Monday, January 31, 2011

Bulldozer Vanquishes Sidewalk Snowbank

The rumble of heavy machinery was music to our ears on Block 832 Monday. A mighty bulldozer not only cleared the driveway from Park Avenue to Parking Lot 7, it demolished a four-foot pile of snow that was blocking the sidewalk on the East Seventh side of the lot.

On Sunday, churchgoers who normally use the lot found the driveway impossible to negotiate. The car in the foreground had a big piece of plywood at the rear, presumably to warn others who might get stuck. The truck blocked the entry off Park Avenue as an added measure.


This was the view looking east on the sidewalk near Scott Drugs Sunday.

Thanks to the bulldozer, pedestrians now can use the sidewalk and drivers can use the Park Avenue driveway. As the mayor might say, "Yay!!!"

--Bernice

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Budget Note

The municipal tax rate edged over the $4 mark with the December passage of the SFY 2011 budget.

The new rate is $4.005 per $100 of assessed valuation for the year ending June 30, 2011, meaning the owner of the average $113,000 home will pay $4,525.65 for the municipal portion of the SFY 2011 tax rate, up $216.96 from SFY 2010. (To figure the amount on homes valued higher or lower, divide the assessed valuation of your home by $100 and multiply the result by $4.005.)

The municipal rate is up 5 percent from the SFY 2010 rate of $3.813. But in June, a preliminary tax rate of $3.968 was set for the first two quarters of SFY 2011, so part of the increase has already been paid.

Plainfield's fiscal year and the calendar year do not match up. The city adopted a fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30, in the early 1990s. The process involved a six-month "transition year" budget. Some council members have spoken in favor of returning to a calendar year, but no action to that end has yet been proposed. The preliminary tax rate approved in June covers the first two quarters of the new fiscal year, which are the last two quarters of the calendar year.

The city has had a very high turnover in finance directors since 2006 and just received a new chief finance officer after a vacancy of three years. Even though the current system is confusing, the city probably needs to regain a sound financial footing before switching back to a calendar year.

--Bernice

Demise of the Payphone

This former wall of payphones at Twin City supermarket is looking pretty barren.

A couple of months ago, Verizon took out the payphone in Parking Lot 7, along with all its wires and the metal stanchion it had been mounted on. That phone was often vandalized and repair was quite costly.

The vanishing payphones reminded me of a feature in 2600 magazine, photos of payphones around the world. Click here for a link. Probably a lot of them are gone as well, now that people even in developing countries use cell phones for talking and even for monetary transactions, as is being done now in Haiti. There is a system that makes a phone a virtual debit card, according to a radio program I heard last week.

Years ago, when Faheemah El-Amin was on the City Council, payphones in Plainfield had become such a nuisance that the city proposed a phone ordinance (I forget whether it was enacted). Payphones had become the outdoor offices of some drug dealers, who stood at them for long hours and littered the vicinity with snack bags and such. There was also a flurry of protest over private payphones, which could be purchased by a property owner who then collected the coins. As I recall, they also attracted loiterers and and litterers.

Payphones were also a target of hackers, who figured out how to activate them for free to make long-distance calls (another flash from the past). Some users could whistle the tones needed to activate the phones. Click here to see an interesting history of the "Blue Box" era of hacking.

The payphone's wire pole in Lot 7 crashed on a truck parked in the lot after the base of the pole rusted through. I will not miss that payphone, which was the source of many a shouted one-way early morning phone call by lovelorn or angry callers, who accompanied their rantings with gestures and copious curse words. I was awakened many times each summer by these monologues at 2 or 3 a.m.

It's kind of funny now that cell phones have become a nuisance to those who are forced to listen to half a conversation on the train, bus or street. Maybe someday there will be implants that make people virtually telepathic and then they can babble back and forth in their heads without bothering others.

--Bernice




New City Clerk Sought

Now that City Clerk Laddie Wyatt has retired, the administration has begun a search for her successor.

The ad above was in the Sunday "Jobs" section of the Courier News, mixed in with ads for sales reps and telemarketers. Plaintalker thought a more likely place to get a response would be the municipal job listings on the League of Municipalities web site, but the only city ad there was for a director of Public Works & Urban Development. Click here to see their listings.

One hopes a permanent clerk will be named soon for this very important office. Meanwhile, Deputy Clerk Abubakar (AJ) Jalloh is ably holding down the fort.

From the state statutes, here are the duties of a municipal clerk:

The municipal clerk shall:

(1) act as secretary of the municipal corporation and custodian of the municipal seal and of all minutes, books, deeds, bonds, contracts, and archival records of the municipal corporation. The governing body may, however, provide by ordinance that any other specific officer shall have custody of any specific other class of record;

(2) act as secretary to the governing body, prepare meeting agendas at the discretion of the governing body, be present at all meetings of the governing body, keep a journal of the proceedings of every meeting, retain the original copies of all ordinances and resolutions, and record the minutes of every meeting;

(3) serve as the chief administrative officer in all elections held in the municipality, subject to the requirements of Title 19 of the Revised Statutes;

(4) serve as chief registrar of voters in the municipality, subject to the requirements of Title 19 of the Revised Statues;

(5) serve as the administrative officer responsible for the acceptance of applications for licenses and permits and the issuance of licenses and permits, except where statute or municipal ordinance has delegated that responsibility to some other municipal officer;

(6) serve as coordinator and records manager responsible for implementing local archives and records retention programs as mandated pursuant to Title 47 of the Revised Statutes;

(7) perform such other duties as are now or hereafter imposed by statute, regulation or by municipal ordinance or regulation.

--Bernice

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Yale Carilloneurs Visit Plainfield

Fifteen members of the Yale Guild of Carilloneurs performed on the Pittis Carillon at Grace Episcopal Church Saturday as part of a "mini-tour" that will also include a visit to the Princeton University carillon. Here, Vera Wuensche begins with "On the San Antonio River."

She uses her closed hands to play the keyboard, which is attached to the bells above with a system of levers and wires.

The pedal keyboard is played with the feet.

Jessica Hsieh plays "The Dance of the Fireflies." See the video in the post below.

Clarence Cheng's selection was "Image No. 2."

This group arrived first for the visit. Others were delayed by car trouble. This view is from the steps to the bell tower.

Here are some of the massive bells. Read more about the Pittis Carillon here.

This is the narrow staircase to the tower.

Michael Solotke performs "Toccata for 42 Bells." As explained by the visitors, at Yale, the students perform twice a day and take requests, including popular songs. There are 24 Guild members in all. They do not have a teacher, but members commit to teach other students. Every spring break, they go on tour. Every other year, they go to Europe to play carillons.

When the group visits Princeton, they will meet with Robin Austin, who was once the carilloneur at Grace Church. Jeff Spelman is now the carilloneur. He greeted the students and noted their visit brought possibly the most carilloneurs ever to visit Grace Church at one time.

The imposing tower has gargoyles at its four corners. Click on any image for a larger view.

Al Pittis, whose family donated the carillon to the church, welcomes the visitors to cocoa and snacks after they perform.

Al Pittis gives the students a brief history of the carillon from its origins in the 1920s.

Only a couple of Plainfielders turned up Saturday for the tour and performances, but the visit was well-documented. Look for video on the Grace Church web site soon and even a YouTube post. The video below is a Plaintalker first.

Thanks to all the Yale students for a memorable occasion!

--Bernice

Carilloneur at Grace Church


What a treat to see members of the Yale Guild of Carilloneurs at Grace Church Saturday!
See my blog post for photos.

--Bernice

CN "Facelift" Explained

Online readers of the Courier News are invited to view a video that explains the changes in the site's look.

Click here for the link.

It seems that Middlesex and Somerset counties will be the main focus of the new site. A link to Top News for Plainfield was vacant this morning, although the Plainfield InJersey site is still good.

One of the quirks of online news sources is a feature called "Related Stories." It kind of bulks up the content, but the stories may be quite old in the news cycle. It's a clever gimmick that, in my opinion, leads the reader down memory lane when what readers really want is the news of the day. One example I saw yesterday was a local breaking news story with a link to Seattle homicides that, because I read The Seattle Times online, I recognized as a very tragic story that happened months ago. Today there is a "related stories" link to something that happened in Los Angeles in September!

As we all have heard many times over in 2010, news media are in the process of reinventing themselves to fit the times. People are getting their news on electronic gizmos all day, making the ink-and-paper model obsolete for many readers. Bloggers are treading on the hallowed ground of news reporting and "citizen journalists" are urged to join in after 20 minutes of training.

In the overall scheme of things for the so-called legacy media (what your parents grew up reading), Plainfield may emerge as a less attractive subject than more affluent towns that yield more advertising revenue. Even the hyperlocal "Patch" blogs are tending to focus on towns with more spending power than cities where dollar stores prevail.

So check out the new format and see both what you think and what they think about news coverage. The old adage, "The more things change, the more they remain the same," does not seem to be operative when it comes to delivering the news.

--Bernice

Friday, January 28, 2011

One Developer, Seven Projects in 2011

Image: Utility work in front of a Cretella building.

One of the "Year in Review" stories I had hoped to do pertained to redevelopment projects in Plainfield. In 2010, little was heard from any developer except Frank Cretella, who received multiple approvals from land use boards and the governing body for various projects.

Cretella has set in motion seven projects, so many that the Planning Division drew up a fine-print chart to keep track of them all. He had purchased various parcels under individual limited liability company names, but all came under the aegis of Landmark Developers, the approved developer for the North Avenue Commercial Historic District about four years ago. In 2010, the city formally allowed him to change the thrust of his plan from new, high-rise construction behind existing historic buildings to rehabilitation of some sites.

His properties include the former Mirons furniture warehouse and the Romonds Jeep building on East Second Street, two buildings south of the PNC Bank on Park Avenue and the Appliance Arama warehouse on East Front Street. His plans include acquisition of the PNC Bank and other bank-owned property on the block bounded by the Raritan Valley Line, Park Avenue, West Front Street and the PSE&G power station on West Front Street.

Plaintalker has reported on most of Cretella's applications, which include residential, commercial, hospitality and cultural uses. The most ambitious is West Second Street Commons, which is slated to bring 148 residential units to the bank block and which has been described as the "critical mass" downtown necessary to kick off transit-oriented development. The City Council in late 2010 approved a "payment in lieu of taxes" plan that Cretella said was necessary to obtain financing for the project.

Recently there has been new talk of the need for a parking structure downtown. A six-story parking deck had been envisioned years ago to replace Municipal Parking Lot 6 on East Second Street, but then Cretella himself said there was ample ground parking in city lots. Now the notion of a deck or garage has resurfaced.

During the early years of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs' first term, officials gave updates on more than a dozen other development proposals, but not much has been heard since. No doubt the economic downturn has put many in abeyance or just sunk them. Cretella has emerged as the city's best hope at present.

Plaintalker followed applications through the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment and Historic Preservation Commission, but a comprehensive presentation on where all these projects stand would be of interest. In the mayor's first term, Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier was in charge of economic development. She continued briefly in the mayor's second term that began Jan. 1, 2010, but since then her successor, David Brown II, left the city. Jacques Howard is currently the acting department head.

Maybe between the administration and the council's Economic Growth Committee, a presentation can be made on the status of the seven projects in coming weeks or months. Meanwhile, Plaintalker will endeavor to keep up with any news on the projects.

--Bernice

Mission Impassable

On the other side of this mini-mountain on East Seventh Street is a nice clean sidewalk. But to get there? One choice was to walk against oncoming traffic in the street, which was reduced to half a lane by snow left over from the December blizzard. Oh, I forgot - that was the only choice. By the way, it was city workers plowing Municipal Parking Lot 7 who apparently decided to put the snow on the sidewalk.

Here's the driveway to Lot 7 from Park Avenue, normally a shortcut for high school students and other pedestrians. Except for where a truck pushed up a big pile of snow a third of the way in from Park Avenue, the 16 inches of snow from the last storm remain untouched.

Closer to home, people who step off our back stairs encounter a dangerous patch of ice from the dripping eaves above. Somebody did clean it up once today and left some salt, so tenants can deal with it as needed.

Getting half a block from my door to Twin City was really treacherous today. The ice-and-snow removal law was a bit of a joke. Short of having a fire-breathing dragon on the case, I fear we Park & Seventh pedestrians are in for a lot more of the same as January winds up.

--Bernice

CN Gets New Format

Seems like the blink of an eye - all of a sudden the Courier News online looks totally different.

It's an attractive, clean format. Not sure whether it is part of a global redesign.

As we have heard, more changes are coming in staffing. Ninety-nine employees are in the process of interviewing for 53 jobs that will remain by Feb. 4.

Will there still be a Plainfield beat? We have to wait and see. Meanwhile, it's a good thing we have a cadre of bloggers to keep their ears to the ground and their fingers on the keyboard - a very awkward position, by the way.

--Bernice

Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's Over Except for Cleanup

It looks like 16 inches fell on Block 832 in the big storm, although drifts are higher.

The skies appear to be clearing and sunshine is forecast for today.

Somebody shoveling out a car parked on the street tossed snow onto our cleared, though single-file, sidewalk. In comments for an interview earlier this week, former Public Works and now PMUA official David Ervin noted the difficulty of clearing streets with so many more cars parked overnight on the street than in the 1990s. The "No Parking 2-6 a.m." rule is apparently not enforced or unenforceable.

Public Works and the Parking Bureau are clearing Cleveland Avenue, a popular route to the main train station.

The cleanup started early, but there's plenty more to go. Property owners are running out of places to pile up the snow.

Safe walking to pedestrians and safe driving to those with vehicles! Take your time and be careful!

--Bernice

Bell Tower Tour Saturday

Image: Grace Episcopal Church with bell tower.

Visitors are invited to tour the Grace Church bell tower Saturday at 3 p.m. The church is located at Cleveland Avenue and East Seventh Street. Enter on the Cleveland Avenue tower side.

The Yale University Guild of Carilloneurs is scheduled to visit the renowned Pittis Carillon Saturday. Click here to learn more about the carillon.

As Plaintalker readers know, I am very fond of the carillon and the annual peach festival and carillon concert that the church hosts each year. Living just across the street, I have enjoyed many hours of listening to the bells, whether it is Saturday practice or Sunday hymns or special holiday music. This is a great cultural asset to Plainfield and it is well worth a visit to learn more about it. Thanks to Grace Church carilloneur Jeff Spelman for letting us know about Saturday's invitation.

--Bernice

Snow Scenes

Wednesday morning, the snow began falling. About four inches piled up quickly. Here's a view of our front yard.

On my way back from Twin City, I spotted this vehicle. Never saw one like it before. Its six antennae and long silver horns made it look ready to deal with any emergency in an elegant way.

Foot traffic made an intricate pattern on East Seventh Street. This sidewalk had been cleared once, but snow was still coming down hard.

I spent some time reading at night, with sleet rattling on the windows. At ten minutes to 2 a.m., I checked the snow on the front steps and got the reading above. It's not supposed to stop snowing for another four hours or so.

To-do list for Thursday: Dig out, shovel, get ready for the next storm.

--Bernice

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Snow is Falling Fast!

I had my little ruler in my pocket when I went out around 11:30 a.m. to check the snow.

Four inches already and many more hours of snowfall to go!

Stay safe out there, folks!

--Bernice

Remembering Bell Labs

When President Barack Obama spoke of reinvigorating the nation's history of scientific discovery and achievement, the words "Bell Labs" came to mind.

Not far from here in the mid-20th century this place fostered pure research which yielded many innovations in science, music and the arts. As I recall, the premise was to create a haven for brilliant minds and to see what happened. Later on, scientists were more likely to be funded in labs aimed mainly at improving a company's bottom line.

To get a glimpse of Bell Labs, click here.

Maybe I have romanticized Bell Labs in my memory of its reputation for giving scientists free rein to explore their ideas. Are there any others out there who remember what it stood for in its early days?

--Bernice

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Special Meeting Yields Only One PMUA Appointee

In split votes, the City Council approved Rev. Tracey Brown Monday for a new term on the PMUA board of commissioners, but rejected Charles Eke and Cecil Sanders Jr.

Brown, previously an alternate, will fill a five-year unexpired term to Feb. 1, 2015, succeeding holdover Dave Beck. Council members Vera Greaves, William Reid, Bridget Rivers, Cory Storch and Annie McWilliams voted "yes" to appoint Brown and Adrian Mapp and Rebecca Williams voted "no."

On the other two, McWilliams said she had nothing against them but said they were "not the right people for the role."

The authority has been under fire for two years over rate increases and spending on travel and conferences. Citizens formed a group called DumpPMUA and not only investigated authority operations, but openly encouraged property owners to opt out of its services. The movement escalated this year after the PMUA approved a 61 percent increase for "shared services" that include trash pickup in public places.

McWilliams said she hoped Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs would submit names of individuals "willing to look at PMUA with a more critical eye." Reid disagreed, praising Sanders and Eke and noting that vacancies on the PMUA board of commissioners have gone on for a year. But Storch said he was looking for "change agents" in the appointees and did not hear that from Eke and Sanders.

All three nominees were interviewed by the council at the Jan. 10 meeting.

Mapp agreed with Storch, saying, "I think what we need is transformational change, so the city can get the most out of the authority."

Mapp called all three "excellent citizens," but said he did not hear what he needed to hear from them regarding service on the PMUA board.

Eke was to have succeeded deceased Commissioner James Green in a term to Feb. 2, 2014 and Sanders was to have received a term as alternate to Feb. 1, 2015 succeeding Brown. But in roll call votes, Greaves, Reid and Rivers voted "yes" on Eke and Sanders and Mapp, McWilliams, Storch and Williams voted "no."

The authority is set to reorganize on Feb. 15.

McWilliams said the council needs to have PMUA officials visit the governing body in March "to continue the conversation that began in July." PMUA officials declined to meet with the council last fall, asking for a scheduled meeting to be postponed until after the November general election, but the year ended without it taking place.

--Bernice

Monday, January 24, 2011

2011 Storms Pale Compared to 1994

Sick of snow and ice? Don't expect sympathy from Eric Watson.

Watson was the city's new Public Works director when Mayor Mark Fury took office in 1994. He recalled Monday how snow fell the day the mayor was sworn in and then it just didn't stop.

The new administration seventeen years ago soon found itself coping with a run of 17 storms that wreaked havoc in all kinds of ways. There was not enough money or equipment on hand to deal with the mountains of snow and thick sheets of ice. The Plainfield Public Library had to close for a week due to leaks from accumulated ice on its flat roof. Angry homeowners came after Public Works trucks with bats after plows blocked their driveways. The city had to rent a big front end loader to clear streets and parking lots of snow.

David Ervin was also a Public Works official at the time and recalls it as the new administration's "trial by fire."

"After eight or nine storms, we finally kind of got it," Ervin said.

A projected cost of $15,000 for salaries and the same for expenses to remove snow in February 1994 mounted to $63,000 and $47,000, respectively.

Currently, the city still has the dregs of the Dec. 26 blizzard in grimy piles around town that successive storms have briefly dusted over with a short-lived mantle of white. More snow is expected this week, with a snow/sleet mix forecast for Wednesday. News articles are quoting the gripes of weary shovelers and giving remedies for cabin fever.
Although Watson and Ervin could laugh now as they recalled the challenge they faced in 1994, Ervin said, "I think we're on record to repeat it."

Watson soon moved on to become executive director of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority and Ervin joined him as assistant executive director. City officials recently suggested that PMUA could help out with snow removal by putting plows on its solid waste trucks, but Watson said the trucks could not be fitted out to push snow and anyway they are leased. In addition, he said, if the authority took on a city responsibility, it could cause a "major grievance" for the Division of Public Works.

Meanwhile, with many weeks of winter yet to go, residents are complaining this year that they just can't deal with another storm.

Ervin's response? "Been there, done that."

--Bernice

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Experts Urge Support for TOD

Image: Four hubs along the Raritan Valley Line for redevelopment.

Plainfield must become a voice in transportation policy if the city is to make the most of its rail stations, a transit-oriented development expert told the governing body this month.

Martin E. Robins, senior fellow at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, urged the City Council on Jan. 18 to get more involved in the Raritan Valley Coalition to enhance its opportunities for development.

Robins and Darius Sollohub, associate director for infrastructure planning at NJIT, made a presentation on the visioning study that the council supported last year. An analysis of its findings concluded that the city has to leverage its train stations for economic advantage.

Between the start of the study and its conclusion, Gov. Chris Christie halted New jersey's involvement in the Access to the Region's Core tunnel project that was expected to yield a one-seat ride to New York by 2017, so Sollohub said an epilogue had to be added. Robins said it would have been "a tremendous boost to Plainfield," but added, "The game is not entirely over."

Robins urged "vigilance and involvement" in transit policy to keep track of new developments and options for one-seat travel into New York.

"You have to apply yourself," he said, because other municipalities along the Raritan Valley Line will be competing for benefits.

"You have to pick up the pieces and make something of this," he said.

Sollohub said the Planning Division will post the study on its web site and hard copies will go to the Office of Economic Development.

In 2006, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs called for four "transit villages," based on two existing and two defunct rail stations. But the designation is given to a municipality, not to projects. Officials said recently the city will be seeking a transit village designation.

Sollohub referred to a high-density residential project downtown that he said will provide the "critical mass" needed for transit-oriented development.

"You have to foster that," he said.

The Planning Board last year approved the proposal by developer Frank Cretella to create 148 residential units on the PNC Bank block and the City Council approved a "payment in lieu of taxes" plan that Cretella said was necessary to obtain funding for the project.

Several years ago, citizens and officials banded together for two transit opportunities. One was for a rail museum that was expected to bring visitors here and the other was to support a new light rail line along the Raritan Valley Line. Neither came to fruition. The early push for transit village development and re-opening of the two defunct stations has shifted to transit-oriented development that includes bus and jitney service as well as rail usage.

Councilman Cory Storch, who promoted the idea of having a visioning study, said after the Jan. 18 presentation on its implementation, "I think we have the community with us - we just have to make it happen."

--Bernice Paglia

Council Names Committees, Liaisons

The City Council’s committee system appears to be gaining momentum after a somewhat spotty past effort. The committee system had its genesis in a “Rules of Order” document developed in March 2006 by Ray Blanco, who was the council president at the time. After Blanco’s untimely death in July 2006, the system fell away until Rashid Burney brought it back when he became council president in 2009. Council President Annie McWilliams in 2010 ramped it up by asking for written reports from each committee chair and now that she is council president again, she is asking the same.

While Blanco set up six committees, there are now four. For 2011, they are:

Administration and Finance
Chair, Adrian Mapp
Members, Annie McWilliams, Cory Storch

Economic and Community Development
Chair, Cory Storch
Members, Rebecca Williams, Annie McWilliams

City and Neighborhood Services
Chair, Vera Greaves
Members, William Reid, Bridget Rivers

Public Safety
Chair, Bridget Rivers
Members, Rebecca Williams, Vera Greaves

These committees will report to the full council and public monthly.

Last year, assignments for committees and council liaisons to various boards and commissions were done individually by resolution, but this year they were part of the 30-page Rules of Order, so the public may have missed them. It may be of interest to residents to see who among their elected officials is focusing on these topics.

For 2011, liaisons are as follows:

Mayor’s Citizen Advisory Committee (reviews and ranks Community Development Block Grant applications): Annie McWilliams, Bridget Rivers (alternate)

Planning Board: Cory Storch

Board of Education: Bridget Rivers, Annie McWilliams (alternate)

Green Brook Flood Control Commission: Adrian Mapp, Rebecca Williams (alternate)

Union County Community Development Revenue Sharing: Vera Greaves, Adrian Mapp (alternate)

Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Board: Annie McWilliams, Rebecca Wiiliams, Vera Greaves

Housing Authority of Plainfield: Bridget Rivers, William Reid (alternate)

Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority: Bridget Rivers, Rebecca Williams (alternate)

Special Improvement District: Annie McWilliams, Cory Storch, Vera Greaves

Shade Tree Commission: Rebecca Williams, Cory Storch (alternate)

Muhlenberg Community Advisory Group: Annie McWilliams, William Reid, Rebecca Williams

Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs: Rebecca Williams, Vera Greaves

These liaisons will report quarterly or bi-annually.

Plaintalker has found many of the committee and liaison reports very helpful in understanding what is going on in the city, although there may sometimes be more information than the average citizen can digest in a few minutes. Over time, however, they offer a cumulative knowledge base that helps both the governing body and residents make up their minds about needs and priorities.

--Bernice

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Oy Vey Ist Mir!

Woe is me! I have four dubious comments in queue. What to do? I let them sit for a while and they don't look any better.

Maybe I will let them rip tomorrow or maybe I will delete them all.

--Bernice

Electronic Frontier Foundation Aids Bloggers

Did you know that putting a whole copyrighted news article on your blog is a no-no?

These and other aspects of blogging are outlined on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's web site. This organization has a very worthwhile mission. Maybe you should consider donating there rather than to a politician who seeks to suppress your rights.

Look here for more on bloggers, including a legal guide.

Plainfield has nearly two dozen bloggers by now, though not all post every day and their themes vary widely. Still, when it comes to issues of free speech, all should look into the law as it currently exists. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation will help you do just that.

--Bernice

JG Investigating Bloggers?

It is interesting that Assemblyman Jerry Green is now looking into policing bloggers.

"The blogger should be held legally responsible for the messages relayed through his/her blog and frankly the blogger should face the retaliatory action of a court of law..."

I have recently advised a couple of commenters to present their views without including direct allegations of wrongdoing by individuals. It has become all too common for commenters to toss around inflammatory terms, which at the minimum demean the level of discourse and at the maximum might constitute an actionable slur.

Of course, Green does not publish comments, so he does not have that particular concern. He does, however, use his own remarks on his blog to mischaracterize individuals politically and to assign intentions to people. This brings us to the question of character assassination, defined as "the slandering of a person usually with the intention of destroying public confidence in that person." Green sees nothing wrong with calling someone of his own Democratic Party a "Republican," utterly without proof and obviously to tarnish the person in the minds of the public. Now we see his new epithet is "a Tea Party member," which is even worse, as this particular group has rightly or wrongly gained the image of reverting to extreme behavior to make ideological points.

By registering with a party, a person commits to a particular general outlook that is demonstrated by its leadership. As a Democrat, I voted for and support President Barack Obama. He embodies the progressive ideals of the Democratic Party. To call me a Republican, as Green has done several times, is to assign me an ideology that I have not endorsed. On the local level, to be called out of my political name by an elected official effectively disenfranchises me, as I cannot expect any understanding or assistance from such a politician when as a constituent I may need it.

So let Assemblyman Green wag his finger at bloggers and invoke the weight of the law for those who misstep. And then let him look in the mirror and ask himself, what am I doing when I tell the public on Jerry Green's Page that such-and-such a local figure did wrong or endorses a political stance antithetical to his or her party affiliation. As a blogger himself, will Green man up and accept the consequences of what he says about people?

--Bernice

Friday, January 21, 2011

Special Council Meeting Monday

Snowfall, Friday morning.

The City Council will hold a special meeting Monday to appoint three PMUA commissioners and to authorize submission of a layoff plan to the state Civil Service Commission.

The meeting is 7 p.m. in City Hall Library.

The layoff plan follows passage of the SFY 2011 budget last month.

The PMUA appointments, if passed, will be just in time for the authority's annual reorganization in early February. The initial proposed appointments have been revised. Plaintalker will await the text of the resolutions Monday to confirm the terms and successions. Those being nominated for City Council advice and consent are Tracey L. Brown, an incumbent commissioner, and Charles Eke and Cecil H. Sanders Jr., both new to the PMUA board of commissioners.

The governing body will also hold a closed session Monday on personnel matters.

--Bernice

NJSBA Offers Candidates' Kit Online

Thinking of running for the school board?

The New Jersey School Board Association has an online Candidates' Kit that will answer your questions about what is involved in running and serving on the school board. This three-year commitment involves much more than attending school board meetings. Be aware of what your obligations will be if you run and win a seat.

Click here to access the kit.

The filing date is Tuesday, March 8 and the deadline is 4 p.m. that day. The school board election will take place on April 27 this year. If you want to run, be prepared!

--Bernice

Hookah Lounge Proposed

A young man who wants to open a hookah lounge in Plainfield got a lot of questions Thursday from Planning Board members who are more up on transit-oriented development than “hydro herbal molasses.”

Board Chairman Ken Robertson allotted him five minutes, and as a half-dozen young supporters looked on in City Hall Library, Luis Cubi explained that hookah use is part of a “new generation and a new culture” that is widespread, but devotees from Plainfield must travel to Edison, Elizabeth or Paterson to indulge.

Cubi said he and his friends have “nowhere to go to have fun” and feel it is only right that Plainfield should have its own hookah lounge.

He took pains to say that his proposed lounge would not use tobacco in water pipes, but would use fruit-flavored herbal essences that contain no tar, nicotine or tobacco.

Guests 18 and older would pay a fee, which Cubi said would be “$15 for guys, $10 for girls,” and could bring their own beer, Red Bull, soda or water. The lounge would feature free Wi-Fi, music and entertainment.

But board members cited health issues and concerns for underage drinking, along with questions on how towns with such lounges regulate them and what was in the substance being smoked.

Board member Ron Scott-Bey related the concept to what he called “bourbon and cigar clubs” in Kentucky, where patrons bring their own bourbon and buy cigars, and just socialize.

Robertson noted the legal drinking age here is 21 and questioned the BYOB policy proposed.

Board member Sidney Jackson asked whether state health authorities would have to intervene if something is inhaled, even if it is herbal.

Cubi presented background information on the product to be used in the water pipes and also gave the board a petition with 100 signatures in support of a hookah lounge here.

The board did not move the matter to an agenda for an upcoming meeting, but Robertson asked Cubi to work with Planning Director Bill Nierstedt on it. Nierstedt said he had already obtained ordinances on hookah lounges from other municipalities.

Hookah culture is well-represented online, with the product Cubi advocated for sale on Amazon.com and numerous blogs and web sites full of information. Is there a hookah lounge in Plainfield’s future? We’ll see.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Read Cory's Budget Resolution

Councilman Cory Storch has won the support of most of his colleagues on the governing body for the following resolution on the budget process. In the interest of bringing more attention to it, I am posting the entire text, with some commentary in italics. Feel free to add your comments.

--Bernice

2012 Plainfield Municipal Budget Planning Resolution

The municipal budget is a set of priorities of the government. With a finite budget, we can only spend so much money. Money spent in one area means there is less to spend in another area. As such, forward directional priorities are necessary to start the entire leadership of Plainfield thinking about pro-active and multi-year budgeting.

Whereas the state of New Jersey is imposing a 2% tax levy cap for Fiscal Year 2012 and

Whereas Plainfield’s municipal government expenses continue to rise while non-property tax revenues are decreasing in the short term and
Whereas the City Council desires to plan proactively to prepare for a difficult budgeting process that will challenge municipal government to meet the needs of residents and employees and

Whereas 2011 Council wishes to work pro-actively with the Mayor and administration to create a budgeting process that meets the above challenge,
Therefore the 2011 City Council recommends the Mayor and administration, in partnership with the City Council, utilize the following strategies:

1) An aggressive budget timetable for SFY 2012 that includes creating a 5 year municipal budget projection to be presented at the January business meeting.

2) The Council and Mayor appoint the CBAC no later than February and empower the 2010 CBAC as a holdover body until then; the Council Finance Committee, Mayor and administration to work closely with the CBAC beginning January to prepare the 5 year projection and 2012 budget.

3) 2011 should be year we begin to migrate non-core services to other entities. Further municipal funding of non-core services puts pressure on the budgets and causes the elimination of core-services like Fire, Police and Public Works. Council understands the value of most non-core services to the community and intends for these non-core services to be continued for our community which needs them.

4) In anticipation of the non-continued municipal funding of non-core services Council directs the administration to work with great haste to find new ownership of these programs. New ownership for at least one of these non-core services should be in place by June 30th. Administration shall report monthly to the Council on the progress of migrating these services to a non-governmental agency. An example and model of such a successful transfer is our own Dudley House.

5) The Citizens Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC) has endorsed this thinking and has named some non-core services to be migrated to non-profits. These include Plainfield Action Services, WIC and the bi-lingual day-care center.
Objections to this portion have already begun, with comments by Councilman William Reid showing the strongest opposition.

6) The inspections department should be reorganized to include focus on core needs: greater inspection enforcement and reduction in C of C which is already done through the normal market forces.
As a longtime tenant, I know what shortcuts landlords will take without the strong arm of the law to make them do the right thing. The Certificate of Compliance is meant to assure that, for renters, the premises are free of health and safety hazards and are habitable in compliance with the Property Maintenance Code. Given that half the households in the city are renters, this tool is a needed safeguard against exploitive landlords. It may be that home sales have market forces that favor buyers, but tenants in Plainfield need this support.

7) Council directs the administration to utilize the auxiliary Police to the maximum allowable extent of the law. This may mean training, uniforms etc. The Council is hereby directing the administration to come up with a comprehensive plan utilizing the auxiliary department and the Council is committed to fully funding this as a means of increasing public safety.
The Auxiliary Police have dwindled in number and have been disregarded at times to where trust must be built up that their services are valued before new volunteer officers will come on board.

8) Council directs the administration to continue consolidation of government divisions, bureaus and offices and to redirect scarce resources by shifting unneeded management staffing to direct services.
An astute city administrator needs to be the linchpin of any such consolidation and unfortunately we are entering this era with an acting city administrator.

Only by the timely and collaborative effort of the executive and legislative branches of local government can we remain in control of Plainfield government’s future and avoid outside forces dictating how residents needs best be met. This requires leadership of all elected officials.


New Blog Launches

Tony Rucker, a city resident who has been attending and commenting at City Council meetings, has launched a new blog, The Queen City Progressive.

It has a lot of features heretofore not seen on local blogs and is interactive in many ways. Click here to take a look.

Some of the content has been captured through I-Phone apps. Look for citizen reports on Plainfield to become more sophisticated as these new modalities appear.

Me, I will be the one in the council audience with a notebook from Staples and a pen, which is still more advanced than a stone tablet and a chisel, though not much.

--Bernice

Greaves is Sworn In

Council appointee Vera Greaves was sworn in Wednesday by Deputy Clerk Abubakar Jalloh in City Hall.

Greaves fills the vacancy caused by former Councilwoman Linda Carter's November win to serve on the Union County Freeholder Board. Carter, who held the First and Fourth Ward at-large seat, resigned Dec. 27 and was sworn in at the freeholders' reorganization on Jan. 9.

Greaves will not have to wait for February to get her first taste of council service. There will be a special meeting Monday.

--Bernice

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Incidentals and Some Essentials

Monday's meeting was very long and included a one-hour closed session. A lot of incidental issues came out in the wash in the public portion, among them an allegation that the only city employee on the Planning Board received overtime pay for attending the meetings. One nominee to serve on the Recreation Committee will have to choose between serving or getting paid for a city job - he can't do both. The council's attempt to work with the mayor and heed her plea not to disband the Purchasing Division may run afoul of budget law and action to extend funding through June 30 was put off until next month's council meeting.

In addition, a proposed layoff plan will go back to the administration for further modifications.

A presentation on the visioning study deserves a separate post, which will come later. Cory Storch's budget plan, which calls for an overhaul of the current process, is also worthy of its own post.

As always in the recent past, the long meeting wore me out and I have to recuperate before following up on the issues above.

--Bernice

Greaves is New Council Member

Monday’s City Council meeting did not conclude until around 1 a.m., so I am reporting some of the news with more to follow later.

Vera Greaves emerged as the temporary appointee to fill the vacant First and Fourth Ward at-large seat, after an attempt by Councilwoman Rebecca Williams to reject all three names – Greaves, The Rev. Jason Greer and Union County Police Officer Willie Faulks - offered by the Democratic City Committee. Williams said not all of the three nominees were qualified to vote when their names were submitted to the governing body at the Jan. 10 agenda session.

After a lengthy discussion, a motion to reject the list failed. Councilman William Reid then nominated Greer to fill the vacancy, seconded by Councilwoman Bridget Rivers. Councilman Cory Storch nominated Vera Greaves, though he said he was “personally dissatisfied with the process.”

“We deserve a lot better than to have two out of three candidates not registered when Chairman Jerry Green selected them,” Storch said, recalling a time when candidates were vetted by the committee. “The law is telling us we are stuck with this process.”

Storch said, “We need to put democracy with a small “d” back in the party.”

Councilman Adrian Mapp seconded Greaves’ nomination. A roll call vote on Greer failed, 3-3, with Storch, Mapp and Williams voting “no” and Reid, Rivers and Council President Annie McWilliams voting”yes.” The vote on Greaves was 4-2 in favor, with Reid and Rivers voting “no” and Storch, Williams, Mapp and McWillliams voting “yes.”

McWilliams asked Greaves whether she would like to be sworn in on the spot, but she declined in favor of being sworn in later today in the City Clerk’s office.

“I will do my best to represent both wards,” Greaves said after thanking the council for the vote.

Greaves will serve until the next general election, but may face a challenge in the June primary and if someone else wins the November election, that person will take the seat immediately and also serve the subsequent four-year term starting Jan. 1, 2012.

--Bernice

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New UC Charter School Approved

Plainfield's reign as the sole location for charter schools in Union County may soon be over, now that the Dr. Therman Evans Charter School has been approved.

Click here to read more about the person for whom it is named.

The school will start with 75 students in grade 6 and move on to 225 students in grades 6-8, according to the DOE's Office of Charter Schools. It will serve Linden, Roselle and Elizabeth.

The DOE web site currently lists four charter schools in Plainfield under the listing for Union County.

Another school that had applied to open in Plainfield was not on the list announced Tuesday. Benjamin Fox, the contact person listed for the Character, Leadership, Academic & Social Skills Charter School, said Tuesday he had not received any communication on the status of the application. His school projected starting with 160 children in grades K-3 and moving to 288 students enrolled in grades K-5.

--Bernice

Whatever Happened To ...?

Now that the City Council has launched its 2011 schedule, one wonders whatever became of some unresolved issues from 2010.

The day after the Aug. 1 Town Meeting, I submitted an OPRA request asking for costs and other information on this event. I did get one bit of information showing that $20,000 was taken from an IT account to help pay for it, but none of the other details were forthcoming. The council meanwhile initiated its own investigation, which then ran into trouble over their choice of an attorney to carry it out. Nothing more was revealed. At this point, I am inclined to re-submit my OPRA request, for what it's worth. The public needs to know more about this meeting for which many thousands of dollars were paid to WBLS for advertising and a broadcast. Click here and here for Plaintalker posts.

In April, the governing body was asked to approve a payment of about a quarter million dollars to Dornoch for costs associated with the senior center built "at no cost to the city." Part of the tab was for monthly condo fees. The bill was never paid and by now the condo fee bill has undoubtedly increased. Click here for my original post.

There were some other unfinished stories from 2010 that will have to be taken up anew in 2011. Meanwhile, the horror of three homicides in the first three weeks of the New Year is almost overwhelming. Apparently the jump from two homicides in 2009 to eight in 2010 is a trend that looks likely to continue in 2011. Condolences to all the families.

--Bernice

Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK Holiday 2011

Among all the many prayers to be offered today, let there be one that our young people will understand the life-affirming struggle that Dr. King led and that they will not buy into codes that lead to meaningless deaths.

--Bernice

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Second 2011 Homicide Investigated

I am posting this press release in its entirety rather than attempting to rewrite it.
Bernice

For Immediate Release - January 16, 2011

The Union County Homicide Task Force is investigating the shooting death of a Plainfield teenager who died early Sunday morning, said Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow.

Police were called to (Correction from UCPO) 411 John Street in Plainfield just after Midnight Sunday for reports of an individual who had been shot, said Romankow. The victim, Shawne Lovely, 16, of Plainfield Ave was taken to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in critical condition.

He was pronounced dead at 2:45 a.m., said Romankow. This is the second homicide that has occurred in Plainfield for 2011.

This remains an active investigation by the Homicide Task Force and the Plainfield Police Department. Anyone with information is encouraged to contact the anonymous Union County Crime Stoppers tip line at (908) 654-TIPS, via the Internet at www.uctip.org or by texting UCTIP plus a message to 274637 (CRIMES). A reward of up to $5,000 is available for information leading to the arrest of the person or people responsible for the death of Shawne Lovely.


Additional information will be released as it becomes available.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Can Technology Thwart Crime?

As I mentioned previously, I was not paying full attention at the Jan. 10 City Council meeting when the Highland Global Strategies presentation was taking place. I did see some of it later on television and one part has me wondering about how police can actually prevent a crime through technology.

As I understand what was being said, police could use facial recognition on surveillance cameras to identify known offenders and if at some point cameras detected a meeting of, say, five such characters, police could move in to ward off crime from happening.

As a citizen and somewhat of a worrywart, I have had experiences where I suspected someone's intentions and called police, only to be told to call back when a crime was actually committed.

One incident involved a man living in a car in Lot 7, just outside our building. He was using a large knife to open food cans. When he woke up in the morning, he would get out and stretch and kind of study the building. Because there is a fire escape with access to one of our windows, I was concerned that this obviously needy person might decide at some point to break in. Speculative, yes. But I wanted the police to find out more about this guy's situation. No dice.

So say a senior looks out of a window in a high-crime neighborhood and sees five known hoodlums in a huddle. Would she get the same response? Would having facial recognition technology and camera surveillance of such a get-together make a police response any more likely? Or even legal?

Now, as it happened in another instance, someone in our building heard some guys standing by the fence next to the fire escape and actually discussing how easy it would be to climb up and break in. In that case, police responded at once.

The question is whether, without any indication of intention to commit a crime, police could move in on an individual or group, even if they were known to police from past encounters. Some might say police already do run up on folks sometimes, technology or no. But if an incident went to court and all the police could say was that they thought something was about to happen, what would the judge say?

Crime has been one of the top issues in Plainfield as far back as I can remember, although in a couple of recent political campaigns it was not stressed as much as in the past. Major crime has gone down according to statistics gathered by the FBI in the past few years, but the crime rate per 1,000 remains high, compared to neighboring towns. Public safety costs are now front and center as municipal resources are being squeezed to the limit. This subject demands a lot more thought and discussion if Plainfield is to make any progress in this new decade.

--Bernice

Questions Arise on TV Council Coverage

A reader's question, coupled with a councilman's question at the very end of the Jan. 10 meeting, are making me wonder whether there is a problem with the broadcasting of council meetings on the local television channels.

On Jan. 10, Councilman Adrian Mapp questioned vendor Brian Cox about what happens to the tapes he makes of the meetings. I thought it was somewhat unusual to have Cox step out from behind the camera to answer questions, but I did not really understand the issue, as I seldom watch television.

Cox said he meets with IT Director Chris Payne and consultant Parris Z. Moore and that they have hardware that speeds up the tape. He said he takes the tapes to Payne and that he is using his own camera to make the tapes.

"Is the end product a DVD?" Mapp asked.

Cox said it is a mini-DVD.

Mapp said the clerk must have an unedited copy of the entire meeting and Council President Annie McWilliams reiterated the same point. She said if a member of the public comes to the clerk's office the next day, they should be able to get a copy.

Given that this exchange took place at nearly 12:30 a.m. for a meeting that was supposed to start at 7:30 p.m., and that many other issues had come up during the meeting, I thought it was worth noting even if I didn't have any context.

So last night I happened to turn on the television in time to see the reception for retiring City Clerk Laddie Wyatt. It was interesting to hear what people had to say, especially John Campbell's anecdote about Laddie and the late Mayor Everett C. Lattimore. Later I turned the television on and saw that the annual reorganization, which I missed due to being ill, was on. I watched up until public comment was announced, whereupon the show cut off and after a few seconds, the Jan. 10 meeting, already in progress, appeared on the screen. That meeting also got cut off midway.

It was enough of a fluke and, frankly, a disappointment that I wrote an e-mail to the chairman of the Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Board voicing my feelings.

So this morning I get a blog comment from a reader asking whether shows are edited.

Something is going on and it is of enough concern to have both residents and citizens wondering about it. In the past, there has been talk for the need to have "gavel-to-gavel" coverage of these meetings to satisfy the public's right to know what happens. Obviously, meetings that run to five hours are hard to squeeze into a programming grid. But there is definitely a need for a recording of the entire meeting to be available to the public, now that the precedent of taping the meetings has been set.

The issue of the public's right to know also came up peripherally when Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs asked in December for Cox to turn off the camera while she spoke. Immediate objections came from the governing body and perhaps people began wondering then what actually turned up on the TV screen.

As I said, seeing only a chunk of a meeting was disappointing to me. A council meeting is an episode of public discourse, warts and all, and cannot be edited for any reason. A viewer should see what an attendee saw. This needs to be an item of discussion in 2011, a discussion that should involve the PCTVAB, the paid vendors and consultants, the IT director who is also in charge of media, the administration, the governing body and any citizens who are interested.

The related question of the council schedule may have been settled by the governing body's adoption of the once-a-month regular meeting schedule, which just about guarantees these meetings will run to four or five hours. This is a deterrent both to attendance and to viewing recordings of the meetings. I was able to see Dr. Yood pleading once again on Jan. 3 for a return to the old schedule, but it is unlikely to happen.

Do you try to attend council meetings? Do you try to watch them on TV? Or do you rely on media reports of the main issues that come out of them? Comments are welcome.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, January 14, 2011

Unity Needed for New Budget Approach

At the end of Monday's meeting, Plainfield Municipal Employees Association President Cynthia Smith came to the microphone to comment on the tenor of the agenda session.

Noting the number of argumentative exchanges with the meeting being taped for local television channels, Smith said, "It doesn't look good."

She added, "The tone is very terrible."

Smith said officials at the annual reorganization meeting on Jan. 3 voiced a need for unity, but she said of the agenda session, "This is the first meeting - you failed."

In what may have been an understatement, Smith said, "You get the feeling there are personal agendas."

Her observations do not bode well for Councilman Cory Storch's call for early budget talks and collaboration between the governing body and the administration to face harsh fiscal constraints ahead.

Past budget practice has been for department heads to submit budget requests to the administration, which can then adjust them if necessary and draw up the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Normally, the city adopts a three-month temporary budget while awaiting budget introduction, a step in which the administration's budget is received by the governing body for further action and final passage.

The city did not seek extraordinary state aid in the last budget cycle and so did not have to wait for the state to announce aid to offset local property taxes. The budget was passed in December this time, but has been as late as the third quarter, buy which time most of the money has been paid out in increments equal to 1/12 per month of the previous year's budget. The balance leaves little room for savings.

Storch wants the process to begin this month, in the face of a state-imposed 2 percent cap on property tax increases, and seeks a 3- to 5-year budget plan. In addition, he wants more social services to migrate to non-city operations, as the Dudley House substance abuse recovery program has done.

This proposal assumes cooperation and collegiality in facing the current budget crisis affecting all levels of government. But as Smith notes, such a tone was not evidenced Monday.

Disagreements over funding for the Purchasing and Recreation divisions persisted Monday, even though Council President Annie McWilliams pointed out that the budget has been duly amended and passed. In order to move on to the next one and beyond, the two branches of government will have to find some basis for dialogue, or standoffs will ensue.

And as Smith has mentioned in the past, all of the city's bargaining units will have to show some willingness to talk about budget concessions for the coming fiscal year. At Monday's meeting, Councilman William Reid said 50 cents of every tax dollar "goes to police."

Though cooperating with the administration, PMEA has seen its ranks hit hardest by layoffs, while other unions have reportedly not come to the table. A perceived rift between the administrative and legislative branches will just make it less likely that unions will cooperate in the upcoming budget process. Union leaders will be watching to see what tone officials project with each other, and if it is combative, there will be less incentive for bargaining units to consider the overall welfare of the city versus taking care of their membership.

--Bernice

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Safe City Proposal Needs Details

A Bridgewater-based company made a presentation Monday on a "Safe City Assessment" program, but declined to discuss costs and had not previously contacted Police Director Martin Hellwig regarding its services.

Former Public Safety Director Jiles Ship is president and CEO of Highland Global Strategies and Michael Jackson is executive vice president of the firm. Click here for their web site.

Councilwoman Bridget Rivers, chair of the council's 2010 Public Safety Committee, invited the pair to make the presentation to the council last year, but it was postponed. On Monday they said they could collect and collate crime data and then review and analyze it. One of their goals is to foster 'intelligence-led policing" based on information and analysis.

Ship and Jackson mentioned many new techniques for crime-fighting and security, all of which are at the link above. Should they bring their expertise to Plainfield, they promised a "true plan for execution."

However, they did not respond when Councilwoman Rebecca Williams asked for names of other cities that have used their services, although they mentioned the Essex County Jail, which they described as a $500 million, 800,000-square-foot facility.

Councilman Reid asked about costs of the program, but apparently it would depend on several factors.

Acting City Administrator Dan Williamson asked, "Have you had this conversation with the police director?"

They had not, but left a business card for Hellwig as Williamson suggested.

This writer does not recall the city ever hiring an outside consultant on crime strategies, although there have been studies of the Police Division's operations conducted by law enforcement agencies. One surprising allegation the presenters made was that crime rates had gone up. But Hellwig had reported a decline in the city crime rate as measured by the Uniform Crime Report in 2009.

--Bernice Paglia

Well Done!

Two drivers in police trucks with plows just did an energetic and efficient job of cleaning Municipal Lot 7. Very good work!

--Bernice

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rec Commission Plan Stirs Dissent

Despite objections from the mayor, two council members and outspoken supporters of Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn, an ordinance to establish a Recreation Commission will be on the agenda Jan. 18.

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.

Councilman William Reid blasted the plan as creating a new bureaucracy and said there had been “no complaints” about the Recreation Division. He also objected to having a group of residents given the powers outlined in the ordinance.

“It does look like we are picking on the Recreation Department,” Councilwoman Bridget Rivers said.

When new Councilwoman Rebecca Williams spoke in favor of the commission and said only “a paltry number of children” were being served by the city’s recreation programs, Reid repeatedly said she was giving “”false numbers.”

Councilman Cory Storch said he supported formation of the commission, “especially because of all the concerns you heard over last year.”

“I know we could serve a lot more kids,” he said.

As Plaintalker has reported, the Queen City Baseball League began complaining about treatment of its volunteer program in 2009 and the ensuing wrangle between the league and supporters of Wynn continued throughout 2010. The Recreation Advisory Committee was reactivated in part to sort out and possibly resolve the issues. Comments Monday reflected a continuance of widely opposing views on how well the Recreation Division is functioning.

Acting City Administrator Dan Williamson, who served as corporation counsel until City Administrator Bibi Taylor recently went out on maternity leave, said Monday, “The history of the administration’s objections (to a commission) is pretty clear,” though he said he recognized that the council had the votes to pass it. He said the proposal takes away authority from the mayor.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but we believe the answer is not to take away the mayor’s authority and stock the commission with the committee,” he said.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs then voiced a number of objections, starting with the council’s budget amendment that shifted funds from Wynn’s salary line and put it in expenses for seasonal workers.

“Who’s going to run the programs?” she asked. “Volunteers can’t do that for the city of Plainfield. We do not need another layer of bureaucracy.”

Robinson-Briggs said if the legislation passed, she would “like to veto it.”

Council President Annie McWilliams said the ordinance would take two months to pass and the mayor could veto it, the council could override the veto.

Acting Corporation Counsel James Ventantonio questioned whether the proposal was not just “change for change’s sake,” uprooting the committee to make way for the commission. But Councilman Adrian Mapp defended the proposal as “giving structure” to recreation operations. He said the council had no desire to take authority away form the mayor, but was seeking to “ensure there is continuity” in running programs.

Williamson called on the council to allow the Recreation Division to operate, but McWilliams said, “It is my understanding that Recreation is unable to operate – what is it, it can or cannot?”

When McWilliams said she heard the mayor say Recreation could not operate, the mayor snapped back the she did not say that. Mapp then prodded the mayor on what she said , but the mayor responded that the “resolution” was not in compliance with the city’s special charter.

“You should be asking yourselves why you want to go to a commission rather than a committee,” she said, and told Mapp, “It is illegal – it is not in line with the charter.”

The mayor and Mapp, who were rivals in the June 2009 mayoral primary, then had an exchange in which she told Mapp, “Stop campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime.”

McWilliams reminded all parties that they have to see each other around the city, in church and elsewhere and called for respect. Mapp said he was just trying to get the mayor to bring the discussion to a close, and also held out the need for civility.

When McWilliams asked for a consensus on putting the ordinance on the Jan. 18 agenda for a vote on first reading, Reid and Rivers said no, but Storch, Mapp, Williams and McWilliams agreed to put it on.

In the public comment portion of the meeting, two supporters of Wynn lashed out at the council members and at Recreation Committee Chairman Dwayne Wilkins, who was in the audience.

Resident Dan Morgan, who is on the Recreation Advisory Committee, said a commission is unneeded and Wynn has a lot of support. He accused Storch of “trying to be slick” in commenting on the budget amendments and told Mapp, “You can smirk all you want.”

“Cory, I’m surprised at you,” Morgan said. “I thought you was on the up-and-up.”

Morgan alluded to “Sleepy Hollow” and the Second Ward that Storch represents and said, “It’s a vendetta against the other part of town.”

As McWilliams tried to invoke the rules for public comment, Morgan said, “You make it up as you go along,” and the mayor laughed.

Roland Muhammad, another Wynn supporter, said he missed the annual reorganization where he heard there was talk of unity, “But I don’t see it.”

“I see a divided city,” he said. “New Dems, old Dems. I live in the Fourth Ward. I represent the poor. This is our city,” he said, shaking a fist at Storch. “Look what happened in Washington. You act like Republicans to me.”

“You’re a joke,” Muhammad said to Storch, continuing his remarks and growing louder.

Finally McWilliams cautioned him, “Don’t yell,” but Muhammad said, “That’s my voice.

Again turning to Wilkins, he said, “I’m not afraid of the Fourth Ward, but I’m a little afraid of the Second.”

To Queen City Baseball League leader Karen Glencamp Daniel, he said, “My war is not with you.”

Muhammad went on to describe his 40-year friendship with Wynn and added, “I say things the mayor can’t say.”

“You’re a public servant,” he said in a final shot at Storch.

As the meeting adjourned at 12:25 a.m., the mayor thanked Muhammad.

--Bernice Paglia

Vacancy Candidates Quizzed, Vote Next Week

Three candidates for a City Council vacancy were interviewed at Monday’s agenda session and the governing body will choose one at the regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

The three are former Fourth Ward candidate Vera Greaves, The Rev. Jason Greer and Union County Police Officer Willie Faulks, a slate approved Friday by the Democratic City Committee. The vacancy is in the First and Fourth Ward at large seat, from which Councilwoman Linda Carter resigned Dec. 27 in anticipation of being sworn in as a Union County freeholder.

Council President Annie McWilliams posed the same set of questions to each candidate, asking what special qualities they would bring to the council, what three problems they felt should be addressed, how council transparency could be improved and their views on economic development and increasing fiscal responsibility.

Greaves cited her abilities to organize and negotiate as her strengths, while Greer said, “I am a unifier and a go-getter for righteous purposes.”

“I’m outspoken and I have my own mind,” Faulks said, adding he thinks “outside the box” but is a team player.

Faulks named crime and tax relief as two main issues, while Greer emphasized housing conditions and public safety, saying some seniors were “afraid to leave their front porch.” Greaves said young men who loiter on street corners need “some kind of program” in sports or education as an alternative.

In answering other questions, the candidates tended to speak in general terms and did not show much familiarity with the workings of city government.

Councilman Adrian Mapp asked each one to say why they would not vote for the other two and why they should get the vote. Greaves and Greer declined to say anything about their opponents and Faulks said, “I would vote for all of us as I could.”

Mapp also asked how each would get the city to “move away from politics.” Greer’s answer was to get input from longtime, prominent residents and work “to make us a united front more so than a political front.”

McWilliams sought a consensus on one candidate at the meeting Monday, but others said that would be tantamount to choosing one of the three. After discussing whether three resolutions would have to be presented for up or down votes, the council asked Acting Corporation Counsel James Ventantonio to research how the process was handled the last time the governing body had to fill a vacancy.

The regular meeting is 8 p.m. Jan. 18 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia