Saturday, January 31, 2009

About the Slide Show and More

The two posts below are related but my technical skills are not good enough to combine them. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the pictures. And thanks again to Audrey and Peter for my birthday camera! It's so much fun to get close-ups of nature subjects.

In cleaning out the photo files, I came across my shots of Woody Harrelson doing a film right here on Block 832. It premiered at Sundance but I don't know when it will be in the theaters. The film is called "The Messenger."

January has been a very emotional month for lots of reasons. We are having extremes of good news and bad news. I hope everyone finds time this weekend to take a breather, even if you are not going to have a Super Bowl party. I am finding myself wanting to drop back to sewing projects. At least a craft project has a beginning, middle and end, which is a momentary cure for feelings of uncertainty. I just deconstructed an old flannel shirt and am making a mini-quilt for Mousie the cat. He is now 168 percent of his weight when he first came indoors on Nov. 20, weighing just 2.9 pounds. He is now a big guy at 7.8 pounds.

--Bernice Paglia

Mantis Slide Show

A Promise for the Garden

Last October, a praying mantis that was ready to lay eggs insisted on hanging out by a heavy metal basement door. Fearing disaster, I moved the praying mantis to a spot in the back yard. But then I never saw it again and thought maybe one of the feral cats on our block had caught it. On Friday, I decided to take a good look around and was pleased to find the egg case firmly attached to a twig on a forsythia bush. So next summer we will have mantids again in the garden.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 30, 2009

Dept. of Unsolicited Advice

Got the PMUA survey today and my first impression was that a mailing to residents was off the mark in a city where half the households are renters.

Would I like a separate container to recycle newspapers? Yes, but I'm not the decider in my six-family building.

Most of the other questions also require an answer from the decider, aka the property owner who gets billed by PMUA.

May I suggest that the next "survey" be directed to the property owner who pays the bills, not the resident who just gets a rent hike when the landlord gets upset over the PMUA rate increases.

--Bernice Paglia

It's A Jungle Out There

While Plainfield has its hopes pinned on The Monarch, another project by the same company is in a bit of a bind.

Click here to read about The Savoy in Rahway, a condo development that may become rentals if developer Glen Fishman can't sell the units.

The Monarch, with a new senior center on the ground floor and three floors of condos above, is Fishman's project at 400 East Front Street. So far, Fishman has missed three stated deadlines for completion, which is now supposed to take place sometime this year.

The handsome lion above is in front of the former Thomas Furniture store on Park Avenue, which is one of three buildings targeted for redevelopment by Landmark Developers. There are many other plans in the works, but not much action. In days to come, Plaintalker hopes to do an overview of the various proposals and where they stand.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs usually gives an update on the status of the senior center/condo project when she visits the present senior center, which is in leased space at 305 East Front Street. Her next visit should be at 10:30 a.m. next Tuesday.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Calendar Not Published

Today (Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009) was supposed to be the day the new calendar and four different locations for City Council meetings were to be published in the Courier News, but this writer didn't see any such legal notices.

Mark Spivey's article on the proposed changes, and other issues discussed Monday, was in the paper today and made me realize there were even more glitches than I found previously. For example, the April 13 meeting at Emerson School would, based on the language of the proposed ordinance, be a regular meeting, not an agenda-fixing session, and the Oct. 12 meeting at Hubbard Middle School would fall on the Columbus Day holiday.

Both Mark and I had to rely Monday on what we heard, as the calendar was not in the meeting packet, but was merely passed out to council members on the spot. That's why I wanted to see the legal notices today.

It would appear that the calendar that was briefly discussed Monday did not take into account several important considerations, and either the ordinance or calendar, or both, will have to be modified. The proposed Feb. 9 agenda session at Washington Community School could still take place by publishing a standalone legal notice just for that meeting while the rest of the calendar is being revised.

As I said previously, haste makes waste.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Blog Chronicles Newspaper Demise

A former Gannett employee began a blog about layoffs, buyouts, furloughs and other signs that the parent organization of the Courier News, Home News Tribune, Asbury Park Press and many other newspapers across the country is in danger of failing or sharply reducing its operations.

Over the past weeks, Gannett Blog has become my favorite link, because I know so many people affected by changes in the industry.

The blog has been and is currently serving as a source of advice on how to cope with these changes. Many of those affected by layoffs or buyouts are middle-aged and are now thrust into a job market wracked by fiscal disaster. So prospects are not good.

It's sad to think of so many talented people being forced to scramble for ways to cope in the new world of economic upset. I'm glad in a way that I have at least my pension and Social Security, for what it's worth, to get along with in this unprecedented world.

--Bernice Paglia

Who Will Be Mayor?

This image, from the Channel 74 coverage of the annual reorganization, includes the only two people who have begun actively campaigning for the 2009 mayoral race. Incumbent Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs is shown delivering her State of the City address, while Third Ward Councilman Adrian Mapp listens.

Robinson-Briggs launched her re-election bid last year, with buttons and T-shirts, while Mapp announced his campaign just this week. As always in Plainfield, word on the street is another source of intelligence about what is going on politically and when more than half a dozen disparate people start naming names, other candidates for mayor and for the Fourth Ward City Council seat emerge with a modicum of credibility.

However, until the April 6 filing date rolls around, the bottom line is unknown. Who will the Regular Democratic Organization support for the June primary? Will New Democrats make a challenge as they did in 2008? Will a Republican candidate emerge?

Plaintalker has never endorsed a candidate for any office, but strives to provide citizens with as much information as possible so voters can exercise their franchise on Primary Day and in the November general election.

In coming months, there will be lots of campaign rhetoric which must be balanced against the facts and realities of Plainfield's current situation. People who love the city are in pain over several issues and are looking for the best possible leadership for the next four years.

On April 6, voters will see who is willing to take up the challenge and can then weigh the qualifications of each person to do so. Plaintalker looks forward to providing the electorate with as much context as possible in this most important contest.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pension Deferral - A Plan?

Amongst all the hurly-burly of Monday's City Council meeting, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs requested a point of personal privilege to advocate for a pension deferral plan. Click here to read what Gov. Jon Corzine proposes.

This plan would certainly help in the short term but whoever is in charge in 2012 would then take the hit. It reminds me of those car and house payment plans that make things easier early on, then come down like a ton of bricks later. What do you think, dear readers? Does this spell R-E-L-I-E-F in your mind?

--Bernice Paglia

Mapp Declares Mayoral Candidacy

Sworn in as Third Ward councilman less than four weeks ago, Adrian Mapp has announced he is running for mayor this year.

Mapp, who previously served as Plainfield councilman and Union County freeholder, issued a statement Monday saying his concerns about the administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs led him to mount the challenge he has been pondering since 2007.

Mapp is one of a number of New Democrats who came into elected office during the tenure of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams. Although he won his freeholder seat with the endorsement of the Regular Democratic Organization, Mapp retained his presidency of the New Democrats and was dumped by the party after one three-year term. But in June, he and the late mayor's daughter, Annie C. McWilliams, beat RDO incumbents Don Davis and Harold Gibson in the primary. The two New Democrats went on to win the November general election.

Mapp's mayoral bid puts him in competition with Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green's protege, Robinson-Briggs, now in the fourth year of a term marred by high cabinet turnover, stalled road repairs and controversial use of police bodyguards. Robinson-Briggs began campaigning for re-election last summer, and at Democratic Party campaign celebration in November, Green led a chant of "four more years" for the mayor.

Meanwhile, it is an open secret that attorney Carol Ann Brokaw, chairwoman of the board of commissioners of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, also intends to run for mayor.

Green himself must run for another two-year Assembly term and re-election as Democratic Party chairman this year. The RDO ticket should be announced shortly before the April 6 filing date for the primary, but most likely Mapp will be relying on the increasingly powerful New Democrats for backing in his campaign.

Mapp said in his press statement that he had become increasingly concerned that the current administration is run "in a shoddy and secretive manner that is not respectful of residents' needs or concerns, and Plainfield is thus ill-served."

Mapp said the city faces "an extremely difficult future" for at least two years, as people lose homes and jobs. Taxes will suffer, he said, adding, "We must come to grips with the situation."

"Plainfield simply cannot afford four more years of a mayor who rushes to hug people but seems incapable of actually helping them," Mapp said.

Robinson's mayoral trademark has been to hug and kiss residents and officials alike, and to give out candy and snacks at public events.

Mapp cited the loss last year of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, saying the mayor did not use her position as a board member to influence the outcome, and also said taxpayers are justifiably upset at "the abysmal condition of the city's roads."

--Bernice Paglia

Council Members Question Layoff of One

City Administrator Marc Dashield gave new details on a one-person layoff plan Monday, explaining that it was really laying off a title.

Dashield said the title in question had been eliminated and the individual holding the title was transferred to another position, but still paid at the old title's rate. The layoff plan would save $16,000 by adjusting the compensation.

"It opens up the title that the person is in," Dashield said.

Councilman Adrian O. Mapp questioned any layoff plan involving just one employee.

"It doesn't send the right message," he said. "This doesn't look good."

Mapp questioned the cost savings and noted the individual's longevity with the city.

Mapp said he was concerned about what the city was "opening ourselves up to" by seeming to be punitive to the individual.

The discussion was complicated by the need to keep personnel matters confidential and to limit comments to the title and not the individual holding the title. But Councilwoman Linda Carter asked why, if the action was being taken to close out a position, it had not been stated as such. In addition, Carter asked whether similar action was being taken for other unfilled positions.

Dashield said the discussion would continue later in closed session.

Last year, the council approved another single-person layoff plan in conjunction with the elimination of the post of police chief. In that instance, former Chief Edward Santiago stayed on with the Police Division as a captain.

--Bernice Paglia

Burney Urges Budget Passage

If state budget decisions are not made soon, City Council President Rashid Burney is urging the city to wrap up its own budget next month.

Part of the municipal formula has been an infusion of “extraordinary state aid,” typically running to hundreds of thousands of dollars for tax relief. The aid for municipalities whose fiscal year begins July 1 has normally been announced by late fall, but this has been anything but a normal budget season. The city’s hopes of having a budget in place by December were dashed by unprecedented problems at both the federal and state level and the Plainfield administration is now proposing emergency appropriations through April, leaving just two months in the 2009 fiscal year for adjustments.

Municipalities may use one-twelfth of the prior year’s budget each month until passage of the new budget, but the longer the process takes, the less opportunity there is to make cuts.

To keep cash flowing for city operations, officials recently gave Tax Collector Marie Glavan the power to set an interim tax rate so that bills could be sent out for the third quarter of the fiscal year.

Given conditions caused by a global fiscal crisis, Burney has taken the stance that state aid may be insignificant this year and perhaps nonexistent next year, so the city might as well complete the budget process without further delay.

In past years, if a municipality has not struck a budget by the third quarter of the year, the state Department of Community Affairs has stepped in and set a budget figure. Officials could not say Monday whether there was a deadline for state intervention in the current circumstances.

--Bernice Paglia

Council Proposes Meetings Shifts

Eek-o-rama!

Plaintalker’s ability to report on city doings is in jeopardy.

First the school board destroys my ability to walk to meetings and now the City Council follows suit! OK, y’all, you may be on your own to get to meetings or else you have to follow the Channel 74 viewing schedule.

Plaintalker was once able to walk to Plainfield High School for Board of Education work-and-study and business meetings, before the 2008-09 schedule called for all BOE meetings to take place at 1200 Myrtle Avenue, quite a trek from Park & Seventh for this septuagenarian. Taxis cost money and this writer does not get paid to blog. My few taxi experiences, coupled with the pace of the meetings, put me off of trying to do anything more than previews of meetings to entice people to attend.

Now the City Council plans meetings at four schools across Plainfield, all testing the walkability factor that this writer so frequently vaunts. Some may recall that I gave up driving a while ago, both in the interest of voluntary simplicity and in the face of involuntary simplicity due to the cost of owning and maintaining a car.

The City Council now proposes just one agenda fixing session and one regular meeting per month, along with four special conference meetings on topics of importance to the community. The conference topics are the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority on Feb. 23, Public Safety on April 8, Information Technology on July 27 and Economic Growth on Oct. 5.

However, a quick perusal of the annual calendar proposed tonight uncovered more than a few glitches. In June, the agenda-fixing session will occur on the eve of the June primary, which in Plainfield tends to augur the outcome of the November general election. And the next Monday, slated for a regular meeting, coincides with the Democratic Party reorganization at which a chairman is chosen for the next two years.

The Economic Growth conference meeting on Oct. 5 at Hubbard Middle School coincides with the council’s agenda fixing session for the month at City Hall Library.

Plaintalker previously made up a chart of meetings based on the original schedule approved on Jan. 1. The new schedule is to be published on Jan. 29 in the newspapers. Technically, the ordinance amending the council schedule must pass on two readings, which puts in doubt the Feb. 9 meeting under the new schedule. Correction: The Feb. 9 meeting is good under the schedule approved Jan. 1. According to my calculations, if the ordinance passes on Feb. 2, second reading and final passage can take place Feb. 17. Then 29 days must elapse, putting the start of the once-a-month plan in April.

The proposed changes need to be vetted for anomalies such as those described above, and only then should they be approved by the council. As the saying goes, haste makes waste.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 26, 2009

Thoughts on the Budget Process

As January winds down, budget passage is still up in the air. The City Council will be asked tonight (Monday, Jan. 26, 2009) to consider extending emergency budget appropriations through March and April. Daffodils may be blooming before the budget passes with just two months left in the fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the council approved a calendar that calls for FY 2010 budget talks to start in March. The new budget would be for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Figures on actual expenses for FY 2009 will not be known until after the budget year closes.

So wouldn't it be better to focus on this year's budget until it is finalized? Despite the many meetings last fall on the budget, no amendments have yet been formulated. Then again, if budget passage does not happen until April, 10 of 12 months' costs to run the city will have been expended and there will be little to amend.

A one-person layoff plan is under consideration, but the targeted individual will probably still be working until April, so there will be only two months' salary savings. Is this fair or sensible? In 2006, the administration seemed to have the same person in the crosshairs and went so far as to hire somebody at $82,000 to hold the same title. So two people were drawing high salaries for the same job. The new hire, who also held a position in another municipality, finally left and the city veteran stayed on. Then, as I recall, the title was done away with, but the longtime employee took a lesser title, now subject to layoff. Given the history of how this situation was handled, there is likely to be a cost in litigation that may exceed whatever savings the layoff might have produced.

There are other examples of this kind of targeting during the current administration, but poking at people here and there does not reflect a fiscal policy. Of course, the turnover in Administration & Finance may have contributed to ill-considered fiscal strategies. At present, there is no permanent finance director or chief financial officer. I'm told the city has hired a very capable, knowledgeable person to help out with finalizing the budget process. His advice should be heeded.

Tonight's meeting is to include a report from the council's Finance Committee as well as a report on the FY 2009 budget status. I hope people will come out to listen or will view the meeting on Channel 74. Much of the turmoil is due to forces outside city control, but surely there are some commonsense things that can be done to cut city costs. Every household is rethinking spending and allocation of resources. After core services, what discretionary expenses can the city do without? Answers must be found as soon as possible.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Foreclosure Moratorium, Discussions Up Monday

Councilman Adrian O. Mapp is calling for a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures.

At Monday's City Council meeting, Mapp will introduce a resolution urging banks and other lenders to suspend foreclosing for an unspecified period of time. The idea was popular last fall, with calls from Sen. Hillary Clinton, Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger and presidential candidate Barack Obama all proposing the same. Clinton is now U.S. Secretary of State and Obama is president. According to a study prepared for Congress members and committees by the Congressional Research Service, the pros and cons include balancing relief to homeowners with the needs of lenders to keep capital flowing. Click here for the full 18-page report.

The meeting 7:30 p.m. Monday in City Hall Library also includes reports from numerous council committees and liaisons. Council President Rashid Burney has scheduled reports from the Finance Committee, which includes himself, Councilman William Reid and Mapp; the Code Enforcement Oversight Committee, whose members are Burney, Reid and Councilwoman Annie McWilliams; the Economic Growth Committee, consisting of Burney Reid and Councilman Cory Storch; Board of Education Liaison Councilwoman Linda Carter and McWilliams as alternate; and Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority liaisons Reid, a former PMUA commissioner, and Burney as alternate.

The assignments were only given out on Jan. 15.

An extensive structure of committees and liaisons was established in 2006 by then-Council President Ray Blanco, who died suddenly the same year. Since then, the system was largely dormant, but Burney is pushing for it to be reactivated this year. He also wants to revive the "working conferences" that Blanco established, similar to town hall meetings on a single topic such as public safety.

Another discussion item is the City Council calendar. Normally, agenda-fixing sessions are held in City Hall Library at 515 Watchung Avenue on Mondays prior to regular meetings, which are held on first and third Mondays at Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Avenue. Burney said last month he wants to reduce regular meetings to once a month and hold agenda-fixing sessions at schools in the city's four wards. The reduced schedule, he said, would allow more time for committee work and conference meetings and the offsite meetings would permit residents in the wards to see the council close up in their neighborhoods.

Critics said last month the council should stick to its normal schedule and locations, in part because the proposed calendar might be too hard for people to follow. Citizen attendance fell off sharply after the council adopted another of Blanco's innovations, holding agenda sessions on Mondays with regular meetings the same week on Wednesdays. The schedule was dropped in part because of the burden it put on the office of City Clerk Laddie Wyatt, allowing barely a day or so instead of a week to prepare for the voting meeting.

Burney has also proposed that council meetings be taped for airing on local Channel 74 and that the council have its own online presence. Some meetings, including the four hour Jan. 1 annual reorganization, have appeared on Channel 74, but not all have been posted on the local channel's online schedule.

On his own web site, Burney has posted council documents as well as the entire Municipal Code and the City Charter. In the future, he wants agendas to be published on the city web site prior to meetings. Currently, they are posted later.

To see the city web site, visit www.plainfield.com and to view Burney's web site, click here. Burney also has a blog, "As I See It."

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tales of the Newsroom


The Courier News is moving from Bridgewater to Somerville after 40 years, reporter Mark Spivey tells us.

After retiring on July 31, 2003, I never set foot in the building again. Every so often, I thought of visiting, but eventually all the reporters I knew had moved on, including two of the four people who covered Plainfield after me.

A lot of my memories of the building have to do with its inhospitable construction. There was no fresh air and all summer it was 60 degrees inside. Stuck out on Route 22, it was inaccessible except by car. The newsroom was a big, open place with most desks piled high with news releases, official documents, reference books and quirky artifacts such as toy cars, figurines and stickers. I had a Tube of Gloom, from the Archie McPhee store in Seattle, which emitted a mournful groan when upended.

There was a high staff turnover and staff departures were marked by the appearance of an ice cream cake on top of a file cabinet and a brief show of bonhomie. These cakes or something much better from the Gaston Avenue Bakery appeared for birthdays, and folks gathered to serenade the birthday person, while sometimes an unlucky staffer was on the phone trying to interview a grieving family member or an important dignitary.

I liked the killdeer that nested in the gravel outside, and the wildflowers that grew on the embankments around the parking lot. When the indoor chill became too much, I would take a walk around the building and maybe pick a small bouquet for my desk, or should I say my pod. Four arrow-shaped desks were arranged together in such a way that everything past the computer monitor was out of reach. The center of each pod gathered rolls of dust that seldom got cleaned. My most memorable pod mate was a young reporter who was ill-suited to covering municipal meetings and went on to more intellectual pursuits, writing for prestigious magazines.

A lot of people ate at their desks, because once a round of calls was made for a story, the reporter had to wait for callbacks. Of course, most of us were working on many stories at once. I used to pack in provisions like a wilderness explorer, but if the day wore on too long, a circuitous trip to Somerville became necessary to get food. Some people went to the Bridgewater Commons, but that always seemed like too much of a trek in heavy traffic for me.

One year, the newspaper converted from the old Atex system to a more modern one. We each had two monitors and two keyboards in front of us for a few weeks while the kinks were worked out. I often found myself typing on the wrong keyboard.

One of my favorite things was the clip file. Besides microfilm dating back to the earliest days of the paper, there was the “old library” of clips and a newer one dating from around 1987. I learned a lot about Plainfield and its people from those clips. Later, a digital archive was created, but finding the right keyword to get an article was a tricky business. The library and digital archive also had byline files and I liked to see the volume of my work.

When I first started in 1987, editors smoked in the newsroom and photos were developed in a darkroom. Soon there was a building-wide no smoking policy and eventually the photo bureau went digital. There was profit-sharing and free coffee early on, but both faded away.

Business and editorial both had staffs of three, later reduced to one each. I saved all the seating charts and they show the trend toward fewer and fewer people as the organization flattened. General assignment reporters gave way to a rotation called “Day GA,” which we pronounced like the name of the French painter. Similarly, the Day in the Life series was called DITL, pronounced “dittle.” Beats such as health, science, education and crime disappeared and we had to take turns doing cop runs to pick up the police blotter. Then cop runs were dropped.

Most of the newsroom romances went over my head or under my radar, as I was too old to schmooze and gossip after hours with the young reporters. Ye Old York Inn, in Raritan, was the gathering place for socializing in the 1980s. But I was 20 years older than some in 1987, and one of my last pod mates was 40 years my junior.

Somerville should prove to be a much more agreeable location. In a quick walk, staffers will have access to all sorts of food and drink. Real people, one of the requisites for quotes and comments, will be found just outside the newsroom. It will be much cozier than the 71,227-square foot building that was advertised for sale as a warehouse.

Even though we shared the building with circulation, advertising and production, most of us were unaware of employees other than those in the newsroom. Now that newspapers are combining (CN and HNT) and outsourcing major functions, the remaining employees may get to know each other better. People who use public transportation may even be able to get jobs there, though not as reporters. And reporters can set out from Route 28 instead of Route 22.

Good luck to Mark, Brandon, Laurie and all in the new place. Maybe I’ll take the bus or train to Somerville and peek in one day.
--Bernice Paglia



Gangs are Here

On my way to the Frontiers International event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I saw this gang sign spray-painted on a wall on school grounds.

Click here for information on an upcoming program on gangs and ways to prevent young people from being drawn or forced into gangs.

Last summer, three young people ran into our yard and said they were being chased by gang members. They were terrified and we were able to get police to respond and get them home safely. But we wondered how they were going to feel about going back to school if they were afraid of gang pressure or attacks.

This is a very serious problem that deserves awareness and action. Gang symbols can be seen all over, and erasing the graffiti is not going to erase the problem.

There were gangs when I went to high school way back in the 1950s, wielding switchblades and zip guns against each other. Now that gang members have automatic weapons, the danger to all has increased.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 23, 2009

Correction from PMUA

Here is a correction on today's post about PMUA rates:

"In paragraph two, you state that the quarterly sewer fee is going up from $509 to $578. This is not the quarterly fee, but it is the annual fee.

Our quarterly fee on average is currently $127 and will be increased to $145."

--Bernice Paglia

PMUA Rates Increase

Sewer rates will increase by 14 percent for 2009 and solid waste costs will rise by 20 percent, according to figures given at a Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority rate hearing Thursday.

The last hike was in 2007 and before that, rates did not increase for three years. But now householders will be asked to pay $191.45 per quarter for solid waste costs, up from $159.65, and $578 per (Correction: per year) quarter for sewer services, up from $509.

Various other costs rose, including 40 percent more to clean up a trash-strewn property and 20 percent more to dispose of the debris.

Keith Henderson of T&M Associates gave presentations on both solid waste and sewer budgets for the authority, which was established in 1995. Before that, the city has a sewer utility that allowed property owners to deduct costs from their taxes, and there were private carters who contracted with property owners for trash removal.

The total solid waste budget for 2009 is $11,589,897, with salaries making up 33 percent of the cost and fringe benefits adding 15 percent. The main source of revenue is solid waste fees, providing 70 percent of income.

The $10,436,503 sewer budget derives its main income from usage fees and its biggest expense is paying the Plainfield Area Regional Sewer Authority $2.7 million for conveyance and pass-along costs for treatment at the Middlesex County Utilities Authority.

The solid waste presentation included long lists of charges, including those for container contracts and disposing of various kinds of waste at the transfer station. Ratepayers also share in costs such as downtown sweeping, pickup of trash from street receptacles and various municipal services. The entire rate table is on file at the PMUA office.

Just a few citizens came out Thursday to witness the proceedings, ask questions and make themselves known to the PMUA officials. Executive Director Eric Watson said he welcomed the interest and said a public survey will soon be conducted. In addition, information on ways to help sewer and solid waste systems work better will soon be disseminated in English and Spanish, he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

PMUA Rate Hearing Thursday

Unless it has been rescheduled yet again, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority will be holding a public hearing 6 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009) at 127 Roosevelt Avenue. The Authority may discuss and take action on sewer and solid waste rates. Call (908) 226-2518 before 4 p.m. to check before venturing out in the cold.

This hearing was originally scheduled for Nov. 24 before being canceled and rescheduled. The November meeting was posted just after delivery of the PMUA newsletter that outlined multiple reasons why rates might go up. Reasons for increased rates are also mentioned on the PMUA web site. Click here to see the spiffy new web site.

Unfortunately, the web site calendar includes pickups but not the meeting schedule.

The PMUA will reorganize in February. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs recently offered the names of Don Davis to replace PMUA Commissioner James Green, and Eugene Dudley to succeed himself on the authority, but then withdrew the nominations. The next logical date to seek City Council confirmation of nominees is the Jan. 26 agenda-fixing session. Votes then would be taken at the Feb. 2 regular council meeting.

Those unfamiliar with PMUA can learn more from the web site, which includes a history and many other details.

Plaintalker will try to cover the rate hearing. Click here for a report on a prior PMUA rate increase.

--Bernice Paglia

Bargains in Westfield

A very popular store in downtown Westfield is having a clearance sale, just in time for pennypinchers to fulfill their New Year's resolutions to pinch even harder.

An article in The Westfield Leader online caught my eye and informed me that The Leader Store was closing after 61 years. My shock was tempered as I read on that the store needs to empty out merchandise so that a year-long renovation can take place.

Here's what I like about The Leader Store: It has sensible clothing and footwear for active people. The store reminds me of old ones in East Orange in the 1950s, where walls of merchandise dazzle the eye, but helpful staff can winnow out just the items you are seeking. I was perusing a floor-to-ceiling array of socks when an employee helped me find the warm boot socks I need for my outdoor travels.

Click here for Jan. 8 issue of The Westfield Leader and look in the lower right corner for an image of The Leader Store, located at 109 East Broad Street.

It's worth a visit, and many other stores in downtown Westfield, such as Gap and Randal's Shoes, are also having sales.

--Bernice Paglia

Hope, Change

Just in time for the inauguration, my "Blossom Peacock" amaryllis began to bloom. The loveliness that was packed into a green bud is now visible, just as the promise of a new path for America is being revealed.

The inauguration was a stunning event. Hope and change are in the air and in our hearts. The presidency is real. Here in Plainfield, where Barack Obama received an overwhelming endorsement at the polls, we can take a cue from The Rev. Joseph Lowery's iteration of street philosophy and add, "If you're Barack, we got your back."

--Bernice Paglia

On Responsibility

Feeling both reclusive and contemplative, I decided to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama by myself. When he spoke about a “new era of responsibility,” it made me think of a very elementary way we can take on responsibility here in the Queen City.

I’m talking about litter. Cleanup and litter pickup campaigns have always irked me, because nearly all the discarded items came out of somebody’s hand with the expectation that someone else would deal with them. This contributes to a costly and potentially unnecessary part of Plainfield’s budget. Recently I was looking at a wall of trash up against a fence in Municipal Lot 7 and thinking just that. Soon afterwards, a Public Works crew came with trucks and equipment to dislodge all the debris, scoop it up and take it away – at the taxpayer’s expense.

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority also has workers who go around with carts and brooms to clean the sidewalks. Every time you see one of these workers, you are looking at a cost built into your PMUA bill, whether or not you have ever dropped a snack bag or paper cup on the sidewalk.

Now, if you walked past my building and saw the garbage-strewn lawn, you would probably think, what a hypocrite. Let me explain. My neighbor and I quit picking up trash in the front yard after the level of services here dropped and the rent soared. The front yard, according to us, is our landlord’s face to the public. The lawn guys in summer toss all sorts of junk in one corner of the front yard instead of dealing with it, and the management allows it.

We still try to keep up the back and side yards, or we did until it became a losing battle with a couple of new tenants who drop stuff all over and make no effort to pick it up. Maybe they also feel so insulted by the lack of services for high rent that they are taking out their resentment by trashing the grounds. So far, they don’t think “the time has come to set aside childish things.”

Personally, even though I don’t think it is the real solution to the problem, I will once more get out my pickup tool and pluck plastic bags off the shrubbery, gather the food wrappers and bottles, maybe later even rake the leaves in the back. As for the front, maybe someone will call Inspections at (908) 753-3386 and make a complaint.

Keeping the Queen City litter-free is such a small thing in the great panoply of problems to be solved in America in 2009. But it is something anyone can help solve by heeding Obama’s call for a new era of responsibility, at the most basic level, on our streets and sidewalks. Yes, we can keep our city clean. Yes, we will? I hope so.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Frontiers Speakers Raise Spirits

When Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said separation of church and state was “not the case” Monday, she wasn’t kidding. The Frontiers International 33rd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast had more preaching and testifying than just about any revival meeting.

Speakers Gloria Spence, Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III and keynote speaker Kevin Powell had people raising their hands in witness as they made their points about the theme, “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” The miracle of the Hudson River plane landing, MLK’s 80th birthday anniversary and the juxtaposition of the civil rights leader’s holiday with the inauguration of the nation’s first black president had the people saying, “Amen.”

Powell recounted seeing both an unprecedented number of young people as well as long lines of seniors waiting to vote for Barack Obama, who ran for president on a “very simple message” of hope and change.

When Obama won the Nov. 4 presidential election, Powell said, “You would have thought the whole world was emancipated.”

The question is, Powell said, “What are we going to do now?”

Noting that two to four million people are expected to fill the Washington Mall, built like the White House by slaves, Powell said, “When he puts his hand on that Bible, you can feel the spirit.”

Although Obama “resonates with everybody,” Powell said the moment will have a special significance for blacks. King had a dream, he said, but to complete his goals, Powell said, “You must be awake to do this.”

Harking to the use of black males in slavery times as mere studs for producing more slaves, Powell traced a parallel in modern-day “baby makers.”

“Let’s have a higher standard for black men,” he said, so that black women would not have to raise children by themselves.

Powell said his own single mother had a dream for him and fought the Jersey City school system for his education. Now the author of nine books, he invoked the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and said, “Barack gave us the remix – Yes. We Can.”

Tracing King’s life, cut short by his assassination, Powell said, “Look what he did in 39 short years.” King, Obama and Jesus were all community organizers, Powell said before laying out some guidelines for action today.

“Commit your lives to giving back to someone,” he said.

Powell said King even 40 years ago saw a disturbing trend toward “mediocrity in black America,” noting a focus away from a people-oriented society to a “thing-oriented society,” now evident in computers, iPods and other consumer items.

“We need a plan,” he said, calling on people to change spiritually, politically, economically by leading simpler lives and by taking more care of their physical health and mental wellness.

Spence, whom the mayor called on to sing as she does at each mayoral visit to the senior center, roused the crowd with a fiery impromptu sermon and the song, “One Day at a Time.”

Gallon also stirred the audience as he pointed out King’s view on the purpose of education – to succeed in one’s personal life and to prepare one to contribute to society – and set forth his goals for the Plainfield district to improve education.

Another star speaker was Artemus Werts Jr., a Rutgers student who talked about the great legacy of African civilizations that he said has been almost forgotten. Werts attributed fierce early slave rebellions to the people’s memory of their heritage, but said those born into slavery lost that fire. The way out of subservience then became education, he said.

The event also included community service and scholarship awards. Frontiers International is a service club. Oliver Pinkard, president of the Plainfield Area Club, urged all in attendance to educate themselves on the global fiscal crisis that has pushed the foreclosure rate up 81 percent over 2007 and caused widespread unemployment.

“There are high hopes for Barack Obama,” Pinkard said, “but he’s going to have his hands full.”

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 19, 2009

Frontiers Breakfast

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Reflections in Black and White

I suppose the momentous occasion of Barack Obama's presidency has many, many people thinking about how they first encountered racism in society or even within their families. Some say we as a nation are past the hurtful times, but at the personal level there is still much to be done.

Most Plainfielders hold up the community's diversity as a thing of value, maybe even the main reason why they want to live here. A large part of the community makes no distinction over race or ethnicity but just wants good neighbors, effective elected officials and friends from many backgrounds. Outsiders don't always "get" Plainfield, so co-workers or relatives may question why residents like the city. Some won't even come to visit.

It is this latter group who may not be able to see the scope of Obama's triumph, but will get bogged down over color. A speaker on public radio recounted last week how his sister told him he was not welcome to stay at her home while attending the inauguration. How sad, I thought. It took me back to the 1950s in East Orange where I had two African-American schoolmates whose homes I could visit, but who were not welcome at my family's home. Amy and I bonded over music . As I recall, we both cried when Charlie Parker died in 1955. Ernestine and I shared a sense of humor and a budding intellectuality. Her parents were so refined and gracious to me that I felt keenly the shortcomings of my own family in the manners department.

In 1958, my husband-to-be and I often went to jazz clubs where musicianship did away with racial divides, but it was from his Italian family that I learned all the epithets that later surfaced on The Sopranos. Somewhere along the line, I began my own Africana studies at a local library before there was any such formal course. And reading about black artists and musicians, I learned how many became expatriates to places where their talent was their main credential.

Listening to Malcolm X on late-night radio in the 1960s, reading Wright, Ellison, Baldwin and more while living in mostly white, intolerant communities, I was on a path to Plainfield without knowing it. Here I met people like the late Rev. Frank Allen, a Garveyite; Hassan Salim, a one-man cultural force in African garb; the very sophisticated Clyde Allen; the late radio personality Bro. Arthur Bailey III and many more movers and shakers, thinkers and dreamers, race men and sorors, Plainfielders all.

Luckily for me, I was able to help tell some of their stories in weekly and daily newspapers and to realize that relations were generally getting better among diverse groups in the city. Somehow, when Barack Obama came on the national scene, his words and his demeanor resonated with so many people that the past, with its often ugly twists and turns, began to fade before the bright hope he represents.

That is not to say that everyone is on board with what he stands for, but the tears of joy on the faces of people at inaugural events tell us that enough people believe in him to bring about a fundamental shift in the nation's direction. Though known for his erudite and eloquent speeches, I think even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would happily have joined today in the simple declaration, "Yes, we can!"

--Bernice Paglia

Frigid Weather? Ask a Rhododendron

Anyone with a rhododendron in the yard can check how cold it is by looking at the leaves. Here is how the leaves looked when the temperature rose to 40 degrees for a while.

But when the Arctic chill came our way, the leaves curled up. When they get tight as a pencil, bundle up!
Observing nature is fun for children and it never loses its charm for people of any age.
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Honesty? Honestly!


How interesting that Jerry Green proclaims, "Honesty is a Virtue."
Telling the truth did not seem to be on his conscience when he wrote on a recent blog, "It is now obvious that the 1,000 votes Bernice and John Campbell got for the McCain/Palin ticket procured the agenda of soliciting sour grapes."
I have been a registered Democrat all my adult life, which is more than some local RDO aisle-jumpers can say. For the third-in-line Democratic Assembly member to toss out a patently false allegation against a constituent, on his official blog no less, is unbecoming to the office, unfair to me and a disservice to the public with whom he claims to be communicating. This bathroom-wall style of rhetoric does, however, reveal the person behind the high-flown declaration of honesty as a virtue.
More from the aspiring candidate for re-election: "As campaign season rounds into place for me, I look back over the past election, and feel confident with those past results and eager with excitement of the results to come. By winning the City of Plainfield, 70% of the vote, out of 50,000 voters, just under 600 voted against me."
Maybe it is just an honest mistake, but shouldn't someone in politics know that residency is not the same as being registered to vote? Before the November 2007 election, there were only 18,080 registered voters in Plainfield. Click here to see another recent take on the numbers by Jerry and Plaintalker's earlier take.

As Jerry has also said on his blog, "Therefore, it is time for every duck to fall in line with the premise of order."
Let us all agree that honesty is a virtue, honesty is the best policy and, as the great sage Stan Laurel once opined, "Honesty is the best politics."

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 16, 2009

Q&A with Dr. Gallon on Sixth Grade


Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III has announced that all elementary schools will extend to sixth grade in the 2009-10 school year.

The news follows this year's innovation at Cook and Cedarbrook schools of a sixth grade option to enrollment at district middle schools. The plan is the first step toward a K-8 elementary school configuration that Dr. Gallon says is more cognizant of a young adolescent's needs than the current K-5, 6-8 model with two district middle schools.

Many Plainfield parents have taken their children out of the system rather than send them to district middle schools. The district has experienced a loss of student population to charter schools and other learning settings in recent years. Dr. Gallon has stated a goal of reclaiming these students. Below are Plaintalker's questions and Dr. Gallon's answers on the new proposal. A "critical data point," he says, is the 95 percent retention rate.

Q. How many fifth graders are currently enrolled in the district?
A. 530 fifth grade students are currently enrolled in the district.

Q. How many sixth graders are at Cook and Cedarbrook?
A. 99 grade 6 students at both schools. 39 at Cook and 60 at Cedarbrook.

Q. What number of new sixth graders can the elementary schools accommodate?
A. An assessment and analysis was made prior to the decision. The district can accommodate all 530 5th grade students for sixth grade next year.

Q. What is the projected staff realignment in order to have sixth grades at both middle and elementary schools?
A. The staff alignment will be based on the number of students enrolled at each level (middle and elementary). As we are in the very initial stages, a request from parents to indicate their druthers for the 2009-2010 school will be made to provide data for projected enrollment and staff realignments, where needed.
I have initiated School Budget/Personnel Conferences in the district for all schools. This is a process to ensure efficient, equitable, and effective allocation of district resources, and will involve meetings with building principals and district staff to review enrollment (current and projected) data and align with the fiscal reality of the school. This will result in appropriate reconciliations being made at each school.
I am presently and personally meeting with each school’s entire faculty to discuss and review the School Budget/Personnel Reconciliation process. The first meeting was held at Plainfield High School this past Monday. These efforts, along with the development and adoption of a School Allocation Plan, which Mr. Ottman presented to BOE at Tuesday’s meeting, will strengthen our efficiency and fiscal accountability efforts. These are all reflected in the 2008-2012 District Strategic Plan.

Q. It is just half a year since the innovation at Cook and Cedarbrook. What early results are you seeing? What number of seventh graders do you anticipate at the two schools?
A. The preliminary result/impact has been in the area of student retention and recruitment. Through these models, we were not only able to retain many of students, but actually have parents to return to PPS to enroll their children. An interesting and compelling set of indisputable data speaks to retention. Of the 41 grade 5 students at Cook, 39 remained for grade 6. This is a 95% retention rate. Of the 63 grade 5 students at Cedarbrook last year, 60 remained for grade 6 this year. This is also a 95% retention rate. Additionally, students’ grade, attendance, and performance levels have been able to sustain at higher levels, many of which would often decline upon entering middle school.
The students’ self-esteem and self-efficacy have also improved due to the fact they are leaders in their schools and are able to have a small learning community with familiar adults fostering them during a critical time of personal growth and development.

Click here for Dr. Gallon's Jan. 14 letter on the subject. And make sure to take a look around the district web site for lots of other information.

--Bernice Paglia

Council Approves Car Use, Appointments

In unfinished business from the Jan. 1 reorganization, the City Council authorized 24-hour use of city-owned cars for three officials and approved appointments to several boards and commissions.

The car issue was delayed as council members questioned the need for the city to provide 24-hour vehicles, as well as the cost of the perk. On Jan. 1, only the mayor and fire chief received approval to use city cars around the clock. At Thursday's meeting, Public Works Superintendent John Louise won approval to have a 24-hour vehicle throughout 2009, but the council gave only limited use through February for cars for City Administrator Marc Dashield and Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig while discussion of the issue continues.

In a series of votes Jan. 1, the council first tabled numerous appointments to boards and commissions, then agreed to reappoint some incumbents while holding up new appointments pending interviews.

On Thursday, all the nominees from Jan. 1 were approved.

They are Ronald Patillo for a one-year alternate term on the Shade Tree Commission; Annie B. Hatchel to Jan. 1 2010 on the Beautification Committee; Indira Bailey and Victoria Griswold, three-year terms succeeding themselves on the Cultural and Heritage Commission; Sidney Jackson, alternate, two years on the Planning Board.

Also, for the Zoning Board of Adjustment, Christopher Awobue and Alejandro Ruiz received four-year terms and Robert K. Graham received a two-year term. For the Historic Preservation Commission, William Garrett, Reginald L. Thomas and David A. Westlake were approved for four-year terms and Jan Jasper and Erin Finnerty received two-year terms.

Assignments to the Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Board were not on the agenda Thursday.

Council President Rashid Burney is pushing for full implementation in 2009 of the Civic Responsibility Act of 2005, which calls for publication of all vacancies on boards and commission, along with the terms, duties, meeting dates and other details so that interested citizens can apply. There is currently a downloadable application form on the city's web site, but full information about the opportunities was to have been posted online within one year of the law's passage.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Election Dates are Online


Last year, Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi had her bright yellow brochure of election dates out early, due to the presidential primary. So far, the 2009 dates are not posted on her web site.
However, the state Division of Elections has the relevant dates, although they are deep inside a 128-page document that can be seen online here. Never mind the information on fire districts and nonpartisan municipal elections, Plainfielders are focusing on the school board contest and the June primary.
Petitions are now available for the school board election and must be returned by March 2. Anyone who objects to a candidate's petition must say so by March 6. The last day to register to vote in the school board election is March 31 and the election is April 21.
By April 6, we will know who the Regular Democratic Organization is putting up for the mayoral and Fourth Ward seats, as well as any challengers. More details later on the June 2 primary.
Some interesting names are already being floated for the primary, but as always it remains to be seen who will actually run. Meanwhile, the talk certainly fuels one of Plainfield's top indoor sports, political speculation.
--Bernice Paglia

City Can Seek HUD Funds

Plainfield has a chance to take part in a federal program that offers direct help to state and local governments that are facing high foreclosure rates.

To learn more about the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, click here.
The news came at the end of a long City Council agenda session. Vincent Cangelosi of Faith, Bricks and Mortar said the city has until Feb. 6 to apply for funding. According to a HUD press release, the funding can be used to "acquire land and property; to demolish or rehabilitate abandoned properties; and/or to offer downpayment and closing cost assistance to low- to moderate-income homebuyers."
The opportunity is based on data that pinpoints communities with high foreclosure rates. The program will also require counseling for families receiving homebuyer assistance.
The program was launched with passage last year of the Economic Recovery Act of 2008. On Sept. 26, 2008, U.S. HUD Secretary Steve Preston allocated a total of $3.92 billion "to all states and particularly hard-hit areas trying to respond to the effects of high foreclosures," a press release said. New Jersey's portion is $51.5 million.
The City Council meets at 8 p.m. tonight to vote on applying to the program, among many other matters.
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Images

Realizing there has been a paucity of images in recent posts, Plaintalker will be collecting and posting random winter photos along with the usual boring governmental news.

--Bernice Paglia

Council to Approve Committees

The late Councilman Ray Blanco established a set of Rules of Order that included the formation of special oversight and standing committees, with the idea of having three council members look closely at important subjects and report back to the entire City Council.

That was in 2006, and over the subsequent years not much has been heard from the various committees with the exception mainly of the Finance Committee. On Thursday (Jan. 15, 2009), the council will approve committee assignments again, as well as liaisons to external boards and commissions. The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The council consists of one citywide at-large representative, Annie McWilliams; Councilman William Reid, First Ward; Councilman Cory Storch, Second Ward; Councilman Adrian O. Mapp, Third Ward; Councilman Elliott Simmons, Fourth Ward; Councilwoman Linda Carter, First and Fourth Wards at-large; and Councilman Rashid Burney, Second and Third Wards at-large. As council president for 2009, Burney assigns members to committees.

Each committee has three members and is not subject to the Open Public Meetings Act. Members choose a chairman, set rules and arrange their own schedule.

Committees as listed on Jan. 12 agenda

Finance: Burney, Reid, Mapp.
Bridges: Storch, McWilliams.
Code Enforcement Oversight: Burney, Reid, McWilliams.
Public Safety: Reid, Carter, Simmons.
Economic Growth: Burney, Reid, Storch
Road Construction Oversight: Burney, McWilliams, Mapp.
Technology Infrastructure Oversight: Burney, Simmons, McWilliams
Muhlenberg: Burney, Carter, Reid.

Liaisons:

Mayor’s Citizens Advisory Committee: Burney, Carter.
Planning Board: Storch.
Board of Education: Carter (alternate, McWilliams).
Green Brook Flood Control Commission: Storch (alternate, Simmons).
Union County Community Development Revenue Sharing: Storch.
Cable Television Advisory Board: Simmons
Housing Authority of Plainfield: Carter (alternate, Simmons).
Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority: Reid (alternate, Burney).
Shade Tree Commission, Burney (alternate, Storch).
Special Improvement District: Carter, Simmons, McWilliams.

Of course, these lists don’t mean much to citizens without context. For example, the Mayor’s Citizens Advisory Committee hears applications from local agencies for Community Development Block Grant funding and makes recommendations to Union County on allocations of the federal money. The Special Improvement District includes the downtown and South Avenue business districts, where property owners pay extra taxes for enhancements. That group’s main issue has been getting the city to approve its budget in a timely way.

Thanks to Rashid Burney, anyone can now look up the details of any city board or commission in the Municipal Code online. The next big hurdle to understanding boards and commissions is implementation of the Civic Responsibility Act of 2005, which calls for a listing of all vacancies and obligations for boards and commissions so citizens can apply to serve. The listings were supposed to be placed online within one year of passage of the legislation. Burney is making it a priority for 2009 to carry out that goal.

Attendance was high at Monday’s agenda session. Snow and an Arctic chill may keep people home Thursday night, but 2009 may prove to be a good year overall for increased citizen interest in municipal government.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Commentary on Cabinet Costs

The question of compensation for top officials has come up as the City Council weighs the assignment of 24-hour, city-owned vehicles, but there is a larger issue that the council might want to consider.

The mayor’s cabinet consists of the city administrator and three department heads mandated in the City Charter. The title of deputy city administrator is also on the books, but was not used in the current administration. However, the council did approve establishment of a new title, police director. The cabinet members are part of a group of non-union officials that also includes the city clerk, fire chief, health officer, superintendent of Public Works, corporation counsel and chief financial officer. The chief of police was formerly included, but the post was abolished in 2008.

Normally these top officials receive salary increases after the unions settle. The salary ranges must be amended by ordinance. During the current administration, only two officials, City Clerk Laddie Wyatt and former Chief Financial Officer Peter Sepelya got increases by ordinance.

In a discussion Monday, it came out that both City Administrator Marc Dashield and Public Safety Director/Police Director Martin Hellwig make less than subordinates.

That may be a deal worked out with the mayor, based on personal considerations such as pension payments and other income sources, or just simple negotiations. It is certainly an advantage to the city to have someone settle for five figures when he or she is eligible for a maximum salary in six figures.

Part of the discussion on use of a 24-hour city car had to do with being able to draw highly-qualified administrators to the city. Without such perks, City Council President Rashid Burney opined, “We’ll have to go to the bottom of the barrel to get people.”

But consider the other side of the coin. If one official is willing to take on dual responsibilities and be paid at the low end of the salary scale, can the city expect always to recruit more of the same selfless individuals? A person who is already collecting a pension or has other outside income can afford to make concessions. What about a younger municipal career executive? Over the short term, the current structure may save money but will not realistically be competitive next time around.

At present, both Dashield and Hellwig are doing two jobs. Dashield is in charge of day-to-day operations of the city and also managing the 13-division responsibilities of the finance director, since Douglas Peck’s departure in December. Language in the police director ordinance allowed for Hellwig to serve in acting capacity for one year, in addition to being department head for Public Affairs & Safety, overseeing the city’s two largest divisions, police and fire.

Because second terms are a rarity in Plainfield, it may be that voters will choose a new mayor this year. Should that person be saddled with the obligation to skimp on cabinet salaries just because a precedent has been set? In light of the fiscal constraints that are expected to continue through 2009 and maybe 2010, the governing body would be prudent to get the current bottom line on salaries and compensation for the cabinet, check whether raises for the non-union officials are overdue and think about how many top titles might need to be filled in case of a change.

Otherwise, the cost of a new administration might lead to sticker shock, quibbles between the administrative and legislative branches and some degree of taxpayer revolt.

--Bernice Paglia

Council Update

Several major items were deferred Monday to future dates, including the nomination of former Councilman Don Davis to the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority and the allocation of 24-hour cars to two top officials.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs withdrew the names of Davis and Eugene Dudley from consideration for PMUA terms, but will bring them back next month. The names had only been offered by the mayor for advice and consent, but there was no proposed council resolution to take action on the nominations.

On Jan. 1, the council approved 24-hour use of city cars for the mayor and fire chief, but held back on similar approvals for the city administrator, superintendent of Public Works and Public Safety director. On Monday, the council member agreed to approve Thursday the assignment of a 24-hour vehicle for Public Works Superintendent John Louise, but decided to extend discussion on the other two approvals until more information is received on how the perk fits in with the officials’ compensation packages. Use of city cars for City Administrator Marc Dashield and Public Safety Director/Police Director Martin Hellwig will be allowed through February.

Councilman Adrian Mapp said he wanted to see comparative data on how other Union County municipalities permit 24-hour use of cars and Councilwoman Linda Carter requested mileage reports on Plainfield usage. Both Hellwig and Dashield received waivers from city residency rules and live out of town.

Dashield pointed out that a deputy fire chief makes more than the city administrator’s salary and a battalion chief makes more than that of the Public Safety director. Out of 134 city-owned vehicles, he said, only five were assigned for 24-hour use and the cost per vehicle is only $1,200 annually.

Mapp pressed to know how often Dashield actually had had to respond to an emergency.

“Thank God I have not had to do that!” Dashield replied.

But he said the issue boiled down to the two issues of compensation and emergencies.

The council will vote Thursday on extending the two officials’ use of city cars through February while the research continues.

The council also deferred approval of plans for a restroom and field house at Bryant Park, based on objections of neighbors concerned about public safety. The proposed location of the structure would not allow police to scan the park for illicit behavior, neighbors told council members at a recent meeting. Rather than push the project to meet grant deadlines, the council called for a redesign.

A proposed layoff plan was also deferred to February. Although no details were discussed, sources said it only involves a single individual.

Councilman Cory Storch challenged a $731,475 professional services contract for engineering consultant services by Remington & Vernick Engineers of East Orange, saying the “fair and open process” cited in the resolution was not the same as competitive bidding. Storch said he thought Dashield had said the contract would be subject to competitive bidding, but Dashield said Remington & Vernick knew the city well and that putting it out to bid would mean needing “16 different engineers” to watch each other’s work.

Council members were also concerned about how streets damaged by a recent New Jersey American Water project would be repaired. Dashield assured them that the work would be done in the spring and the company would be held to higher than usual repair standards.

Thursday’s meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, moved from Jan. 20 to accommodate council members who plan to attend the presidential inauguration. The council is expected to vote on numerous appointments and council liaison assignments to boards and commissions, as well as assignments to seven council committees.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mayor Names Davis for PMUA

Just last week, Plaintalker was speculating to a friend that former Councilman Don Davis would land a seat on the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority.

After all, two seats were up for appointment in time for the February reorganization of the authority, and who better than the former PMUA council liaison to be next in line?

A look at the council’s Monday agenda had this writer whooping at the computer, for there under “Communications from the Mayor” was the nomination of Davis to succeed James Green for a five-year term on the authority.

However, there was no corresponding resolution for the council to vote on. So maybe it won’t be that easy for Davis to receive advice and consent from the governing body.

Davis was the Regular Democratic Organization’s nominee to succeed himself in the Third Ward City Council seat, but New Democrat Adrian Mapp beat him in the June primary and won in the November general election. Mapp’s running mate, Annie McWilliams, similarly captured the citywide at-large seat from Council President Harold Gibson, sending a message to RDO Chairman Jerry Green and his protégé, Mayor Sharon Robinson Briggs, that voters desired change.

Davis had received the party line despite being under a cloud over DWI charges dating back to a March 28, 2007 incident on West Front Street. After several court delays, he was cleared on July 1, 2008, but by then was a lame duck due to the primary loss.

PMUA commissioners receive a stipend as well as other benefits, including travel to conventions. Founded a little over 10 years ago, the authority is in charge of trash collection, recycling and sewer services for the city.

This month, the PMUA will hold a hearing to discuss and take action on sewer and solid waste charges, according to a Dec. 10 legal notice. The hearing is 6 p.m. Jan. 22 at the PMUA offices, 127 Roosevelt Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Council to Revisit Many Issues

It will be déjà vu all over again Monday for appointments, vehicle use, the Mayor McWilliams memorial, Ray Blanco’s rules and the Civic Responsibility Act.

The City Council agenda is packed with items from the Jan. 1 reorganization, as well as others going back several years. The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library. Items approved for a vote will be acted on at a regular meeting 8 p.m. Thursday in Municipal Court.

Numerous appointments were tabled at the reorganization because new council members said they had not been able to interview the nominees. But then the council relented and approved nominees who were being reappointed to the Planning and Zoning boards and to the Historic Preservation Commission. However, resolutions for the reappointments are on Monday’s agenda along with resolutions for new nominees.

On Jan. 1, the council approved the use of city-owned vehicles for the mayor and fire chief in 2009, but only gave permission through January for the city administrator, superintendent of Public Works and the Public Safety director. Those three items will be up for discussion at the request of Councilman Adrian Mapp. The issue raised Jan. 1 was that cost savings might be realized if officials used their own vehicles to get to work and then drove city-owned cars, instead of having 24-hour usage.

The plan to honor the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams came up in March 2008, when friends and family wanted to name a downtown plaza for him, with an unspecified but privately-funded memorial to be placed there. The group hoped to receive permission in time to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the mayor’s death, but then-Council President Harold Gibson pulled the resolution from the agenda. In the June primary, Annie McWilliams, daughter of the late mayor, beat Gibson for the citywide at-large council seat. Elected in November for a four-year term, Annie McWilliams was sworn in Jan. 1.

The late Councilman Ray Blanco won approval in 2006, when he was council president, for a 28-page document setting forth rules of order for the governing body. The council approved the Rules of Order Jan. 1, but will now discuss them. Several of the rules were pertinent only to that year and some are obsolete, including the Monday-Wednesday council meeting schedule that has since reverted to meetings on Mondays only, except for holidays or special meetings.

The Civic Responsibility Act passed in early 2005 but was never fully implemented. It called for an accounting of all vacancies on boards and commissions, with details on the type of credentials and commitment needed for each one. The goal was to increase civic involvement by making such opportunities widely known, with postings on the city web site. The effort got as far as having a downloadable application form on the web site, but the details have never been posted.

Monday’s meeting will also include an update from City Administrator Marc Dashield on the FY 2009 budget process. Although the council aimed for budget passage by December, various factors including the sudden firing of Finance Director Douglas Peck have delayed it.

--Bernice Paglia

BOE To Hold Special Meeting

After looking in vain on the Jan. 13 Board of Education agenda and on the district web site, I found the item I was seeking in today's legal notices in the Courier News.

The school board will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Administration Building's auditorium to interview applicants for the board vacancy.

Four people met the filing date to apply for the vacancy created by the resignation of Vickey Sheppard, who won the seat in April 2008. One person will be selected to serve until April, when the unexpired term will be up for election along with three three-year terms.

The four applicants are Tammy Westbrook, Alicia Jones, Pamela Skorupski and Joseph Ruffin Sr.

Nomination forms for the April 21 election may be downloaded from the district web site and must be returned to Business Administrator Gary Ottmann by March 2.

The board will open its business meeting Tuesday at 6: 30 p.m., then will go into executive session until 8 p.m. when the public portion will resume. The full agenda is posted on the district web site. Presumably the board will name the selected candidate at the meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Think Summer

BOE Race Opens

To all those who grumble about city schools, here's your chance to help make a change.

Four slots on the nine-member board will be up for grabs on April 21. Nomination forms are now available through the district's web site and prospective candidates have until March 2 to make up their minds and return the forms to Business Administrator Gary Ottmann. Click here to access the web site.

Three three-year terms and one two-year unexpired term will be on the ballot.

Last year, despite a lot of talk about the schools, only two people filed to challenge three incumbents. Voters returned the incumbents for three more years as Dr. Steve Gallon III emerged the winner of a national search for a new schools superintendent. Gallon was hired in February and took charge July 1.

Gallon has a four-year contract and those who win seats on the board in April will have a say on how well he is doing in carrying out a comprehensive overhaul of the system. Gallon's multi-year strategic plan to improve the schools is also posted on the district web site.

Incumbents Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, Lisa Logan-Leach and Patricia Barksdale will have to declare by March 2 whether they will seek re-election.

The advantage of incumbents is that they are seasoned and trained in their roles in a time when boards are under greater scrutiny. Plainfield was one of the first districts to face a new form of monitoring called the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or NJQSAC, in 2007. Plainfield was found lacking in four of five major performance areas, including receiving a score of only 11 for governance when 81 was considered adequate. The board worked with consultants from the New Jersey School Boards Association to correct the problems and was cleared in January 2008.

Anyone who has not served on a school board before must consider the time commitment for mandatory state training as well as numerous district meetings and committee work. The role is strictly regulated and some board decisions, such as contracts for top administrators, must also be approved by state-appointed county superintendents.

The relatively long lead time for filing should give both prospective candidates and incumbents enough time to weigh the decision to run and to get feedback from family and friends. Over the next three years, the district will be facing increased pressure to raise student performance and cut costs. To the public, it is the board and superintendent, not the the 1,000 or so district staff members, who must take the heat for any missteps in meeting the challenges.

With all that said, the chance to serve and foster the education of more than 6,000 children is a very worthwhile opportunity. Plaintalker looks forward to a lively campaign and high voter interest in April.

--Bernice Paglia

Charter Schools Drawing More Students, Dollars

The exodus to charter schools in Plainfield amounts to more than a whole city school gone missing. And the expense over five years has increased from $1.5 million to more than $8 million.

It is no wonder that Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III has his eye on reclaiming both the student population and the funding as the trend increases.

In 2004-05, the district had to allocate $1,476,502 for charter schools. The following school year, the cost was $3,138,542. In 2006-07, $3.3 million was budgeted, but actual expenses ballooned to $5.2 million. Last year, the district set aside $6,092,905 but spent $6,516,430.

So far this year, $8,238,249 was budgeted, but actual costs will not be known until the school year closes.

Already supporting the only three charter schools in Union County, Plainfield will be called on to come up with a projected additional $1.6 million for a fourth charter school in 2009-10. The new school's population is also expected to increase from 160 students to 240 by 2010-11.
An editorial in the Star-Ledger points out some of the differences between charter schools and traditional public education. Built into the charter school formula is parent support and student motivation, while city schools must educate all students who enroll, regardless of whether adults in the household back the effort. Because attendance is mandatory, non-charter public schools receive the disaffected and those with no other options.
With a new federal administration, education of the nation's children will be in the spotlight, along with health care and the economy. Expect renewed discussion on school choice, best practices and the No Child Left Behind legislation.
Just this week, the Plainfield school district announced a new initiative that may help its students make the most of their educational experience - character education. Responsibility, perseverance and courage are among the traits that can maximize any student's ability to succeed, no matter what societal obstacles are in the way. Such emphasis may help the district in the educational tug of war over students and dollars.
--Bernice Paglia





Friday, January 09, 2009

Library to Screen Inauguration

From Library Director Joe DaRold:

"The public is invited to the Plainfield Public Library on January 20th to view cable coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The Library will open its large community room to provide a larger-than-life experience live on its 12-foot screen. The historic ceremony is scheduled to start at 10:00 a.m. and end at 12 noon.

Reservations are not required, and admission is free. The Library is located at 800 Park Avenue in Plainfield, between 8th and 9th Streets. The building is handicapped accessible."

The Senior Center is also planning a viewing of the inauguration of the first African American president, along with prayers by the Rev. Tracey Brown for President Barack Obama's well-being.

Because City Council members are planning to attend the inauguration, Monday's agenda setting session will be followed by a regular meeting next Thursday. The regular meeting would otherwise have been held on Tuesday, Jan. 20 due to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Three Branches

Every time I think I must give up my New Yorker subscription after 50 years, I see an article or cartoon that convinces me to keep paying that ever-increasing price.

The most recent example is a cartoon depicting a teacher telling her students, "Today we'll be discussing the three branches of government -- executainment, legislatainment, and judiciatainment."

If the Jan. 1 meeting ever goes on Channel 74, you can experience four hours of legislatainment for yourself.

--Bernice Paglia

Slide Show

Run the cursor over the slide to see captions.
Bernice

Mousie

Access, Funding Lead Health Issues

While advocates continue to press for an acute care hospital here, primary health care is the community’s greatest unmet need, panelists said Wednesday.

Citing pervasive stress due to job loss and fiscal uncertainty, Dr. Sharol Lewis said women especially need to stay healthy.

“The number one killer of women is heart disease,” said Lewis, who as medical director at Horizon Blue Cross deals with 12 hospitals.

Lewis was among speakers at Healthcare 2009 Roundtable, sponsored by the Union County Women’s Political Caucus. Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, Union County Freeholder Bette Jean Kowalski, Trinitas Regional Medical Center Senior Vice President Bernadette Countryman and Deborah Dowe of the Save Muhlenberg movement also took part.

Robinson-Briggs traced the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center last year and ongoing efforts to re-establish an acute care facility in the city. Officials have also been in negotiations with Muhlenberg’s parent group, Solaris Health Systems, to get an extra ambulance and better transportation in the wake of the closing. While an emergency room continues to operate on the Muhlenberg campus, patients needing acute care must travel to Edison, Summit or Elizabeth for treatment.

Lewis told the audience of about 40 people, including many Muhlenberg activists, “”I have a personal interest in Plainfield and I feel your pain.”

But when it comes to Muhlenberg, she said, “The effort really needs to go toward building an ambulatory infrastructure.”

She said doctors tell her that people are not coming in for routine, preventive health care and when they land in the hospital, patients become caught in a mismatch of goals: Insurance companies want to limit stays, but doctors may want to keep patients in the hospital longer. But Lewis said longer stays increase the possibilities of getting hospital infections and suffering complications from extended testing.

“I am very familiar with health disparities,” she said. “I am very familiar with how ambulatory service should work in an underserved community.”

Muhlenberg advocates in the audience deplored the increased distance and lack of coordinated transportation to remaining hospitals.

Now that an average 1,100 births can no longer take place at Muhlenberg, Countryman said, Trinitas and the Plainfield Health Center collaborate to provide taxis to Elizabeth and other arrangements for women in childbirth. Plainfield Health Center Vice President Eugene Baucum disputed panelists’ comments that the center was troubled.

“It’s not closing,” he said, noting the federally-funded primary health care facility also has operations in Elizabeth, Phillipsburg and Newton. He agreed with Lewis that there must be a greater focus on primary health care, but said of the center, “Nobody knows about it.”

Panelists also discussed ways to fund health care, noting that the burden of charity care was a factor in Muhlenberg’s overwhelming debt and in the loss of other hospitals. Robinson-Briggs said she is serving on a statewide alliance of mayors to address health care issues and speakers said they are also looking to the Obama administration to come up with strategies and solutions to health care funding and delivery.

--Bernice Paglia