Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some Feb. 1 City Council Agenda Items

A visit to the Plainfield Public Library turned up the agenda for Monday plus all the background documents. All you have to do is ask at the Reference Desk and surrender your library or credit card while you peruse the paperwork.

To see just the agenda without the accompanying documents, click here.

In no particular order, here are some highlights:

--Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs will be asking for City Council advice and consent to the nomination of Bibi Taylor to serve as city administrator. She is currently both acting city administrator and acting director of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services. If approved at the regular meeting on Feb. 8, Taylor will receive a four-year term concurrent with that of the mayor. Other resolutions call for council approval to waive the city's residency requirement for Taylor and to permit use of an unmarked city car for 24-hour use.

--The city has been allocated $250,000 in state aid, to be used only for property tax relief. In November, the city sought $3.5 million and agreed to strict terms for any funding that was granted. In return for the aid, the city has to impose a hiring freeze and a salary freeze, not fund any non-essential vacancies, fund no charities or "sunshine funds," freeze promotions, achieve staff reduction through attrition, submit to the state Division of Local Government Services a list of all employees with title, salary and date of hire indicated, provide labor contracts and hire no outside consultants without approval of the LGS director. The memorandum of agreement also bans all out-of-state travel for officials, as well as overnight stays within the state. There's more, but you get the picture.

--The administration proposes use of $55,000 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds to hold the "Music in the Plaza" event this summer.

--Speakers during public comment will get six minutes instead of three, if the council approves on Feb. 8. However, the sixty-minute time limit will remain in place. This issue came up when the City Council decided last year to hold just one agenda fixing session and one regular meeting per month. Council watchdogs and gadflies objected, saying they were getting just half the time to speak as before. The clinker is that 10 people will now get six minutes each, instead of a potential 20 people speaking for three minutes.

--There will be a "follow-up" discussion on the Health Division fees proposed last month, but withdrawn after an outcry from business owners. No new schedule was in the packet.

--With no budget in place, the administration will need temporary appropriations to run the city in March. Tax Collector Marie Glavan will be asked to send out estimated tax bills to keep up cash flow.

The agenda-fixing session is 7:30 p.m. Monday in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The regular meeting will be 8 p.m. Feb. 8 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 29, 2010

Crime Wave Hits Close to Home

Setting out for the Shade Tree Commission meeting Wednesday, I took to heart the warnings from police after four armed robberies were committed in a week, all near where I live. I left my messenger bag home and took only what I needed for the meeting, except for my cell phone, which I held in my hand with the police desk number on the screen and my thumb poised to press "call."

Why not 9-1-1? If you call from a cell phone, the first thing you hear is, "What city are you calling from?" The desk will get to to dispatch quicker, in my opinion.

Having moved from the bucolic environs of Long Hill Township to Plainfield 27 years ago, I am well aware of the hazards of city living. As a reporter, I was assigned to many risky locales and I took all possible precautions. Back in the day of calling in from pay phones, I relied on my press ID and an air of bravado to give me a slim margin of safety.

The blocks around Park & Seventh have their good aspects for a dedicated pedestrian - easy access to City Hall, the Plainfield Public Library, Park Hardware, Park Florist, lots of food shops , churches, musical events and more. But it is a city after all, where a crossbody bag is better than a purse and stowing valuables in a travel vest is even better, if you can dodge the fashion police.

Crime is very random. I once lived in an intentional community on West Eighth Street where one of my fellow communards went all the way to Japan and back, only to get mugged in our own driveway. In 18 years at this address, we have had only two bad incidents, although there have been major crimes on our block.

I hope the police can catch the robbers soon. At least they alerted us to the danger. Plainfield crime reports are no longer made public, but I would like to know about neighborhood crime trends. Several block associations have ways to notify members of crime alerts. Block 832 has no neighborhood group.

One thing drivers can do if coming home late is to get a police escort. If you see anything suspicious, drive to the police station and when an officer is available, you will be escorted by a police car until you are safely inside your home. I used to use this option when I was still working as a reporter and coming home at odd hours.

Personal safety requires forethought and alertness. There is no guarantee that you will be spared, but planning ahead and using appropriate caution can help a lot.


Guess Who Has Unclaimed Property

Having grown up reading the backs of cereal boxes and anything else I could pore over, I am easily taken in by those long, long lists in the newspaper - people who owe back taxes on the one hand and those who have "unclaimed property" on the other. When you know a town well, it's interesting to see who thinks they can put off paying taxes until the city steps in to sell the debt to a third party. The Unclaimed Property lists are intriguing because it makes you wonder how much money is involved and why the person forgot to claim it. Back wages, bank accounts and many other things are included in Unclaimed Property and the state does its utmost to reunite the property with its owner.

I once helped a Plainfield woman get about $200 back by providing her with the ad and the accompanying form to fill out. In another instance, a familiar name from Somerville prompted me to send the information to the person, now living out of state but easy to locate online. I always look for family names on those lists on the off-chance that a relative is owed something.

Anyway, during one of my recent file-tossing sessions, I came across an old list. At the time, I thought one listing was extremely interesting and possibly newsworthy, but nothing came of it.

I unearthed the old list just as the person's name was appearing in headlines all over this week. Online, I had verified the Skillman address as one belonging to the individual. He has another address in Washington, D.C. nowadays. It's a bit ironic to think he has apparently overlooked a sum of any amount, but just in case he reads the blog, here's the information on how to claim it.

And here's his name.


Ladybug Makes A Housecall

My plants grown from cuttings taken last fall were holding up well until this week, when I noticed an invasion of spider mites on some of the double pink Impatiens. I was spraying one plant to knock the tiny bugs off when I noticed a ladybug that was also out after the spider mites.
Plainfielders may recall the swarming of ladybugs inside and outside their homes during a spell of warm weather in autumn. I wish I had a few dozen more now to help the lone ladybug on patrol.

Spider mites can destroy house plants. It's good practice to check under the leaves for little speck-like bugs. By the time they start making webs, it's a lot harder to get rid of them.

There are still about 12 to 14 weeks at the earliest before anything can go outside. It's always tricky to grow these indoor crops, but once they get outside, they take off fast and provide a lot of garden beauty.


What Would Jefferson Think?

"If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education."
--Thomas Jefferson

Those words were among the many arguments that Thomas Jefferson put forth in favor of public education. If his spirit inhabited the bust that looked down on Tuesday’s school board meeting, surely he would be wondering at the distractions that are floating like a miasma over Plainfield.

All shall be resolved and consequences dealt in good time. This writer for one would like to let the process take place without all the speculation, name-calling and drama that does not make it go any faster. By saying so, I accept the fact that I will now be added to the list of people to attack.

What happened on Tuesday? About 150 people gathered for a 6 p.m. special meeting on personnel issues. After the flag salute, the board members went into closed session. At intervals, someone came out to say the board was still working on the issues. The crowd started out chatting in small groups, calling or texting people, reading or passing the time hashing over recent events. Later, some broke into “We Shall Overcome,” although the immediate thing to overcome was boredom.

Former school board member Robert Darden took the floor to read a commentary he had prepared at home. He also said people were encouraging him to run in the April school board election. (The filing date is March 1, by the way.)

Perhaps board attorney Terry Ridley made a mistake by stating late in the session that board members were close to resolving the issues. When they filed in and Board President Lenny Cathcart announced no action would be taken, the crowd went wild – not in a good way. Most went home, but some stayed on. One woman repeatedly shouted, “This is outrageous!”

People were outraged that no microphone had been provided, nor a period for public comment. But special meetings don’t normally include public comment. And if there is no action to be taken even after two and a half hours of closed-door palaver, that’s it. Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III did not leave in a tumbrel as some may have wished.

Gallon’s previously-scheduled meeting with editors at the Courier News took place this week in the midst of the personnel controversies. Having sat through many an edit board, I can see how his wish to focus on the positives of his tenure collided with the editors’ quest for more news on the controversies. The story ran with the headline, “Plainfield schools chief’s future unclear,” and in response Gallon posted an “open letter” to the community on the district web site.

“Finally, I was asked about my future in the Plainfield Public Schools. If there were a need to discuss my future with the Plainfield Public Schools, it would first be with the Plainfield Board of Education, not the media,” Gallon wrote.

Regarding the recent emergency and special meetings, whatever can’t be said right now will have to be made public at some point. The state Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance is looking into some aspects of the controversy and other officials are investigating the issues as well.

There are just four weeks to the filing date to run for the school board. The Plainfield forum on is afire with rumors and finger-pointing. A tone is being set of running for office based on who people want to get rid of, not why they want to serve a stint setting district policy and approving a budget. Not all who file will want to seek votes based on how likely they will be out for blood at 1200 Myrtle Avenue, but it’s definitely a notion that’s out there as campaign time approaches.

Day-to-day life in the schools is continuing, despite the controversies and despite the lack of a new contract with the Plainfield Education Association. The district web site highlights many positive things going on in schools, but has few good-news clips to post lately as the investigations continue. The bust of Thomas Jefferson will no doubt look down on a few more unhappy meetings in coming weeks.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

High Salaries May Hinder Budget Savings

Under a salary and wage ordinance passed last month, a deputy fire chief could possibly earn more than each of a dozen city cabinet members.

The ordinance set retroactive wage ranges for members of the Fire Officers Association, which were tied to increases received by the Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association. For 2009, the settlement included a range of $79,374 to $123,005 for a deputy fire chief. A battalion chief’s wage range for 2009 became $74,103 to $114,831.

By contrast, salary band information obtained by Plaintalker show a 2010 range of $82,067 to $113,418 for non-union titles including city clerk, chief engineer, chief financial officer, confidential aide (Community Development), health officer, municipal engineer, personnel director and public works superintendent. A salary band of $85,048 to $117,342 applies to titles including deputy city administrator, two directors (Public Works & Urban Development and Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services) and municipal court judge.

The discrepancy points up a trend that could make it harder for the city to trim salaries to reduce the budget.

At the end of 2009, departing City Administrator Marc Dashield said that contracts for all but one city bargaining unit were settled, setting the stage for negotiations on future give-backs across the board. But layoffs looming next month will hit only members of the Plainfield Municipal Employees Union, described by union President Cynthia Smith as the lowest-ranking bargaining unit. Smith has asked repeatedly at public meetings for public safety unions and others to feel the budget crunch as well.

The City Council’s mantra on finalizing the budget for the fiscal year that began last July 1 is that all must “share the pain,” but no amendments have yet been announced.

Several of the cabinet members are already taking pay that is less than that of subordinates, a pattern set early on in Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs’s first four-year term. She won a second term which began Jan. 1. But besides the list above, the City Council recently passed an ordinance setting a salary band of $97,163 to $131,310 for the title of police director, which was created in 2008 after the City Council agreed to abolish the title of police chief. Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig also holds the police director title, but draws only one salary. The range for director of Public Affairs & Safety for 2010 is $92,793 to $134,290.

The city is on the verge of hiring someone for another title not reflected on the non-union salary band list obtained through an Open Public Records Act request. That is “Manager I of Information Processing” at a range of $70,000 to $110,000.

Perhaps the most striking figure on the list is the 2010 range for corporation counsel, $121,500 to $172,659. According to the state web site, the governor of New Jersey receives a salary of $157,000, with a possible maximum of $175,000.

With the current hard times at all levels of government, the state is promising to be much less generous to cities and needy school districts than in the past. A look at the Plainfield school district’s salaries also reveals many over the $100,000 mark. If Trenton tells Plainfield to put the salary genie back in the bottle, can it be done? The workforce on both city and school sides tends to be mature, with people at the top of their rank. Talk of demotions in the top police ranks set off a union protest this month.

Attrition and new hires over time may be the cure, but Trenton may not want to wait on a slow remedy. The governing body hopes to wrap up the budget process next month. It remains to be seen what strong fiscal medicine can be administered with barely a quarter left in the spending cycle.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tweetly Tweet Tweet

Well, Dan has already played the rockin' robin role and tweet-tweet-tweeted the school board meeting, so I guess us behind-the-times folks can just say amen.

Yes, there was a special meeting called for 6 p.m. Yes, two hours elapsed and the board came out, said there was nothing to say and adjourned. Some people stayed behind to vent and kingmaker John Campbell looked on with interest. Yes, Mr. Darden testified to the captive audience.

So the mystery continues on where all this is headed.


BOE Meeting Tonight

I have tried to steer clear of the school district controversies over personnel, in part because reporter Mark Spivey has done a great job of covering the issues and in part because of the extremely high emotion reflected on a local forum. Some posters seem to be out for blood and are demanding allegiance from others. I will probably get in trouble even for saying that, but the level of vitriol is alarming to me and I don't want to get in the crosshairs.

People are trying to guess what will happen at the meeting tonight. It is 6 p.m. in the Administration Building at 1200 Myrtle Avenue. I don't think enough time has elapsed for a report to be completed by the state Department of Education's Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance. That is what I am waiting for. A past OFAC report on Plainfield was very thorough, although it did not sit well with school officials and the district appealed the findings.

Sooner or later there must be a bottom line to the personnel controversies. Maybe it will be revealed tonight or maybe not. Some are hoping for an even bigger bombshell. My concern is that the filing date for the April school board election is now just five weeks away and the personnel issues, while extremely important, should not be the only litmus test for candidacy. Pumping up an issue is a strategy that has been employed in the past to create buzz on the way to the polls.

By this time Tuesday, the story of tonight's meeting will be out, for better or worse. Whether you go to the meeting or stay home, you will know the nature of the meeting. If you do go, pay close attention - to everything!


Transit Villages: Is Plainfield One?

Someone asked whether Plainfield was "still a transit city."
In fact, Plainfield never received the transit village designation.
At least the person making the inquiry got the premise right. In 2006, the administration grandly proclaimed plans for four "transit villages," two around the existing train stations at Netherwood and North Avenue and two more around the locations of stations that no longer exist. A city gets the designation, not spots around a city.
Not much has been heard lately about transit villages nor redevelopment in general. A dozen or so plans are largely in abeyance and a couple have been abandoned for good. The term more often heard around City Hall is transit-oriented development, meaning that access to trains, buses and other means of public transit will be an important part of the planning.
Sometimes the notion of TOD has been tossed around rather loosely, just as "Sleepy Hollow" may be applied to anything remotely near the city's prestigious neighborhood in its southeast section. The term lends cachet, but in real life would the average commuter walk a mile to a train station or bus stop? (If you do, please leave a comment.)
While the more ambitious projects are on hold due to the depressed economy, several small apartment proposals have been approved and developers are targeting people who may not even have cars. In larger cities, car ownership is not necessary. My daughter and son-in-law got around Seattle quite easily for 12 years before buying a car when a good deal came up. I have done without a car for a few years now and even though I sometimes have to pay a driver to get somewhere, my transportation costs are negligible compared to owning and maintaining a vehicle.
Stay tuned to Councilman Cory Storch's blog for news on a proposed visioning study for development and also anything that comes out of the new Economic Growth committee formed late last year. If you want to inform yourself on the topic of transit-friendly development, click here for the premier resource.
--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Can We Get It Together, Plainfield?

Cory Storch makes some very good points on his latest blog post. It is past time to bring some common sense to the current budget crisis. Granted, the higher echelons of government don’t always help cities do their best – waste and abuse of public resources have largely replaced old-fashioned values of stewardship and thrift.

The early days of the mayor’s first term set a troubling tone in instances such as the naming of an assistant director of Public Works where there was already someone holding the title. Worse yet, the newcomer had a job in another municipality. After the city paid out around $90,000 each to the two people for a while, the imported individual left the city. Later the title was vacated and the longtime city employee, who had served at cabinet level in the McWilliams administration, was pushed further down the ranks.

In what appeared to be the final move to budge the unnbudgeable, the administration ordered a layoff plan for exactly one person – guess who. The person finally retired last year.

The savings for the layoff would have been a mere $10,000. Meanwhile, many times that amount was spent on fun and games at public expense.

The churn in Administration & Finance over the past four years may have contributed to the piecemeal, herky-jerky approach to city spending that prevailed. Late in the term, two highly-regarded fiscal consultants came in for stints in the absence of a permanent chief finance officer and department head. But whatever advice they gave was not shared with the public nor with the governing body, from what we hear, even though almost every governmental entity was realizing the party was over and hard times were upon us.

The mayor’s Jan. 1 announcement that Bibi Taylor was leaving left some council watchers bereft. Her obvious talent was something not seen in three previous heads of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services, nor some would say in the beleaguered city administrator who had to fill in twice when the seat was vacant.

The good news is that Bibi Taylor will be staying after all, if the City Council confirms her. What remains to be seen is whether the administration will let her do the job without drawing her into politically-motivated schemes or disregarding her guidance on spending.

Storch does well to invoke the memory of former Schools Superintendent Larry Leverett, who was able to settle contract negotiations in a collegial process. Now we seem to be back to the adversarial mode, both in the school district and in city government. Taylor appears to have a grip on what is needed in negotiations, recently naming “trust and continuity” as two elements.

The sense of disarray in the school district over personnel issues may be cleared up soon. Once the city passes the FY 2010 budget, perhaps a new fiscal approach can be applied for FY 2011. Right now, turmoil is all around and the hope of a happy New Year is faltering. If Plainfield can’t get its business together soon, the new folks in Trenton may decide to step in and do it for us – their way.

--Bernice Paglia

Patti Smith Looks Back

As soon as I heard Patti Smith discussing her memoir of her years with Robert Mapplethorpe, I went online and ordered it. Over the past two days, it has provided a perfect time-travel adventure into a period of great creativity and change in American culture. It was also an era of self-destruction and major artistic losses.

“Just Kids” lays it all bare. Smith has a very engaging way of telling the story of her time with Mapplethorpe, a tale of true love and mutual support as the young artists found their creative paths. There are plenty of shocking and even sordid details, but Smith sets forth the facts without judging anyone.

Those who survived the times are now some of our revered icons in music and the arts. I thank Patti Smith for this chronicle and especially for the portrayal of a relationship that transcended the hardships and ugly aspects of the period.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Congratulations to Mark

Star reporter Mark Spivey fends off blogarazzi at Semior Center opening.

Since taking on the Plainfield beat in July 2008, Mark Spivey has won the respect and appreciation of the community and its officials. Affable, energetic, prolific, a true news hound and an all-around nice guy, Mark has now been recognized by the Courier News as Employee of the Year for 2009.

Mark had already distinguished himself in 2008 with a First Place award from the New Jersey Press Association.

His fans in the Queen City feel he deserves even more for 2009, and they may soon see evidence that his peers in journalism feel the same way.

All the best to Mark for his accomplishments so far, and good wishes for the future!


Notes on Land Use Boards

The city’s two main land use boards reorganized this week, selecting officers, secretaries and attorneys for 2010.

The Board of Adjustment met Wednesday. Scott Belin was re-elected chairman and Alex Ruiz will serve as vice-chairman. The board attorney again will be Richard Olive and Rosalind Miller of the Planning Division will serve as secretary.

The Planning Board met Thursday and re-elected Ken Robertson as chairman and Ron Scott-Bey as vice-chairman. Michele Donato was appointed board attorney and Miller was named secretary.

The Board of Adjustment meets at 7 p.m. in City Hall Library on the first Wednesday of each month. Its hearings are quasi-judicial, with experts testifying on applications for relief from zoning requirements. For example, on Wednesday, applicant Steven Eleftheriou had an attorney, a planning expert, an architect and an engineer to frame his case for building a new three-story building in an R-5 zone. Hearings can be quite lengthy and may be carried over to the next month until they are finished.

The Planning Board meets at 8 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of each month, also in City Hall Library. Part of its work is to prepare a six-year capital improvement plan to recommend to the City Council. It also reviews all plans for development, including traffic and parking conditions. Applicants for large projects also bring in experts to testify.

I’m sure Planning Director Bill Nierstedt can tell you more about how these boards work – this is just a cursory overview.

The Historic Preservation Commission has review powers on exterior changes and new construction in historic districts and makes recommendations to the land use boards. The commission meets at 7:30 p.m. on the last Tuesday of each month. It will reorganize next Tuesday.

For all three boards, city staff reviews all applications thoroughly for completeness and for adherence to the state’s Municipal Land Use Law and various codes.

Every year some vacancies come up on these boards. Anyone may attend and observe meetings. If you want to be considered to serve, you can fill out an application that is available on the city web site. Terms normally begin on Jan. 1, but vacancies can come up during the year as well. Under the Civic Responsibility Act of 2005, all boards and commissions were to be described and terms made known. So far, that has not happened, but the section of the Municipal Code on boards and commissions is online and you can look up the membership requirements.

Residents who serve on these boards make an important contribution to the community and are to be commended for their service. Some, such as Planning Board member Gordon Fuller, have given decades of service and have valuable insight into the land use processes.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

School Facilities Recap

The impending major renovations at Cook School, as noted in the school district newsletter, made this writer think it is time for a recap of the school construction saga in Plainfield.

The Schools Construction Corporation was the entity charged with upgrading school facilities statewide several years ago, but it unfortunately burned through its budget before completing its roster of projects. After an investigation, a new entity was formed with promises of more accountability. That was the Schools Development Authority.

In Plainfield, to facilitate construction early on, the SCC purchased an office building at 1700 West Front Street to serve as a “swing school,” meaning as schools were emptied for renovations or new construction, the pupils would have a home there. The building was purchased for $6 million and it was renovated for school use at a cost of $19 million, according to state records.

The first swing school occupants were Clinton School, while $16,941,299 in renovations took place at the original site. Emerson School students relocated there while a new community school was built at a cost of $36,033,893. Both student populations have since moved into their new or improved locations.

At present, the building is occupied by Jefferson School students and the new Plainfield Academy for the Arts and Advanced Studies, a new grade 7-12 school admissible only by successful application, including auditions.

The former Jefferson School is now the district administration building, meaning Jefferson students cannot “swing” back to the site.

In addition, the swing school last year housed the alternative school now known as the Barack Obama Academy for Academic and Civic Development, now placed at the former Lincoln School on Berckman Street.

To make a long story short, there is no swing school or educational building location for the Cook School student population, listed on the district web site as having 268 pupils currently, to stay while the school receives $26,981,202 in additions and renovations funded by the SDA. So while awaiting a construction timetable from the state, school authorities are probing choices including shifting the Cook School students to Maxson or Woodland schools.

Both are nearby the Cook School neighborhood, although Woodland is an elementary school like Cook, while Maxson is a middle school.

In an innovation by Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III, Cook was designated to become a K-8 school instead of K-5. Details of the SDA plans call for a new student population of 400 students.

Originally, Woodland School was to receive renovations, but Cook was substituted to benefit, according to information on Assemblyman Jerry Green’s web site.

The big missing item in the schools construction story is a new middle school, a top priority before the SCC debacle. Properties were being purchased and deals made when the whole thing fell through several years ago. Unfortunately, a 44-block neighborhood revitalization project tied to the middle school proposal also failed.

Now that Superintendent Steve Gallon III has aggressively sought to recapture charter school students and those whose parents may have sought to remove their children after grade 6, it remains to be seen whether the district can make the best use of its physical facilities to accommodate the influx. In addition, if the middle school model is no longer optimum, the long-term facilities plan must reflect the new paradigm.

--Bernice Paglia

New Building Proposed for West Front Street

Developer Steven Eleftheriou won preliminary approval Wednesday for a three-story new building with four retail spaces and eight apartments on a West Front Street vacant lot between Liberty and New streets.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the application after about three hours of testimony and questioning. Attorney Bob Smith and a team of professional experts gave details of the application and responded to points in reports by T&M Associates and Planning Director Bill Nierstedt, along with innumerable “what-ifs” from board members. The session lived up to newly-reelected ZBA Chairman Scott Belin’s promise that every application will be thoroughly vetted during his tenure.

Eleftheriou said he hoped to have legal or accounting offices or perhaps nail or hair salons on the first floor, but said he was open to suggestions. Board members said they did not want to see late-night uses such as pool halls or taverns, in consideration of tenants in the two-bedroom apartments upstairs. But Smith said the size of the retail spaces would preclude many of the uses permitted under the mixed-use zone designation the applicant sought.

The lot is in a medium-density residential zone, but is slated to be re-zoned for mixed retail and residential use when the City Council approves a revised zoning ordinance, possibly as soon as next summer. At present, the neighborhood is in fact a combination of multi-family buildings, restaurants and other business uses.

A recurring question in the discussion was what hours of operation would be imposed on retail tenants. The board finally settled on 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Early on, Belin asked how downstairs noise would be compatible with tenants trying to put children to sleep, but expert planning witness Kevin O’Brien suggested tenants would most likely be couples who would use the second bedrooms as home offices.

The site will have 31 parking spaces, with 16 dedicated for residents.

Among the what-ifs:

What if someone came home sick from work and found their parking space taken? Spaces will be numbered and the lot will be posted with warnings that violators will be towed.

What if someone wanted to see the sky or a back yard? This after O’Brien said there would be negative impact from the project. Belin argued there could be an “esthetic detriment.”

“Some people like to see green. I would be very careful if I say there would be no detriment,” he said.

To an observer not schooled in the fine points of land use law, some of the evening’s more interesting revelations were the proposed use of solar panels, energy-efficient lighting and a plan to pump water from a detention basin to water vegetation on the site. Each apartment will have its own washer, dryer, microwave, dishwasher, refrigerator and radiant baseboard gas heating. Common areas will have remotely-monitored surveillance cameras and solar panel-powered utilities. Balconies will provide open space.

Each 13-by-16 square foot master bedroom with a walk-in closet and one other closet, while each 11.5-by-11 square feet bedrooms will have a sliding-door closet.

Eleftheriou projected a fair market rent rate of from $1,100 to $1,400 for the apartments. Once final approvals are granted, he said, he hopes to start construction in the spring. The estimated cost for the new construction is $1.5 to $1.8 million.

At the hearing’s conclusion, board members commented favorably before voting. Melvin Cody said the proposal “brings a lot to the city of Plainfield,” while Robert Scott hailed it as “one less vacant lot” and Alex Ruiz said he was “in favor of filling in the gaps.”

Originally offered as a modern-looking structure, the building was recast with traditional architectural details, which Ruiz said gave it “character.”

Belin called it “an interesting project” before the board voted unanimous approval.
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

IT Bulletin

As Councilwoman Linda Carter pushed her quest for a "paperless universe," the question of how it could be accomplished came up Tuesday.

Deputy Clerk "A.J." Jalloh had one word. Well, maybe one acronym - IT.

That prompted a question to Acting City Administrator Bibi Taylor on how the search for an IT director was going.

"An offer of employment has been made," Taylor replied, indicating the person is expected to be on the rolls by Feb. 8.

Click here for what may be a related coincidence. What is that saying, as one door closes, another opens?


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Council Hears Many Concerns

City employees facing layoffs, merchants worried about fee increases and supporters of the Plainfield Bilingual Day Care Center packed Municipal Court Tuesday, prompting the governing body to hold up the agenda in order to hear some of their concerns.

City Council President Annie McWilliams asked for groups to choose a spokesperson and first up was Mike Ramos in defense of the Bilingual Day Care Center, which he called "the only thing we have as Latinos."

The center, a 30-year old city agency, offers not only early childhood education, but serves as a point of entry into American society and a support system for many Spanish-speaking families, other speakers said later.

McWilliams reminded the group that there was nothing on the agenda affecting the day care center and that those concerned would be included in any decision-making process about changes.

In recent budget talks, council members have expressed the desire to hand off city social service agencies to non-profit or other governmental entities and in fact voted Tuesday to do just that to Dudley House, a residence for men in recovery from substance abuse. Its operations will now be conducted by Sunrise House, an agency with headquarters in Lafayette.

At a budget meeting late last year, then-Finance Director Bibi Taylor gave figures on costs to the city for the day care program as well as the anti-poverty agency Plainfield Action Services and the Women, Infants & Children nutrition program. All receive outside funding, but because program staff members are city employees, there are benefit costs.

The City Council will hold a special meeting this year on the topic of social services, but McWilliams and others assured speakers Tuesday that no changes were on the immediate horizon. A new council committee will also address the issue, and council members spoke in support of activating the Hispanic Affairs Commission, which was established by ordinance in 2005 but never filled.

Speaking for a large number of merchants Tuesday, Special Improvement District President Nimrod Webb said proposed fee increases up to 500 percent "will chase businesses out." Health Officer Mark Colicchio presented the fee schedule to the council on Jan. 11, including increases for many existing fees and imposing several new ones. Click here for Plaintalker's earlier report.

Referring to a new proposed $100 fee and $20 per washer and dryer charge for self-service laundries, Webb said, ""Who's that going to hurt? The poor people in town."

SID Vice President Donna Albanese said the business community in Plainfield is struggling and some have shut down.

"The businesses you see with the lights on, you don't know the story behind the scene," said Albanese, whose family has been a mainstay of the South Avenue business district for decades. "You literally will knock people out of business."

"I realize it is difficult to swallow large increases all at once," McWilliams said, adding the increases should have been done long ago.

Colicchio said on Jan. 11 no changes had been made for 15 years.

McWilliams said the council was looking at "phasing in" the changes, but Councilman Cory Storch said merchants "have to share the pain" of the current economic situation.

When the council completed budget talks late last year, a 9.6 tax increase was on the table.

"There is no easy solution to the challenges we face," Councilman Adrian Mapp said, noting the governing body had to find a way to balance the interests of business owners and homeowners.

Taylor later offered an amended fee schedule, but when the ordinance came up for a vote, it was tabled.

PMEA President Cynthia Smith agreed to hold her remarks until later in the evening, but when she spoke, she alluded to a City Hall union meeting Tuesday afternoon that members apparently found confusing.

"We were told the information we received was incorrect," she said.

Smith said the union was told there was no state aid, but then some aid was granted. Despite talk about concessions, she said, "People are being laid off as of February 17."

Smith suggested looking at "large cell phone bills" for savings and the use of Urban Enterprise Zone funds to pay police.

"Today we're at square one," she said.

Taylor said she attended the City Hall meeting and mentioned four items, including a longevity giveback and a step and wage freeze, three furlough days and a reduction in pay. But the items hinged on all the units agreeing to give something back, she said. The layoffs could be deferred from February to June, she said, but the process couldn't be done after the budget was adopted.

The governing body went into closed session after the meeting to discuss "contract negotiations," but no outcome was expected Tuesday.

Former City Administrator Marc Dashield said at the end of 2009 that all bargaining units had settled contracts and the time was right to negotiate future givebacks and concessions. Taylor, formerly the director of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services, is currently the acting AFH&SS director as well as the acting city administrator, but is expected to leave city employment at the end of the month.

No budget amendments have been formulated since budget talks concluded. The council Tuesday approved temporary appropriations to operate the city in February.

Taylor said Tuesday that "part of negotiating is trust and continuity," but with so much up in the air, the fate of those targeted for layoff is unclear. The council meets next for an agenda-fixing session on Feb. 1 and a regular meeting on Feb. 8.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 18, 2010

City Council Assignments

This is somewhat of a mundane post about assignments of your seven elected City Council members, but I hope you will take it into account as you interact with your elected representatives.

Council members were assigned both to liaisons to existing committees and boards and also to four new council committees.

City Council President for 2010 Annie McWilliams announced that the former seven council committees last year would be reduced to four, being the following:

Administration & Finance: Adrian Mapp, chair; Annie McWilliams, Cory Storch.

Public Safety: Bridget Rivers, chair; Rashid Burney, William Reid.

Economic & Community Development: Cory Storch, chair; Rashid Burney, Annie McWilliams.

City & Neighborhood Services: Linda Carter, chair; William Reid, Bridget Rivers.

In addition, council members were assigned to be liaisons to numerous city entities.

Mayor's Citizen Advisory Board: Annie McWilliams, Bridget Rivers

Planning Board: Cory Storch.

Board of Education: Linda Carter, Bridget Rivers

Union County Development Revenue Sharing: Rashid Burney

Green Brook Flood Control Commission: Rashid Burney, Adrian Mapp

Plainfield Housing Authority: Linda Carter, Bridget Rivers

Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority: William Reid, Bridget Rivers

Shade Tree Commission: Rashid Burney, Cory Storch

Plainfield SID: Cory Storch, William Reid.

Muhlenberg Sub-Committee: Rashid Burney, Linda Carter, William Reid

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Will Voters Care in April?

As hot as things sound on blogs and forums regarding school board issues, will more people take an interest in the annual school board election in 2010?

Here are the results of the April 2009 school board election:

For three three-year seats

Patricia I. Barksdale ------881
Brenda Gilbert ------------717
Rasheed Abdul-Haqq -----453
Joseph M. Ruffin Sr. ------ 577
Mahogany Hendricks ------558
Joanne Hollis --------------635
Lisa Logan-Leach ---------675
Personal Choice --------------1
Total --------------------4,497

For an unexpired term:

Terrence Williams --- 302
Katherine Peterson -- 583
Tammy Westbrook -- 495
Total ---------------1,381

Now keep in mind that for the full terms, each voter could choose three, so the total voter turnout did not mean nearly 5,000 people went to the polls. Now here is the pathetic part: In April 2009, the total number of registered voters in Plainfield was 21,784.

School board elections are notorious for low turnout, but with all the issues in the Plainfield district, it just seems a shame that more people do not want to have their say on who sits on the board.

The same scenario will occur this year, three three-year terms and one unexpired term. That's four of the nine board seats, enough to approach a critical mass for change. Prospective candidates have been busy figuring out slates and strategies in advance of the March 1 filing date for the election. The election itself will be April 20, giving voters enough time to get to know more about the candidates. But then you have to make your way to the polls on Election Day to vote for those you deem best qualified.

The four who come on board this year will join the five others in facing likely big sweeps in state education policy and funding. All will need the best board skills they can muster in order to serve the district in a time of major change.

--Bernice Paglia

Haiti's Plight

Could the poverty and suffering of Haiti's people get any worse, many have asked in recent years. The answer was yes, when a massive earthquake ruined the capital and forever changed the lives of survivors.

In our church book club, we had read "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder, so our little group knew something of the heartbreaking conditions there before the earthquake. Click here to read what the author has to say about the current crisis.


PMUA Shifts Rate Hearing

Thanks to Philip Charles for spotting a new legal notice from the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority that shifts a rate hearing from Jan. 19 to Feb. 8. I had just clipped items from the Courier News and had to go back into the recycling bag to retrieve the notice, which I missed.

Here is the previous Plaintalker post on the rate hearing, which was posted separately from a PMUA meeting the same night. On Feb. 8, the rate hearing will be at 6 p.m. at the PMUA office, 127 Roosevelt Ave., and will be followed by a special meeting. The rate figures do not appear to be different, although headings for the fees in the new notice seem to be out of order.

Chaning meeting dates is a frequent occurrence at PMUA and on the DumpPMUA web site, interested people are advised to call ahead to verify the time, date and location of meetings.

There is a City Council meeting Tuesday, as well as a school board meeting. A regular PMUA meeting had been scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday. Call (908) 226-2518 to verify whether that meeting is changed.

The council meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. The BOE will meet at 7 p.m. in the Administration Building, 1200 Myrtle Ave.

The PMUA's annual reorganization usually takes place in early February. A legal notice from last year included January and February dates (erroneously tagged 2009) after the December 2009 meeting date. The Feb. 8 date will again coincide with a regular City Council meeting.

It has been nearly a year since Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs nominated former Third Ward Councilman Don Davis to be a PMUA commissioner. She later withdrew the nomination and Commissioner James Green, whose term expired in February 2009, stayed on until his death later in the year. Besides that unexpired term to 2/1/2014, the term of Commissioner Dave Beck will expire on 2/1/2010, leaving a vacancy to 2/1/2015. In addition, no action was taken to renew the term of Alternate No. 2 Eugene Dudley in 2009, and on Feb. 1 the term of Alernate No. 1 Rev. Tracey Brown will expire.

Davis had been the City Council's liaison to the PMUA. He lost the June 2008 primary to Adrian Mapp and left the council at the end of that year. Mapp won the 2009 general election and took office as the Third Ward councilman on Jan. 1, 2009.

The council's Jan. 19 agenda does not include any nominations to the PMUA.

PMUA rate increases in 2009 triggered formation of a citizen group, DumpPMUA, that challenged the legality of the rate hearing and sought rollback of some PMUA fees and fines. Click here to read about it.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Payne Resigns from PPS

The impending resignation of Chris Payne from the Plainfield Public Schools may mean the city's elusive IT goals are nearing resolution.

Payne is resigning as coordinator of Information Technology and Support Services after nine years with the district. His resignation will be up for a vote at the Board of Education's Jan. 19 meeting. It will take effect Feb. 5.

Payne led a shared services effort to upgrade city IT uses a couple of years ago, but the plan halted abruptly. Meanwhile, the city administration and council clashed over what was needed for a permanent IT division in terms of personnel and cost. It was not until the final fourth year of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs' first term that the City Council approved a title and salary band for the position.

If as many expect Payne is in line for the city job, his new title would be "Manager I of Information Processing" with a salary range of $70,000 to $110,000. The city wants an IT manager also to be in charge of its local cable television operation and its public information functions. The question of how much staff support will be needed is still open.

The administration will not need City Council approval to hire an IT manager, nor will a council Information Technology committee have any input on the hire, officials said last year.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tutoring Tab - Any Thoughts?

Waiting for the 59 bus gives a person plenty of time to ponder life's little mysteries, and one of them that came to mind recently was how does the school district's tutoring program work. Just across the street from the Fifth Street bus stop is Open Gates to Fly, one of the providers.

The high cost of public school education has been under scrutiny for some time, but one can bet that Bret Schundler, Gov.-elect Chris Christie's nominee for commissioner of education, is going to bring laser-like focus to the issue. Looking into the tutoring program, it seems that a school's failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress triggers the ability of its poorest students to receive free Supplemental Education Services (SES) at public expense, adding yet another layer of spending to what goes into the classroom. This is part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The storefront center on East Fifth Street, I found out, is one of 26 2009-2010 providers in a variety of settings ranging from home, schools, the public library and online. See the 2009 list here. There is an hourly cost associated with the tutoring, but students who receive free and reduced lunch at schools failing to meet AYP are eligible to take part at no cost to the parents. In the 2008-09 school year, the Plainfield school district received $534,000 in SES funds for 330 students at $1,620 each.

For a glimpse into Open Gates to Fly, click here. And here is information about an SES offering by former Plainfield student Nashad Warfield.

SES is a nationwide program and certainly a commendable attempt to ensure academic success. The question that comes to mind, however, is why more is not being done in the schools. The state Department of Education just released its 2009 list of schools that did and did not make AYP. About two-thirds of 2,222 schools where tests took place made AYP, meaning a third did not. Click here to see a full explanation of the process and links to results.

In Plainfield, Stillman, Clinton, Cook, Washington and Woodland schools and the Academy for Academic & Civic Development made AYP for 2009, meaning eligible students in other schools may receive tutoring.

I don't really recommend standing at a bus stop in winter as a way to engender thoughts and questions. Wherever you do your best thinking, what comes to mind on the issues described above?

--Bernice Paglia

Now Cut That Out!

Dan the aggregator and self-styled "needler" responded to my recent fit of pique over his heavy reliance on my content by still featuring it - but now under the acronym PPEB instead of "Bernice ..."

While theoretically a compliment to be called "Plainfield's pre-eminent blogger," it feels more like being called out of my name to be assigned an acronym instead of the identity I have had since May 12, 1938.

Therefore I am invoking a phrase from that master of testiness, Jack Benny: "Now cut that out!"

When I stopped blogging on purpose one day, Dan simply headlined another blogger. Now admit it, Dan, wasn't that easy?

As much as Dan likes to put on his chaps, pick up his lasso and wrangle us bloggers, readers can alternatively just bookmark their favorites and go right to the source without dealing with Dan's bull pen. I'm just sayin.'


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bill Hetfield, A True Plainfielder

In the early 1980s, I was working for Jan and Henry Johnson at Plainfield Today, a weekly newspaper with offices on North Avenue. Bill Hetfield was a frequent visitor, sharing his opinions and urging the newspaper to keep politicians' "feet to the fire."

Over the years when I was working at the daily Courier News, Bill called every so often for the same purposes. I used to wish the newspapers indeed had the power to set things right as much as Bill wanted. He gave his all for many causes, including preservation, community improvement, citizen engagement, civic spirit, pride in Plainfield and an ache to see the city return to its former glory.

Plainfield did grow better because of Bill Hetfield. He helped to get more than 200 people involved in creating a strategic plan for the city. The property he owned was a model for other landlords. He supported all that was best in the city's rich cultural and historic legacy. When he saw sincere political talent, he encouraged it and even put himself on the line in a run for the mayoralty.

Despite his acute awareness of ills to be cured, he never seemed downcast by the struggle, but offered others an example of optimism and hope for the future.

Now that he is gone, it falls to the rest of us to take up his work. We can recall his sunny smile and even a twinkle in his eye when he talked about Plainfield - the one he loved, the one he envisioned, the city in progress that was so uplifted by his efforts.

Remembering Bill best will be in what we each do that he would have cheered. He will live on in our thoughts and actions, if no longer in our lives.


Salary Band Proposed for Police Director

Random image: Ice-melt patterns on steps of City Hall.

The announcement of a "salary band" for police director Monday reflects restoration of a rule that the person in charge of the Police Division must receive 5 percent more than the next-in-command.

That had been the guideline when the city had a police chief, although because raises for the non-union employees took on a random pattern since 2006, former Police Chief Edward Santiago was not making more than his captains. In fact, when his title was abolished and he took the option of staying on as captain, his pay actually increased.

The proposed salary band for the civilian police director will be set at $97,163 to $131,310, if the council approves the salary ordinance on two readings.

Considering that the administration remembered to establish the posts of confidential aide and public information officer by salary ordinances, it is a bit curious that the action was never taken for the title of police director. Martin Hellwig, director of Public Affairs & Safety, was additionally named police director in April 2008 and drew only one salary for both jobs.

Hellwig was sworn in on Jan. 1 again to both posts, to serve concurrently with the mayor's four-year term ending Dec. 31, 2013.

The re-election of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs means nobody has to sort out the salary jumble of the cabinet. In the past, all three department heads received the same compensation, as did the police and fire chiefs. With the drift of compensation since 2006, about a year ago the fire chief was making more than the city administrator and the department heads' salaries were no longer aligned. Had a new mayor been elected, that person would have faced putting together a cabinet at salaries lower than those of subordinates.

The fire chief's salary in February 2009 was $113,480, as per an Open Public Records Act request to Personnel Director Karen Dabney. It is ironic in a way that raises were apparently granted for that title, because several years ago the city took action to bring the police and fire chiefs' salaries in alignment. The state police union mandated the 5 percent differential for the police chief, but there was no such rule for fire chiefs. A former fire chief was making much less than his deputies. Whether the administration deliberately held back on the police chief's raises or whether it was an oversight, the imbalance recurred, now to the benefit of the fire chief.

The dozen or so non-represented officials used to receive salary increases by ordinance, but the last time that happened to this writer's recollection was before Peter Sepelya retired as chief finance officer. He and City Clerk Laddie Wyatt received raises in March 2006 retroactive to 2003. Since Sepelya left at the end of 2007, there has been no permanent CFO. Wyatt's salary has continued to increase, from $101,498 in 2006 to $112,805 in February 2009, 3 percent more than the city administrator.

Even if top officials agree to take less pay for whatever reason, 2010 seems like a good time to do a comprehensive review of salary bands for the non-union titles and to restore parity. Future candidates need to know what they are getting into and may not be willing to take pot luck in their paycheck.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Talk to the Shirt

The Plainfield Police Division is seeking a grant that would supply a sport utility vehicle, two traffic signs, five computers for police cars and 10 digital video recording devices to document traffic stops.

Click here for an example of this body-worn technology.

The devices are meant to defuse "he said-she said" interpretations of what happens at traffic stops.

To see the $60,000 request, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Health Officer Proposes Fee Changes

Self-service laundry owners may face new $20 fees for each washer and dryer.

Health Officer Mark Colicchio presented a slew of fee increases and new charges Monday to the City Council, saying the hikes were the first in 15 years.

Colicchio said he followed up on city studies on fees with one of his own, comparing current charges to those in other municipalities.

"I was able to come up with these fees that I feel are more than fair," he said.

Birth, death and marriage certificates would rise from $5 to $25, among other increases. Dog and cat licenses, now $8.20 to $11.20, would be $20.

Food establishment without seating would see fees based on square footage increase by around 60 percent, while some of those with seats would face double or triple the current fee.

On Tuesday, the sunny yellow bench seats at Chicken Holiday were nearly empty. Business is down, owner Luis Chacon said, and the people who do come in tend to take out their food. Looking at figures that would translate the $150 fee for his 68 seats to $450, he said, "How can they increase all those fees?"

With people cutting back on take-out meals and the price of supplies going up - a case of wings that was $42 is now $78, he said - the squeeze is on and a fee increase would hurt.

At a popular longtime downtown luncheonette, an owner viewed fee increases as maybe the last straw for doing business here, when coupled with rent increases and utility rate hikes.

Among other proposed additions to the present fee schedule, self-service laundries would be charged $20 for each washer and dryer. The owner of a laundry at Park & Seventh was not present Tuesday, but the possible new tab for 44 washers and 43 dryers was enough to raise an employee's eyebrows.

Another change would increase the charge for a Health Division reinspection for "conditionally satisfactory or unsatisfactory" establishments from $40 to $100 for the first reinspection, escalating to $200 for a second and $500 for a third.

The proposed ordinance will be on the agenda next week. The council will meet at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. The public may speak at the beginning of the meeting on resolutions and ordinances before the council votes on them.

Click here to see the full ordinance.

If the fee changes pass on first reading, the ordinance could be up for second reading and final passage at the regular City Council meeting on Feb. 8.

--Bernice Paglia

... Gone

All structures on the parking lot at Cleveland Fifth has been demolished. The debris is now being sorted and removed. We look forward to an attractive new commuter lot soon!


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Police Presence at Senior Center

When the mayor visited the Senior Center on Jan. 5, I attended, but took no notes. Instead, I had brought along some yarn to crochet a hat, which I did for the two-hour duration of the visit. I had unraveled a scarf and was repurposing the yarn to accessorize a quilted paisley jacket I got at Second Time Around.

But the meeting did produce a couple of newsworthy items, one being the advent of the long-awaited IT person. And then reading Jackie's blog today, I realized I had a partial answer to her question about the police moving in to the Senior Center.

The downtown Community Police unit had been in leased space in the same building at 305 East Front Street that the seniors vacated for their move to the new center at 400 East Front Street. There had been talk of putting the police unit in the city-owned lower level of the former Tepper's building, but recently it was deemed unsuitable for police uses.

On Jan. 5, the mayor explained that space in the new center would be set aside for the police, although it would mostly be used for writing up reports and such. It would not take anything away from the seniors, who planned the center in conjunction with the developer, but would add security and save money.

The mayor acknowledged Officer Leslie Knight, who had briefly looked in on the meeting. There was some grumbling about police cars taking up parking spaces, but the mayor said seniors are now able to use the rear parking lot.

On other topics, the administration and center staff are looking for volunteers to help unpack from the big move and seniors are also awaiting hookups of computers and a kiln for ceramics. A new pool table is on its way from the Midwest and other adjustments are being resolved.

Crocheting and knitting are very popular at the center. I had hoped to sit at the long table with others making things out of yarn, but all the seats were taken. I finished my hat in some of those late-night/early-morning hours that wakeful seniors and bloggers seem to encounter.


Auxiliary Police Coming Back?

Auxiliary police officers seek appointment in September 2008.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has offered 14 names for appointment as auxiliary police officers.
Once a strong volunteer adjunct to the Police Division, the group has dwindled and in recent years no appointments were made. In Sept. 2008, former members appeared at a City Council meeting to ask for reactivation.
From Plaintalker's Sept 15, 2008 report:

In previous years, a roster of auxiliary police was presented at the annual reorganization meeting and usually all got approved. At present, the group claims 40 years of service. But membership is down from 54 to 17, Sgt. Robert Gilliom said.The group presented informational packets to the council to bolster their request for more consideration.The auxiliary police are all volunteers and have many police responsibilities, but receive no compensation for their contribution to the community.
The Auxiliary Police are not part of the Police Division and must be reappointed annually. A look into the Municipal Codes did not reveal whether the mayoral appointment is sufficient or whether the City Council must confirm the nominees.
--Bernice Paglia

Police Director Pay on Monday's Agenda

The first ordinance of 2010 will be to establish the position of police director by salary and wage, something the administration and governing body did not do when the post was created in 2008.

In April 2008, the City Council approved an ordinance abolishing the position of police chief and creating the office of police director. However, no salary was established. Because the title was given to Martin Hellwig in addition to his role as director of the Department of Public Affairs & Safety, it did not become an issue, as he drew only his salary as department head.

After serving one year in acting capacity, Hellwig was named police director in March 2009 through the balance of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs' term ending Dec. 31. Click here for Plaintalker's report. With her re-election, Hellwig again took on the dual roles.

The agenda for Monday's meeting is online, but not the text of the ordinance with salary details. The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. Hellwig will not be permitted to draw two salaries, but any successor would be unable to take the job without the salary ordinance in place.

The city has saved money by allowing individuals to take on dual roles, such as former City Administrator Marc Dashield did by filling in twice as acting head of Administration Finance, Health & Social Services. At present, Bibi Taylor is both acting city administrator and acting director of AFH&SS. However, she is leaving at the end of the month for a job in East Orange, thereby creating two cabinet vacancies.

A new cabinet-level title, Manager I for Information Processing, is expected to be filled soon. The city is also searching for a chief finance officer, a post being held temporarily by assistant comptroller Sandra Cummings.

If all the top titles are filled separately in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2010, the cabinet payroll could increase by more than $300,000. During the mayor's first term, the city administrator and some department heads voluntarily took less pay than their subordinates, a situation that could change if the city has to compete for candidates.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, January 09, 2010

City Council 2010 Schedule Set

Those who follow the actions of the governing body can get the full schedule of meetings here.

The notice was published today in the Courier News. Among innovations this year are "town meetings" in each of the city's four wards, a council retreat in February and a schedule for biannual and quarterly reports from council liaisons to various boards and commissions.

In contrast to four "working sessions" in 2009 for in-depth discussions of single issues such as public safety, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, information technology and economic growth, there will be two this year, both on the topic of social services. One is slated for May 20 and one for June 24, both at 7 p.m. in the Plainfield Public Library. In budget discussions late last year, members of the governing body called for the city to hand off several city-run social service operations to outside agencies. One, the decades-old Dudley House residence for men in recovery from substance abuse, is expected to be taken over by the Lafayette-based Sunrise House.

The council is now in the process of finalizing the FY 2010 budget for the calendar year that began July 1, 2009. For the fiscal year beginning July1 of this year, the new calendar calls for budget deliberations in seven sessions starting July 22.

For those who find the legal notice cumbersome, I will be distributing a concise chart of agenda and regular meetings and the four town meetings (suitable for your refrigerator door). I expect to bring copies to Monday's meeting or you can e-mail me at bernice.paglia "at" and I will send the charts back as an attachment. Or if you can decipher the legal notice, you can now add the dates to your personal electronic calendar.

This year could be a very important one for citizen involvement. Changes in Trenton are likely to impact local government and taxpayers, and decisions of your municipal elected officials need to be monitored closely.

--Bernice Paglia

IT Director Coming Soon

At her monthly visit with seniors last week, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs announced that the administration will soon hire an IT director.

When someone asked for the person's name, Robinson-Briggs said the individual must resign from current employment and a contract must be finalized before she can give a name.

The administration can hire the director without City Council approval, as the title is not part of the cabinet roster, which requires advice and consent of the governing body. In action last year, the administration floated one title for the new post before settling on "Manager I of Information Processing" with a salary range of $70,000 to $110,000. Although discussion of the need for an IT person went on throughout 2009, the City Council did not give final approval to an ordinance establishing the post until September 14.

Click here for a prior post on the issue.

Robinson-Briggs won re-election in November, giving her the power among other things to hire the IT director and possibly some staff.

Despite former City Administrator Marc Dashield's denial last spring that the job was destined for a certain person, the notion has resurfaced. Speculators will be watching personnel resolutions at the Jan. 19 Board of Education meeting for clues.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 07, 2010

New Food Adventure on Park Avenue

The restaurant's name "Hubblee Bubblee," suggests the exotic notion of a hookah and hints at its Middle Eastern cuisine. The term "Halal" lets people know that food on the menu meets Islamic religious standards, a necessity for the faithful and a guarantee of high quality for all patrons.

Owner Ayman Shomar said he spent 12 years in Plainfield at various food establishments before launching his own place. It took two months to renovate the premises at 433 Park Avenue, he said. A key element is the charcoal barbeque pit, where chicken, ribs, steak, shrimp, fish and various kebabs will be grilled. There is also a flat grill for burgers, including salmon and veggie varieties.
Newcomers to Middle Eastern food may have to get used to ordering falafel, baba ghanoush, kufta kabob and shish tawook, but there are plenty more familiar offerings on the menu, such as grilled cheese sandwiches and Philly cheese steaks. The restaurant will be open 24/7, Shomar said, with breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.
The Islamic standards for Hubblee Bubblee include not just halal food, but prohibitions on the presence of alcohol and a call for respectable behavior on the part of patrons.

The restaurant offers not only take-out and free delivery for a $12 minimum, but seating for groups and parties in a rear dining room that can accommodate up to 60-70 people, Shomar said.

In a bit of serendipity, the restaurant is planning its grand opening just as a newly-refurbished building a block away is filling up with about 45 state employees. Shomar is making his offerings known to the agency in hopes of attracting both lunch trade and those who want take-home dinners.
The grand opening is still two or three weeks away, Shomar said, but meanwhile the doors are open and the barbecue pit is fired up. Camera-shy, he declined to have his photo taken for the blog post.
For those who want to learn more about what halal means, there is a web site that explains the rules. By Googling around, I was surprised to find that the popular Tom's of Maine toothpastes, featured in health food stores and supermarkets, had received halal certification as well as kosher certification and other approvals. It's never too late to learn something new!
--Bernice Paglia

An Alternate Universe

One of the things Marc Dashield may be working on as new township manager in Montclair is the possible acquisition of a senior center facility. Click here to see a report from the outgoing manager on the senior center issue.

Oh my, if only us folks in the Queen City could get such detail on an issue!

In early 2010, we are still awaiting resolution of the city budget and a final outcome on The Monarch, among other things. Wouldn't it be nice to have some detailed reports on the city web site?

Of course, information does not always lead to action, as Westfield's multi-decade agonizing over a parking deck will attest. Still, a comprehensive report such as the one linked above provides a great basis for community dialogue.

Maybe our next city administrator will have the kind of skills to produce such reports and to get the citizens engaged in decision-making.


Why Dan is Wrong

My foray to 1200 Myrtle Avenue Tuesday began with a chilly 20-minute wait for a taxi, which had detoured to pick up another person bound for the West End. The 6:30 p.m. Board of Education policy meeting was already underway when I got there.

The presenter was very authoritative, but some of the board comments were not audible due to the ambient noise from a clanging radiator, which recalled the winter sound track of my childhood home in the 1940s. The harsh light, the hard chair and the struggle to hear, plus the length of the agenda, made me think I should have just stayed home.

Dan strolled in a little after 7 p.m. and schmoozed with the councilwomen briefly before they left. I still didn't have the name of the presenter and was wondering how late I would have to stay to get it. Mark Spivey arrived, and looking around, I could see a couple other bloggers.

It wasn't until about 8:30 p.m. that board president Lenny Cathcart went to the stage and picked up a microphone, which he brought to the table for speakers to use. By then, I was convinced that I was not going to get a story. I decided to leave it up to the others to report on the policy committee meeting.

Dan, the aggregating man, apparently stayed long enough to take attendance and assign homework: "Bernice Paglia can be expected to put up her report ..."

Well, this aggregatee bailed, but was able to get a scoop on the way home when Mayor SRB returned my call about the status of a cabinet member. So there.

Readers know all too well what I think of aggregators who make cameo appearances at meetings, then opine on the work of those who stayed the course. Sorry it didn't work out Tuesday, Dan.

The genesis of my surly attitude can be seen in the long right-hand teaser column on Dan's blog. All six entries for January, and many more in the archives, start out with "Bernice: ..." Over the years since June 2005, some people formed the impression that I work for Dan, due to his heavy reliance on my content. No, I do not take orders from Dan.

My experience Tuesday sort of reconfirms why I decided that school board meetings are just out of reach for me. Dan can probably still assume that if he sees me at a council meeting, he will have content the next day to aggregate. Those sessions meet my "walkability" requirements. So do Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment and Historic Preservation Commission meetings that take place in City Hall Library. But unless I take up driving again, you won't see me at 1200 Myrtle Avenue.

Meanwhile, are Dan and Bernice the Fred Allen and Jack Benny of the Plainfield blogosphere?

Could be.


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Mayor: Brown Arriving April 1

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs confirmed Tuesday that her first-term director of Public Works & Urban Development, Jennifer Wenson Maier, will stay on in 2010 to April 1.

The City Council approved the appointment of David Brown II to the post at the Jan. 1 reorganization. Brown was not present for the meeting, although Wenson Maier was in the audience. No mention was made of a delay in his taking office, nor was there any designation of Wenson Maier as acting director.

The news comes on the heels of an announcement that newly-appointed acting City Administrator and director of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services Bibi Taylor will be leaving at the end of January for a post in East Orange.

That leaves Public Affairs & Safety Director Martin Hellwig, also the police director, as the only one of three department heads to have a clear four-year term concurrent with that of the mayor.

While the mayor has the power to make acting appointments without City Council approval, such actions have not always been openly communicated. In 2006, former City Administrator Norton Bonaparte was named director of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services. He left in March 2006 to become the first city manager of Topeka, Kans. But no successor was named and apparently former City Administrator Carlton McGee additionally served in acting capacity as department head until he resigned in October 2006.

The current council does not seem to be inclined to accept half-measures or partial communication. By the next agenda session (Jan. 11, 2009), it is likely that the governing body will want the situation to be spelled out.

--Bernice Paglia

Pigeon Patrol

Even though my eyes were tearing from the extreme cold Tuesday, I spotted a familiar raptor on the railroad embankment by the parking lot across from the train station.

This hawk and his kin are constantly soaring around, looking for pigeons. Any time you see a pile of feathers anywhere from Front Street to Seventh Street, you can bet a hawk has swooped down on its prey.
Later on, the same hawk was patrolling my block, Block 832 on East Seventh Street, for more unsuspecting pigeons.
Plainfield has a surprising amount of wildlife for an urban center. I am always interested to see a hawk or some scurrying creature doing its best to live among the humans.

Still Going ... Going ...

The cinderblock garage on the municipal parking lot is now just rubble, but the small structure with the slate roof is still standing. This parking lot is just south of the main train station.

Look at the claw on this massive machine. Other large claws and scoops were scattered around the site.

Ooops! The workers have to call City Hall before proceeding with backfilling the site.
This site holds a lot of promise. Plaintalker has been watching it for a while, but work has been proceeding slowly.
Here's how the garage looked in November. Another structure had been knocked down south of it.

The buildings were boldly marked to prevent inadvertent destruction of the wrong site.
Once it is finished, not only will the lot be able to hold more commuter cars, it could be a nice complement to the downtown train station.
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, January 04, 2010


Image: Decor at City Council reorganization included swaths of tulle and white doves.

The atmosphere last Friday was quite cordial, but if what I heard today is true, will the City Council bill and coo when presented with a new twist in the cabinet saga?

Could it be that a departing department head will stay around until April Fools' Day?

Gee, I wish Dan would lend me his pointy stick!


Sunday, January 03, 2010

What's the Big Deal with Appointments?

Plainfield has numerous boards and commissions, some of which are still on the books but have been defunct for many years (Reminder to 2010 City Council: Clean them out).

Among those that are viable, the most important ones may be the land use boards that grant permission for development, redevelopment and other changes involving real property.

Basically, the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment are the most important, but the Historic Preservation Commission's review and advisory powers can also affect what the two voting boards ultimately decide.

Each board has rules for membership and terms of office. For example, the Planning Board has five membership categories, ranging from a mayoral designee to city official, City Council member and residents. The Zoning Board of Adjustment may have seven residents and two alternates, appointed by the mayor with advice and consent of the City Council.

The problems arise when members are incorrectly assigned to specific terms.

Membership is not about individuals, but seats. Individuals nominated by the mayor and approved by the council must reflect proper successions in those seats.

At present, there is a disconnect on quite a few of these terms and successions.

This is not a new problem. This writer remembers spending many hours a couple of decades ago trying to rectify successions following one mayor's penchant for flipping board members into various seats, from full-term to unexpired terms to the point of total confusion.

The importance of having land use people in the proper roles is that their decisions affect legal outcomes for developers and other applicants. At meetings, only those who heard applications can vote on them. But what if they were in the wrong seats?

So far, nobody has caught on to this flaw and pursued it. But technically, they could. And even if that was not the reason to do things right, why not just do things right on general principles?

Other boards and commissions have similar flaws.

In 2009, Council President Rashid Burney called for implementation of the Civic Responsibility Act of 2005. This act would provide a template for those willing to serve on boards and commissions by setting forth the duties and obligations involved, as well as the vacancies that provide opportunities to serve. Obviously, if the roster was all mixed up, candidates would not know exactly what they were getting into in terms of time commitment. Would they be on the hook for two years, three years or five years?

It is patently unfair to those willing to serve on boards and commissions to have faulty rosters.

Personally, as secretary to the Shade Tree Commission, I have found this to be a very big problem. We are supposed to have only five commissioners and two alternates, and yet because the initial staggered terms were incorrect, everything since 2007-08 has required intensive documentation to get things straightened out. As of Jan. 1, 2010, more errors were made, compounding the issue.

This is not nit-picking, it is merely asking for things to be done right.

There are several other boards and commissions that have holdovers, vacancies and discrepancies that ultimately need to be rectified if they are to function in the city's best interest. Somebody or somebodies on both sides of the City Hall rotunda need to set the record straight and stay on the case through 2010-14, or willing residents will only be supplanted by political appointees who don't care how out of whack the system is, because their only charge will be to acquiesce to the powers that be and vote accordingly.

--Bernice Paglia