Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Stinging Rebuke

In the garden: Purple Coneflowers.

Circumstances beyond my control, aka life, may interfere with blogging over the weekend.

After I blogged about wasp stings, I managed to annoy a wasp in the back yard while I was trying to reel in a hose after watering. Apparently it had made a home in some crevice of the hose reel and did not like my disruptive behavior. So it stung me in two places on my left hand.

A baking soda paste alleviated the pain initially, but the next day both sites were itchy all over again and still swollen. The wasp was a kind I had never seen before, reddish-brown with spotted wings, and I could not find any clues online about its particular stings.

Anyway, I have a problem that may interfere with my activities over the weekend, including blogging. The local blogosphere has been kind of subdued lately anyway, so maybe it does not really matter.

Have a good weekend and watch out for those waspish (snappish, irritable) sorts in the back yard. Some are weaponized.

--Bernice

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cash Economy Has Its Hazards

Random image: Golden-orange Cosmos

Master 20th century criminal Willie Sutton famously told police he robbed banks because "that's where the money is."

But for many ethnic groups, members of the underground economy and old folks, the money is not in the bank. It is stashed in the home and wannabe "Slick Willie" types pull stunts like masked home invasions to get it.

The violent attack and robbery in a West End home this week points up part of the problem. The victim is described as holding cash for several relatives - $100,000 in all. It sounds incredible to the average person with a check book and credit cards, but for a large extended family it may be the preferred system.

As a reporter picking up police reports, I learned of one startling variation on the cash-at-home syndrome - keeping gold in the house. The reports were all about Asian restaurant owners and entrepreneurs who converted cash to gold and all too often became the target of home invasions. Some took place with family members home sick from work or school, putting them in extreme danger from the intruders who expected to find no one in the house.

Many East Asians, Latinos and other ethnic groups prefer to keep their financial dealings among themselves, whether for self-capitalization of businesses, accumulating wealth to support overseas relatives or just because they may lack legal standing to deal with the U.S. banking system.

The nation's underground economy is nothing new. Working "under the table" or dealing drugs were precursors to what seems to be a burgeoning immigrant cash economy. During the 1970s there was lots of free advice on how to build "stash" hideaways between studs in the wall or in other hard-to-detect spots in the home. Unfortunately for many immigrant men who live in groups nowadays, there is no safe place to keep cash in their shared home space and they carry it on their person, making themselves targets for street assaults and robberies.

Seniors who recall tales of bank failures in the past century are chary enough of banks to have foiled an attempt about 20 years ago to place all Social Security payments in direct deposit accounts. Many would rather pay high fees at check-cashing places than have their money electronically bypass them and land unseen in the bank.

I did a story on attitudes locally when the Social Security Administration tried to force seniors into banking. Some never had bank accounts and were not about to start in their old age. Others could not easily get to banks to withdraw cash for daily use. A very few had set up all their bills electronically, so the money went in and out automatically and they seldom saw or needed cash.

What to do about the underground economy and family-based financial networks is a problem the government has yet to solve, but the SSA is poised to have another go at those bank-averse seniors.

According to a New York Times article, by March 2013, all 10 million SSA recipients who still receive checks will have to convert to direct deposit. This time around, the deal is perhaps sweetened by issuance of a debit card. As such cardholders know, it is easy to make most purchases with debit cards and it obviates the need for seniors to carry large amounts of cash. In addition, many stores and even post offices offer a cash-back option that saves a separate trip to the bank to get spending money.

In 1996, the government projected savings of $500 million over five years by eliminating printing and postage costs for checks. Well, that didn't happen, but maybe today's hard times will encourage seniors to want to save the government money. After all, a drop in costs could mean an increase in revenues for old-age benefits, right? (Who said ROTFLMAO?)

As for those big cash stashes in homes, word gets around and home invasions follow. It is a personal risk taken with the knowledge that violence or even death can follow. I can recall several local news stories where home invasions took a fatal turn. The most chilling part of this week's invasion may have been its effect on the young children who were exposed to violence and danger. Let's hope their parents and relatives will find a better way to keep assets.

--Bernice

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wasps on the Half-Shell

Maria's post on wasps in the garden reminds me that I never posted this photo of an odd sight: A big paper wasp nest in one of the architectural details of a building at Park & Eighth.

Wasps can be vicious to perceived intruders. I once had to go to the emergency room after I crossed the flight path of some wasps that had a nest on the building where we lived several years ago. I was just minding my business, but to the wasps I was in their space and paid the price.

We also had ground-dwelling wasps at another house. They did not take kindly to my attempts to mow the lawn. We had to apply some stuff that, I believe, froze them. A few ghostly white ones flew dizzily about before the drama was ended. My children were young then and we worried for their safety.

Last year, the big garden pest here was the tiger mosquito, a black and white striped species that is out all day looking for victims. The mosquitoes I knew as a child pestered people at night and many a wee hour was spent looking for the elusive ones that whined a teasing song in the ears of sleepy people. The lights went on and a search with a swatter or rolled-up newspaper ensued. Sometimes the people won, but often the mosquito won.

Last night I went to the window to see who was making all the human racket outside, but then happily heard katydids in the distance. To hear them in the city always means to me that the environment is getting more like the country (just a theory).

Wasps, mosquitoes, katydids - they live here, too. But sometimes we just can't all get along.

--Bernice

Peninsula Project Forges Ahead

An upgrade of the intersection of Park Avenue, Prospect Avenue and East Ninth Street finally took off in recent weeks after languishing for years under a big sign crediting officials for the project. A new sign identifies it as an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act project.

Instead of two separate feeds into Park Avenue around the old concrete island, the upgrade will merge traffic from Prospect Avenue (right) and East Ninth Street (left) onto Park Avenue, perhaps the city's busiest north-south corridor.

The plan for the upgrade dates back to 2007 and includes input from residents who fought for esthetic appeal as well as improved safety for the hundreds of school children who traverse the intersection. See Plaintalker's 2007 report here.

As months and years passed with no action, residents began to worry about the plan. Maria Pellum confirmed that funding was still in place and kept up the drum beat for completion of the project. From her home on an adjacent corner, she was finally rewarded with the rumble of heavy machinery and eventually the outlines of walks and planting areas to come.

New traffic lights with cameras are part of the project.

Students from Plainfield High School and Evergreen School and all Park Avenue pedestrians will have a nicer walk when all is finished.

The view from West Ninth Street, adjacent to the Plainfield Public Library, has a jumble presently of old and new light poles and signage, including three signs for Park Avenue.

Much credit must go to Maria and those who helped design the "peninsula," as it came to be known, for keeping up the pressure on officials to fulfill their promise of a beautiful and useful new intersection.

--Bernice

Monday, July 25, 2011

Permanent Leaders Needed ASAP

Just think, right now the PMUA, the school district and city government all have interim people in charge!

PMUA comptroller Duane Young is the acting executive director of PMUA, Anna Belin-Pyles is interim schools superintendent and David Kochel is acting city administrator.

While there have been several changes at City Hall and the school district, the PMUA has not had a shift in leadership since its inception in 1995. Earlier this year, Executive Director Eric Watson and Deputy Executive Director David Ervin announced their resignations and Chief Finance Officer James Perry announced his retirement. The authority has been under fire since rate hikes in January 2009 prompted a group of city residents to question its spending practices.

It was two years ago this week that PMUA officials appeared before the City Council with a presentation that mixed hard facts with some very unusual language from Watson. Read Plaintalker's report here. City Council attempts to have another joint meeting failed in 2010.

Meanwhile, the Plainfield school district saw the departure of Superintendent Steve Gallon III and City Administrator Bibi Taylor resigned in January for a Union County position.

So now all three of the city's top public entities are in the classic "challenges and opportunities" mode.

The PMUA has several holdover commissioners on the board that will be selecting a new director. One seat has also been vacant for some time. The mayor and council have not been able to agree on viable nominees for the board. Perhaps that is the biggest challenge, and then assembling new leadership will follow.

The school board must decide whether to have a national search for a new superintendent as was done for Gallon, or to hire from within.

Over at City Hall, the mayor still has two and a half years to go in her second term, but her administration has had tremendous turnover and currently is on its third acting city administrator this year, with one of its three directorships vacant as well.

All three of these entities have multi-million dollar budgets with dozens of lucrative contracts to give out. The sooner each can establish solid leadership in these increasingly tough times, the better. For PMUA, it could mean a decade or more of progress, if new leaders can mend relations with ratepayers. The school district may not be able to count on a long stretch of stability, if its recent past is any indication, but it needs to get squared away with a "permanent" superintendent to meet the increasing challenges of public education.

As for City Hall, it may be difficult to get someone aboard as permanent city administrator for the balance of the mayor's term, but at least the city can try to get as professional a municipal administrator as possible for day-to-day operations and not attempt to make do with fill-in officials such as the mayor and corporation counsel.

Three years without a chief finance officer until January and the high turnover in the cabinet have undoubtedly marred the functioning of city government. Recovery is needed.

If tough times continue, astute stewards of public resources must be in charge. If things get better, leaders with vision can then make the most of new opportunities. Let's hope these people will be found soon, for Plainfield's sake.

--Bernice

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Garden Find

At first, this husk of a praying mantis made me think some predator had sucked out its insides. Then I remembered the word "exoskeleton." A quick online tour confirmed that praying mantises are among those insects that shed their skins as they grow.

This exoskeleton has every little ridge on the forelegs and even the cast-off antennae. Click on photo to enlarge for a better view.

Finds like these are a gardener's reward for toiling in the summer heat! And our head count of at least four of these creatures holds as they grow larger.

--Bernice

Saturday, July 23, 2011

News in Amber

As of this moment, the last news item from Plainfield on mycentraljersey.com is more than a week old.

--Bernice

Asphalt Adds to Heat Woes

Snow on the Mountain, a cool midsummer sight.

My apartment building sits on a deep lot that is approximately 22,000 square feet. The former mansion home of Joseph Yates, this current six-family dwelling and its front and back yards take up perhaps half of that space and the rest is asphalt, including a driveway and back parking lot.

In this weather, the radiant heat coming off our little patch of asphalt gives me pause, in light of a meteorologist's comment this morning on WNYC that this blistering heat is what summer will be going into the late 21st century.

Yikes! I won't be around for that time period, but for the sake of the next generation of Northeasterners, I hope there is some big thinking going on about how to reduce the heat from paved areas. We are also next to a 26,000-square-foot municipal parking lot. I know cities are already under scrutiny for ways to reduce the "heat sink" effect, such as by increasing the tree canopy. It would be good to know that someone is creating new paving materials to reduce storage and radiation of heat.

The flip side, however, is that in the winter I am always chopping up ice so that the radiant heat from the driveway can get rid of it quicker. So maybe scientists can create the "wonder driveway" that is hot in winter and cool in summer, as we are still having snowy Stormageddons every year!

--Bernice

Friday, July 22, 2011

PMUA Audit, Severance Pay Invite Scrutiny

A PMUA audit report for the year ending Dec. 31, 2010 appeared in the Courier News Wednesday, with eight recommendations in categories of billing and collections, accounting and financial reporting and administrative policy.

Auditors only point things out, usually in a very circumspect way. For example, the tone the report takes on travel and business reimbursements just calls for "continued efforts" to make sure employees adhere to guidelines and policies approved by the board of commissioners (some of whom have run up fairly substantial tabs themselves, according to DumpPMUA findings).

Meanwhile, as reported by Dan, DumpPMUA has made public the first severance payment of $275,000 to departed PMUA Executive Director Eric Watson and Deputy Director Dave Ervin. Many questions remain on that issue, including how the payment relates to their contracts and why the resolution leaves open a further payout.

Here are the audit recommendations:

It is recommended that:

Purchasing and Accounts Payable

1. A review be made of all time and material contracts to ensure vendor invoices provided for payment are sufficiently detailed in accordance with approved contract terms.

2. Procedures be implemented to reconcile monthly vendor invoices for gasoline purchases to individual gas receipt tickets received by Authority personnel.

Billing and Collections

3. A review be made of all solid waste container service contracts to ensure updated contract addendum be prepared and filed to reflect current services being provided at the current approved rates and fees.

Accounting and Financial Reporting

4. The Authority's Solid Waste Bond Trustee transfer the excess funds in the General Fund Account into the Revenue Bond Service Fund Account in accordance with the requirements of the bond resolution.

5. The Authority review the requirements under its office space lease agreement to have a year end reconciliation prepared of the escalations and related costs for the year.

6. Greater care be taken in accounting for compensated absences on personnel records and calculations be reviewed to ensure they agree to approved employment contracts.

Administrative Policy

7. Approved sewer rates and fees be formally memorialized in the sewer and solid waste rules and regulations.

8. Continued efforts be made to ensure employee travel and business reimbursements be made in accordance with the business travel and reimbursement guidelines and policies approved by the Board.

The City Council has just approved formation of a task force to look into PMUA operations and report back to the governing body in four months. This somewhat drastic move regarding an autonomous authority is the result of the failure of PMUA officials to meet with the council after several requests in 2010. Perhaps these audit findings and the severance pay questions give more urgency to the council's need to know more about what's going on with the authority, as it serves almost all city households' solid waste and sewer service needs (some have opted out of PMUA solid waste pickup with the help of DumpPMUA).

--Bernice

Mau Beats the Heat

"What? It's my cooling center!"

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cool Wave

When I was young, petunias were a garden staple, but they only seemed to come in a dusty purple color. Since then, horticulturists have come up with pinwheels, a rainbow of colors and my favorite, the cascading "wave" petunia.

How nice on a hot day to see this airy display outside City Hall! Think snow showers, sea froth, little scoops of ice cream or lemon ice. A cooling sight!

--Bernice

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Utility Work Slows Business

Business has fallen off for restaurants in a block closed for utility work, a restaurant employee told Plaintalker.

Work is being done at night and customers deterred by the daytime heat are now frustrated by the evening road closing.

Traffic is being re-routed into the web of one-way streets off the main drag.

The reason for the work is reportedly the need for an electrical upgrade at two buildings on the block which were converted to residential use over stores.

There are 16 new apartments in all, some of which are already occupied.

The situation makes Plaintalker wonder whether other developers will have the same problem, as apartments are being created in other Park Avenue buildings.

As for the business owners, is there anybody at City Hall who can lend an ear to their worries about losing customers while this work is being done? Times are hard and it doesn't take much to knock out a business.

--Bernice

Learn, Respect Dangers of Excessive Heat

The next couple of days are expected to be very hot and I'm sure everyone has heard warnings by now on how to avoid the risks of 100-degree temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) heat advisory is very comprehensive and worth sitting down to read.

Audrey tells me it was 60 degrees in Seattle while we were starting to roast over here. This morning it was 55 degrees out there, with a high of 73 predicted. Make believe you are in the Pacific Northwest! Just don't put on a flannel shirt to complete the fantasy.

--Bernice

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Carter Leading National Night Out 2011

Even though she is now a Union County freeholder, Linda Carter's heart is still with Plainfield and she will be coordinating National Night Out here on Tuesday, Aug. 2.

Carter was responsible for reviving the annual event in 2005 after it was dropped for a time. It had been the signature project of longtime Councilwoman Elizabeth Urquhart since 1988 (see Plaintalker's story here).

As reported by Dan, a resolution to close streets by City Hall was a "walk-on" item Monday. Carter expressed hope that there would be publicity on the city web site for the event, which will start at 7 p.m. Watchung Avenue from East Fifth to East Seventh Street will be closed from 6 p.m. for preparations. The event will take place in City Hall Plaza at 515 Watchung Ave.

This year's event will be relatively low-key compared to some past years, when the event included parades or contests among city wards for participation. But it is still a chance to meet fellow residents who want to improve the quality of life in Plainfield and for young people to meet police officers in a social setting.

National Night Out 2011 also includes an invitation to participate in Project 365, a program that encourages attention to a specific problem in a community, with the goal of solving it by National Night Out 2012. Certainly Plainfield has a choice of issues to address, ranging from gun violence to deterring youth from gangs and more.

Participation in these national programs gives the city a sense of joining with many others to fight crime and drugs and also offers a chance to be recognized for an outstanding effort. Freeholder Carter deserves credit for keeping up the tradition.

--Bernice

Bond Repeal Tabled, More from Council

A move to repeal an old senior center bond ordinance was tabled indefinitely Monday night at the request of the administration.

The $4.3 million in funding was not needed after a developer built a new senior center with private funding, but the money had since been nibbled at for various items to carry out relocation of the center from rented space to the new building and to furnish it. The city was also using some of the money to pay condo fees at the the new building. Plaintalker's preview on the ordinance is here.

Among other items, the council approved establishment of a task force on functioning of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority and named four members to it. Councilman William Reid voted "no" on both resolutions. The group is expected to report back to the governing body in four months with recommendations.

The council also passed resolutions renewing various liquor licenses, including two that were the subject of hearings last week. Among other special conditions, Pueblo Viejo and Clinton Deli must have armed security guards from dusk until closing. The council had set 2 a.m. as the release time for the guards at Pueblo Viejo, but changed it to 2:30 a.m. to ensure that all patrons leave the premises after closing. The bar has 400 or more patrons on peak nights, owner Taufik Palacios said last week.

In public comment, Sandra Taylor Williams took issue with her alleged treatment by Senior Center staff and complained that her grandson was not allowed at the center. Taylor Williams, who has frequently brought her concerns about the center to the council, said it is being run like a "Nazi boot camp" and if she does not get satisfaction from the governing body, she will go "to Trenton or Washington" for help.

Acting City Administrator David Kochel said a rule was being drafted that only seniors could go to the center, but Councilman Adrian Mapp and Councilwoman Bridget Rivers objected. Mapp said he hoped kids would not be barred from public places and Rivers said many seniors are taking care of grandkids.

Kochel mentioned children being there alone and Al Restaino, director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Senior Services, said existing policies are being modified. He said it was his decision, not that of Senior Center Supervisor Sharron Brown, to exclude the child.

Former Councilwoman Joanne Hollis, now a Housing Authority commissioner, said when she was on the council, "kids had access to every part of the building."

The senior center is now located in a new building at 400 East Front Street, occupying the ground floor along with a veterans' center that has yet to be turned over to veterans as it is a sales office for 63 condos on three top floors. The center previously occupied leased space at 305 East Front Street.

Later in the meeting, Freeholder Linda Carter described a multi-generational building that her relatives visit in Arizona, and Mapp said it was "so important" that young people have access to the Plainfield center to talk and interact with seniors.

But a young man who said he listened to all the talk about potholes and such insisted the council had the issues all wrong.

"We need our own center," Isaac Wilkins said, mentioning gang activity and seeing 11-year-olds "smoking blunts."

He said gang members who called a truce came to a recent youth council meeting and asked what the city is doing for youth. Wilkins drew applause when he called a youth center "essential."

The meeting ended on an odd note after Council President Annie McWilliams refused to let Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs speak in response to comments by resident Bob Darden. The two have clashed before over protocol at council meetings where the president is in charge. After adjournment, the mayor directed videographer Brian Cox to put the camera on her. Amidst the hubbub of people leaving the room, her comments could not be heard well, but she concluded by saying "Good night, Plainfield."

Council meetings are televised on local access channels, Comcast Channel 34 and Fios Channel 96. The Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Board has a link on the city web site for more information.

--Bernice

Sunday, July 17, 2011

PMUA in Spotlight Again

The autonomous authority that provides solid waste and sewer services to the city is back in the news, with both the naming of Duane Young as acting executive director of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, and another City Council attempt to assess its accountability to ratepayers.

Created by the city 15 years ago, the authority has had its ups and downs with public opinion, but since double digit rate hikes in 2009, it has been the target of a new watchdog group, Dump PMUA, that has exposed costly travel and business lunch tabs and has taught ratepayers to opt out of its services. At an April Second Ward Town Meeting to gather public comment, residents called for disbanding of the PMUA.

The city and the authority are bound together by an Interlocal Services Agreement, but attempts by the governing body to meet with PMUA officials in 2010 met with resistance. In March of this year, Executive Director Eric Watson announced his plans to retire, along with his second-in-command, David Ervin, and Chief Finance Officer James Perry. All three were with PMUA since its inception.

In May, the City Council approved formation of a task force to study the PMUA and make recommendations about its future. The resolution is now up for amendment at Monday's regular meeting and four nominees to the task force are listed in a separate resolution. The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

Details of the task force's charge are in the link above. The amendment is to allow a majority of the council to name someone to serve from any ward where the council representative declines to name an appointee. At least two council members, William Reid and Bridget Rivers, have spoken against the formation of the task force. Reid formerly served on the PMUA as a commissioner and was council liaison to the PMUA in 2010. Rivers is currently a PMUA liaison and usually defends the authority in council discussions.

The nominees to serve on the task force are Joseph Ruffin, named by Councilwoman Rebecca Williams, who represents the Second and Third wards at-large; Thomas Crownover, named by Second Ward Councilman Cory Storch; and Ann Mosley, named by Third Ward Councilman Adrian O. Mapp. The name of resident Elisabeth D'Aversa of the First Ward is also on the list, apparently to be named by a majority vote in the absence of a name offered by Reid, who represents the First Ward. There is no nominee for the Fourth Ward, which Rivers represents, nor one from Council President Annie McWilliams, the citywide at-large representative, or from First & Fourth Ward at-large Councilwoman Vera Greaves.

--Bernice




School Board Policy on Vacancies

An addendum to the board vacancy story: There is a policy on the district web site on vacancies such as the one caused by the resignation of board member Patricia Barksdale:

Vacancies Filled by the Board
The Board shall fill vacancies created by the resignation, removal by the Board for cause or death of a serving member, or when a member ceases to be a bona fide resident of the district. The vacancy shall be filled within the 65 days prescribed by law.
Procedures by which to select the persons to fill such vacancies may include advertisement of the vacancy in suitable local media, and interviews with interested parties conducted in public by the Board acting as committee of the whole.
If a vacancy occurs on the Board due to the recall of a board member, all procedures of the law shall be followed to fill that vacancy.
Vacancies filled by the Board shall be by a majority vote of the remaining members of the Board after the vacancy occurs.

--Bernice

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Longer Terms for Interim Appointees?

A proposed ordinance would permit extension of the current 90-day "acting" term limit for an additional 90 days.

Plaintalker had a surge of hope that the change would keep Acting City Administrator David Kochel at the Queen City's helm past the Aug. 11 expiration of his term, but the ordinance must pass on two readings and then would take effect in 20 days. The timing appears to be wrong for Plaintalker's wish to come true, as the City Council will vote Monday on the ordinance and then does not meet to vote again until Aug. 15. Maybe there will be a special meeting that will hasten the process.

Since January, three people have sat in the city administrator's chair. Due to a sudden vacancy caused by former City Administrator Bibi Taylor's decision not to return after maternity leave, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson was named acting city administrator on Jan. 1. When his 90-day term was up, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs named herself acting city administrator.

Kochel came on May11 and those who attend council meetings have seen the difference between various officials stepping in and having a seasoned administrator in charge of day-to-day operations of the city. See Plaintalker's report on Kochel's advent here.

Interim or acting appointments have been a thorny issue through several administrations. Some mayors have initially filled entire cabinets, including the city administrator and all three department heads, with acting appointments, which do not require confirmation by the governing body. Others have allowed top officials to cover two cabinet posts for many months, which was what prompted limits in the first place. A 180-day limit several years ago was changed to 90 days in part to force mayoral submission of names to the governing body for advice and consent.

Upon taking office in 2006, Robinson-Briggs chose to make acting cabinet appointments, but had to put her nominees up for council approval in March. Her first four-year term was marked by high turnover in top posts, which has continued into her second term. For example, over six years the duties of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Senior Services were handed off seven times, twice to former City Administrator Marc Dashield as additional responsibilities.

The mayor still has about two and a half years to go in her second term and could conceivably fill vacancies with "permanent" appointments for that span of time. Obviously, the key position to be filled is city administrator, to whom the three department heads mandated in the city's special charter report. The proposed ordinance may only give relief in the short term.

--Bernice

Somerville News Blog Launches

What does Somerville have to do with Plainfield, you ask?

Two former Courier News staffers have launched a hyperlocal news blog there. Read about Somerville Today and you will see why I feel they are virtual kinfolks. Good luck to Loren and Robin, not that they need a lot of luck, as they have excelled in all their endeavors so far through their own talent and ambition.

--Bernice

Council Sets Liquor License Conditions

The City Council will require two liquor license holders to provide armed security guards from dusk until 2 a.m. closing time, if they want their licenses renewed through June 30, 2012.

Those conditions and others are the result of hearings the council held last Thursday with the owners of Clinton Deli and Pueblo Viejo, perhaps the most problematic of the city's 32 liquor establishments. Police were called to each place dozens of times during the 2010-2011 licensing year and testimony from police Thursday detailed reports on assaults, drug offenses and other crimes.

Liquor is sold at Clinton Deli at 1314 West Front Street and in addition to the guards, licensee Vadrajan Naicken will be required immediately to install six to 10 security cameras to monitor the interior and exterior of the store, as well as the parking lot where police said many of the infractions took place.

Pueblo Viejo at311 West Front Street has a bar and restaurant and has also been serving drinks on an outside "veranda." Licensee Taufik Palacios must meet six conditions in all, including training for staff on ID procedures and handling of intoxicated patrons, no outside service of drinks, security in restrooms and prompt 2 a.m. closing in addition to the armed guards.

Both owners promised the governing body Thursday that they would be more diligent in meeting state ABC laws and city rules, but Naicken said he could not afford armed security guards and asked for "six months' probation." The council made no response Thursday, but retired into closed session to decide what conditions they would require. Both resolutions granting renewal with conditions are up for votes at Monday's regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

See Plaintalker's report on Thursday's hearing here.

--Bernice

Edwards is Grand SLAM Appointee

The appointment of Keisha Edwards to fill the school board vacancy left by Patricia Barksdale’s resignation took place without any call to the public for interested parties to apply for the spot.

According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, the board has the right to make a direct appointment, unless there is some local policy on filling board vacancies that states otherwise. Plainfield School Board Secretary/Business Administrator Gary Ottmann confirmed that the vacancy had been filled by board action in a unanimous vote, with members Brenda Gilbert and Lisa Logan-Leach absent. Plaintalker’s query as to whether any local board policy exists on filling vacancies has not yet been answered.

When Bridget Rivers was about to resign in late 2009 after winning a City Council seat, the board launched a full process of outreach to the public to fill the impending vacancy. Sandra Chambers was subsequently appointed to serve until the April 2010 school board election. Chambers did not run for the balance of the term. Keisha Edwards ran with the Grand SLAM team and won, but in 2011 declined to run for a full term. The Grand SLAM team slate of Alex Edache, Dorien Hurtt and Jameelah Surgeon won and joined 2010 winners Renata Hernandez, Wilma Campbell and Rasheed Abdul-Haqq.

While it had been customary to have an open process to fill board vacancies in the past, Board president Renata Hernandez explained the direct appointment of Keisha Edwards this way: “Our district is at a critical juncture. In an effort to continue the Grand School Leadership Advocacy Movement -- The Board felt it was both prudent and appropriate to appoint someone who was familiar with the process, and would require minimal time to ramp up and hit the ground running.”

That leaves Gilbert and Logan-Leach a slim minority of non-Grand SLAM members. The terms of both, as well as Barksdale’s former seat, will be up in April 2012. If the Grand SLAM team fields a winning slate, it could be the first time that an entire school board here shares a “brand” or ideology.

What that means or doesn’t mean will be up to the public to decide over coming months.

--Bernice

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Monday Vote Will Decide License Renewals

Owners of two troubled liquor license establishments will learn their fate Monday based on hearings held by the City Council last night.

Acting as the local Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the governing body heard testimony regarding what attorney David Minchello called “an alarming number of calls” over the past year to Pueblo Viejo, a West Front Street restaurant and bar. Representing the city, Minchello asked Lt. Brian Newman to detail incidents of theft, underage drinking, assault, drug possession and other infractions that brought police to the premises 116 times.

Representing owner Taufik Palacios, attorney Richard Clayton told the council, “We have taken considerable measures to try to prevent incidents,” including monitoring with 80 cameras.

The bar has a capacity of 500 to 600 people and Palacios said a typical crowd numbers about 400.

Newman said he would like to see conditions imposed including screening patrons at the door, increasing security, no serving of alcohol on an outside veranda, security inside the bathrooms and more training for staff on not serving intoxicated persons.

After Newman gave details on 16 incidents, Clayton repeatedly asked whether he had personally been present. But Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson emphasized that the reports themselves were official documents.

In his testimony, Palacios said people were buying liquor at illegal 24-hour houses, showing up at his bar intoxicated and arguing with screeners at door over showing identification, saying they didn’t have to do it elsewhere. He also alluded to gang activity and “people in the parking lot with machetes,” but Williamson reined him in, saying, “We’ve gotten way off track.”

The hearing refocused on what Palacios needed to do at his own premises to get his license renewed and he agreed to most of the terms, balking only at having a drug-sniffing dog because it would not be allowed at the restaurant. Minchello refuted Palacios’ claim that the veranda was part of the building and thus covered under terms of his license.

After more discussion of possible conditions on the license renewal, Clayton said his client would do whatever needed to be done.

The second hearing took far less than the two hours spent on Pueblo Viejo, in part because an attorney for Clinton Deli owner Vadrajan Naicken did not show up. After a brief recess, Clayton offered to help Naicken out, as he faced the possibility of closure if the council made no decision by Monday. Williamson suggested the council could also decide based on police documents.

Naicken said he could not afford to be closed and Williamson asked Minchello to provide some recommendations on conditions for his license renewal.

Minchello said there were 254 police calls to the Clinton Deli and Sgt. Kevin O’Brien said a series of police reports included sale of alcohol to minors, drug possession, fights, assaults weapons offenses and sale of loose cigarettes. He said the most disturbing report to himself and the Police Division was that drugs were found on several occasions “beneath the ice cream freezer” within the store, where ice cream and candy were sold to children.

O’Brien said police recommendations for the Clinton Deli, which is on a large lot, were security cameras inside and out, more cooperation from the owner because “people are breaking the law on the property,” and staff on hand to deter drug use inside and outside the deli.

Naicken agreed to inside security and more cooperation, but said he could not afford to have either off-duty police or armed security guards.

“Then we have a problem,” Minchello said. “These calls are serious.”

“These incidents will not happen again,” Naicken vowed, asking for “six months’ probation.”

Williamson, having previously described the site as a high crime area, said he would not like to see Naicken himself attempt to move neighborhood people off the lot. But he said, “The message has to be clear, that there has to be a new respect.”

Naicken said he guaranteed there would not be a problem any more.

With that, the council members moved into executive session to discuss the hearings. They will vote at Monday’s regular meeting whether to renew, deny or renew the licenses with conditions. The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.

--Bernice

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Liquor License Hearings Tonight

The City Council, in its role as the local Alcoholic Beverages Control board, will hold hearings tonight on two liquor license holders.

The council chose not to renew the licenses for Pueblo Viejo and Clinton Deli, both on West Front Street, until the owners answer questions about their operations. Pueblo Viejo, at 311-313 West Front Street generated 100 police calls over a year and Clinton Deli, at 1314 West Front Street also required numerous police responses.

The hearings will begin at 8 p.m. in City Hall Library.

Every year, the council as ABC board goes through the liquor license renewal process for bars, restaurants, stores and clubs. Owners who do not get their licenses renewed by June 30 have to pay for day-to-day licenses until they clear up whatever problems are holding up the process, such as owing state sales tax or infractions of ABC rules. The city currently has 32 places where liquor may be purchased and council members, especially Councilman William Reid, have complained about the need for frequent police response to a few of them.

The governing body heard police reports at the June 14 meeting including one regarding more than 100 calls to Pueblo Viejo for problems such as fights, drug activity and weapons possession. Clinton Deli was singled out for allegations of drug dealing, shots fired and sale of alcohol to minors, among other incidents requiring police response.

--Bernice

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

McWilliams: Escalate WBLS Investigation

Inquiries into payment of city funds to radio station WBLS for live broadcast of a "Call to Action" forum are now approaching the one-year mark without any answers, and Council President Annie McWilliams suggested Monday that the governing body could "escalate" to using its subpoena powers to get to the bottom of it.

From the City Charter:
Investigations; removals.
(a) The council may make investigations into the affairs of the city and the conduct of any city department, office, commission or agency and for this purpose may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony and require the production of evidence. In addition to any other remedy, any person who willfully fails or refuses to obey a lawful order issued in the exercise of these powers by the council shall be adjudged a disorderly person, punishable by a fine of not more than $200.00, or by imprisonment for not more than 30 days or both.
(b) Council may remove any officer or employee, other than the mayor or a councilman, for cause, upon notice and an opportunity to be heard.

McWilliams mentioned the option after an update revealed that attorney Stephen Edelstein, representing Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, had failed to respond to the council's special counsel, Ramon Rivera. Stonewalled early on, the council had first hired Jacqueline Drakeford to probe the matter. But Drakeford, a former city corporation counsel, declined to serve.

Rivera was hired in April.

By way of history, the Aug. 1 event was preceded by numerous paid radio announcements regarding Plainfield's troubles with gun violence, supposedly the reason for the forum with The Rev. Al Sharpton as speaker. My attempt to listen to the WBLS broadcast from home failed in part, as I fell asleep before Sharpton made his brief appearance. The next day, I filed an OPRA request for the following:
COST OF AUG. 1 TOWN MEETING, including school rental, speakers’ honorariums or fees, security, setup, including WBLS requirements,cost of videographing, food and supplies, plus any other incidentals.

According to information I received in a partial response a month later, WBLS was paid $20,000 through the Division of Recreation from various funding sources. Documentation enclosed in the response indicated that McWilliams had made a request to the City Clerk's office on Aug. 11 for a "review of expenditures" for the WBLS event as well as for the July 4 parade, for which the city paid WBLS $5,000.

At Monday's meeting, Councilwoman Rebecca Williams reacted to Edelstein's lack of response, asking, "Who is this guy?"

But Councilman Adrian Mapp said, "Responsibility should be placed where it needs to be, with the mayor."

Mapp suggested the mayor and Acting City Administrator David Kochel should tell department heads to turn over the information at once, saying Edelstein has no standing on the release of documents.

Councilman Cory Storch voiced hope that the process would not escalate to a subpoena and hearing.

Kochel, hired in acting capacity May 11, can only serve a 90-day term until Aug. 11, so will have just one month to do what he can to get department heads to cooperate.

--Bernice

Monday, July 11, 2011

Blogging Will Be Delayed

I left the City Council meeting at 9 p.m. after feeling ill.

The Armory proposal was withdrawn and there were a couple of stories that came out of council discussions, but I will have to blog later.

Special note to Councilwoman Williams about "that guy" - Stephen Edelstein was the mayor's attorney in the 2006 residency challenge.

--Bernice

A Good Story - Under Wraps

Carilloneur Toru Takao and Al Pittis.

The promise of a big, front-page feature story on the Pittis Carillon and a concert by carilloneur Toru Takao fizzled a bit when the paper arrived Sunday with a wrap-around ad obscuring the story.

I had to peel off the Shop-Rite Summer Can Can sale in order to see the story, which was very good. I was also purposely looking for it on A-1. But I wondered what single copy purchasers saw and how early other subscribers read about the noon concert.

As seen on this Gannett Blog post, the story about the baseball milestone could have been placed left or right, but to accommodate the ad in the Courier News, it had to be on the right.

So here was a really good Plainfield story, running on the day of the event described, but hidden until the reader removed the wrap-around ad. Kind of disappointing in a way.

--Bernice

Armory Plan On Tap Tonight

If the City Council agrees to make a deal on the Armory with Real Estate Advisory and Development Services for a charter school tenancy along with cultural uses, maybe somebody should launch it by writing this excerpt from the redevelopment plan 100 times on the school blackboard: “At no point would READS seek compensation from the City of Plainfield.”

The emphasis would reflect the city’s current dilemma regarding almost $300,000 the senior center developer wants from the city for the “no-cost” project at 400 East Front Street. Better yet, write “At no point would Build With Purpose seek compensation …,” because the day after the redevelopment plan was submitted, the company took a new name. Just sayin’.

As suggested in an eight-page document to be discussed at tonight’s City Council meeting, READS has a track record of charter school development and would convert the Armory for such a purpose, with the Queen City Academy Charter School as the proposed tenant. The space will also be offered for activities that would “fill a gap in the educational and cultural landscape of Plainfield and Union County.”

At present, the city is leasing the Armory from the state for $1 and READS is looking for a 30-year lease at the same rate, but would obtain private financing to renovate and upgrade the facility at an overall cost of $5 million. READS would sublease to the tenant “to meet debt service requirements.” The due diligence process is to start no later than Sept. 30 and the lease start date is projected to be Dec. 31, 2011. The proposed tenant would occupy the building “no later than September 2014.”

One hopes the council members have read all eight pages and made notes. The mayor has asked the governing body to approve more than $6,000 in monthly maintenance costs until the developer takes over. Some council members have disputed the need for another cultural venue in the city and have questioned how non-school activities would be managed and paid for. Others feel strongly that the city must guide the Armory’s future by endorsing the redevelopment proposal.

Unfortunately, the city’s last big venture with a developer fell prey to missed deadlines and once completed, to bills for unforeseen costs. At present, the administration may not have a strong enough team in place to monitor all aspects of the proposed redevelopment. While Queen City Academy has now been in operation since 2000, can any charter school bank on three more decades?

These are among the concerns that form a backdrop to this decision-making process. The meeting tonight is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Senior Center Bond Up for Cancellation

Proceeds of a $4.3 million 2003 bond issuance for construction of a senior center were used for bubble wrap, drapes, pool tables and other items after a developer privately funded a new center.

Now the governing body plans to cancel a $3.9 million balance, as the funds were not needed for the original purpose. Still in dispute is a payment of $287,371.97 to the developer for condo fees and fit-out of the center at 400 East Front Street that was described as having been built “at no cost to the city.” The City Council balked at the payment in April 2010 and, according to Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, the amount is in mediation between the city and the developer, Dornoch Plainfield LLC.

The bond cancellation is up for discussion at Monday's agenda-fixing session, 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library. The regular meeting is 8 p.m. July 18 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The 2003 construction plan was one of several floated after a 20-year lease ran out on a building at 305 East Front Street, where the center was housed since 1989. After the lease expired, the city paid monthly rent while officials mulled various ways to come up with the brand-new center that seniors desired.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs welcomed Dornoch after she took office in 2006 and made the no-cost senior center a pledge of her re-election campaign in 2009. The project, dubbed The Monarch, had a new senior center on the ground floor and three stories of condos above. A one-day grand opening was held just before the June 2009 primary and the center opened for good in November 2009 after she won the general election.

The tab of nearly $300,000 for fitting out the building and paying condo fees surprised the council and the matter remains unresolved. The senior center and a veteran’s center are both condo entities, although the veteran’s center has not yet been turned over to the city as it is being used as a sales office for the residential condos.

Councilman Adrian Mapp, chairman of the council’s Finance Committee, called for the cancellation of the senior center bond ordinance after learning that bond proceeds had been used to pay for WBLS to appear in the 2010 July 4 parade.

According to a New Jersey statute, bonds are only supposed to be used for the purpose stated when they are issued.

40A:2-39. Application of proceeds
The proceeds of the sale of obligations shall be applied only to the purposes for which such obligations are authorized. If, for any reason, any part of such proceeds are not necessary for such purposes, such part shall be used to pay such outstanding obligations, or if in the opinion of the governing body it is in the best interest of the local unit such part may be appropriated to and used to finance the cost of any other purpose or purposes for which bonds may be issued.
L.1960, c. 169, s. 1, eff. Jan. 1, 1962.

A print-out of disbursements from the bond ordinance shows costs for public notice and attorneys’ and auditors’ fees from 2003 through 2005. Starting in 2009, costs for shipping and janitorial supplies, a security system, $10,830 for pool tables, $52,334 for furniture, $3,815 for a gate at 400 East Front Street, various amounts for sewing machines and restaurant supplies and floor cleaning equipment turn up on the list, which has transactions as recently as June 24.

The city must pay $2,750 monthly in condo fees for the senior center. Williamson told the council recently that a city bond counsel said it was permissible to pay the fees out of the bond ordinance. If so, cancellation of the bond ordinance will mean the fees must be paid out of some other funding source in the future.

--Bernice

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Challenge of the Decade: Engage Latinos

I had heard that weekly meal plans were being offered by Latino restaurants and this sign reminded me that there are apparently many individuals living here who don't have cooking facilities of their own and need these plans.

The 2010 census revealed a huge increase in the number of Latinos in Plainfield and authorities are more frequently bringing up the need to engage them in decision-making on the city's future. But outside of a handful of Latino/Latina leaders who make the news, who speaks for the many families and single men who live here but do not see Plainfield as their hometown? Their hearts are elsewhere, as one can see by recent political signs downtown and on cars for a candidate in the Peruvian presidential election. If only the Latino community at large could embrace local issues the way they do those in their homelands, the city might have made its 50,000 population goal or had larger support for saving Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, for example.

Among Rutgers School of Business findings on economic development discussed at a recent community forum, a major point was the need to get Latinos involved: "Any plan for economic resurgence in Plainfield must harness the people power and culture of the Latino community now emerging as a demographic force."

Actually, there are many cultures within the Latino community that is discerned as monolithic by outsiders, but has members from dozens of homelands in Central and South America. One only has to look at the array of avocados in the Twin City supermarket to see that there are nuances of preferences for foods, let alone broad ideological differences.

The outcome of any work generated by a process to improve the city's economy and quality of life by 2021 will depend in large part on how well this burgeoning minority is included. Sure, many will eventually just go home and others will move out of Plainfield to the surrounding suburbs. Perhaps it will be just as hard to interest the Latino population here in school board and municipal elections as it is to get the majority of current registered voters to the polls. But the work of engagement has to start.

Thousands of Latinos attended the July 4 weekend festival downtown, where the flags of many nations flew along with Old Glory. If someone had taken a survey or poll on what they know or like about Plainfield, what would the answers be? Would any be willing to help take on the city's challenges or promote the city to friends and family as a good place to live? Did the people of other cultures who attended take away any sense of understanding or togetherness with Latinos?

These questions will become increasingly important in this second decade of the 21st century in Plainfield. The city can no longer rely on a few self-appointed or politically hand-picked speakers for the Latino community, but must involve many more Latinos in the Rutgers School of Business report's recommended "broad-gauged assessment that produces a realistic strategy for the municipality."

Food for thought?

--Bernice

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fraternities Mark Centennials


It wasn't until I moved to Plainfield in 1983 that I started to become aware of the huge contributions of black fraternities and sororities to the well-being of their communities and especially to young people. I came to recognize the purple and gold of Omega Psi Phi and the pink and green of Alpha Kappa Alpha, among others. Just now, on Michel Martin's "Tell Me More," I heard about the centennials of Omega Psi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi this year. Whether you are a fraternity member or someone who has yet to learn about these groups, you might be interested in the transcript at the link above.

Congratulations to the fraternities and their members here. One of the most loyal members I met over the years was former Mayor Mark Fury, who displayed the purple and gold whenever possible.

--Bernice

Carillon Concert at Grace Church Sunday

Presenters at the recent "community forum" suggested making the city a destination for cultural events by showcasing its assets. One such draw might be the Pittis Carillon at Grace Episcopal Church, one of only four in New Jersey with real bells. It attracts carilloneurs from around the world and certainly its concerts deserve the broadest audience possible.

Plaintalker most recently reported on a January 2011 visit by the Yale University Guild of Carilloneurs and past blog posts have featured the annual concerts held along with the church Peach Festival. On Sunday, the public will have an opportunity to hear the magnificent carillon played by Toru Takao of Duesseldorf, Germany.

From the Grace Church web site:
Toru Takao was born in 1977 in Himeji, Japan. He earned a diploma in German Literature in 2000 at Kwansei-Gakuin University, Japan. After his academic study, he spent a year in Los Angels, California and another year in Germany, doing volunteer work.

It was in Germany that he was introduced to the carillon, and he was greatly inspired by what he heard. Since 2002, he has taken carillon lessons from Mathieu Polak, Arie Abbenes, Bernard Winsemius and Frans Haagen. In 2008, he earned a Diploma (Master of Music), from Utrecht Conservatory.

Toru has won several Prizes at the international competitions including 2nd prize at Queen fabiola concours in Mechelen, 2008 and 3rd prize at Alexius Julian Old music competition in Lier, 2010.

Currently he lives in Duesseldorf, Germany and active as freelance carillonist.

The concert begins at noon on Sunday, July 10. Grace Church is located on Cleveland Avenue at East Seventh Street. Concert attendees usually bring lawn chairs and sit outside to hear the music.

If you can't make the concert Sunday, save the date of Aug. 21 for the Peach Festival and a carillon concert featuring Gerald Martindale, Carillonneur of the historic Metropolitan United Church of Toronto.

The Pittis Carillon is a real hometown Plainfield treasure, as it was donated by the Pittis family, owners and managers of many buildings in Plainfield's 20th century downtown, but also great contributors to the city's cultural legacy. Not only is Albert Pittis still serving on the Cultural & Heritage Commission, he was for many years involved with the Plainfield Outdoor Festival of Art before the Recreation Division took it over. If indeed there is to be a focus on the arts as a key element of the city's identity, we owe the Pittis family a debt of gratitude for all the groundwork that has been laid through their contributions.

--Bernice

Topeka Editors Commend Bonaparte

As the city is muddling through with one department head vacancy and a temporary city administrator due to depart on August 11, former City Administrator Norton Bonaparte Jr. has just left his post as city manager in Topeka, Kans.

Checking the local newspaper out there, Plaintalker came across an editorial on Bonaparte's tenure that rather accurately identified some of his key traits and suggested the legacy he is leaving for his successor. The comments are kind of mean, as anonymous comments tend to be, but the editorial itself is a good read for those of us who remember Norton Bonaparte Jr. as a city official in Plainfield.

Read the Topeka Capital-Journal editorial and see what you think.

All our best to Mr. Bonaparte in his next venture.

--Bernice

May I Be Your "Star" Blogger?

An anonymous commenter on my “Shoutout to Mark” post predicts the demise of the Courier News and declares it “hasn’t been the same” since I retired.

As flattering as that notion may be, I caught just as much hell over my coverage of the city as any other reporter. Over 16 years, I heard complaints that I only reported bad news, that there should not be a white reporter covering a predominantly black city, that this or that politician wanted me fired for making them look bad, and so on.

Being a beat reporter means (or meant) that people think you have the power to create rather than reflect the image of the city. People often called me to request coverage by saying they had a “positive” news story, suggesting that if I did not cover it, I was choosing evil over good. Well, sometimes a story was half-baked and other times an editor had another assignment that took precedence. In recent years the paper began the “Get Published” initiative to give everyone a chance at getting published, which let reporters off the hook for those “cover this or else” types.

A point in my favor was that I actually lived in Plainfield while covering the city, something I don’t think was true of even the legendary Jack Gill. Certainly none of the four who followed me on the beat lived here, although Mark “got” Plainfield right away and I think the majority of Plainfielders understood his sincerity and interest in the city.

The idea of starting a newspaper to counter the Courier News came up at regular intervals over my 16 years on the beat, but nobody actually carried it out. Indeed, after I left the weekly Plainfield Today, the Johnsons changed the format to a broadside paper covering the African-American community exclusively in Union and Essex counties and began using columnists more than reporters.

So now we are in an age where everyone can be a publisher. Blogs do away with the most problematic parts of publishing, such as production and circulation. No more paste-ups or delivery routes, it all happens electronically! Even advertising (or monetizing, as Google calls it) can happen with no effort to the blogger. All the blogger has to do is produce content. And because most blogging is an uncompensated labor of love, even the content is free.

Compare that to a newspaper, where people must be paid to write, edit, assemble and deliver the goods, whether in print or online. Yes, dear anonymous commenter, the Courier News is not the same since I left, as publishers are increasingly facing challenges that did not exist before. The Courier News may indeed fold as an entity as the industry turns increasingly to regionalization. When I left, the paper had a readership territory spanning more than 50 municipalities. With the merging of the Courier News and the Home News Tribune (itself a merged operation), the readership area is even more broad and, some would say, thin. Even when I was there, one publisher complained that the expanded coverage was a mile wide and an inch deep. Plainfield will never again have the coverage it used to have in the days when I might have five byline stories on A-1.

In high school back in the 1950s, I attained “star reporter” status on the school newspaper. It was nice of my anonymous fan today to refer to me the same way in wishing me back on the job. Thanks for the compliment, but in the news biz today there are no backsies and the future is murky. For the moment, I am glad to be a blogger, "star" or otherwise. Thanks for reading.

--Bernice


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Shoutout to Mark

Mark Spivey's byline appeared on an article about shopping in downtown Westfield, possibly an indication of the Gannett group's new direction after dropping InJersey and trimming the ranks a bit more.

The article reminded me of an initiative several years ago at the CN to focus on what the editors had decided that readers want to do: eat, shop, work, play. Westfield certainly does offer a superlative shopping experience. Part of it is based on the town's ability to attract major chains that normally only locate in malls, mixed in with attractive local shops and eateries. The downtown ambiance is enhanced with an award-winning array of flowers in beds, hanging baskets and planters everywhere one looks.

While we missed Mark at the special meeting Tuesday, it was good to know he had a chance to roam downtown Westfield on assignment. Hey Mark, did you get over to Mindowaskin Park to see whether the egret and the double-crested cormorant were around?

--Bernice

Change to Calendar Budget Year Starts

The City Council took the first steps Tuesday to change back to a calendar tax year after a 20-year experiment with a July-to-June budget year.

The governing body approved spending $17 million for the first three months of a six-month “temporary year” and gave initial approval to a reversion ordinance that hinges on approval this month by the state Local Finance Board.

In other action, the council authorized the tax collector to send out estimated tax bills for the third quarter of 2011 at a rate of $4.14 per $100 of assessed valuation.

A couple of budget items were amended before approval of the three-month temporary budget. Expenses for the Recreation Division were split among designations for regular costs, seasonal employees and “summer pool program,” but the council agreed that the last category should be labeled seasonal as well. Councilman Adrian Mapp questioned another item, more than $63,300 for “prior year bills” that turned out to be disputed engineering fees over years dating back to 2003. After a discussion revealed that no litigation was currently involved, the council agreed to remove the amount from the temporary budget.

In other matters, Council President Annie McWilliams said liquor license hearings will be held at a special meeting to be announced for next week. The council had held up approvals for some licenses pending hearings on a high incidence of police responses to the premises in the 2010-11 license year.

McWilliams reminded the public that the agenda-fixing session for July will take place at 7:30 p.m. Monday in City Hall Library.

In public comment at the end of the meeting Tuesday, resident Olive Lynch described her proposal for a new food recycling operation and asked for council support as she seeks county and state approvals. McWilliams said rather than schedule a presentation at a regular council meeting, Lynch could appear before a council committee to outline her request. Lynch said if approved, the new operation could create a large number of entry-level jobs at a facility in a part of the city zoned for light industry.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Transition Year Actions Up Tonight

Actions taken at tonight's special meeting will launch a return to a calendar year for the city budget.

The city used a calendar year until it took advantage of a scheme offered by Gov. Jim Florio in the early 1990s to shift to a fiscal year beginning July 1. As I recall, the deal included a one-time opportunity to use bonds for operating costs (feel free to correct or amplify this explanation). Since then, the city has been out of sync with the calendar year, as the first two quarters of the city tax year are the last two quarters of the calendar year.

The meeting is 8 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

The change was supposed to be among topics at last week's "community forum," but I did not hear any explanation that night. I hope somebody will explain it tonight.

The city took the option of deferring pension payments in a previous budget year, to be paid back over 15 years starting in 2012. What effect will that have on the six-month transition year?

Fortunately, the city at long last has a chief finance officer after three years without one. CFO Ron Zilinski may be able to answer such questions if he attends tonight's meeting.

I hope members of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee will be able to attend the meeting as well, even if they have no role in the six-month transition year budget process. The committee has studied the budget and made recommendations for a couple of years now, so has some continuity of perspective on the city's financial condition. Given some of the flaws in the administration's approach to spending money (think WBLS), citizen observers have a valuable role of advocacy for better management.

The governing body will hold its agenda session this month on July 11 and the regular meeting will be on July 18. Contracts for services such as videography have expired. The city is paying $100 per hour to have meetings and events taped for airing on local television channels. For example, the community forum that ran over its two-hour advertised time ran up a $350 tab for videography. How will the council deal with various contracts for the six-month transition year?

Fiscal matters can seem dreary to the average person. Nearly half of Plainfield's households are renters, which puts them at one remove from the property tax issues, as they do not see the tax bills. Still, as long as property taxes are the bedrock of operating municipal government, it's good to pay attention to decisions being made at the local level on how to use the money. Now that the city finally has a CFO as required by the state, perhaps we will get more insight into the budget process.

--Bernice

Monday, July 4, 2011

Midnight Ramblers

I'm glad I was still up at this hour, because a big noisy PMUA truck just visited, even though there is not supposed to be any service on the holiday. Just one of life's little anomalies in the Queen City. At least now I can try to sleep without further interruption.

--Bernice

Condolences to Leaty Family

Once again a family is grieving as gun violence claims another victim.

This time it was a store owner in the East End, near the city yard and not far from Maxson Middle School. Eduardo Leaty died and Jimmy Benjamin Sr., father of author J.M. Benjamin, was hospitalized with gunshot wounds.

When merchants, taxi drivers and students are shot to death, residents cannot believe that enough is being done to keep the city safe. It is doubtful that ShotSpotter or cameras can be placed all over the city. The call for more police patrols takes on greater credence and urgency when crime is widespread in diverse neighborhoods.

Let us hope that law enforcement officials are able to bring the attackers to justice soon.

--Bernice

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Waffling on the Slide Show

After reading the terms of service for slide.com once more, I decided to forego making a slideshow of the parade until somebody tells me in plain English what I would be getting into by signing up. The social media folks seem bent on getting all the information possible about a person across as many platforms as possible. Facebook wants my phone number, LinkedIn wants me to Twitter, and so on.

Anyway, about the parade - One curious sight was a contingent of top-hatted grotesque creatures whose faces were actually painted stomachs.

I had never seen such get-ups before, but apparently it is a well-known thing with variations such as the faces being made to look like they are whistling. I found two references online to that practice, one being a Whistler Drill Team suggested by Scouts in Canada.

Is this amusing or creepy? The cigarette in the bellybutton was kind of gross, but onlookers were laughing at the sight.

Who knew after such a perfect day for the parade that Sunday would be a big washout? The Independence Day festival that started Saturday was supposed to span the long weekend. Maybe Monday will be better. According to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, the city pools will be open Monday as well.

--Bernice

Two More Days of Festival

After the Independence Day parade Saturday, people began drifting to the parking lots between Somerset Street and Watchung Avenue, where club owner Edison Garcia had organized a festival celebrating the July 4th holiday. It will continue today and Monday, starting in the early afternoon and going on through the evening.

The event features entertainment, a wide variety of foods, stalls of colorful merchandise and rides including a ferris wheel.

Plaintalker will post more photos later if the slide show program allows.

--Bernice

Parade Photos Delayed

For some reason a slide show program that I used in the past is not working right now for me.

Here are two of the most spectacular photos - will try again to post more later.

--Bernice

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Good Weekend for Gardening

The early charm of "spring ephemerals" is gone and the bold summer perennials are center stage in the garden now - along with their cousins, the weeds.

Along with the lychnis and butterfly bush, the aggressive and relentless mugwort can be seen lurking. Its leaves, when cut, dried and stuffed in a pillow, are said to enhance dreams, but the plant is more of a nightmare to control in the garden.

Daylilies are a full-on summer staple and keep themselves tidy by crowding out anything else in their way.

Hosta plants also occupy all the available space, leaving more gardening time for eradication of shotweed, yellow oxalis and all those grasses that like to invade the premises.

Meanwhile, our predatory friend here is taking care of the buggy interlopers in the garden.

Have a great weekend and remember to be grateful for the freedoms that we enjoy!

--Bernice