The governing body is trying to get to the bottom of how a "Town Meeting" on gang violence was organized and funded. It was broadcast over WBLS, a radio station that received $20,000 in city funds for advertising and the event itself. In the overall scheme of things, $20,000 is not a lot of money, but it was paid through the Division of Recreation and taken from unrelated budgetary sources including an Information Technology line for "hardware and software maintenance."
The discussion of the Aug. 1, 2010 event has gone on for a year without any light being shed on how it came about. Officials defending it claim the cost was offset by a $15,000 donation, while not publicly identifying the donor.
The net impression is one of arrangements being made and money spent without the fiscal controls required for municipal government, a notion deepened by the reluctance of officials to explain the circumstances. Hence the unique use of the governing body's subpoena powers, as outlined in the City Charter. Employees will be summoned to Wednesday's meeting to be questioned by the council and action may be taken.
In the MusicFest situation, the Union County Prosecutor's Office investigated the handling of funds for the 2010 event and found errors, resulting in what The County Watchers group called "a scathing report." The group shines a light on dubious doings at the county level and closely monitors how public money is spent.
Plainfield has no similarly intense fiscal watchdog group and for three years did not even have a chief finance officer, the state-required monitor of how municipal money is spent. The city also had a high turnover at the top of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services, one of three departments required by the city's special charter.
Actually, the charter calls for Administration and Finance, Public Works and Public Affairs and Safety as the three departments. Administration and Finance was repurposed during the Fury administration to include the other divisions, with the result in recent years that the finance director ends up getting embroiled in tiffs at the Senior Center or other distractions. At times, the city administrator has had to serve in addition as acting department head, further watering down oversight with side issues such as spats over use of city ball fields.
All this adds up to a weakening of the normal safeguards on fiscal matters.
It remains to be seen what comes out of the council investigation, but at the minimum one hopes it will set a tone of higher regard for accountability in municipal spending. The city has had a chief finance officer since January and also has a permanent AFH&SS director. Although there is no permanent city administrator, the acting city administrator has the experience needed to observe city operations and give sound advice on proper fiscal management going forward.
Employees who may have taken advantage of lax controls need to understand that the party's over. The governing body is serious about accounting for every dollar of public money. Instead of being defensive, the administration should also uphold accountability, at every level.