Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Top Story: Governance

In 2011, day-to-day operations of the city passed through the hands of five people, for stints ranging from seven months to two weeks.

The year began with Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, the head of the city's in-house legal department and the highest-paid member of the cabinet, being named acting city administrator. Under the city's code, Williamson could serve 90 days in acting capacity. In turn, an outside attorney was named acting corporation counsel.

When his time elapsed, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs named herself acting city administrator, an unusual move but permissible by the city charter.

In May, through a contract with Jersey Professional Management, David Kochel became acting city administrator. A seasoned and well-credentialed municipal administrator, Kochel was soon recognized as too valuable an asset to be shown the door after 90 days. The City Council approved an ordinance that allowed Kochel to stay on until November, and then he was hired to serve as a consultant until  Dec. 21.

The search for a permanent city administrator concluded with the hiring of Eric Berry, formerly the business administrator in Trenton, effective Nov. 28. Meanwhile, Al Restaino, director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health and Social Services, was named acting city administrator for two weeks.

There is no way to know how many elements of government drifted during these shifts. The city was already making do with a chief finance officer who was only available for 28 hours per week. The Department of Public Works & Urban Development, one of three departments mandated by the city's special charter, also had an acting director for 90 days and then an unspoken vacancy until September 26, when Eric Jackson became director.

This all happened in a year when the city was reverting from a fiscal year beginning July 1 to a calendar year, necessitating a six-month "transitional year" budget to bridge the shift. Another situation was the ongoing inquiry into use of city funds for an Aug. 1, 2010 radio broadcast, which escalated in mid-year to a formal investigation by the City Council. In hearings, officials disputed the mayor's claim that an "emergency" required issuance of a $20,000 check to radio station WBLS. A report released in December found improprieties that the council will address in January.

So 2011 was marred not only by instability among its appointed administrators, but eventually by an erosion in trust that the administration and governing body could work together in the city's best interest.

Berry and Jackson, along with Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig and Restaino, are now "permanent" cabinet members, meaning their terms end along with the mayor's on Dec. 31, 2013. It may take all of that time to re-establish what was lost in 2011, namely a sense of continuity and confidence that a solid team was delivering the best governance possible during increasingly trying times.

--Bernice

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Monday's Accident

Yesterday I decided to try gathering information for a news story on the accident Monday that severely injured a PMUA worker. I did get responses from Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig and PMUA Executive Director Duane Young, but by the time I got the official press release, Mark Spivey already had a comprehensive news story online.

It just pointed up to me the reasons why I do not usually try to replicate what would normally be the work of the daily newspaper. My concern had been the lack of a news story several days after Dan wrote anecdotally about coming upon the scene Monday morning. It turned out that the investigation was not yet at the point of an official news release from the authorities until Thursday and the investigation is continuing.

While police continue to probe exactly what happened early Monday morning, Duane Young told Plaintalker the authority is rallying around Robert Morris, the employee who was pinned between the car and PMUA truck, resulting in severe damage to both legs and amputation of one. Young said Morris, 58,  was an "old-timer" and a hard worker who didn't mind any assignment.

"That's why he was out there on Christmas. We respect that," Young said.

Young said he was with the Morris family at the 10-year PMUA veteran's bedside when he came out of surgery at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital.

"We're family here," Young said of the PMUA. "We try to support each other."

The authority will provide Morris with "the moral support and financial support he is entitled to," Young said, noting in addition PMUA has already taken up voluntary contributions from staff.

The early-morning pickup Monday was part of an effort to keep the downtown clean over the holiday. Morris was struck by a 1999 Mercury Cougar, from which the driver fled, leaving the vehicle at the scene, police said. Hellwig said a conflict in a passenger's account of what happened "is causing this to be a lengthy investigation."

The press release issued Thursday stated, "This investigation is actively being investigated by the Plainfield Police Department Traffic Unit. Anyone, who may have witnessed this crash incident, can contact Sgt. Wayne William at (908) 753-3044 or (908) 753-3360."

--Bernice
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Thursday, December 29, 2011

A First for Representation

As i have mentioned before, Democratic and Republican municipal committees allow for a male and female representative to be chosen in each of the city's 34 voting districts. As a registered Democrat, I have duly voted for committee persons on the ballot over my quarter-century in Plainfield.

What a surprise to receive a holiday greeting from my male representative this year, with complete contact information and a promise to look into any concerns I may have regarding my district.

This committee is supposed to be the most grassroots level of elected representation and I am glad to know my representative is taking his role seriously. The committee will have a great deal of hard work in 2012 for the party, but it is good to know that the personal concerns of residents will be heeded as well.

The Democratic Committee list is online here . Never mind the erroneous information at the top, the Ward and District information was correct the last time I checked. If you are a Democrat, I hope you will get to know your representative and vice versa in 2012.

--Bernice

Why the Delay on Demolition?

In March 2010, a building on North Avenue was demolished within a day of an emergency being declared due to bricks falling from its facade. Now 10 days have elapsed since a devastating fire left another North Avenue building in danger of collapse, but demolition has yet to take place.

Meanwhile, the site has been under 24-hour police guard and merchants on the block have had their businesses shuttered. No official word has been given on the status of the demolition, although contractors met with city officials on the Monday after the fire.

On the map above, lot 2 on block 315 is seen extending from North Avenue to East Second Street. At some point, the building in question was separated off as lot 2.01. The owner is listed as Dexter Humphrey, with the same address as the building, 117-125 North Avenue. However, except for a bakery, the building was vacant and boarded up. According to people on the block, it was in decline for some time.

The property was purchased in March 1997 for $190,000 and is assessed at $152,400. It is likely that the cost of demolition and the 24-hour guard will add up to more than  the property is worth. If the cost is applied as a lien on the property, recouping it is unlikely.

In March 2010, dealing with the emergency demolition fell to new Public Works Director David Brown II. Brown left the administrration in November 2010. The city now has another new director, Eric Jackson, as well as a new city administrator, Eric Berry. These two have arrived just as the city is embroiled in a controversy over another "emergency," the allocation of city funds for a radio broadcast on gang violence. An investigation has resulted in findings that the mayor and certain city staff  may have acted improperly in that situation. Perhaps this is all leading to an excess of caution in the current North Avenue matter.

Without any official communication, the public can only speculate on reasons for the delay. Meanwhile, the street closing and inability of businesses to operate are taking a toll of unknown scope. We hope for the sake of the merchants that whatever has to be done to normalize the situation will take place soon.

--Bernice

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

PMUA Exec Session Inconclusive

No news came out of Wednesday's special PMUA meeting. The matter of compensation to former executives Eric Watson and David Ervin is still the pile of "(alleged) poop" that Dan offered up last week.

Some people at the meeting had folders of documentation of events leading up to the present situation and some had very strong views based on close observance of the authority's past action or inaction. But none of it was enough to make the outcome happen any quicker than the legalities of the arbitration process will allow. Meanwhile, anybody who wants to comment is welcome to do so.

--Bernice

Monday, December 26, 2011

Historic Districts Need Advocates

A longtime business owner on North Avenue confirmed what I suspected about the historic district where yet another key building is facing demolition: The assocation that formerly looked after the district's interests disbanded some time ago.

I used to work at a weekly newspaper, Plainfield Today, that had offices on North Avenue in the 1980s. The Hetfield family had offices in an imposing building at the corner of Park Avenue and the late Bill Hetfield was a frequent visitor to our newspaper office, sharing his views on local politicians and admonishing us to "keep their feet to the fire." Hetfield and my bosses, Jan and Henry Johnson, were the mainstays of the historic district association and kept a close eye on property maintenance and other quality of life issues in the district.

With changes over time, the association folded and the current population may not even be aware of the district's significance. For a while, Jayson Williams and a partner had an office in the district and Williams even floated a redevelopment plan, but it faded away.

Developer Frank Cretella was supposed to acquire, stabilize and preserve North Avenue historic buildings as part of another redevelopment plan in 2006 but that didn't work out either and Cretella refocused on the PNC Bank block and other locations.

Each of the city's historic districts is supposed to have a district association, but only a few have strong groups and most have none. Correction: Scott Bauman of the Plainfield Planning Division has provided Plaintalker with a list of contacts for all but one of the 10 historic districts. The active groups monitor their districts, seek enhancements, educate the public about their particular attractions and act as goodwill ambassadors by inviting visitors to house tours and special events. Proceeds of house tours are plowed back into improvements to the districts. Distinctive signage and web sites keep up the interest and pride of these districts.

Some districts suffer from a high degree of absentee owners, tenant mobility and lack of knowledge about the city's preservation movement. A couple of them may have been formed with enthusiasm, but relied heavily on the founding members and did not generate successors to carry the torch.

Preservation is often cited as a hallmark of the Queen City, but it needs nurturing and advocacy or you see results like the decay on North Avenue. The Historic Preservation Commission was not intended to do the day-in and day-out care that a well-functioning district association can provide.

Meanwhile, the three-story North Avenue building that was the site of a suspicious fire on Dec. 17 is up for demolition.
The building was not as highly ornamented as some others in the district.
This bit of terra cotta work is about all the decoration there is on the facade.
By contrast, the Chotola building across from the main train station deserves a good long look with binoculars to see all the fancy work. Click on the picture for an enlargement.
The North Avenue building that was demolished in March had a lot of detail, but it and others were painted in bright colors that the Chotola building escaped.

The fate of this district, once so promising, now remains to be seen. With a little help from their friends, other historic districts will survive well into the 21st century

--Bernice

The Curse of the Alto Part

Way back in 1954, I was in the Girls' Glee Club II in East Orange High School. I was much more of a bookworm than a singer, but I got to learn the alto parts of many Christmas carols. Every year since then, I cannot hear certain carols at a sing-a-long or on the radio without recalling the alto part. It is a bit maddening    to be subject to this stimulus-response effect from so long ago.
But it occurred to me this year that if I ever fall into a coma in my old age, the best thing to do would be to play "Joy to the World" and I will immediately sit up and sing the alto part!

--Bernice

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Document Ghost Sign Before Demolition

With demolition of this building imminent, photographers interested in old signs should hustle on over to North Avenue and take their best shots. Most likely this sign dates back to the early 20th century. The Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco slogan, "The Old Reliable," is still quite legible and the bull image can be seen in the lower left.
I didn't notice the bull until just now, when I saw some other old signs online and realized what it was. There is some interesting lore online, along with criticism of racist advertising the company used early on.

Tobacco advertising today must include warnings of all the hazards of its use, of course. Capturing the image of this ghost sign is all about preserving a bit of history, aside from the other issues.

In 2009, an Art Deco sign for Ford  automobiles was covered over on Cleveland Avenue. See Plaintalker's post here. Photos will be the only records we have of 20th Century signs and even buildings in years to come. Click here for another example of decorative elements vanishing.

--Bernice


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Season's Greetings

Joyeux Noel!


True fact: In the Westfield Stop and Shop, I saw Yule Log cakes - Buches de Noel - by Entenmann's.


I didn't study them closely, as my diet won't allow such things, but they also tell how to make your own Yule Log on their web site. 


Here  is the French way, complete with meringue mushrooms.


--Bernice

Thoughts of Etta James

The great singer Etta James is gravely ill as of this moment. Early this morning, Dred Scott Keyes played a commemoration of her life on WBAI. If you are a fan and want to listen while you are doing your last-minute gift-wrapping or perhaps putting together a bicycle, go to www.wbai.org and then click on Archives in the right-hand column. Scroll down to "Cutting Edge" at 4 a.m. Saturday and click on "play." You will have to scroll back down to the program and click on the black triangle. Etta James had an extraordinary life through the mid-20th century and only received her proper acknowledgement late in her career. I forgot how iconic her voice is until I heard it again this morning on WBAI.

--Bernice

Redistricting Moves Plainfield

The results of redistricting place Plainfield in District 12. The new map shows Plainfield in yellow, as an appendage at the northernmost point of the district, which is represented by Congressman Rush Holt.
Plainfield had been in the northernmost portion of District 6, represented by Congressman Frank Pallone.
In the redistricting, Holt lost the Hunterdon County portion of his district.

There may be challenges to the redistricting decision, according to news reports quoting Jerome Harris of the New Jersey Black Issues Convention and New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Coalition. (Plaintalker recalls Harris as a former Plainfield city administrator and a very astute person on governmental issues. He also was former Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer's business administrator.)

--Bernice

Friday, December 23, 2011

Dec 19 Council Notes

Monday’s City Council meeting had been expected to be short and perfunctory, as it was the agenda fixing session for the Jan. 3 reorganization, but some interesting sidelights came up.

Councilman Cory Storch said an economic development advisory committee will be formed in conjunction with a contract to the Anglin Group (for development of a “comprehensive economic development and growth strategy,” awarded in November). All residents and business owners will be eligible to serve. Storch, who heads the council’s Economic Development Committee, said there is a new proposal for business registration, this time with just a nominal fee of $5. The proposal will be referred to the Anglin Group for advice on “best practices” in carrying out a business registration program.

The idea of such a program dates way back to the days when Leslie Anderson was with the city in the 1980s. Anderson is now executive director of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority. It was thought that registering city businesses would give the administration a better handle on what types of goods and services were being offered and would serve as the basis for business retention and recruitment efforts. But given the large number of sole proprietorships and mom-and-pop stores, the projected registration fees at the time were considered onerous and met with resistance.

It is still a good idea to have a comprehensive picture of the business community and to forge ties with City Hall. The closest the city may have come to such an effort was probably back in the day of the Plainfield Redevelopment Agency, when member Clyde Allen roamed the downtown to gather data and make contacts. That was about a quarter-century ago. The Special Improvement District currently has a lot of businesses enrolled, but may not have the database that a registry would yield.

On another topic, Councilman William Reid brought up a plan underway in Cleveland to demolish vacant buildings. He said he was concerned because of nine buildings where he lives on St. Marks Place, three have been vacant for some time. Councilman Adrian Mapp added that with banks walking away from foreclosed homes, it was felt best in Cleveland to demolish such homes to preserve the value of neighboring homes. He called it a “very interesting concept.”

Reid mentioned his neighbors’ fear of fires in unoccupied homes that could spread to others. Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the city has an abandoned property ordinance and a list can be made of such homes. He said even if a home gets on the list, an owner could reclaim it. But if it comes under new ownership through “in rem” foreclosure, it would have to be rehabilitated. Rather than tackle the entire problem at once, he said, the city might “take smaller bites” at it, with Inspections Director Oscar Turk spearheading the effort.

In a related topic, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig said the Dec. 17 fire in a vacant North Avenue building had been deemed suspicious and was under investigation by the Union County Arson Squad. As of this week, the building is under 24-hour police watch while awaiting demolition.

The council members also discussed possible alternatives to using official newspapers for legal notices, such as publishing the notices on the city web site. Resolutions naming the Courier News and the Star-Ledger as official newspapers for such notices will be up for a vote at the Jan. 3 reorganization. City Administrator Eric Berry said by law, the city must send notices to two newspapers. As for the possibility of online publication, Council President Annie McWilliams said some residents don’t go online. In public comment, Plaintalker said posting notices might add to the workload in the City Clerk’s office, as legal notices for outside entities such as applicants to land use boards would have to be accommodated.

There were some cryptic allusions to Chief Finance Officer Ron Zilinski, who is up for a one-year term as city treasurer. As CFO, he is serving a longer term, Williamson said. Zilinski was absent from the Dec. 19 meeting and also the Dec. 12 one, which he had expected to attend but was called away due to needs of his elderly parents. Zilinski was named CFO in November 2010, when both the mayor and council members were facing $25-a-day fines for not filling a three-year vacancy in the post, which is mandated by state statute. But he did not begin work until January, when the title of city treasurer kicked in, and his work schedule is 28 hours per week. In Zilinski’s absence, Finance Director Al Restaino had to field questions on fiscal matters at the two meetings.

The next meeting is the annual reorganization, 8 p.m. Jan. 3 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Current Events in the Queen City

Mark Spivey broke the news yesterday that the report of independent counsel Ramon Rivera on the WBLS investigation had been released. See his story here.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs held an afternoon press conference on the same issue. Click here to read her press release, which was posted on the city web site..

Dan Damon has posted the full report on a Facebook link, Plainfield Community Connect..

Plaintalker is just taking it all in for the moment. The next thing to happen should be council action, if any, on the report's recommendations. That is expected to take place at the City Council's first meeting in 2012 in mid-January (not at the Jan. 3 reorganization).

The last two posts on Plaintalker refer to the news story and press release.

--Bernice

Bloggers, Repent!

 Amidst all the gingerbread and peppermint scents of the season, we have this little whiff of the mephitic:


Unfortunately, you will hear or read in blogs or other media some erroneous comments from very opinionated individuals who are uninformed and only wish to be evil in their comments. To them I say, “God Bless you”, and offer my hope that in the new year, they will find a positive purpose for being on this earth.


Yikes!





Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Erroneous Comments" Predicted

Among the many aspects of the WBLS investigation, the name of the event should probably not be at the top of the list.

However, just to start somewhere, this blogger refers to the flier itself on the "Town Meeting."

Perhaps the correct name of the event is not really the "City of Plainfield Community Forum."

--Bernice



North Avenue District Needs a Well Check

A large number of contractors met with city officials on North Avenue Monday to examine the fire-damaged building that is now in need of demolition. The City Council will have to authorize an emergency appropriation to fund the demolition. Engineer Wendell Bibbs of Remington & Vernick can be seen here addressing the group.

On Tuesday, workers began removing utility connections in preparation for the demolition.

North Avenue between Park and Watchung avenues is still closed to traffic.

 This is not the newly damaged building, it is the old Mirons furniture warehouse on the same block that is in the process of being converted to residential units with a restaurant on the ground floor. This view is from the alley alongside the west wall of the building.

These buildings are part of the North Avenue Historic District, as was one that was demolished in March due to falling bricks that indicated imminent collapse. In all truth, the Mirons warehouse has missing bricks and looks none too sturdy close up. Bricks are missing at its skyline and the same is true of other buildings in the district.

It has been a long time now since the designation of this district by the main train station. In 2012, plans are expected to advance for transit-oriented development. Plaintalker suggests a realistic assessment of all the buildings in the district, both contributing and non-contributing, and a report on their status.
 The back alley of the block where the fire broke out reveals this small building's wide-open rear facade, with gaping cellar doors and another open door behind the Dumpster. Squatters or metal scavengers have full access to the interior and may have already stripped it.

The fire that broke out early Saturday is deemed suspicious and is under investigation by the Union County Arson Squad, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig told the City Council Monday. One look at this block's rotten core will confirm that lots of suspicious behavior has taken place back there. Why not evaluate the district as a whole for viability and take some proactive steps toward stabilization before the next "emergency" forces a costly response?

--Bernice

Winter Solstice 2011

Celebrate the light!

This week marks the Winter Solstice, an occasion noted both by scientists and everyday people - you know, Druids, Pagans and people who like to see their indoor plants start to perk up in mid-winter as the light gradually increases.

That sprig of plastic mistletoe at holiday parties has Druidic origins that you can look up for yourselves. Winter solstice is also the reason for big bonfires in many countries and cities.

So if you are out taking a nature walk to work off your holiday feast this week, give a thought to the Wheel of the Seasons and the ancients who honored the Winter Solstice as the return of light after dark days.

--Bernice

Mixed Outlook for PMUA

Philip Charles of DumpPMUA is urging all to attend a special PMUA meeting at 6 p.m. on Dec. 28 at 127 Roosevelt Avenue.The subject is "Settlement of Contract Dispute involving former Executive and Assistant Executive Directors."

The board of commissioners will go into executive session and reconvene in open session to take possible action. As Dan Damon wrote, this involves a possible settlement for Eric Watson and David Ervin, both of whom stepped down from the authority earlier this year.

David Ervin was mentioned at Monday's council meeting in a different context. It seems he is the city's representative on the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority, which handles city sewage on its way to the Middlesex County Utilities Authority for treatment. Nearly half of the PMUA's sewer budget goes to PARSA payments. Now that Ervin has left PMUA, he is staying on at PARSA and apparently the city has to wait until he decides to vacate his seat in order to name a replacement. According to Plainfield Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, the city has no say over Ervin's status until his term ends, as it is governed by state statute. His appointment cannot be rescinded and the city's only hope is to negotiate with Ervin to step down..

Councilman Adrian Mapp said Monday, "Our hands are tied."

So even though new Executive Director Duane Young has set a new tone of transparency and cooperation, these two ongoing issues - the settlements and Ervin's position on PARSA - still await resolution.

Meanwhile, there will be another meeting at 6 p.m. on Jan. 10 at PMUA headquarters, 127 Roosevelt Ave., for a rate hearing followed by the authority's regular meeting. The rate hearing will have two topics, one being "confirmation of Low Generator Solid Waste rate at $116.38" and the other being an increase in the senior discount from 10 percent to 15 percent. A call to the PMUA Tuesday to clarify what the term "Low Generator Solid Waste" means was not answered. The solid waste rates on the PMUA web site begin with $199.38 for a one-family household, so it would appear this is a new rate. Over the years, people who generate very small amounts of garbage have clamored for a reduced rate, so maybe this is a response to their situation.

All of the above reflects a mix of good news and not-so-good news in this transitional period for the PMUA. The City Council has attempted for many months to meet with PMUA executives and commissioners without success and recently named a task force to look into the PMUA's workings. Young's very positive September presentation to the council and the recent appointment of two new commissioners, coupled with rate stabilization announced this month, point to a new era for the PMUA, but until the outstanding issues of  possible settlements for Watson and Ervin and Ervin's tenure on PARSA are resolved, the authority can't really turn the corner.

--Bernice 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Hanukkah

Happy Hanukkah
to all our
friends and neighbors
of the Jewish faith!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Reorganization Plans on Council Agenda


The City Council will hold an agenda-fixing session at 7:30 p.m. tonight (Monday, Dec. 19) in City Hall Library for the Jan. 3 annual reorganization.

The agenda includes numerous appointments, designations of newspapers, rules of order and other such formal preparations for 2012. So far, nothing on the agenda sounds like big news.

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson has resolutions for appointments of legal counsel and judges, but the administration did not offer names for appointments to various boards and commissions. One hopes the governing body will be able to conduct any necessary interviews of candidates for boards and commissions in time for a smooth start to the year. Late or last-minute appointments have been an issue since 2006, when the late Ray Blanco was council president and became apoplectic over walk-on nominations.

The land use boards really need timely appointments in 2012, as they will have a lot of work to do on transit-oriented development and plans for economic development through the next decade.

--Bernice

More on Demolition

North Avenue between Park Avenue and Gavett Place was blocked off Sunday with a police guard monitoring the site of Saturday's fire that destroyed this building. It is now slated for demolition, possibly as soon as early this coming week.

I tried to get a look at the rear of the building, but the alley to the interior of the block is closed off with police tape.
The building appears to be attached to one that fronts on East Second Street in this screen shot from Google   maps.
Here is a rear view that shows the proximity of the other building.
A view down the alley Saturday shows that the former book store further down the block is open at the rear. These back alleys tell a tale that cannot be read from the facades out front. I first became aware of the sordid interiors of some downtown blocks when I was a reporter and went down an alley off Watchung Avenue to see the rear of a building where a young man had either jumped or fallen to his death. Behind the fancy buildings across from the main train station, trash was piled up and the true disrepair of the buildings was evident.

(That fatality several years ago resulted in an elaborate memorial shrine being set up in front of the building that was torn down in March. People gathered every night for weeks, setting up candles, beer and liquor bottles and personal mementoes along with gang insignia.Some may remember how it spread from the front of the building to half the block.)

Here's a shot from the back of the building that was demolished in March.
That building had underground vaults under the sidewalk on North Avenue. It's likely that there are the same kind of vaults in front of the building that burned on Saturday. If so, it will be interesting to see whether the vaults are sealed off before the lot is filled in. That did not happen in the March demolition and there is serious settling of the fill, with large holes at the sidewalk's edge.
The City Council will have to authorize an emergency appropriation for the cost of the demolition of the fire-damaged building. It will probably be charged against the new 2012 budget. The March demolition cost about $200,000.

--Bernice

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Abdul-Haqq Resigns, Four Seats Up in 2012

Embattled school board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq said he is stepping down following a judge's decision against his challenge of a new law excluding individuals with criminal records from serving on school boards. According to the board's agenda for Tuesday, Dec. 20, a replacement may be named that night for his seat.

Abdul-Haqq's offense took place in 1968 and he has since become a community activist and advocate for education. He previously served on the board and his current term expires in 2013.

Local dailies have covered Abdul-Haqq's case extensively. For the moment, Plaintalker is looking at ramifications for the 2012 election. If a replacement is appointed directly by the board, it will be the second time for use of this option. After Patricia Barksdale resigned earlier this year, the board chose former member Keisha Edwards to serve until the 2012 school board election. In the past, the appointive process was opened up to the public.

The current board has a super-majority of "Grand S.L.A.M." members. In 2010, Renata Hernandez, Wilma Campbell and Abdul-Haqq won three-year terms and Keisha Edwards won a one-year unexpired term. Edwards did not seek a full three-year term in 2010, but was selected by the board in July to fill the vacancy created by Barksdale's resignation.

In 2011, Alex Edache, Jameel Surgeon and Dorian Hurtt ran as Grand S.L.A.M. candidates and won three-year terms. giving their team six of nine board seats. The appointment of Edwards made seven. More than likely, the count will stay at seven for the Grand S.L.A.M. team when the board names a replacement for Abdul-Haqq.

So what's the point? For 2012, there will be three three-year terms up for election plus an unexpired term. Given that the board has chosen to appoint people directly to unexpired terms, running in the April school board election is the only chance residents at large have to serve on the board. So ... if this is something you want to do, mark your new 2012 calendar now with the Feb. 27 filing deadline and spend the beginning of the New Year getting your campaign together for the April 17 election.

Incumbents whose terms expire in 2012 are Lisa Logan Leach and Brenda Gilbert and Edwards as Barksdale's replacement. A replacement for Abdul-Haqq would have to run for his unexpired term in April. Obviously, the Grand S.L.A.M. team can field another slate for the three seats and one unexpired term, and if successful, would then hold all nine seats. Ultimately it's up to the voters, but it would be nice to see a little competition on the ballot.

--Bernice

See Play Today

Last chance to see this radio play! There is a 2 p.m. matinee today.

It's at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, 724 Park Ave. Click here for more details.

--Bernice

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Building, "Ghost Sign" Will Be Gone

This "ghost sign" for Bull Durham tobacco dates back to the days when signs were painted directly on the sides of large buildings. Plainfield has quite a few, but this one's days are numbered. The building suffered a devastating fire early today and is now slated for demolition.
At three stories, the building dwarfs its neighbors on the North Avenue block between Park Avenue and Gavett Place. According to press reports, it is in danger of collapse.
In March 2010, the ornate 1886 building in the center of the streetscape between Gavett Place and Watchung Avenue was also demolished due to danger of imminent collapse after some bricks fell to the street.
This building on the track side of North Avenue's train station is also crumbling and could be the next to fall.
Here's how it looked in May 2008 before being boarded up.

The rear is not secured and has been open to the elements for years. This is how it looked from the train station in December 2007.
And here it is today.

Developers have made many promises about the North Avenue Historic District, but action is lacking. Meanwhile the district is fading bit by bit from being historic ... to just being history.

--Bernice

Firefighters Face Second Blaze


An overnight fire in the North Avenue Historic District destroyed one storefront and was still smoldering by mid-morning. The building once housed the Rydberg family's well-known Plainfield Music Store, now relocated across the street under the ownership of Vicky Griswold.

Several years ago, a longtime employee of the store who lived in an apartment above the store was found murdered. The building was currently vacant except for one restaurant and had been boarded up by the city (note the plywood remaining over the white door at the right).. But last week, Plaintalker saw evidence of someone breaking into the store.
The glass in the window at left had been broken out and the door also had broken glass.
This  photo from last May shows the "No Trespassing" order from the city, along with a makeshift covering taped to the broken store window.
 On the same date in May, open windows above, one with a curtain fluttering out, suggest that someone was inside.Early word today is that no one was found inside the building after the fire.

In a fire on East Fourth Street barely a day ago, a homeless woman lost her life. UPDATE: She is on life support, officials said today. That tragedy plus the evidence of squatters in the North Avenue building makes us hope that homeless people will seek help and maybe social service agencies will meet them halfway with some kind of outreach as winter sets in. 

As a pedestrian, I see many examples of vacant  and boarded buildings that have people inside, including two on East Sixth Street, just off Park Avenue. A lawyer in our neighborhood found evidence of people sleeping on his office porch and the former dental office across from City Hall that had squatters again has blankets and quilts piled on the porch.

Squatters who are trying to stay warm inside vacant buildings are not only a danger to themselves, they can cause fires that result in property loss and danger to public safety responders. Before its collapse, another building on North Avenue was marked as a hazard unsafe for entry by firefighters.
The destroyed restaurant on East Fourth Street is now in the same dangerous condition.
While some of us are out shopping and getting ready for the holidays, there are desperate individuals among us who need the most basic kind of help. We hope they will get it.

--Bernice

Friday, December 16, 2011

Netherwood Luminary Display Dec. 24

 On Christmas Eve, winding roads in the Netherwood Heights Historic District will be decorated with hundreds of luminaries for the enjoyment of the community. The streets on the map above are featured.
The display begins at dusk. Netherwood Heights Neighbors Association is organizing the event.

--Bernice

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Reconfiguration of Grades

Plaintalker has not attempted to cover the school district for the last couple of years, focusing instead mainly on municipal government. However, in light of the reopening of discussion on grade configuration, here is a Q&A with Dr. Gallon on the rationale for the change to the current configuration.

One hopes there will be the same type of analysis of student movement since then to add to the public's understanding of any proposed changes.

--Bernice

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Downtown Cameras - How Long?

Looking up some UEZ data just now in the Plaintalker archive, I was surprised to come across a post including  an $800,000 proposal for surveillance cameras - from 2006.

That item was among a number of UEZ applications that were recently rescinded in favor of setting up an economic development and enterprise trust fund.

The discussion on cameras has included location (the Tepper's basement was deemed unsuitable), monitoring (police preferred to civilians) and coverage (downtown vs. expansion to hot spots).

So will the money now come directly out of the new, city-managed trust fund? Without the formal application and approval process through the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority, how will this pot of money be drawn from? This camera debate began many years ago and still there is nothing in place. How long will it take to get this project up and running?

--Bernice

Appointees, Check Meeting Dates

One reason I went to the PMUA's two meetings Tuesday was to witness the sight of two new commissioners in place after many months of wrangling over filling vacancies on the authority's board.

Of the two, only Cecil Sanders was there, joining Chairman Harold Mitchell and commissioners Alex Toliver and Carol Brokaw. Late in the regular PMUA meeting that followed the rate hearing, it came out in the wash that newly-appointed Commissioner Malcolm Dunn had some sort of a conflict with the meeting date. The board was discussing the annual calendar for 2012 and was about to adopt one with committee meetings on Thursdays and regular monthly meetings on Tuesdays.

After someone alluded to the conflict, the board held off on setting the calendar, even though Executive Director  Duane Young had just commented that Thursdays and Tuesdays had worked fine in the past.

My reaction was how could someone get so far into the process without knowing when the body normally meets? That was one of the points of the Civic Responsibility Act's provision to set forth details such as the meeting date for a given board or commission so that an applicant could decide whether to apply. It is true that the PMUA has in the past adopted an annual calendar and then seemingly every month put in a legal notice rescheduling it, but with its new emphasis on transparency, one hoped it would become less of a moving target.

This glitch left me thinking: Would the PMUA or any other board or commission really change its normal meeting day to accommodate a new appointee? The PMUA has five commissioners and two alternates, plus staff including an attorney, on its roster. Other boards have seven or more members, plus staff. And what about the public? People complained when the PMUA moved up its meeting time to 6 p.m., effectively shutting out a lot of commuters who might want to attend.

There is a precedent, however, for changing an important meeting schedule for the ostensible benefit of an individual. In early 2006, the City Council made its disastrous change from meeting on Mondays to a Monday-Wednesday staggered schedule that needed its own place on the refrigerator for citizens to remember when the governing body was meeting. (Details here.) It was all about a department head who was council president in another municipality and needed to be there on the second Monday of each month.

It is up to the PMUA board of commissioners to deal with their own calendar for 2012, but again it's too bad a significant conflict for one individual was not made clear up front. The January meeting date is already up on the PMUA web site and so far, it's a Tuesday - or will it be?

--Bernice

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

PMUA Executive Director Duane Young


The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority is gathering approvals toward its longtime goal of bringing in outside revenues, officials said Tuesday.

The authority has provided solid waste and sewer services to Plainfield for about 16 years through an interlocal services agreement, but its early promise of expanding its range with outside contracts has yet to happen. Now it has received DEP permission to increase its maximum daily tonnage at the Rock Avenue transfer station from 99 to 280 tons and has won approval to charge tariffs

The authority still needs to get written permission from the city to go outside its boundaries for contracts and is entering into an agreement with the Union County Utilities Authority to serve as a “materials recovery facility,” authority attorney Leslie London said. The stage is set for “serious, meaningful negotiations,” London said.

London’s report was part of a regular PMUA meeting in which new Executive Director Duane Young thanked the PMUA board of commissioners for “blessing” a restructuring that resulted in no 2012 rate increase for solid waste services to property owners and a decrease in sewer rates. The restructuring led to savings of from $900,000 to $1 million, he said.

Young said the authority’s web site has been improved with minutes and meeting notices for greater transparency, something he promised in a September visit to the City Council.

“It makes it easier for the public,” he said.

In addition, residents who bring debris or vegetative waste to the transfer station will be able to pay with credit or debit cards in 2012. The authority lowered its rate for roll-off containers to a flat $150 for all sizes in another move to become more competitive and eventually increase revenues.

“We want to get new business,” Young said, so that its revenue does not “just come out of Plainfield residents’ pocket.”

Young said the PMUA will also streamline its senior discount system by using city records rather than trying to sign up seniors individually, which he called "a tedious process.".

“We want to grow,” he said. “We want to make this a better PMUA.”

--Bernice

McWilliams Completes Council Presidency

Annie McWilliams completed two terms as City Council President Monday night amid kudos for her leadership.

The daughter of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams won a seat on the governing body in the November 2008 election, after defeating the Democratic Party's choice, Harold Gibson, in the June 2008 primary. She took office on Jan. 1, 2009 and served as president in 2010 and 2011.

Among accomplishments during her tenure as president, McWilliams named passage of the F.A.I.R. legislation and creation of the city's first Technology Division. She also had to deal with several highly volatile issues, such as a controversy over youth baseball leagues that brought large crowds to council meetings, and an investigation into an Aug. 1, 2010 Town Meeting that was broadcast over radio station WBLS. The live radio show cost $20,000 and after a year of fruitless inquiries into the use of city funds for the show, McWilliams pushed for an investigation as allowed by the city's special charter.

A report on the investigation will be final soon.

In council comments Monday, Councilman Cory Storch praised McWilliams' ability to defuse hostility and anger that erupted publicly in the baseball controversy.

"Your leadership is impeccable," Councilwoman Bridget Rivers added. "I appreciate you."

Councilman Adrian Mapp said as a new person on the governing body, McWilliams "came up to speed rapidly" and praised her leadership.

But McWilliams said, "This has really been  function of us all working together," and said she hoped the "positive attitude" will continue.

In public comment, Plainfield Public Library Director Joe Da Rold and blogger Dr. Harold Yood voiced more compliments on her leadership, with Yood saying her "two years of professionalism" will be hard for anyone to follow.

The council will choose a new president for 2012 at the Jan. 3 annual reorganization.

McWilliams and Mapp campaigned together in 2008 and will have to declare by April 2 whether they will seek re-election. McWilliams holds the citywide at-large council seat, representing all four wards, and Mapp holds the Third Ward seat.

--Bernice

Hate Winter? This Bud's for You

Here it is, less than two weeks till Christmas, and the Flowering Quince outside City Hall Annex is trying to burst into bloom. The frost date used to fall around October 15, so those who don't like cold weather are definitely getting a break.
This bud is even closer to flowering. Normally, Flowering Quince blooms in April (see photo here).

--Bernice

Monday, December 12, 2011

Thanks to AJ for Innovations

Tonight the City Council will hold its last regular meeting for 2011, a year marking many innovations toward greater transparency in government.

City Clerk Abubakar Jalloh is the official keeper of city records and  secretary to the governing body. He is also the person reporters and bloggers pester for background information on resolutions and ordinances so we can better inform the public of especially important legislation. By moving his office significantly into the digital age, AJ has done everyone a great service.

Despite some occasional glitches, bloggers have been able to read background documents on Saturdays before meetings by accessing a packet at the Plainfield Public Library. The titles of legislation on the agenda do not tell the whole story, and it is up to interested persons to delve into the sometimes voluminous paperwork to see what it is all about. Obviously, any member of the public can read the packet, but bloggers can then let readers know when significant expenditures or changes are about to be made, in case they want to weigh in by contacting their elected representatives or by speaking at the public meeting at which such matters will be up for discussion or voting.

Tonight's meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court,  is the last regular one for 2011. Next Monday, the council will hold an agenda-fixing session for the 2012 reorganization on Jan. 3 (not the reorganization itself, as is erroneously stated on the city web site). As a blogger, I look forward to continued innovation by the clerk's office in 2012, so that I and others can keep informing Plainfielders of pending legislation and changes in City Hall (such as the recent appointments of new cabinet members).

If you have never visited City Hall or when you are there to pay taxes, take a peek into the City Clerk's office and you will see both printed documents and a computer for looking up the Municipal Code, City Charter and other information online. The office has been redesigned to be more attractive and welcoming to the public. For all that and more, join the bloggers in saying a big thank you to City Clerk Abubakar "AJ" Jalloh.

--Bernice

Sunday, December 11, 2011

CN Mandates Facebook for Comments

Starting Monday, readers who want to comment on Courier News stories will have to do so through Facebook, meaning they would first have to initiate an FB account.

As Vice President/News Hollis R. Towns  explains, the change is necessary to deter the "idiots, racists, perverts and downright cruel people" who hijacked online conversations about even the most sensitive stories.

Setting up a Facebook account is indeed simple, as Towns states. It is the upkeep that makes it a bit daunting for those who have never tried social media - the pressure to keep adding "friends," dealing with requests from "friends," even fending off  long-lost people in one's life who now want to be "friends."

I set up an account at my daughter's behest, but then she quit over some tactic Facebook employed. She later rejoined, by which time I was hooked on using Facebook to keep in touch or at least keep tabs on old colleagues from the newsroom (and some newer Gannettoids who became former employees in the big wave of layoffs).

A friend told me that her son recently declared Facebook was only for "old people," as his tween friends had adopted other social media as more acceptable. If indeed several thousand newspaper readers - an older demographic - join Facebook, what's in it for Zuckerberg? Will Facebook indeed get the rep that some pin on AOL, unhip and over with?

There is more to this proposal than meets the eye in another way, as these Facebook legal terms indicate.

It is just not the same as making up a name and password for comments.

So have the "idiots, racists, perverts and downright cruel people" forced other prospective commenters into uncharted waters or will Facebook restore decorum into commenting? By early 2012, maybe we'll see.

--Bernice

Saturday, December 10, 2011

You Saw It Here First

Gov. Chris Christie's campaign to halt the practice of accruing unused sick days for a big payout later rang a bell with Plaintalker.

For some time now, the state has required municipalities to declare in their annual budget documents how much money is owed to employees for unused sick and vacation days. As  reporter before I retired in 2003, I was quite intrigued by this concept. The editors agreed to let me do a story on it, but as was the practice in those days, they wanted me to call every town in the entire readership territory and get comments. I got pretty far into   gathering information from the 50 or so municipalities before the project was dropped in favor of something else.

But it still seemed like an issue that needed some light shed on it and in 2008 I finally did a blog post on it. Click here to read it.

If reforms are passed, the current liability would remain, but the practice would not be continued for workers from that point on.

Not all municipalities permit employees to carry over unused sick and vacation days, but the amount currently owed in Plainfield is staggering. A change is due.


--Bernice

Friday, December 9, 2011

PMUA Meeting, Rate Hearing Tuesday

In a very commendable move, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority is holding its 2012 rate hearing in advance of the rates becoming effective. Readers will remember that in 2009 retroactive rate increases helped to spark a ratepayer revolt.

The rate hearing has been advertised for 6 p.m. Tuesday (Dec. 13) at PMUA headquarters, 127 Roosevelt Ave., to be followed by the regular meeting. Many have objected to the early hour of these meetings, which mean some people are still at work and others have to choose between dinner at the usual time or going out to a meeting.

So the legal notice above on first glance seemed like an accommodation to those who have objected to the earlier hour. Plaintalker was on the verge of a congratulatory post when doubt kicked in. The notice only mentions the meeting, but not the hearing. So is the hearing still at 6 p.m.? Then never mind the kudos for thinking of the public.

A check last week of the PMUA web site showed the meeting time still as 6 p.m. and that's still what it says, as of this morning. The rate hearing is referenced in a nice letter by new Executive Director Duane Young, but nowhere is it spelled out whether it will be at 6 or 7 p.m.

Off to the DumpPMUA web site. There is a listing for the November meeting, but Plaintalker did not detect one this morning for December, nor any mention of the rate hearing. Maybe now that the new leadership has adopted a less defensive approach than the old one, the watchdog group has relaxed a bit.

In the past, PMUA had the habit of setting an annual calendar and then changing the dates just about every month for the actual meetings. DumpPMUA's advice - call (908) 226-2518 to verify the date - apparently still holds true for anyone who wants to attend the rate hearing and/or the meeting next week.

The December meeting is likely to be the first with new commissioners Malcolm Dunn and Cecil Sanders aboard after their confirmation last month by the City Council. Just another reason for curious ratepayers to be there on time for the action ...

--Bernice

Crime Alerts: What's Best?

When I was a stay-at-home mom back in the 1960s, we had a remarkable crime detection system on our street in what was then Passaic Township. It was called Looking Out the Kitchen Window. A strange car on Old Forge Road instantly came under the scrutiny of sharp-eyed housewives and woe betide anyone who was seen skulking around on foot.

But that was then.

At the public safety meeting held Sunday by Council President Annie McWilliams, the notion of texting crime alerts to neighbors came up, she told the City Council Monday. McWilliams suggested use of a text messaging service if there was a spike in crime, such as burglaries or car break-ins. Residents in historic districts or neighborhood associations could put their e-mail addresses on notification systems such as one used in Boston, she said.

Councilman William Reid said he thought the blogs and the Courier News should be notified of spikes in crime.

In public comment, I recalled controversies over the police blotter when I was a reporter. A lot of people objected to seeing police reports in the newspaper because they felt it made Plainfield look bad. On the other hand, if there was a rash of purse-snatchings or muggings, I personally wanted to be aware of such trends so that I as a resident could take extra precautions.

I suggested Monday that public safety alerts could be posted on the Police Division's web site, although upon checking later I was not sure it was working the way I remembered it.

The discussion was brief Monday and no conclusions were reached. I was surprised that no one raised the question of the so-called "digital divide" that separates those with Blackberries and iPhones from some of the rest of us. There are systems that include land line notifications (such as Notify NYC).

Out where my daughter lives, West Seattle Blog posts crime reports that pinpoint trends. This is a collaborative effort between police and the blog, and comments by others add to the information. The Courier News has resumed publishing Plainfield police blotter items, but for local blogs such listings might be problematic, as linkages with the police would have to be established. Some neighborhood associations publish their own alerts, accessible only to members.

While new ways of alerting citizens are being explored, the best defense is personal awareness and precautions, such as not leaving valuables in cars, securing points of entry to homes and garages and watching out for suspicious people on the street. Many times when I was still working and coming home late, I would use the Police Division's escort service if I saw anything out of the ordinary near my home. I would go to headquarters and wait for a police car to follow me home safely.

Both Police Director Martin Hellwig and Lt. Brian Newman attended the public safety meeting Sunday, McWilliams said. Perhaps there will be a follow-up in the New Year.

--Bernice

Thursday, December 8, 2011

2012 Reorganization Set for Jan. 3

The City Council will hold its annual reorganization on Jan. 3, as the city reverts to a calendar year for budget purposes

The reorganization will be 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

At Monday’s agenda-fixing session, members of the governing body realized the change from a July 1 start to the fiscal year may require more than the usual largely ceremonial matters at the reorganization. The agenda-fixing session for the reorganization will take place 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 19 in City Hall Library.

Among the ceremonies on Jan. 3, Cory Storch and Vera Greaves will be sworn in for four-year terms. It will be the third Second Ward term for Storch and the first full term for Greaves, who served as an appointee before winning the First & Fourth Ward seat in the Nov. 8 general election

The reorganization traditionally includes a State of the City address by the mayor and the naming of judges, special counsel and various board members for the year.

The annual reorganization in years past also attracted city leaders and citizen watchdogs who made their own “state of the city” remarks to a full house. Attendance at council meetings dropped off after the council changed its meeting schedule twice, currently holding just one agenda-fixing session and one regular meeting per month on variable Mondays.

--Bernice

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

UEZ Funds "Not a Piggy Bank."



A proposal for an “ecological park” raised too many questions Monday to get City Council endorsement and will be taken up again in the New Year.

A main sticking point was the use of $32,600 in Urban Enterprise Zone funds. According to background documents, the plan was first discussed in August. The resolution to award UEZ funds to a Parsippany firm was based on an April account balance, but since then, the state has revised the UEZ program and the city has placed its remaining funds into a locally managed account.

“There is no new money coming in,” Councilman Cory Storch said. “Once it’s spent, it’s gone.”

Councilwoman Rebecca Williams questioned the proposed contract with H2M Associates after the city only received one response from a list of qualified vendors that did not include the firm. In light of recent bidding reform legislation, Williams asked whether bidding for the services should be reopened. In answer to Council President Annie McWilliams, Economic Development Director Jacques Howard said the firm was qualified, but there was time to have bids resubmitted.

Among aspects of the proposal, a “Green Task Force” would be established to set sustainability goals, move the city toward a green economy and establish it as the “Queen Green City.” A city-owned lot near a school would become an ecological park where visitors could “learn about nature and the importance of respecting the natural environment.” A second phase of the plan would address 10 points on the city’s future as a “sustainable community.”

Councilman William Reid asked why the city needs a “comprehensive sustainability policy” and Howard said the city’s Environmental Commission, established 10 years ago, still has no members. The H2M proposal would yield a policy “so the city as a whole would be good environmental stewards,” Howard said.

“So what you’re really saying is that you need help,” Reid said.

But concerns about local management of the UEZ funds came to the fore. Councilman Adrian Mapp said the funds were “not to be used as a piggy bank by the administration.”

Previously, the city’s need to apply to the Urban Enterprise Zone Authority for permission put a check on use of the funds and now, he said, “No UEZ funds should be spent unless the City Council approves.”

“Unless we put controls in place,” he said, “that $4.5 million would be spent in a heartbeat.” The council rescinded five applications to the UEZA in order to create the locally managed fund, among them one for $800,000 to acquire and install closed circuit television security cameras in the zone downtown and $275,043 for continued funding of downtown police.

In other fiscal glitches Monday, new City Administrator Eric Berry presented three “walk-on” items at the meeting, including budget transfers about which Finance Director Al Restaino said he knew nothing. Berry said they came from the city’s chief finance officer and treasurer, Ron Zilinski, but due to a family emergency, Zilinski was not on hand Monday night to explain the items.

In addition, Mapp, who is also a certified CFO, questioned a proposed contract for animal control services in 2012, saying funds could not be appropriated now for the coming year. The city is completing a six-month transitional budget year and will revert to a calendar budget year as of Jan. 1.

--Bernice

Monday, December 5, 2011

Mau Comments on the Holiday Rush

"Why don't you rush out and buy me some more catnip?"