Saturday, February 28, 2009

BOE Filing Deadline Looms

School board candidates have until 4 p.m. Monday to file petitions for three three-year seats and one two-year unexpired term.

Incumbents whose terms are up in April are Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, Patricia Barksdale and Lisa Logan-Leach. The unexpired term is due to the resignation of Vickey Sheppard, who won election last April. Appointee Joseph Ruffin Sr. is holding the seat until the April 21 election.

Last year, only five candidates filed for three seats and all the incumbents won re-election. Click here for a story on the 2008 reorganization where winners were sworn in.

Petitions must be returned to Business Administrator Gary Ottmann at the Administration Building, 1200 Myrtle Ave., by 4 p.m. Monday.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, February 27, 2009

Revelations, Downtown and Otherwise

Today after going to the very friendly and refurbished PNC Bank downtown, I proceeded on to West Front Street. This demolished tree was one of my first sights.

This building facade sports a message from way back when there was some sort of game thing going on, or whatever. Who knows.

In my great taxi experiment since ditching my car, I have never tried any company but Liberty. So when their Church Street office closed, I wondered if they were still in business. Yes, they are, in one of the Park-Madison office buildings store fronts.
Having not traversed West Front Street between Somerset and Madison recently, I was surprised at the number of day laborers standing around at about 11:30 a.m. I had hoped to see whether any signage existed on the new proposal for the first commercial development in eight years (aka the Cretella proposal to redevelop the Appliance-Arama building and two adjacent city-owned lots) , but the sight of several dozen labor hopefuls on the block distracted me.
Oops! Some of the stamped sidewalk blocks are disintegrating.
And later to top off all the revelations, Plaintalker found the city web site now includes information on Mayor SRB, whose CV was up until recently was non-existent and eclipsed by that of her confidential aide! Woo-hoo!
--Bernice Paglia

Pinpoint Needs, Identify Funding

Wednesday's session on public safety revealed a number of needs: More police. More firefighters. New police vehicles. Furnishings for offices in the Tepper's basement.

It was not clear whether the all the personnel needs are due to retirements. Police Director Martin Hellwig said the Police Division will have a large number of retirements and of three recent recruits, two washed out of the police academy. He said there is difficulty in replacing the retiring officers, but also mentioned a 20-officer gap from when there were 168 officers.

Retirement schedules for police and fire are usually well-known ahead of time. If that is the main problem, aggressive recruitment is needed. If the force must be expanded, funding must be identified. Some will come from the difference between the loss of officers at top salary levels and hiring entry-level recruits. It wouldn't hurt to look into why people don't want to join. Are entry-level salaries too low? Are other municipalities just too preferable?

As for vehicles, here too it would seem that barring accidents, the longevity of a given patrol car should be known and the overall condition of the fleet should be documented in order to plan ahead for replacement of patrol cars. Ideally, the time to pitch for new vehicles would be at a capital improvement budget meeting in advance of the need. Or are these requests already in the pipeline? It was a bit chilling to hear of these needs at a meeting meant to develop policy. When the cupboard is bare at home, do families have a policy meeting or do they look to their budgets?

As for the Tepper's basement, nearly half a million dollars was quickly expended in 2007 to make what Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs described as a "shell" for an undetermined use. The exact use is still nebulous, but a layout for the space is being prepared. And where will the funding come from to fill it up? Have the cameras been purchased? Are leases for the Narcotics Bureau and Community Policing Unit up in their other locations? Does the city owe condo fees since acquiring the space, and if so, how much?

Council President Rashid Burney revived the 2006 "working meeting" concept, with the public safety session being the first of four on a single topic. Burney has also called for early budget meetings throughout March and April, where presumably some of the questions above will be addressed.

Meanwhile, there is still no director of Administration & Finance to replace Douglas Peck, who left in December. Hellwig's one-year acting appointment as police director expires March 20. City Administrator Marc Dashield has been stuck with wrapping up the city budget for the second time in two years. This is Year 4 of the mayor's four-year term. It's a little worrying to have so much up in the air. The 2010 budget for the year that begins July 1 may not kick in until sometime in 2011, if this year and past ones are any example.

The City Council needs a lot more information than what was tossed out at the special meeting this week. Because municipal government serves the citizens, public safety needs must be addressed in a pro-active way, with as much analysis and planning ahead as possible. Perhaps the early budget meetings will help. They are all at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave., and the proposed dates are March 10, 17, 24, 31 and April 7 and 14.

--Bernice Paglia

Cameras, More to Occupy Tepper's Basement

Officials are inching closer to having closed circuit television cameras downtown, but many questions remain.

At the City Council’s special meeting on public safety Wednesday, Police Director Martin Hellwig said he wants a 24/7 operation out of the city-owned space in the basement of the former Tepper’s building. Exactly how the cameras will be monitored is still “somewhat flexible” at this time, Hellwig said in answer to Councilman Adrian Mapp’s question. Hellwig said he is looking for “partners” for the venture, possibly the Housing Authority of Plainfield, which has “passive monitoring” of its security cameras.

The camera plan has been discussed for many years, with no resolution on issues such as whether police or civilians should monitor them. Hellwig said he wants police personnel to do the monitoring.

The 17,000-square-foot space was fitted out in 2007 just as a $459,000 federal grant was about to expire. The city took possession of the basement some time ago and officials had pondered possibilities including a downtown camera surveillance center, storage, new City Council chambers or a communications center. The contractor, Solid Rock Construction, built what City Administrator Marc Dashield called “pretty much a vanilla box” in the basement.

On Wednesday, Hellwig said the Police Division’s 911 board might be moved to the space, as well as the Narcotics Bureau, which is currently in rental space on Watchung Avenue across the street from police headquarters. Moving the bureau would save $25,000 to $30,000, Hellwig said. The Community Policing unit, now in rental space on East Front Street, would also be placed in the basement.

No mention was made of the cost of putting offices and equipment in the space, but Hellwig said Public Works Director Jennifer Wenson Maier is creating a “schematic” for the interior.

The basement is one of three condos in the building. There is a 75-apartment residential portion and a separate commercial condo at street level. The city took ownership of the basement space for a token amount, but is liable for condo fees.

Hellwig said he is “project manager” for the conversion of the basement and he will be working with Jacques Howard, the city’s assistant director for community development.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Latino Concerns Aired at Meeting

Late into Wednesday’s special meeting on public safety, community activist Flor Gonzalez took the microphone during public comment to recognize the family of homicide victim Christian Tigsi, saying, “The family is looking for justice.”

Tigsi was shot dead early on Feb. 8 in front of the city’s main train station in the city’s first homicide of 2009. Mourners came to the site for days afterward and Gonzalez was among protesters at an anti-violence rally held there. The crime remains unsolved.

Gonzalez brought a somber note to the meeting, which up till then had been a recitation of public safety efforts and pitches for more funding and personnel to intensify them.

“Everything we heard tonight is beautiful, but we need to be realistic,” Gonzalez told the crowd of about 100. At her Watchung Avenue office, she said, she had just been crying with families of three Latino crime victims who left behind 24 children.

Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition, said when Edward Santiago was the police chief, the Latino community had communications with the crime unit.

“Now, we don’t have it,” she said.

Santiago’s title was abolished last year in favor of a police director, a post being held by Martin Hellwig, who is also the director of Public Affairs and Safety. Hellwig offered condolences to the family and said, “I believe the perpetrator will be brought to justice.”

But he also named several initiatives to ward off what he called “gruesome and horrific” assaults on Latinos, such as a sting operation in which undercover officers left a bar feigning drunkenness to trap would-be assailants. Latinos are known often to be carrying cash and are often targeted when intoxicated, he noted.

Hellwig said he could show statistics on bars and crime while Santiago was in office, but also pointed out that Santiago remains on the force as a captain.

Since taking over, Hellwig has reorganized the Police Division, adding two new bureaus, Traffic and Community Relations. See www.plainfieldpolice.com for details.

Gonzalez also remarked on a high vacancy rate downtown since Paramount Properties acquired many storefronts and doubled the rent. She recalled the days when Macy’s was the downtown anchor store and referenced a strategic planning effort to improve the city that involved hundreds of people several years ago.

Now, she said, she wants officials to “learn what the Spanish community is all about.”

As for the ongoing assaults and other crimes against Latinos, she said, “We need to do something about it,” drawing vigorous applause especially from a large number of Latinos in the audience.

The topics covered Wednesday ranged from gangs to downtown security cameras to needs of the Police and Fire divisions. Plaintalker will report on some of these aspects later.

--Bernice Paglia

Post Will Be Delayed

Having attended the Shade Tree Commision meeting and then going on to the Public Safety meeting, this writer is confused.

Notes on the Public Safety forum will follow later.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Eight More Days to Go

Mousie gets his drink on.

The Elizabethan collar traps litter, the better to fling it all over.

Nope, still can't do it.

At least Mr. Bear understands.
--Bernice Paglia

Public Safety Meeting Now at Library

Poet Robert Burns said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.”

Olddoc may think more in terms of the military slang FUBAR.

Whatever the take on the most recent calendar glitch, it brings to mind the proverb “Haste Makes Waste.”

This is all by the way of explaining that tomorrow’s first City Council “working conference” for 2009 is undergoing a last-minute change of location from Washington Community School to the Plainfield Public Library. It will now be 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the library’s Anne Louise Davis Room. The library is located at Park Avenue and Eighth Street.

How did this happen? We don’t know, but contributing factors may have been the fact that Council President Rashid Burney’s original proposed new calendar for 2009 double-booked an agenda-setting session and the working conference both on Monday, Feb. 23.

Meanwhile, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs booked Washington Community School for a “Community Forum” on Feb. 25. Apparently to accommodate Burney, the mayor canceled her forum, as indicated on the city web site. The "working conference" was then publicized as being at the school. But there is still no mention of the council event on the city web site.

However, given the fact that the working conference is a special meeting because the calendar adopted at the Jan. 1 council reorganization has not yet been officially replaced by Burney’s new one, the date and location had to be publicized by special notice – WHICH IS NOW WRONG!!!

Excuse me if I am perturbed by these glitches. The only ray of sunshine for me is that if I go tomorrow, I will only have to walk to the library and not summon a taxi to haul me across town.

So all you citizens who want to hear a discussion of public safety in Plainfield and then weigh in with comments, head for the Plainfield Public Library Wednesday (Feb. 25, 2009) .

I will try to be there.

--Bernice Paglia

No 2009-10 School Closings for Muslim Holidays

A Muslim holiday that was on the school district calendar for 2008-09 will not appear on the 2009-10 calendar, nor will any other religious holidays.

Schools were closed on Oct. 2 for Eid al-Fitr, a feast marking the end of the Ramadan fast. The school board had approved the holiday’s inclusion in the 2008-09 calendar adopted at the April 2008 reorganization. It had been the wish of board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq that the most important feast day, Eid al-Adha, would also have been included.

For 2009-10, neither Eid, or feast, falls on a school day, Abdul-Haqq said. Eid al-Fitr begins on a Sunday and Eid al-Adha occurs during Thanksgiving recess.

“That’s the reason I accepted the calendar,” he said.

But when the holidays fall on school days in the future, he said, he will advocate for their inclusion on the district calendar.

Muslim holidays are based on a lunar calendar and begin at sundown when the new moon is sighted by an imam. The feast days shift each year and by 2011, Eid al-Fitr will take place in August.

The 2009-10 calendar was adopted by the school board on Feb. 17. Both this year’s and next year’s calendars are posted on the district web site.

Plaintalker asked Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III two questions about the change. Gallon was hired in February, but took office July 1 after the 2008-09 calendar had been adopted. The questions and answers appear below.

Plaintalker: Do you have any comment on how the calendar was formulated? Also normally it is adopted at the annual reorganization in April. Is there any special reason for the early adoption?

Dr. Gallon: "The calendar was formed with an eye toward improving instructional outcomes for students; maximizing teaching and learning time; supporting professional development; complying with state testing and mandates; and promoting a sense of fairness and equity in areas of cultural and religious diversity. In doing so, there are no religious holidays reflected on the calendar and students receive approximately two additional weeks of instruction prior to state testing. Usually, by mid to late June, fatigue sets in and student attendance and learning decline. It is important for us to get our students in school as early as possible to get about the business of learning.

"The calendar was also formulated in a very thoughtful, pragmatic manner with stakeholder collaboration and input. This administrator does not consider this 'early' adoption, but timely adoption. Cranford and Westfield have also adopted their calendar. This reflects the efficiency and timeliness with which we want to plan and function, as well as notify parents, teachers, and stakeholders so that they can plan their summer and vacation activities. "

--Bernice Paglia

Update on Mousie

I left the City Council meeting early Monday to go home and check on Mousie, who is still recovering from emergency surgery and needs help to drink and eat.

Mousie was not himself in more ways than one after neutering and misbehaved rather spectacularly overnight Sunday. Audrey tells me an after-effect of the anesthetic can be hallucinations, which might explain his manic behavior. He was better Monday and resumed taking naps, but I was afraid he might become dehydrated since he could not drink water freely without knocking over containers with his plastic e-collar.

He was fine when I got home. We are counting down the days to March 5, when he sees the vet again and hopefully can stop having to wear the collar. Obviously he can't groom himself , scratch his ears or do other things that fill up a cat's day.

I will try to post more on the council meeting later.

--Bernice

Council Splits on IT Decision

Dragging the city out of the technological Stone Age is a dire necessity, City Council members agreed, but a discussion Monday revealed a major rift on how to proceed.

At issue is the establishment by ordinance of the title of director of data processing, with a maximum salary of $130,400. As a full house of citizens looked on in City Hall Library, council members wrangled over whether to put the ordinance up for a final vote next week or to wait for more facts on the total cost of creating an information technology department.

The administration is pushing passage of the ordinance and Council President Rashid Burney and Councilmen William Reid and Elliot Simmons agree. But council members Annie McWilliams, Cory Storch and Adrian Mapp expressed hesitation to put a director in place without more information. City Administrator Marc Dashield said he will be able to provide more of a bottom line by the end of March.

The administration is calling for the IT department to be included in the FY 2009 budget, which is currently stalled and may not be passed until April. The costs of the new department would have to be offset by cuts in the budget, which has already been hashed over for months. The bulk of expenses for 2009 has already been paid out in temporary or emergency appropriations in day-to-day costs of running the city, so it is unclear how much would be left to cut in the waning months of the fiscal year that ends June 30.

In her report on a meeting of the council’s IT committee, McWilliams said members feel a “high-level view” of costs for the new department must be given, including expenses for additional staff and training. The committee wants the council to have its own presence on the city web site, which is still sketchy after three years of tinkering by the administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

McWilliams said no other municipality in Union County has an IT director, but Dashield said the size of Plainfield in the county must be taken into account. In bolstering his case for swift passage of the ordinance, Dashield said, “We are so far behind. We just got e-mail last year. There is a void here that has to be filled.”

The debate over whether to hold up the ordinance or pass it while awaiting more information ended when Councilwoman Linda Carter sided with members who want it up for a vote next Monday.

“I’m fine with moving it forward,” she said, noting the city has been behind for years on IT technology. “Waiting a couple weeks is not going to gain us anything.”

But turning to Dashield, she said, “Can you make me happy by Monday?”

Dashield said he needed time to “do it right.”

The salary proposed for the new director would be more than any city cabinet member makes, except for the corporation counsel, fueling a concern that someone is waiting in the wings for the job. Carter asked how the council will know whether someone one has been hired, but Dashield said the issue will be “is there any money to pay the person.”

Council wariness may stem from the hiring last year of Douglas Peck as finance director, with an unprecedented $12,000 stipend to relocate from Ohio. Peck was later abruptly dismissed in the midst of budget talks. The council had given advice and consent to the hiring, but may not have any such say over hiring of an IT director.

The regular council meeting will be 8 p.m. Monday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 23, 2009

Keep Watch on New Plans

Random image: Oxalis windowbox.

Plaintalker has written about the proposal for an office complex on the Tepper’s block and another for retail and residential development in the 200 block of Park Avenue. Although they have separate names, they are both Landmark proposals.

There is a third one that is coming up for preliminary site plan approval at the March 5 Planning Board meeting. It is the only one that is in the original North Avenue Historic District redevelopment plan. The former Romond Jeep and Budget Rent-A-Car properties are now owned by Arts Loft I, yet another Landmark subsidiary.

The applicant seeks approval to renovate a vacant two-story building and to put three additional stories on top of it. The first floor would be used for 3,737 square feet of retail space and the upper four floors would have five apartments each, for a total of 20 dwelling units, according to a legal notice.

The notice says the applicant believes no further variances or waivers are needed, but if the Planning Board says any are needed, the applicant will seek them. There is no mention of parking, either for customers or residents.

The original 2000 North Avenue redevelopment plan covered only three blocks by the main train station. Landmark received conditional designation as the redeveloper in August 2006. The redevelopment agreement wasn’t finalized until April 2007. A feasibility study for a parking deck was to have started within 30 days. Many other timelines were set forth on a chart, all with the apparent intention of redeveloping the entire three-block parcel.

The Park Avenue project is on a block that is an extension of the North Avenue redevelopment area, but according to a recent update on all the redevelopment schemes, no developer has been designated.

As previously described on the blog, the West Front Street site consists of two city-owned lots and the Appliance-Arama warehouse. The city blocks were supposed to be the site of a 12-condo development by Heartstone Development, but the plan was dropped.

So at present there is a flurry of applications by Landmark affiliates for residential and commercial construction on three different sites. The idea of comprehensive development for the three North Avenue blocks seems to be in abeyance, as is full-scale redevelopment of the PNC Bank block that is the North Avenue extension. This may be due to a court challenge by merchants to the possible taking of land by eminent domain.

There hasn’t been a public update on the status of redevelopment plans overall for some time. After months of relative dormancy, the sudden rush for approvals bears watching. It will be up to the Board of Adjustment and Planning Board as well as the public to scrutinize these plans thoroughly, both singly and collectively, for their impact on the downtown and for their relationship to previously established redevelopment goals.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, February 22, 2009

So Near and Yet So Far

Mousie developed complications of neutering, had surgery and must now wear the e-collar (as in Queen Elizabeth) for 10 days to prevent him from licking the surgery site.

Eating and drinking are now very complicated for the poor pussycat, who may be wishing he just stayed in the wild. He is on a rampage of knocking over all the dishes and containers I am using to make his life easier in this healing period.

I am considering dumping him into a drawstring bag and taking off the collar for at least the time it takes to have dinner and a drink. If anyone has expertise in these matters, please leave a comment. What I see on the interwebs is not encouraging. My daughter Audrey says at least with the small memory that cats have, once this episode is over, Mousie will revert to being his carefree self. I hope so.

--Bernice Paglia

Council Meets on Public Safety

Random image: Pink Diamond Amaryllis with Inspector Mousie

Wednesday will mark the first of four scheduled City Council "working meetings" for 2009.

The late Councilman Ray Blanco initiated the concept of special meetings on a single topic in 2006, when he was council president. He called them "working conferences." Three were scheduled, but only two were held. Blanco died unexpectedly while in office and in subsequent years no such meetings were held.

Council President Rashid Burney brought back the notion this year and the first one, on Public Safety, will be 8 p.m. Wednesday at Washington Community School. But don't look at the city's web site for reminders. The meeting is neither on the February city calendar nor on the council's list of meetings. The first meeting is apparently falling through the public info cracks, perhaps due to a calendar transition that Burney is also instituting.

The other three scheduled topics are Information Technology on April 27, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority on July 27 and Economic Growth on Oct. 19.

Originally the PMUA was first up, but Councilman William Reid, a former PMUA commissioner and now council liaison to the PMUA, told his colleagues he was "getting a little resistance" from the authority about the proposed meeting. The PMUA reluctance is not surprising in a way, because the purpose of the meetings as stated in Blanco's 2006 "Rules of Order"is policy development for the council. The PMUA is an autonomous body governed by its board of commissioners. It serves the city by providing sewer and solid waste services through an interlocal service agreement. The other three topics concern matters over which the governing body has direct policy input. Perhaps by July, city and authority attorneys can agree on ground rules for the meeting.

The proposed format for the Public Safety meeting is presentations by law enforcement entities, council questions and one hour set aside for public comment. Gun violence, gangs and quality of life issues such as how to handle public intoxication are likely topics for the discussion.

I will not be able to cover the meeting, as I have a commitment to attend the Shade Tree Commission's meeting the same night. More information on presenters may be available Monday, when the City Council holds its agenda session at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ratepayer Revolt Has Web Site

For those who haven't had time or inclination to go back and read additional comments on the PMUA reorg story, Plaintalker points out a new web site being constructed to organize opposition to the authority's rates and rules. Click here to read it.

The web site notes the next meeting date of the PMUA, something that was lacking on the authority's own web site. The PMUA does have a front-page article on its service vs. private haulers. Looks like the battle is on!

Click here to read Plaintalker's coverage of the annual reorganization and all the comments.

The PMUA faced a great deal of opposition at its inception, including litigation by some City Council members. In more recent years, its Environmental Fair and other community outreach has gained general acceptance and support for the authority. But solid waste and sewer rate hikes in January and a perceived lack of transparency have riled ratepayers.

Click here for Plaintalker's 2005 blog post on the PMUA's 10th anniversary and its history in the city.

--Bernice Paglia

HPC To Review Park Avenue Plans

On Tuesday, the Historic Preservation Commission will review plans for these two buildings and make recommendations on their appropriateness. The issuance of a certificate of appropriateness is a necessary step before applications can be heard by the land use boards. Both buildings are in the North Avenue Historic District.

Here is some of the ornamentation on the building at 212-216 Park Avenue, next to the PNC Bank building. The current owner, Certified Green Property One LLC, seeks relief from parking requirements (20 spaces required, 0 proposed) and preliminary site plan approval to convert the first floor of the vacant building to 3,565 square feet of retail space and to convert the second and third floors to two residential units on each floor, for a total of four apartments.

The application is scheduled for a hearing before the Planning Board on March 5.
Here is the entry for 212 Park Avenue. The property is listed as Block 245, Lot 7.02.

Plaintalker could not call up an image based on just the addresses and block and lot numbers, hence the photos.

The other application is scheduled to be heard before the Zoning Board of Adjustment on March 4. The owner of 226-232 Park Avenue, Block 245, Lot 8 is listed as Next Step to Collins Avenue LLC.

This building once housed a Plainfield office of the Courier News. Other occupants were Thomas Furniture and most recently Atkol. The applicant seeks a use variance (residential density, floor area ratio, and height), relief from parking requirements (36 spaces required, 0 proposed) and preliminary site plan approval to convert the first floor to 3,935 square feet of retail space, convert the second and third floors to four dwelling units on each floor and construct a fourth floor with four dwelling units.
The HPC issues certificates of appropriateness for exterior changes only. HPC decisions may be approved, disapproved or amended by the board hearing the application. Tuesday's HPC meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library.
The developer, Frank Cretella, had included the PNC Bank in a conceptual plan presented earlier. Cretella's firm, Landmark Developers, has an April 2007 agreement with the city and the Union County Improvement Authority to redevelop the North Avenue Historic District, which was Plainfield's original commercial district. The district includes the main train station, the Quaker Meeting House and numerous 1880s buildings between Park and Watchung avenues.
--Bernice Paglia

Friday, February 20, 2009

What Will Spring Bring?

Will residents see the long-awaited new peninsula at Park & Ninth this year?

A lot of politicians are taking credit for it, disregarding the efforts of Maria Pellum, Barbara Todd Kerr and others who conceived the design for an esthetically pleasing vista at the intersection. So will the commitment made become a commitment kept in this election year? We'll see.

--Bernice Paglia

Crowd Complains at PMUA Reorg

Normally an occasion for formalities, the annual reorganization of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority this year turned into an amalgam of economic woes and ratepayer dissent.

Commissioners re-elected Carol Brokaw as chairwoman, Harold Mitchell as vice chair, Alex Toliver as secretary and Dave Beck as treasurer and named official newspapers and financial institutions, among many other actions. But in the finance report, officials said the authority suffered reduced revenues and increased expenses in 2008, along with high fuel oil costs in the first three quarters, leading to a budget gap. To address the gap, the authority has made layoffs and imposed 10-day furloughs on all staff, including executives.

Details will appear in the upcoming newsletter that is sent to all city households.

The small meeting room at 127 Roosevelt Avenue was packed with residents, many from the Hillside Area Neighborhood Watch, where a movement to opt out of PMUA solid waste pickup is gathering strength. Note: Those who opt out must show proof they have contracted with a trash disposal company.

In emotional but largely civil exchanges, PMUA commissioners and executives responded to residents’ concerns about shared service charges billed even to those who opt out, perceived lack of proper legal notice for a rate hearing and surcharges for such things as putting out extra bags of trash and leaving container lids open.

The shared service charges cover downtown trash pickup as well as garbage pickup in municipal buildings and city parks, PMUA Executive Director Eric Watson said. PMUA attorney Leslie London cited state statutes that backed up the need only to provide notice of a hearing at which rate adjustments might be made. Officials conceded that some of the surcharges could be negotiated in the case of first-time mistakes.

One of the most outspoken residents was Philip Charles, who said he was concerned about the “retroactive raise in rates” and the adequacy of public notice for the Jan.22 rate hearing. Brokaw explained that the rates set that night were for the first quarter of the year and London said Charles had quoted a statute on rate hikes that referred to commercial haulers.

Charles also said he went through the complicated steps to opt out, only to be told at the end he did not do it correctly.

Resident Janet Bostic-Evans spoke about her struggle to resolve an overbilling problem by New Jersey American Water that then caused her PMUA bill to jump from $309 per quarter to $818. She said she talked to several other people with the same problem whose bills were adjusted, but hers was not. She asked why PMUA did not investigate sudden spikes in billing.

“My anger and frustration is with the staff,” she said.

Brokaw countered with her own example of a PSE&G bill that jumped from $300 to $900, which eventually got adjusted.

“I understand your frustration,” she said, asking Bostic-Evans to keep the authority abreast of her situation.

Bostic-Evans also asked whether the authority was marketing its services to other municipalities. Brokaw said the Rock Avenue transfer station had recently been expanded and the authority was marketing itself outside Plainfield, with no success so far.

‘There are some political issues, as you can imagine,” Brokaw said.

Brokaw had to bang her gavel repeatedly after Watson and resident Bob Chanda got into a heated exchange over surcharges for such things as not taking receptacles off the curb within a certain time. Chanda called the fines “penny-ante baloney” and also complained about limits on free bulk pickups, which brought an impassioned defense from Watson.

Several residents spoke more than once and exchanged phone numbers to organize future protests, some even calling for a return to private trash plans that preceded formation of the authority in 1995. But Watson said commercial haulers were suffering in the economic collapse, laying off people and also having to raise rates.

London said the authority is under the constraint of Union County waste flow rules that prevent going to the open market. All trash must be directed to the Union County Utility Authority’s disposal facility, she said. Watson noted that the PMUA had to declare a “pay to put” estimate for how much trash would be generated, but illegal dumping, both from Plainfield and out of town, has caused overages for which PMUA is charged extra per ton.

Residents told PMUA to expect a groundswell of opting out of solid waste pickup and further objections to its rates and rules. But Watson defended the authority, saying it has made the city clean. At its inception, he said, the authority held eight bulk pickups a year to cope with the pent-up trash residents had accumulated instead of paying carters to take it away.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Please Stay on Topic

I am getting a lot of comments that have nothing to do with the posted topic. This is not a forum with back-and-forth on subjects outside the realm of what is posted. Please confine your comments to the matter at hand. Thank you.

--Bernice Paglia

IT Post Gets Initial Approval

Random winter image: Amaryllis

The City Council took the first step Monday toward creation of a cabinet-level technology post, but members said they need a lot more information before final passage.

The administration is pushing for establishment of the post within the current budget year that ends June 30.

"It is a position we need," City Administrator Marc Dashield said Monday. "The IT department does not exist."

The ordinance that passed on first reading Monday creates the title of "Director of Data Processing" with a salary range of $95,500 to $130,400. It will be up for second reading, public hearing and final passage on March 2. Council President Rashid Burney said creating the title is the first of three steps, the other two being funding the title and hiring someone.

Dashield said an IT director is needed to plan out the future of technology in city government.

The city has struggled with various approaches since the late 1980s, most recently trying a shared services agreement with the Plainfield school district that ended last summer. Council members said they still want to look into shared services, but they also want to know the full costs of staffing an IT department. Councilwoman Linda Carter said she wants the "total picture" before the next vote. Councilwoman Annie McWilliams said while all agree that information technology is vital in order for the city to grow, she wants to know how costs will be offset. Councilman Adrian Mapp said the administration must explain "fully loaded costs" for an IT department and abstained at roll call.

"We have just a slice of the picture," he said.

Councilman Cory Storch noted there will be two weeks before a final vote and said he wanted a "high-level view" of what the department will look like when in place.

Currently, there is just a one-person "help desk" in City Hall, according to the administration.

If a director is hired at the maximum salary, he or she would be near the very top of the city government pay scale. Click here for a description of the job as listed on the web site of the Civil Service Commission, which has supplanted the state Department of Personnel.

It is unclear where an IT department would fit in with the organizational structure called for in the city's 1968 special charter, which mandates three departments under the city administrator: Public Affairs and Safety, Administration and Finance, and Public Works. All divisions fall under one of the three departments, although the administration of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams created a de facto Economic Development department with the Planning and Engineering divisions within it.

The March 2 meeting will take place at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Guest Column for Black History Month

Lucy Sanchez was born and raised in Plainfield. She reminded me that I covered her PAL karate school several years ago.
"Since then I have graduated from Rutgers and Syracuse, and worked at CNN, and a Gannett newspaper in Syracuse, but landed in corporate America," she wrote to Plaintalker.
Now raising a family in a nearby town, she still visits Plainfield frequently and volunteers at a mentoring program for young people here.
She said she felt moved to do a story about the 40 years that have transpired from the time of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to President Barack Obama, and interviewed city resident Nancy Jordan as part of it. She agreed to have it published on the blog as a guest column, so here it is.

A History of Ballots and Bullets – 40 Years Later

I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1968, Hester Moore answered the call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for more youth to get involved in shaping the future of their community. Although only 16 at the time, she felt compelled to support the efforts of over 1,300 striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

“I can remember screaming, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it! This is not what Dr. King wanted,” Hester said through tears. “All hell had broken loose. People just started running and screaming. Then there were gunshots. By that time the police had arrived and just started beating people. We ran into the church and the pastors and older people were screaming and telling us to settle down. Other people were cursing because the police had sprayed mace … we thought some of them were dead. We tried to regain order. The only thing I kept thinking was they’re going to kill us and my mom is not going to know where to find me.”

The protestors were later barricaded and forced out of the church at gunpoint by the National Guard and police. Hester arrived home to her mom watching the events of the evening on the news. She said her mother was so inspired by the hope something would have to be done because Memphis’ injustice was being televised, that she could not bear to tell her that she looked in the face of death that evening.

Dr. King would revisit Memphis one last time. On the evening of April 3, 1968 he delivered his final speech. Dr. King was assassinated the next day. A wave of massive riots occurred that evening. The city was in a state of emergency. Army tanks roamed the neighborhoods. Curfews were enforced.

“I can’t express to you the pain. I can still smell it. I can still feel it. All you heard all night was sirens and gunshots…all night,” she said.

“Coretta Scott-King, Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson and a few others came back because they wanted to finish the march that Dr. King had started. I remember making my way up to the front and Jesse Jackson said ‘Daughter, do you want to come up here?’ I was on stage looking at the sea of people. ..I wanted to say take me away…but I couldn’t speak. I wanted somebody to take me away. I was 16 years old…and I just gave up. I wanted to be a teenager again. I couldn’t do it. It was unbelievable that bad things happened to good people. I couldn’t understand it. And then I began to have so much fear. If they could kill Dr. King and Mr. Kennedy, then who am I? I am nothing.”

Hester said she lived in fear for many years after that, sometimes even filled with guilt because she had survived the civil unrest. She strictly focused on her family for years and suppressed any thoughts of that time in her life. On the 30th Anniversary of Dr. King’s death, Hester returned to Memphis to confront many ill feelings of her past. It was not until 1998 that she would tell her story. Hester has since created a monologue entitled 16 ‘n’ 68, and has brought audience members to tears with her performance which chronicles her experience as a teenager during the time of the sanitation strike.

Today, on the cusp of the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States of America, the 57-year-old said, “I am so wonderfully blessed to have lived to see this day.” Hester traveled to Washington D.C. to attend the inauguration on January 20, and said she was going in the “spirit of those who cannot witness what I am going to see.”

Travel with me down the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge, Louisiana the home of Rodney G. Young, 58, who shares his account of growing up in the sixties. The deafening echo of civil unrest found its way to Baton Rouge during the integration efforts of the late 1960s, and Rodney wanted no part in it. There were sit-ins at local lunch counters and bus terminals, marches at local universities resulting in expulsions and student protests which found their way to the state capitol.

Dr. King was assassinated during Rodney’s senior year in high school. “I remember the outcry from the students,” he said. “We had some of the kids at the school who were militant in their attitudes. They wanted to tear everything down. They were venting their frustrations on the nearest white person that was around.”

While most of these battles made the news, Rodney was confronting his own inner struggle. His upbringing taught him to avoid conflict, and his reality convinced him that was the safest route to take. Rodney’s mom was a domestic worker and provided the sole source of income for the family. Like many other teens at that time, he wanted better for himself and dreamt of equality, but secretly also wished the town would quiet down so nobody would be harmed.

“Right now, I would have a different attitude and would definitely say to get involved,” he said. “I reaped the benefits from all of the people that did get hurt.”

“I saw everything from prior to the civil rights movement when we had to use the separate facilities, go to separate schools and sit on the back of the bus,” said Rodney. “We moved into a period of desegregation and facilities were being integrated, and it was the first time the movement had reached this part of the South.”

Rodney’s family was welcomed into an integrated neighborhood by the site of a burning cross in their African-American neighbors’ yard.

As frightening as this was, he said the disparities that impacted him as a student were just as dreadful. “During that time, I was being convinced that I wasn’t necessarily an equal to other white students when it came to education. The teachers always stressed that we’re going to have to do so much better than everyone else until we started thinking that we’re not as qualified. They made me feel inferior.”

“Young people today have an advantage because they are starting without having a handicap that they are inferior. A lot of young people have never heard black men can’t be leaders. They never got that false impression. Although you still have some people in the South that can’t overcome it. It’s been seared into their minds. I think this whole movement toward President Obama’s victory has been the result of a lot of young people who voted, not for the black man, but for the issues and I thank God for bringing us to this point.”

Rodney, now retired, is taking heed to President Obama’s message to make a difference and take change into our own hands. He works on a tutoring program for third, fourth, eighth, eleventh and twelfth graders.

Last stop, up to the North to the suburbs of Plainfield, New Jersey. Just as the whispering sound of the Black Power Movement lured a frustrated and disheartened Hester into (and quickly out of) living room meetings in Memphis; and the thunderous chant “Burn, Baby Burn” fired by Baton Rouge activist H. Rap Brown stung the ears of Rodney and others seeking justice through peaceful methods; Plainfield had its own share of violent protestors for a community that was already on edge. The riots of 1967 knocked on the door of the “Queen City,” never leaving it quite the same again.

Plainfield resident, Nancy L. Jordan, 56, said the town was a relatively mixed community of blacks and whites during the late sixties. The city was divided by economic status with an overwhelming number of middle and upper-class residents living on the East end and the other individuals living on the West end.

“We all seemed to get along, but it was the outside factions that seemed to keep things going,” she said.

A series of racially-charged incidents sparked in July of 1967 that resulted in riots, looting, stolen firearms, physical altercations between the police and the African-American community including countless injuries and the death of Officer John Gleason.

“The National Guard came to the high school and they told all of the white kids to stay in the school and all of the black kids to go home,” said Nancy. “I lived on the East end, but they wouldn’t allow any of us to go to the East. They made us march to the West. Most of us had to go to the Neighborhood House. My mother got in the face of the National Guard. I said, ‘Mom they have rifles.’ They responded by herding us down to the West end where they said all of the black people lived.”

“[Some people] are still having nightmares from the riots…There was a lot of shooting in Plainfield during that time. It was like we were at war.”

Various programs were created after the riots including the availability of swimming pools for residents of the West end and programs to help stimulate employment opportunities for African-Americans, however, Nancy said the equalization of the education system still remained a constant fight.

“I remember being on the picket line with my mother,” she said. “We picketed the school board and we were singing We Shall Overcome.”

“My mother was a very strong advocate for fighting for her rights and fighting for her kid’s rights, and I’ve adopted that spirit as well. Dr. Martin Luther King was non-violent, but he was a fighter. He was an activist. I believe in us fighting for our right to be, and I just wish kids today would understand that. I’m hoping President Obama inspires young people to get involved as he has been, and that the older folks will pass the baton. I believe today’s younger people may be able to work together for a common purpose.”

Nancy currently sponsors a mentoring program, “Youth Exposure,” via the local Plainfield Police Activity League.

In the sixties, racial and economic disparities caused tension to race up and down the spine of the United States of America. Life was drained out of some cities, and they are patiently waiting to be resuscitated. Americans are still haunted by the demonic divides of the riots and the ghosts of inequality. The country still bears scars to a past wounded by fire hoses, night sticks and bullets…but today, forty years after the summer riots of the sixties, the ballot holds the greatest power of all - the spirit of hope.

--Lucy Sanchez

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rescue Squad In Danger

The closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center has put such stress on the Plainfield Rescue Squad that its future is in doubt, longtime member Jenny Pernell told the City Council Monday.

“We are dying,” she said. “We need help.”

The closing has resulted in city residents having to be transported to out-of-town hospitals, tying up the squad’s ambulance and causing “stacking” of response to emergency calls, she said.

“We feel we are not providing appropriate service to patients,” Pernell said.

Although conditions put on the closing by state Health Commissioner Heather Howard included provision of another ambulance, so far nothing has happened, Pernell said.
The city is also trying to get Muhlenberg’s parent company, Solaris Health Systems, to provide an ambulance, officials said Monday, but Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said “Quite frankly, we haven’t got a lot of cooperation from Solaris lately.”

The squad answers about 6,000 calls a year, but Pernell said some of them are affected by the same problem that plagued Muhlenberg, people unable to pay for services. The squad has a flat rate of $650 per ambulance trip, but Medicare only pays $58 per patient, she said. Another issue is response to intoxicated individuals who can’t pay and who are rejected by some neighboring towns’ mutual aid agreements.

The city formerly provided gasoline for the squad’s ambulances as well as an annual donation, but stopped after the squad began billing patients. Currently the squad is half paid and half volunteer, Pernell said, suggesting the city could help out with fuel costs, grant-writing and a direct contribution ranging from $50,000 to $100,000.

Council members acknowledged hearing about the problems caused by Muhlenberg’s closing, but called for more documentation and statistics on the effect on patients in order to bolster the case for city or state assistance. Councilwoman Annie McWilliams noted it has been six months since Howard approved the closing and said she wants to know which conditions have been met and which have not been met.

The council will take up the questions at its next executive session, City Council President Rashid Burney said.

--Bernice Paglia

Commentary on Calendar Change

Of all the pitfalls in changing the City Council’s meeting schedule, the most serious one appears to be providing proper notice to the public.

The governing body changed its schedule in 2006 from the traditional Mondays-only plan to one that called for an agenda-fixing session on a Monday, with a regular meeting on Wednesday of the same week. In 2008, the council reverted to the Mondays-only schedule. This year, the council agreed to hold just one agenda-fixing session and one regular meeting per month, with four of the agenda-fixing sessions at schools in the city’s four wards. The 2006 innovation of “working conference” meetings on a single topic will also be revived.

In all three instances of calendar change, the City Council started the year by adopting one annual calendar that was then changed following passage of amendments on two readings, with 20 more days before taking effect. This landed the launch date of the new schedule somewhere in April. The old caveat against changing horses in midstream comes to mind when one thinks of all the pitfalls in accurately publicizing the new schedule.

At present, there is misinformation or missing information on the city web site, in the official newspaper and on Channel 74. This is due in part to the proposed new calendar having several conflicts and errors, such as scheduling meetings on legal holidays or double-booking meetings. Councilman Rashid Burney has worked out a master calendar which is still being refined. For example, the first working conference has two different locations even on Burney’s latest calendar.

The bottom line for the transition will be publication of the official legal notice in coming weeks. Meanwhile, special notice for the Feb. 9 agenda-fixing session did not include the time of the meetings, but did include erroneous dates for the other three meetings at schools. Channel 74’s bulletin board lists wrong dates and the city web site has a Frankenstein blend of the Jan. 1 calendar and the new meeting locations. News articles, relying on verbal announcements of new dates, inadvertently perpetuated the errors.

The public is ill-served by having all this misinformation out there. As frequent council commenter Dr. Harold Yood observed, the 2006 changes resulted in a sharp drop-off of citizen attendance at council meetings. The new changes are supposed to enhance public participation and transparency in government. But until all city channels of communication get accurate information to convey, the public’s opportunity to participate in civic life will be marred.

The first step is to make sure legal notice for the upcoming working conference includes the correct time, date and location. Then before publication of the new calendar, the council and the City Clerk’s office need to double-check and agree on all the information.

Public meetings are subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law. Lack of proper notice, for whatever reason, is a serious offense. Important decisions can be overturned and officials can suffer consequences due to Sunshine Law violations. So for both the sake of public participation and the need to give proper notice, this new calendar must be made as complete and correct as humanly possible. And all the bad information floating around out there must be purged as soon as possible.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 16, 2009

Early Googles

This reference dates back to 1922, in the writings of humorist George Ade, a favorite of modern-day humorist and commentator Jean Shepherd. Charley Fresh "googles his way among the girls " in this episode. Not unlike googling possible dates in the modern age?

This image from the book I took out of the Plainfield Public Library will not come across properly, although it was correctly left-to-right in my photo files.

Anyway, once I return the book, take it out and enjoy the humor.

--Bernice Paglia

Burney Explains Working Meetings

In 2006, the late City Council President Ray Blanco called them “conference meetings.” Now, City Council President Rashid Burney calls them “working meetings.”

But what are they?

“Let me start by stating what these meetings are not: They are not town hall meetings nor are they public forums. These are still Council meetings and as such, the format for these meetings will remain the same as any other council meeting - like budget or agenda fixing meetings,” Burney said in an e-mail response to Plaintalker’s request for an overview.

“The goal of these meetings is to allow the Council their attention on a single subject - something we are never able to do in regular council meetings. Obviously the administration and attending public also are put in the frame of mind of the discussion. So we as a community spend an evening delving deep on a subject important to all of us,” he said.

The first of four such meetings will be held Feb. 25, on the topic of public safety.

“The overall format of these meeting will be as any other council meeting: Topic introduction, presenter, Council comments and questions. The presenters at these meetings will be diverse. I want to get some block association representation at these meetings also. Not just industry experts and department heads,” Burney explained.

In 2006, Blanco formulated a 28-page “Rules of Order” document that included many innovations, including a calendar change and detailed descriptions of types of council meetings. Working conferences, he said, were to be held for the purpose of “policy development.” Council discussion and policy formulation were to be the main elements, with 15 minutes set aside for public comment.

But the April 2006 working conference ended up with two hours of public comment. Click here to see the Plaintalker post on the meeting.

Burney said he expects to have a full hour for public comment at the Feb. 25 meeting.

“Personally speaking, I will be particularly interested in input from the public on the discussion items. I particularly value solutions to the problem and issues we talked about,” he said. “For example, we know drug dealing and gangs are a problem for the city - the public is welcome to give us their opinions on the issue. But in addition to that, to me, it would be helpful if we also got suggestions on how to fix the problem. So if you know of resources or solutions from other cities, please bring them forth.”

Burney said the agenda for the meeting will be posted online.

“The public present and watching at home must be able to follow along. The days of the public being in a fog because they are not able to see what we are looking at are gone,” he said.

Besides the Feb. 25 working meeting on public safety, future topics are information technology on April 27, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority on July 27 and economic growth on Oct. 19.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Meetings, Meetings

People who like to keep up with city doings will find several conflicts this month.

On Tuesday, the Board of Education meets at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of the Administration Building at 1200 Myrtle Avenue, while the City Council meets at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.

On Thursday, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority will hold its annual reorganization at 7 p.m. at 127 Roosevelt Avenue. Commissioners will elect officers for the year, name an official newspaper and make other decisions such as hiring legal representation and consultants. Agendas should be available at the meeting. Call (908) 226-2518 to confirm as sometimes dates are changed.

The Planning Board also meets at 8 p.m. Thursday in City Hall Library. Agendas are available in advance in the Planning Division, second floor of City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. At its last meeting, which conflicted with a League of Women Voters meeting, the board approved Landmark's application for commercial development on West Front Street. I was at the LWV and have not had a chance to check the Landmark documents, which should be on file in the Planning Division.

There will be an agenda fixing session of the City Council at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 in City Hall Library. In an earlier version of the new calendar, the first City Council "working meeting" was scheduled for the same night, with PMUA being the topic. Now the working meeting has been changed to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, at Municipal Court and the topic will be Public Safety.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs had scheduled a community forum for the same night, but has since canceled it. However, I can't go to the working meeting because I have to go to the Shade Tree Commission meeting at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library (I am the secretary and have to take minutes).

The working meeting was a concept introduced by the late Councilman Ray Blanco when he was president of the council in 2006. Each meeting is supposed to be devoted to one topic. Council President Rashid Burney has proposed four for 2009. Besides Public Safety, other topics are Information Technology in April, PMUA in July and Economic Growth in October. All the dates and locations are on a chart at Burney's blog, "As I See It," pending official legal notice.

The council has also scheduled budget meetings starting in March for the fiscal year that begins July 1, even though this year's budget has yet to be finalized. Opinions differ on how efficacious it is to start so early on FY 2010. State budget law allows a municipality to set a temporary budget for the first three months of the fiscal year while the administration prepares a budget. The council introduces the budget and can then modify it. Optimally, the budget is passed before the second quarter elapses.

The FY 2009 budget, for the fiscal year ending June 30, has been held up by uncertainties at the federal and state level and may not be passed until March or April. Meanwhile, the administration is still seeking modifications, most notably the establishment of an Information Technology department, with a cabinet-level director. The governing body has not yet made a decision on the change.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, February 14, 2009

BOE, Council Face Money Decisions

On Tuesday, both the City Council and the Board of Education will hold voting meetings.

Looking at the agendas can be a bit disconcerting in the current economic climate.

While field trips are part of the school experience and professional development is mandated by the state Department of Education, the 30 pages of trips and conferences detailed in the BOE agenda come across as perhaps a bit excessive in these days of mass layoffs and severe budget cuts. There are several trips that have been arranged at no cost to the district, but others will run up a combined tab of more than $23,000. The professional development activities will cost more than $38,000.

The City Council will be asked to approve an application to the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority for an additional $6,000 for Music in the Plaza, bringing the cost for next summer to $36,000, or about what it costs for a new police hire. Officials have admitted that last summer's musical events in the Park-Madison plaza were poorly attended. Videos shown on Channel 74 feature City Hall staff dancing with each other, even though the goal was to bring employees of the county office building out on lunch hour in hopes they would patronize food vendors and merchants on the building's periphery.

Another item would allocate $7,600 for a Golden Gloves tournament next month.

One might ask, in a time when the city is in a budget crisis and the focus is on core services, how can sports and entertainment promotion at public expense be justified? The administration has floated a plan to lay off a single longtime employee just to save $10,000 and there was a big fuss over city-owned car use by the city administrator and Public Safety director at a projected cost of $1,200 each. The normal $28,000 a year in city funds to support the largely grant-funded Dudley House program became a deal-breaker this year. Yet music and boxing can be funded to the tune of $43,000?

Retailers know that individuals and families began having a visceral reaction to spending money starting last fall. Opening one's wallet has become a major exercise in judgment lately, as every discretionary purchase is being weighed against current and future needs. Municipalities elsewhere are laying off police and fire personnel, trying four-day weeks and making other drastic moves to save money. Is Plainfield being penny-wise and pound-foolish in its stewardship of public money?

Those with opinions pro or con can have a say at meetings Tuesday. The school board meeting is 7 p.m. at the Administration Building, 1200 Myrtle Ave. and the agenda is posted on the district's web site. The City Council meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. The agenda may be seen at www.rashidburney.com or can be picked up Tuesday in the City Clerk's office, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Happy Valentine's Day

Way back in the 20th Century, there was a wave of feminism that stressed strength and independence. Women shook off the notion of finding their identity solely through a relationship with a man. It was the heyday of renaming oneself and claiming the ancient power of womanhood before patriarchy reshaped society.

While winnowing out mementoes of the past quarter-century, I came across some reminders of those days. Not a lot of women practice feminism to the same degree any more, maybe because there is more egalitarianism today in the family and the workplace. Strong women tend to be more appreciated than feared, more accepted on their own terms.

Feminism itself could be oppressive. Admitting a fondness for Mick Jagger could get a woman in a lot of trouble with radical feminists. Boys and men were banned from marches and demonstrations. Old-fashioned courtesies like holding open a door were perceived as condescending insults. But as in all movements, the pendulum swung back toward the middle eventually. Today Michelle Obama can appear on the cover of Vogue without evoking screeds and screeches from flannel-shirt-clad "wimmin."

So wherever you are on the spectrum nowadays, have a happy Valentine's Day today. And feel free to celebrate Susan B. Anthony's birthday tomorrow!

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mousie Update

On Thursday, Mousie underwent the transition known as neutering. The post-operative instructions included several orders starting with, "Do not allow the cat to ..." but as any cat minion knows, felines have a tendency to disregard commands.

Mousie quickly resumed his macho attitude, doing battle with Mr. Bear and various pieces of crumpled paper and even biting the hand that feeds him. As pictured above, he seems to be saying, "Surely you jest" at the thought of meekly obeying anybody else's rules for his conduct.

How did such a brute come to be named Mousie?

Here's why. Up until the time he took a liking to this writer, he was an underweight, sickly creature, quiet as a mouse. Since leaving the feral life behind, he has filled out, grown big muscles and asserted his claim as lord of all he surveys. When not imperiling my house plants or testing his new fangs on important documents, he will occasionally let himself to be petted or spoken to in terms of endearment before resuming his brawling.

No new name has emerged to replace "Mousie." Someone suggested "Moosie." But he really no longer cares what he is called, because now he is calling the shots.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A New Plainfield Resource

Congratulations to the Plainfield Garden Club on the launch of their new web site!

Members old and new have added much to the Plainfield experience, especially with the Shakespeare Garden in Cedar Brook Park.

Go to www.plainfieldgardenclub.org and take a look.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No BOE From Me

I am skipping tonight's Board of Education meeting, but I commend to your attention Mark Spivey's great story about the proposed new Plainfield Academy for the Arts and Advanced Studies.

The Board of Education will also be asked to change the name of the Plainfield Academy for Academic & Civic Development to the Barack Obama Academy for Academic & Civic Development.

This is based on the example of the man who just became the 44th president of the United States and the first African-American president.

The resolution cites President Obama's "years of public service (based) around his unwavering belief in the ability to unite people around the world," as well as his accomplishments such as ethics reform, tax cuts for working families andf health care for children and their parents.

The resolution includes a provision for 50 students and 10 chaperones to visit Washington, DC , at a cost of $6,000 to "learn more about the nation's capitol and the political process."

Actually, they said "capital," but we forgive them.

If any of the students is inspired, it may be worth the expenditure. President Obama is a unique role model and hopefully will encourage many young people to take another look at service to their country, by whatever means.

--Bernice Paglia

Anticipation ...

It will be weeks before the appearance of the delicate flowers that give White Star of Bethlehem its name. I happen to know that this little sprout foreshadows the event, so just looking at it fills me with anticipation.

Similarly, I know that on March 2 we shall see who will be running for the school board and on April 6 the mayoral candidates will become known.

It's probably not nice to rush the seasons and with plants I never do, because the Wheel of the Year moves at its own pace. But I sure wish the political calendar pages would fly away like the ones in a 1940s movie so all the speculation and gossip will be brushed aside by the facts. There are three three-year and one two-year school board seats up for election on April 21 and the four-year mayor's and Fourth Ward City Council seats up for election on June 2. With all the clamor for change, let's see how many incumbents want to stay on and who the challengers will be.

Meanwhile, City Council Rashid Burney has published his proposed calendar for the governing body on his blog, "As I See It." Make special note of the Feb. 25 working conference meeting on Public Safety. The time is not indicated, but I'm sure that will be publicized. The mayor has canceled her community forum previously scheduled for the same night.

This calendar has been tweaked more than the cheek of a toddler at his Bubbe's house and it still needs a bit more work. Disregard all previous legal notices until it is fixed.

--Bernice Paglia

Council in the Nabe

The City Council's maiden voyage into city neighborhoods took place Monday with a session at Washington Community School instead of City Hall Library.

Council President Rashid Burney said he was pleased at the turnout, which fluctuated over the evening but hit a high of 35 attendees at one point, according to Burney. Most of the crowd appeared to be regulars or city staffers, but Burney said he was pleased to see some new faces at the Fourth Ward visit.

Future neighborhood stops will be at Emerson Community School in the First Ward, Hubbard Middle School in the Third Ward and Cook Elementary School in the Second Ward.

The meeting was heavy on discussion items and committee reports, too many to detail in one blog post.

A key item was City Administrator Marc Dashield's proposal to hire an information technology director within the 2009 budget year that ends June 30. Dashield hoped to see it happen by April, saying the city has several new technology systems that need to be coordinated as soon as possible. At present, there is only one fulltime person who gives "help desk" support, he said.

The administration must put together an ordinance establishing the new title and it must be passed on two readings befor taking effect 20 days later. Dashield is targeting the next voting meeting on Feb. 17 for first reading, after receiving tentative approval from council members who said they also want the administration to look into shared services as an alternative.

The city had a brief shared services plan with the school district last year, but it was not of the scope Dashield outlined Monday. The new director would not only support and upgrade city technology, but would also train employees, develop policies and procedures and create a long range technology plan, Dashield said. There is also a need to integrate technology into business processes, he said, and the director would also oversee TV74, the local municipal channel.

Burney said a citizens' budget advisory last year urged hiring of an IT director, and resident Jeanette Criscione, who served on the committee, said the reasons were "everything that Marc just said." She said she was surprised to learn of the city's lack of technological integration.

In budget talks last fall, Dashield said the average salary for IT directors was $147,000. In answer to Councilman Adrian Mapp Monday, Dashield did not indicate a suggested salary, but said the department could be started in the current budget year by moving $50,000 in funds, with the full-year cost to kick in for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The FY 2009 city budget is still up in the air due to state and federal uncertainties. Meanwhile, to date the city has expended more than seven months' worth of salaries and expenses and has made emergency appropriations for March and April. But Dashield said the city needs an IT director now to manage the "migration" of systems.

Burney said he did not doubt the need.

"The inefficiencies we have are unexcusable," he said, but called for moving forward while still gathering more information on options.

The council's next meeting is Tuesday, Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 09, 2009

Calendar Gets Failing Marks

Calendar changes meant to increase public engagement in government have so far done nothing but confuse anyone who is trying to pay attention.

The legal notice for tonight's meeting, the Courier News article and blog posts based on the dates given are all wrong, except that tonight the City Council will meet at Washington Community School. Whether same-day notice is sufficient, I can't say.

The council was trying to do three things: Reduce the schedule to one work session and one voting meeting per month, hold four of the meetings at neighborhood schools in each of the city's four wards and add four meetings on topics of general concern. If this had been done with a full-year calendar at hand instead of just a poorly-conceived ordinance, a lot of the errors would have been evident.

Because a lot of my blogging depends on attending public meetings, I have a high interest in getting the right dates and locations. Except for tonight, I'm not having much luck.

Nearly all the bold moves by the "new" council are falling flat for lack of sufficient forethought. This calendar stuff gets an "F" (or in modern parlance, a WTF) from me.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Serendipities and PPL

One of my favorite late night/early morning shows on WBAI features rebroadcasts of Jean Shepherd radio shows. Shepherd rambled around all sorts of topics while occasionally breaking out into Jew's-Harp performances on his show. Just the other day, the rebroadcast had him talking about humorist George Ade. By luck, I found a volume of George Ade's writings in the Plainfield Public Library and the humor holds up, lo these many decades later.

Another show, Hour of the Wolf, comes on at 5 a.m. Saturday and features science fiction, fantasy and related genres. I was awake enough early Saturday to hear Neil Gaiman giving readings of his work and later found several books by Gaiman on the PPL shelf, including the Coroline story that has now just come out as a film.

I didn't take that one out, but selected "Neverwhere."

Anyway, it was nice to find some highly interesting books related to current radio references and right here in the Plainfield Public Library!

--Bernice Paglia

Legislators Hit the Road

Fourth Ward residents will get a close-up look at the governing body in action when the first of four neighborhood City Council meetings takes place Monday (Feb.9, 2009) at Washington Community School.

Those who attend will get the lowdown on the state of the budget and what’s up with the roads, the possible addition of a Verizon FIOS local channel in addition to Comcast’s Channel 74 and why the city needs an information technology director.

These are among discussion items at the agenda-fixing session. The council will also ponder several resolutions and ordinances that may then be put up for a vote at the Feb. 17 regular meeting. Some, like change orders for construction work, are fairly routine, but the council will also decide on whether to ask for $6,000 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds for downtown music and another $7,600 to support a Golden Gloves boxing program.

The ongoing Bryant Park pre-fab potty placement problem may not be as compelling to Fourth Warders as it is to those in the Second Ward, but it has been causing talk for months now. The council is now being asked to increase the cost from $187,895 to $213,220, mostly grant-funded.

Newcomers to council meetings will find out you have to hang around until the end in order to comment on the doings. FYI, you have to give your name and address, you get five minutes and you may turn up on Channel 74, now that meetings are recorded for viewing, so be prepared to put your best citizen game face on.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Hope for Calendar Clarity and More

It may well be that those who attend the City Council agenda-fixing session at Washington Community School Monday will see a comprehensive calendar proposal for 2009 presented by Council President Rashid Burney.

Changing the calendar in midstream, as opposed to starting off a year with changes, has its pitfalls. The council has already published a calendar for 2009, but those who dutifully ticked off the dates in whatever way they have of keeping track of important dates will now have to revise them. And it's not only the dates, but also the locations that changed under a new initiative of meeting at schools in the city's four wards.

It will be the City Council's burden to prove that this initiative will increase neighborhood participation. I hope somebody keeps count of attendance and deducts the usual suspects, such as favored vendors, patronage jobholders and politicians. As we used to make the distinction in the news biz, we did not necessarily want quotes from the star players, but from "real people," aka those with a genuine concern for the issues, who are not carrying water for the pols.

Also between now and the March 2 school board filing date (4 p.m. at the Administration Building, 1200 Myrtle Ave.) residents will have made their decisions to run for three three-year school board seats. It is Plaintalker's hope that a a broad and diverse group of candidates will emerge.

--Bernice Paglia

Council at Washington School Monday

Monday’s City Council agenda-fixing session will be 7:30 p.m. at Washington Community School in the first of several relocations to schools across the city.

Council President Rashid Burney proposed the innovation to “bring the government closer to you.”

Now for my gripes. Every time this calendar thing comes up, there is some glitch that makes it confusing. The press release announcing the change also includes two other dates, but they are not agenda-fixing sessions, even though they are indicated as such on a calendar posted on the city web site. Why not? Because that calendar, adopted Jan. 1 and published in the official newspaper, will change in April due to an ordinance passed on first reading Feb. 2. After a public hearing and final passage, a listing of the revised dates must be published.

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson has begun to call me jokingly the “keeper of the calendar” because I have been pointing out problems with the proposed innovations. For example, the dates announced by Burney at the Jan. 26 meeting included a federal holiday and one conference meeting that clashed with an agenda session.

Between Jan. 26 and Feb. 2, the language of the ordinance was also changed. I don’t even want to go into the “from” and “to,” lest there be more confusion. The first point of clarity must be publication of the actual new dates. Burney also proposed four meetings at schools, one in each of the city’s four wards. These dates and locations must be clarified. Then the dates and locations of the conference meetings must be clarified, and maybe the format should be explained as well.

Critics, including myself, think all these changes will serve not to engage the public, but merely to confuse citizens who are used to agenda-fixing sessions being at City Hall Library and regular meetings being at Municipal Court. Certainly if the changes themselves keep changing to correct glitches, the public may not be able to keep up.

City officials have promised to publicize the changes on Channel 74, on the city web site, in the media and by postings in public locations. Count on Plaintalker to continue pointing out anomalies so they can be corrected for the residents’ sake. Monday’s time, date and place are correct, so let’s start there. And don’t forget, Washington Community School is on Darrow Avenue, but the parking lot and entrance to the cafetorium are on Spooner Avenue. Maybe I’ll see you there.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, February 06, 2009

Thoughts for Winter 2009

If there is anything good coming out of the global financial crisis, it may be the fact that people are being forced to live more consciously every day.

The times are much harsher on some folks than others, but it does seem that all those little decisions that add up to a course of action are now being made with more deliberation at the personal level than ever before. Some of us may be deciding just to hold still and see what happens. Others are taking a new look at what they really need to get along and what can be pared away. Our trust in institutions has been shaken and leadership has failed us, so more than ever it feels as if our fate is in our hands.

Meanwhile, hope and change are in the air.

For me as always in the dead of winter, any small sign of spring is encouraging. The light is changing and my windowsill plants corroborate it by looking more sprightly. By the end of February, mourning doves and cardinals will be pairing up. Soon red maple tree flowers will emerge.

This is the promise of the natural world, that the seasons will roll on no matter what we mortals are up to. But now we also have hope and change as President Barack Obama and his team begin to reshape and restore government to something more honorable than it has been for a long time. Early on, the notion of personal responsibility is emerging as a hallmark of this new era.

Hard times are still ahead, everyone agrees. By the time my forsythia basket blooms, we all will have experienced lots of adjustments. Fate and volition will move in tandem till we get to the end of this chapter of our lives. And then we can write the next chapter.

--Bernice Paglia