. Spear said the Planning Board had decided that the south side should be restricted to three stories.

Nierstedt said the Planning Board’s recommendation had been sent to the City Council, where twice it was placed on hold. Olive cautioned the board to be very careful, because no decision had been reached by the two bodies, “so you would be rezoning by variance.”

Nierstedt (Correction: Spear) said the council and others have asked for a university study of what constitutes “smart growth” for urban centers, but when former Councilwoman and present Board of Adjustment member Elizabeth Urquhart asked for a hold on the matter until a study could be made, Olive reminded the board that it must vote “yes” or “no” on the application.

Frank Pascale, owner of the nearby Café Vivace, spoke in favor of the application, saying he knew of commercial space in the district that had been unoccupied for 10 years, so the best use for the property was residential. Pascale mentioned several other commercial vacancies.

But Spear said Pascale was the owner of the property in question.

Plaintalker previously reported on the South Avenue issues. Click here to see the posts. To see a blog post on the Omnipointe proposal for the north side of South Avenue, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Cheers to Obama

The nation and the world gained a winner in the election of Barack Obama. Congratulations to the president-elect and all those who successfully campaigned for change. There is much to be done to repair the damage of the past eight years and Obama will need continued support and encouragement as he re-establishes the honor and respect lost by the United States, not to mention economic stability and hope for the future.

Locally, voters have also made clear their wish for change and better government.

Congratulations to all.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Voter Rolls Up 19 Percent

A voter registration summary from the Union County Board of Elections shows an increase of 18.9 percent overall in Plainfield since the June primary, with the largest numbers of new voters in Wards 1 and 4.

The total number of registered voters went up 3,582, from 18,934 to 22,516. Proportionally, Democrats went from 56 percent of the total to 59 percent, while unaffiliated voters went from 35 percent to 39 percent and Republicans decreased from 5.7 percent to 4.9 percent. The actual numbers were 1,358 more Democrats, 2,207 unaffiliated and 17 more Republicans.

By wards, voter numbers went up 23 percent in Ward 1, 14.4 percent in Ward 2, 17.2 percent in Ward 3 and 24.2 percent in Ward 4.

However, these numbers don't mean much unless those registered actually go to the polls and vote. The number of districts in Ward 4 has gone down over the years due to low turnout. The citywide number of voting districts is now 34, with a male and female named in each district during the primary. Republicans chose committee members this year, Democrats will do so next year. Those elected to party committees pick a chairman for the ensuing two years.

But never mind next year, even though campaigning has already begun. This is the historic year for voting. Have your say on a new president. Do whatever it takes to get to the polls and vote. If you are a new voter, be sure to bring identification. Campaigning at the polls is not allowed, so leave the T-shirts, hats, buttons and other paraphernalia at home so you don't get turned away.

As much as we all want to know Tuesday night who won, the votes, including absentee and provisional ballots, may not all be tallied until later. Local primary winners are unopposed, except for one write-in contest in Ward 3, but other contests will not have official results for some time.

Once all the counting is done, election officials face the task of analyzing this year's process to see how things can be done better the next time. Innovations in voting have not necessarily been improvements. You can bet there will be plenty of analysis in the media, not just on the results, but on the preparedness or lack thereof at the polls.

For today, get out and vote, have patience if there's a line, give your pollworkers a kind word as they put in a very long day, say a prayer for the nation and maybe, in days hence, be ready to give thanks.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Joy or Noxious?

This white clematis has popular names as varied as Virgin's Bower, Old Man's Beard and Traveller's Joy. It has also been put on the list of noxious weeds for its habit of climbing aggressively over bushes and trees and smothering the undergrowth. There are examples of this tendency on Crescent Avenue near Park Avenue, where the flowers have faded and the feathery seed coverings now cover the shrubbery.

Whether something is good or bad certainly depends on the circumstances. This plant apparently has the means to spread widely without interference. Some of our habits as a nation have similarly run rampant and now what was desirable (quick money on a gamble) is seen to have noxious effects (financial meltdown). What could have been stopped early on was not, and now we are seeing the effects.

In the state of Washington, groups form to eradicate noxious invasives such as English ivy, holly and even butterfly bush. These once lovable plants are now the enemy.

Today might be a good time to take a walk and think about our national outlook and its parallels in the natural world. What have we introduced and accepted into our thinking that now proves to be harmful?

Undoing the harm is going to require a lot of study and effort. Whoever wins tomorrow will have to lead us to a better way of conducting ourselves as a nation.

Take a walk and think about this juncture in our history. And get to the polls tomorrow and vote. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Random Thoughts on City Issues

By chance, Plaintalker turned on Channel 74 Saturday and saw a program on the Mayor's Summer Youth Program. There were many aspects to this presentation that deserve comment, but rather than give my immediate thoughts, I would prefer to hear from readers. The program will be broadcast Sundays at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., Mondays at 9:30 a.m. and 10 p.m., Thursday at 10 a.m., Friday at 2 p.m. and Saturday at 1:30 p.m., if I read the schedule correctly.

The program features Finance Director Douglas Peck instructing a group of teens on how to do PowerPoint presentations. The young people had studied certain city divisions and were going to report on their assessments. The group then discussed the findings and the program concluded with a formal presentation to the mayor.

Check it out.

Among her responses, the mayor mentioned the possibility of a youth center. This notion has come up in several public gatherings, with the idea of purchasing the Armory or another building for such a purpose. Two thoughts come to mind. First, how can the city afford to buy a building for a youth center when it came out in budget talks that the South Avenue firehouse needs to be replaced at a projected cost of $7 million? And secondly, is this proposal reflected anywhere in the capital budget or is it just a campaign promise for 2009?

As you will see, the young people noticed a distinct lack of technological expertise in several areas of city operations, as well as issues with the web site. At a recent meeting, a council member suggested that the city should take a cue from the school district's web site. However, the district web site has changed shape lately. Frequent viewers see things come and go as if the site is still in test mode. For example, the link to PPS News was missing yesterday and a new item, "The Insider," disappeared after one issue. Given the controversy over whether Parents Empowering Parents is an "outside" organization, the title seemed a bit off the mark.

Looking at Channel 74 in a rare sitdown before the TV Saturday also made this writer wonder what's up with the city's Cable Television Advisory Board. Click here for two previous posts on talks with Comcast officials. Verizon has a statewide franchise and is building out its FiOS service in the city. When the service level reaches 60 percent, franchise fees are supposed to double to 4 percent. But how will the city know when that benchmark kicks in? The board is supposed to monitor operations of the local channel, which still has limited local coverage.

City officials floated the idea of hiring a director of technology at a projected salary of around $147,000 at one budget session. The Police Division has also revised its table of organization to include two new bureaus, one for technology. Someone suggested that talented individuals in-house could handle city technology needs. Will the FY 2009 final budget resolve the issue or will there be more tinkering with one of the city's biggest problems?

The City Council is on election hiatus and the school district is closed next week, so none of these local questions will get answered for a while. Meanwhile, everyone who is registered to vote should have received a sample ballot. Check your polling place, read the two public questions, review voting machine instructions and above all, don't forget to vote on Tuesday!

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Apartments Proposed on Park Avenue

A Bayonne company is proposing to create eight apartments above the commercial space in this building at 413-17 Park Avenue.

The corporate name is 419 Park LLC, but the building is one of Paramount Property Management's acquisitions. The refurbished storefronts are for rent from Paramount Assets. The property is in the Central Business District zone and the applicant is asking for preliminary site plan approval and relief from the requirement of one parking space for each two-bedroom apartment in order to allow "no parking spaces," according to a legal notice.

The Planning Board is scheduled to hear the matter at its 8 p.m. meeting on Nov. 6 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

This writer can't remember what used to be at the location. It is next to the former Eiseman's lighting appliance store, which was also acquired by Paramount. There is an old logo at the top of the facade.

Parking requirements have been reduced over the past few years. The senior center/condo complex on East Front Street was approved with 1.5 parking spaces for each two-bedroom condo, when at the time two spaces were required. The reasoning was that proximity to the main train station brought into play a lesser need for cars. Transit-oriented development around the state has relied on a reduction in parking requirements. The proposed apartments on Park Avenue would be within steps of the train station and is accessible to numerous bus routes. According to the legal notice, only one parking space is required for a two-bedroom apartment in the CBD zone. The Planning Board will have to decide whether eliminating parking requirements altogether is acceptable.

--Bernice Paglia