Friday, December 31, 2010

Thanks to Rashid Burney

Today is Councilman Rashid Burney's last day in office and Plaintalker would like to give thanks for his service, especially his efforts to make government more transparent by posting documents for all to see.

I have personally relied many times on his web site at rashidburney.com for researching the Municipal Code and the City Charter. In addition, once he began posting City Council agendas and the text of ordinances and resolutions before meetings, not only could I use the information as context for blog posts, anyone could read ahead and come prepared to speak at meetings on specific proposed legislation.

It is understandable that after losing a re-election bid, Rashid no longer took the hours necessary to scan in every single document. But by then, the governing body had gotten the message and began delivering packets for each meeting to the Plainfield Public Library for public scrutiny. True, it was not as handy as being able to look them over online at 3 a.m., but I think that will come soon through the city, based on Rashid's initiative and example.

Rashid also successfully engaged many more citizens in the governmental process than many past elected representatives. I saw faces in the council chambers that I had never seen before, and I am sure the process was very instructive for these citizens who may have heretofore relied solely on officials to run the city.

Having lived in diverse places before choosing Plainfield as his home, Rashid gave us a look through fresh eyes at what was and is great about the Queen City. He settled in one of the city's spectacular mansions and let us share in his joy at making it a home for his new family.

Over and over again, Rashid used not a strident tone but one of persuasion to bring attention to his causes and interests as a legislator. He used that modern soapbox, the blog, to explain and advocate for his views.

While he is done with this chapter of public service, one hopes he will keep the city in his thoughts for future ways to serve. He saw both the upsides and downsides of life in politics over his term and was willing to re-up rather than walk away. For all the reasons above and more, we say thanks, and all the best for future endeavors.

--Bernice

Face the HIV/AIDS Challenge

Councilwoman-elect Rebecca Williams should be commended for posting HIV/AIDS statistics in response to the mayor’s attempt to cover up this information. Click here to see her blog post.

As former Schools Superintendent Larry Leverett pointed out during his tenure, you cannot deal with a problem unless you acknowledge and name it. There once was a time in Plainfield when officials and the community applied this concept to HIV/AIDS.

In the early 1980s, understanding of the disease was limited and even health professionals behaved in a way that would be unthinkable today. When one of the first AIDS patients entered Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, Plainfield activists found out his food tray was being left outside his door by fearful staff. Through a campaign of awareness and action, activists increased both common sense and compassion among those who were supposed to be caring for him and others. They visited often and a church group came to sing Christmas carols. They advocated with medical staff for more education and understanding all around and prevailed in the end.

Plainfield also had one of the most publicized instances of pediatric AIDS, a young girl under the care of Dr. James Oleske. Her story, told simply, dispelled many notions about the disease as it affected children.

The city became part of an HIV/AIDS consortium that sought Ryan White funding and marked World AIDS Day each December 1. Plainfield Action Services had a wall of posters with personal messages from those affected by HIV/AIDS. I created one for my sister Jane, who died of what was then called AIDS-related Complex, or ARC. I also did a guest sermon at my church and wrote a Speaking Out piece for the Courier News about Jane.

Of course, all the activism in the world could not stop the losses through the 1980s, as scientists struggled to understand the disease, its vectors and its treatment. Plainfield lost many of its most enthusiastic new residents, gay men who appreciated its marvelous housing stock and who, at personal expense, had saved many a building from ruin. The emerging gay community, both men and women, took a leadership role in raising funds for research on HIV/AIDS and quietly cared for and celebrated the lives of its own.

As the HIV/AIDS population shifted to affect other groups more strongly, especially men and women of color, new awareness and education campaigns had to be developed. It is unconscionable that the city’s first black female mayor would seek to suppress information on HIV/AIDS, given the newest statistics on those affected. Rebecca Williams is properly publishing the data on her blog and urging community involvement to address prevention.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Post-Blizzard Update

This permit-holder in Municipal Lot 7 has been snowed in since Sunday. Hope she is on vacation or, if home, has found another way to get to work.

Here's another view with our lovely six-family apartment building in the background.

This array of post-holiday trash was still awaiting pickup last night, but this morning it is all gone! Progress!

Hope all is well in your neighborhood. Sidewalks are still a mixed bag of walkability. Good luck to blogger Jackie and her mended knees as she does the pedestrian part of her commute today.

--Bernice

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Has PMUA's Mission Failed?

Although I did not attend last night's PMUA rate hearing due to the ice and snow underfoot, I have been thinking about the authority for a couple of weeks now.

In a 2005 Plaintalker interview, PMUA officials recounted the reason for the establishment of the authority: "The authority was created by the city to deal with two major problems: illegal dumping and a dilapidated sewer system, Assistant Executive Director David Ervin said. "

The authority was marking its 10th anniversary, hence the interview, and its leaders were declaring its mission accomplished, so to speak. So why are PMUA officials now saying illegal dumping is such an intractable problem that a 61 percent rate hike for shared services is necessary?

The other thing that has puzzled this blogger is why there are pages and pages of tax liens published, most due to non-payment of PMUA fees? This was going on even before people decided to opt out of the system, a form of rejection that goes even beyond nonpayment of fees.

Plaintalker has attended most of the rate hearings over the years and there have been very few citizens in attendance, even at the one in January 2009. From Plaintalker's post on that meeting: "Sewer rates will increase by 14 percent for 2009 and solid waste costs will rise by 20 percent, according to figures given at a Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority rate hearing Thursday.

"The last hike was in 2007 and before that, rates did not increase for three years. But now householders will be asked to pay $191.45 per quarter for solid waste costs, up from $159.65, and $578 per (Correction: per year) quarter for sewer services, up from $509.

"Various other costs rose, including 40 percent more to clean up a trash-strewn property and 20 percent more to dispose of the debris."

The bills that followed the 2009 rate increases kicked off one of the most well-organized and fervent citizen movements the city has seen in decades. DumpPMUA has had many victories, even if its leader did not prevail in court.

So now PMUA is under a microscope for its operations and is apparently also the subject of a political stalemate over appointments. The latest development on appointments is that the City Council may be interviewing the mayor's nominees in January, for possible appointment before the PMUA's annual reorganization in February.

Given all these factors, maybe it is time for a panel of some sort to be convened to look seriously at longterm options for solid waste and sewer services. The caveat most often invoked against a change is that if the city dismantled the PMUA, it would be liable for all the authority's debt. But because there has been no objective look at all the factors involved, we don't really know the pros and cons.

I am thinking of something along the lines of the commission that did a study of the city's special charter and presented its findings to the governing body. But it need not just be the city that looks into the options. The PMUA has had the same leadership for almost 15 years. All three initial top administrators - Lou Jones, David Ervin and Eric Watson - had previously served the city as Public Works directors. Jones has since passed on and Watson has mentioned retirement. It would be prudent for PMUA to look into the best possible succession of leadership.

A key factor in establishing an authority was that it could set rates and was not bound by the constraints of a municipality dependent upon tax revenues. But authorities were not meant to have free rein in spending and we are now seeing some undergoing drastic leadership changes meant to bring about austerity in their operations.

Maybe it is too much to ask in these fraught times for a sensible partnership to examine the delivery of two vital services to Plainfield. So far, PMUA has wanted to go its own way.

In the 2005 interview, Watson spoke of the authority being the city's fifth largest employer. More recently, its employment of parolees has been brought up almost as a raison d'etre, as there are so few "re-entry" opportunities. So is employment a core mission of the authority? Should it be? That is a tough question in these times, but so are all the other questions swirling around the PMUA.
All these issues - illegal dumping, rate hikes, delinquent ratepayers, citizen protest, a stalemate on commissioner appointments, authority leadership and its economic role - are ripe for discussion. Will 2011 hold any answers?

--Bernice Paglia

Hear State of the City on Jan. 3

From last year's slide show.

As the governing body considered the agenda for the annual reorganization at Monday's meeting, somebody noticed it did not have a listing for the mayor's State of the City address. It will be added, of course, but it made this writer recall a past Plaintalker post on the subject.

It seems our mayor prefers a PowerPoint slide show to a speech on how things are going in the Queen City. Last year's example ran to 30 pages and can be seen on the city web site.

In 2008, I was wishing for a more dynamic and inspiring address than one that consisted of rather long lists of details. As an example, I posted a "State of the Pedestrian Address" in honor of my favorite cause, walkability. Just for a laugh, I am offering this link to those who missed it or who might want to read it again.

Meanwhile, I am behind on collecting my thoughts for a "Year in Review" post, having only gotten as far as a sketchy list. I am hoping to get it together in the next couple of days.

--Bernice

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Not Exactly Your Winter Wonderland

"How are you getting around?" I asked Mr. Ron Ron, as he was waiting for someone to open the door to Casanova Pizzeria on Front Street.

"Very carefully," he said.

Caution was the key strategy as post-blizzard streetscapes ranged from perfectly clean sidewalks to single-file, icy patches where property owners had made no effort to shovel the snow.
Here's Park Avenue at Fifth Street on Tuesday afternoon.

East Front Street had a wall of snow between sidewalk and curb.

Some piles were more than head-high.

Approaching the main train station from Park Avenue, one section of the sidewalk had only knee-deep holes for one boot-shod foot at a time. There has been a longstanding debate over who is responsible for clearing snow from around the train stations, the city or NJ Transit. Looks like it wasn't decided Tuesday.

Some of the oddities along the way included these new windows at the "luxury condo" building. They were open to the gale winds and blowing snow all weekend.

But Roofus the famous downtown cat was snug inside the old Budget Rent-A-Car building and as usual, was rather indignant at finding a paparraza invading his privacy.

Weather notwithstanding, one Front Street merchant was hoping for post-holiday spenders to come along and posted this inviting sign.

My little pedestrian jaunt persuaded me that going out later to witness the PMUA rate hearing, by which time the slush would be frozen again, was not a good idea. I leave it to the more intrepid to report on the hearing. Anyway, I did my hazardous duty Monday night getting back and forth on foot to City Hall for the council meeting.

--Bernice

City Administrator Controversy Continues

Image: Snow drifts in the blizzard.

The mayor and the governing body sparred Monday over the aftermath of council action to restore City Administrator Bibi Taylor's job.

Taylor was fired by the mayor just as she was going on maternity leave, but the council overrode the decision to keep her on. Taylor gave birth to a daughter last week.

On Monday, the ongoing dispute continued with Councilman Adrian Mapp finding fault with documents listing Dan Williamson as corporation counsel after he was named acting city administrator by the mayor. Mapp said Williamson could not serve in dual capacity according to the city charter.

"You can't have that," he said vehemently, and Councilwoman Bridget Rivers called it "another misstep."

Williamson glossed it over as an error and along with acting Corporation Counsel James Ventantonio, formerly the city solicitor, promised to fix it.

In further discussion, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs responded to questions about plans for day-to-day operations of the city by saying she had planned to bring in an acting city administrator "from the community," but told the council, "We don't have the funding due to your move."

She said Williamson and Ventantonio will therefore continue in their acting roles.

Robinson-Briggs said she was still waiting for Taylor to give her an "absolute schedule" for her maternity leave, which may span Jan. 3 to March 1. She said "some time" had been offered to Taylor, but she did not respond. Williamson said he had asked Taylor for a "written proposal." When she does, he said, he will submit it to the mayor.

The governing body spent two hours Dec. 20 in closed conference with Taylor before members emerged to state they were overturning the mayor's action. On Monday, Councilman William Reid said he was not opposed to consulting with Taylor on important matters, including impending layoffs, an IT shared services deal with the school district and more.

"Hopefully, we will get these things done for the benefit of the city," Reid said.

Given the mayor's declaration that no funding exists for the previously-discussed proposed hiring of former Finance Director Ron West as acting city administrator, Councilman Cory Storch asked whether the auditor could find some money in the budget. But the mayor said if there was a funding source, she would love to "not to have a layoff plan" due to budget cuts.

Council President Annie McWilliams said she understood Taylor had offered to work some hours, but Williamson said the decision rested with the mayor. In turn, Robinson-Briggs said other mothers had not been permitted to work from home while on maternity leave.

The discussion went on with Rivers challenging Williamson's ability to run the city day-to-day and the mayor defending him.

McWilliams wrapped it up by saying the most important thing to get out of the discussion was "what is the plan going forward." Rather than prolong the discussion Monday, she said it would continue "maybe in January."

The council will hold its annual reorganization at 8 p.m. on Jan. 3 in Municipal Court. The first agenda-fixing session of 2011 will take place Jan. 10 in City Hall Library, followed by a regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

--Bernice Paglia

Budget Passes, 4-2

In a 4-2 vote, the City Council passed the SFY 2011 budget Monday after a long discussion over amendments affecting the Purchasing and Recreation divisions.

Councilmen William Reid and Rashid Burney voted “no,” citing disagreements with the two amendments, while Councilmen Adrian Mapp and Cory Storch, Councilwoman Bridget Rivers and Council President Annie McWilliams voted “yes.” Councilwoman Linda Carter, who won a Union County freeholder seat in the November general election, was not present because she resigned from the council earlier on Monday.

One amendment eliminated the Purchasing Division while adding a clerical salary under the chief finance officer to work with an automated purchasing system advocated by Mapp. But Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs suggested that incoming CFO Ron Zilinski might leave if the responsibility for purchasing was added to his duties.

Zilinski was hired in late November after the state Division of Local Government Services ordered the mayor and governing body to come up with a CFO or face daily fines. The statutory office had been vacant in Plainfield since former CFO Peter Sepelya retired at the end of 2007. Zilinski recently retired from a fiscal post in Trenton but has decades of experience and agreed to work 28 hours a week as CFO/City Treasurer in Plainfield.

Both Al Restaino, director of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services, and Dan Williamson, acting city administrator, said they had spoken with Zilinski and that he had reservations about purchasing being added to his role. But after McWilliams asked whether Zilinski had objected in writing, each answered, “No.” Rivers asked the same question and both said no again.

The other amendment would cut funds from the salary line for the Recreation Division and put the money into seasonal workers. Advocates said the move would enhance programming, but opponents said it would unfairly cut Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn’s salary to part time. Reid staunchly defended Wynn, with the mayor murmuring assent. After Storch suggested that a Recreation Commission could provide a better level of oversight and improve programming, Reid said, “You’ve been involved in city stuff for a long time and you know in your heart it wouldn’t work.”

Only three people spoke in a hearing on the amendments, one being Dwayne Wilkins, the current chairman of a Recreation Committee reactivated after a standoff between Wynn and volunteers over use of city ball fields. Wilkins praised Wynn’s handling of Recreation Division events, but questioned programming, citing a volleyball program that served only two adults and nine children. He said his committee had marketers and others who had a lot of ideas for programs, but who needed “a baseline of understanding” that has been elusive.

Robinson-Briggs offered examples of towns with populations similar to Plainfield’s, all having fulltime recreation directors. She said she disagreed with having seasonal people run programs.
The mayor eventually asked the council to reconsider not just the two controversial amendments but also several others. However, Bob Swisher of the auditing firm Supplee, Clooney said changes now would mean starting over with the whole process of advertising amendments, holding a hearing and voting final budget passage.

Neither of the proposed divisional changes would take place until April, due to the need to give notice to the personnel involved. Overall, the budget savings with all the amendments would only be about $12,000. Finally McWilliams, who had sought budget passage before the end of 2010, called for the vote, asking, “Are your concerns valid enough to hold up the vote?”

The 4-2 affirmative vote delivered one of the earliest conclusions to the budget process in many years, just six months into the fiscal year that began July 1. The SFY 2010 budget did not pass until February. Typically, passage in the third quarter of the fiscal year has left little leeway for savings. Several council members have called for starting the SFY 2012 budget process very early, with a three-year projection of savings, as state rules will put tighter reins on future spending. A 2 percent cap will be imposed on municipal budget increases for the next fiscal year.

--Bernice Paglia


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Blizzard!

'Twas the day after Christmas and all through the 'hood,
The weather report was not looking good ...

This storm is the real thing. It went from a light dusting to near-whiteout conditions in a very short time. I will post some photos at intervals, but it is best to stay inside if you can. Take care, everybody!

--Bernice

What Time is Monday's Meeting?

According to a notice posted on the city web site, Monday's agenda session is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library. Click here to see the notice.

The time has also been revised on the annual calendar posted on the city web site.

Of course, it all may fall through if the blizzard prevails.

--Bernice

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Monday's Iffy Meeting

Council mavens got a small Christmas gift in the form of an agenda posting for Monday’s meeting, though it was pretty sketchy. Between a peppermint cane and a lump of coal in the stocking, it fell toward the latter.

Click here to access the agenda page on the city web site.

The library has been closed since Thursday, but even if the agenda had been available there over the weekend for scrutiny, it would not be enlightening. None of the three departments had resolutions to peruse, nor did the administrative/executive branch or the corporation counsel. The legislative body’s resolutions were largely start-of-year housekeeping items, such as naming the official newspaper. There are also several resolutions having to do with council rules for 2011, but no details.

That agenda is for the Jan. 3 reorganization and would normally contain numerous appointments to boards and commissions. Maybe there will be a revised agenda by Monday night. The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, if not wiped out by the predicted major snowstorm.

Included in the correspondence are two announcements from the mayor, one naming Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson acting city administrator and one naming Jacques Howard acting department head for Public Works & Urban Development.

There is also a special meeting scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday, which includes a public hearing on the budget amendments and possible budget passage. It’s a likely bet that the Dave Wynn claque will show up to root for their man. But let’s hope that if there is a blizzard and the meeting still goes on, the bombast will be held to a minimum in the interest of everyone getting back home safely.

Given the drama of the last regular meeting of the year on Dec. 20, it is no wonder that it was not ended with the formal “sine die” announcement. The niceties of proper procedure can easily be overlooked at such times. Correction: Deputy Clerk A.J. Jalloh says: "Bernice, the "Sine Die" WAS announced by the Council President at the last Regular Meeting. It was immediately prior to adjournment."


Good luck to all who are taking up new responsibilities in 2011 and courage to all veterans of the council fray.

--Bernice

Some Friendships Endure

Little Mousie met Mr. Bear when he first became an indoor cat and left his feral life behind. Here he looks pensive but glad to have a little friend.

Time has passed and Mousie is now called Mau. But Mr. Bear is still his best friend and nap companion. (Cue the Carole King song now.)

--Bernice

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas to All!

As always, Grace Church carilloneur Jeff Spelman is setting the holiday tone around our neighborhood with his lovely renditions of Christmas carols. I heard some this afternoon and expect to hear more at midnight and tomorrow.

Peace on earth to folks of good will!

--Bernice

Thursday, December 23, 2010

JG: Love CN, SRB Not So Much

Assemblyman Jerry Green has posted on his blog the full text of today's Courier News editorial chastising the mayor.

The column is posted without comment from JG, who is also the Democratic Party chairman and was once proud to be called the mayor's mentor.

There is one sentence that points out JG's caution to the mayor not to fire her extremely gravid city administrator, but the rest consists of remarks quite critical of SRB.

As with the mayor's cryptic allusion to "internal issues" in deciding to boot Bibi on her way to the maternity ward, we shall perhaps never know what issues exist between mayor and mentor at this juncture.

Guess he won't be rocking in the New Year at her party in Heard One Complex or forking over $30 to the Sharon Robinson-Briggs Civic Association. The party is being organized by "Mr. Plainfield." Is he the new go-to guy in the Queen City and not JG?

Oh well, sometimes "ould acquaintance" gets forgot, especially in politics.

--Bernice

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Year of Bibi

Bibi Taylor’s entry to the Queen City in July 2009 coincided with the start of the 2010 fiscal year, and after dealing with three previous finance directors and stand-ins three times, the City Council was delighted to find her both knowledgeable and responsive.

The hodge-podge Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Senior Services may have tried Bibi’s patience, with its mix of fiscal and social concerns. But even when called on to sort out a time-consuming brouhaha at the Senior Center, she kept her composure. She also faithfully upheld the desires of the executive branch without antagonizing the legislative branch.

When Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs won re-election in November 2009, the cabinet had to be reconstituted and the mayor named Bibi both acting department head and city administrator. However, she said it would only be until Jan. 31, as Bibi was moving on.

The thought of the impending loss made veteran council watchers quite sad, as they hadn’t seen her like in a long time. When her plans changed and she stayed on, more than one observer breathed a sigh of relief. She was named city administrator for the balance of the mayor’s term, to Jan. 1, 2014. For lack of a chief finance officer and head of AFH&SS, she also kept a handle on many additional responsibilities.

Bibi saw the council through the 2010 budget process that finally ended in mid-February. She also had to deal with a new dispute over youth baseball leagues, which took many hours away from her main responsibility for day-to-day operations in the city.

Before long, it was time to start the SFY 2011 budget process. Though visibly pregnant through the fall, Bibi attended many extra night meetings on the budget. Again, Bibi dutifully answered council questions while firmly stating the mayor’s position on certain changes the council sought.

Then came the blow. The mayor whom she so loyally defended fired her, no reason given, even as her delivery date was imminent.

The act appalled a wide range of Plainfielders, including Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green, the mayor’s mentor.

On Monday, council members exercised their right under the city’s special charter to “disapprove” of the firing and Bibi’s job was restored. Already in the early stages of labor, she endured the long meeting where, before the council vote, more than a dozen speakers praised her and urged the council to keep her on.

Early Wednesday, she gave birth and will be out on maternity leave for a while, though ever the trouper, she has offered to work from home until she can return fulltime.

The high regard for Bibi expressed by so many people reflects her stellar role in 2010 and her brightness in the crowded constellation of cabinet members over the past five years. Whatever happens next, 2010 was surely the Year of Bibi in many Queen City minds.

--Bernice

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Little Vacancy That Wasn't

Boys and girls, remember that if you grow up to become a party chairperson and you convene a meeting to fill a vacancy on the City Council,
MAKE SURE THERE IS A VACANCY FIRST!

A meeting to decide on three nominees to replace Councilwoman and Freeholder-elect Linda Carter was called off for that very reason - she had not yet resigned her council seat, therefore there was no vacancy to fill. In days to come, I'm sure that oversight will be rectified.

NJSA 40A:16-11. Appointment to fill vacancy where incumbent was nominee of a political party; time to fill vacancy
40A:16-11. Appointment to fill vacancy where incumbent was nominee of a political party; time to fill vacancy. If the incumbent whose office has become vacant was elected to office as the nominee of a political party, the municipal committee of the political party of which the incumbent was the nominee shall, no later than 15 days after the occurrence of the vacancy, present to the governing body the names of three nominees for the selection of a successor to fill the vacancy. The governing body shall, within 30 days after the occurrence of the vacancy, appoint one of the nominees as the successor to fill the vacancy. If the governing body fails to appoint one of the nominees within the time prescribed herein, the municipal committee that named the three nominees shall, within the next 15 days, appoint one of the nominees as the successor to fill the vacancy, and such person shall be sworn in immediately. If the municipal committee which nominated the incumbent fails to submit the names of the nominees within the time prescribed herein, the governing body may, within the next 15 days, fill the vacancy by the appointment of a successor from the same political party which had nominated the incumbent whose office has become vacant.

If, on the effective date of this act, the governing body had previously received from the municipal committee the names of three nominees to fill any such vacancy and had not filled the vacancy, the governing body, within 30 days after the effective date of this act, shall appoint one of the nominees as the successor to fill the vacancy.

L.1979, c.83, s.1; amended 1980,c.101,s.3; 1990,c.57,s.1.

Taylor Keeps Job, But Leave Raises Concerns

By a unanimous vote late Monday night, the City Council overturned Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs' firing last week of City Administrator Bibi Taylor.

An audience including many who praised Taylor’s performance in the role broke into applause after the roll call vote. Taylor was hired as finance director in July 2009 and only served since January as city administrator, but speakers said she shone on the job from the start. Resident Frank D’Aversa said it only took one meeting to realize her talent and said he told the person next to him, “You got a winner.”

But winning her job back Monday still did not answer the question of who will carry out day-to-day operations in her absence while on maternity leave. Taylor is due to deliver her third child at any moment. No sooner had the applause died down than officials began dickering over the leave issue.

Robinson-Briggs began by pointing out that Taylor’s leave starts Jan. 3 and that she was not going to be let go on Christmas Day, as has been reported. She said she was looking forward to working closer with Taylor. However, she said Monday she has named Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson acting city administrator and is considering former Finance Director Ron West to serve in that role, “short term or long term.”

The mayor had named West as a possible successor to Taylor after last week’s firing and said Monday, “He may still need to be part of the plan.”

Two unanswered questions were how long Taylor might be out on leave and whether she could work from home. Taylor had attended the closed session and was in the audience, but did not take part in the discussion. City Council President Annie McWilliams said Taylor had indicated she was willing to work from home, but Robinson-Briggs said flatly, “If someone is on maternity leave, they are on maternity leave.”

Councilwoman Bridget Rivers had another concern, grilling Williamson on his powers as acting city administrator and asking how a future acting city administrator would be able to handle decisions, including possible layoffs, arising from budget passage that is expected next week.

The discussion ended with the council requesting the mayor to come up with a temporary plan of action. But then the talk turned to two controversial budget items, a reduction of Recreation Division funds that would leave the fulltime superintendent working part-time and the proposed elimination of the Purchasing Division in favor of putting its functions under a new chief finance officer.

In public comment before council action, many residents praised Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn and asked the council to keep him working fulltime. When the council began discussing the budget amendments up for a vote Monday, the mayor voiced support for Wynn and backed it up by reading out a long list of towns that have fulltime recreation directors.

“If there is a personality clash, I ask you to look past that. We need a fulltime recreation director,” she said.

Robinson-Briggs also spoke against eliminating the Purchasing Division, saying the only thing that kept the city on “the straight and narrow” during the prolonged lack of a chief finance officer was Purchasing and Audit & Control.

The mayor also read from the Municipal Code a portion on duties of the City Council, saying the governing body may appoint all committees except for administrative purposes. She alleged that the Finance Committee, which drafted the budget amendments that affected the two divisions, overstepped its role.

But McWilliams said once the council made cuts, “How you execute them is up to you.”

Rather than attempting to make further budget changes at this point, the council passed the amendments Monday. A public hearing on the amendments will be held on Dec. 27, after which the council hopes to pass the budget.

--Bernice Paglia


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gather Patience for Monday's Big Meeting

The recent turns and twists in the Bibi Taylor situation - her firing and the mayor's mentor's call for her to rescind her decision, not to mention the council's plan to overturn it - have residents planning to crowd Monday's council meeting and urging others to do so as well.

But on Monday's agenda there is an announcement that the governing body will open the meeting and go into closed session for approximately 45 minutes. Assuming they will go upstairs to a conference room in police headquarters, the public will at least get to sit around on benches in Municipal Court while awaiting their return. Normally, the council would stay and the public would be excluded, but it's pretty uncomfortable standing in the hallway or on the court steps for a prolonged time.

However, the logistics are just a petty thing compared to the import of whatever action may come out of the meeting. The mayor has been asked to attend and explain who will be running the city during the city administrator's maternity leave. She failed to appear last week, and meanwhile fired Taylor and named former city Finance Director Ron West as her choice for acting city administrator. So perhaps from her perspective, the question is moot.

But her mentor, Assemblyman Jerry Green, is now asking her to restore Taylor to the post.

Green, also head of the Democratic City Committee, cannot be mayor due to a city ban on dual office-holding, but ever since Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took office on Jan. 1, 2006, there has been a public perception that Green actually pulls the strings. His intercession now after she has announced her choice of West makes some of us recall how Green tried to pin the closing of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center on West, who is also suspect to the Regular Democratic Organization because he served under the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, a New Democrat.

Amidst the many perplexing aspects of the situation, the spectacle of a nine-months' pregnant city administrator being fired effective Christmas Day even evokes passing thoughts of the Nativity, the political inn being City Hall.

All in all, it is attracting a lot of negative attention to Plainfield, which is already suffering from the stigma of dozens of shootings since May.

Part of the current public outcry is undoubtedly due to the citizens' fervent desire for order at the top. Since coming to the city in July 2009, Taylor has impressed many with her articulate, intelligent style. When the mayor named her in January to be in charge of day-to-day operations as city administrator, residents and council members alike were effusive in praising the choice.

Taylor has staunchly defended the administration's position on several controversial issues this year, but has seldom been caught short in providing the governing body with factual information as requested. In the present situation, the mayor alludes to "internal issues" that cannot be openly discussed, but which have led to the firing.

If you go to Monday's meeting, maybe a mystery novel would be an appropriate choice to bring to while away the time the council spends in closed session. There is a quote attributed to Winston Churchill: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."

Perhaps there is a key to a positive outcome in this situation. Perhaps it is the city's public interest.

We'll see.

--Bernice

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Diet Distractions

I used to read labels and shake my head over the nutritional information. Some foods appeared to be well within the limits for sodium values and such, unless you took into account the serving size. A very small can of vegetables might contain two servings at half a cup each, meaning all the values listed had to be doubled if you used the whole can. But given the average size of American portions, half a can looks kind of lonely on a plate.

Well, now I am looking at that lonely amount quite often, thanks to a diet I have been given. My refrigerator is full of little containers with half-cup leftovers of food. This diet also allows for portions such as one-eighth of an avocado. As a senior home alone most of the time, what am I supposed to do with the other seven eighths?

It is taking much more time out of the day to meet the various requirements of this diet and so far I have not got the hang of it. I don't mind eating the same thing a couple days in a row, but it could take a week or so to use up certain foods at this rate. If you see me muttering to myself at a council meeting and counting on my fingers, I am probably figuring out how long it will take to go through a bunch of broccoli or a head of cabbage a half-cup at a time.

--Bernice




Call It IckyLeaks

Somehow Dan gets all the hot inside news that us mere mortals have to wait for officials to confirm. His pointy stick must have a spy app - or is that those in government who are supposed to keep things to themselves make an exception for Dan?

Some of the things he turns up or chooses to trumpet to the blogosphere are a bit queasy-making. For example, the image of Bibi Taylor opening her door to someone who reports to her, only to find he is delivering her official termination letter - ick. Or the notion of Dave Wynn being the mayor's special emissary to the council members, the same folks he won't talk to about what is going on in his division that is apparently spoiling the youth sports experience for a couple hundred parents and kids - double ick.

Most of us decided not to delve into a 2009 incident involving a department head after it appeared there would be no official corroboration of the lurid tale involving use of city-owned property to allegedly hook up with somebody nicknamed massageking1 on city time. Icky, but not too much for Dan.

While sniffing the air for the whiff of litigation in new developments, Dan might well consider whether he is giving succor to the litigious by posting too much of what insiders have shared with him. An elected official would be in big trouble for revealing privileged communication, especially regarding personnel. Can Dan post icky leaks and still count on being exempt?

--Bernice

Mayday Mayday Mayday

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Trouble, Trouble

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs in happier days.

Relations between the governing body and the mayor seem to be getting more fractious than ever. If in fact Dan's big rumor turns out to be true (the one about the mayor being ready to fire the city administrator), the council will be eligible for a big-time tit for tat, as there is language in the charter that says they can disapprove such action by a five-vote majority.

The mayor has already vetoed legislation on bid thresholds that the council passed and the council has mustered the five votes to override her veto. Now she is vetoing the override, but the council is going to over-override the veto, or something like that.

Only one aspect of city operations is affected by the spat over bid thresholds, but as far as having a tug-of-war over the person in day-to-day charge of all city operations, well, that will certainly make Jay Jefferson Cooke's day.

Here's what the City Charter says:
Article III, 3.5 b) The mayor may remove a department head or the city administrator whenever, in his discretion, the public interest so requires; and any such removal shall take effect 10 days after the mayor files notice of removal with the city clerk unless prior thereto the council shall at a regular or special meeting disapprove of such removal by resolution adopted by the affirmative vote of 2/3 of the entire membership. In the event of such resolution of disapproval, the affected officer shall be restored to his office without loss of pay.

Never mind that the 1969 charter assumes that all officeholders will be male, you get the picture. The charter never contemplated having a city administrator who might be going out on maternity leave, either. The council has asked the mayor to explain who would be in charge if the city administrator took maternity leave, but the mayor did not appear Monday as invited to answer the question. The council then extended the invitation to next Monday's regular meeting.

If instead the mayor really wants to fire the city administrator and the council takes action to disapprove of such action, the question of who will be sitting at the city administrator's desk in City Hall Annex remains.

You may now step outside and scream. If it's too cold, just tear your hair.

--Bernice

Council Ponders Curbs to Gun Violence

Two shootings – one fatal – outside a Park Avenue restaurant early Saturday revived City Council talk of shutting down 24-hour food venues.

The discussion Monday put Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig on the spot, as the city’s eighth homicide this year was a 400 percent increase over last year, when just two fatal incidents took place. Hellwig defended an anti-violence plan that he said was in place for three weeks, saying, “It seems to have had a positive effect.”

But then three shootings, one at the same person twice, raised again the specter of unchecked violence, even though Hellwig said the Dec. 11 victim was a gang member who was targeted.

Hellwig said to have a police officer on every corner was impossible, but offered the hope of having the long-awaited CCTV surveillance system installed “next year.” Despite the public’s fears, he said, “Crime in the city is not out of control.”

“We’re in a good spot,” Hellwig said, noting break-ins are the number one concern after homicides.

“We made a number of arrests,” he said. “People have a perception that nothing is being done.”

But Fourth Ward Councilwoman Bridget Rivers said, “I have a different opinion than you have,” citing “some unreported shootings.”

“I’m putting a motion in place that we close that place,” Rivers said, referring to the Kennedy Fried Chicken restaurant at Park and Fifth.

Councilwoman Linda Carter said the governing body tried to use such a strategy before and was told it could not be done. But she said the council had long asked for a police presence at the site, where large numbers of people tend to congregate after bars close.

The discussion drifted over to the council’s role as the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control board, as some of the homicides have taken place outside bars.

“We put something on the books three years ago to require them to have security,” Carter said.

“The takeaway seems to be that we have to have an ordinance in place,” Council President Annie McWilliams said.

The council receives reports on incidents in or around liquor establishments and Councilman William Reid noted some have “pages and pages of fights.”

“What are the number of fights or stabbings that have to take place before we mandate something like that?”McWilliams asked, referring to an ordinance.

Councilman Adrian Mapp recalled there had been a “gentleman’s agreement” on rules.

Rivers said, “I know there used to be a police presence.”

McWilliams concluded the talk by saying Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson would get back to the council with options.

Plaintalker’s archives reflect gun violence prevention strategies that include “Operation Ceasefire,” a plan where any shooting would be fully investigated as if it had been a homicide. Announced in December 2006, it was still not implemented by August 2007. It eventually took off, but fell through when cuts in the Union County prosecutor’s office caused the effort to disband.

While conditions including the presence of security personnel have been imposed on owners of liquor establishments through ABC reviews, there is no comparable process for dealing with 24-hour restaurants. Over the years, strategies for dealing with after-hours crowds at Park & Fifth have included blockading the street to traffic or making informal agreements with owners on limiting hours.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Budget Amendments Proposed

A 90-minute City Council discussion of budget amendments concluded with the fact that savings will be minimal and a projected tax increase still stands at about 5 percent.

The governing body expects to wrap up the budget this month, but due to a required 75-day notification to affected personnel, the net savings of $162,076 will dwindle to $12,000 by the time the cuts take effect.

The amendments will be voted on next Monday, after which they will be published. A public hearing on the amendments will take place Dec. 27, at which time the council hopes to approve them and vote on final passage of the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. The $70.3 million SFY 2011 budget introduced in October included a municipal tax levy of $50.5 million, up from $48.2 million in the 2010 fiscal year budget.

Among amendments, the council proposed reducing the salary and wage line in the mayor’s office, as well as the governing body’s own compensation. One staff attorney will be eliminated from the Corporation Counsel’s office. The Recreation Division will see a reduction of $30,000 from a fulltime position and the same amount will be added to seasonal workers.

The Purchasing Division will be eliminated in favor of putting its functions under the newly-hired chief finance officer. Councilman Adrian Mapp, chairman of the council’s Finance Committee which formulated the amendments, said purchasing will be automated under a system with which incoming CFO Ron Zilinski was very familiar.

The comptroller’s budget line will be reduced by $50,000, because there was no CFO for most of the year, but a $25,000 increase to the office will provide for a clerical position to assist with purchasing duties. Councilman William Reid objected to the elimination of the Purchasing Division and Councilman Rashid Burney expressed concerns about a new CFO’s ability to manage the change.

Reid said the CFO is scheduled to work just 28 hours a week and eliminating a person certified as a Qualified Purchasing Agent was a “step that should be reconsidered.”

Al Restaino, recently appointed director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services, called Reid’s concerns “very valid.” Both the comptroller/CFO’s office and the Purchasing Division report to Restaino.

“Placing the responsibility under (the CFO’s) umbrella will create a hardship,” Restaino said.

When Mapp said the purchasing was going to be automated, Reid said the city’s IT manager had never dealt with such a system, nor had Board of Education staff that will be serving the city in a shared IT services agreement. Mapp insisted that the new CFO was “very familiar with the Edmunds system,” which provides municipal software programs.

“You just got to turn it on,” Mapp said.

As Reid continued to voice skepticism about the plan, Councilman Cory Storch said he was hearing about a hardship, but he said, “The hardship we need to be concerned with is the taxpayers’.”

Storch noted city audit findings, which repeatedly found flaws in purchasing practices, and said, “I’m willing to consolidate the departments.”

With the need for personnel notices, the change would not take place until April and would affect a full year’s budget starting next July.

Among other amendments, the newly-established Division of Information Technology and Media would be de-funded and its salary and wage line of $163,000 and other expense line of $155,000 would be added to Administration & Finance, where the division is being placed. It had been free-standing and reported to the mayor, an arrangement that was in violation of the city’s charter, which calls for all divisions to be under one of three department heads.

The council will increase the budget of the Plainfield Public Library by $150,289. Mapp said last year’s cut to the library in that amount had generated “lots of debate, lots of e-mail” and that the increase was in the best interest of the city.

A $50,000 reduction in the salary and wage line for the Police Division kicked off an intense discussion of public safety issues, including overtime costs, the number of superior officers, past cuts, a spike in homicides this year and police deployment strategies. Public Affairs & Safety Director Martin Hellwig was called on to respond to the council’s concerns. Plaintalker will have more on the subject in a separate post.

In a related matter, the appearance of former Public Affairs & Safety Director Jiles Ship was put off until the Dec. 22 regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.

In the face of ongoing budget constraints from the state, Storch suggested that the council "redo the whole budget process." He advocated starting in January, with a collaborative effort among the city’s administrative and legislative branches and the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Board, to get an early handle on the SFY 2012 budget and to make three-year projections to keep costs under control.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Consultant to Aid Local TV

A consultant who created the “Hello Plainfield” and “Plainfield at Work” segments for the city’s TV station may be hired again if the City Council approves a new contract.

Parris Z. Moore of Blok Box Pictures served two prior stints as a media consultant, in the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years. Among his responsibilities were editing, filling out logs, getting talent release forms, scheduling, managing archival materials and many other duties.

His first contract was for $50,000. In the 2009 fiscal year Blok Box racked up a tab of $23,400 for work at the request of city personnel, without a contract. Officials said he was also owed for some additional work. He received a retroactive contract in May 2009, not to exceed $50,000 for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2008.

The proposed new contract is for $35,000 from Dec. 21 to June 30, 2011.

Although Moore did production work on the segments, interviews for them were conducted by Laurence Rice, who was laid off earlier this year. Rice also taped events. In July, the city hired a videographer at $100 an hour, not to exceed $30,000 for the year.

At present, the only other person involved with local television programming is IT manager Chris Payne, who is also responsible for media.

The city is on the verge of making an agreement with the school district for shared IT services. A resolution up for board discussion Tuesday states “The City of Plainfield is in need of experienced informational technology personnel and the Board of Education has the necessary personnel to accommodate the City of Plainfield’s needs.” It is not spelled out whether the deal will also include help with local television programming.

The city’s rejuvenated Cable Television Advisory Committee has ambitious plans for local television programming and has taken steps to involve students in station operations. Given the thin staffing even with Blok Box returning, it will likely fall to the committee to make the most of these resources until such time as more can be allocated.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, December 11, 2010

City to Seek $1.1 Million for Streetscape Work

The City Council will be asked Monday to consider approving an application for $1,135,160 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds to improve three blocks on East Second Street.

The East Second Street Neighborhood Commercial District is bounded by Johnston and Leland avenues, according to the application, and is a mix of small businesses and homes. It was targeted for a redevelopment study in 2005, but little has been said about its prospects since.

The proposal includes sidewalk reconstruction, curbs, lighting, landscaping and street benches. Jacques Howard, assistant director of Economic Development, notes in a memo to City Administrator Bibi Taylor that merchants and property owners in the district have been organizing to create an association to support and maintain the streetscape improvements.

Saying the district has recently experienced some private investment, Howard adds, "This project will encourage additional investment and events programming to create a destination point for area residents."

Although there will be no direct costs to the city, Howard said, the city will seek Community Development Block Grant funding "to leverage state dollars."

Urban Enterprise Zone funds come from sales tax collected by certified retailers in the zone. The Urban Enterprise Zone Authority reviews applications for funding and grants approval for projects.

Another project application up for council consideration is $60,000 for Rutgers University to perform a "comprehensive economic development and growth analysis" for the city. As described by Professor Roland V. Anglin of the Edward J. Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy, the goal is to find ways to "bolster the economic base" of the city. Case studies of other municipalities with similar profiles and the same goal will be compiled into a casebook, with a set of recommendations for Plainfield. There will also be a presentation to the mayor, council and "an economic development commission" composed of key stakeholders, which the Edward J. Bloustein School will staff and manage.

In addition, the city will receive a market study based on interviews with stakeholders, business owners and others "who can provide strategic direction on economic development." Combined with the case studies, they will form a "strategy report" to the city.

Earlier this year, the city applied for UEZ funding for two other projects. Click here to read about them. So far, neither has been approved by the UEZA.

--Bernice Paglia

Former Director to Address Public Safety

Former Public Affairs & Safety Director Jiles Ship is on Monday's agenda to discuss "strategies to enhance public safety."

Councilwoman Bridget Rivers, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, will introduce Ship for a 15-minute presentation.

Ship, now president/CEO of Highland Global Strategies, served the city in 2004 and 2005. He resigned at the end of 2005 as his term was about to run out. While with the city, he devised a new deployment plan based on the city's four wards. Click here to read Plaintalker's post from 2005.

The city is currently experiencing a rash of shootings, several of which have been fatal. The most recent one occurred early Saturday morning, leaving Sahaad H. Monroe, 25, dead and another man injured.

The council meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Avenue.

Two other discussion items are on the agenda. Councilman Adrian Mapp, chairman of the council's Finance Committee, is scheduled to lead a discussion on amendments to the SFY 2011 municipal budget. In addition, the governing body has invited Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs to "explain her plans for day-to-day operations of the city" in the absence of City Administrator Bibi Taylor, who is due to deliver her third child imminently.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, December 10, 2010

Downtown Sights

There are several new stores downtown and more under renovation by Paramount Assets. One window full of bling features a disco ball and some glitzy belt buckles and bracelets.

The foyer of the Senior Center features a blow-up snow globe, a reindeer and lots of very healthy green plants.

Pollo Campero was crowded for its grand opening. Did you read Mark Spivey's story about its interesting menu?
A holiday planter is accessorized with Grand Opening balloons.

Pedestrians trying to get to Supremo supermarket have to watch their step on this broken, icy sidewalk.

Donkeys, angels, santos - a curious mix in this window.

I never saw the Virgen de Guadalupe portrayed this way before.
There is a lot going on downtown right now. Some stores are gone and new ones are opening. I wonder whether folks at City Hall are assessing the net effect. For example, the store on the southeast corner of Watchung & Front has been completely renovated, but it now has metal gates over the entire facade - kind of a forbidding sight.
The owner of the building where Pollo Campero opened has some new tenants among his mix of restaurants, non-profits, commercial businesses and one church. No news on the 80 apartments he has permission to construct at the rear of his property.
There was talk this year of starting a business registry, an idea that crops up about every decade but never materializes. The good part would be that the city could get a grip on what exists downtown, the downside being the possible imposition of a registry fee on business owners who may not have a high profit margin.
The offerings downtown still tend to be low-end or urban-oriented, but they obviously have a clientele. More and more cater to specific Latino nationalities. Probably downtown marketing strategies used elsewhere, such as uniform or themed signage, will not work with so many small, diverse businesses. For the time being, it is what it is, as they say.
--Bernice


Next Time: An Open Search

As a blogger and freelancer in 2007, I got to tell the beginning of the story on Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III. Courier News reporter Mark Spivey followed its denouement through the courts after Gallon fell from grace through a series of missteps. Today’s online story points to a settlement that will likely write the end of Gallon’s saga as Plainfield’s chief school administrator.

When the school board initiates a new search for a superintendent, it is highly likely that city residents and district union leaders will insist on a more open process than the one that brought Gallon here, and one that will be informed by some of the qualities the community wanted in a new superintendent the last time, but which Gallon did not possess.

Coming from Florida, Gallon did not have the grasp of New Jersey school law and school finance that residents at a community forum said they desired. He had no experience with Abbott districts, as the neediest districts in the state were then called. While a proven leader as a principal, he had never served in the role that was the subject of a national search.

In retrospect, the secrecy of the search comes across as a mistake. In past searches, finalists appeared before the community to answer questions before one was selected. But a search consultant declared early on, “There will be no parading of candidates in front of the public.”

The search began in August 2007 with the hiring of an Illinois firm and ended in February 2008 with Gallon’s appointment.

Gallon made his first public appearance unannounced, late into a school board meeting where his very appointment was a “walk-in” item not on the agenda. It was a pretty stealthy move by the board, which had already kept a tight lid on all aspects of the search. The dinner with three finalists and the ultimate visit to Gallon’s home district were wrapped in mystery worthy of Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility.

Whatever Gallon did once he arrived, he got here through a process for candidates that the board members at the time desired and the search firm carried out. One of the putative reasons for extreme secrecy was to avoid political interference in the process, and while it is true that Plainfield tends to be rife with intrigue, the board’s antidote to behind-the-scenes machinations came off looking remarkably similar.

“Transparency” lately has become a buzzword used to cover all sorts of situations, but if the district hopes to keep the revolving CSA door from spinning yet again, the next search needs to be as open as possible. The district has endured a loss of morale as well as trust, and the next superintendent will have to build up both while leading it out of poor performance. The oft-mentioned “stakeholders” deserve to know more up front about those who seek the job.

--Bernice

Council Calendar - Still Wishing

Image: Sunlit ornamental grass (Miscanthus sinensis zebrina)

My wish that the City Council would adopt a traditional calendar for 2011 did not come true. I was hoping changes would be made in time to start off the year with the old pattern of regular meetings on the first and third Mondays and agenda-fixing meetings on the preceding Mondays.

As several dedicated council watchers have noted, the once-a-month regular meeting has become an endurance contest, running to four or five hours. Those who attempt to report to the general public on the doings of the governing body are challenged by the sheer mass of information to convey. And even though the meetings are taped for viewing on the local television channels, the likelihood of a citizen watching for several hours is slim.

Twice the governing body has revised the schedule, once for a Monday-Wednesday plan and then for the current one. But by starting the process after Jan. 1, when the old schedule has already been adopted and published, a new one kicks in around April with much confusion.

For several years, City Clerk Laddie Wyatt and I used to go over the upcoming calendar together as a sort of double-check on making sure holidays and elections were taken into account. I printed out a 2011 calendar earlier this evening and I will miss that little friendly exercise of confirming the dates.

As for changes, because the calendar is the subject of an ordinance, amendments must be passed on two readings and then they take effect 20 days later. That's how it gets to be April before the changes take place.

On a related issue, there was talk of reverting to a calendar year for the budget instead of the using fiscal year that runs from July 1 to June 30, spanning two calendar years. But that idea is still in the talking stage. The change would align the municipal budget year with that of the state, although the main reason to do so, more timely receipt of special state aid, has become moot with the city's current stance of not applying for such aid because so many fiscal constraints come with it.

There is something almost magically hopeful about a new calendar or a blank diary. What will the year hold, we wonder. Around this time we look back even as we are looking forward, contrasting the year in review with our best wishes for the coming one.

Some of us are still wishing for a less trying City Council meeting schedule.

--Bernice

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Long Winter's Nap

Image: Peruvian Oxalis.

Once again it's that time of year.

No, not the season to be jolly. I wish. Actually, I wish I were a groundhog, because then I would sleep through the span from late fall to early spring where Seasonal Affective Disorder seems to reign over some of us.

It's the time of year when I rely on my windowsill crops of oxalis and impatiens to remind me that spring will eventually roll around on the Wheel of the Year. The cold, dark winter in fact starts getting lighter on the first day. The longest night means that by very small increments, the days will then get longer.

Meanwhile, the season has me feeling like dozing through much of it. I keep getting in bed to read a book or write in my journal or just to take a nap.

It's no wonder that ancient peoples lit huge fires at this time of the year to lure back the light. I'm glad for my enclosed porch with 10 windows - it's drafty, but much brighter than the inside rooms.

So while I may be registering the ambient ho-ho-ho and fa la la la la, I will just be hitting the mental snooze alarm until the holiday known variously as Imbolc, Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day - or, to TV morning show hosts, as Groundhog Day - rolls around.

--Bernice








Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Baton is Passed

This morning I noticed a large number of Plainfield legal notices in the Courier News. Taking a closer look tonight, I realized the name at the bottom had changed from Laddie Wyatt, RMC/CMC/MCCA, Municipal Clerk to Abubakar Jalloh, RMC, Deputy Clerk.

A.J., as he is known, came to City Hall in 2006 with the administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. Jalloh and Barbara James, who had both worked in Assemblyman Jerry Green's office, began employment in City Hall under a newly-created title, confidential aide. James became the confidential aide of the mayor and Jalloh was the aide of City Administrator Carlton McGee.

McGee left at the end of October 2006 and was succeeded in January 2007 by Marc Dashield, who apparently did not require a confidential aide. Eventually Jalloh joined the clerk's office and earned his credentials as a Registered Municipal Clerk. Public service seems to be a family value, as Jalloh's brother, Mohamed S. Jalloh, won a Union County freeholder seat in the November 2009 general election and took office for a three-year term Jan. 1.

The handsome and personable A.J. has by now had a few local elections under his belt, as well as some of the other major tasks of the clerk's office, such as dealing with annual reviews of more than three dozen liquor licenses. While some get renewed without problems, the process can drag on as stragglers pay up their state tax arrears or resolve other issues.

It remains to be seen whether he wants to become the municipal clerk, a daunting and relentless job for a young man. Retiring City Clerk Laddie Wyatt came to the job after more than 20 years' service with the Board of Education. Her predecessor, Emilia Stahura, had served in City Hall for many years before rising to the title of municipal clerk.

The coming year seems to be shaping up as one that will hold many transitions. We will all just have to wait and see how things unfold. Meanwhile, running the clerk's office day to day is on the shoulders of Deputy Clerk Abubakar Jalloh. If you're in City Hall, stop by and give him a word of encouragement. It's not an easy job.

--Bernice

Monday, December 6, 2010

More on Boards and Commissions

Should the day come when somebody undertakes to list all the boards and commissions as required by the Civic Responsibility Act of 2005, I hope someone is around to sort the viable ones from the defunct.

For example, the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Training Program has to do with Project Alert, the residential substance abuse recovery program that the city formerly ran at Dudley House. As reported in the Courier News recently, the city-owned building now houses a non-profit agency that pays rent and operates its own program. So that board is no longer needed.

The Board of Education is listed in the Municipal Code under Boards and Commissions, harking back to the time when the mayor appointed members. It has long since been an elected board.

There is a Crime Prevention Advisory Board on the books that to my knowledge has not convened for decades, although maybe it should be revived given the current wave of shootings.

The Economic Development Committee and the Plainfield Redevelopment Agency are no longer around. The City Council has its own Economic Committee and redevelopment activities are done in-house at City Hall rather than by appointees to an autonomous agency.

The Independence Day Committee dates back to the era when eight municipalities worked together to plan the July 4th parade and other festivities. Now the city puts on its own parade and fireworks as all the former partners have stepped away.

The Local Assistance Board was no doubt of vital help for the needy at one time, but the Welfare Division was disbanded and its functions handed over to Union County some time ago.

What on earth is the Metropolitan Regional Council? Did the city really once collaborate with New York and Connecticut on shared concerns?

The Anti-Litter Committee has had no appointees for ages, though we still have plenty of litter. Ditto for the Urban Rodent and Insect Control Policy Committee. Did people actually sit around once and ponder policy on dealing with rats and roaches?

Then there is the Sewer Utility, mourned by people who wish that body, not the PMUA, was in charge of the sewers, because residents could get a tax break.

The city established an Environmental Commission in 2001, but no members were ever appointed.

Only a few very important boards and commissions are active. The ones that deserve the full attention of those wanting to serve the city are the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Planning Board, the Historic Preservation Commission, the Cultural & Heritage Commission and a few more that meet regularly and have influence over the quality of life in Plainfield.

It would be helpful indeed to have information posted on meeting times and locations, qualifications for members and length of available terms. A volunteer could research all that and compile it for posting. Without interest from new applicants, vacancies are liable to be filled with insiders and the politically connected.

--Bernice

PMUA Plans Shared Services Rate Hike

Philip Charles of DumpPMUA alerts residents to a proposed rate increase that will be acted on at a Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority public hearing on Dec. 28.

The proposed rate changes are spelled out in a Dec. 2 legal notice (which I missed). The main concern of the group is a 61.8 percent increase in the shared services quarterly rate, from $51.13 per quarter to $82.75 per quarter. It includes a quarterly increase from $35.07 per lot to $48.72 and a quarterly increase per household from $16.13 to $34.03.

The full notice may be seen on the New Jersey Press Association web site under public notices. There is no direct link to the notice, you have to input information to get it. Click here to get started.

Here is how the PMUA explains the proposed change:

The proposed adjustments will not result in an increase in the total solid waste rates charged to most ratepayers. The Authority's CY2011 Solid Waste operating budget "does not" include a service rate increase. However, certain service adjustments were necessitated in the Authority's "On-Call" bulky waste collection services in order to expand bulky waste collection service availability to all Plainfield property owners. This needed adjustment now makes bulky waste collection an integral component of the community "shared services" fees paid by all City property owners. Bulky waste collection is part of the Authority's comprehensive solid waste program service package being provided to our current customers and the proposed change will have no overall impact on these customers. Extending this service to all property owners and making it a part of the Authority's shared services fee is needed to help address a significant increase in illegal dumping being experienced throughout the City.

Charles says the change in shared services rates "will basically force homeowners to choose PMUA's services. " The citizen group has encouraged homeowners to opt out of PMUA services and now Charles sees the rate change as a particular concern for those who did so. The language of the notice cites an extension of bulky waste collection to "all property owners," not just its current customers.

Click here to read DumpPMUA's previous commentary on shared services.

Charles urges residents to speak out at the Dec. 28 meeting, which will be at 6 p.m. in the PMUA building at 127 Roosevelt Avenue.

Besides "Shared Services Adjustments," other rate changes up for a hearing and vote Dec. 28 are Low Density Residential Rates, which will slightly increase fees per lot and decrease fees per household, yielding no overall change in the 2010 rate of $199.38 per quarter rate for 2011.

Under Container Service Rates, disposal fees will increase from $101.13 per quarter to $110.77 per quarter and collection fees will decrease from $232.22 to $223.11. The Basic Container Service Fee will increase only 53 cents to $333.88 per quarter for 2011. All the approved changes will take effect on Jan. 1, 2011.

DumpPMUA was organized in March 2009 after PMUA increases of 14 percent for sewer rates and 20 percent for solid waste rates, which the group said occurred without proper notice. The group went on to examine the authority's operations, including travel and expenses for commissioners, and although the authority prevailed in a lawsuit over its practices, reforms on policies were enacted. To learn more about DumpPMUA, click here.

The City Council had asked PMUA officials to appear before the governing body earlier this year, but PMUA Chairman Harold Mitchell asked that any meeting be put off until after the November general election. So far, no date for a joint meeting has been announced. The authority is operating with several holdover commissioners. No appointments were made in time for its annual reorganization in February and none have come through subsequently.

--Bernice Paglia

Vacancy Process Questioned

In response to my blog post on filling a council vacancy, some folks are questioning the rationale for involvement of the Democratic City Committtee, citing language in the charter that places the responsibility solely on the City Council:

2.4 Vacancies

A vacancy in the office of councilman occurring during a term shall be filled by election at the next general election to be held not less then 60 days after the occurrence of the vacancy. The council shall forthwith fill the vacancy temporarily by appointment of a qualified person to serve until the qualification of the person so elected. A person appointed to fill a vacancy shall have the qualifications required of the previous incumbent and shall be a member of the same political party as such prior incumbent. In the event the council fails to fill the vacancy within 60 days following its occurrence the mayor shall forthwith appoint a qualified person to serve as above.


City Clerk Laddie Wyatt tells me there is statutory language that sets forth the process as I noted it. If I can get the citations, I will put them on the blog. (Update: I changed my mind and I am not going to research this. You are on your own.)

The last time the process was invoked was when Councilman Rayland Van Blake resigned before the end of his council term, but before taking office as a Union County freeholder. As I recall, three names were offered by the Democratic City Committee and the council selected William Reid as appointee. Objectors are saying the charter does not require anything more than direct council action.

Stay tuned. (Never mind.)

--Bernice

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bargains - Just a Bus or Train Ride Away

Image: Ornamental cabbage in downtown Westfield planter.

Friday was my day to take action and prepare for winter.

My old jacket was just getting too worn out and I had no waterproof footwear for those treks to public meetings in foul weather. My messenger bag somehow has been feeling heavier these days and I was looking for a change.

So despite being one of the worst consumers in Central Jersey, I was off to Westfield on a mission.

Among the very pricey and (to me) overly ornamented jackets at a well-known department store in Westfield, I found one in my target price range. At 40 percent off, it was even better. A stylish, small handbag on sale gave me one of those moments that more ardent shoppers have all the time - the thrill of acquiring something that will make me feel happy every time I use it.

The waterproof footwear was not so much of a bargain, but given that I have been looking for weeks online for something sturdy and reliable, it solved the problem.

I felt somewhat ostentatious on the public transit with my shopping bags, but I expect these items to last a long time. When you get up in years, you start thinking that some purchases may outlive the purchaser, especially if you are not one to bow to fashion and redo your wardrobe every season.

Today another 35 percent-off coupon is burning a hole in my wallet. As much as I dislike shopping in crowds, Westfield is beckoning ...

I do believe in that great New England credo, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without," but every so often, you gotta go shopping.

--Bernice

Impromptu Art Points To Need

This eye-catching image masks a somewhat sinister situation. It is painted on a piece of plywood securing a cellar window on a building across Watchung Avenue from City Hall.

The porch was a favorite spot for vagrants over the summer, as well as those who swiped donations from the Salvation Army box across the street and used the porch as a fitting room to try things on before discarding what they didn't want.

The boarded-up doors and windows most likely mean squatters have tried to take over the building as cold weather approaches.

It is sad to think we have people so desperate for shelter and clothing, but it has been a fact of life in the city for many years and only got worse with the economic downturn. If you are doing relatively well, this is the time for an end-of-year charitable donation that may even be tax-deductible.

Every time I think I am at the low end of the economic scale as a retiree with a small pension, I see a reminder like this that I am generally able to meet my needs for the necessities of life, while crossing paths daily in my neighborhood with those who are not. It is not too late to amend your holiday gift list with something for those in dire need at this time of year.

--Bernice