Monday, February 28, 2011

Register for Movie Tickets?

This is not about Plainfield except for the fact that I would like to depart from the Queen City to go see a film in New York.

This is a first for me, as I don't go to the movies nor do I watch television, But I have become so entranced with Bill Cunningham's life and work that I decided to explore the logistics of going to see a new independent film about him that will be shown in March in New York City.

So I go online and what do I find out? You have to register to buy tickets for Film Forum! Is this the modern way? It is highly unlikely that I will ever go again, if I get there this one time.

BTW, I'm sure Audrey is falling off her chair if she is reading this, because she always wants me to go into the city when she visits and I am always only half-convinced it is worth all the fuss of budging from my humble abode. I am not like that Sussex County farmer who grew old without ever seeing the ocean from the Jersey Shore, but I'm close when it comes to traveling.

Now I am thinking I will just take my chances that this film will come out on Netflix some day (and that I will be able to watch a whole movie on Netflix without falling asleep at least twice).

Meanwhile, can anyone explain why a person has to register just to buy a movie ticket to Film Forum? I don't want to join a club, I just want to see one indie film.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

UEZ Report Signals Need for Analysis

At the risk of sounding negative, Plaintalker would suggest that interested people read the report that led to the proposed shutdown of the state UEZ program.

This analysis found that only eight cents in new State and local revenue was generated per $1 of state funding investment. Participation by merchants is cumbersome and in Plainfield, only 105 of 731 eligible businesses were certified. Often, funds were encumbered for projects that took a very long time to be realized (CCTV cameras come to mind).

Consultants suggested replacing the state program with a "place-based" one, but state officials said economic conditions preclude a new program. However, the most popular aspect of the UEZ program, the 3.5 percent sales tax is to be retained, along with certain other benefits.

The Christie administration is looking at many aspects of state government with an eye to getting a grip on costs. Historically, government has tended to expand as old programs are retained, sometimes past the point of usefulness or realistic return on investment. When presented with a study of the facts, today's officials can make better plans in the face of unprecedented economic strains. Considering that this is what is going on in just about every household, why should not government do the same?

Analysis is something the city has chronically lacked. Maybe it has to do with a political system in which each new administration summarily dismisses programs and initiatives of the outgoing one. Or maybe it's just not a well-developed skill in City Hall. Last year, some council members did their own informal survey of the value of Music in the Plaza concerts for drawing customers to the downtown district. Merchants' comments did not reflect a significant increase in sales. As it happens, the council ended up approving an application for UEZ funds, but the state rejected it.

City Council President Annie McWilliams has consistently sought factual information on which the governmental body can rely to make decisions. The last budget process reflected that goal. Some division and department heads complied and some didn't. The council has also sought data from the administration on the UEZ program, recreation operations and spending in general. McWilliams recently rejected a financial report from the administration as not being what the council asked for.

This is a time when being able to "count to four," as the late mayor and political sage Rick Taylor liked to say, is not the only bottom line for city government. Sure, four out of seven votes can get things passed whether they make sense or not. The trick nowadays is to analyze the options and vote for what makes the most sense.

No doubt I will be accused by some of being a Republican for even giving the Christie administration a grain of credibility, but our own elected officials deserve the facts if they are to serve us well. Analysis is not a tool exclusive to any party or faction and should not, must not be seen as such in these hard times.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Holy Macro!

Pardon the irreverence, but there is a new "macro" view of what New Jersey will be up against if government at all levels does not change its model of funding and spending.

To see the "Facing Our Future" report, click here.

Aspects of the issue are in the news every day lately. The report goes to the bottom-line, across-the-board problems that need to be addressed now if dire consequences are to be avoided.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Monarch Revenues Sought

Groundbreaking in July 2007.

According to records in the tax assessor's office at City Hall, nineteen condo owners are paying full taxes at 400 East Front Street, while the city is only collecting a partial assessment of $128.21 annually each on the balance of the 63 condos.

The development known as The Monarch was projected early on to bring in $400,000 in annual taxes, but to date less than one-third have been sold. Tax Assessor Tracy Bennett said Thursday she did not know that now some units are occupied by lease-to-buy tenants.

The trigger to full tax assessment is issuance of a certificate of occupancy. Construction Official Joseph Minarovich said such certificates are now being issued on the rental condos, although Bennett said she has not yet received that information. Once her office is informed, the assessments will be adjusted, she said.

The concept of leasing to buy the condos was floated as far back as November 2009 (see Plaintalker post), but condo owners say they noticed an influx of renters starting in January.

The building includes a senior center and veterans' center, promised at no cost to the city. Last year, developer Glen Fishman's firm, P&F Management, sought reimbursement from the city for costs of fitting out the center and condo fees that the city owed for the center. Terms of the development agreement call for the center to pay 13.96 percent of building maintenance fees. The veterans' center is supposed to pay 1 percent of maintenance fees after all units are sold and it is turned over to veterans for $1.

The City Council was surprised in April 2010 to get the tab in excess of $250,000 for the "free" senior center and the matter has yet to be resolved. Click here for Plaintalker's post. Meanwhile, because the senior center is in fact a condo, monthly common fees of $2,750 continue to accrue.

--Bernice Paglia

Veterans Question Changes at The Monarch

The sign at 400 East Front Street says Plainfield Veterans Center, but veterans say they can’t get in. And a shift from condo buyers to renters at The Monarch could make entry even more elusive.

The center is to be turned over to veterans for $1 once all 63 condo units on three floors above are sold, but Lamar Mackson, commander of American Legion Post 219, has already called on city officials to find some way around the contractual requirement. Now condo lease-to-buy offers just seem like another complication.

“We are not happy about that at all,” Mackson said Thursday.

As it stands now, veterans must wait for someone to open the senior center, which is also part of the building, when they want to hold their evening meetings. Members were affronted, he said, when a police officer told them she was doing it “as a favor.”

“We have continually expressed our displeasure with this arrangement,” Mackson said.

Speaking for his group, which he says is the largest and most active veterans group in the city, Mackson said he will now be seeking explanations of what the changes at The Monarch will mean for occupying the center.

In the past two years, the city has organized Veterans Day events at the building, even though the center is not open. The events have been held outside, with receptions following in the senior center.

Mackson said the plight of local veterans – “standing out in the cold, waiting for someone to open the door” - may be brought to the attention of the American Legion’s 2.5 million members.

Regarding the promised center, he said, “We feel they have breached the contract. They should make some type of concession to the veterans.”

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Monarch Units Up For Lease

After slow sales for many months, the 63-unit condo development known as The Monarch has recently started to fill up – with rentals.

Purchasers of the two-bedroom, two-bath condos are not happy to have lease-to-buy occupants as their new neighbors.

“Everybody that bought here is angry,” said George Schwejlih, one of three owners who met with Plaintalker to discuss the situation.

The owners are concerned about possible transience, overcrowding of units, the commitment of tenants versus owners and even the rent being too low. Since January, owners say, the number of tenants has swelled to match the number of owners. Owner Latiema Jefferson said she did careful research before making her purchase, talking about “all outcomes” before buying. The new scenario is one she did not anticipate.

Only about one-third of the condos are owner-occupied, this despite first-time buyer incentives and lowered prices to spur sales. Another inducement, a proposed abatement that would have allowed owners to pay only 40 percent of property taxes to the city, was rejected by the City Council. Of the current owners, some bought at the higher, initial prices close to $300,000. Now, sales advertisements offer the condos for starting prices “in the high $100,000s,” one owner said.

The owners found out about the rentals partly because of other problems they are trying to address, including upkeep of common areas, security, completion of a promised rooftop terrace and designated parking spaces. The building includes a senior center that the developer created for the city, and members share the parking lot. Owners wanted marked spaces set aside for their exclusive use as promised, but until recently they were not all assigned. When a list of designated parking spaces was recently posted, owners realized some were being reserved for renters.

Plaintalker easily found online advertisements for leasing the units, including one on Craig’s List and a Twitter ad. Rents for the two-bedroom, two bath units were quoted as $1,300 and $1,450.

The City Council approved an agreement in 2006 for the condo development, with a new senior center and a veterans’ center to be included at no cost to the city. The agreement included references to “market rate housing” and condominiums, along with terms for closings to take place only after the senior center got an occupancy permit and for the veterans’ center space to come under city ownership only after all units were sold. Allowing renters appears to cloud some terms, including a condition that a condo association can only be formed when 75 percent of the units are sold.

Since last summer, the owners have been trying to get a developer-assigned project manager to address their concerns about building conditions. As of this month, they have been informed that a Lakewood “property manager” has been assigned to the building. Plaintalker’s attempt to reach developer Glen Fishman for comment Tuesday was directed to an employee who was not available.

The group, with owner Emmett Swan as point person, is now pursuing the need for legal counsel to represent their interests.

City officials including Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson did not respond to Plaintalker’s phone calls Tuesday about renters moving into The Monarch. Two City Council members said they were unaware of the situation, but also had concerns about what it might mean regarding terms of the city’s agreement with the developer.

Schwejlih already has his opinion.

“I really think we are in desperate straits,” he said.

--Bernice Paglia

Community Gardens: Plan Now

This spring could be the ideal time to carry out your notions of getting together with the neighbors or your religious group to plant a community garden.

Some may recall the large vegetable garden on West Second Street near Liberty. It was shut down when the lot was turned over to a Westfield developer to build houses. Nothing was built, but the garden was not restored, as far as I know. Perhaps it should be.

Bro. Willie Robinson had a garden on West Fourth Street some years ago and the city has permitted use of a Berkeley Terrace lot for a community garden in the East End. A church plot on East Fifth Street held an expanded garden last summer and its produce was donated to nursing homes and other non-profit organizations.

Soon it will be time to plant peas and onions, kicking off the cycle that will turn to tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and many other hot weather crops, then squeezing in another round of cool-weather plants before frost.

Plainfield Action Services used to give out seeds and loan a tiller for community gardens, but turning over the soil with a pitchfork is good exercise and seeds are relatively cheap. Food crops can mingle with flower beds to good advantage in times like these.

Ambitious gardeners can build raised beds and fill them with improved soil that will allow closer planting and repeated sowing for salad crops and the like. And who's to say you can't grow vegetables in the front yard, if you wish?

Some of us have already been daydreaming with seed catalogs and Park Hardware will soon have a selection of seed packets. There are nurseries in the city for plants to set out in late April or May, or you can grow your own on the windowsill until the soil warms up.

Give it some thought and start eyeing up the sunny spots in the yard for possible cultivation. It would be really thrilling to see new little gardens all over the city!


Monday, February 21, 2011

How About a Recreation Inventory?

Jagger-esque slide at Emerson School.

Whether or not the Recreation Commission ever comes into being, the need for recreation exists. But does municipal government have to meet the need?

Speakers at the Feb. 14 meeting asked for officials to take a broader view of recreation than just youth sports. Plaintalker would ask, who else besides city government is supplying youth athletic programs in Plainfield and then what other kind of activities do people want?

On the campaign trail, Councilwoman Rebecca Williams advocated a parcourse for city residents. The Somerset County Park Commission has a good example in Colonial Park, a 1.4 mile fitness trail with stations for various exercises. A lot of people already use the track at Hub Stine Field for walking or jogging, with or without improvised stretching along the way.

In some cities, people use open space for group tai chi or other exercises.

One of the issues in the current controversy over the Recreation Division was a problem getting statistics on program scope and participation. A larger question might be, how many opportunities in all are out there for baseball, softball, tennis, soccer, swimming, hockey and golf?
The city has a mix of municipal, county and school district spaces where people can formally or informally play sports.

Then there are those who enjoy birdwatching, nature study, kite flying or even taking Fido to the dog park. The city also has long-range plans for a bicycle trail along the Green Brook.

Other recreation associations nearby have classes for arts and crafts, community bands and clubs for photography or stamp collecting. Some of these activities take place in senior centers or community centers.

Teens who want to socialize may rely on local churches for dances and get-togethers. Plainfield has at least 100 houses of worship, some very well equipped with gyms and halls that accommodate group activities.

On a day like today, with many off from work and another weather event in the works, daydreaming about activities in the other three seasons is very enticing. What do we have and what do we want for recreation in spring, summer and fall? OK, what can we do indoors or outdoors even in this kind of weather? Some recreation commissions develop five-year plans through such thinking.

In times where all preconceived notions of public planning and spending are up for review, why not find out the current state of affairs in citywide recreation and give thought to the future?


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Recreation Commission Approved

Stilt walkers at a July 4th parade.

The City Council voted final passage Monday of an ordinance establishing a controversial Recreation Commission, but Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has already said she will veto it.

Under the city’s special charter, the mayor has 10 days either to approve or veto any ordinance. The governing body may override a veto by a two-thirds majority, or five-member, vote.

The proposed seven-member commission would be responsible for recreation programming and would set a budget to pay for it. Commissioners would appoint a “recreation coordinator” and recommend his or her salary to the mayor and council. Other recreation staff as needed could also be appointed by the commission. At present, the city has a Recreation Advisory Committee that would become the initial members of the commission, if the legislation passes.

The controversy is over what would become of the city’s current Recreation Division, headed by Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn. In the SFY 2011 budget, the City Council transferred funding from the salary and wages line to the line for seasonal workers, which supporters of Wynn interpreted as his de facto demotion to half-time employment.

The Recreation Division runs programs year round in various sports, organizes public events and trips and plans the annual July 4th celebration, among other duties. However, a volunteer-backed baseball league began accusing Wynn of obstructing their use of city ball fields more than a year ago, bringing their concerns to numerous council meetings and drawing top city officials into attempted resolution of the issues. Meanwhile, the division started its own baseball league with paid coaches and a lower registration fee than that of the volunteer group.

A Recreation Committee was re-established to help resolve the standoff, but committee leaders told the council they could not get needed information from Wynn. The Recreation Commission was then proposed, over the objections of the mayor and Wynn allies.

On Monday, four residents spoke in favor of establishing the Recreation Commission, while Wynn supporter Roland Muhammad chastised the council members, saying they should volunteer for city recreation programs.

“I have not seen any of you at Hannah Atkins (playground) except the mayor,” Muhammad said. “Don’t complain. If you want to see something better in Plainfield, volunteer. We challenge you to make Plainfield better.”

Advocates of a commission called for an approach to recreation programming that would not stop at youth athletics, but one that would include activities for people of all ages. In addition, speakers said the change could lead to improved communication and greater participation in programs.

The council then voted 5-2 to approve the ordinance. Council members William Reid and Bridget Rivers, who have repeatedly defended Wynn’s leadership, voted “no.” Vera Greaves, Cory Storch, Adrian Mapp, Rebecca Williams and Council President Annie McWilliams voted “yes.”

Click here to see a previous Plaintalker post on the controversy.

The next City Council agenda session is 7:30 March 7 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The next regular meeting is 8 p.m. March 14 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blog Goes International

Plaintalker II's report on Abubakar Jalloh becoming the new city clerk garnered two mentions in Sierra Leone media last week.

Here is one and Dan already posted the other link.

Nice to be called a contributor for a good news story of international appeal. Here's another link.

Blogger has a new stat indicator that tracks traffic to one's blog and also shows where in the world one's blog audience is. Because the reports above did not link to the blog, but just used the content, Blogger doesn't know I have readers in West Africa. Oh well.

Anyway, spreading good news is its own reward, I guess.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Looking at Snow

While many of us are weary of snow storms, someone at the Plainfield Public Library found things to celebrate about the flaky stuff. If you get to the library soon, take a close look at the big display near the entrance.

The exhibit includes photos, book suggestions, interesting information on things to do in the snow season and more. Even though I am sick of snow, this display made me smile in appreciation.

There are even little figurines to carry out the themes. Whoever put this display together deserves credit. I did not see any attribution, but whoever you are, thanks for your work.

Outside in the city, the snows that started with the Boxing Day blizzard have largely melted and now we have the ugly detritus to look at. The thing above is not a giant lump of coal. It is a very filthy snow pile on a Watchung Avenue lot next to City Hall. Maybe the 60-mile-an-hour winds predicted for Saturday will evaporate the dregs of the seven or so storms we endured.

But it's not over! Monday's forecast is for sleet and snow and New Jersey has had snow as late as April in years past. So don't put those boots and mittens away just yet.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Packets Ready for BOE Hopefuls

The Plainfield school district has information packets available for anyone wishing to run for the school board.

The packets may be picked up at the office of Business Administrator Gary Ottmann, 1200 Myrtle Ave. Signed petitions must be returned to Ottmann by 4 p.m. March 8.

Each year, three seats on the nine-member board are up for election. The winners of the April 27 election will serve three-year terms.

Incumbents up for r-election are Lenny Cathcart, Keisha Edwards and Katherine Peterson.

Interestingly in light of recent city controversies over service on boards and commissions, all the winners must commit to training on their roles and responsibilities in a sort of "boot camp" for school board members. Plaintalker found other examples online of boot camps for those who would serve on other types of boards. No such opportunity appears to exist for members of municipal boards and commissions, but maybe it should. If the Civic Responsibility Act of 2005 ever gets fully implemented, maybe a small informational packet with general duties would be helpful.

Anyone who commits to public service deserves the gratitude of the rest of us. It often takes a lot of time out of one's life and requires dealing with a wide range of people beyond family and friends. The commitment ranges from a year to maybe five years, depending on the entity. But it can be very rewarding, so if you are willing to serve on the school board for three years, now is your chance.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How Times Change!

Spotting this truck in the Twin City parking lot served to remind me how my favorite food groups used to include white wine, apricot rugelach, Heath Bars and Entenmann's crumb cake.

Now it's more like water, cabbage, Raisin Bran and apples.

Oh well, it's trendy, I guess. Bill Clinton's new diet last year got media coverage all over the world.

Still, that way-larger-than-life piece of crumb cake makes me want to say "feh" to graham crackers.


Rejected PMUA Candidate Shows Ire

Rejected in January for a seat on the PMUA board of commissioners, resident Charles Eke lashed out at City Council members Monday, labeling the action an "insult."

The authority has been operating for many months with several holdovers on its board of five commissioners and two alternates. Eke was among three people interviewed by the council at the Jan. 10 council meeting. On Jan. 24, The Rev. Tracey Brown, an incumbent, was returned to the board, while Cecil Sanders and Eke were both rejected in 4-3 votes. Council members Vera Greaves, William Reid and Bridget Rivers voted "yes," while Rebecca Williams, Adrian Mapp, Cory Storch and Council President Annie McWilliams voted "no."

On Monday, Eke read a prepared speech in which he attacked the "New Democrats" and characterized the vote as "very shameful." He labeled individual council members as "obstructionist," "self-centered," "immature" and "unfit for public office." In addition, he alleged that the New Democrats held a caucus before the meeting, something McWilliams emphatically denied.

"It is illegal for council members to caucus," she said. "There was no caucus meeting."

Among other comments, Eke said, "I call on the city to rise and take back the city," alleged a "conspiracy" and said the four who voted against his nomination had their "own agenda."

The targeted council members took exception to the personal attacks, but Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said she had heard talk about "discrimination." She said some candidates for boards and commissions were interviewed in closed session on Jan. 10 before the public meeting began, while "others had to wait for hours."

McWilliams said due to residents' complaints about the length of council meetings, some interviews were done in the earlier closed session. To make it look like a conspiracy was "uncalled for," she said.

As the mayor then cited phone calls she received about the Jan. 24 meeting and said people were yelling for McWilliams to let the mayor speak, McWilliams ended up calling the exchanges "symptomatic of everything that is wrong with politics in this city."

Among other issues, Eke cited his service on the Planning Board as a qualification, but Mapp and Williams made a distinction between various kinds of service. Eke asked what kind of "skill set" the council members wanted, and Robinson-Briggs said later, "Please tell us exactly the criteria you want."

Despite the perceived standoff, Reid, a former PMUA commissioner who has been especially concerned about the vacancies on the board, urged the mayor, "Please, please get some names back to us."

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

City Seeking Census Recount

Still reeling over falling short of a desired 50,000 population count by only 192, officials are requesting a recount of the 2010 Census.

Councilman Adrian Mapp raised the issue at Monday's City Council meeting, saying he thinks the city can justify the number. If the city can prove it has 50,000 residents, it can receive federal housing and social service funding directly, instead of ranking its needs and waiting for Union County to decide what makes the cut.

Mapp said he hoped the administration would get on it "yesterday," but Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said, "We got on it last week."

"I believe we have about 55,000 people living in Plainfield," the mayor said.

Mapp suggested a partnership between the governing body and the administration, saying, "That's why it fell short." But the mayor said there were numerous meetings and forums on the Census to which council members had been invited.

"Each and every time, the council was invited," she said, calling it "unfortunate" that Mapp was now calling for partnership.

Acting City Administrator Dan Williamson said the city has 180 days to make an appeal of the count and the administration was "pulling together the process." He left open the idea of a joint effort.

The 2010 Census found 49,808 residents, up from 47,829 in 2000. In 2006, a Census estimate found 47,353 people, down 476 from 2000. Even more striking, a 2008 Census estimate found a population count of only 46,126, a gap of 3,682 from the 2010 count. The 2010 Census also found 1,441 vacant dwellings. Given the vacancies and the low 2008 estimate, getting to 49,808 seems to back the administration's claim of a mighty effort to get to 50,000. Now, it's down to finding those last 192 people or more in a recount.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 14, 2011

Jalloh Named City Clerk

The City Council gave unanimous approval Monday to the appointment of Abubakar Jalloh as city clerk and the action drew a standing ovation from residents and officials in the audience.

Union County Freeholder Linda Carter, a former city councilwoman, administered the oath of office as Jalloh's parents and his brother Mohamed, also a Union County freeholder, looked on.

Jalloh, known familiarly in City Hall as "A.J.," will serve an initial three-year term. He was previously the deputy clerk under City Clerk Laddie Wyatt, who retired on Dec. 31.

Councilman William Reid praised Jalloh for already having taken steps toward a paperless office by sending out agendas electronically, calling it "a first step to helping us reduce the cost of running this city." Citing layoffs that have "decimated" city departments, Reid called on officials to see to it that Jalloh gets "some really, really good help" in running the office.

Council President Annie McWilliams also congratulated Jalloh, saying, "The baton has been passed."

McWilliams also thanked Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs for offering Jalloh's name for council advice and consent. Robinson-Briggs called it "my absolute pleasure and privilege" to do so.

Jalloh is the first African-American male to hold the office of city clerk in Plainfield. While it was not mentioned at the meeting, a commenter to Plaintalker II on his pending appointment said Monday before the meeting, "How fitting, right in time for Black History Month!"

--Bernice Paglia

Jalloh Deserving of Clerk's Title

Deputy Clerk Abubakar Jalloh swears in City Council appointee Vera Greaves.

Abubakar "AJ" Jalloh came to City Hall in 2006 with the newly-minted title of confidential aide. He served in that capacity for City Administrator Carlton McGee until McGee resigned less than a year into his four-year term. Jalloh soon found his way into the City Clerk's office and worked with Laddie Wyatt until her retirement at the end of 2010.

Over the years, he not only learned the cycle of tasks in the office - City Council meetings, elections, liquor license renewals, taxi licenses and many kind of permits - he also earned his Registered Municipal Clerk certification.

Since Wyatt's retirement, Jalloh has begun to put his own stamp on operations in the office, specifically by making some technological advances. In 2010, the office suffered layoffs that have put a burden on its remaining employees, and the kind of changes he has made will serve to make things more efficient not only for staff, but for the public as well.

If the council approves his appointment as city clerk, there will be no learning curve in terms of becoming acquainted with Plainfield's particular demands, such as dealing with its special charter and its excessive number of liquor licenses. He already has a professional relationship with everyone in city government and with county and state offices that pertain to municipal government.

Jalloh has a lot to live up to in terms of succeeding Wyatt and Emilia Stahura in the post, but it appears that, if appointed, he will uphold their legacy of dedication while steering the office into an era of increased reliance on technology to reduce paperwork and improve communication. We await the governing body's decision.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Four Wards, One City

What do we love about Plainfield? I'm sure each of us has some special thing that keeps us here.

No matter what ward you live in, it's all the Queen City.


Valentine's Day

I remember one year when we found crocuses in bloom on Valentine's Day on the sunny side of our house. This year, we can only guess at what is going on under the lingering snow.

Regarding Valentine's Day, it seems the city could use a reminder for residents to "love one another" across the four wards, in City Hall and everywhere else. Civility has taken a hit in recent months, but it is never too late to resolve to be kind to each other. Incivility begets callousness and that may beget disregard or worse in our dealings and speech.

The City Council meeting happens to fall on Valentine's Day this year. I have my hopes up that we will hear nice things from each other.


Truck Repairs: Better Late Than Never?

Random image: Angles and icicles at Grace Church.

The items of greatest interest Monday may prove to be final passage of the Recreation Commission ordinance and council approval of Abubakar "AJ" Jalloh as city clerk, but a visit to the library uncovered an interesting little item tucked inside a resolution.

The City Council meeting is 8 p.m. Monday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. The agenda is posted on the city web site.

When I saw a reference last week for use of Urban Enterprise Zone funds to replace truck parts, it was a new one on me after covering the city for more than a quarter-century. The agenda reference for R 082-11 (RESOLUTION AUTHORIZING APPROVAL TO SUBMIT AN APPLICATION TO THE NEW JERSEY URBAN ENTERPRISE ZONE AUTHORITY FOR PROJECT FINANCING TO PURCHASE REPLACEMENT MOTOR AND REPLACEMENT PARTS FOR HEAVY EQUIPMENT TRUCKS DEPLOYABLE TO THE CITY’S URBAN ENTERPRISE ZONE) was not too enlightening.

So here is what it's all about: Two trucks are involved. The Division of Public Works is seeking to apply for $25,000 for a new engine for a truck purchased in 2001. This truck was damaged during storm debris removal at an unspecified date and is unoperable. However, it is needed for all aspects of DPW operations, including leaf collection, snow removal, tree maintenance, road repair and more.

The other request is for $23,500 to retrofit a water tanker that was purchased in 1998, but which has only 18,986 miles on it because its main use, spraying water on the center of the road, proved to be inefficient. Its only current use is once a year for cleanup after the July 4th parade.

The retrofit would allow this truck also to be used for all areas of DPW operations and it would "play a major role" in road maintenance projects because it could haul 25 cubic yards of material. No other trucks in the fleet exceed seven cubic yards, according to the resolution.

The total amount requested for approval by the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority is $48,500, quite modest compared to some of last year's requests, such as $1 million for a revolving loan fund for economic development. The process calls for a resolution to seek council approval to submit a UEZ request, then if the UEZA approves it, the council votes to accept the funding. All funded projects must take place within the Urban Enterprise Zone, which stretches from the city's east and west borders and includes the central business district. The money in the UEZ fund comes from sales tax revenues from UEZ-certified retailers. With the loss of major retailers such as Macy's in past years, the fund income has thinned.

Plaintalker does not recall any UEZA approvals in 2010. The Music in the Plaza events did not take place last summer, presumably for lack of UEZA funding approvals. Meanwhile, the city's director of Public Works & Urban Development, David Brown II, quit after less than a year on the job and longtime city staffer Jacques Howard is acting director while a search is conducted for a successor to Brown. It might be a good idea to get a status report on 2010 UEZA requests sometime at a public meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What Are Council Liaisons For?

Seeing a range of attitudes Monday from council liaisons to other entities, Plaintalker looked into what these liaisons are charged to do.

The duties of liaisons are laid out in the Rules of Order instituted by Council President Ray Blanco in 2006 before his untimely death. The council adopted the 2011 Rules of Order in January with some modifications, such as naming this year's standing committee members and liaisons.

From the Rules of Order:

Liaisons’ Duties and Reporting
A. Every council liaison should attend the meetings of their assigned commission, board, committee or body and take notation of said body’s matters under consideration.

B. Every liaison shall report back to the Council on a regular schedule to be formulated by the President and provided to the committee chairs at the reorganization meeting.

C. In the event that the liaison’s committee is reviewing a proposed ordinance or resolution, the liaison shall notify the President so the full Council can be kept abreast of the matter.

Reports of Liaisons
Council Liaisons shall provide the entire Council with its findings. The liaison will provide the Council with both the majority and minority opinions of their respective body as well as the Council Liaison’s view on the matter.

Role of Council Liaisons
Council Liaisons may not interfere with the day-to-day operations of their respective body on which they serve. They do not speak with the approval of the full Council unless the full Council has previously voted on any given issue.

No Meetings During Council Meetings
No Council Liaison may attend their respective body’s meeting when the Council is meeting without notifying the President.

This formula projects an objective gathering of information, at meetings, to be shared with the council at large on a regular basis. This exactly what Councilman Cory Storch has done as liaison to the Planning Board over the past several years. Of course, the Planning Board is not at the middle of a controversy as the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority has been for some time now, and perhaps that is why PMUA liaisons last year almost sounded like apologists for the beleaguered authority. One, Councilman William Reid, actually served on the PMUA before being appointed to the City Council, so may not only have had insight into its operations, but maybe a bit more sympathy than objectivity in his role as liaison.

Councilwoman Bridget Rivers was liaison to the PMUA last year and is again its primary liaison, with Councilwoman Rebecca Williams as this year's alternate. In remarks about a business lunch the two attended with top PMUA officials, Rivers appeared to be defending the PMUA, while Williams raised questions about the efficacy of meeting at a restaurant rather than at PMUA offices. After reviewing the Rules of Order, Plaintalker wondered how the contact became a lunch meeting anyway, as opposed to a regular meeting of the PMUA board of commissioners where there were official "matters under consideration."

The whole PMUA controversy has had a polarizing effect on the community, as was evident Monday when speakers voiced radically different views on the authority's worth as an organization. None of the other nine boards and commissions with assigned liaisons has become such a lightning rod for dissension as the PMUA. In light of that fact, maybe all liaisons should review the Rules of Order section on their duties, responsibilities and role regarding the bodies they serve.


Counting Hispanic Voters

Plaintalker recently noted a sunset clause in the ordinance establishing the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs. The commission is to be dissolved when the Hispanic population reaches 45 percent in Plainfield and when 35 percent of registered voters are Hispanic.

The former will be easier to quantify than the latter.

Inquiries to the Union County Clerk's Division of Elections and to the Union County Board of Elections revealed that neither tracks the number of Hispanic registered voters. Plaintalker even asked a staffer for Congressman Frank Pallone during the legislator's "office hours" on Tuesday in City Hall, but the staff member said he was there to assist constituents with federal issues and had no knowledge of voting numbers.

The Pew Hispanic Center relied on a Census survey to come up with numbers of Hispanic registered voters state-by-state in 2010. Click here to see it.

I'm told that politicians probably do have a means of assessing the number of Hispanic voters, but it is not generally public information. According to one source, the number is far from 35 percent in the city.

PACHA Chairman Norman Ortega did not respond to my inquiry on the voter question nor to my inquiry last month on the commission's meeting schedule. Given that the commission is likely to be around for a long time, Plaintalker is hoping for some news out of it in 2011. Among council liaison assignments, Councilwoman Rebecca Williams has been named to PACHA and Councilwoman Vera Greaves is alternate liaison. The liaisons are expected to report back to the full council at intervals, so maybe that's when we'll see what PACHA is doing.


Plainfield's Own Black History Figures

Do you remember The Rev. Frank Allen, a Garveyite who once led the local NAACP branch?

How about Freeman Whetstone? Westry Horne?

What can you tell the current generation about Everett Lattimore?

Plainfielders have their own chapters of black history, written by those named above and others who contributed to the community through the 20th Century.

Plaintalker is interested in your anecdotes about those who fought for civil rights, housing, education and economic parity in the Queen City.

Looking forward to your stories!


More Controversy over PMUA

Just as a watchdog group is encouraging residents to get Gov. Chris Christie to investigate the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, supporters of the authority piled on praise for it at Monday’s City Council meeting.

Clergy members, PMUA employees and a couple of City Council members complimented the authority for its service and for hiring otherwise unemployable parolees, while Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said PMUA staff worked with 200 volunteers to clean up a neglected Plainfield Avenue cemetery “for free.”

Meanwhile, the DumpPMUA group is urging reform in authority spending and rate-setting and the governing body itself has been concerned with filling vacancies on the PMUA board of commissioners and with getting its top officials to come to a council meeting to discuss ongoing concerns including finding new revenue streams.

On Monday, The Rev. Danielle Bush claimed the PMUA has made Plainfield cleaner than Newark.

“I congratulate them,” she said.

PMUA employee Earl Bennett gave thanks for the job he found with PMUA after he “made mistakes” and society counted him out.

Former Councilwoman Joanne Hollis, now a Housing Authority commissioner, also lauded the PMUA policy of hiring young men who can’t get jobs elsewhere.

Alluding to controversy over the PMUA, Hollis said, “We talk about gangs – the biggest gang is us.”

When it came to council remarks, members William Reid and Bridget Rivers sided with the PMUA. Reid deplored the recent rejection of two candidates for the PMUA board, saying, “Let’s stop picking on people that are good citizens of Plainfield. We need them all.”

Rivers and Councilwoman Rebecca Williams were named council 2011 liaisons to the PMUA, but Williams said Monday she was concerned about “excesses of PMUA management” and cited an unexpected two-hour lunch meeting with PMUA officials at a Scotch Plains restaurant. When Williams said the council could encourage business meetings instead at the authority’s Plainfield office, Rivers rebuffed her concerns.

Rivers also called for a survey on whether the authority should be abolished, adding, “They might have the votes now, we might have the votes later,” alluding to a council majority that has resulted in several 4-3 split votes since the beginning of the year.

In defense of votes rejecting The Rev. Jason Greer and business owner Cecil Sanders, Councilman Adrian Mapp said he was looking for “reform-minded individuals who will put transformational measures in place.” The rejections came after the council interviewed board candidates at the Jan. 18 meeting. Councilman Cory Storch also said he wanted “change agents” on the PMUA board.

“How do we know they are not going to be change agents?” Rivers asked.

When Storch later reiterated his wish for change agents, the mayor admonished, “Be careful, councilman. You’re up for re-election – you want change?”


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Road Not Taken

Videographer Brian Cox tapes a city event for local television viewing.

Reading about Alrick Brown's Sundance success, something about Visigoth Pictures sounded familiar.

It was back last summer that Brown's company was one of three respondents to a request for proposals for videography services for the city. Visigoth stated a fee of $200 per hour. Another was a Georgia company, Video Artis Productions, that was less expensive at $173.75 per hour, but wanted travel expenses as well.

The third was BC Productions of Plainfield, which emerged as the successful vendor at $100 per hour and has been videotaping City Council meetings and public events ever since.

Brown was thus spared the tedium of waiting for council executive sessions to be over and for meetings to end at midnight or later. Now that his film, Kinyarwanda, has won acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, Brown most likely will be busy finding a distributor. His only presence at a council meeting is likely to be to accept accolades as he did recently, along with wishes for more success in the future.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

More Council Posts Coming

Much was said about the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority at Monday's City Council meeting. Citizens, PMUA workers, officials, friends and foes had their say, as did Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. Given the hour at which I am starting this post (almost 3 a.m.), I will have to write on that subject later on.

The budget situation deserves some commentary. The council wants to change back to a calendar year, but I think it will require another six-month transition year as it did when the council switched to the fiscal year, July 1 to June 30. The projected $3.4 million shortfall is mind-boggling. And as much as council members press for stringent measures now, I can't help but remember this from a Plaintalker post on the SFY 2009 budget process:

While many governmental and private systems turned to furloughs, layoffs and givebacks, Plainfield proposed just one layoff for savings of only $10,000. A large tax increase was warded off only by the dubious measure of deferring pension payments, which must be paid back with interest over 15 years starting in 2012.

More later on these and other topics.


Huge Budget Shortfall Projected

An anticipated $800,000 budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is really more like $3.4 million, according to an estimate by the city's new chief finance officer.

The city is facing a 2 percent cap on budget increases for the coming fiscal year and several council members have called for the governing body and administration to work together on an early start to find savings. In comments last month, Council President Annie McWilliams noted the budget might have to be whittled down by $800,000.

But in a report Monday, acting City Administrator Dan Williamson said CFO Ron Zilinski has projected a $3.4 million short fall. Zilinski was not present for Monday's council meeting and an incredulous Councilman William Reid asked for Zilinski to come in person and tell the governing body how he arrived at that figure. Williamson alluded to Zilinski's "personal circumstances" and suggested that Zilinski could take part by phone conference, but Reid said, "I need him here in person ... I need to look him in the eye."

Zilinski was named CFO at the end of November, when both the mayor and council members faced daily fines from the state Division of Local Government Services if a chief finance officer was not hired by the end of the month. The city had been without a CFO since the end of 2007. Zilinski did not start until January and is only working 28 hours a week.

Williamson called the projected shortfall "a tremendous problem" and said it would likely lead to layoffs and "things most folks don't want to talk about."

Councilman Cory Storch called Zilinski's estimate "probably the worst budget gap in our history" and reiterated the need for the council, administration, Citizens Budget Advisory Committee and unions to work together. Williamson said the administration has started the process with the unions.

The city has about half a dozen bargaining units, several of which are working under expired contracts. The hardest hit so far with layoffs has been the Plainfield Municipal Employees Association, while officials have reported little success in getting police and fire unions to make concessions. But representatives of those unions say they have already suffered staffing cuts through attrition.

The council approved two budgets last year. The first, passed in February, was for the fiscal year that ended June 30 and included a 7.5 percent tax increase. The second, passed in December, was for the current fiscal year and resulted in a 5 percent tax increase. But on Monday, Williamson, speaking for the administration, asked the council to consider restoring up to $137,000 in budget cuts affecting the Purchasing and Recreation divisions as well as the mayor's office staff. Reid added in a job cut from civilian staff in the Police Division.

Storch questioned whether funding those affected through the end of the current fiscal year would mean they would be carried over into the next fiscal year through the need for layoff notices. Personnel Director Karen Dabney said those affected were slated to be laid off by April 15, but the state allowed 120 days for a layoff plan. If they were not laid off within 120 days, the city would have to do a new layoff plan, she said.

Reid backed the mayor in calling for the jobs to be restored, saying, "Stop targeting people arbitrarily for layoffs," and called for a halt to "decimating" workers. To make up the difference, he said, "Take everybody's cell phone away."

Williamson broke the $137,000 down into three separate options, but none appeared to gain consensus to be placed on the Feb. 14 agenda for a vote.

Storch said he hoped the mayor did not see the issue as an "all or none battle to the death," but McWilliams said she had met with the mayor to discuss the options and there was "no decision."

"The request is to add the money," McWilliams said, noting again the $3.4 million shortfall. If the money is added, she said, "It goes up $137,000."

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, February 7, 2011

Local Red Cross Chapter Moving to Westfield

A city institution for 94 years, the local American Red Cross chapter will be relocating to Westfield in 2011.

"This is a huge decision," Executive Director Nathan Rudy said Monday. "It was a hard decision."

The Tri-County Red Cross serves 15 of Union County's 21 municipalities, as well as four in Somerset County and three in Middlesex County. Its current building at 332 West Front Street, the former Gregory's Music Center, was donated to the agency in 1977, Rudy said.

All current services to Plainfield will remain in effect, Rudy said. No timetable has been announced for the relocation.

The Westfield-Mountainside Chapter of the American Red Cross, at 321 Elm Street in Westfield, has been serving the community for over 85 years, according to its web site.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunday Night Roundup

Random image: New graffiti artist downtown.

Things really seem to get quiet when there's a big game, but not being a sports fan, it all goes over my head. I hope your team won, or at least that you had a feast on hand before you had to cry in your beer.

Tomorrow maybe we can resume attention to other news and events. The City Council meets at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library. Dr. Yood has already commented on some of the items on the agenda. I am interested in the discussion items on PMUA concerns and the budget gap and also the Recreation Commission ordinance, which the council may move to the Feb. 14 agenda for a vote on second reading and final passage.

Regarding the PMUA, the recent developments at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Authority make me wonder how the PMUA would fare if somebody like Wayne Forrest became executive director. I was looking at some of the information DumpPMUA dredged up, specifically Part I of expenses for meals. Even though these expenses date back to 2007 and the authority has since become more frugal, it is still shocking to see the tab for Durant's Fine Food. DumpPMUA is now asking citizens to urge state and local officials to look into the workings of the authority. It should be interesting to hear what the council has to say at this juncture (and the PMUA, if officials are to be present Monday).

The budget gap needs to be a concern of all, as it will result in hard choices for the coming fiscal year. Appointments for the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee are also on Monday's agenda and officials have advocated an early start on the budget process.

The Recreation Commission ordinance had the support of a council majority to pass on first reading, over the objections of some council members and citizens. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has vowed to veto it if it achieves final passage, and then a council super-majority would be necessary to override the veto. Council members who support it may have to do some serious lobbying of their colleagues if it comes to that, but first it has to pass Feb. 14 before getting to the threatened veto.

On other topics, officials were incredulous when the 2010 Census results fell 192 short of the much-desired 50,000 population mark. However, housing vacancy rates posted in the Courier News may offer a partial clue to the shortfall. Even though the city's population increased from 47,829 in 2000 to 49,808, the 2010 Census found 1,441 vacant dwellings, for a 9 percent vacancy rate. Housing units increased from 16,180 in 2000 to 16,621 in the 2010 Census.

Anecdotally, some people observed a high vacancy rate in multi-family apartment buildings around the city in 2010 as a major property owner was in the throes of financial problems. There was also a high foreclosure rate, which may have added to the vacancy count. Maybe officials can seek a recount, but the 9 percent vacancy rate tends to support the shortfall.

Another controversy reported in the news over the weekend is over a possible change in publication of legal notices. Newspapers need legal ad revenue more than ever, but proposed legislation would allow municipalities to post legal notices on their web sites.

The upside for those who check legal notices is that one would not have to look all through pages of fine print to find the Plainfield ones (although that can now be done by searching the New Jersey Press Association web site). But not all legal notices relevant to a municipality are generated by the municipality itself. For example, attorneys for developers and land use board applicants often post legal notices in the newspapers. Most boards and commissions only post annual calendars and just list cases on their agendas. Reporters and bloggers can sometimes uncover news by following legal notices posted by attorneys for the applicants.

In addition, some legal notices in recent years have been huge, such as the one on new storm water regulations that took up at least a full newspaper page. Such notices would need a lot of space on a municipal web site.

Lastly, this weekend was one for us pedestrians to curse the elements that brought an ice storm to the city. On Saturday, I ventured out only to turn back when faced with big stretches of ice on the sidewalks. Drains are clogged by old snow and ice accumulation, so we have situations such as cars entering a city parking lot and splashing slush that then freezes on the sidewalk. It would take frequent salt-spreading (or some nice, sunny days) to overcome that particular problem. We know the city can't afford to clean the same sidewalks every day, so Sunday's sunshine was very welcome.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Want to Run for Council?

Image: Aftermath of an ice storm.

Ever thought of running for City Council?

If you have, and you live in the First, Second or Fourth Ward, it might be a good idea to attend council meetings this month and next, to see what you might be in for if you happen to win a seat.

February’s meetings are an agenda-setting session Monday (Feb. 7) in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave., and a regular meeting Monday, Feb. 14 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. The agenda is posted on the city web site and includes rules for citizen participation. March meetings also fall on the 7th and 14th, with the same format and locations.

The two seats that are up for election this year are for the Second Ward and for the First & Fourth at-large. If you get through the June primary and win the November general election, you get a four-year term with a modest stipend. You will be expected to attend at least 24 council meetings per year, as well as town meetings in the wards and special meetings as necessary. You will be signed up for several council committees and liaisons to various other governmental entities. Your address and phone number will be published on the city web site and you will be expected to respond to your constituents.

If all the above whets your appetite for public service, you can file to run in the June primary. The deadline is 4 p.m. on April 4. Petitions are available in the City Clerk’s office. There is some cost attached to campaigning, as well as a strict set of state rules for reporting on campaign donations. At minimum, you will need a small band of supporters to help get the word out and to work on the campaign trail. You will most likely be at a disadvantage compared to incumbents, who have name and face recognition that you may not have, as well as experience in campaigning and possibly party support.

If you win the primary on June 7, you will then have to work on winning the Nov. 8 general election. And if you win the general election, you will take office on Jan. 1, 2012 for four years.

Back to Monday’s City Council meeting. Some people have won council seats with only a minimal understanding of how municipal government works or the duties of a councilperson. But if you have the least glimmer of a notion to run for office, it’s better to observe at least a couple of meetings and get an idea of what the commitment entails.

We’ll be checking April 4 to see who has decided to run!


Friday, February 4, 2011

Commentary on Hispanic Boom in City

Plainfield's Hispanic population now stands at 40.4 percent, according to 2010 census figures released Thursday. In 2000, it was 25.2 percent. That is a 60 percent increase, according to my calculations.

So what are some of the implications?

I am going out on a limb to say that city leadership may not have caught up with this reality. In 2008, a budget committee question on Spanish-speaking staff in public offices found a lack that probably not much improved at the present time. Click here to see Plaintalker's post.

One might also say that Hispanic leadership has not done much to increase the engagement of Spanish-speaking residents in city affairs. The result is a largely parallel society that functions without much regard to local political decision-making or civic involvement.

The long-awaited seating of members to serve on the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs has not advanced goals stated in the ordinance creating the commission. Little has been heard from the commission so far and its makeup - a mother and daughter, several members of a single community group - does not augur well for broad representation. The first Hispanic Heritage Month after the group's inception passed with little fanfare or acknowledgement, even though such celebrations are often "hooks" to get the attention of the larger population. Click here for a blog post on that topic.

The ordinance mentioned above has a sunset clause that calls for the commission to be dissolved "a year after a U.S. Census Department reports that Plainfield's Hispanic population has risen to forty-five (45) percent of the total Plainfield population and a minimum of thirty-five (35) percent of Plainfield's registered voters are Hispanic." Could it be that such a day will arrive and the Hispanic population will find itself still not a vital part of civic life here?

Historically, Plainfield politicians seem to have preferred to choose a few spokespersons for the Hispanic population and to ignore or disrespect other Hispanic activists. This is a barrier that must be overcome, whether by enlightenment on the part of the politicians or by the insistence of Hispanic activists to be at the table when important decisions are being made. Perhaps these new numbers alone will spur a reckoning on both sides of what is at stake if such a division continues.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ice Storm Passes Through

The much-touted ice storm coated sidewalks and driveways with about half an inch of ice, but the snow that was supposed to go along with it never materialized. I got out my trusty Wilkinson Sword swoe to chip up the ice and Mother Nature helped out by warming things up a bit.

Storms aside, today is not only a day to celebrate the Lunar New Year and look at groundhogs on TV, it is also Candlemas, Imbolc, Brigid, Candelaria, St. Brigid's Day and probably a lot more. It is a special time in the turn of the seasons.

In case you haven't had enough ice and snow, more is coming at the end of the week!


Vietnamese New Year on Park Avenue

Hearing a "pop" as I was picking my way through the ice on Park Avenue today, I looked up to see a cascade of shiny streamers and confetti in front of Van Nails & Hair. Abandoning my errand, I went over to investigate.

Pretty! A nice contrast to the snow and ice at the curb.

Inside, two people confirmed that it was the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Tet, that was being celebrated. They tried to set off some more of the confetti rockets, but none worked. So then they pointed out the food offerings along with with many burned incense sticks.

Holiday treats and special foods were set out for customers and staff to enjoy. The two who were setting off the confetti rockets said they will be celebrating at home with their families.

Here is an explanation that I found online about The Year of the Cat (Chinese are marking The Year of the Rabbit).
This card over the door is meant to bring good luck and good fortune in 2011.

An intricate poster with gold highlights is another part of the celebration.

What fun to see the joy of these Park Avenue neighbors as they share their holiday with their customers!


Fire, Rehire - A Tough Strategy

If you have ever been a fan of the local daily newspaper, send some good wishes in the direction of Somerville, where the Courier News is now based. As you probably know, the CN will be affected by Gannett's firing of 99 New Jersey employees, of which 53 are to be rehired. Today is when they get the word and Friday will be the last day of employment for some.

This fire/rehire strategy is becoming more prevalent. A quick Google check just now turned up instances of school districts as well as newspapers looking to this practice to whittle down the ranks. There was even one proposal by a mayor to use it after unions balked at giving concessions. Turn them all out and start over, he said, though he was smart enough to ask the city attorney to check the legalities first.

I have been out of the work force for more than seven years now, but I recall being rather shocked one day to hear a publisher complain in a business meeting that "reporters don't bring in any revenue." Well, for heaven's sake, they bring in the #@*!%#! news, don't they? Isn't this a newspaper? Try covering the news with sales staff, why don't you?

Such were my irreverent thoughts at the time, but eventually I realized that employees in general are a thorn in the side of business owners. I see by Google that outsourcing HR is a booming business in which a company assumes all the employee-wrangling and basically rents the wage slaves back to the boss.

Part of the problem that has grown over the years is the expectation of benefits when one lands a job with an established company. I can remember way back to when a transaction in a medical office involved paying cash, instead of causing the death of many trees to provide forms to fill out and pass back and forth among patient, doctor and that new bedfellow, the health industry. Recently in Plainfield budget talks I heard an official say that benefits are now at about 30 percent above and beyond a city worker's pay, all the more reason to view the employee as a ravening, revenue-sucking beast.

Are you an older employee who has worked your way up to where you get four weeks' vacation and a passel of personal and sick days as well? To the employer, you are a nuisance. You must take all those days in most companies, even if you would rather just do your work. It is built into the system, it causes problems in the workplace and it may tend to make employers want to game the system somehow to get rid of you without incurring an age discrimination lawsuit.

Such is the wild and woolly world of work nowadays. Employers want your talents and allegiance with not so much commitment on their side. Witness the rise of contract work in modern industries.

Maybe it was always thus and we just don't remember, but the fire/rehire gambit kind of rankles in the current economic climate. Those who make the cut get to do even more work for about the same pay and may feel survivor's guilt when trying to socialize with their ousted friends. Longtime employees who thought it would be an easy glide to retirement find themselves in a chasm between the workplace and a pension. Bridging the gap between middle age and official old age may eat up their resources if they can't find new jobs.

It's very sad all the way around and that is why many of us are thinking of those affected, whose names we know by heart from bylines and photo credits. As a writer, I can't even find the words for how I feel for them today. "Good luck" seems inadequate, and even hollow, in the face of the fact that more than half will not be spared.

I'l just say ... you are all in my thoughts.


DPW Is On the Case!

The city web site suddenly has a very professional post on how the DPW is addressing winter storms. Click here to see it.

Interesting that after five years the administration can come up with such a nice PR piece. Did they find some undiscovered talent in City Hall? Or was someone hired?

Either way, it is a big step up from past efforts. Kudos to the unknown author.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Q&A on PMUA With Philip Charles

Plaintalker asked citizen activist Philip Charles of DumpPMUA to comment on some current issues the group is working on.
To learn more about DumpPMUA, click here.


Dump PMUA 2011 Q&A

Q. DumpPMUA previously challenged the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority directly with OPRA requests and a court case. For 2011, it appears that your new goal is to encourage residents to seek the aid of city and state elected officials to reform or abolish the PMUA. Is that correct?

A. Our goals of making the PMUA more fiscally responsible, transparent, and accountable to the residents of Plainfield have not changed. They are just naturally evolving and progressing. Our first step was to work with the PMUA which did not yield any results. We then forced the PMUA to make some changes to their operations through the lawsuit and subsequent settlement. We have added another layer by trying to work through the City while keeping other options outside the City open. We continue to closely examine the operations of PMUA both through OPRA requests and by regular attendance at their meetings and rate hearings. It is apparent to us that despite changes to some practices, the PMUA has not made all of the changes required in order to insure that all Plainfield residents are treated fairly and that rates are competitive. Because we do not have much confidence that all City officials will take a hardline stance with the PMUA as needed, we are also pursuing other avenues at the county and state levels.

Q. Was the 61 percent increase for shared services the catalyst for your current campaign regarding the PMUA?

A. No, We have continuously worked on the issues with the PMUA for approximately 2 years. As a result of the lawsuit, the PMUA now publishes proper notice of rate increases which included the most recent 61% increase to the Shared Services Fees. Shared Services amounts to $331 per year per household or $5 million per year. Once the public became educated that those fees are for services provided by the PMUA to public areas in the City they did the simple math which does not compute. As a result, many residents have been contacting us once again to see how they can help us or how we can help them. It is the involvement of many residents, including business owners, which brought the issues to the forefront again including the article in the Courier News. We at DumpPMUA have always been working on the issues.

Q. The PMUA declined to meet with the governing body last fall and has yet to set a meeting date. What do you want the City Council to do about that?

A. We want the City Council to hold PMUA's feet to the fire. It's quite simple. Either the City and PMUA come to an agreement for the benefit of all Plainfield residents and bring the PMUA rates within rates which are comparable to other towns or the City works to abolish the PMUA which is well within their rights and is their obligation to the residents!

Q. Gov. Chris Christie is looking into the practices of certain authorities with an eye to reform. What would you ask him to do regarding the PMUA?

A. We would like for Governor Christie to appoint an investigator to come into Plainfield and look at the operations of the PMUA from top to bottom including their contracts, spending, consultants, employees and their relationships with PMUA officials and other City officials. There is so much that needs investigating and we as members of the public can only scratch the surface. When one looks at the fact that the PMUA's budget went from $10 million in 1999 to over $23 million in 2011 despite the fact that there has not been substantial development in Plainfield and that that PMUA continues to benefit from a lower disposal rate than private haulers, red flags should immediately be raised and questions should be asked.

Q. A stalemate continues over filling the PMUA board of commissioners. What do you want the mayor and council to do about that?

A. We know of at least one resident who submitted his name for consideration and did not even receive a response from the Mayor. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that this resident has been vocal in his questions of the PMUA and those types of individuals are not seen as valuable to the Board of Commissioners. That in itself is the problem. If we want reform of the PMUA, we need to appoint commissioners who see a need for reform. Past candidates that were considered and wanted to hear from residents about our concerns were taken off the list for consideration. The continued stalemate just demonstrates another reason for the City to seriously consider abolishing the PMUA.

It is important to note that abolishing the PMUA would not have to result in every PMUA employee losing their job. In fact, most of the rank and file employees would still be necessary to continue the vital service of garbage collection and disposal as well as sewer system maintenance. It would allow for elimination of the bloat at the PMUA. Many times we hear the argument that the City would have to assume the debt of the PMUA but those people seem to forget that whether we have to pay the PMUA's debt as ratepayers or as taxpayer of the City, the debt is ours and unavoidable. We are hopeful that something is done because we do not want to have others take care of our mess. When you don't clean it up yourself, you don't always like the way someone else does it.

--Philip Charles