Friday, May 22, 2015

Irises

This yellow Japanese Iris showed up mysteriously after a couple of years with no blooms. It is very delicate, with tall, slender leaves. (Click images to enlarge.)
I was entranced by this dark purple Iris.
It has a lot more ruffles than some of the other Irises.
Gorgeous!
Here's a more conventional Iris.
The setting isn't so great, with an old tomato plant bag at the left, but look how tall these blue Irises grew next to a compost bin.

We had some other Irises, though many fell to a string weeder that was used indiscriminately to clean up a large plot that got very weedy last year while I was unable to garden after surgery. I was trying this year to get rid of the Field Garlic, Mugwort and Cleavers, but a landscaping crew clear-cut nearly the whole plot, including the triple red Daylilies and most of the Irises. Thank heavens the Butterfly Bush was spared, because it becomes a late-summer hangout for the Praying Mantises. I'm afraid the weeders and blowers may have done some of them in as well, but I will keep looking.

--Bernice

Council, CBAC Hears Recreation Plans

In a relatively congenial budget session Wednesday, Recreation Superintendent Veronica Taylor described innovations in both programs and operations for 2015.

While still offering a wide range of youth programs, the Recreation Division is adding more for "active older adults," she said. Online registration and computerized usage tracking are helping her to assess which offerings are most popular, and new social media and marketing plans are being developed to broaden appeal to the community.

Taylor said one pool, at Hannah Atkins Playground, will be open on Memorial Day. Others at Seidler Field and Rushmore Playground will open on June 27, after school lets out. Among her priorities are working on Americans with Disabilities Act compliance at recreation facilities and repairing playground equipment for safety.

Although speakers have challenged changes in the Recreation Division at City Council meetings for months now, only one former division employee did so Wednesday. Most of the questions from the council and the Citizens' Budget Advisory Board were civil inquiries. First Ward Councilwoman Diane Toliver asked about fixing an "unsafe" walking trail at Milt Campbell Field, but Taylor said it was a wildlife preserve area that could not be altered. She said she wants to put in a new fitness trail.

Councilwoman Gloria Taylor, no relation, asked what was being done differently from the last Recreation superintendent. Among other things, Veronica Taylor mentioned training that could help lifeguards pursue future careers in aquatics or as certified pool operators.

Asked why she was offering summer camp only for young children, Veronica Taylor said the school system was operating a camp program for children in grades 4 through 12. Councilwoman Taylor was surprised to hear that the Hannah Atkins Community Center was open, as speakers at council meetings claimed it was not open.

Other questions had to do with staffing, which now includes the superintendent, a program leader and a recreation specialist along with seasonal workers. A request for more staff was removed from the budget, Veronica Taylor said.

While past programs concentrated on youth, she said she wanted to serve recreational needs of older residents and already had Zumba programs at Richmond Towers and Covenant Manor elder housing. Besides encouraging physical activity, she said she wants to help overcome social isolation that may come with aging.

The new Community Pass program allows residents to sign up for programs online and, she said, "The data cannot be manipulated." A monthly program usage report can be generated with the push of a button, she said.

Finance Ron West had noted that the Recreation Division in the past used cash from fees improperly to make purchases, and the new system is meant to increase accountability.

Asked why the Recreation Division did not offer tennis and golf, she said there were other programs that provided instruction, some at no cost.

"I can't compete with free," she said.

(All the budget sessions were recorded for viewing on channels 34 and 76, so tune in for the entire discussion.)

--Bernice

Town Meeting Features Awards, Staff Updates

Mayor Adrian O. Mapp honored four city residents, one from each ward, at his Town Hall meeting Thursday that also featured presentations by key figures in his administration.
The First Ward honoree was former City Clerk Laddie Wyatt, who retired in 2010 after 23 years' service.
Second Ward resident Dorothy Henry was honored for her 30 years of service in the Plainfield schools.
Dottie Gutenkauf, a union organizer and Plainfield activist for many causes, received the Third Ward honors.
Former Councilman Elliott Simmons, a local business owner and coach, received the Fourth Ward plaque.
A large crowd turned out for the meeting at the Senior Center. Speakers included Public Safety Director Carl Riley, Public Works Director Eric Watson and Public Works Superintendent John Louise, Recreation Superintendent Veronica Taylor, Inspections Division Director Phil Izzo, Planning Director William Nierstedt, Finance Director Ron West and Deputy City Administrator for Economic Development Carlos Sanchez.

Over nearly two hours, the mayor and his staff detailed accomplishments of his administration and future plans.
Riley said the long-awaited closed circuit cameras will be ready in June. Thirty will be installed on poles with permission from Verizon and PSE&G. Much of the information had already been given at budget hearings. Louise said brine was used successfully to keep streets free of ice through the winter's many storms and also could be applied in advance of storms, sparing the city overtime costs.

Taylor came to the microphone blowing a whistle and gave a lively review of summer plans, starting with one pool opening on Memorial Day and two others due to open on June 27.
 The crowd erupted in delight at the sight of "Phin," the swimming mascot.

Nierstedt described the development process, including approvals by land use boards, and said a downtown parking deck is proposed.

West spoke about fiscal challenges, such as the city's dependence primarily on its housing stock for tax revenues in the absence of major industry or retailers. There are 200 abandoned and 700 foreclosed homes that need to be restored to the tax rolls. Bright spots are the recent Moody's rating upgrade for the city and savings of $600,000 through refinancing of city debt.
Sanchez told how he is "selling Plainfield" to potential investors and traced increased interest from a current $5.2 million in completed projects to $9 million more under construction and $17 million in the approval stage. He said one thing developers want from Plainfield is a speedier approval process and he is working with all other city departments to make it happen.

Among questions from the audience, one resident asked when flood maps will be updated, another expressed concern about the effect of increased development on the city's aged sewer system and a resident asked what could be done about heavy truck traffic on Randolph Road.

Senior Center star singer Gloria Spence took the microphone to render a rousing gospel song that set the mayor to dancing.

In all, the evening was both informative and enjoyable, judging by the frequent applause. It was recorded, so check local cable channels 96 and 34 for viewing at home.

--Bernice

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fencing Removed from Demolition Site

A resident told me yesterday the fences in front of a North Avenue demolition site had been removed.
 The demolition began on March 21, but was halted after debris struck an adjacent building.
The Mi Buenaventura Restaurant was destroyed. It has relocated to another building on North Avenue.

Walking over to the Senior Center for the budget meeting, I checked the site and found it was true that the fence was removed. Now there is a makeshift fence made of orange plastic safety fencing and sawhorses.
 The new fencing as of May 20.
No further action has been taken since March to remove debris.

The City Council approved a resolution to hire a legal firm to investigate the demolition in April, but on Sunday a notice appeared seeking proposals from legal firms to conduct an investigation.

Plaintalker will add more details as they emerge.

--Bernice 


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

City Mulls Legal Recourse for "Lemon" Ladder Truck

Finance Director Ron West said Wednesday the city may sue to recoup what it can for an aerial ladder truck that Fire Chief Frank Tidwell described as a "lemon."

Tidwell raised the issue in May 6 budget talks and said he told the administration about it two months ago. Council President Bridget Rivers criticized the administration for not responding, asking, "What are we waiting for, a fatality"?

As West explained to the council and Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee Wednesday, the $808,000 vehicle was ordered in 2006 and finally arrived late and "with eight major defects" in 2009. The manufacturer had declared bankruptcy, he said.

"We got less than four years' use out of that vehicle," West said.

Now the administration is exploring possible "legal recourse" before committing city funds to a replacement.

After pointing a finger at the current administration on May 6, Tidwell said he had told the prior administration about the problem in 2013.

Rivers said a new vehicle was ordered in the 2013 Capital Improvement Plan but was taken out and replaced by another type of vehicle. West said the CIP as approved by the Planning Board is only a request. (The six-year CIP is a projection and is subject to modification.)

"We have $18 million worth of CIP requests," West said.

In further explanation, he said the administration looked into repairs, but drawings of the faulty suspension system cannot be found. It appeared doubtful that any company would attempt repairs for fear of liability.

Tidwell said on May 6 the aerial platform truck was built by American LaFrance, which several online sites describe as legendary in the field of fire apparatus. See a history of American LaFrance from its roots in 1832 through closing of a spin-off fire truck division in 2008.

--Bernice

"Teaching for Sustainability"

Barack Obama Green Charter High School wants to share a new blog site showing how students are upholding principles of sustainability.

The Great Explorers Controversy

At the very end of Monday's 2015 budget discussion, the subject of the two Explorers came up again. We're not talking about Matthew Henson and Gonzalo Pizarro here, it's about 24-hour city-owned vehicles for the mayor and city administrator. How were these Explorers purchased, was the process wrong?

Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee member Tom Kaercher said he was looking in the budget and didn't see the money anywhere.

Council President Bridget Rivers said the purchase was in 2014.

That was part of the problem, mixing up budget years. Despite frequent reminders to stick to the current year, it was just too tempting not to drag in past history in the final weeks before the June 2 primary. Former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs  even wanted to know what became of the two cars assigned to herself and her city administrator, or should I make the latter plural, as eight different people held that post, including the mayor herself for three short stints.

The current mayor and his department and division heads all have two budget lines, one for salary & wages and one for other expenses. Items meant for long-term use, such as cars and fire engines, come out of the capital budget.

Public Safety Director Carl Riley said on May 6 he believed the money for the vehicles was "transferred to the city administrator's office." On Monday, Rivers insisted any vehicles purchased with Public Safety funds could only be used for public safety purposes. Chief Financial Officer Al Steinberg said money for the ShotSpotter system was used and transferred back, which brings up another question, as the ShotSpotter bill was left unpaid in 2013.

Another mystery, as long as we are turning over old rocks, is why objections were not raised when at the 2014 annual reorganization vehicles were authorized for the incoming mayor and city administrator. Or one might ask why nobody seemed to notice that vehicle authorizations were left off the agenda for the 2015 reorganization.

The short answer to any or all questions may be simply that it is the pre-election season, traditionally the time to make allegations and cast aspersions, hopefully on camera for the viewing pleasure of the electorate.

This year's budget process made me recall the format that former Councilwoman Annie McWilliams set in 2010, giving all department and division heads the same 10 questions to answer regarding their budgets.

“If anyone is coming before us asking for money, they should be prepared,” she said, noting the governing body deserved more than “five or six pages that we can read on the city web site.”

McWilliams set the bar high, saying she wanted five-year data comparisons that division directors “should be able to do off the top of their heads.”

(Recently married to Uche Ndumele, Annie has also just graduated from New York University with dual MBA/MPA degrees.)

While many officials came prepared this year with rationales for their 2015 budget requests, the sessions have all too often gone off the rails with other issues. But the end, whatever it may be, is in sight, as only one more session is expected before a public hearing, possible amendments and final passage.

--Bernice