Sunday, May 16, 2010

Plaintalker II

Click here to go to Plaintalker II. Please bookmark it. You can still search the Plaintalker archive for news from June 2005 to May 12, 2010.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Check Plaintalker II

for news about a fiesta planned for the July 4 weekend.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Testing, Testing ...

Plaintalker II is still in the works, although some readers prefer the original Plaintalker. Blogger has many more features for newer blogs and it is cumbersome to look things up among Plaintalker's 2,400-plus posts for links.

Click here to go to Plaintalker II. The entire archive of Plaintalker will remain accessible indefinitely and I will include links to past stories that are related to new ones.


Brownfields Work to be Outsourced

The city recently advertised for RFQs (Requests for Qualifications) for "Management Services for the Brownfield Development Area" and "Environmental Consultant for the Brownfield Program."

The legal notice appeared in the Courier News, but has yet to appear on the city web site except as a brief flash before the main page comes on. The web site section devoted to RFPs and RFQs does not have the Brownfields RFQ.

Brownfields are sites where environmental remediation must take place before development or redevelopment. With its legacy of industrial uses, Plainfield has quite a few.

Until a layoff plan was announced this year, April Stefel managed the extensive accounting for management of Brownfield sites. Although the Plaintalker report excerpt below indicates she did a good job, it will now most likely go to an outside source.

Here is the excerpt from a City Council meeting that included comments on the layoffs:

"Several residents spoke in favor of retaining April Stefel, a certified landscape architect in the Planning Division who is staff liaison to the Shade Tree Commission and manages several other programs, including brownfields studies.

Shade Tree Commission Chairman Gregory Palermo praised Stefel for her “marvelous success” in coming up with grants for tree planting and maintenance.

“The grant money should be thought of as found money,” he said, “but it is not going to be found unless someone is looking for it.”

(Disclaimer: I am a member of the Shade Tree Commission.)

Stefel herself explained that she is responsible for more than $5.6 million in grants and that she had suggested her pay could be given back from various grants, but an analysis she made in December was lost or never given to the administration. She detailed the work she puts in to report to state agencies on grant-funded programs, saying the brownfields work alone takes up half her 63 part-time hours per month."

The scenario above points to yet another possible assignment for a favored engineering firm instead of having a highly qualified Plainfielder on the case.

When the Brownfields issue first emerged, it seemed to almost a vital element for redevelopment. Click here for one of several Plaintalker reports on Brownfields.

But at this juncture, maybe the best thing for the city would be for Stefel to become the consultant, although she would not have benefits.

The city in the last couple of months has published a number of RFQs and RFPs, including several that would apply to Stefel's previous duties.

Anyone working on the FY 2011 budget should take stock of these choices between in-house staffers and outside consultants, for every-day monitoring of ways to save money.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Restrictions on State Aid May Continue

Someone mentioned to me recently that stern conditions on acceptance of FY 2010 extraordinary state aid will elapse at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
But the last sentence of the Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the director of the state Division of Local Government Services states, "It is finally agreed that the terms of this agreement shall be binding upon the City for any and all subsequent years in which Extraordinary Aid funds are allocated to the City."
For FY 2010, the city sought $3.5 million, but received only $250,000. The aid came with many conditions outlined in the four-page MOU, including 13 personnel requirements and six procedural and operational requirements.
Among the personnel requirements were a hiring freeze on new employees, a salary freeze for all employees not covered by a current contractual agreement, no money for charities or "sunshine fund"activities, a reduction in force through attrition and many more constraints.
Anybody connected with the FY 2011 budget process needs to review the MOU, because unless the city intends to forego applying for and accepting extraordinary state aid, the agreement will continue to impact personnel and operational functions.
Unfortunately, the city is still without a permanent finance director and a chief finance officer to guide the budget process. There has been no CFO, a required statutory position, since the end of 2007. The city received an extension to hire one by July 19. At present, City Administrator Bibi Taylor is also serving informally as acting director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services, which has the largest number of divisions among the three departments mandated by the City Charter.
Taylor is thus carrying on the legacy of former City Administrator Marc Dashield, who found himself wearing two hats in two prior budget years. The dual burden contributed to the late passage of those two budgets.
If there is a citizen budget advisory committee this year, each member should get a copy of the MOU as context to budget decision-making. Imposition of these conditions must be weighed against the value of possible extraordinary state aid for FY 2011.
--Bernice Paglia

Plaintalker II

Now that Plainfield Plaintalker has more than 2400 posts since June 2005, I am trying to convert to a successor, Plaintalker II.

I have duplicated posts in recent days on both blogs. The main impediment to making the change is my extreme aversion to change itself (being a Taurus and all).

Plaintalker II is also very spare, without all the bells and whistles that Barbara Todd Kerr created for it in 2005. I am interested to know what readers think about the new format, so feel free to comment. I can never replicate all the work Barbara did on the original, so the main focus is on content, not format.

Please take a look and let me know your opinions.


Watching the Pot

Last night I decided to leave the school board meeting at around 9:30 p.m. I see that the meeting did not open until nearly 11 p.m., and after the nugget of news, it was not reported how long it took the board to deal with the 41-page agenda.

Lately I have had to do a lot of waiting. We are waiting to see whether our building will be sold, and waiting to find out what it might mean in terms of our living situation. I am presently waiting to see whether the latest repairs will mean the ceiling leaks will not recur. We are also waiting to see whether the landlord will pay the water bill before the latest shut-off notice kicks in.

As far as the whole Gallon story, there will be an outcome, but we don't know what or when.

An old adage comes to mind here, reminding us all to have patience and not to get all worked up while waiting for something to happen. Some may think the pot has already boiled, but I think it is still simmering and my attention is not needed every minute until it does come to a boil.

"Que sera, sera" and then you can read all about it. Surmising, speculating and second-guessing meanwhile might possibly be a waste of time.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Commentary: A Wynn-Wynn Situation

Yet another hour of the governing body's time and energy was spent Monday on how to settle a conflict between a volunteer youth baseball league and the city's Recreation Division, which launched its own league with paid coaches this year. Both leagues need access to municipal ball fields, but the Queen City Baseball League has had lights turned off, bases under lock and key, its banner vanished and other signs that the Recreation Division accidentally or on purpose is making the season difficult for its 50 or 60 young players.

In talks and protests since last fall, parents and coaches have suggested that Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn's style of management is part of the problem or maybe is the problem. There was supposed to have been a sitdown last fall with Wynn and the administration to get to the bottom of the issues, but on May 3, Queen City players and advocates packed City Hall Library and had the ears of the governing body for two hours.

The clash is taking up many hours out of the lives of City Administrator Bibi Taylor and Public Works & Urban Development Director David Brown II, as well as the seven council members and the mayor. Calls are being fielded at all hours, from what Taylor said Monday, and Public Works Superintendent John Louise is being dragged into it as well.

When Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs was first elected in 2006, she said publicly there was not enough for children to do in Plainfield. Wynn correctly pointed out the city's huge roster of athletic programs and events for children and before long, the mayor was one of Wynn's most staunch supporters. Even when council members later sought to cut back on public events as the economy worsened, Wynn dodged the fiscal bullet. But some events took on political overtones, such as the Music in the Plaza series that featured the mayor's re-election campaign image on all its promotional materials.

The situation escalated Monday with the council proposing passage of two ordinances aimed at defusing the problem by changing who would be responsible for field access.The mayor was absent, but Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, the most highly paid city employee, read off a series of remarks from the mayor, including one in which she threatened legal action if the council passed the ordinances.

"I am very sorry to hear that," Council President Annie McWilliams said, but noted seven days had elapsed without the administration naming a requested "point person" to replace Wynn in the current dispute.

Both measures failed, with McWilliams, Adrian Mapp and Rashid Burney voting "yes" and Linda Carter, Bridget Rivers and William Reid voting "no." Cory Storch was absent.

Then there was the notion that a newly-minted Recreation Committee, advisory in nature, should be made into full-blown commission with broader powers. Taylor objected, saying that would produce another budget line item with no duties assigned.

Responding to the mayor's suggestion of possible legal action against the council, Mapp noted budget decisions are coming up and said the "next level" might be to remove salaries from the Recreation Division.

Despite the heated nature of the controversy, Taylor described it at one point like this: "When you start a new program and mesh it with the old, you will have hiccups."

Apparently in this case, you will also have an ever-expanding sphere of well-compensated officials trying to deal with what time the ballfield lights should go out and why bases are being stored in the ladies' bathroom.

It is hard to conceive of any other organization where a middle manager can be at the center of a months'-long controversy without suffering any consequences. Parents and coaches are upset, children are perplexed, government officials are being drawn in when they have plenty of other things to deal with in these still precarious times.

Two commenters at the end of the meeting summed up their feelings, which no doubt many Plainfielders share.

Dwayne Wilkins of the new Recreation Committee said of seeing the children at the May 3 meeting, "I struggle with that."

Their plight "should not have to go to the highest levels of government," he said.

Lamar Mackson, who grew up in the city in what he described as "simpler times," said he was "hurt and distraught by what we're doing here."

"When you look at the headlines, there is nothing but distress coming from Plainfield," he said.

Mackson said he wants to see things that put Plainfield in a better light.

He said of the controversy, "It's just unconscionable."

--Bernice Paglia

Some Council Highlights

Here are some highlights of Monday’s City Council meeting:

--Councilman William Reid apologized to Council President Annie McWilliams for an outburst at the May 3 agenda session where he accused her of disrespecting him and being unethical over something that happened at the April 12 business meeting. Reid had claimed he was not given information on a last-minute item passed out to council members.

On Monday, he said he is very passionate about city affairs, but in the May 3 instance, “My negative passion came out.”

“I will attempt to repress that negative passion in the future.”

--The governing body took no action on the defeated school budget. As officials explained at a special meeting Friday,the council could not cut the $21.8 local tax levy because it was mandated by the state. Council members said attempting to identify changes that could be made among budget lines was pointless, as the council would not have time for a thorough review. The state deadline for changes is May 19.

--The administration will attempt to get more people trained for the role of Zoning Officer in order to help enforce a sign ordinance. At present, although proper signage is desired, enforcement is on the shoulders of already burdened Planning Director Bill Nierstedt. City Administrator Bibi Taylor said David Brown II, the new director of Public Works & Urban Development, is taking a course to become qualified and will encourage others to earn the title.

--The administration withdrew a resolution to hire Automatic Data Processing to provide time, attendance and payroll services after council members asked for a biometric system rather than a time clock plan to replace an outmoded manual human resources management system. The issue came up on May 3 and the governing body was told there might be objections from unions over biometrics. But council members said they want to get the latest system if there is to be a conversion.

--Council candidate and former mayoral candidate Jim Pivnichny objected to a contract for engineering services with Remington & Vernick, saying it would cost $88,725 for just one-third of a mile on Watchung Avenue.

“This one really bowls me over,” he said.

But Taylor said sometimes such projects take up to two years, and Brown said the award resulted from a “fair and open” bid process.

--The council granted approval for the city to turn over four West End parcels to habitat for Humanity and seven parcels to Plainfield Community Development Corp, which is affiliated with the Housing Authority of Plainfield. All the properties were part of a redevelopment plan for 197 scattered sites. Some may recall that when the 197 plan first came about, a Westfield company was assigned more than 60 lots to redevelop, while non-profits only got four. The Westfield company built about 30 pre-fabricated homes, but failed to build the rest.

--The council spent more than an hour discussing issues related to youth baseball. The volunteer Queen City Baseball League had used ball fields in the past, but now that the city has begun its own youth baseball league, the volunteer group has experienced problems with lighting, access, equipment and scheduling. About 50 young players, along with parents and coaches, came to the May 3 agenda-fixing session to ask for help. Speakers suggested the team was being sabotaged and called it a “control issue” with the Recreation Division.

Although the council asked the administration to name a neutral “point person” to assure access for the volunteer team, Taylor said she and Brown were acting in that capacity, in consultation with Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn. The council had two ordinances up for a vote Monday, one to put the Public Works Division in charge of ball fields and one to restrict Wynn’s powers to playgrounds. But Taylor said, “These ordinance mix apples and oranges,” and at the vote both failed in 3-3 ties.

Prior to the vote, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said, speaking for Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, that the mayor felt the legislation was heavy-handed and if it passed, she reserved the right to take legal action against the governing body.

Councilman Adrian Mapp noted a new budget year was coming. Not hearing a willingness to change the behavior that led to the friction, Mapp said the next level might be to take away the salaries for Recreation.

More later on some of these issues.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, May 10, 2010

Signs: My Emily Litella Moment

The appearance of a lengthy sign ordinance last week was initially intriguing, because it seemed to be banning the ubiquitous neon and flashing LED signs that are all over the business district. My blog post attracted many comments, many of the same "what's all this fuss" ilk as my initial reaction.

Over the weekend, I looked up the old sign ordinance on Rashid Burney's web site, where he has the Municipal Code and other documents posted. A lot of the language from the 2002 ordinance sounded suspiciously familiar. Today I checked with Planning Director Bill Nierstedt, who put the ordinance together. Turns out it is mostly the same as the old one, but instead of laboriously picking out details of changes, the language "repeal and replace" is used.

Nierstedt said the main difference is that a chart is included, covering all the sign rules.

So if certain signs are already prohibited, why do we see them all over?

The city official who must enforce the prohibitions is the Zoning Officer. After former Zoning Officer Jocelyn Pringley passed away several years ago, Nierstedt inherited the role and all its many responsibilities. This in addition to his heavy burden as Planning Director, which requires not only dealing with developers and property owners who want to build or change things, but also attending many night meetings. As the organization has flattened, Nierstedt's tasks have expanded tremendously.

So store owners with neon or flashing signs need not expect to be grandfathered in. Their signs have already been illegal since at least 2002. And with Nierstedt's burgeoning duties, perhaps they just can't be a priority. In the Special Improvement District alone, there are about 400 businesses. Checking on each one and following through on violations could be a very time-consuming project.

Unless this duty is statutorially assigned to the Zoning Officer, perhaps Inspections could take it on. Attractive signage is a key element of any downtown. Or if neon and sparkly signs are not all that bad in some folks' eyes, maybe they should be permitted. Most likely merchants have been approached by vendors of such signs and the business owners simply don't know what is permitted in Plainfield.

Reassignment of enforcement, rethinking of the rules and merchant education are some future possibilities for proper signage. The last time there was a consistent effort to unify signage was way back in the days of the Sign & Facade program. Maybe it's time to take another look at the issue.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, May 09, 2010

From Mousie to Mau

Some readers may remember the forlorn little feral kitten that I decided to look out for in 2008. I guarded his food dish so he could eat without the bigger cats knocking him out of the way. Eventually he climbed up on my lap one day. In November 2008, he received vet treatment necessary to bring him indoors. He weighed less than three pounds, but rapidly began to gain weight (and attitude).

I was calling him "Mousie" for his diminutive size and meek demeanor at first, but lately his main nickname is "Mau."

Today I was looking up "Mau" online and to my surprise found out it is the Egyptian word for "cat." So here is my big old Mau, hamming it up for the camera!


Reid Confronts McWilliams Over Perceived Slight

Someone today reminded me of a blog topic I meant to write about but forgot with all the incursions of workers into my apartment this week to check on a big leak.

Very late in Monday’s City Council meeting (May 3), Councilman William Reid began a diatribe against City Council President Annie McWilliams over a perceived slight at the April 12 regular City Council meeting. Reid claimed McWilliams excluded him while passing out a last-minute resolution on a proposed $16,000 increase in spending for a “visioning study” on future city development.

“I figure that you bypassed me because you know that I ask questions,” Reid said, adding he was “astounded at the very large disrespect” of the perceived omission.

“You’re learning fast, tricks to get stuff past us,” Reid said, insisting that McWilliams “never, ever do it again.”

Councilwoman Linda Carter recalled that the council went into a two-minute recess to discuss the item, which was received from the administration just that night, as McWilliams also attested. The measure passed after the recess. Reid made no mention April 12 of a slight.

But Reid again told McWilliams Monday, “Please don’t do that any more. If you are going to do that, call me and I will keep my butt home.”

None of the explanations offered mollified Reid. When McWilliams said his protestations made her appear to be unethical, Reid said, “It was unethical.”

As McWilliams asked to defend her action, Reid said, “You can’t defend it to me.”

As the discussion wore on, Reid insisted information was kept from him.

Councilman Cory Storch suggested that a face-to-face private talk would have been more in order than a public confrontation, but Reid was unappeased.

Reid is the First Ward representative. He came on first as an appointee in 2007 succeeding Rayland Van Blake, who left the council to become a Union County freeholder. He ran for the unexpired term in 2008 and has now filed to run for a full four-year term in the November general election. His Republican opponent in November will be Sean Alfred. Reid is also the campaign treasurer for Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, May 07, 2010

Empty Chairs Sink Emergency Meeting

An emergency meeting that Board of Education President Lisa Logan Leach said was mandated by top education officials fell through Friday evening for lack of a board quorum.

The board was to have met in closed session at 5 p.m., followed by an emergency business meeting at 5:45 p.m., preceding a 6 p.m. joint meeting with the City Council to discuss the 2010-11 budget that was defeated April 20 by voters.

The single item on the board agenda was a resolution to suspend Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III and former Assistant Superintendent Angela Kemp, appoint an acting superintendent, remove Kemp from the district payroll and to appoint a new board attorney.

But as about 50 people waited at Emerson School for the board to open the emergency business meeting, Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann announced the meeting would not happen due to lack of a quorum.

Asked later for reasons why board members were absent, Logan Leach said only two of the nine board members had indicated they could not attend. She said she had been in "constant communication" with the office of Union County Executive Superintendent Carmen Centuolo as well as the office of state BOE Commissioner Bret Schundler Thursday regarding the emergency need. Logan Leach said she e-mailed the officials Friday night to apprise them of the failed meeting.

After the meeting was declared canceled, recently elected board members Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, Renata Hernandez and Keisha Edwards arrived, still short of a quorum.

Gallon was arrested Tuesday on several charges related to allegedly allowing Kemp and another assistant, Lalalei Kelly, to use his address to illegallly enroll their children in the South Plainfield school system. Kemp had been also ordered to forfeit her job after being convicted on charges of harassing a fellow administrator. Both were former colleagues of Gallon in the Miami district from which he came to Plainfield.

Although chairs were set up and conspicuously labeled for the state education commissioner, the county superintendent and Assemblyman Jerry Green, none appeared Friday.

The City Council portion of the meeting also proved inconclusive as members said the governing body could do nothing about the state-mandated $21.8 million tax levy that voters rejected, but could only move funds around within that amount. But members said they felt ill-equipped to go through the voluminous budget document to identify changes. On Monday, the council will most likely pass a resolution taking no action.

City Council President Annie McWilliams said the city will likely face another state-mandated increase in the school tax levy next year, but she said it might be the last one. The district has had mandated increases in the school tax levy since the passage of the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, after having no change in support of school costs since 1992. In light of the constraints, Councilman Adrian Mapp called the council review of the defeated budget "a pointless exercise" and others made similar estimations.

In public comment, Dr. Harold Yood said he felt the council should at least pass a resolution objecting to the fact that the governing body had no say over the voters' rejection of the budget.

--Bernice Paglia

Sign Ordinance in the Works

Lengthy changes to the city's sign ordinance will be up for a vote on first reading at Monday's City Council meeting.

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

For the moment, Plaintalker will mention one of the changes. This has to deal with flashing signs of the kind that are popping up in store windows. I was trying to think up the right words to describe them, but the proposed new rules spell it out: "No sign shall contain blinking, flashing, flickering, tracer or sequential lighting," and also prohibited are "signs with lights or illuminations which flash, move, rotate, scintillate, blink, flicker, vary in color or use intermittent electrical pulsation."

One such sign is close to City Hall at the Magic Carpet driving school on Watchung Avenue and there are many more downtown.

A quick search online revealed that many municipalities across the nation are concerned about such signs and some have banned installation of new ones.

Merchants purchase the signs and vendors program them to the customer's liking. They certainly do attract attention, but the question is whether they are in keeping with the city's vision for its business districts.

The ordinance, MC 2010-16, has many more additions to sign regulations, affecting apartment buildings, business and professional offices and more. Copies of the full ordinance may be obtained at the City Clerk's office in City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave. If passed on Monday, the ordinance will be up for second reading and final passage in June.

--Bernice Paglia

Some History on North Avenue Extension

The Courier News reports today on a court decision regarding redevelopment in the so-called North Avenue Extension tract. This was a hot topic in 2007 and then went out of sight as challenges to a blight designation wended their way through the judicial system.

Several things have changed since the 2007 findings of blight. Some buildings have new ownership and at least two are slated for redevelopment. Plaintalker will be reporting later on the differences and the ramifications of the court decision. Meanwhile, the links below give some context to the Courier News report. (Copy and paste in the address box.)


Emergency BOE Meeting Tonight

The Board of Education will hold an emergency meeting tonight with a closed session at 5 p.m. and an emergency business meeting at 5:45 p.m. at Emerson School, 305 Emerson Ave., according to a notice in today's Courier News.

The City Council will meet at 6 p.m. in the same location to discuss the defeated 2010-11 school budget.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Council to Review Defeated School Budget

The City Council will meet with school board members and officials Friday night to discuss possible changes to the 2010-11 school budget rejected by voters on April 20.

The meeting is 6 p.m. at Emerson School, Councl President Annie McWilliams announced Monday.

Notice of the meeting has been posted in City Hall. Notice was also sent to the Courier News and the Star-Ledger, but may or may not be published, Deputy Clerk Abubakar Jalloh said Wednesday. The meeting is also posted on the city web site.

McWilliams said the governing body cannot cut the school tax levy, but might be able to make changes within the budget.

Plainfield has had state-mandated increases to the local school tax levy for the past three years due to the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. Previously, the local portion was $17,683,906, unchanged since 1992. For the 2008-09 school year, the levy was increased by 4 percent to $18,391,262. In 2009-10, it was $19,862,563.

This year, a 10 percent increase was mandated, to $21,848,819.

Plainfield had been contributing only about 20 percent of school costs in local taxes, with the bulk of the budget made up in state and federal aid. But in many suburban districts, the ratio is the opposite. The School Funding Reform Act of 2008 recognizes that needy students exist in many districts, not just in the 30 poorest districts in the state (formerly known as Abbott districts), and seeks to adjust funding proportionately.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Big Alert!!

On Friday of this week, the City Council and Board of Education will hold a joint meeting on the topic of the defeated school board budget.

The meeting was announced Monday at the City Council meeting and notice was sent to the two newspapers of record, but publication is not guaranteed.

The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. Friday (May 7) at Emerson School.


Off the Hook Tonight

This is a double entendre - I found out I was off the hook to attend the Zoning
Board of Adjustment meeting because the case I was most interested in was postponed.
So instead of trudging to City Hall Library for yet another public meeting, I will be able to stay home and listen to one of my favorite WBAI programs, "Off the Hook" at 7 p.m.
Off the Hook is hosted by Emmanuel Goldstein, and deals with hacking. Although I have in the past subscribed to 2600, the Hacker Quarterly, most of it went over my head. Still, I appreciate the group's challenges to communication rules and I have made many a pledge to support the program. I must by now have a complete set of large "Off the Hook" T-shirts to serve as nightgowns in case I ever get incarcerated in a hospital room.
(Note to Off the Hook: Where's the new design that I pledged for?)
Emmanuel and his group give really good advice on telephonics as the times change so rapidly. Emmanuel himself has traveled the world to see how other people deal with communication. His phone-ins from remote places are extremely informative.
As the world changes, such information is vital to understanding a global perspective, because the past national barriers have been down for a while.
If you miss tonight's show, you can always tune in next week or access the WBAI archive to see what Off the Hook is all about.

Character Education

In January 2009, the Plainfield school district began a Character Education initiative, with traits for each month and recognition of students who demonstrated the traits.

Click here to see the list for 2010.

In March, the traits were honesty and fairness. Sixteen students were recognized at the district's business meeting. But headlines were piling up about dishonesty at the top.

April's traits were cooperation and good sportsmanship: "Working together for a common purpose, the ability to take winning or losing without gloating or complaining." This as a conflict between a volunteer-operated youth baseball league and a city-run league heated up.

This month, the focus is on loyalty and good sportsmanship. Was the outgoing school board showing its loyalty to the schools superintendent by approving a token punishment in its final hours of power Monday? On the same night, the baseball feud boiled over into bitter protest and recriminations at a City Council meeting - in front of the kids.

Late yesterday came the news that the superintendent and two others had been arrested on charges involving placement of two out-of-district students in South Plainfield schools. Gallon may now be on a trajectory out of the Plainfield district.

June is coming, and its character trait is courage. If Gallon goes, the school board will need to show courage in facing up to the challenge of finding a new chief school administrator. No more secret searches, please. On the city side, elected officials must have the courage rise above personal differences and to fulfill their mandated roles, whether on the legislative or executive side. The Wizard of Oz is a very entertaining story, but let's hope none of our leaders has to take to the yellow brick road to find the courage to serve the public well.


Plan Changes Will Permit Rehab

A proposal to rehabilitate the old Miron's warehouse is stalled because it conflicts with a redevelopment plan dating back to 2000, but amending the plan will let the developer seek approvals for the project, Planning Director Bill Nierstedt told the City Council Monday.

The original redevelopment plan called for construction of a new mixed use structure with up to 96 residential units on the site at 130-140 East Second Street and 200-206 Gavett Place. But the present owner wants to rehabilitate the building for retail use on the first floor and 12 apartments on the upper floors, Nierstedt said.

"As this is different than what the redevelopment plan calls for, the Planning Board cannot hear the application, and the board is recommending that the City Council adopt an amendment to the plan," he said.

Nierstedt said the board is of the opinion that current economic conditions "make it impractical to implement the plan" as it was originally proposed. The amendment would allow for the rehabilitation and also require the developer to provide parking.

The council agreed to put the matter up for a vote at its Monday (May 10) meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The former furniture warehouse has been open to the elements for several years. A previous failed project touted on a large sign earned the building the ironic nickname, "Luxury Condos." It has a covered walkway on East Second Street to protect pedestrians from falling debris.

The building now is owned by a subsidiary of Frank Cretella's Landmark Developers, Gavett Place Properties LLC. Passersby last winter could hear work going on inside the building, but the developer was issued a stop-work order and fined $2,000 for not having a permit.

Cretella has also acquired the former Romond Jeep building at 158 East Second Street and the adjacent Budget Rent-A-Car site on Gavett Place, where he proposes a complex with 20 apartments and commercial uses on the ground floor. That project is dubbed Arts Loft I LLC.

Other Cretella subsidiaries are Certified Green Property One LLC at 212-216 Park Avenue with four apartments over ground-floor retail space, Next Step to Collins Avenue LLC at 226-232 Park Avenue with 12 apartments over ground-floor retail space, Front Street Offices LLC at 216-232 West Front Street with 50,000 square feet of commercial space. All have received various approvals.

Another one, West Second Street Commons, would have 100 apartments and 11,500 square feet of commercial space on the PNC Bank block, but has not yet received any approvals.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Gallon's Arrest: What Next?

News of Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III being arrested just hours before the annual Board of Education organization meeting tonight augurs ill for the district. Both the Courier News and Star-Ledger have stories online that detail the allegations of theft by deception and other charges due to Gallon 's apparent agreement to let his address in South Plainfield be used by two favored administrators in order to have their children attend borough schools.

Gallon was already on the verge of being ushered into the district's revolving door by way of the defeat of two loyal school board members in the April 20 election. Even though the outgoing board voted at the last minute to reprimand Gallon and withhold a salary increase over findings of the state DOE Office of Fiscal Accountability regarding improper hires, members of the incoming board have voiced support of stronger measures to deal with Gallon's peccadillos.

But when Attorney General Paula Dow and Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce J. Kaplan reveal even more blatant charges, Gallon's fate appears to be sealed, notwithstanding due process and all that.

Gallon came to Plainfield after a nationwide search that was kept private until he emerged as the finalist. Like at least two of his predecessors, he had no experience as a superintendent. He was assigned a mentor, but then not much was heard about the mentoring process. Gallon enjoyed the support of a majority on the board, ranging from enthusiasm to practically an "amen corner" on the part of one board member.

So here we are at this juncture.

I decided not to attend the organization meeting tonight, based on a number of factors. I'm sure it will be reported superbly by Mark Spivey. I have a lot of leftover City Council stories to write and I also have one of those very special household disaster scenarios endemic to my building, aka a big leak in a crucial spot that is not yet resolved, meaning my daily activities are interrupted until the problem is fixed.

Why do I say the situation augurs ill for the district?

Future possibilities for top leadership will be affected by all the sturm und drang of the current situation and the events of recent years. What willing and able chief school administrator would want to step into a mares' nest of issues?

Interim Superintendent Peter Carter and his team signed on to maintain the district in working order in 2008, but soon found they had to deal with the unprecedented burden of responding to a new state mandate, the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or NJQSAC, in addition to regular tasks. Their perceived temerity in asking for more compensation apparently led to their dismissal midway in their one-year tenure.

I look forward to reportage and commentary from the BOE meeting. Meanwhile, may I say, Plainfield must project a better image for its public school district, or all the more parents and students will seek alternate choices, and qualified education leaders will be wary of coming here.


Council Asked to Resolve Baseball Dispute

Parents, coaches and about 60 young baseball players crowded City Hall Library Monday, seeking resolution to a six-month clash that intensified recently
Speakers said the Queen City Baseball League had lights turned off and were locked out of a field house on grounds shared with another league operated by the city's Recreation Division. The league's banner disappeared and players could not hold opening day ceremonies in other examples of what one speaker called "purposeful sabotage." In one instance, the lights went out just as a pitch was thrown, raising safety concerns.

Youngsters dropped their home-made protest signs to applaud their supporters, but as the comments became more acrimonous, adults began cautioning each other not to argue in front of the kids.
Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs apologized for a game being canceled Thursday and said, "I don't believe anybody did anything malicious to hurt the kids. The city of Plainfield would never
do anything to hurt the children."
Robinson-Briggs pledged that the banner would be replaced and said the city supports both leagues. She said she had met with league directors to "discuss ways the city could be supportive" of the volunteer Queen City league, but after proposing joint fundraisers, she "never heard another word."
"If the adults don't see eye to eye, I'll work with the kids," she said.

Responding to an issue about bases being locked up, Robinson-Briggs piled a table high with new bases and equipment bags, saying, "This is a sincere olive branch."
But someone yelled from the crowd that the bases were the wrong kind.
City Council President Annie McWilliams asked City Administrator Bibi Taylor to respond to the issues and Taylor said the new lights on timers and the changed locks were being reviewed by Public Works & Urban Development Director David Brown II. As Taylor mentioned scheduling and access concerns, the league's executive director, Karen Glencamp-Daniel, asked, "Why so much secrecy?"
McWilliams asked the council members to consider what role they could take, noting the governing body started "with one list" last fall.
"We now have a laundry list of other items," she said.
Although Taylor is trying to resolve the issues in a timely manner, McWilliams said, "She shouldn't be doing this."
As city administrator, Taylor is in charge of the day-to-day workings of municipal government. She is also the acting director of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services and oversees the city's othe two departments, Public Affairs & Safety and Public Works & Urban Development.
With Glencamp-Daniel seated at the council table to respond to Taylor, an advocate of the Recreation Division's league, Roland Crawford Muhammad, attempted to sit at the table as well.
"You're not helping the situation," McWilliams said, advising him to step back or she would have him removed by police.
By now, the council was an hour ad a half into the meeting and had not yet begun its own agenda.
Robinson-Briggs said she wanted both leagues' representatives at the table, to which Councilman Adrian Mapp replied, "The games that are being played here are not the game of baseball."
Mapp said the administration had not taken responsibility for what had transpired so far with the league, but Robinson-Briggs retorted, "It sure does," and added "You should give me respect - I am your mayor."
"I don't think you should argue in front of the kids," Councilwoman Bridget Rivers said, but Mapp said he was not arguing.
"Let me be the one to moderate the meeting," McWilliams said, but Mapp insisted the mayor had to take responsibility for the situation.
"The buck stops with the mayor," he said, noting there have been good faith efforts to resolve the issues.
Mapp called for a "directive to the Recreation Division" for "unfettered access" to the ballfield.
"Queen City did not come here for handouts, they came here for a solution," Mapp said.
The mayor said she was not going to debate the subject with the council and added, "The election is over, councilman."
Robinson-Briggs defeated Mapp in the June 2009 primary and won re-election in November.
As the discussion continued, the council agreed that someone neutral should be named in the short term to be in charge of the lights and the locks, but the longterm solution would have to come about through amendments to an ordinance governing use of the ballfield. The mayor said the topic will be part of her Wednesday cabinet meeting and assured the council there would be a point person identified by Thursday.
Most of the crowd left after two hours of talk on the league issues, but after midnight Glencamp Daniel revived some issues during citizen comments, concluding by saying, "Some people seem to have a blanket of immunity."
The mayor responded by citing a conversation with Glencamp-Daniel in which she asked her to tone down her remarks.
"If we are to work together, there can't be any fingerpointing," she said.
Dwayne Wilkins of the newly-formed Recreation Advisory Committee said all members were "happy to serve," especially in light of Monday's discussion.
Wilkins said the committee was empowered to work with the Recreation Division "so issues don't bubble up."
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, May 03, 2010

Time for a Change?

Plaintalker is coming up on two milestones.

Posts will soon number 2,400 and the blog's fifth anniversary is in early June.

As much as I hate change, these factors are nudging me toward creation of a successor blog. It will probably not have all the fancy stuff that Barbara Todd Kerr put on Plaintalker, but it will still be a hyperlocal blog about Plainfield.


North Avenue on Agenda Monday

Of all the items on Monday's City Council agenda, the one that interests me especially is an ordinance "to amend and supplement the North Avenue Redevelopment Plan."

Click here to see the entire agenda.

Until I visit City Hall Monday to look at the ordinance, I will not know the details. The original redevelopment plan for North Avenue was to maintain the historic character of the district while building taller, modern residential structures behind them. So far, the developer has not acquired any of the North Avenue buildings, but has acquired some in what is known as the North Avenue expansion, on the block anchored by PNC Bank. He has also acquired two buildings on East Second Street.

Meanwhile, one of the most prominent buildings in the streetscape across from the main train station on North Avenue has been demolished.

Work has been spotty or nonexistent on buildings acquired by the developer on East Second Street and Park Avenue. It would be good to get an update on all of the Landmark subsidiaries' projects.
There are three other ordinances up for first reading, two of which are inscrutable just from the summary on the agenda. With any luck, they will also be available Monday, although Olddoc is correct in saying that the City Clerk's office is in dire straits lately.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

New RFPs Posted

Friday's Courier News contained two legal notices requesting proposals, one for videography services and one for photography services. Applicants must respond to Purchasing Agent David Spaulding by May 20.

Those who have followed City Hall doings for a while know that Laurence Rice, who takes photos of city events and tapes City Council meetings and other events for the local community cable station, is facing layoff this month. His official title is Media Technician I and he has been on the job since 2006.

By way of background, Rice provided content for the former Comcast Channel 74. Until the advent of a new cadre of members of the Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Board in recent months, the local channel was considered somewhat mediocre, with frequent repeats of older programs and intermittent glitches.

Since the board reorganized under Chairman Lamar D. Mackson, several strides have been made, including updating of the schedule, talks with FiOS that led to programming on their Channel 34 and other initiatives.

So the loss of Rice at this juncture is a step back for the future of local programming.

Whether it is Rice or some other qualified person who responds, the RFP is key to the future of local programming.

One might quibble over the need for an official city photographer, but if Comcast and FiOS are to serve the public well, there must be an experienced city videographer to supply content.

This issue is more complicated than what I am posting here. As much as things seem to be improving, one question is how vital local programming is and at what cost. Are there other ways to disseminate information at lower cost?

This may be a question for a new City Council committee on City & Neighborhood Services. Councilwoman Linda Carter chairs the committee and members are Councilman William Reid and Councilwoman Bridget Rivers.

If you want to direct questions or comments to these officials , all their e-mail addresses and phone numbers are on the city web site at

One thing that is not on the city web site as of today is the RFP descriptions that appeared in the Courier News. Hoping to see it soon.

--Bernice Paglia

Special BOE Meeting Monday

The Plainfield Board of Education
will meet in executive session
at 6:30 p.m. Monday May 3
at 1200 Myrtle Avenue
Action may be taken.