Friday, September 30, 2011

Pollen Gathering: FAIL

This delicate Cypress Vine flower is not a good match for a big fat bumblebee, except for a brief rest. Hummingbirds can access nectar through its narrow tube and some did visit Block 832 this summer, also attracted by the red, pink and magenta flowers of Balsam, or Peruvian Impatiens.

It's time to collect seeds now. A developing Cypress Vine seed pod can be seen to the left of the flower above. When brown and dry, the pods yield large, black seeds.

The Balsam is a relative of Jewelweed, the orange flower that grows wild along local streams. The plants share an interesting mechanism for seed dispersal in that the pods of both explode to scatter their contents. A pinch on the tip of the pod can trigger the effect, to the delight of young naturalists.

I am so glad to be able to keep up my study and appreciation of plants while living in such an urban setting, just a few steps off Park & Seventh!

--Bernice

Thunbergia in 2012!

No, there is not a political candidate named Thunbergia, just a floral one that wants to run all over a trellis or fence in your 2012 garden.

Once the extreme heat went away this summer, the Thunbergia or Black-Eyed Susan Vine flourished in our yard on a mid-sized trellis anchored to a shepherd's crook. It mingled with a crimson-flowered Cypress Vine for a very pretty effect that my neighbor and I are plotting to replicate and expand next summer, perhaps with the addition of some Heavenly Blue Morning Glories.

Cold weather always seems less harsh when one can daydream about summer flowers. After the winter holidays, keep an eye out for Thunbergia in those seed catalogs that may come your way. Its simple flowers have a fairy-tale quality that is most appealing.

--Bernice

Thursday, September 29, 2011

No Berry for Plainfield

Former Trenton Business Administrator Eric Berry has taken a post with the state Department of Community Affairs, according to the Star-Ledger.

Berry was Trenton's seventh business administrator under Mayor Tony Mack, but he will not be the seventh person to sit in the city administrator's seat here under Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. That roster includes Carlton McGee, Marc Dashield, Bibi Taylor, Dan Williamson, the mayor herself and David Kochel. The last three, serving since January, all held acting terms. Kochel remains on in acting capacity through special legislation, but his term expires in November.

Normally, cabinet members serve terms concurrent with the mayor's. At this point, a little over two years remain in the mayor's second term, which runs to Dec. 31, 2013. Candidates for the city administrator's post will thus be limited to that span of employment.

--Bernice

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Learn About the Jewish New Year

As readers know, I am a great believer in knowing what special days are important to people in our community. Here is some information on Rosh Hashanah.

When I first came to Plainfield, there were three active Jewish congregations and a significant representation in the social and professional fabric of the city. Their contributions live on, although their numbers have diminished.

We can all give thanks that Dr. Yood is sharing his knowledge and wisdom with us, as he is here on the meaning of the holiday. Who knew that one day blogging such as Doc's Potpourri might be considered a mitzvah, or "worthy deed."

--Bernice

Rosh Hashanah Greetings

L'Shanah Tovah
to all our Jewish
friends and neighbors!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Trenton Buzz: Berry On Way to Plainfield?

Does The Trentonian know something we need to know?

The name of Trenton Business Administrator Eric Berry came up in passing at a recent City Council meeting, but supposedly nothing transpired. Now the Trenton paper has an article saying Berry has resigned and is on his way to Plainfield.

Berry holds the distinction of being the seventh business administrator in the cabinet of Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, which definitely tops the revolving door in the Queen City.

Acting City Administrator David Kochel is still on the job here due to a change in the Municipal Code, which previously limited acting terms to 90 days. Now he can stay on until early November. That is, unless a "permanent" city administrator is named and confirmed to serve concurrently with the balance of the mayor's term, which ends Dec. 31, 2013.

The City Council's next meeting is an agenda-fixing session Monday, 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library. The regular meeting is 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11, in Municipal Court.

--Bernice

Monday, September 26, 2011

Black Vultures Visit Block 832

Over the weekend a neighbor and I saw three Black Vultures in the middle of our block, where the lots from East Seventh Street and Crescent Avenue meet.

One was perched on the roof of a nearby apartment building. As we watched it spread its huge wings and sailed through a small wooded area to the chimney of a former mansion on Crescent Avenue. Two others glided out of trees to join it.

I had just stepped out of the house without my camera, but took note of their sooty feathers and silver wing tips to verify their identification. Some sight in the middle of the Queen City!

--Bernice

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Photo Roundup

I took a lot of photos in the past few weeks and for various reasons I got behind in posting images. So here is a roundup of some for your entertainment.
Have you misplaced your tiara? This one turned up in the junk under the handicapped ramp at the main post office.

A stilt walker was one of the strolling entertainers at the PMUA's Environmental Fair. Now there's someone you can look up to.

This three-wheeler Can Am is not for the very young and maybe not for the very old. I was quite taken by the idea of riding a three-wheeler around the city, but to get a license, you have to pass a test on a motorcycle first. Oh well, back to shoe leather for me.

PMUA double-teams the trash! "You take the litter on the left, I'll take what's on the right."

A would-be lumberjack (or actual vandal) cut this Park Avenue tree all the way around.

And then signed his handiwork. Mike, u r a jrk.

This guy heard that Rebecca likes praying mantis pictures. He wanted to give her a shout-out.

This folding chair was brought inside for extra seating one day, but Mau claimed it as his own with the application of copious claw marks and cat hair. It's ideal for just hangin' out, he says.

That's it for now. Thanks for taking a look.

--Bernice

New Children's Room a Model for Others

The spectacular renovations to the Children's Room at the Plainfield Public Library were previewed in Mark Spivey's excellent news article. On Saturday, visitors got to experience the rainforest-themed room for themselves.

One of my first thoughts was how interesting it would be to children from neighboring communities who, with parental permission, can use the Plainfield library in addition to their own. Library directors and staff might also be very interested in the understated functionality of a self-checkout stall and the large movie screen set in a faux banyan tree, in addition to the enticing new look of the place. A couple of nearby towns are studying next steps for their own libraries and certainly the renovation here offers some lessons.

Of course, city children and their parents will be the prime beneficiaries of the new Children's Room and will undoubtedly be proud to show it off to visiting relatives.

I will not attempt to repeat all the information in Mark's article. Suffice it to say this was a wonderful collaboration of talent and dedication to Plainfield, from its design to its funding largely with private donations.

The key element is still books and they still need shelves, but the stacks are airy and open.

A custom-designed desk is set off with corner cages holding exotic creatures - the stuffed and plush low-maintenance variety.

Other denizens of the rainforest are visible on tables and in various elements of decor. The clever "tween tent" and the rope bridge over the former story pit get more interesting the longer you take in all the details, such as old trunks and a trompe l'oeil pond.

Asked whether the new design meant any loss of room for books, Library Director Joe Da Rold pointed out the long walls of shelves at the rear.

These colorful stuffed frogs represent their poison counterparts in the rain forest, but they are neither dangerous nor noisy (after all, it's a library). Click to hear Frog Sounds gathered by naturalists in the real rain forest.

For library hours and more information, click here and plot your own tour of the new Children's Room soon!

--Bernice

Check Transition Budget, Note Hearing

A legal notice appeared in the Courier News Saturday for the Transition Year budget, giving a summary of revenues and appropriations and announcing an Oct. 11 public hearing.

Not much has been heard about this six-month budget that will allow the city to revert to a calendar year in 2012. Given its short duration, there will be no involvement of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee that has examined budgets and made recommendations in recent years.

Anybody who is interested can look at the summary or a detailed budget in the City Clerk's office.

Plaintalker cannot replicate the chart on the blog and the legal notice on the New Jersey Press Association does not retain the columns, so you really need a copy of the actual notice.

The hearing is at 8 p.m. on Oct. 11 in Municipal Court, presumably at the beginning of the regular City Council at the same date, time and place. Please note it is on a Tuesday, due to the Columbus Day federal holiday on Monday, Oct. 10.

--Bernice

Friday, September 23, 2011

Odd Details on WBLS Document

After hearing testimony from former City Administrator Bibi Taylor at Wednesday's special council meeting, I had to take a closer look at the documents I received through an OPRA request.

The image above is from the "Approval for Payment" box on the purchase order for the Aug. 1, 2010 Town Meeting for which WBLS was paid $20,000. According to Taylor, it was signed by IT Director Norman Christopher Payne, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and Purchasing Agent David Spaulding.

Aha! So "S Rob B" must be the mayor!

But why is she listed as a department head? Readers may recall that when Payne was hired, the mayor declared he would report directly to her in his role as director of the new Division of Media and Information Technology. However, all divisions are required to be under one of the three departments listed in the city's special charter, so eventually the discrepancy was resolved when the City Council passed an ordinance placing the new division within the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services. See Plaintalker's post here.

Payne's name has never come up before in connection with the WBLS matter, nor has that of another employee that Taylor mentioned. It remains to be seen whether the council will have to broaden its inquiry, which so far only involves Taylor, Spaulding, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, former acting Chief Finance Officer Sandra Cummings and the mayor.

By having Payne reporting directly to her, the mayor sidestepped the system in which division heads report to department heads, who in turn are accountable to the city administrator, who is in charge of day-to-day operations of the city. This structure theoretically provides checks and balances on spending and such.

Payne came to the city in February 2010 after serving nine years in the Plainfield school district as an IT coordinator. The ordinance placing the new division under AFH&SS did not take effect until almost a year later.

--Bernice

WBLS Has Its Own Woes

WBLS at September 2010 gospel singing event.

The radio station at the heart of a controversy over an Aug. 1, 2010 Town Meeting has its own troubles, as creditors are seeking money owed by its parent company, Inner City Broadcasting.

The link above documents the history of the company that owns WBLS, a frequent presence at city events in recent years and now in the spotlight over a $20,000 payment that is the subject of an investigation by Plainfield's governing body. The radio station also received two $2,500 payments for taking part in the city's July 4th celebration last year, with one payment drawn from a general improvement bond, normally a funding source for long-term projects such as road repair, and another for "outside consulting services." The fees covered radio and internet announcements as well as an appearance by the WBLS "Street Team" and a "prize wheel."

The radio station also took part in an event meant to gather 10,000 people to sing gospel music. It was booted from county-owned Cedar Brook Park after city officials declined to meet with county Parks staff on the arrangements. At the last minute the location was changed to Watchung Avenue, in front of City Hall. WBLS set up banners and speakers and conducted the event as the city's $100-an-hour videographer recorded it for posterity. The turnout was nowhere near 10,000.

Plaintalker mentioned the event here and here. I leave it to the readers to decide whether the fits and starts resemble a modus operandi like our mayor's M.O. in handling other events. In retrospect, maybe an OPRA request is in order for that event at this point.

--Bernice

WBLS Investigation to Continue

Another special meeting will be called to continue the investigation into how $20,000 in city funds came to be paid to WBLS for an Aug. 1, 2010 Town Meeting, City Council President Annie McWilliams said.

As readers know, Wednesday's investigatory meeting included public testimony by former City Administrator Bibi Taylor on circumstances leading up to a check being produced on the Friday before the Sunday event. Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson spoke in closed session. The council is still waiting to hear from Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, former acting Chief Finance Officer Sandra Cummings and Purchasing Agent David Spaulding.

Although the biggest celebrity connected with the event was The Rev. Al Sharpton, he appeared only briefly, making a five-minute speech during the three-hour meeting. Click to see the Al Sharpton video.

Coverage by the Courier News so far has included an online preview on Wednesday, a story online Thursday that was modified later in the day and today's onlne story online with combined stories in print under an A-1 headline. All contain some of the same elements and interestingly online comments from readers are the same throughout.

The array points up the current tension between news delivered electronically and by traditional ink-on-paper means. Actually, bloggers including myself had a bit of an edge getting out news of what happened at the Wednesday meeting, including Taylor's recounting of the mayor's profanity as she allegedly pressed staff to come up with a check.

The point of the investigation is not so much the small amount of the transaction as how it was handled. Public money has a lot of strings attached to it and the state expects municipalities to obey its fiscal rules. Expect a lot more facts and analysis on the circumstances surrounding the Town Meeting. Sharpton's speech was basically about owning up to responsibility and so is this investigation.

--Bernice

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Don't Get Shocked

I just got yet another phone call from someone wanting to speak to the person in charge of the electric bill.

Being a devout Taurus who hates change, I had been brushing these people off until the call previous to today's. A nice young man waited until I got out my PSE&G bill and started to lead me through the math. Yes, I would save money. Yes, the charge would still show up on my PSE&G bill. Yes, if I quit before the year was up, I would incur a $10 per month charge.

Wait a minute, I said. You mean this is like a phone contract? With a termination fee?

Well, yes.

What if I have to move somewhere for health reasons (a hypothetical)?

Yes, I would owe $10 a month until the contract expired. Suddenly the fraction in rate savings - about two postage stamps' worth a month, maybe - didn't look so good.

So that was the sixth or seventh charming young person I had to hang up on during a pitch on electricity savings. The same for today's caller.

Guess what? Did you know New Jersey has a Ratepayer Advocate? Of course, one is always cautioned not to agree to anything over the phone, but the Ratepayer Advocate has even more good advice in the form of questions to ask before signing up for a different electricity provider. Thank you, Ratepayer Advocate!

Oldtimers will recognize the image at the top as Reddy Kilowatt, one of the icons of my childhood. I still miss my Reddy Kilowatt pin that some utility company rep handed out in grade school.

--Bernice

Former Official: Mayor Sought Last-Minute Check

Two days before a highly publicized “Town Meeting” on gang violence, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs launched a profanity-laced series of phone calls demanding a check to pay for it, former City Administrator Bibi Taylor alleged Wednesday in the first session of a long-awaited investigation into the event.

Taylor, now the Union County finance director, was the only one of five individuals to speak in public at the City Council’s special meeting on how radio station WBLS came to receive $20,000 in city funds for the Aug. 1, 2010 event. Of others subpoenaed to appear before the governing body, only Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson attended the meeting but chose to speak in closed session. The mayor “evaded receipt of service” both at City Hall and at home, council attorney Ramon Rivera said, while former acting chief finance officer Sandra Cummings could not be located and city purchasing agent David Spaulding was expected but did not show up Wednesday.

In the scramble to come up with a check on the Friday before the Sunday event, Taylor said the mayor began calling her at 1:47 p.m. on her personal cell phone rather than a city line, then made “over a dozen calls” which by late afternoon contained “expletives throughout the conversation.”

Taylor detailed for Rivera the normal procedures for cutting checks, but said between 4 and 4:11 p.m. on July 30, 2010 she was told by Spaulding that two checks, one for $16,000 for WBLS and one for $4,000 for WLIB, were needed. She said she questioned Spaulding on whether regulations for bidding and contracts had been followed, then called Williamson.

Because her conversation with Williamson might fall under attorney/client privilege, Rivera did not pursue it in the public session. Taylor’s husband Lester, also an attorney, noted his wife was there “voluntarily to cooperate with the City Council.”

By then on that Friday, Spaulding was not returning her calls, Taylor said, but the mayor wanted a memorandum in writing for the payment. After she wrote one authorizing payment “if all was in order,” Taylor alleged the mayor told her to change it to $20,000 for WBLS with a “CYA” memorandum. Asked by Rivera to explain the term, Taylor said it meant "cover your ass." Also on camera, Taylor quoted Robinson-Briggs as saying she was “the f-ing mayor.”

“Did you feel threatened?” Rivera asked.

“I was threatened,” Taylor said, adding she was cursed at and yelled at.

In further questioning, Taylor said the funds came from an Information Technology account and confirmed signatures on a July 30 purchase order she received Aug. 4, 2010 as those of the mayor, Spaulding and the IT director. In addition, Taylor discussed a $15,000 check from Investors Savings Bank, made out to the Division of Parks and Recreation for July 4 sponsorship, that she said she was told to use for the Aug. 1 event.

The mayor has alluded to a $15,000 donation that offset the event’s cost, but never revealed the donor.

The explosive testimony had members of the public exclaiming, but after Rivera said he had no further questions for Taylor, the public was excluded and Williamson spoke in closed session.

The entire public discussion was videotaped and recorded by transcript.

Rivera said the mayor’s attorney claimed she had “insufficient notice” of the investigation, but that if served another subpoena, she would appear at another date. Wednesday’s session was “not a hearing, not a trial,” Rivera said, but just part of the investigation.

Inquiries into costs of the August 2010 Town Meeting began immediately after the WBLS radio broadcast at which The Rev. Al Sharpton made a brief appearance. Plaintalker filed an OPRA request on Aug. 2, 2010 and eventually received some information, including a copy of the $20,000 city check and documents showing the budget lines from which funds were taken.

The council voted in September 2010 to launch an investigation, but issues over the governing body’s first choice for legal representation delayed the matter. Rivera was hired in April and the mayor is being represented by Stephen Edelstein. In July, Council President Annie McWilliams said an update revealed that Edelstein had failed to respond to Rivera. After Rivera gave “tentative conclusions” that misconduct may have taken place, the council agreed to use its subpoena powers to escalate the investigation.

--Bernice

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Commentary on Free Breakfast Program

The announcement on the school district web site that all students would receive free breakfast gave me pause. After all, the district has more than 6,000 students.

Turns out this is an initiative backed by legislation passed in 2010. There is a comprehensive web site on its history and implementation. It sounds very worthy, though strange to someone as old as I am, who can remember not only being served hot oatmeal for breakfast by my mother, but coming home for lunch as well.

Eating in school seems to have become a necessity, especially in urban districts. Households are way different than mine in the 1940s, when I went to grade school. I read some of the material on how to achieve nutritional goals in school breakfast programs and found it admirable until I got to the last picture in one chapter. In this photo, a food preparer is filling many, many little plastic cups with what looks like macaroni and cheese.

My mind could not get around the image of so many containers for just one of several required food items served daily!

But before I could figure out who to ask at the school district now that there is no longer a public information officer (or whatever you want to call such an individual), I did a search online and found that great minds have already tackled the issue of waste (wrappings, containers, etc.) in school food programs. In fact, there is a movement on it. I hope some of these tactics can be or are being used in Plainfield.

Click to learn more about the School Breakfast Program. To see the multiple container image, click here and go to the end of the chapter.

The program offers a lot of leeway in meeting nutritional goals. One of my questions was whether any ethnic foods would be incorporated into the menu, such as might be served at home in districts with a high proportion of Latino households. Shopping at Twin City has made me aware of how my oatmeal of the 1940s is other folks' avena. The bridge is the smiling Quaker Oats character on the label.

I would still like to know more about how this district-wide initiative is working. If any parents or teachers have observations or opinions on it, feel free to share with the rest of us with a comment on the blog.

--Bernice

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

City Officials Must Uphold Fiscal Accountability

The City Council's investigation into the WBLS affair is taking place coincidentally with a larger examination by Union County authorities into a major public event known as MusicFest and may share some common elements.

The governing body is trying to get to the bottom of how a "Town Meeting" on gang violence was organized and funded. It was broadcast over WBLS, a radio station that received $20,000 in city funds for advertising and the event itself. In the overall scheme of things, $20,000 is not a lot of money, but it was paid through the Division of Recreation and taken from unrelated budgetary sources including an Information Technology line for "hardware and software maintenance."

The discussion of the Aug. 1, 2010 event has gone on for a year without any light being shed on how it came about. Officials defending it claim the cost was offset by a $15,000 donation, while not publicly identifying the donor.

The net impression is one of arrangements being made and money spent without the fiscal controls required for municipal government, a notion deepened by the reluctance of officials to explain the circumstances. Hence the unique use of the governing body's subpoena powers, as outlined in the City Charter. Employees will be summoned to Wednesday's meeting to be questioned by the council and action may be taken.

In the MusicFest situation, the Union County Prosecutor's Office investigated the handling of funds for the 2010 event and found errors, resulting in what The County Watchers group called "a scathing report." The group shines a light on dubious doings at the county level and closely monitors how public money is spent.

Plainfield has no similarly intense fiscal watchdog group and for three years did not even have a chief finance officer, the state-required monitor of how municipal money is spent. The city also had a high turnover at the top of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services, one of three departments required by the city's special charter.

Actually, the charter calls for Administration and Finance, Public Works and Public Affairs and Safety as the three departments. Administration and Finance was repurposed during the Fury administration to include the other divisions, with the result in recent years that the finance director ends up getting embroiled in tiffs at the Senior Center or other distractions. At times, the city administrator has had to serve in addition as acting department head, further watering down oversight with side issues such as spats over use of city ball fields.

All this adds up to a weakening of the normal safeguards on fiscal matters.

It remains to be seen what comes out of the council investigation, but at the minimum one hopes it will set a tone of higher regard for accountability in municipal spending. The city has had a chief finance officer since January and also has a permanent AFH&SS director. Although there is no permanent city administrator, the acting city administrator has the experience needed to observe city operations and give sound advice on proper fiscal management going forward.

Employees who may have taken advantage of lax controls need to understand that the party's over. The governing body is serious about accounting for every dollar of public money. Instead of being defensive, the administration should also uphold accountability, at every level.

--Bernice

Sunday, September 18, 2011

New Fave Treat

Sorry, Apricot Rugelach.

Lemon Cake from Family Soul Spot is now my new favorite treat!

--Bernice

Park Avenue Apartments Available for Lease

Four new Park Avenue apartments created in an historic building are now being marketed for lease.

The signs advise those interested to call 201 761-0025 x 10 for more information on "LandmarkCityLiving."

Developer Frank Cretella first sought approvals for the project, dubbed Certified Green Property One, LLC, in 2009. Click here to see Plaintalker's post on Cretella's 2009 application for review by the Historic Preservation Commission. The "retail" component was later changed to medical offices on the first floor and in the basement. See Plaintalker II post here.

The building is on the PNC Bank block, where several other Cretella proposals are in the works.

One is for the bank building itself (click here). Another is the massive West Second Commons project. Next door to the new apartments is another retail/housing project, Next Step to Collins Avenue LLC, in the former Courier News building.

In all, Cretella has seven projects in the works. Click here for an overview.

--Bernice

City Has Heat Laws

Did you know Plainfield has heat regulations in the Municipal Code?

The untimely drop in temperature made Plaintalker think it was worth reviewing, and now that City Clerk Abubakar Jalloh has put the whole Municipal Code online, it was easy to look it up and copy the text.

Many tenants and especially many landlords think there is no requirement to provide heat until Oct. 15, but the Code proves otherwise, if the conditions warrant it. Right now we are looking at the Fall part, but the May 1 ending is also important because here again, a lot of people think April 15 is the cut-off. Having no heat in an early or late cold snap is hard on the elderly or those with medical conditions that affect their ability to tolerate cold.

Our former landlord used to cite his own harsh household rules whenever we would ask about the heat. Well, you can keep your private home as cold as you want and tell your family to put on more sweaters, but adequate heat is one of the reasons why tenants pay the big bucks for rent.

The next time a landlord says, "I keep my thermostat at 60 degrees," remind him that the city has rules for rental property.

Except as hereinafter stated, from October 1 of each year to the next succeeding May 1, the interior of every dwelling unit or rooming unit, bathroom and water closet compartment shall be maintained at least at sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit (68°F) whenever the outside temperature falls below fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit (55°F) during the daytime hours from six (6:00) a.m. in the morning and eleven (11:00) p.m. in the evening. At times other than those specified, interiors of units of dwelling space shall be maintained at least at sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit (65°F) whenever the outside temperature falls below forty degrees Fahrenheit (40°F).
Except as hereinafter stated, from May 1 to October 1, every dwelling unit, rooming unit, bathroom and water closet compartment shall be maintained at a temperature of sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit (68°F) during the daytime hours from six (6:00) a.m. in the morning and eleven (11:00) p.m. in the evening whenever the outside temperature falls below fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit (55°F). At times other than those specified, interiors of units of dwelling space shall be maintained at least at sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit (65°F) whenever the outside temperature falls below forty degrees Fahrenheit (40°F)

--Bernice

Saturday, September 17, 2011

PMUA Sets Special Meeting

Here is a legal notice that was published today:

PLAINFIELD MUNICIPAL
UTILITIES AUTHORITY

"NOTICE OF A SPECIAL MEETING"
PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that the Plainfield Municipal
Utilities Authority (the "Authority") has scheduled a Special Meeting
for TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2011 at 9:00 A.M.
at the Authority's office located at
127 Roosevelt Avenue,
Plainfield, New Jersey:
The purpose of the meeting is for the Discussion and
Possible Action regarding the following:
"Labor and employment
issues regarding organizational structure and staffing requirements of the Authority"
/s/ Duane D. Young
Duane D. Young,
Executive Director

Not sure what it means. Guess you have to be there at 9 a.m. Tuesday to find out, unless it is a closed meeting. Personnel is one of the items for executive session, but this does not appear to be about individuals. Any action must take place in open session.

--Bernice

What is News?

As the media landscape shifts dramatically, the fate of newspapers is in the crosshairs.

Circulation figures show a 50 percent drop for the Courier News between 2005 and 2010, a trend I did not see firsthand, as I retired in 2003. But a stint of freelancing in 2007 kind of put me in the loop of a projected trend detailed in this Gannett Blog post.

Freelancers or what one editor called "information gatherers" as well as contributors to "Get Published" and the recently failed "InJersey" may well provide the content that strapped newsrooms can't, as paid staff dwindles. So what news stories will readers see on their phones and tablets?

The spectrum has gone from such close coverage of the local scene that once every crow that died of West Nile Virus got its own story (known in the newsroom of the time as "the dead crow beat"). More recently, the combining of the Courier News and Home News Tribune (itself a hybrid) has resulted in a very broad coverage area that is still supposed to be "hyperlocal," with national news on the next-to-last page of Section A. But do Plainfielders really read about Sayreville or East Brunswick with the same interest they have in the Queen City and neighboring towns?

News used to be what local elected officials were doing with your tax money, changes in leadership at schools and in City Hall, downtown doings, fires, crashes, crime and so on. The passing of prominent citizens was marked and changes in local institutions such as hospitals were noted. Good works were reported, as well as major disasters.

How much of all that do we need to know? Some news outlets may give a few seconds or sentences to a news story: Mayor Indicted, Floods Displace Hundreds, Fire Razes Downtown Block. Others cover news in depth, with maybe an eye on a journalism prize. Is one screen on an electronic device all we need? Do we take the time to digest comprehensive multi-media packages?

With the projected shift to content from "citizen journalists" and cell-phone photographers, will such news tell the whole story or even the real story of what is going on? What do you think?

--Bernice

Friday, September 16, 2011

Enjoy the Fiesta, Volunteer at El Centro

A two-day event downtown this weekend will celebrate Central American independence.

Even if you do not share the heritage of the countries represented, the fiesta organized by nightclub owner Edison Garcia offers a chance to enjoy traditional foods and try out your Spanish. The event will take place in the parking lots north of East Front Street between Somerset Street and Watchung Avenue and will also include entertainment and vendor booths.

Garcia won city permission to hold the event in 2009 and later paired it with an annual fiesta in July celebrating American independence.

The Hispanic population of Plainfield has now reached 40 percent, according to the 2000 census. If you would like to get to know your Spanish-speaking neighbors better, volunteering at El Centro Hispanoamericano is one way to do so. Volunteers are needed in many capacities to help individuals and families get situated and become citizens. Follow the link for details.

--Bernice

Familiar Names in Rahway

Rahway Rising is a very good blog about redevelopment and other topics in that municipality. It is of interest to Plainfielders because some of the same developers have had projects in both municipalities.

This Rahway Rising post has two familiar names, one being Plainfield's former director of Public Works & Urban Development and the other being the Capodagli company that had proposed a huge development here in 2006. Capodagli later dropped the proposal.

Except for Frank Cretella's seven projects, development here has slowed way down from the days of having almost 20 proposals to consider. Bookmark Rahway Rising if you want to follow the action over there.

--Bernice

Thursday, September 15, 2011

More About PARSA

The Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority, or PARSA, has been mentioned this week at the City Council meeting and on blogs, but not everyone knows what it is.

PARSA serves eight municipalities and each has a representative on its board. Many are current or former elected officials. The current roster includes Robert Seader, Dunellen; Bill Populus, Fanwood, John Richards, Green Brook; Jim Freeman, North Plainfield; Robert Johnson, Scotch Plains; Glen Cullen, South Plainfield, Al Ellis, Watchung; and David Ervin, Plainfield.

At issue now is Ervin's tenure on the board, since he has retired from the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority. Ervin was a city Public Works official before becoming deputy executive director at PMUA. The city and PMUA have a interlocal services agreement for solid waste and sewer services. The question has been raised whether Plainfield should have a new representative on PARSA, but Ervin is entitled to serve until his term expires, according to state municipal utility law.

PARSA has a very informative web site that includes this history. Sewage from Plainfield and other member municipalities passes through the PARSA system and then goes to the Middlesex County Utilities Authority for treatment. Having known of PARSA since its inception, Plaintalker has always been impressed with its efficiency and stewardship of public resources.

--Bernice

Quick-Entry Fire System Approved

A new means of access will allow firefighters to enter multi-family buildings rapidly, without waiting for a key or using force.

At the Sept. 6 agenda session, Deputy Chief Broderick Fleming showed the City Council the Knox Box, a device that can hold keys and will be opened remotely by an electronic code from the Central Avenue firehouse. It will be required for buildings with more than four residential units, with amendments to the city's fire prevention fire code ordinance passed Monday. Final passage will take place in October and owners will have six months to purchase the $200 devices.

Fleming said Fire Division personnel is down by 30 percent and the Knox Box will eliminate waiting for a key holder.

The amendments call for a Knox Box on every commercial and industrial building and every one with four or more residential units.

At the Sept. 6 agenda-fixing session, Fleming passed around the council table an example of the heavy metal box that will hold keys for inside or outside doors, mechanical and elevator rooms, fences or secured areas or any other area that may require emergency access. The box will also include a card with a minimum of two emergency numbers for the premises.

Owners will have six months from the time of final passage of the new rules to obtain and install the Knox Box. The Fire Division must then be provided with keys any time locks are changed.

(Regarding the emergency numbers, multi-family residents should be able to see a state-required notice with two emergency numbers posted by the landlord in their building. See the Truth in Renting guide.)

--Bernice

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Zig-Zagging Through Hard Times

House under water? Bill collectors calling?

Some people discovered an unlikely way to make money this week, by raiding the Missoni stock at Target and immediately putting items up for resale on Ebay.


My daughter and former Plainfielder Audrey called yesterday to discuss the phenomenon. She had participated in a similar buyer frenzy when Target linked up with Liberty of London and sent me some of her finds. By the time she hit the West Seattle Target for the Missoni sale, the pickings were slim.

We were talking about the resale of these wildly popular goods as sort of an underground way to beat the recession. Certainly it must be more fun and less labor than stealing copper pipes out of vacant homes to sell at scrap yards, as happens around here. Our block is seeing a big increase in scavengers for metals of any kind since times got tougher. Why not buy a Missoni duvet and resell it for triple the price?

Plaintalker is not trying to make light of the economic woes faced by a large proportion of American society right now. It is just intriguing to see what clever tricks people are coming up with in an effort to cope. Zig-zag swag is certainly near the top of that list.

--Bernice

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

PMUA's Young Wows Council

The new leader of the solid waste and sewer authority that serves the city received a warm reception from the governing body Monday, in contrast to a 2010 standoff between the two bodies.

Duane Young, acting executive director of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, answered questions on the authority's budget process and pledged transparency, prompting Council President Annie McWilliams to say, "I hope this is the start of a productive relationship with the PMUA."

"It is refreshing to see that you didn' t have to be dragged here kicking and screaming," Councilman Adrian Mapp said later, alluding to the thorny situation last year.

The authority was created by the city in 1995 and overcame obstacles including a legal challenge from a council faction while getting established. In 2009, a relatively quiet run of service ended with citizen outcry over rate increases and authority officials found themselves at sword's point with rate payers who protested travel and business lunch expenses. The group, called DumpPMUA, began actively encouraging people to opt out of authority services. Appointments faltered and holdover commissioners disdained meetings with the council.

Then the PMUA's Spring 2011 newsletter announced that all three top authority officials were stepping down. Young, the authority's comptroller, was named to replace Executive Director Eric Watson "72 days ago," he said Monday.

Councilman Cory Storch lost no time in asking Young what could now be expected "in terms of rates."

Young said it is his intention to stabilize rates and he is not anticipating an increase. He said he is looking at all costs and hopes to set a three-year rate.

Storch then asked, "Is there any prospect for a rate reduction?"

Young said he could not commit to that, but as comptroller over the past 11 years, he said, "I've been looking at the money all along."

Rate hearings are held in January, but ratepayers said the first they knew of the 2009 increases was in bills received later. Young said budget information has to go to the state by Nov. 1, and he is looking at all departments to see what is needed, not just resubmitting figures.

Young also said he is looking forward to working with a recently-formed, council-appointed task force charged with looking into PMUA operations. Calling the PMUA "misunderstood," Young questioned comparisons with rates in other cities.

Plainfield ratepayers support three different authorities, as charges from the Plainfield Area Regional Sewage Authority and the Middlesex County Utilities Authority are passed on through PMUA. Young did not mention the MCUA, but said he would be meeting with PARSA Executive Director Robert Villee next week. PMUA payments constitute the largest portion of PARSA's budget, he said.

Another issue is Plainfield's representation on PARSA. Young said PMUA Deputy Executive Director David Ervin is still serving on the PARSA board, despite having retired. Plainfield Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson noted a section of state municipal utility law that permits Ervin to fulfill his PARSA board term. Ervin would have to resign before Young could be appointed and talks on that topic are underway.

Young's visit and his open attitude appeared promising for an end to the impasse over council scrutiny of the PMUA and appointments to its board of commissioners.

For some more background on city solid waste and sewer issues, click here for a 2008 Plaintalker post.

--Bernice

South Avenue Reconstruction Approved

Controversial in the past for its traffic-calming "bump-outs," South Avenue was a lightning rod for contention again on Monday over a $1 million reconstruction.

The City Council split 4-3 over the need for a complete overhaul of the road between Terrill and Leland avenues, with objectors calling for the state to pay the tab and supporters saying its dire condition must be fixed immediately.

Council members Vera Greaves, William Reid and Bridget Rivers argued that the 1/8-mile stretch had cost $1 million to build and the city should not spend more money on it while other city roads desperately need repairs. In addition, they said the state should pay to fix it, as it is part of Route 28. But the question of who has jurisdiction over the Plainfield portion of the road has not been resolved.

Meanwhile, council members Rebecca Williams, Adrian Mapp, Cory Storch and Council President Annie McWilliams voted "yes," citing the need to make the road safe and attractive despite reservations over the ownership issue. Mapp, an especially adamant holdout in the past for state control to be established, said at the Sept. 6 agenda-fixing session his vote would be "my first 'yes' on this project." Williams said she lost a tire to the damaged road last winter. McWilliams said the road was crumbling under the last paving and had to be repaired.

The section of Route 28 in question traverses the South Avenue business district and includes access to the Netherwood train station and a small park developed with support of the Plainwood Square Merchants Association. Officials said it was resurfaced in 1999 despite warnings that the base was faulty. Now, Acting City Administrator David Kochel said, it will have "a total reconstruct," including a drainage system aimed at preventing future buckling.

Greaves called for warranties on the work this time around and others said the legal responsibility for the road must still be investigated. Recently the state and Union County faced off over the issue, with each claiming the other was liable, officials said. Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said it will take "a mighty effort" to get the jurisdiction issue resolved.

--Bernice

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jackson Confirmed for DPW&UD

Plaintalker was envisioning Plainfield as a little "Trenton on the Green Brook" Monday after City Council President Annie McWilliams called for an executive session which would include discussion of Trenton's Eric Berry as city administrator. Chief Finance Officer Ron Zilinski served there and so did Eric Jackson, who was nominated to be director of the Department of Public Works & Urban Development.

Jackson won City Council approval Monday for the post and will begin work Sept. 26, Acting City Administrator David Kochel said.

However, the meeting concluded without any action on Berry. When Plaintalker inquired about the earlier mention of Berry, McWilliams said the council did not discuss him in the executive session.

Berry, Trenton's business administrator under Mayor Tony Mack, last month came under fire for polling council members there regarding their likely votes on other Mack nominees. Objectors saw the move as a blow for transparency in government.

Jackson was public works director under former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer and was named assistant business administrator under Mack in July 2010 for less than a month. Zilinski had been Palmer's finance director and was comptroller in the Mack administration.

Unlike Plainfield, Trenton has a strict residency requirement. Jackson's appointment here included a residency waiver, putting him in the company of Police Director Martin Hellwig of Lake Hopatcong, department head Al Restaino of Nutley, former Public Works department head Jennifer Wenson Maier of Rahway and Zilinski.

Kochel is the city's third acting city administrator this year. His initial 90-day acting term was extended into November through special legislation, but then the post will become vacant again. A "permanent" city administrator, if named, would serve through the end of the current mayor's term ending Dec. 31, 2013.

--Bernice

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What Do Blog Readers Want?

Random image: Balsam, or Peruvian Impatiens

I wrote to Saul Qersdyn last week to ask whether he thought blog readership was falling off lately. Qersdyn, you may recall, had the ambitious goal a while back of aggregating all the blogs in Union County's 21 municipalities and was surprised to find out that Plainfield alone had more than 20 blogs. Since then, many have become dormant and recent late-summer stats for Plaintalker showed a decline in page views.

Qersdyn said he had renewed interest in his Roselle Park blog after changing the format from consecutive posts to more use of videos of meetings and such. The viewer can then watch the meetings at will.

The alternative that Plainfield bloggers seem to favor is attending meetings and reporting on items of interest. Given the length of city meetings (four or five hours sometimes) it seems unlikely that anyone would sit down in front of a computer that long. They are also broadcast on local cable channels anyway, for those so inclined to watch a whole meeting on television.

It is an interesting choice, because Plainfield blogs could be said to filter what goes on, while Qersdyn leaves it up to the viewer to draw conclusions by taking in the whole meeting.

On his blog that highlights all 21 municipalities, "In the 21," Qersdyn has a box that features the latest posts. It was good to see Plainfield prominently featured, as some of us blog daily.

Perhaps unfortunately for our dear readers (if I may borrow a phrase from Jay Jefferson Cooke), adding videos may require more expertise than some of us have. If I knew how, I would post videos on specific topics or issues rather than raw footage of a meeting, but that would mean learning how to edit.

I greatly admire the videos that former CN photographer Andre Malok now produces for the Star-Ledger, and the New York Times videos certainly enhance the online platform. But I am probably too cheap anyway to invest in a video camera and will have to plod along posting old-fashioned stories on city happenings.

Probably the most ambitious blogger Plainfield had in the past year was Tony Rucker, who did use audio and video as well as writing, but he has not posted since June 28. So for now I guess you are stuck with us old-school bloggers until another multi-media maven comes along.

--Bernice

In Memory of All Lost on 9/11

My son was home sick on Sept. 11, 2001. I heard a news bulletin and burst into his room to tell him we must turn on his television. We both watched the second plane hit. I felt a gut-wrenching horror at the thought of the passengers being aboard what became a missile, innocents used as a weapon to murder more innocents. It truly embodied the word "terror" to see such a fiendish act.

As someone commented today, America came to know the pain that many live with in other countries where bombings happen daily, taking the lives of schoolchildren and everyday householders at the market as well as leaders in the forefront of ideological battle.

I listen to the radio night and day. On this day, I am grateful for the programming on WYNC that is bringing out the love and resilience of the victims' families and the bravery of all responders to this national tragedy. Listeners were asked to suggest music for this tenth anniversary and their evocative choices are inspiring and comforting.

Mourning, contemplation and hope are reflected in this music that is interwoven with comments from people giving the reasons for their submissions. It is a very fitting memorial to those taken from us on that terrible day.

If you missed it, you can hear it or download it later at www.wnyc.org

--Bernice

Trenton Makes, Plainfield Takes?

The proposed appointment of Eric E. Jackson as director of Public Works & Urban Development brings to mind some coincidences.

If appointed, he would be the second veteran of both the Doug Palmer and Tony Mack administrations to come our way. Ron Zilinski, Plainfield’s chief finance officer since January, had been Trenton’s finance director under Mayor Palmer and was comptroller under Mayor Mack. His appointment saved Plainfield’s mayor and council from facing daily fines for not replacing former CFO Peter Sepelya, who retired at the end of 2007.

While Jackson may not be a savior to that extent, he could stabilize a department that has become a bit rudderless over the past 20 months, what with turnover and layoffs. For one thing, somebody needs to pay a lot more attention to the roads program before a citizen uprising takes place over vehicle damage from potholes. Even if Jackson is only able to create a climate of reassurance that roads are being looked after, it would be a feat.

Jackson was public works director under Palmer and even though he ran against Mack, he won the new mayor’s endorsement as assistant business administrator, though according to press reports his tenure was brief. By now, local Google sleuths will have gathered intelligence on Trenton’s byzantine politics, which make Plainfield look tame by contrast.

Jackson’s run for elective office brings up another coincidence. Former DPW&UD director Jennifer Wenson Maier served on the Rahway City Council during her tenure as an appointed administrator here. Her successor, David Brown II, ran for office in Long Branch. It is up to the reader to decide whether being involved in politics makes any difference in an administrator’s outlook or performance. In Wenson Maier’s case, she dealt with some developers as an administrator here and as an elected official in Rahway, which some viewed as a conflict.

Whatever side issues may emerge with Jackson’s appointment, Plainfield needs an experienced hand at the helm of Public Works & Urban Development. Someone raised the question of Jackson’s lack of experience in economic development, but that aspect of city government may be less important right now than getting the rest of the DPW&UD job done. Zilinski seems to have brought much-needed expertise to the city’s fiscal situation; if Jackson can do the same for public works, Trenton’s loss will be Plainfield’s gain.

--Bernice

Saturday, September 10, 2011

DPW&UD Director Nominated

Mayoral nominee Eric E. Jackson will be up for City Council advice and consent Monday to become the director of the Department of Public Works & Urban Development.

If Plaintalker can confirm that Jackson is a former Trenton official, more will follow on that subject. Meanwhile, if confirmed, Jackson will fill a vacancy that has existed since David Brown II left the post in November 2010. The department is one of three mandated in the city's special charter and includes Recreation, Inspections, Planning and Economic divisions. If approved, Jackson will serve concurrently with the mayor's term, which ends Dec. 31, 2013.

The department had only one director for the mayor's first four-year term, starting in January 2006. But at the January 2010 reorganization meeting, Jennifer Wenson Maier was not named to serve for the mayor's second term. In a somewhat messy transition, Brown was approved for the post Jan. 1, 2010 but was not expected to serve until April. Wenson Maier agreed to stay on, but in February 2010 took a similar post in Hoboken. Brown then started work on March 1, 2010.

In January of this year, Jacques Howard of the Office of Economic Development was named acting DPW&UD director, but just for 90 days, as acting terms are limited by ordinance. In April, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson was serving as acting city administrator and announced that the hiring of a DPW&UD director from among eight or 10 candidates was imminent. However, no nominee was presented until now.

The department has two of the most problematic divisions in the city. The late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, who served two terms preceding the current mayor, said Inspections generated the most complaints from residents. The division was beefed up with more staff, cars and computers, but Wenson Maier told the council the expanded operation failed due to loss of personnel and it was disbanded. She later said a state probe of Inspections revealed workers did not know how to make reports and lacked basic job skills such as showing up on time for work.

The Recreation Division has been embroiled for about two years in a clash with a volunteer-run baseball league that shares ball fields with city teams. In addition, payments to a radio station through Recreation using various budget lines has led to a City Council investigation and an upcoming special meeting for which employees will be subpoenaed and may face dismissal if wrongdoing is confirmed.

The DPW&UD has other complications that will present challenges to a new director, including a proposed realignment of economic development responsibilities that the council declined to act on at the present time.

The council meeting is 8 p.m. Monday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice

PMUA Mysteries

The Florida truck, seen through the screen.

On Friday afternoon, the big white garbage truck with a Tampa, Fla. logo on the door came by to pick up recyclables. Plaintalker first saw this truck in June but did not notice the license plates, which are bright red with white lettering. Between B27 and 605 is a small MAR, presumably meaning March. It has plates front and back.

Maybe the PMUA task force can get to the bottom of why a truck with such odd plates is plying the streets of Plainfield. Is PMUA changing over from leased vehicles? Will it save money? Doesn't this truck need New Jersey plates? Isn't recycling picked up on Wednesdays?

The driver took some time to pore over a sheet of paper (a route schedule?) before taking off.

Mysterious, but certainly no less than the noisy PMUA truck that arrived at 12:43 a.m. on Labor Day, which is a holiday with no pickup scheduled. Luckily for me, I was still up at that hour and so did not have to wake up and say bad words.

We also had trucks come twice to pick up garbage one day. I asked a worker on the second truck why they didn't know the first one had already been there. The answer was that their bosses didn't know what they were doing. Ya think?

Well, let us forgive all today and go to Library Park to enjoy the annual Environmental Fair. I will turn the tables on aggregating Dan and link to his post on the fair.

--Bernice

Thursday, September 8, 2011

ZBOA Approves South Avenue Offices, Lab

A small part of the war on terrorism will take place in a South Avenue building where a research firm won zoning board approval for offices and a lab which tests for the presence of explosives.

Energy Research Company will store less than two ounces each of 14 explosives including TNT, dynamite and nitroglygerin in a secure lab that will take up about a quarter of the building behind a produce market. Company founder and president Robert De Saro said he looked at numerous buildings before deciding the South Avenue site was a “goldilocks” setting with just the right size, price and location for his firm, which must move from its present base on Staten Island.

DeSaro calmly fielded questions from the board members on why he did not pick a more industrial location and how the explosives would be used.

“Do you personally think there is some danger?” board member Christopher Awobue asked De Saro, who said he did not and added, “What we are doing is needed.”

The company contracts with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to devise tests for minute amounts of explosives as part of an effort to protect citizens here and abroad. De Saro described elaborate safety features the company uses that are approved by the New York Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency and the New York Fire Department and that will be replicated here with all necessary city and state endorsements.

The arrangements will include sprinklers, locks and a “daybox” that is bullet-proof, impact-proof and fireproof, safety expert Robert J. Davidson of South Carolina testified.

The board grilled the applicant and witnesses on 19 items including fencing and parking before agreeing to grant waivers.

The only member of the public who commented was Sal Carrano, who said the application did not fit in with the city’s master plan and would clash with South Avenue’s “restaurant alley.”

“It’s not meant to be placed there,” he said.

But in comments before the vote, board members said the company posed no more of a danger than a gas station and would be filling a vacant building. Chairman Alex Ruiz described himself as a “proponent of blue collar, green collar and white collar business” in Plainfield before the board gave its approval.

--Bernice

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gang Members: City is Breaking Promise

Two former gang members who received city jobs after declaring a truce are now questioning their treatment.

In public comment Tuesday, Tayir Pugh told the City Council he is grateful for his Public Works job, but he alleged the reformed gang members are viewed negatively by some.

"A lot of things people are saying were not appreciated," he said. "If anybody has anything to say, say it now."

Councilwoman Rebecca Williams reacted by saying discussions of personnel in executive session are confidential and there have been too many instances of confidentiality being breached, thus bringing people out to meetings.

Housing Authority Commissioner Joanne Hollis, a former councilwoman, said she had asked the council to "give the gentlemen a second chance," but felt those from the West End should go to the East End and vice versa. Hollis had previously spoken out about a shooting at the Hannah Atkins pool where children and lifeguards dived for cover, the apparent target being a former gang member working there. The pool was then closed.

"Why shut down the Atkins pool behind a shooting that did not affect the children?" she asked

Another former gang member said he was promised a seasonal Public Works job until Dec. 1, but then was told his job was over as of Oct. 1.

"We kept our promise," he said, adding it is not right to break a promise.

Acting City Administrator David Kochel said there was no guarantee of employment for seasonal workers and City Council President Annie McWilliams said whoever made the promise had no right to do so.

Asked who made the promise, the former gang member said, "City Hall," but refused to give any name.

The truce began in May after five gang leaders met at an IHOP restaurant in nearby North Plainfield. They held a press conference and later met with Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who praised them and encouraged them to become mentors to other young people. First reported by Mark Spivey in the Courier News, the story was picked up by numerous other media outlets. It was widely regarded as responsible for a drop in the rash of shootings that had plagued the city for about a year.

Link to comments about gang violence by The Rev. Al Sharpton at the Aug. 1, 2010 Town Meeting

--Bernice

Council to Subpoena Employees on WBLS Case


The City Council will invoke its subpoena powers at a special meeting this month to investigate how city funds were spent on a town meeting broadcast over WBLS more than a year ago.

In an update Tuesday, City Council President Annie McWilliams said the governing body's special counsel on the matter gave "tentative conclusions"  indicating misconduct, but answers were lacking from city employees on the details. The city's special charter empowers the governing body to use subpoena powers, conduct investigations and even remove employees for cause.

The meeting is scheduled for Sept. 21. Plaintalker cannot recall another instance over the last 25 years of  the council invoking its investigative powers.

Questions arose within days after the Aug. 1, 2010 program for which the city paid the radio station $20,000. The live broadcast on issues including gang violence was hosted by WBLS personality Gary Byrd and featured a brief appearance by The Rev. Al Sharpton. The check for $20,000 was drawn against an information technology account for "hardware and software maintenance." Later, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said the outlay of city funds was only about $5,000, as an unnamed donor had given $15,000 toward the cost.

Both the council and the mayor hired attorneys, but the council's special counsel, Ramon Rivera, said mayoral attorney Stephen Edelstein had failed to respond to his inquiries. The funding came through the Division of Recreation headed by Superintendent Dave Wynn, who declined last year to provide information to a Recreation Committee that was probing the division's operations. Two other checks to WBLS, for $2,500 each, came through Recreation for the 2010 July 4th celebration, but one was drawn on capital improvement bond funds and the other from an "outside consulting" account.

Not all council members agreed on the need for an investigation. In April, Councilman William Reid objected to the cost of hiring special counsel. He and Councilwoman Vera Greaves voted "no" on hiring Rivera and council members McWilliams, Cory Storch, Rebecca Williams and Adrian Mapp voted "yes." Bridget Rivers was absent for that meeting.

--Bernice

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Do New Ordinances Mean?

Those of us council mavens who went to the Plainfield Public Library Saturday for a peek at the text of resolutions and ordinances came away disappointed. The documents will not be available until the time of the meeting, according to a notice attached to the agenda.

The reason why people go to see the supporting documents is that the captions on the agenda can be cryptic or even misleading without a reading of the fine print. The two that I especially wanted to see were ordinances up for first reading that had to do with economic development. The agenda sets them forth thusly:
MC 2011 - 08 AN ORDINANCE TO AMEND AND SUPPLEMENT CHAPTER 2, ADMINISTRATION: ARTICLE 5, CITY ADMINISTRATOR, SECTION 2:5-4, DEPUTY CITY ADMINISTRATOR, OFFICE OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. –CITY ADMINISTRATOR.
MC 2011 - 09 AN ORDINANCE TO AMEND AND SUPPLEMENT CHAPTER 2, ADMINISTRATION, ARTICLE 8, DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS & URBAN DEVELOPMENT CREATING SECTION 2:8-11.1 OFFICE OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. –CITY ADMINISTRATOR.

The cabinet-level position of deputy city administrator was once an ombudsman-like job of looking out for the citizenry. It was revised during the McWilliams administration to the role of overseeing economic development. When the new administration took over in January 2006, the post was not filled, nor was anyone named to it in the mayor's second term beginning in January 2010.

So what's up now? Is the role being changed again? As soon as I see the text, I will let you know.

The second one is a bit of a mystery as well, because on the city roster online, there is listed an Office of Economic Development. It appears to be more at the division level than cabinet status. But when it was at cabinet status during the McWilliams administration, it incorrectly established a de facto new department, with Planning and Engineering under it, in violation of the City Charter.

So us letter-of-the-law types when it comes to municipal government want to know what it is all about.

All shall be revealed (we hope) at the meeting tonight, 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library. If not, there should be plenty more time to delve into the whys and wherefores, as it will be up for a vote on Sept. 12 if moved to the agenda and then will be up for final passage in October.

--Bernice

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day 2011

What does Labor Day mean to you?

In neighboring South Plainfield, it is marked with a parade celebrating the American worker. The parade starts at 10 a.m.

Here in the city, we may be wondering how the city's seven bargaining units are faring. As the municipal budget has become harder to manage, city officials have been trying to wrest concessions from the unions.

As always, Labor Day signals the unofficial end of summer, a time for parties and picnics before the vacation season ends and school begins.

Whatever your thoughts or activities today, Plaintalker wishes you a happy Labor Day!

--Bernice

Sunday, September 4, 2011

More Storm Aftermath

I had heard about the big tree that the storm uprooted at Park and Crescent, but the sight of its stump was still shocking to see. Irene was very powerful and the tally of a billion dollars in damage is quite believable when you see even a single leftover effect like this.
The sidewalk is quite impassable and schoolchildren will have to walk in the street until it is cleared and repaired.
Did those high winds shred this flag? Raising and lowering the flag used to be a routine, as required by flag etiquette, but most likely it could not be done with all the other tasks in the storm.
The city has a flag budget. Let's hope a new flag can be obtained before Veterans' Day.
 This debris is piled in the Bethel Presbyterian Church community garden. A caller Friday night alerted me to the destruction.
 This bare swath was caused by heavy equipment getting to the fallen tree in the rear, by the fence.
There is still some callaloo and other vegetables to be harvested for donation to local groups and institutions, despite the hit.

According to a report on the radio, volunteers are banding together to make work parties for the hardest-hit parts of the East Coast. I'm sure the victims of the storm will appreciate any such assistance as they try to put their lives back together. Let us keep them in our thoughts and prayers over coming weeks.

--Bernice

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Some History on Front Street Lots

Two vacant lots on the Tepper's block are now the proposed site for an adult day care facility, but in 2007 developer Clay Bonny had received approvals to put 12 condos on the lots. After he dropped that plan, the lots were transformed with volunteer labor into a pocket park for a time.

To read a Plaintalker post on Bonny's Heartstone project, click here.

As noted in this post, there had been a historic music hall, later a theater, on the site. After the city took ownership of the building, the roof collapsed and fell through lower floors, causing the need for it to be demolished. The city later contracted with Oliver Brown's company to clear the site.

Developer Frank Cretella had projected his proposal for the site as offices and retail uses, although the adult day care center was outlined in documents submitted in 2009. Now the adult day care center appears to be the most viable aspect of the project.

There used to be a lot of talk about the "highest and best use" of property in the central business district. The Tepper's building was slated to be 75 luxury condos for active seniors until it switched to moderate income apartments due to financing issues. An adult medical day care center is a permitted use, but whether it is the highest and best use for new construction downtown is debatable.

As on the Dornoch site, the city has spent money to prepare the Front Street site for development. Will it be turned over to the developer for a token fee? Now that Cretella's seven projects are the only development on the horizon, it may well be that the city will be generous again.

--Bernice

 

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Wishing Recovery to All


Whether your loss from Tropical Storm Irene was minor or major, Plaintalker wishes you recovery and renewal over the long weekend.

Block 832 was largely spared from damage and power outages. Other residents were not so fortunate, as the many videos made by Plainfielders attest. Travel was difficult and shopping for food or supplies was hindered by store closings and power failures. Things taken for granted became impossible for the moment.

There is a children's book that has the refrain, "It could have been worse." If you look around the storm's path, there are many examples of worse problems than what we experienced here. Pockets of disaster are still being uncovered in rural Vermont and some services such as the Port Jervis train line will be down for months.

So take heart in what you have been able to do so far to re-establish normality and enjoy the weekend.

--Bernice



Friday, September 2, 2011

Front Street Project Reduced

Developer Frank Cretella received preliminary approval Thursday to reduce the scope of a proposal for offices and an adult day care center on West Front Street.

In 2009, the Planning Board granted initial approvals to add a floor to the Appliance Arama warehouse and construct a new four-story building next door on two lots currently owned by the city. In the new application, the warehouse will remain at three stories and the new building will be two stories.

Cretella did not appear at Thursday's hearing, but attorney Jay Bohn and architect Jose Carballo explained that the change was needed for economic reasons.

"Rather than mothball the project, he wants to proceed with what is economically viable," Bohn said.

Each of Cretella's seven projects has a unique name and this one is called "Front Street Offices Urban Renewal LLC." The three-story warehouse would be renovated for offices, with some of the brick facade opened up for a glass treatment that would match the facade of the proposed new buildings housing the adult day care center. The center, which has preliminary state approvals, would accommodate 175 clients and would provide jobs for about 50 people, Carballo said. No tenants have yet been identified for the office space that would occupy the two upper floors of the Appliance Arama building.

The Planning Board stipulated that the developer must use materials for the project that will allow for future expansion. Member Ron Scott Bey raised questions about how the developer will create unloading and loading areas at the rear of the buildings on a city-owned parking lot, but that issue was covered in conditions imposed in the initial application, board attorney Michele Donato said.

Because the applicant has not met all the original conditions, the board gave only preliminary approval to the revised project. The applicant will have to return to the board to seek final approvals.

Plaintalker questioned the original office conversion in this January 2009 post, due to a high amount of vacant office space already existing in the city. At the time, Cretella said he had tenants for the proposed offices, but on Thursday his representatives said there were no tenants for the space.

--Bernice