Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reorganization Agenda is Online

The agenda for the Annual Reorganization of the City Council is up on the city web site.
Click here to take a look.
Happy New Year to all and a special shoutout to Plainfield bloggers!

--Bernice Paglia

Some Images of 2008

With a single sentence, the office of police chief was marked for destruction after being an institution for 139 years.

West Eighth Street took on the look of a moonscape as the 2005 road repair program lurched into Year 2 (now called Phase II to skip over the years of no action).

The Rev. Carolyn Eklund leads a Palm Sunday procession with a focus on saving the city's hospital.
A very clever person immortalized this saying of Joseph Santiago, who came to Plainfield to stick up for having a police director instead of a chief.
City walls reflected a growing gang problem, which authorities confronted with a massive coordinated response resulting in hundreds of arrests.

Hey, isn't that Woody Harrelson? Yes, and his movie that was filmed in part on Block 832 (my block) will open in theaters in 2009. Check listings for "The Messenger."

Uh, maybe the downtown still needs a little shaping up.

Having won the June primary, Adrian Mapp made this play on his name as he marched with Obama supporters in the July 4th parade.

The city's second new community school opened in September with great fanfare. Emerson School was named for Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Months of repairs by the New Jersey American Water company included some spectacular leaks from temporary hoses. Here's one on Watchung Avenue.

Can we bank on a new Trader Joe's in the PNC building? The way the economy ended in 2008, don't bet the grocery money on it.
Thanks to all who have encouraged Plaintalker to keep writing and taking pictures. I hope to inform and amuse you again in 2009.
--Bernice Paglia

Mayor to Hold Open House

A wee legal notice in today's Courier News tells us that Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs will hold the annual Reorganization Open House from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on New Year's Day in the City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

This get-together was once a well-attended event, especially by seniors. Then everyone would move down to the City Council's Annual Reorganization at noon in Municipal Court/Council Chambers, 325 Watchung Ave.

This year's invitation, according to the legal notice, is to "Come preview a live performance by one of our most talented and gifted senior citizens who will sing about the great state of New Jersey."

No mention of the Open House is made on the city web site so far. But consider yourself invited, even if you didn't catch the legal notice.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Commentary on Maps

Next time you are in Ferraro's at Park & Seventh, take a look at this map from 1989 and see how many of the advertisers you recognize. It's a very colorful and attractive map, but it now probably has more historic value than usefulness, due to many changes since then.

Maps were on my mind after reading the recent press release from the mayor regarding a new city map. I was able to obtain one on Monday, but I will reserve comment at this time.

My favorite map of Plainfield is the "City on the Move" one that has a map on the front and all the streets on the back, with photos of city structures bordering the tops of the 17" by 11" document. It can be folded to standard page width to fit in with other paperwork.

As a reporter, I had maps of many counties in my car so I could find my way to assignments outside the city. I have always hated driving since I learned how to do so out of necessity at age 30. Imagine my horror at finding my itinerary included the Somerville circle or the three rotaries on Route 31. I was always looking for ways to avoid the highways where everyone but me exceeded the speed limit by at least 20 miles per hour. But then again, poking along rural roads on my way to a sheep-shearing in Hunterdon County was no thrill either. Where were the people in these hinterlands, I wondered, longing for the 24/7 street action in the Queen City.

Now that I am a dedicated pedestrian and public transit fan, I don't need all those maps. And now with Mapquest and Google maps, maybe a lot of other people can do without them, although it's always good to have Hagstrom as a backup.

I was going to throw out my obsolete maps, but now that thrift is the watchword, they may get recycled as funky giftwrap.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 29, 2008

An Interview with Rashid Burney

While trying to get a grip on a political review of 2008, I posed some questions to
Councilman Rashid Burney, who has made many moves to make government more transparent.

Burney has one web site that has municipal documents on it, which I have found an invaluable resource. Imagine being able to look up something on the Municipal Code at 3 a.m. or over the weekend, when previously it required a visit to City Hall and plowing through two voluminous books of laws.

He also writes a blog, “As I See It,” that is both informative and entertaining as it blends his official role with aspects of his personal life with his wife, Wendy and daughter, Jasmine.

(Correction: Burney supported Obama since March 2007.) In 2008, Burney committed himself early on to Barack Obama’s candidacy. He was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and has seen triumph after triumph for Obama ever since.

Deeming his responses to be worthy of a standalone blog post (with a few edits for typos), Plaintalker is offering them herewith.

Q. What inspired you to give early backing to Barack Obama?
A. "Going back to the 2000 elections, Bush concerned me greatly. Many reports were coming out of his ideological beliefs and how he saw the world only out of those beliefs. I heard many people recognize that he was intellectually not capable of being president, yet they went on to say that "daddy will bail him out if he gets into trouble". Well, we are in deep trouble, and we know the rest of that story. In the Bush Jr years the country abandoned all kinds of common sense approaches in favor of an ideological and pro oil and defense companies. Detroit was allowed to loosen its fuel efficiency-improvement requirements. The war on Iraq stands as the poster child for how this country lost its way - we invaded the wrong country, no-bid contracts to Halliburton, the torture of Iraqis, the renditions, Gitmo, Valerie Plame, etc. etc.

"From this turmoil I felt we needed a new direction. Not just the next person in line, but someone who would change the trajectory of this country. Obama was the only major candidate that opposed the Iraq war, when it was unpopular to oppose it. Upon further reading of Obama's pro-sustainable energy policy and bi-partisan approach to so many critical matters, I felt he was what we needed. He had the intellectual capacity, he had the ability - the presence to move people - so important in a leader, and while he was out of the bare-knuckle Chicago political arena he was not just a status-quo politician. He knew how to work the system without compromising his core values - it is a balancing act, but it can be done. He was the only true agent of change in this campaign. "

Q. What part of the campaign is most memorable to you?
A. "The primary was most memorable to me, since at that point it was purely a grass roots campaign. A grass roots movement if you will. We had so many people making phone calls who had never before been involved in politics! It was truly amazing. The most memorable moments of the campaign were his Iowa victory, his loss in NH, the convention in Denver and victory night on Nov. 4th. On Nov. 4th, I was at the Dem HQ here in Plainfield, and I saw so many people crying that night. This was something very special. To so many, a dream they never even dared to dream came true. This was not in my original thoughts when I choose to support Obama, but as I look back, I think 30 years from now, the country will be a far better country for this factor primarily.

"That morning, I was delivering donuts at 6:30 in the morning to the poll locations. I saw long lines. A senior citizen I recognized called me and we talked for a moment. Seeing she was now at the front of the line, I suspected she had been waiting in line for some time. I asked her how long had she been waiting, and without hesitation she said: '65 years.'

"Later that day, I took Jasmine into the voter booth, and she actually pressed the red button, thus casting my ballot for Obama. It was a vote for Jasmine's future and what sort of a country do we leave for her."

Q. You have devoted countless hours to providing constituent services, such as posting agendas and documents. How would you sum up your reason for taking the time to do all this?
A. "Even before I was on the council, I saw a huge disconnect between the people and the government. This maybe so in other towns but it certainly felt this way in Plainfield. In 2005 when I joined, I realized that citizens could not follow the operations of the government. They had to rely on others and thus were swayed by sometimes incomplete information. But what were they to do? Where were they to get this information? So the result of this has been that Plainfield voters have been restless. Every few years we change the government. At five years, Linda (Carter) and Cory (Storch) are the senior members of the council. There is no continuity and no leadership stability. This is due to a lack in confidence in government by its people.

"The people must be able to see their government at work. That is the very first and fundamental step - and with today's technology that should be a no-brainer. In 2005, when I came onto the council, I setup my own web-site - to help document and make information available about the government. I was criticized for putting the Charter on the web. I was criticized for putting up the road construction information on the web. I started putting up the agendas and minutes on the web. Now I put up the resolutions and whatever else I can.

"You see, we are doing our best. But citizens need to see what we are doing - once there is a belief that work is getting done - or at least attempting to get done, some confidence in the government will come about. With confidence comes stability and difficult decisions that get put off will no longer get put off. In the long run we will all benefit. But it has to start with people believing in their government, and that is what I am trying to do. It is my duty and responsibility as a public servant. "

--Bernice Paglia

Note BOE Dates

For those who follow school board meetings or even those who would like to try in 2009, please note the first work-and-study meeting is Jan. 6 and the first business meeting is Jan. 13.

This is a departure from the normal second and third Tuesday schedule. The revision was announced on the front of the district web site, but not initially changed on the master schedule under the Board of Education link. The master schedule has since been revised.

The work-and-study meeting starts at 8 p.m. and the business meeting starts at 7 p.m. and both meetings will be held in the auditorium of the administrative building at 1200 Myrtle Avenue.

The deadline to file for a vacant seat on the Board of Education is Jan. 7. Candidates must complete a Plainfield Board of Education nominating petition, and provide the Board of Education with a one-page letter stating why the applicant wants to be on the board. An applicant must be available for an interview with the board within seven days of submitting the petition. The interviews will be conducted at a public meeting of the board.

Petitions may be obtained from Business Administrator Gary Ottmann at 1200 Myrtle Avenue and the completed packet must be returned to his office by the Jan. 7 deadline.

Whoever is selected to fill the vacancy will serve until the April election. Anyone wishing to run for the unexpired term must file in February for the April 21 school board election.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Council Reorganizes Thursday

City Council
Thursday, January 1
12 noon
Municipal Court/Council Chambers
325 Watchung Ave.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Frontiers Feature Kevin Powell

It’s not too early to secure tickets for the Frontiers 33rd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast, if one considers the draw of keynote speaker Kevin Powell.

Described as a prolific writer, leader and motivational speaker, Powell, also known as the Hip-Hop Historian, has just released his latest book, “The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life.”

Oliver Pinkard, president of the Frontiers International Plainfield Area Club, said, “If you as an individual or organization have responsibility for young males, get them to this breakfast. You will not be disappointed.”

Click here for more information on Powell.

The breakfast begins at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 19 in the Plainfield High School cafeteria, with parking and entry on the Kenyon Avenue side of the building at 950 Park Avenue. Tickets are $16 for general admission and $12 for seniors or students. For more information, call (908) 756-4663 or (908) 868-8704.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs will give the welcome address and Dr. Steve Gallon III, superintendent of Plainfield public schools, will give a statement on education.

The event is a prime opportunity for Plainfielders and friends to socialize over a hearty breakfast before a symbolic march to the high school auditorium. The keynote speech is expected to take place at about 11 a.m. The documentary, “Eyes on the Prize,” will be screened while the audience assembles.

The event will also include scholarship awards to outstanding students and all proceeds will go to future scholarships for Plainfield High School students.

According to organizers, the Plainfield Frontiers International event is the longest-running Martin Luther King Jr. tribute in New Jersey.

--Bernice Paglia

Economy Slowed 2008 Development

As 2008 began, the city had proposals for hundreds of condos and thousands of square feet of retail space on the books in nearly 20 redevelopment plans. In her state of the city address, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs named three as top priorities: the new senior center/condo complex at 400 East Front Street, the massive mixed use project around the main train station and a 12-condo proposal on the Tepper’s block.

Enter the economic downturn that worsened to a collapse.

The senior center/condo project, dubbed “The Monarch,” would miss its third stated deadline for completion, the mayor told seniors in July. Communications with the developer, Dornoch Holdings, became spotty even as city Construction Official Joseph Minarovich said the developer still has until October 2009 to meet terms of an agreement worked out by the city and the Union County Improvement Authority.

The $15 million tab for The Monarch, which features 63 condos over the senior center, is being borne privately by Dornoch, so the company did not go through the state redevelopment process. The other two proposals did go through all the steps, which include finding an area in need of redevelopment, making a redevelopment plan and naming a developer.

Frank Cretella’s Landmark Development Corp. of Jersey City is the designated developer for the North Avenue project. The block between Park and Watchung avenues was the city’s original commercial district and is so recognized in a historic district designation. Buildings there go back to the 1880s. Cretella envisioned creating taller new buildings behind the classic facades to accommodate 415 new residential units and 13,000 square feet of commercial space, including an entertainment center that could draw audiences by train from around the metropolitan region.

An expansion of the redevelopment area was proposed in 2008 to include the PNC Bank block. While no movement has been announced on the main project, Cretella recently unveiled a plan to refurbish the PNC building and two more to the south on Park Avenue. In addition, Cretella moved outside the original redevelopment borders to seek city approval for a commercial project on the Tepper’s block that would include the Appliance-A-Rama warehouse and two vacant city-owned blocks.

Heartstone Development received city approval for the 12-condo project on West Front Street, on two city-owned blocks. But after the city cleared the land, a sign was placed on the site declaring it a “pocket park” with amenities provided by Lucent volunteers.

Presto change-o! The site most recently became part of Cretella’s newly-announced commercial West Front Street plan.

By coincidence, all three of these developers had other projects in Rahway, where Plainfield’s director of Public Works and Urban Development, Jennifer Wenson Maier, is also a councilwoman. According to the Rahway Rising blog, Landmark acquired Main Street properties, including one owned by Wenson Maier and her husband, but has deferred development for the time being. Heartstone asked permission to convert a condo project there to rental units. Dornoch, as reported in Rahway Rising, closed offices it had in Rahway and is not responding to officials there on progress at a condo project, “The Savoy.”

So far, no one has questioned the propriety of having a Rahway legislator dealing with the same developers that she is dealing with in Plainfield as an administrator.

City Council action on redevelopment in 2008 included releasing developer George Capodagli from an agreement to build 352 residential units in five residential structures at East Third and Richmond streets. The 268 one-bedroom and 84 two-bedroom units were to have been built on four floors above 700 ground-level parking spaces. After being released from the agreement in June, Capodagli proposed a four-story, 33-unit residential building on South Avenue, but the Planning Board denied the plan.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal of the year never got past the conceptual stage. An Ohio developer, Omni Pointe, floated the idea of a 5-story structure with 224 units and 30,000 square feet of retail space on the former G.O. Keller site at Leland and South avenues. But residents and officials became concerned when the City Council was asked to approve an ordinance that changed zoning on just the north side of South Avenue where the development might go. The TOD-N ordinance would have allowed increased height and density on the site near the Netherwood train station, based on principles of transit-oriented development. Due to the outcry, the ordinance is in limbo.

Overall, redevelopment in 2008 appeared to be stalled in Plainfield, as in many other cities, due to the failing real estate market and more recently by the global economic collapse. At another time, Plaintalker will offer an update on the entire list of redevelopment projects that were last officially reviewed in September 2007.
--Bernice Paglia

Friday, December 26, 2008

Finance Main Issue in City Government

City Administrator Marc Dashield, who is in charge of day-to-day operations of Plainfield municipal government, finds himself at the end of 2008 in approximately the same position as when the year began: Wearing two hats and wrestling with budget issues.

In January, the former director of the largest of three city departments had left Plainfield with the 2007-08 budget still unresolved. No reason was made public for the departure of A. Raiford Daniels, who served less than a year. Dashield had to fill in as acting director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services for several months, monitoring the department’s 13 divisions. The City Council finally approved the budget in February, with a tax rate of $3.43 per $100 of assessed valuation.

By December, Douglas Peck, the new AFH&SS director hired in April, had also departed and this time it was more than a muddle. A $1.7 million typo in the budget had to be made up and a Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee found both the budget process and city government to be in disarray. Dashield was again on the spot. A search is on for a new director, for the seventh handoff of responsibilities for the job in four years.

The city has also been without a permanent chief financial officer all year, since Peter Sepelya retired at the end of 2007. This is a statutory post with many fiscal responsibilities to the state. Sepelya had also been a key figure in budget preparation. The administration is still searching for a replacement.

Meanwhile, the administration won City Council approval to abolish the title of police chief in favor of a police director. In March, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs named Public Affairs and Safety Director Martin Hellwig to a yearlong temporary stint as police director in addition to being a department head over the city’s two largest divisions, Police and Fire. Hellwig expanded the five-captain table of organization to add Traffic and Information Technology as bureaus in addition to Criminal Investigation, Narcotics, Uniform, Service and Administrative bureaus. Hellwig reported an 85 percent increase in traffic tickets after the reorganization.

Former Police Chief Edward Santiago accepted a demotion to captain after his job was abolished and is pursuing several legal actions against the city.

Besides dealing with the organizational changes and challenges, the administration continued to struggle with communicating to the public. The city web site improved briefly under an information technology shared services agreement with the school district, but the deal lapsed over the summer. In budget talks, officials said the city needs a fulltime IT director at a salary of perhaps $149,000, but the budget has not been finalized and there is no indication that such a post will be created.

Municipal Channel 74 added a few new segments such as “Hello Plainfield” and “Plainfield at Work” with the help of consultant Parris Z. Moore, but has not yet been able to offer consistent City Council coverage. A Cable Television Advisory Board that is supposed to oversee the local channel’s operations and also manage the franchise renewal process with Comcast of the Plainfields is lacking members and has had an erratic meeting schedule in 2008. The mayor’s husband, Peter Briggs, recently stepped down as chairman after discovering he was ineligible to serve. So far, attempts to set up a second channel dedicated to the school district have not come to fruition.

In July, the city set a preliminary tax rate of $3.58 per $100 of assessed valuation for the first two quarters of the fiscal year that began July 1. In its Nov. 24 report, the 16-member budget advisory committee recommended a zero tax increase after declaring city services insufficient. The report drew sharp rebuttals from both Dashield and City Council President Harold Gibson. Officials are still awaiting word on the amount of extraordinary state aid that will be received to offset property taxes and expect to see budget passage in January.

On the legislative side, the City Council changed its calendar back to the traditional Mondays-only schedule that had been in effect until it was changed to a Monday-Wednesday cycle in 2006. But except for activists demanding council involvement to save or restore Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, citizen attendance has been sparse. Council members now propose meeting only once a month in 2009, and want to hold four of meetings in schools instead of at City Hall or Municipal Court.

The fate of Dudley House, a city-operated substance abuse recovery program funded mainly by state and county grants, remains unresolved. The program lost its license because the residence on Putnam Avenue is not handicapped-accessible and at present has no clients while repairs are being made. Council members want the city to place the program in the hands of a suitable agency. Former clients and supporters of the program have urged the council not to let the program close, but council members object to the fact that most clients are not from Plainfield.

The council approved a 4 percent salary increase for the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association as part of a negotiated five-year agreement that ends in 2009. In light of the global economic collapse at the end of 2008, citizens called on the council to seek union givebacks and take other measures to cut salary and wage costs that make up the largest part of the city budget.

Plaintalker plans to file separate articles on politics and redevelopment in 2008. The council approved several changes in redevelopment plans and saw the defeat of two incumbents in the June primary, all of which will be covered in other year-end reviews.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Holiday Greetings


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Schools are Second Top Issue

After the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, school district issues appeared to have the second most powerful impact on the Plainfield community in 2008.

The year began with a second interim superintendent after the abrupt departure of Peter E. Carter and his “Team Carter” after unknown issues with the school board at the end of 2007.

From Plaintalker: “Carter, interim business administrator Michael Donow and interim assistant superintendent Walter Rusak had all signed on in June to stay through the 2007-08 school year while the board searched for a permanent superintendent and business administrator/board secretary, but all three quit in December over an undisclosed dispute with the board.”

Former Human Resources Director Garnell Bailey emerged as the next interim superintendent.

A tightly-controlled superintendent’s search that began in August 2007 moved through stages of finalists from five to three to one without public disclosure until the very end of a school board meeting in February when Dr. Steve Gallon III was hired, as Plaintalker reported.

The April school board election returned incumbents Vickey Sheppard, Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr. and Bridget Rivers to the board for three-year terms. Only two others, Yolanda Van Fleet and Jaclynne Callands, had filed for the contest. Sheppard recently resigned after a prolonged absence, meaning three board seats and a two-year unexpired term will be up for grabs in April 2009.

The district saw its first increase in local school taxes since 1992, as a new state funding formula kicked in. Formerly receiving as much as 80 percent of school costs from outside aid, the district was under a state mandate to make the 4 percent increase as the first move toward Plainfield taxpayers picking up a projected 33 percent portion of the cost.

Throughout the end of the 2007-08 school year, the district saw numerous changes in job titles and descriptions which Plaintalker reported on in detail. Many titles were assigned just for one month and were reconfirmed after Gallon took over July 1. Among new titles, Bailey became assistant superintendent for Administrative Services and Angela Kemp, formerly of Miami, became assistant superintendent for Educational Services.

Gallon began making his mark by unveiling a multi-year strategic plan to address learning outcomes, human resources, business practices, a safe learning environment and community and family engagement. He showcased it at town meetings across the district, posted a checklist of metrics on the newly revitalized school web site and began correlating each of his recommendations to the school board to the plan.
He also consolidated all administrative functions from 504 Madison Avenue and other locations into one site, the former Jefferson School building at 1200 Myrtle Avenue. All board meetings since September have been in the new location instead of being held in the Plainfield High School conference room or library.

Besides being an educator, Gallon is an author and motivational speaker. He also appeared as himself in a documentary film, “Year of the Bull,” about pressures on a high school athlete. His transition to Plainfield from the Miami-Dade school district took place just as the New Jersey Department of Education was imposing more regulations on administrators and his contract, approved by the local school board, underwent state review.

Former business administrator/board secretary Gary Ottmann returned to the district in January and just received a new contract, also after state review. Ottmann had served 13 years previously in the same role before a short stint in Wayne.

Former Plainfield Education Association President Eric Jones switched from his union role for a new title as director of Community Engagement, Public Information and Marketing. Part of his job will be to help Gallon draw back to the district schools several hundred students who now attend three charter schools in Plainfield. A fourth is scheduled to open in September 2009. The district had been claiming about 8,000 students, but actual enrollment had dropped to below 7,000. The charter schools receive public funding and Gallon wants both the students and the money restored to the district.

Gallon is also looking to recoup early childhood education programs now operated by several outside agencies, also with state funding.

In October, the school district observed a Muslim holiday for the first time. School board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq requested the inclusion of Eid Al-Fitr on the calendar adopted at the April reorganization and had hoped to have a second holiday, Eid Al-Adha, included. The first is a feast day marking the end of the Ramadan fast and the second honors those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

Among Gallon’s many innovations, student performances are now scheduled at each business meeting of the school board. Photo galleries of district activities are now prominently featured on the web site, along with links to numerous news articles about Gallon and the district.

Student performance remains the greatest challenge in the district. Six elementary schools and both middle schools met Adequate Yearly Progress standards under the No Child Left Behind act, while four elementary schools failed to meet the AYP standards and another was placed in Early Warning status. The high school, which welcomed new principal Brian Bilal in September, fell into the “in need of improvement” status after failing to meet AYP for several years. The high school was also labeled the state’s only “persistently dangerous” school, based on a number of incidents in the 2007-08 school year.

In the face of the district’s fiscal and academic challenges, Gallon has taken Barack Obama’s mantra, “Yes, we can” a step further to “Yes, we will” take action to overcome the obstacles. His checklist for improvement includes 95 measures of progress, and several have already been checked.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 22, 2008

Blogs Not on State Press List

Plaintalker stands accused of not reporting on the AYP report that found Plainfield High School lacking.

First of all, blogs don't routinely get state DOE press releases.

Secondly, here is the report, so if you are all that interested, have at it.

The rather complicated No Child Left Behind legislation, known colloquially by some educators as "Nickleby," is under question and in the Obama presidency may be subject to review. The best way to educate the nation's children is still a work in progress.

Larry Leverett, where are you when we need you? This writer had hoped to see the former Plainfield superintendent and now executive director of the Panasonic Foundation under consideration for the nation's top education post. Alas, the post went to somebody else.

Meanwhile, here in Plainfield we must do our best as we see it.

Besides the high school coming under fire for the AYP, it received the unique statewide designation earlier as the state's only "persistently dangerous" school.

New PHS Principal Brian Bilal has inherited both problems . All high school staff, parents and students must rise to the challenge and prove the state wrong for next year.

Anyone who has a computer can access the DOE web site and not wait on the print media or the infamous blogs to find out what is going on. In fact, both reporters and this blogger prefer to rely on original documents, meaning those untainted, factual assessments of the issues, rather than speculation or gossip.

Please make your Plainfield New Year's resolution to seek the bottom line and inform yourself with facts. Kick the BS to the curb and please don't fall prey to the bloviations of those with ulterior motives.

--Bernice Paglia

Top 2008 Issue: Muhlenberg

After 130 years of service and despite a massive outcry from activists and officials, Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center closed as an acute care facility on Aug. 13.

Protests began in early 2008 and continued through the year. Rallies here and in Trenton, marches and vigorous objections at two New Jersey State Health Planning Board meetings here were not enough to ward off state Health Commissioner Heather Howard’s decision that the hospital must close.

Attempts to find buyers did not come to fruition in time to prevent the closing. The “Save Muhlenberg” campaign then became the “Restore Muhlenberg” campaign, but challenges to the parent group, Solaris Health System, continue. Elected officials hold out the hope of a salvation, while residents still meet weekly to strategize for a way to be found to reopen an acute care facility in the hospital building. Although now designated as a “campus,” it still has an emergency room and other health care services.

Among the results of the closing, pregnant women are being directed to Elizabeth, to the newly-renamed Trinitas Regional Medical Center. Activists claim the distance has caused harm to both mothers in labor and infants born on the way to Trinitas. Emergency medical personnel are being asked to determine which of several area hospitals is most appropriate for a patient in the ambulance and activists say that families may not be able immediately to known where their loved ones were taken.

The extra minutes of transport to Summit, Edison, Somerville or elsewhere are deemed a threat to heart attack and stroke victims. There are many other complications for those who are chronically ill, as their doctors have dispersed to other sites.

Officials and residents are hoping to hold a health care forum before Dec. 31 in conjunction with a call from the Obama transition team for local discussions of this high priority policy issue. Sen. Tom Daschle, head of the transition’s Health Policy Team will appear in person at one of the nationwide grassroots meetings.

Hospital closings statewide and nationwide have affected millions of people and put lives at risk, activists say. The shrinking access to acute care also means there is less ability to respond to a pandemic or terrorist attack.

As of this writing, no date has been set for a forum and there is no outcome of talks with Solaris regarding appeals to Howard’s decision. As it was in 2008, health care and hospital access will most likely be the top issue in the community.
--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hannukah and Solstice Greetings

OK, it's a butterfly bush, not a Hannukah bush.

The interesting thing is that it has new growth even in what used to be the dead of winter.

As times change, we appreciate tradition all the more. Hannukah is rich with traditions, even if Erran Baron Cohen has put a new sound on the music. Click here for a WNYC link to his new CD. Our fondest wishes for a good holiday go out to all who observe Hannukah.

Another old tradition is marking the shortest day of the year. Ancient people who were vitally in touch with nature noticed the waning of light from the longest day of summer solstice to the shortest day. The winter solstice was a fire festival marked by bonfires and other ceremonies to ensure the turn of the seasons. While we in the Northeast still have two or three months of winter weather, the light begins to increase after the solstice and it has its effect on houseplants and in my opinion, even on people.

The seasons have grown a bit tipsy in recent decades, but I think the light/dark balance has remained the same. Good cheer to those who celebrate the winter solstice.

--Bernice Paglia

Hold on to Cold Cash

Even before Bernie "Madoff" with folks' money, the public was growing increasingly insecure about spending and investing. Need a place to keep all those dollars you didn't spend on holiday gifts? Don't trust the backyard buried coffee can or the mattress as a depository?

Check this out. Years ago Audrey sent me a present from a "spy store" in Seattle. Even though I seldom have much of a bankroll to hide, this soda can safe is a pretty good decoy compared to other methods.

Nestled on a shelf along with the butter and pickle relish, the can looks authentic enough to be passed over by the average burglar.

But look who's inside! The insulated can will also accommodate jewelry or maybe that thumb drive with all the interesting data on it. Just hope you don't get one of those hungry burglars who decides to have a sandwich and a drink as long as he is inside your house.
You could also keep vital personal information in there, but make sure you tell a trusted person to check it in case of an emergency.
Another option is similar to freezing your credit card in ice to prevent spur-of-the-moment usage. If you keep extra cash in the soda can safe instead of in your wallet, you have to take an extra step to access it and maybe it will be enough time to reconsider a non-essential purchase.
The recession is supposed to get worse in 2009 before things improve. Don't let money burn a hole in your pocket, keep that cash cold - in the refrigerator.
--Bernice Paglia

Some Notes on Banks

As part of the annual Jan. 1 reorganization, the City Council names official newspapers, sets its calendar and designates bank depositories for the year, among many other routine actions.

For 2009, the roster of depositories includes PNC Bank, Bank of America, City National Bank, Investors Savings Bank, JP Morgan Chase Bank, Commerce Bank and New Jersey State Cash Management. Plaintalker does not have verbatim notes on a brief discussion that took place about the banks, but someone was recalling the years when United National Bank handled the city payroll and I believe someone asked about City National Bank. What follows is an anecdotal commentary on some of the bank history.

United National Bank, now PNC, had its headquarters in Plainfield before relocating to Bridgewater. As United National Bancorp, it was acquired by PNC Bank in 2004. UNB had been truly a hometown bank and its officers took part in many community activities. It used to have a branch on Arlington Avenue, where lots of city and school district employees could be encountered on paydays. The city now uses Paychex Inc. for payroll services. This is a Rochester, N.Y. company founded by billionaire Tom Golisano. Some may recall that Sen. Frank Lautenberg made his fortune as CEO of ADP, another payroll company.

City National Bank of Newark got on the list in the 1980s, when there was a notion that it would open a branch on Financial Plaza at Park and Front. An official of the bank lived in Plainfield and there was great support for it as a bank founded by African-Americans. Click here for its history.

Financial Plaza was once a hub for several banks, but most are gone now. The PNC Bank building is owned by the real estate arm of the company and is targeted for development. Investors Savings is also in the path of a redevelopment plan, but local merchants are challenging the plan that would put a six-story parking deck where Municipal Lot 6 now stands on East Second Street, behind the Front Street stores between Park and Watchung.

A March bank merger changed Commerce Bank to TD Commerce Bank, or TD Bank.

The New Jersey State Cash Management Fund is a part of the state Department of the Treasury. For more information, click here.

The school board also names depositories every year at its reorganization meeting. In 2006, only two banks, PNC Bank and City National Bank, were named. In 2007 the list expanded to include Bank of America and the listing for 2008 had one additional name, National Valley Bank of Plainfield, which may be a misnomer for Valley National Bank of North Plainfield.

Between the city and the school district, there is a lot of money to be taken care of. Even though the naming of depositories is considered a routine matter, the public might be interested sometime in hearing a brief explanation or rationale for the choices.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, December 19, 2008

Storm Creates Hazards

Friday's picture-pretty snowfall soon gave way to rain and sleet that made a big mess for both drivers and walkers. With below-freezing temperatures predicted overnight, the situation may just get worse.

These footprints tell the story of walkers trying to find secure footing while awaiting sidewalk clearance that is supposed to happen within 24 hours of a storm. This portion of the sidewalk is outside a city parking lot, but as of Friday night, had no salt or shoveling. Kudos to Scott Drugs for clearing their part of Block 832.
Anyone who has to venture outside Saturday for groceries or other needs must take precautions against slipping on icy paths. Take care, everybody, and if you are a tenant, make your own path secure even if your evil landlord won't do it.
--Bernice Paglia

Celebrate Neighborliness

Netherwood Heights Neighbors, a community organization, has created a 2009 calendar featuring the train station on the cover and 12 neighborhood homes on its pages.

The $20 price tag will help support the group’s local programs and charitable causes around the city, according to a flyer that suggests the calendar as a great holiday gift. The calendar can be ordered for out-of-state shipping for an additional $3 per calendar.

“It’s a yearlong enjoyment of the treasures of our neighborhood,” the flyer states.

To order, call (908) 668-0388.

Plaintalker congratulates all neighborhood groups for their work in 2008 and their plans for 2009. Block associations, residential historic district groups and neighborhood organizations are great resources for camaraderie, safety, education and maintaining the ambiance that attracted a family or individual to a neighborhood in the first place.

Along that line, there will be a Sleepy Hollow Christmas Eve celebration from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. in Leland Avenue Park that will feature a candlelight sing-a-long and Santa sighting, with wassail, hot chocolate and cookies in the gazebo after Santa’s visit. Attendees are requested to bring a non-perishable food item. Family and friends are welcome. For more information, call (908) 561-9575.

Happy Holidays to all!

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Kingmaker" Looks at 2009

When the name John Campbell comes up, many Plainfielders immediately think of his declaration, “I want to be the kingmaker, not the king.”

The affable real estate broker and former Third Ward councilman must be salivating at the prospects for 2009 – four school board seats, the mayoralty, the Fourth Ward City Council seat, the Democratic Party chairmanship and numerous other political positions up for grabs. Never mind that Campbell is a registered Republican in Democratic-dominated city, his avowed independent stance and clout mean that he always has a say in political outcomes.

Most recently, Campbell took part in a primary victory celebration for Annie McWilliams and Adrian Mapp, who bested Democratic incumbents and party nominees Harold Gibson and Don Davis in the June 2008 primary. Mapp and McWilliams coasted on to win the general election and will be sworn in Jan. 1 for four-year terms on the City Council.

McWilliams and Mapp are self-styled New Democrats, a group reviled by longtime Democratic Party Chairman and Assemblyman Jerry Green as nothing more than Republicans in Democrat clothes. It’s true that both McWilliams and her father, the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, attracted bipartisan support from people seeking independence from iron-fisted Union County Democratic party politics.

Denied a third-term nomination from the Democrats in 2005, Mayor McWilliams mustered enough of a coalition to mount a strong challenge to party choice Sharon Robinson-Briggs, losing the June 2005 primary to her by just 325 votes. Neither a party change nor a general election write-in campaign succeeded in saving his political career, but his New Democrats never disbanded, even after his untimely death in 2007.

By winning the June primary, Mapp and Annie McWilliams found themselves to be titular members of Green’s Regular Democratic Organization. But as they prepare to take office in January, they retain their independent stance.

Campbell, 65, came to Plainfield from North Carolina in 1968. He served as Third Ward councilman from 1985 to 1989, but decided he did not want a career in elected office. Regarding his “kingmaker” remark, Campbell said, “I’m kind of independent. I jump on the horse that’s going to give me the best ride.”

If that sounds like a quid pro quo statement, understand that Campbell’s livelihood in real estate is inextricably tied to the quality of schools and government in Plainfield. His wife and business partner, Wilma, is now serving her second term on the Board of Education, where she calls herself “the voice of reason.” She was an enthusiastic supporter of the hiring of new schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III, who has pledged to turn around the troubled district. Campbell himself frequently comments at school board and council meetings on policies and direction.

Once he targets an issue, Campbell is tenacious. During a phone interview, he turned the subject to his ongoing pet peeve, tax overpayments. Campbell has waged a three-year battle with the city over former Tax Collector Constance Ludden’s proposal to put more than $800,000 in tax overpayments into surplus. The Robinson-Briggs administration took the stance that each of more than 900 taxpayers who overpaid had to prove they were owed the money. Outraged, Campbell sent letters to each person on the list alerting them to the situation. But by March 2007, only $29,919 had been repaid to taxpayers and the City Council voted to place the remaining $780,065 into surplus.

Campbell called the move “very unreasonable” and said he had heard some “horror stories” from people who tried to make claims, especially those not fluent in English. The situation persists, he said, despite a recent promise by Robinson-Briggs that she was committed to refunding the money.

Mapp and Annie McWilliams will undoubtedly bring to the seven-member council more of the independent thinking that Campbell prizes. Mapp previously served on the City Council before winning a three-year term on the all-Democrat Union County freeholder board. But he refused to check his New Democrat affiliation at the door and was denied the line for re-election. When he filed for the 2008 Democratic primary against Davis, he reaffirmed his will to buck the organization.

“Mr. Mapp brings a wealth of political expertise,” Campbell said, albeit not the kind that warms Jerry Green’s heart. He also said Mapp is a “man of integrity.”

“You can teach people all the other stuff, but not integrity and common sense,” Campbell said.

Newcomer Annie McWilliams took on City Council President Harold Gibson, who boasted 50 years of public service. But Campbell called her a “fast learner” and said, “I think she’ll do just fine. I’m sure her daddy taught her some good politics.”

Though only in her twenties, she had enough backing to capture the citywide-at large seat.

The two winners will join Councilman Cory Storch, who won re-election on the party line last year but has continued to take an independent view on city issues; Councilman Rashid Burney, who backed Barack Obama while Green was still in the Hillary Clinton camp; Councilman William Reid, a Regular Democrat stalwart who ran unopposed; Councilwoman Linda Carter, also re-elected last year; and Councilman Elliott Simmons, whose 4th Ward seat is up for re-election in 2009.

Given that Storch, Burney and Carter initially came into office as New Democrats, Campbell sees a political shift coming.

“I think they’ll be able to count to four,” he said. “I don’t think that’s asking for a lot.”

It could be a lot for Robinson-Briggs, who will need council support for her administration’s moves in an election year. She has been campaigning for months, even though the filing date for the June primary doesn’t come up until April.

But first the school board filings take place in February. Despite his wife’s effusiveness over Gallon, Campbell said he didn’t like the way the superintendent denied a popular track club’s request to practice in the high school. Protesters swarmed school board meetings and even a council meeting where Gallon was present before he agreed to the request.

“I believe the future is with the kids,” Campbell said, adding he didn’t want to see the board just go along with whatever the superintendent proposes.

Three three-year school board seats and one unexpired term will be up for election in April.

Besides sending shots over the bow to the mayor and board, Campbell appears to have Green in his political crosshairs. Green will be seeking his ninth two-year Assembly term in 2009 and his party chairman seat will be on the line in June, after 68 Democratic City Committee seats are filled in the primary.

In 2004, Green’s longtime tenure as chairman was broken by Mayor McWilliams, who garnered enough supporters in committee seats to win the leadership. In April 2005, Union County Democratic Party Chairman Charlotte DeFillipo denied McWilliams the right to name the party slate for the primary, prompting his formation of his own slate. Green later resumed leadership of the fractured party.

If Campbell can replicate the late mayor’s ability to fill committee seats, Green may again face a challenge.

Since 2005, Green has been not only party chairman and state legislator, but mentor to Robinson-Briggs. Because the city's special charter prohibits dual office-holding, Green himself cannot be mayor.

“I think Mr. Green would be more effective if he was just wearing one hat,” Campbell said.

The two power brokers were once close, although Campbell said he hadn’t spoken to Green for “perhaps a year.” In 2009, Campbell said, “I think people are looking for a different kind of politician.”
--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Developer Sees Potential on Park Avenue

In a conceptual hearing before the Historic Preservation Commission Tuesday, developer Frank Cretella envisioned a steakhouse in the old Courier News building and maybe a Trader Joe's in the PNC Bank building.

Cretella is the designated developer for the North Avenue Commercial Historic District, which spans the block between Park and Watchung avenues and includes other properties near the main train station. An agreement with the city and the Union County Improvement Authority spells out the developer's responsibilities and the scope of the project. Click here for a previous post on Cretella's firm, Landmark Development Corp.

His presentation Tuesday focused on the PNC Bank building and two others to the south of it, in what is an extended portion of the original North Avenue redevelopment plan. Architect Eli Dressler showed old photos depicting original features that Cretella plans to restore on the three-building strip. The developer would also add another floor to the rear of the Courier News building and the bank, with setbacks to prevent visual disparity with the main structures.

Cretella wants to create four residential units on upper floors of the middle building, with retail on the ground floor, and 12 more residential units above the former Courier News site.

Dressler declared the PNC Bank building to be in perfect shape. Cretella said he has been in contact with the Pittsburgh bank management on preserving interior details of the bank. He said he owns the two other buildings and is under contact to acquire the bank.

Commission members questioned a proposed "event space" structure on the top of the bank that some deemed too out of character for the site. Instead of a former pediment on top of what Preservationist Gail Hunton called a "Greek temple" look to the bank, the addition would rise on just one side.

Commission member Sandy Gurshman said the asymmetrical structure looked "like it landed from outer space" and was "not organic." Hunton also said the angle of the roof in the Neo-classical structure did not work. But Cretella said the structure was meant "to create some excitement."

Cretella's other plans for the PNC block call for 12,000 square feet of retail space to the rear of the bank on the block bounded by Park Avenue, West Second Street, Madison Avenue and the Raritan Valley Line train tracks.

Parking for customers and tenants would be provided on the same block, which currently has a number of unused parking spaces. After board members pointed out there is a historic building on the block, the Sutphen house, Cretella said it would be preserved.

Cretella said he hopes to go before the Planning Board for site plan approvals on Jan. 15, but HPC member Bill Michelson, a former Planning Board member, suggested that there might be a delay in the 2009 schedule while board vacancies are filled.

Although people in the room reacted audibly when Cretella mentioned Trader Joe's, he said he had last had contact with the company a while ago, before the current fiscal collapse that has affected the entire economy.

For information on another nearby Cretella proposal, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Dashield: Revenues Down

Ending the year with no budget in place, the City Council voted approval Monday for Tax Collector Maria Glavan to set an estimated tax rate for the third quarter so bills can go out in January.

At present, property owners are being billed $3.53 per $100 of assessed valuation, an estimated rate for the first two quarters. Once the budget is passed, Glavan will set a “reconciled rate” for the fourth quarter of the budget year that began July 1. City Administrator Marc Dashield said the city hopes to make a “smooth transition” from the estimated to final rate.

“We don’t want to have big jumps,” he said.

Although the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee called for a zero tax increase, the projected hike stands at 9.5 percent. The city is still awaiting word on how much extraordinary state aid it will receive and no amendments have yet been formulated.

In a report on revenues Monday, Dashield said the city anticipates $23.8 million in general revenues and $48 million in property taxes for FY 2009. The city is facing a $683,000 loss in general state aid and an overall drop of $3.4 million in lost revenues.

A $1.7 million error in one category of anticipated revenues will be made up through dipping into surplus funds and reducing the reserve for uncollected taxes.

Dashield said the city will aggressively recruit a new chief financial officer and will institute an additional review of the official budget document to avoid such errors in the future. The city has had no fulltime CFO since Peter Sepelya retired at the end of 2007.

Last week, Dashield gave a presentation on projected cuts that would have to be made in order to achieve the CBAC’s recommended zero tax increase. Among them were reductions of 30 police officers and 30 firefighters. But in remarks at his last council meeting Monday, City Council President Harold Gibson urged the governing body to keep public safety staff intact.

Council members thanked Gibson and Third Ward Councilman Don Davis for their service to the city and both responded with appreciation for the opportunity to serve. The two incumbents lost a June primary to New Democrats Annie McWilliams and Adrian Mapp, who will be sworn in at the Jan. 1 reorganization meeting.

Members of CBAC defended their work Monday and said they hope to continue advising the council as the budget process continues. The committee’s Nov. 24 report sparked controversy for going beyond just the numbers to find fault with city government. But member Jeanette Criscione said the findings were based on broad input from citizens, not just the committee’s 16 members. When asked what services they felt should be cut for budget savings, she said, most people responded, “What services?”

Criscione said residents perceive a major gap “between what they are paying and what they are getting,” adding the report was not meant to create ill will, but to bring everyone together.

“We need to work together,” she said. “Plainfield has issues.”

No dates have been set to continue budget talks. Councilman Rashid Burney, chairman of the Finance Committee, has been posting budget dates and information on his blog. After the meeting Monday, Burney posted the presentation on revenues and previously posted Dashield’s explanation on cuts needed to avoid a tax increase. Click here to see the blog, “As I See It.”

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 15, 2008

City Seeks Health Care Help

City residents and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs are both pushing to have health care discussions before a Dec. 31 deadline and hope Sen. Tom Daschle will come to Plainfield to hear first-hand the community’s plight in losing Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center.

Daschle is leading the Obama Transition's Health Policy Team and is calling for nationwide input from grassroots discussions. According to a post on, Daschle will appear in person at one of the meetings.

The top news story in Plainfield this year was the loss of Muhlenberg, though activists say the fight is not over to restore an acute health care facility here.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, activist and former political candidate Deborah Dowe said residents hope to mount a public discussion before the deadline and asked for council support. Groups meeting weekly since early 2008 have amassed documentation to counter state Health Commissioner Heather Howard’s decision to accept Muhlenberg’s parent group, Solaris Health System, appeal to close the hospital.

After Dowe spoke, Robinson-Briggs said she had taken part in a conference call Monday with other mayors including Cory Booker of Newark to address the state’s loss of health care facilities. Robinson-Briggs spoke at last month’s League of Municipalities meeting on the experience of losing a community hospital and is now on the League’s executive board.

Robinson-Briggs said the mayors will be preparing a “white paper” document to send to President–Elect Barack Obama on health care issues.

At present, no date has been set for the local town meeting. Dowe suggested either Dec.28, a Sunday, after church services, or Dec. 30.

The City Council has concluded its meeting schedule for 2008 with Monday’s meeting and can offer no further official help, although officials agreed in spirit to a discussion before the end of the year.

Plaintalker will try to post details as they emerge.

--Bernice Paglia

I Can See Clearly Now

Going through my posts for 2008, I can see a huge diffference in the quality of images with the new monitor. All my fussing with Photo Editor was unnecessary, as the problem was with the old monitor itself. My Seattle trip pictures are especially striking for the difference.
The lesson here is not to hang back and make do with old equipment, but to upgrade as often as feasible.
I still have a few months to go for the Year in Review. But the fresh look at my photos is making the task a lot more fun.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Congregants Locked Out

Parishioners arriving for a noon service today (Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008) at Christian Fellowship Gospel Church found themselves locked out, allegedly by their pastor, who was charged in September with sexual assault on minors.

“We found out the locks had been changed,” Elder Diane Hathaway said. “The bishop (George Benbow) said it is his church and he had every right to cancel the services.”

Hathaway said about 50 people arrived for services with a police standby because church officials had changed locks at the Johnston Avenue church the night before. Benbow apparently had a locksmith change them again, she said. A sign inside the front door window said services would resume next Sunday. Police took no action, deeming it a civil matter to be worked out in the courts, Hathaway said.

A phone number for Benbow at his George Street residence near the church had been disconnected and he could not be reached for comment.

Finding the church locked, about 50 people formed a circle outside.

“We prayed and sang a song and everyone just fellowshipped,” Hathaway said after most of the group had dispersed.

Benbow was arrested on Sept. 17 and charged with four counts of second degree assault on a minor less than 13 years old and two counts of third degree endangering the welfare of a minor under the age of 16, Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow said in a press release on that date.

Hathaway said many church members drifted away from the church after the arrest, but the congregation had been rebuilding under interim Pastor Cedric Miller.

“He has been so instrumental in trying to heal,” she said.

Church officials planned to meet Sunday afternoon to decide what to do next. The non-denominational church marks its 27th year this month.

Arthur Mayes, a member for 25 years, said Sunday, “It’s sad for me to see something like this.”

Mayes said the Benbow family has been involved in church work for 70 years and recalled the bishop’s mother’s care for children. More recently, the church conducted a camp where, he said, “All the children had such a beautiful time.”

Mayes said Benbow’s arrest left him in tears because of the alleged abuse of children.

“That’s what really breaks my heart,” he said.

Mayes was at a loss to know what could have led to the arrest.

“The devil, he don’t never stop,” he said.

Mayes said he supports Benbow as a friend, but added, “I believe in justice.”

He said his watchword in the current situation is the Biblical verse, “Let justice run down as water and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

--Bernice Paglia

BOE Vacancy Posted

The procedure to apply for a Board of Education vacancy is now posted on the school district's web site.

The vacancy came about with the November resignation of Vickey Sheppard, who won re-election in April for a three-year term. The Board of Education will be taking petitions and holding interviews to fill the vacancy until the April school board election, at which time candidates must run for the balance of the unexpired term.

Click here to see the requirements and to download a petition. Applicants must return petitions and a one-page letter stating why they want to serve by Jan. 7. The paperwork must be turned in to Business Administrator Gary Ottmann at 1200 Myrtle Avenue. The board will conduct interviews in public before selecting an applicant to serve until the April election.

Three seats will be up for election in April, in addition to the unexpired term. Incumbents are Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, Patricia Barksdale and Lisa Logan-Leach.

--Bernice Paglia

Special Council Meeting Monday

Budget matters will dominate a special City Council meeting Monday.

The meeting is 7 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

City Administrator Marc Dashield will continue a presentation on the FY 2009 budget with a discussion of revenues. Dashield previously outlined budget costs and also projected cuts that would be necessary to meet the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee's call for a zero tax increase.

Officials had hoped for budget passage by the end of December, but the city has not yet received notice of any extraordinary state aid that would offset a projected tax increase of more than 9 percent. The governing body will vote Monday on emergency appropriations of $7.2 million to operate the city in January and February and will also authorize the tax collector to send out estimated tax bills.

A contract award for a pre-fabricated rest room facility at Bryant Park is also on the agenda.

Dashield once again is doing double duty as both city administrator and acting director of Administration Finance, due to the firing of Douglas Peck. Peck was named director in April but was recently dismissed by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. Last year, Finance Director Ray Daniels left the city before the budget was finalized and Dashield had to take on his duties. The FY 2008 budget, covering July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2008, passed in February.

As explained by officials last week, the budget must be reviewed by the state Local Finance Board, but the state aid amount must be included and the city is still waiting to hear how much will be awarded.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Working on 2008 Review

What were the top stories of 2008?

The closing of Muhlenberg surely tops the list. Plaintalker has a few stories, but left the bulk of coverage to the print media. Brandon Lausch and Mark Spivey did a fine job in the Courier News.

There were lots of other stories that Plaintalker published first, having the advantage of being able to write and publish at will. But sometimes Mark had a story online by the time this writer got home from a long meeting.

Media coverage is changing as print operations embrace online options. The cost of printing and delivering newspapers is forcing adaptations such as smaller editions, cutbacks in publishing, equipping reporters with cameras and other gear formerly exclusive to professional photographers and wireless connections to the newsroom for speedy transmission.

Where do you get your news nowadays, especially local news? Most of us have heard all about national stories before the newspaper arrives, hence the shift to local news on the front page. Blogs including Plaintalker may be hybrids of news and opinion, which in the print media are sharply separated. It is up to a blog reader to sort out facts from hearsay, although talk in the street often presages a news story. Are news consumers better off with more sources now or is it more confusing?

So far, I am only one-third through 2008 in making lists for a Year in Review article. One advantage of a blog is that the whole year is there online for anyone to do their own review. In fact, Plaintalker's entire body of work since June 2005 is posted online. It now forms a free , searchable archive on many city matters.

Plaintalker has just one unpaid writer/photographer/publisher and does not attempt to cover everything, such as crime news. Having chosen to be a pedestrian, this writer is also geographically limited in coverage, to some extent. Most likely Plaintalker will continue through 2009 and then we shall see what's next. Many more blogs and potential online information outlets have begun in 2008. The fate of the traditional news media will be a story in itself for 2009.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, December 12, 2008

Out with the Old, In with New

This hulk of a monitor has served long past its time and began to signal its fatigue by making earthquake-like jiggles with flashing lights and prolonged aftershocks. I bought a new, flat monitor but hesitated to hook it up, being a big technophobe. After many pep talks by my daughter, my neighbor and some readers, I finally made the change.

As I suspected, the need to lighten up photos was actually due to the old monitor. The new one is much brighter. My flower file looks great and in general things look much better. Tinky Winky approves.
I am still much more confident at wrangling things in the yard than in the computer department. But I have to admit, you all were right - it was a simple change that did not deserve the drama I built up in my head over it.
Thanks to all for humoring me in my ineptitude.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Please, No Sour Grapes

To Anonymous who posted at 1:05 p.m.:
Your post does not appear to be relevant to my blog. If you want to make personal attacks on people, why don't you go to the forum or comment on the blogs of those with whom you have issues? And if you want to give advice to Jerry Green, guess what - he has his own blog and an office on Watchung Avenue. I doubt he looks on Plaintalker for advice.

--Bernice Paglia

Phone Problems

Something is wrong with my landline phone, although the DSL works. Blogging may be suspended while I chase down the problem. The last time this happened, it took me three weeks to get help and I didn't have use of the computer. I hope they don't tell me to go outside in the rain and play around with the phone box.
Take care out there - the weather is frightful and due to get worse.

Commentary on Proposed Meeting Changes

Someone sent Plaintalker a comment calling Dr. Harold Yood an “old grouch” for not embracing the proposed innovation of holding one City Council meeting in each of the city’s four wards. Well, count me in as another old grouch.

Dr. Yood has been an observer of city government for many decades and has shared his opinions in letters to the editor of the Courier News and now on his blog. He is a wise elder who deserves respect, not dismissal.

Now for the innovation: Taking the council meetings on the road is supposed to bring more citizens out to see their elected representatives in action. Councilman Rashid Burney explained it Monday, and on Wednesday said a further hope is that parents will bring children to the meetings and that children will express their views as well.

Another part of the proposal is to limit meetings to one agenda session and one regular meeting per month. Burney said the suggested agenda sessions will take place at schools, namely Cook, Clinton, Washington and Emerson. It will only be one meeting per quarter, he said.

But that will then be one-third of the agenda sessions, where many discussions and presentations take place. On the other hand, the council wants to have more committee meetings on such topics as public safety. These meetings would not be subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, if only a three-member committee meets, but the public will be welcome to come and observe.

First question: How will the general public, not just the hardy band of regulars, find out the dates and locations of meetings not held in the current two official locations? The city web site is still lacking after three years. Will it become a font of information in 2009?

Second question: How soon will this plan land on the great pile of failed innovations that the late Councilman Ray Blanco advocated in 2006? The Monday-Wednesday meeting schedule drove away many citizens. At last inquiry, not a single council committee had filed written reports – ever. And only a few of five oversight committees and 10 liaisons have ever reported back to the full council.

The Civic Responsibility Act and the Hispanic Affairs Commission have not been fulfilled and two new Youth Commissions are fallow. Blanco wanted three “working conferences” each year on topics of public interest, but there haven’t been any since 2006. Blanco’s untimely death in 2006 robbed the city of his great drive and energy and the like has not been seen since.

Maybe this new proposal is an attempt to revitalize the council’s role, but what is the governing body's core mission? To make laws, pass the budget and serve constituents. So it has been for 140 years. Are citizens now so passive that they will only go to a council meeting if the council meeting comes to them?

As far as children taking part, the council only allows one-half hour for public comment and each speaker gets five minutes. And that’s at the end of the agenda session. Let’s see, do kids really want to sit through discussions of liquor licenses or road repair while waiting their turn to speak? The school board now has student performances at the beginning of business meetings and then all the families leave before the board gets down to business- so much for public involvement.

This proposal needs more discussion, but judging by the tone Monday, it is a done deal worked out somewhere offstage. If the council wants to leave the seat of government to play musical chairs, four votes in January will make it happen. Time will tell whether it makes any sense.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Torch Runners Arrive Wednesday

Torch runners honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas, will arrive here Wednesday (Dec. 10, 2008) for a Mass and will continue Thursday on route to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City for a Feast Day celebration on Dec. 12.

The run began in November at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City and passed through many cities, garnering press attention and expressions of devotion along the way. The torch relay is meant to emphasize the plight of illegal immigrants and this year the focus is on invoking the saint’s help for the many immigrants who have been forced to return home due to the economic downturn. See a Daily News story here.

According to Vincent Nunez, church administrator at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Plainfield, the torch is coming from a parish in Passaic and will be at the Westfield Circle at about 5 p.m. Runners will proceed to the Watchuing Circle by about 5:30 p.m.

Once in Plainfield, the torch will be kept for a 7 p.m. Mass at St. Mary's and on Thursday will continue on to Paterson as part of a final leg to St. Patrick's Cathedral by Dec. 12.
A Google search of news clips reveals the honor associated with being a torch bearer. In San Antonio, Bishop Oscar Cantu carried the torch as explained in this news clip.
Whether a believer or non-believer, one can't help but be impressed with the hope and energy of this observance.
--Bernice Paglia

Dashield: Zero Tax Increase Means Deep Cuts

To meet a budget advisory group’s call for a zero tax increase, the city would have to take drastic measures including slashing police and fire personnel and eliminating the Recreation Division, City Administrator Marc Dashield said Monday.

Dashield gave a budget overview at Monday’s City Council agenda session. The presentation was not on the agenda, but was mentioned on Councilman Rashid Burney’s blog, where he called on the public to attend the meeting. Burney, head of the council’s Finance Committee, also advocated establishment of the 16-member Citizens Budget Advisory Committee that studied the FY 2009 budget and made its recommendations on Nov. 24.

Dashield explained that most of the budget pays for public safety, including 23.53 percent for the Police Division and 14.35 percent for the Fire Division. Insurance, pensions and debt account for another 33.8 percent and all other city functions make up the balance of 28.47 percent. He outlined measures the city has taken to curb costs in each category, but said contractual salary increases of $2.2 million and other personnel-related expenses added up to a $4 million increase. To offset it, the city is counting on $1 million in increased revenues, a $150,000 health insurance giveback and $1.7 in other reductions in order for the FY 2009 budget to come in at just $2 million over last year.

To get to zero, the city would have to lay off 98 people, or 21 percent of the workforce, including more than 30 police officers and 30 firefighters. Streets and roads worker would have to be cut 43 percent, more than 18 other employees would have to be laid off and the Recreation Division would have to be eliminated, he said.

Dashield gave a sweeping list of city services and programs that would have to be reduced or eliminated, including loss of one of the city’s three fire companies, no road repair or reconstruction, elimination of all special events including the July 4th celebration and less cleaning of streets and sidewalks.

Resident Gail Bayse, who had a laptop loaded with budget statistics from Burney’s web site, called attention to the general economic climate.

“We’re in a time when no one is getting a salary increase,” she said.

Bayse also questioned overtime and “$30 million in ‘other expenses,’ “ as reflected in the budget.

“I can’t believe we couldn’t come up with $4 million,” she said.

As projected, the budget reflects a more than 9 percent tax increase.

Although Burney had pressed for resolution of the budget by the end of the month, the city has still not heard how much extraordinary state aid it will receive. The timetable for passage will now go over into the third quarter of the budget year that began July 1, meaning half of the FY 2009 salaries and expenses will have already been paid out.

Other residents questioned the need for city cell phones and vehicles for officials and asked how the city can keep raising taxes in what has been called the worst economic times since the Great Depression.

“You can’t keep squeezing the stone,” resident Quin Jarrett said.

Dashield briefly spoke about revenues, but will give a full presentation next Monday at a 7 p.m. meeting in City Hall Library. Burney and City Clerk Laddie Wyatt clashed over the nature of the meeting, which will include voting matters even though the council officially closed out the year at last week’s regular meeting.

“You’re going against the law, but go ahead,” Wyatt said.

“Am I wrong?” Burney asked.

“Yes,” Wyatt said.

Burney said the council needs to authorize the tax collector to send out estimated tax bills, otherwise the city will be billing in April for February taxes. In addition, the city needs to approve a temporary budget and may also need to approve a contract to place a restroom at the Bryant Park playground before the end of the year, Burney said.

--Bernice Paglia

Council Proposes New Meeting Schedule

If some City Council members have their way, the traditional venues for meetings will expand next year to schools in Plainfield’s four wards.

The idea was floated at Monday’s City Council meeting as the governing body contemplated its meeting schedule for 2009. Normally, the council holds voting meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month, with agenda-setting sessions on the preceding Mondays. The schedule also includes summer and election hiatuses.

The new proposal would limit meetings to one agenda session and one business meeting in months where two are now set. In addition, the council might choose to meet in schools across the four wards instead of holding all agenda sessions at City Hall and all regular meetings at Municipal Court.

The premise is to gain more citizen participation, but in public comment longtime council observer Dr. Harold Yood blasted the plan, saying, “If you find the schedule too onerous, you should find other things to do.”

Yood said the council’s role was to meet four times a month to do its business and hear the citizens.

Councilman Rashid Burney championed the plan of one agenda session and one voting meeting per month, saying some meetings had few items for the governing body to consider and could be combined. Burney said more time could then be spent on committee work. Councilwoman Linda Carter and Councilman Cory Storch also favored a new system.

The new plan will require passage of an ordinance on two readings and may not take effect until March. Meanwhile, the council must adopt a calendar on Jan. 1 and will retain the traditional schedule to start the year.

Yood called the proposal “disturbing” and told the council, “You are attempting again to isolate yourself from the people.”

He likened the change to Congress moving its meetings to Oshkosh.

“You are elected here to be representatives of the people,” Yood said.

But Carter and Burney insisted the public would still be served.

“We’re not looking to get away from the public,” Burney said. “We’re just trying to do things a little smarter.”

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 08, 2008

Reorganization Plans To Be Discussed

Tonight's agenda session is for the Jan. 1 reorganization meeting. The City Council will discuss the meeting calendar for 2009 and other official actions to be taken to launch the new year.

The agenda session is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The reorganization meeting will be 11 a.m. Jan. 1 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

On Jan. 1, the council will choose a new president for 2009 and welcome new members Annie McWilliams and Adrian Mapp. Besides approving its meeting schedule, the council will name official newspapers and bank depositories, give top officials permission to use city-owned vehicles and confirm appointments offered by the mayor for various boards and commissions. The mayor is expected to give a State of the City address.

In years past, the reorganization was an occasion for all citizen watchdogs and local political pundits to give their own estimations of the state of the city. The meetings ran to four hours and many people dressed up for the occasion. More recently, the crowd has tended to be friends and family of those getting sworn in to various offices, including numerous judgeships.

This coming year is the last in the mayor's four-year term. She must file by April if she intends to run for a second term. Just as 2008 seems to have rushed by, 2009 will go fast as the city and the nation deal with economic pressures and political shifts. Think about attending the reorganization if you can. If not, keep the city and your elected officials in mind on New Year's Day.

--Bernice Paglia