Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: Sharon! Redux

Way back in September 2008, these buttons started appearing on mayoral supporters who handed out goodies at the Senior Center.

This display later turned up in the window of a Front Street photography shop.

Next a banner, complete with campaign button, was hung on the front of City Hall in April. After candidates cried foul, red tape was placed over the "for Mayor" part.

Never mind that these cards promoting the mayor's pet event did not say what time it was, they did have the all-important campaign image.
And so it went. SRB won a second term as the city's first female African-American mayor and will be sworn in tomorrow (Jan. 1, 2010). Those who voted for her will be jubilant. Those who didn't are hoping she will put governance over goodies this time around.
To her credit, the mayor did manage to produce a new, city-owned senior center, something promised but not delivered by several of her predecessors. She also takes credit for the low murder rate in 2009. Still to come are improvements to the city web site, an IT department, better local cable programming, development and a few other things.
One novelty in 2009 has been the number of bloggers, including some elected officials, who are monitoring her administration. Cabinet members for 2010-14 are expected to be named at the annual reorganization, 1 p.m. New Year's Day in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.
--Bernice Paglia



2009: "Piv for Plainfield"

In a city where Democrats now outnumber Republicans 12 to 1, the Grand Old Party is not so grand. In recent years, the GOP has tended to field candidates almost as a gesture, and sometimes doesn't even bother to do that.

Republican Jim Pivnichny decided to mount his own campaign for mayor in 2009, and after Councilman Adrian Mapp failed to win the Democratic primary, a lot of reform-minded voters pinned their hopes on Pivnichny. The retired chemist did tongue-tied folks a favor by using the more easily pronounced "Piv" as his handle on his blog and campaign material and began pointing out the need for changes in city government.

As he noted after the primary, the field of two for mayor was compounded by the ever-constant presence of the mayor's mentor, Assemblyman Jerry Green. But he declared, "Two against one? I'm up to the challenge."

Piv became a close observer at City Council meetings and took to the microphone often to comment. His blog and that of fellow Republican Bo Vastine, a challenger for an Assembly seat, gave lively arguments for change in Plainfield. Of course, at the top of the GOP slate was U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Chris Christie, a top foe of political malfeasance in the Soprano State.

Green tried to convince voters that all three were "Bush" Republicans, his favorite slur when on attack even against fellow Democrats. Christie had the temerity to show up on Front Street while campaigning, bringing Green out of his Watchung Avenue lair to cast epithets.

While Piv didn't win, his tally was more than double the number of Republican registered voters, so somebody was paying attention.

This is the year when the local GOP reorganizes. While eligible to fill 68 committee seats, the party has come up far short in recent years. The chairman's seat is also up for election in June. Will Piv's enthusiasm for change perk up the party somehow? There hasn't been a Republican on the City Council for a long time, and two council seats are up for election in 2010. Meanwhile, Piv is still "for Plainfield," so keep reading that blog.

--Bernice Paglia

2009: Sister Act

In April, former City Councilwoman Joanne Hollis ran in the school board election. Her sister, Bridget Rivers, was already serving as school board president. Hollis was not among the winners, but state officials said it would not have been a problem to serve alongside her sister if she had won.

In June, Rivers won the Fourth Ward Democratic Primary, narrowly defeating Vera Greaves, the running mate of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. She was unopposed in the November general election, where the incumbent was re-elected mayor.

In December, Rivers stepped down from her second term as board president and then from the board itself. Tomorrow (Jan. 1, 2010), she will be sworn in to serve four years representing the Fourth Ward, just as Hollis did after winning the seat in November 2001.

Expect to see her proud sister Joanne smiling from the audience.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009: Did "The Monarch" Rule?

The sole project in the mayor's four-year term to see major construction is still not finished, but a key element, a new senior center, was completed in 2009.

"The Monarch" at 400 East Front Street has a senior center and veterans' center at ground level and 63 condos on three floors above. Developer Glen Fishman received the city-owned site for $1 and promised to create the senior and veterans' spaces at no cost to the city.

But since the deal was cut, the developer missed three stated deadlines for completion. As the 2009 primary loomed, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs turned up the heat and managed to garner a one-day opening in May, just before the June primary, which she won.

The senior center opened for good in November, but a Veterans' Day celebration took place outside the building, with a reception in the Senior Center space. The Veterans' Center opening is tied to completion of sales of the condos. In May, only eight had been sold, and later accounts still left many unsold.

No current sales number has been announced, nor has there been any public announcement on resolution of a parking issue for the development, which won approval with just 1.5 parking spaces for each two-bedroom condo.

Meanwhile, the company's bid for a tax abatement that would have left condo owners paying just 40 percent of city taxes was dismissed by the governing body.

"The Monarch" was billed as the bellwether for future condo development, but so far nothing has come about to prove the theory.

There have been other proposals that received approvals, including several from Landmark Development and Paramount Assets, mainly for apartments in the downtown district, and with no parking for residents except at public lots.

For other projects proposed over the past four years, i.e. Omnipointe, four transit villages, Capodagli, Maxim, Heartstone, Arlington Heights, the Marino's tract, Downtown Station South, Front Street Redevelopment Area, Roosevelt Avenue, Block 316, the UCIA endorsed North Avenue project and the East Third and Richmond proposal, never mind.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009: Ratepayers Revolt

In late January 2009, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority hiked solid waste rates by 20 percent and sewer rates by 14 percent, retroactive to Jan. 1. A group of outraged citizens not only showed up at the authority's annual February reorganization to protest, but also launched an educational web site for ratepayers, began probing the authority's budget and eventually took several of their issues to court.

So far, the group has achieved rollbacks of certain fines and rules imposed by the authority, encouraged "opt-outs" of authority service and this month saw legal notices that reflected concessions on some of its main concerns. Unlike last year, the PMUA has this month published advance notice of its proposed rate changes and noted they will not take effect until April 1, 2010. A controversial sewer charge for vacant lots may be eliminated altogether.

In its investigations, the group recently uncovered expenditures for conferences and travel that stood in contrast to the authority's claim that it had been forced to trim costs by imposing furloughs and other measures.

Plaintalker posed some questions to Philip Charles, originator of the ongoing lawsuit and a member of the DumpPMUA group.

1. In early 2009, PMUA officials were somewhat dismissive of your new organization. How seriously is it taken now and what do you see as proof of a change in PMUA's attitude?

Our concerns are being taken somewhat more seriously. Unfortunately, it was only after we initiated litigation that there was a slight shift. There have been several changes to policies and procedures but not necessarily a true change in attitude from the PMUA as a whole. However, they certainly know that the residents of Plainfield are concerned and willing to put in the time and effort it takes to hold them accountable. That is positive.

2. What do you consider your key achievements in 2009 and what are your goals for 2010?

The PMUA's awareness of the community's watchful eye and the community's involvement in this cause are by far the key achievements. This has resulted in more specific changes such as a more active role by the city council when it comes to the PMUA.
The PMUA policies that have changed as a result of our movement include the elimination of the $30 fee for having an open lid, the change of opting out procedures for residents who want to procure an alternate company for their garbage removal, a verbal commitment that there would be a reduction of out of state travel for PMUA executives, more detailed public notices for rate hearings and rate hikes which become effective after the public hearing.

Goals for 2010- Addressing expenses such as in state travel, business lunches, and other expenditures which appear to be excessive and wasteful. Addressing the resistance of the PMUA to be transparent with the public especially as it pertains to the Open Public Records Act.

Providing residents with help in addressing their specific grievances with the PMUA.

Eliminating Sewer Charges to vacant land.

Ensuring that Commissioners are not compensated over $4500 per year as permitted by the city ordinance that created the PMUA.

Eliminating the Shared Service Fee which is charged to all property owners for services provided to the city. It should be noted that (from our perspective) many of the achievements and future goals are what is required by law which simply means that the PMUA is now beginning to follow the law which it has been obligated to follow for years.

3. There are vacancies on the PMUA Board of Commissioners. Do you envision appointment of someone from your group to the board?

It has never been the goal of anyone in our group to become part of the PMUA Board. I cannot speak for the many residents who have become involved with our group, but I can speak for a few of us to say that we are not interested in becoming part of the PMUA. However, we will continue to volunteer the time and effort it takes to bring reform to the PMUA.

4. Your efforts have ranged from organizing protests of PMUA practices and rates to educating the public on the authority's workings to actual litigation. How do things stand in these three areas?

I wouldn't say we ever organized protests, but we have actively encouraged residents to make their concerns known at both PMUA meetings and city council meetings. Many residents who took the time to attend meetings have relayed to us that their cries fell on deaf ears.

Unfortunately, many residents are discouraged by the leadership of the PMUA and the public perception that the PMUA will not change and does not care about the average resident. We will continue to encourage people to attend public meetings and we will make sure that there are representatives from our group at all PMUA meetings. We will continue to educate the public on the PMUA workings. It is our intention to make the PMUA transparent even if we have to do it.

We also hope to assist residents who are having specific problems with the PMUA in resolving those issues. We are still involved in the litigation. We are currently in mediation with the PMUA and are not at liberty to discuss specifics of that discussion. However, if you look at the DumpPMUA.com website you can see the 10 counts of the lawsuit and what progress has been made with each one. All of the changes made thus far by the PMUA have been done voluntarily.

I do not want to speculate as to whether our lawsuit influenced those changes or not. You can draw your own conclusions. The resolution of all ten counts should be accomplished in 2010.

5. Of course, any other comments are welcome.

The coverage this cause has received from local bloggers and the press has been essential. We are grateful to everyone who became involved by either attending public meetings, submitting OPRA requests to the PMUA and giving the information to us, sending us anonymous e-mails with "tips" as to trips, expenses, etc., leaving us voicemails alerting us to PMUA activities, sending us documentation of issues they have had with the PMUA, including photographs, citations, letters, etc. Anything that has been achieved has been a group effort. Every person's contribution led us to look into something, say something and ultimately do something. The community of Plainfield should be very proud, but our work is far from over.

Philip Charles, 37, is a lifelong Plainfielder (born in Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center), married with two children, city homeowner since 1996, a technology director by trade and a grateful member of the Optimist Club, now aka the Plainfield Soccer Club, where he learned to play the sport.

--Bernice Paglia

Pay an Online Visit to Bakery Nouveau

One of the highlights of my brief trip to Seattle in October was a visit to Bakery Nouveau. Click here to read about this exceptional destination in West Seattle.

It's very handy to be able to read the West Seattle Blog and keep up with doings in the neighborhood. I'm told some far-flung former Plainfielders feel the same way about Plaintalker.

--Bernice

Mapp Does Public Service His Way

Adrian Mapp's 2008 capture of a City Council seat marked a new page in his political story, which included a previous stint as a City Council member and one term as a Union County freeholder.

As a freeholder, Mapp had never broken his ties to the progressive New Democrats and so was denied a second term by the Regular Democratic Organization.

But in 2008, Mapp and his running mate, Annie McWilliams, trounced two RDO candidates in the Plainfield primary and went on to win the general election.

Soon after taking office in January 2009, Mapp announced he was running for mayor against incumbent Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who was backed by Assemblyman Jerry Green, the RDO city chairman and her political mentor. Mapp was serving as chief finance officer in Roselle, another divided Union County municipality, and a council faction there contrived to relieve him of his job by consolidating finance functions with Roselle Park and firing him.

Back in Plainfield, the mayoral primary roster swelled to six Democrats, some seen as spoilers to split the vote in favor of the incumbent. Whether or not it was a gambit, Mapp lost with 39 percent of the votes to the incumbent's 47 percent.

But the defeat could not make Mapp go away - he still has three more years to go in his council term and has become a strong challenger to some of the administration's actions and policies.


The Democratic Party's political whack-a-mole tactics have not silenced or subdued Mapp, and he remains firm in his convictions about proper governance.
Having had to study local government finance law in order to get his CFO certification, Mapp has been able to speak with authority on fiscal issues. The mayor is now under state orders to put a permanent CFO in place in Plainfield, as the post has now been vacant for two years.
The city has also suffered a high turnover of finance directors in the mayor's first term, making Mapp's insight all the more imperative when it comes to the budget process.
The events of 2009 have not embittered Mapp, which may make his adversaries all the more intent on trying to give him a hard time. A recent court decision upheld the Roselle council's ability to fire him, although the resultant controversy caused Roselle Park to back out of the shared services deal.
Meanwhile, party politics statewide took a hit in 2009 when dozens of elected officials were arrested on corruption charges. If Mapp wants to let his conscience be his guide in 2010 and beyond, rather than bow to Soprano State political mores, the city may be the better for it.
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 28, 2009

Time Flies

Image: Amaryllis "Novella."

My first-born child turned 50 Sunday, something that left us both incredulous.

Age doesn't mean a lot nowadays. Parents tell me their little girls are more sophisticated at 10 than they were at 20. On the other hand, 50 may be the new 30 or whatever formula you want to use to say that a lot of people keep their enthusiasm for life and new adventures way past what used to be called middle age.

Audrey and I had a long talk about age and aging, but came to no conclusions. Maybe there are no conclusions in this rapidly-changing world. Certainly when supermarkets first opened in the 1940s, one could look around and see women past 30 already cast as either matrons or spinsters. But in the aisles of Trader Joe's, it's anyone's guess how old a woman is. Women are free to do so many more things than ever before, although in each generation there have been females who refused to accept society's assigned roles.

So turning 50 is still a milestone, as AARP will attest, but what it means is open to interpretation.

Happy Birthday, Aud!

--Mom

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Installation, Reorganization Jan. 1

Image: Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs delivers 2009 State of the City address.

City residents and other well-wishers are invited to an "installation ceremony" Jan. 1 for Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Bridget Rivers.

The 11 a.m. ceremony will precede the annual reorganization and will be held in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The reorganization will be held at 1 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. and will include the mayor's State of the City address.

An invitation was posted last week on the city web site.

Past custom called for a reception in City Hall Library, after which swearing-in of newly elected officials took place at the reorganization.

As the incumbent, Robinson-Briggs won the June 2009 primary, besting contenders that included Councilman Adrian Mapp, school board member and former Senior Center employee Martin Cox, former Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority employee Bob Ferraro, frequent candidate Tom Turner and PMUA chairwoman Carol Ann Brokaw-Boles. Ferraro passed away earlier this month.

Rivers narrowly defeated the mayor's running mate, Vera Greaves, in the primary. In the November general election, Robinson-Briggs overcame a challenge from Republican Jim Pivnichny and independent Deborah Dowe to win a second term. Rivers, president of the Plainfield Board of Education, was unopposed. As required by the city's prohibition on dual office-holding, Rivers stepped down from the presidency and the board this month.

Both Rivers and Robinson-Briggs will serve four-year terms beginning Jan. 1.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Party, Party, Party"


A flyer for an event tonight invites 20-somethings to "get wasted" at a local entertainment venue.
Well, maybe that is the ulterior motive of young people who go to clubs, but to see it so baldly stated on a promotional flyer makes one wonder. Will this be one of those nights where elders hear the scream of ambulance sirens and perhaps the racket of a helicopter coming to carry away a victim of rash behavior?
Public officials have often stated concerns about the number of liquor licenses in Plainfield and incidences of alcohol-fueled mishaps. The city has a large number of consumption and distribution licenses that pre-date a state limit on the proportion of licenses to population. It is not clear whether this venue has a license or is subject to obtaining a permit for each event, but either way, the promotion of intoxication goes against the grain of liquor laws.
Holidays where large numbers of young people come home for reunions with family and friends can be occasions for boisterous celebrations, but let us hope discretion will prevail so that we do not have unfortunate headlines this weekend. Getting "wasted" sometimes means more than a one-time debauch. It can mean a life-changing lapse of judgment that cuts a young person's opportunities short forever.
Take care, young people. Those who love you do not want to see you in an accident or worse. The organizers of this event do not have your best interest at heart.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Washington Crossing Delaware

OK, so you have to go see it at least once. Click here for details.

--Bernice

Merry Christmas to All

In his memoir of growing up Italian in the East End, A.J. Wood recalls "The Meal of the Seven Fishes" on Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass and spending hours at the table for the Christmas Feast.

For Jewish people, Christmas was the day to head for Larry's Deli. Alas, the deli is no more and Plainfield's Jewish population is sparse.

Plainfield's ever-increasing diversity means that some folks have already observed their major holiday on Eid al-Adha or Diwali.

Whatever you will be doing in the next couple of days, Plaintalker wishes you enjoyment with friends and family. If you are far from your relatives, you can come for dinner at the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield at Park & Seventh or perhaps at other churches.

As a reporter, I had to work one holiday per year and when I picked Christmas, the assignment often was to cover the re-enactment of Washington crossing the Delaware. It was pretty much the same story every year, except perhaps the time it was so cold that the river police wouldn't let the re-enactors put their boats in the water and they just walked across the bridge. I was glad when an editor decided just to pick up the story from the Associated Press and I only had to go to Somerville to cover a free holiday dinner.

Have a pleasant couple of days!

--Bernice

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Cheer from PMUA?

For the first time I can remember, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority is giving advance notice of a rate hearing including the "From" and "To" rates.

Take notice that it will be at 6 p.m. in advance of the regular meeting of Jan. 19, 2010 at 127 Roosevelt Ave.

Here's a quick summary:

Proposed Solid Waste Rate Changes - Effective 4/1/10
Low Density Residential
Current Rate Per Lot $110.92 / Quarter
Proposed Rate $ 106.37 / Quarter

Current Rate Per Household $ 80.52 / Quarter
Proposed Rate $ 93.01 /Quarter

Shared System Services Fee
Current Rate Per Lot $ 30.37 / Quarter
Proposed Rate $ 35.07 / Quarter

Current Rate Per Household $ 32.86 / Quarter
Proposed Rate $ 16.06 /Quarter

High Density Residential, Commercial, Industrial Container Service
Current Rate Disposal Fee $100.55 / Quarter
Proposed Rate $ 109.98 / Quarter

Current Rate Collection Fee $230.88 / Quarter
Proposed Rate $ 223.77 / Quarter

Proposed Sanitary Sewer Rate Changes - Effective 4/1/10

Vacant Lot Service Fee
Current Rate Per Lot $ 58.00 / Quarter
Proposed Rate $ 0.00 / Quarter

"The proposed rate changes will be effective April 1, 2010. All other fees, rates and charges remain unchanged. The Authority shall provide evidence at the hearing showing that the proposed adjustment is necessary and reasonable and shall provide the opportunity for cross-examination on such evidence. A transcript of the hearing shall be made and a copy thereof shall be available upon request to any interested party upon payment of a reasonable fee. The Rate Hearing is open to all members of the public."

The legal notice is on Page D-4 of today's Courier News.

--Bernice

Commentary on Council President

Councilman Cory Storch called Councilwoman Annie McWilliams the "council president-elect" Monday, giving a clue to at least one change that will take place on Jan. 1.

Seen above at her June 2008 primary victory party, Annie McWilliams has proven to be an astute learner since taking office on Jan. 1, 2009. She already had a political legacy as the daughter the late two-term Mayor Albert T. McWilliams. In 2008, she attended many City Council meetings and she has taken notes and asked questions at every meeting this year.

She is the complete opposite of the kind of council representative that Plaintalker perceives as "place-holders," the politically tried and true sort who are not likely to buck the machine or make waves. Storch said at the 2009 reorganization there was a new direction with a "thinking council" as Adrian Mapp and Annie McWilliams joined the ranks. Certainly the administration has received more pressure in 2009 for accountability and transparency than it did in the previous three years.

Now that voters have returned the mayor to office, the push for thoughtful decisions is likely to continue. A new city administrator is going to find that Annie McWilliams expects full explanations and sound rationales for proposals put before the City Council. If she can "count to four" on the 2010 council, look forward to progress.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 21, 2009

Meeting Reveals Little

A double meeting Monday held no revelations for a dozen or so regular City Council attendees, nor for some Plainfield Municipal Employees Association members who are hoping to avoid layoffs.

The City Council met in closed session with potential nominees for cabinet posts to be approved Jan. 1, but only a few hints on the 2010 cabinet emerged, one being that Martin Hellwig is expected to stay on in the combined role of Police Director/Director of Public Affairs & Safety. Jennifer Wenson Maier, currently head of Public Works & Urban Development, and Bibi Taylor, director of Administration, Finance, Health & Human Services were both on hand.

The mystery is who will replace City Administrator Marc Dashield, who is the newly-hired township manager for Montclair.

Nominees will be presented at the Jan. 1 reorganization meeting. No time has yet been announced for the meeting.

The City Council will also name official newspapers and banks, and will confirm numerous other appointments at the Jan. 1 meeting.

An earlier hearing on the SFY 2010 introduced budget drew comments from Plainfield Municipal Employees Association members who deplored layoffs from the city's lowest-paid ranks, while top employees and other unions are not affected. While negotiations are still underway, no concession have been announced for Fire or Police divisions, which account for most of the city's salary costs.

Amendments to the budget that began July 1 have yet to be announced, but once stated, will trigger another public hearing before final passage.

--Bernice Paglia

Winter Solstice Today

Call it the shortest day or the longest night, the Winter Solstice marks the darkest time of the year and was celebrated in ancient times with bonfires on hilltops and other rituals.

To see how Seattle celebrates the Winter Solstice, click here.

A Druid custom was to cut mistletoe with a golden sickle. Many cultures across the world have fire festivals at this juncture on the Wheel of the Year. Then there is the WPIX Yule log, in case it is not convenient to dance around in the snow.

As the pagans say, blessed be!

--Bernice

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow!

Does snow come in on little cat feet?

However it comes in, we got plenty overnight.

Windblown snow created drifts over everything. "The white and drifting snow" made it hard to get to grandmother's house or anywhere else for a while. As usual, those who shoveled found their driveways blocked in by snowplows cleaning the streets.

"Walking in a winter wonderland" - NOT! Pedestrians found some dead ends at intersections. Until some means of vaporizing snow is invented, the shovel people and the snowplow people will remain at odds.
--Bernice

Council Demands Cabinet Interviews

The City Council expects to interview cabinet nominees Monday night to prepare for the Jan. 1 reorganization.

The city administrator and three department heads serve four-year terms concurrent with that of the mayor. As winner of a second term, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs must offer nominees for City Council "advice and consent," along with a corporation counsel, judges, attorneys and appointments to various boards and commissions. Last week, Robinson-Briggs was quoted in the press as saying she had not yet begun her search for a new city administrator to replace Marc Dashield, who is leaving Dec. 31 to become Montclair's township manager.

City Council Rashid Burney stated firmly last week that cabinet nominees must meet with the governing body in closed session before Monday's agenda-fixing meeting for the annual reorganization. Throughout the mayor's first term, she has often offered names at the last minute, sometimes having them rejected outright by angry council members. On Jan. 1, 2006, she avoided the issue by naming her cabinet in acting capacity, warding off the council's consent powers for 90 days. Last year, the issue of timely communication arose again at the 2009 reorganization.

Besides Dashield, the cabinet currently includes Jennifer Wenson Maier as director of the Department of Public Works & Urban Development, Martin Hellwig as director of the Department of Public Affairs & Safety and Bibi Taylor as director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services. All their terms expire with the end of the mayor's first term on Dec. 31. Wenson Maier is also a councilwoman in Rahway and Hellwig also serves as Plainfield police director, a title created to replace that of police chief.

Hellwig, Wenson Maier and Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson have served for all four years of the mayor's first term, but Taylor was hired recently to a post that had been handed off six times previously in four years. The city is also now under state orders to hire a permanent chief finance officer, as the last one left at the end of 2007.

The use of city-owned cars is another issue that comes up at the annual reorganization. Last year, an attempt to curtail officials' use of city-owned vehicles dragged on for a month before being resolved. Residency is another issue that may come up. The council agreed to waive residency for all four top cabinet members and none ever moved to Plainfield.

The council will also adopt an annual calendar at the reorganization. The traditional Mondays-only meeting schedule was changed to a Monday-Wednesday format in 2008 and then to just one agenda-fixing and one regular meeting a month in 2009. Plaintalker is among those who favor a return to the traditional schedule, but so far it appears the 2009 format will continue.
Both changes occurred in spring, causing more than a bit of confusion and a drop-off of public attendance.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Carols on Bells - Extraordinary!

It was my great pleasure this afternoon to hear a preview of Christmas carols played on the Grace Episcopal Church carillon. As I have often mentioned, this live carillon is one of only four in the state and it is right across the street from my little apartment.

Carilloneur Jeff Spelman does a wonderful job of providing inspirational music on the bells.

The church will hold a service Dec. 24 including the carols on the carillon. Whatever your faith, this is an experience to treasure in the holiday season.

Click here for the Grace Church schedule.

--Bernice

Homage to Rolling Stones?

Maria's post today with the Rolling Stones logo reminds me of this slide at Emerson School. Kind of a funny sight.

--Bernice

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ethics: The 2010 Issue?

With the advent of Chris Christie as governor, will ethical behavior become the standard for the next four years?

Certainly, as "The Soprano State" and the recent massive corruption scandal attest, there is much to be done to improve New Jersey's reputation as a steward of public resources. The 44-member corruption probe indicates examples of extreme self-interest at the public's expense, something the state can no longer tolerate. A lot of the corruption was related to development, and Jersey City last week received a report with eight recommendations to prevent unethical behavior.

Although the report focused on Jersey City, the recommendations can be applied generally to any municipality.

Plainfield has had a number of development proposals over the past four years, but only one , The Monarch, has materialized. Others have been rushed to approval or have proven to be unsuitable for the city. At this point, a visioning study is in the works to develop a broad consensus on what kind of development would be best for the city. While awaiting better economic conditions, city officials also have time to reflect on the best way to interact with developers.

The law firm that performed the audit for Jersey City, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter LLP, studied the development process and uncovered several ethical pitfalls to be avoided. Chief among them was dealing with developers one-on-one, outside an established process. To clarify the process for all, the firm recommended preparation of a guide outlining all its details, from where to start to what to present initially.

Plainfield previously had a deputy city administrator in charge of economic development, who could vet proposals for viability and explain the city's process for approvals. Since 2006, the process has been less clear, with multiple starting points. For example, one developer was introduced to the public in the context of the mayor's 100-day address, which gave the impression of being favored. Another developer showcased at public meetings turned out to be on the state debarment list.

A guide might keep the playing field level and avoid surprises.

Although it seems obvious, elected officials, land use board appointees and city staff should never accept anything from a developer. Ethics training for both officials and developers and sanctions for violations were recommended in the report. Roles of city departments should be spelled out in writing and developers should provide comprehensive background information. Even professional staff should avoid one-on-one meetings with developers and meetings should take place in official settings. Another recommendation for Jersey City was that meetings of its Tax Abatement Committee should be recorded and made public.

The Jersey City report cost $75,000 and called for specific action steps by the city and the Jersey City Redevelopment Authority. But ethics seminars and training are also offered by the League of Municipalities. Click here for an article on one such session.

However it is done, ethics awareness is likely to take on added importance when Chris Christie takes office. Even as the report was issued last week, more officials were indicted in the ongoing corruption investigation that resulted in 44 arrests, including many Jersey City officials. Click here to read press releases from the United States Attorney's Office, District of New Jersey.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Capital Improvements Mainly Deferred in 2010

A City Council budget session Thursday on capital improvements revealed mainly a deferment of projects to future years when times may be better.

The Capital Plan normally includes items with longterm value, such as fire engines, building repairs, system upgrades and road repairs. A six-year plan offered Thursday by City Administrator Marc Dashield showed just $3.9 million in 2010 capital proposals, out of a six-year total projection of $48 million.

Hard economic times may result in only one $30,000 expense for kitchen repairs at firehouses, even though the Fire Division is seeking $3.1 million in capital projects through 2015. Major expenses such as trucks and vehicle replacement are deferred to 2012 or beyond. An estimated $7 million expense to replace a firehouse floor due to new heavy equipment is listed for only $400,000 in 2015.

Dashield said 2010 projects are mainly grant-funded. Normally, capital projects are funded by bond issuances.

Out of a $4.7 million six-year projected capital budget for Public Works, only $81,000 for a new salt storage facility is listed for 2010. According to a commenter on Plaintalker, the former salt storage facility was demolished and city workers will now have to travel to Union County facilities to obtain salt for winter road conditions.

Economic Development proposals adding up to $3.3 million will see only perhaps $1.2 million take place in 2010, with closed circuit television crime surveillance tabbed at $900,000 and building demolitions funded by Community Development Block Grant Funds listed at $312,500.

Out of $22.3 million for road maintenance over six years, just $1 million is slated for 2010. This program is already way behind. A five-year plan from 2005 was stalled to the point where years were lost and the cosmetic term "Phase II" was used to identify what might have been a much earlier year if the schedule had been followed.

According to a handout from Dashield, budget requests totaling $1.2 million for Information Technology will receive nothing in 2010. The same will apply to Planning Division requests totaling $3.3 million and Recreation Division requests totaling $4.4 million.

The Police Division will fare slightly better, with $601,509 in requests out of a $3.9 million budget being proposed for 2010. The funding would go toward automatic license plate readers, a radio system for the mobile command center, a new model Segway, pole-mounted speed signs, a mobile video camera system and replacement of 10 police vehicles.

Councilman Cory Storch asked whether more energy-efficient police vehicles could be purchased, but Dashield said the Police Division needed heavy-duty vehicles for police patrols.

Councilman Adrian Mapp objected to the high cost per vehicle, around $28,000, but Dashield said the police cars must be fitted out with extra equipment.

Among other news, Dashield said the city-owned Tepper's basement was deemed not adequate to house a closed television surveillance camera operation, so it will be housed at the police station. A building addition or other special accommodations may have to be made.

The city used up a $450,000 grant to make what Dashield termed a "plain vanilla box" just before the grant expired, but no use has yet been established for the space. In answer to City Council President Rashid Burney, Dashield said only trained personnel can monitor the TV screens.

A budget hearing on the FY 2010 introduced budget will take place on Dec. 21. Any amendments must be published before the council holds a second hearing and final passage.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Budget Resolution, Top Jobs Pending

At the end of 2007 and again at the end of 2008, City Administrator Marc Dashield found himself handling the budget process without the benefit of a chief financial officer or a finance director to help him out. Now that he is leaving to become town manager of Montclair, a City Council member asked who will be in charge of the budget process. There was no definitive answer. The city still does not have a permanent CFO and the new finance director is still becoming familiar with Plainfield. The administration recently attempted to pass her off as the CFO, but she is not certified.

One wonders how seriously the administration is taking the situation. With a second term beginning Jan. 1, the mayor must put together her cabinet, namely a city administrator and three department heads. While the budget is now in the council's hands, the mayor and administration must decide whether to push for a second deferral of pension payments, if that option arises. Dashield has stated that all but one of the city's bargaining units will be negotiating new contracts, setting the stage for concessions and givebacks, but will anything happen in time to cut the projected 9.6 percent tax increase? Half the fiscal year's salaries have already been paid out.

Well, these are not exactly visions of sugarplums, they are more like lumps of coal rattling around inside City Hall. Meanwhile, it is a good time to review what the city administrator's job is overall. The City Charter states that the city administrator "shall be chosen solely on the basis of his training, experience, and administrative and executive qualifications." A masters degree in public or business administration is required, along with at least two years' actual experience in municipal administration or and equivalent combination of education and experience.

Here, from the city's special charter, is the city administrator's job description:

4.3 City administrator; powers and duties.
Under the direction and supervision of the mayor, the city administrator shall:
(a) Direct and supervise the administration of the departments of the city government, subject to the provisions of the charter;
(b) Provide for the organization of the work of the departments, subject to the requirements of an administrative code to be adopted by the council;
(c) Review the administration and operation of each of the departments and recommend to the mayor from time to time such measures as may appear necessary or desirable for the purpose of improving the efficiency and the economy of the city government;
(d) Review, analyze and forecast trends of city services and finance the activities and programs of all boards, commissions and other municipal bodies, and report and recommend thereon to the mayor;
(e) Assist the mayor to prepare an annual current expense budget and an annual capital budget for consideration by the council;
(0 Develop, install and maintain centralized personnel and purchasing procedures and systems as may be authorized by the administrative code;
(g) Perform such other functions and duties as may be prescribed by charter or ordinance.

Let the search begin. The mayor nominates the city administrator and department heads and the council must confirm them. In 2006, the mayor named acting cabinet members on Jan. 1, but they had to be confirmed after 90 days. All received waivers of the residency requirement. How will things look in January 2010?

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Budget Session Wednesday

I just realized I can't cover the budget session Wednesday (Dec. 17, 2006) because I have to attend the Shade Tree Commission meeting as secretary.

Divisions up for review Wednesday are the Plainfield Public Library, the Corporation Counsel's office, the City Clerk's office, Inspections and Recreation. The meeting is 7 p.m. in Municipal Court.

On Monday, a 7 p.m. session featured a somewhat hasty presentation on Public Works & Urban Development. Only 20 minutes were allotted and the rapid-fire presentation covered Economic Development, Public Works and Engineering. Planning got skipped for lack of time and may be added to Wednesday's agenda.

--Bernice Paglia

HPC Questions Solar Panels

No trees will be harmed in the installation of solar panels. No birds will be able to nest on them.

Those were two questions resolved at Tuesday's Historic Preservation Commission meeting, where PSE&G representative Eileen Leahey appeared to discuss the recent launch of Solar4All, a program to capture solar energy and reduce energy costs. The November appearance of the panels on poles in historic districts set off a flurry of concern among some preservationists who found them ugly and intrusive.

Leahey appeared twice before the City Council this month and agreed to meet with the HPC to answer questions, but her e-mailed request Friday for specifics in advance of Tuesday's meeting went unanswered. On Tuesday, Leahey explained that the project received approvals from the Bureau of Public Utilities in July and publicized it. But locally, the first reaction came over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Commission members posed several questions Tuesday for which Leahey promised answers by e-mail Friday or Monday.

Among the questions:
- Could the panels be placed higher on the poles in order to be less visible?
- How have other municipalities with historic districts responded to the program?
- What is the construction of the panels?
- How is PSE&G addressing possible vandalism?
- How are locations determined?

As far as trees are concerned, none will be trimmed to accommodate the panels and birds can't nest on them because they are set on an angle.

Resident Carol Bicket asked how long the 5 -by 2/1/2-foot, 60-pound panels will last and also asked, "Why are they so big?"

Bicket said in a few years "they will probably be consolidating them like a micro-chip."

Leahey concluded by commending the HPC for its mission to preserve the city's history and beauty.

City staffer Scott Bauman suggested that Leahey explore the possibility of doing outreach through the advocacy group Preservation New Jersey to municipalities and historic preservation commissions on the solar panel program, which calls for initial installation of 200,000 panels statewide to provide renewable energy.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 14, 2009

Funny Mash-up

An inadvertent left-over Power Point logo fell upon the city's fabled Alfred Bierstadt painting in Municipal Court Monday, making it appear that indigenous people were hailing the advent of technology.

Most of the last regular meeting of 2009 was perfunctory and did not lend itself to journalistic expatiation.

Plaintalker will resume rants and raves shortly, but for now a break is needed.

--Bernice Paglia

Plaintalker Told Jobs Story

In rebuttal to those who said the job revisions were not covered when they happened:

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/05/staff-non-renewals-looming.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/05/massive-boe-job-title-changes-proposed.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/05/board-approves-new-titles.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/05/more-on-board-meeting.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/05/more-job-title-changes-tuesday.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/05/contract-to-be-discussed-june-30.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/06/appointees-named-for-new-titles-one.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/06/jobs-top-boe-agenda-tonight.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/06/bailey-tribute-leads-busy-boe-meeting.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/06/contract-discussion-tonight.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/07/gallons-first-boe-meeting-tuesday.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/07/district-addresses-audit-findings.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/07/gallon-gets-kudos-at-first-meeting.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/07/new-approach-personnel-changes-coming.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/07/school-posts-up-for-votes-tuesday.html

http://plaintalker.blogspot.com/2008/07/gallon-plan-will-create-dashboard.html

--Bernice

A Lesson from Jersey City?

A scheduled 20-minute presentation on how Jersey City attracts developers will not be part of tonight's City Council meeting, Council President Rashid Burney said.

Burney said at the Dec. 7 agenda-fixing session that he had been approached by the Jersey City Redevelopment Authority regarding the presentation. He also mentioned the Urban Land Institute, which Councilman Cory Storch pointed out is a non-profit entity.

Plaintalker attempted last week to gather more information from the Urban Land Institute web site, but could not find a Jersey City link. A call to Burney revealed that the presentation would not take place after all.

After just reading an online article in the Star-Ledger about redevelopment issues in Jersey City, Plaintalker looked up the Jersey City Redevelopment Authority and saw that it recently won an award from the Urban Land Institute. So maybe that was the link.

Meanwhile, the Star-Ledger article mentions a report due out this week on recommendations for "rules of engagement" between Jersey City elected officials and developers. The S-L called it a "must-read" and Plaintalker agrees.

The report will be released today and will be considered by the Jersey City council Wednesday. Among its recommendations are that officials should not speak privately one-on-one to developers seeking deals in the city.

Plainfield's City Council meeting tonight will include a 7 p.m. budget session on Public Works and an 8 p.m. regular council meeting, both in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Development Updates?

Anyone who clicks on "Development Updates" on the city's web site will find three items: The Monarch, North Avenue and Heartstone.

The Monarch is the 63-unit condo project with a senior center and veterans' center on the ground floor. The image of the North Avenue proposal and the text do not exactly match what is going on over there. But the Heartstone description is all wrong, as the developer dropped the project, the city-owned land was then branded as a pocket park and it has since been promised to another developer for an office project.

In addition, although the link is under Public Works & Urban Development, the page's heading is "Administration & Finance."

These are the types of things one hopes will be cleaned up if and when the city gets an IT director, because this web site is the city's face to the world at large. Now, not everything on a municipal web site or any other web site should be taken as the gospel truth, because many of them are out of date. But Plainfield's site has been lacking for four years. It needs a page-by-page review for content and relevancy, and overall navigation needs to be tightened up.

The Historic Preservation Commission had some very good information on the city site, but it was taken down. The HPC has now taken a stand that it will create its own web site and hopefully the city will at least link to it. Given that historic preservation is one of the city's main calling cards nationwide, showcasing information on its districts, design guidelines and other aspects is vital.

The last press release on the city web site dates back to March. The new IT director will be in charge of communications, including the local cable television channel, so maybe things will look up in 2010.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Cadillac Tastes

Image: Vintage Cadillac seen on Cleveland Avenue.

Kudos both to Courier News reporter Mark Spivey and local citizen activists for uncovering the scope of Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority spending on conferences and business lunches.

With most public entities admitting they can no longer afford even what was possible two or three years ago for travel, conferences and restaurant tabs, the seeming excesses of the PMUA are all the more egregious. In the case of the PMUA, expenses are passed on to the ratepayers. Citing layoffs on one hand and authorizing pricey outings on the other? Almost sounds like the Jersey salute one gets on the highway.

Municipalities and authorities were never meant to have Cadillac tastes, although my last assignment before retiring from the Courier News was on Plainfield cell phone use that turned out to be quite extravagant by some elected officials. Now folks are forced to be in the Yugo, Segway or shoeleather mode to get by.

The Open Public Records Act is proving to be a very good tool for holding officials accountable and making them face the economic realities of the times. Keep up the good work!

--Bernice Paglia

Update on Mousie

Block 832's most famous formerly feral feline was due for a checkup after being inside for a year. But as you can see, the carrier loaned by cat godmother K. was no longer suitable for the likes of Mousie. Lacking any middle-sized option, he had to be hauled to Fanwood in the big beige kennel.

He was only 2.9 pounds and about six months old when he first consented to be an indoor kitty in November 2008. He was around eight pounds when his neutering went wrong in March and he had to wear the e-collar while recuperating. But now he is 16 pounds and the vet advised giving him only half a cup of food a day. He wakes me up around the clock anyway in hopes that I will forget what the vet said and dole out some chow.

If he were still outside, he could just go catch him a rodent. But no, he looks mournfully at his bowl and more mournfully at me. I keep telling him, any self-respecting tuxedo cat must want his cummerbund to fit properly, but he insists there are adjustable ones.

--Bernice

Three Meetings Tuesday

Random image: Rose hips.

Those who follow city issues will have to choose among three meetings Tuesday.

Among items on the Historic Preservation Commission's agenda is the subject of solar panel installation in historic districts. Although PSE&G's Solar4All program was announced in February and received Board of Public Utilities approvals in July, the first some historic district residents knew of it was over the Thanksgiving weekend, when they noticed the panels already installed on utility poles.

The program calls for installation of 200,000 solar panels statewide. Solar power from the panels goes back to the grid to aid a PSE&G goal of 30 percent renewable energy. As described by company representative Eileen Leahey at the Dec. 7 City Council meeting, PSE&G inspected 2,800 of Plainfield's 6,500 poles and identified 100 that are suitable for the 5 by 2 1/2 foot panels. Leahey said all customers will benefit from the program.

It is unclear whether the HPC has any jurisdiction over utilities or whether PSE&G can make any accommodations to historic districts. Some residents have complained that the panels are unsightly, while others approve the goal of renewable energy.

The HPC meeting is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Also on Tuesday, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority meets at 7 p.m. at 127 Roosevelt Avenue. A citizen action group that arose this year is investigating how the authority spends money collected from ratepayers. Click here for a flyer on the meeting. The DumpPMUA group has already won concessions on various fines and rules that members found oppressive.

Over at 1200 Myrtle Avenue, the Board of Education will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday. A new member will be sworn in to replace Bridget Rivers, who resigned from the presidency and will resign from the board Tuesday due to her election to the Fourth Ward City Council seat.

The 45-page agenda for the meeting is available at the Plainfield Public Library or may be viewed online at the district web site. The board and district are currently embroiled in several controversies over personnel and salary issues while awaiting resolution of new contract terms for members of the Plainfield Education Association, which represents teachers and support staff.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, December 11, 2009

City Seeks $4 Million in Federal Grants

Image: Plainfield YMCA.

The City Council is expected Monday to endorse a $4 million request for Community Development Block Grant applications, which will be passed on to Union County for final review.

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

For Plainfield, a Census 2010 count reaching 50,000 residents is the key to side-stepping the process in favor of direct funding in future years. Meanwhile, the city must take its chances on gaining a portion of the county's $6 million federal allocation for programs benefiting low- and moderate-income residents.

The city requests are in five categories, spanning social services, housing, public facilities, public improvements and administrative costs.

The social services requests totaled $1.4 million for programs benefiting seniors, teens, food programs, young children and other needs, but the Citizen Advisory Committee approved only $229,731 to be passed on for county review.

All of the public facility requests were approved by the CAC, for a total of $2,083,946. The biggest single request was $1,574,526 for renovation of 60 residential units at the YMCA on Watchung Avenue. The YMCA offers single residential occupancy housing in a building that dates back 80 years, agency President/CEO Ravenell Williams said. Funding would go toward an essential gutting of the units to modernize them with telephones, cable access and heating and air conditioning in each room. If funding is granted, the repairs would be phased in starting with empty units to avoid resident displacement, he said.

Among public improvement requests, $1,258,100 for synthetic turf at Seidler Field was a big loser with no endorsement by the CAC. But other requests totaling $801,000 will be passed on for county review. They include restrooms, a concession area and storage at the Rock Avenue Baseball Complex for $239,000, city roadway improvements for $478,000 and handicap accessible bleachers at Seidler Field for $84,000.

Housing requests totaling $973,490 won favor with the CAC. If approved, they will provide $100,450 for down payment assistance and counseling for Faith, Bricks & Mortar, $79,000 and $394,040 in funding to make bathroom renovations at Allen-Young Apartments and $400,000 for a city-based program to repair homes of low-income residents.

The CDBG program schedule calls for an annual Fall review of requests by the CAC, with recommendations passed on to the governing body in December. The county review is typically completed in April and funding is received in September. Officials said even if an accurate 2010 count of Plainfielders reached 50,000 or more in the 2010 Census, the process would not change for a couple of years.

Under the current system, the decennial figures affect many governmental decisions, even though interim changes may reflect many changes in demographics and needs. Certainly Plainfield has changed drastically since 2000.

Another local issue is who serves on the CAC. The committee is supposed to represent a broad base of community organizations, with up to 33 members. But more recently, a handful of city staffers have made the cut. Under questioning last week by Councilwoman Linda Carter, it came out that five citizens and two City Hall staffers decided on what requests to send on to the county this time around.

--Bernice Paglia

Holiday Greetings

Happy Hanukkah
to all Plainfielders
of the Jewish faith
(Learn more about the holiday here.)

Take Time to Reflect

Random image: Euonymous berries.

What do you want for Plainfield in 2010? And are you willing to put in some time and energy to help make it happen?

In this busy season, I hope Plainfielders get a chance to reflect on the New Year. Volunteer opportunities, civic involvement, running for office, advocating a special interest, mentoring a young person, sharing your talents, strengthening your block or neighborhood - there's plenty to do.

Plaintalker hopes to keep informing residents of what's going on in municipal government and other aspects of city life in 2010. A lot of changes are coming up and sometimes a blog is a more nimble way of communicating than through other media. Please keep commenting on what you read here.

--Bernice

Men Against Leaves

For an elderly apartment dweller, I have quite a few yard care devices: An electric hedge trimmer, a Toro blower-mulcher and a whole bunch of hand tools including a Wilkinson Sword swoe, an oscillating hoe and a ho-mi, or Korean hand plow. I joke that yardwork is my senior exercise plan.

A mighty noise next door at Connolly's alerted me to the presence of a crew that dwarfed my little-old-lady efforts at fall cleanup. Two guys with blowers were rounding up leaves for ingestion by a huge machine.

It was a distant relative-on-steroids of my blower-mulcher - a machine to master the worst our giant oak tree could do. Despite its unholy racket, I admired its clean-up power.

Our front lawn is still littered with leaves and twigs from the oak tree, because my neighbor and I only clean up the back yard and driveway. We leave the front yard to the landlord, and he leaves it to Father Time and Mother Nature make the leaves go away.
My adult children can still remember the pungent smell of autumn bonfires that once were the standard way of dealing with fallen leaves. Trading air pollution for noise pollution is probably not much of a step up, but that big machine was certainly impressive.
--Bernice

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My Little Municipal Government

A member of the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee asked Wednesday how it came about that health and social services got added to the Department of Administration & Finance.

"I know, I know!" my inner municipal geek screamed.

I refrained from raising my hand and waving it at the meeting, but because I am the boss of this blog, I will tell you here.

Once upon a time, a mayor wanted a certain person to become director of Administration & Finance. But his friend's background was in social services. So the mayor took the Health Division and Welfare out from under the Department of Public Affairs & Safety and put it under Administration & Finance.

The friend turned out not to be a good match for the job and was put in charge of Welfare. When Welfare was shifted to the county, the friend was put in charge of Dudley House.

Meanwhile, the mayor was long gone.

Political survivors are still around. The administration may turn over every four years, but once hired, favored people from past administrations are hard to get rid of. And decisions made as if municipal government was a toy linger on.

It does not make any sense to have the current configuration. Instead of paying close and exclusive attention to the city's finances, the director may be called on to resolve a spat at the Senior Center.

All three city departments mandated in the charter have had similar rolls of the dice. For example, the Recreation Division was moved from Public Affairs & Safety to the Department of Public Works & Urban Development.

In 1990, a Charter Study Commission presented a report on city government, with pros and cons of changing its structure. It might have taken two years to get changes enacted by the state Legislature, but the council took no action to start the process. So the three departments remain, but divisions can be switched around without a charter change. And that's what happened, boys and girls.

--Bernice

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Council Sets More Budget Talks

A budget session Wednesday focused on social service programs that the City Council felt mainly should be left to private, non-profit providers, but the governing body also added more talks this month.

Agencies up for scrutiny Wednesday included the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutrition program, the Bilingual Day Care Center and Plainfield Action Services.

Prema Achari, director of the WIC program since 1980, described the program's benefits, which include vouchers for nutritional foods to eligible clients and counseling on nutrition. In the year from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009, the agency had 52,335 client visits, she said.

Although most of the program's cost is federally-funded, the city must pick up costs for city employees' benefits and pensions. This cost was a sticking point not only in the WIC program, but in other programs with outside funding. Council President Rashid Burney repeated his concern Wednesday that social service programs must be evaluated for whether they needed city support or could be outsourced to other agencies.

On Wednesday, other program directors were not available due to illness or being on terminal leave for retirement. Bibi Taylor, the new director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services, described the Bilingual Day Care and Plainfield Action Services programs.

In each program, the city picks up the cost of fringe benefits for staff, who are city employees. The tab is $120,000 for the WIC program, $290,000 for the Bilingual Day Care program and $220,000 for Plainfield Action Services. Council members suggested shifting the programs to non-profits or to county services at the Park-Madison building.

With half the budget year elapsed, officials agreed it is unlikely that any savings could be effected in FY 2010 ending June 30, but Burney and others pushed for phase-out of city-based social programs in coming years.

At the end, council members agreed to change the governing body's schedule as follows:

Monday, Dec. 14: The 8 p.m. regular meeting will be augmented by a 7 p.m. session in Municipal Court at which the council will review budget requests of the Department of Public Works & Urban Development. At the regular meeting, the Urban Land Institute will give a 20-minute presentation on development strategies.

Wednesday, Dec. 16: Budget requests of the Plainfield Public Library, the City Clerk's office, the Corporation Counsel's office and the Inspections and Recreation Divisions will be reviewed, 7 p.m. in Municipal Court.

Thursday, Dec. 17: The Capital Budget will be reviewed at 7 p.m. in Municipal Court.

Monday, Dec. 21: Agenda-fixing meeting, 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library for the the Jan. 1 reorganization, 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library. This meeting will also include an 8 p.m. hearing on the FY 2010 introduced budget, which includes a 9.6 percent tax increase.

Once amendments are formulated, they will be published and a final meeting will be held, at which amendments will be adopted and the amended budget will be adopted.

--Bernice Paglia

A Tough Nut to Crack

Image: A Nutcracker figure at PNC Bank.

The city administrator in Plainfield is supposed to be in charge of day-to-day operations, but all too often political whims of elected officials seem to have taken precedence over good governance. How likely is it that a no-nonsense city administrator might tell the mayor who appointed him, or the mayor's mentor for that matter, that a proposed activity was a waste of time and money? Or that a department head was not pulling his or her weight? And even if he did, would they listen?

With Marc Dashield's impending transition to Montclair township manager and another four-year mayoral term looming, the possibility exists for a better cabinet than the mixed lot the city has seen in the past four years. Some were clueless, some were most likely unqualified, some were onboard only for political reasons. None lived here, except for Norton Bonaparte, the former city administrator who was kept on as finance director in January 2006 and who left to become the first city manager of Topeka, Kans.

A good first step would be to rethink waiving residency requirements. The next step would be to set politics aside and listen to what a new city administrator makes of Plainfield, its strengths and weaknesses. Third, let the mayor and her mentor resolve not to leave top seats unfilled so that as in Dashield's case, the city administrator is not burdened with dual roles, especially in fiscal matters.

Several times in the last year, the line between the executive and legislative branches has become blurred. Dashield rightly took umbrage at a couple of these instances. A qualified candidate is not going to venture where the role of city administrator is not respected, communication is garbled and the ship of state keeps getting turned into an ill-advised luxury cruise. If stewardship of city resources has not been the watchword in the past, it must become so now and for the next four years and beyond.

Since January 2006, the number of citizens keeping an eye on City Hall dwindled at first, but has recently swelled. Still, what is apparent to citizens must also be acknowledged by elected and appointed officials if progress is to be made in improving city government and the delivery of services. All the citizen involvement in the world means nothing if the administration is unresponsive or dismissive.

Let's hope 2010 will bring a full complement of qualified cabinet members who will put Plainfield first and not just be part of the tangled political web where loyalty to power brokers is the primary demand.

--Bernice Paglia

Dashield to Gain Salary Increase, Perks

Terms of City Administrator Marc Dashield's appointment as 2010 township manager in Montclair includes generous perks and benefits in addition to an increase in pay over his compensation here.

Dashield takes office Feb. 1 and will have a year to relocate to Montclair. He will receive up to $5,000 in moving expenses, a leave package with 26 vacation days, four personal days and 13 sick days per year.

While he may have to participate in health care costs, he will receive compensation for professional dues and $500 for conferences, including annual League of Municipalities training sessions, with a limit of 10 days per year in all.

The township will reimburse the biannual cost of renewing his certified municipal finance officer license and allow $400 per month to cover costs of using his personal vehicle.

Topping the list is a starting salary of $140,000 for 2010, a $30,000 increase over his pay here. In his first 18 months, he will be eligible for several increases: To $145,000 after six months, to $150,000 after 12 months and to $155,000 after 18 months. Initially, he will have performance reviews at each of these junctures and annually thereafter.

While Montclair is comparable in square miles to Plainfield, it is less dense and considerably wealthier. It is also a commuter town, with six train stations to Plainfield's two. It has a Watchung Avenue, just as in Plainfield's City Hall location, and a Park Street, echoing Plainfield's Park Avenue. It is known as a cultural mecca, with a museum, jazz clubs and art galleries, and also has prestigious parks and gardens, including the Presby Memorial Iris Garden.

Congratulations to Marc on his new opportunity!

--Bernice Paglia

Dashield Headed to Montclair

Montclair's Township Council voted Tuesday to appoint Marc Dashield as town manager after a months-long search for a successor to two-term manager Joseph M. Hartnett, the Montclair Times reported Wednesday.

Dashield will be the township's "first non-interim African-American" manager, the report said.

Hartnett will remain on for the first month of 2010 for a "smooth transition," an online report by Terrence T. McDonald said.

Salary details were not available early Wednesday, but Hartnett received a six-figure salary far in excess of Dashield's compensation here.

Dashield came to Plainfield in January 2007, succeeding Carlton McGee. He additionally served in the role of acting Finance Director twice during his tenure.

Plaintalker will have more details later.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Free Downtown Parking Proposed

Shoppers will have free parking in the Central Business District from Dec. 17 to Jan. 2 if the City Council approves a resolution at the Dec. 14 regular meeting.

The proposal was not without critics. Councilman Adrian Mapp spoke against the measure, saying he did not think it would make a difference. Citing "harsh times," he said he was suggesting that the city "not do this this year."

But Councilwoman Linda Carter said downtown merchants wanted it and she would support it.

"It helps in the push right before Christmas time," she said.

Without free parking, downtown shoppers risk a $38 fine if they park overtime, which Carter cited as a source of fear.

Councilman William Reid said he supported the resolution, because it could make a difference whether shoppers go downtown or to the Watchung Square Mall, where parking is free. Reid wished local shoppers a happy holiday and asked them to "make sure they pay their taxes in February early."

Councilman Elliott Simmons, a longtime downtown businessman, also favored giving shoppers a break and suggested that Mapp needs to spend more time downtown. Mapp countered by saying he and his family do shop downtown regularly.

Councilman Cory Storch drew a laugh by thanking all those who make a "generous $38 contribution" to the city.

The resolution will be up for approval on Monday, Dec. 14 at Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Solar Panels Among Many Council Topics

Agenda items Monday ranged far and wide as the City Council met at Cook K-8 Center for its last neighborhood meeting of 2009.

Besides considering resolutions and ordinances on the prepared agenda, the governing body heard a presentation by a representative of PSE&G on the recent installation of solar panels, some in historic districts. Eileen Leahey, regional public affairs manager for the company, said the panels are part of a program that was approved by the state Board of Public Utilities in July. At issue is whether the city's Historic Preservation Commission has the right to review their placement in historic districts. In answer to whether the company has sought local review before installing the panels, Leahey said, "We really have not."

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said as a result of talks he had with Public Works Director Jennifer Wenson Maier, the comapny will suspend any further action in Plainfield and a representative will go before the HPC for a similar discussion "within the next week or 10 days."

Plaintalker reported on the issue as soon as it emerged. Click here for the story.

Leahey told the council and audience Monday that Plainfield has 6,500 utility and light poles and that PSE&G inspected 2,800 of them, identifying 100 that can be used for the solar panel program. The panels, each measuring 5 by 2 1/2 feet and weighing 60 pounds, collect solar power and put it back in the grid.

While expressing apologies for the local concerns, Leahey said the panels are designed to help New Jersey's renewable energy plan, which calls for use of 30 percent renewable energy.

A South Plainfield company is installing the panels and has hired 100 local residents to do the work, she said. More work is expected in Plainfield within the next four to six weeks.

Leahey said she would provide Wenson Maier with an installation schedule.

Councilman Cory Storch, an advocate environmental causes, said, "I think it's a great idea," but asked whether the company had sought approvals in any local jurisdiction, let alone historic districts.

Leahey said only one out of four poles is viable for the program. For example, if there is more than one transformer on a pole, it can't be used.

"Municipalities have little leeway as far as allowing us not to do it or to do it," she said.

Storch asked about the program's benefits and Leahey said, "All customers will benefit."

The company announced the plan in February and received BPU approval in July. The novel plan was publicized by the company and reported nationally and internationally, but somehow escaped local notice until the fisrt panels went up around Thanksgiving. The next scheduled HPC meeting is 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Among many other topics:

- Council members voiced their support for a volunteer baseball league and said the city should hold off on starting one through the Recreation Division until there was an overflow from the Queen City Baseball League. That group is coached by volunteers, while the city league would have paid coaches. In recent weeks, proponents of the volunteer league have hailed its benefits to city youth, but the Recreation Division has moved forward with its own plans.

- Finance Director Bibi Taylor spoke on a corrective action plan to address findings by city auditors on fiscal procedures. (The annual review and recommendations from the auditors turns up issues such as making purchases without prior authorization, lack of timely deposit of receipts and other lapses. Plaintalker has not reported on specifics of the last review.) Councilman William Reid said the city needs a Certified Purchasing Agent and suggested that each city department be reviewed occasionally to make sure procedures are being followed. He also said anyone lax in their duties should be fired. Taylor said current findings cover 2007 and 2008 and some repeat findings may turn up in the 2009 review that is being completed. Reid said, "We were promised the same thing the last time we had an audit review."

Taylor is the newest of a series of directors of the city's largest department, Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services.

-Wenson Maier gave the governing body a detailed report on flood mitigation, a sore subject since insurance companies have hiked rates. Wenson Maier said the city is aiming for a 15 percent reduction in rates, but said an individual homeowner can hire a surveyor to challenge flood designations. Anyone building a new home can get advice from the city on how to achieve higher elevation, she said. The city has taken measures such as adopting a stormwater management plan to address flood-related issues and is in early stages of working with FEMA to update flood maps.

Council members said residents have not reported flooding problems for some time, but insurance rates have skyrocketed.

- Another item that was not on the printed agenda was Council President Rashid Burney's proposal to put rules in place for the distribution of flyers that are left on lawns and driveways. Burney wants companies to be required to register with City Hall and obtain licenses, with fines for non-compliance. He said residents who have asked companies to stop delivery have been unsuccessful.

"I think the goal is a good one," Councilman Adrian Mapp said, but questioned the need for a new ordinance.

Williamson said litter laws were on the books, but did not cover private property. If the ordiance is enacted, individuals could call police, Inspections or the city clerk's office for enforcement. He said it would take "a marriage of city staff and residents to enforce this."

But Councilman Elliott Simmons questioned the amount of effort it would take to register vehicles and names of those delivering the fyers, and Reid asked whether the city had researched how other municipalities handle the problem of unwanted flyers. Storch also questioned the need for a new law, but Burney insisted companies don't heed residents' calls to desist.

"It just doesn't work," Burney said.

- Storch questioned passage on second reading of a salary increase ordinance for firefighters in the face of a possible 9.6 percent tax increase, but Williamson said holding it up could result in the union filing an unfair labor practice complaint. But Mapp raised an even larger question, noting the ordinance would be up for a vote Dec. 14 and needed 20 days to take effect under the concept of "estoppel" But he said the year would elapse before that, requiring the salary ordinance to be re-introduced on first reading in 2010. In that case, all six ordinances up for second reading and final passage Dec. 14 would be similarly affected. Although Williamson said he would look into it, all the ordinances state they will take effect in 20 days.

- Another new item for Dec. 14 will be a contract with Sunrise House to operate Dudley House. The agency would pay rent to the city for the residence on Putnam Avenue where men needing substance abuse counseling will live. In addition, the agency would pay rent for a site in a municipal building where clients will receive counseling. Storch, an executive with a mental health agency, questioned the latter, saying such a location "may not be conducive." He asked for an escape clause allowing the agency to seek another location.

There were several other issues, including the merits of free downtown parking for the holidays and how to curb unlicensed taxis in the city. Plaintalker will report more later.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, December 07, 2009

BOE Vacancy Attracts Three

A former school board member and two newcomers met Friday's deadline for filing petitions to fill a vacancy on the Plainfield Board of Education.

School Business Administrator Gary Ottmann said the filers were Onika Johnson, Sandra Chambers and Rasheed Abdul-Haqq. The Board of Education will interview the applicants Tuesday (Dec. 9, 2009) and choose one to serve until the April 2010 school board election.

Abdul-Haqq previously served on the board, but lost a bid for re-election in April.

The vacancy is due to the impending resignation of Bridget Rivers, who won the Fourth Ward City Council seat in the Nov. 3 general election. Rivers had served as BOE president, but stepped down last month. She will take office as a City Council member on Jan. 1, 2010.

--Bernice Paglia

Bob Ferraro Passes

Word has reached Plaintalker that Bob Ferraro has died.

Bob was an indefatigable citizen watchdog for many decades and served the city as a councilman. He ran for mayor several times as well.

Bob spent many days and nights patrolling the city and talking with residents about their concerns. His blue van was his trademark as a citizen activist.

He advocated for the reopening of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, noting his life was saved there when he suffered a stroke. Since the hospital's closing, patients must travel many miles more out of the city for aid.

Most recently, he retired from employment with the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority and ran for mayor in the June 2009 primary.

Besides his civic activities, Bob was known as a singer and also as having provided services such as airport runs and personal shopping with his well-known van. He was a foster father to many and used his experience as a former police officer to fight crime in the community.

Condolences to his family and his many friends in Plainfield.

--Bernice