Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Birds and Big Birds

While I am observing grackles, mourning doves and cardinals during the Northeast spring mating season, out where my daughter lives in the great Northwest, they are seeing this. 


--Bernice

Snowdrops!

While we are wondering what happened to winter, an early harbinger of spring turned up outside Municipal Court.

Snowdrops are a welcome sight, whether winter has been harsh or mild. They are best appreciated close up, so click on the image for a larger view.

I saw and heard the first grackle of the season this week as well. These handsome birds arrive in flocks and our bunch nests in tall evergreens on the grounds of Grace Episcopal Church.

Last week I glanced out of the window just in time to see a big flock of robins go by. Pretty soon they will be patrolling the local lawns for wiggly worms.

Daylight Savings Time begins on March 11 and barring any stray nor'easters, we can soon start spring cleanup in our yards and gardens.

The Wheel of the Year rolls on, regardless of national and local politics,  personal triumphs and disasters or follies of the rich and famous. I for one will be taking the time to enjoy every indicator of the changing seasons, and I hope you get to do the same.

--Bernice

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some February Images

The rotunda at City Hall was cleared out for painting this month and once again the plaques commemorating veterans can be seen close up.
These plaques are magnificent reminders of the sacrifices for freedom that our local military personnel made.
They were partially obscured by a desk for several years but now can be properly seen.
The refurbishment included restoration of this seal marked "Plainfield Municipal Building" and dating back to 1917. It has stylized dolphins that reflect the motifs on the stair rails. Very nice work!
Here is the central image, with the scales of justice.
On a modern note, 2012 is furnishing us with some wacky weather, as witnessed by this Flowering Quince in full bloom on Feb. 18 outside City Hall Annex.
Over on Park Avenue, retail rental space is vacant again in two Paramount buildings. The red-and-white signs can also be seen downtown. The turnover makes me think a business registry, if one ever gets established, would have to be very nimble to keep up with the changes.
 Things were busy yesterday on North Avenue, where PMUA was dealing with a full 30-yard Dumpster full of construction debris and leaving off an empty one. The building with the ornate facade was once owned by the Johnson family, publishers of the weekly Plainfield Today. When I worked there, I helped paint an art gallery they opened in the building. As exciting as that was, I felt sad to have gotten paint on my favorite purple jeans in the process.
Finally, here's a bit of whimsy: On Watchung Avenue near East Seventh Street, you can hug a tree and get a kiss!

--Bernice

Where's Our Budget News?

Rahway, like Plainfield, reverted to a calendar budget year through use of a six-month "transition year" in the last half of 2011. Browsing the Rahway Rising blog just now, I saw a comprehensive post on the status of the 2012 budget. Plaintalker would like to be able to present the same kind of information to Plainfielders, but whom to ask? My e-mail to Finance Director Al Restaino bounced back as undeliverable. We have a CFO for maybe five to seven hours a week. Maybe I should try City Administrator Eric Berry.

Rahway is looking at adoption by March 12. Where does Plainfield stand? Anybody?

--Bernice

Monday, February 27, 2012

Muhlenberg Backers, Heed Residents and Process

City residents, especially those in the city's southernmost neighborhoods, are trying to get a handle on the latest redevelopment proposal: as many as 600 luxury apartments and some stores on the Muhlenberg site.

The plans were revealed at a public meeting last week that was publicized on short notice. The proposal then became a headline story in the Courier News the next day. More information is online.


If proponents are wondering why not everyone was instantly thrilled with the plan, Plainfield's recent history gives a clue.

In 2006, the year of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took office, a proposal for 352 condos in five four-story structures over 700 parking spaces at East Third and Richmond was hurried through the multi-step development process. Planners found themselves mere players in a seemingly scripted process, as noted in this Plaintalker post. They were hustled through a Saturday special "emergency" meeting but details of the proposal did not emerge until a few weeks later. The whole thing eventually fell through when the developer asked to be released.

In 2007, an ordinance affecting just the Netherwood section was floated, but residents suspected it was groundwork for an as-yet unspecified proposal. This post notes the Omnipointe proposal and some others that fizzled for various reasons, including too-high density.

These experiences and others have perhaps made close observers of redevelopment in Plainfield a bit chary of big plans that appear full-blown at first glance. Anyone advancing plans for Muhlenberg has the added PR burden of residents' resentment over the hospital closing. Even after four years, the subject is too painful for some to "move forward" to a new concept for the site.

As Plaintalker has noted, there are many steps in the redevelopment process and residents must be heard from. What they want, most likely, is to feel they are being heard and not just handled as minor obstacles to a done deal. Residents must follow land use schedules and stick to the issues at hand when they have the opportunity to speak, without kitchen-sink arguments about the closing.

 The weeks and months ahead will show whether there can be sincere dialogue on the concept itself, and informed, fair decisions by those appointed to the land use boards.

--Bernice

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Be Wary of "Emergency" Labels

Today's top story in the Courier News has to do with violence now being a "health crisis" in Union County. Freeholders have passed a resolution to that effect at the request of Salaam Ismial of the United Youth Council, who advocates bringing The Rev. Al Sharpton's "mobilization skills" to bear on the problem in 16 municipalities including Plainfield.

On his web site, Ismail called in November for 11 urban municipalities each to declare a "state of emergency" due to hometown violence. Ismial bases his call on language in the New Jersey Civil Defense & Disaster Control Act, he says in a TV interview at the link above. In his new call, he invokes the Center for Disease Control's declaration of violence as a public health crisis.

Certainly violence, especially by gangs and among young people in general, is on the rise. Videos of school fights have become a popular subset of online entertainment. Gang violence overlays and all too often impacts daily life for regular folks in their own neighborhoods.

However, Plainfield already has a flawed example of applying the "emergency" term to gang violence in the WBLS episode. Al Sharpton was here for that event and spoke for about five minutes. Money was spent on an "emergency" basis without taking the necessary steps under state law. That was in the summer of 2010. If Ismail's assessment is correct, the problem is just as bad or worse today.

When is the last time outside forces came in to bring order to Plainfield? Some might say during the civil disturbances of the late 1960s. What outside forces could possibly be brought in here that wouldn't have the same drastic effect on the city?

Any unilateral declaration of an emergency requiring outside intervention means handing control to outsiders, whether they be self-appointed experts like Ismial or governmental agencies. Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski calls violence a national problem that needs to be worked on at the local level. Why not first identify what Plainfield entities are working on it and find out how they are doing before going outside or letting outsiders define the situation for the community?

This could be a mission for Freeholder Linda Carter. As a former councilwoman, she advocated for young people. Her perspective should be more informed and helpful than that of an outsider who wants to lump Plainfield with a bunch of other cities in trouble. Let's hear from her before we endorse the notion of salvation from outsiders, even a national figure like Al Sharpton.

Plainfield has at least 100 churches, maybe 200 if you count the ones still striving for a church home. We have never yet seen a tally of their many efforts for youth, including mentoring and nurturing on a daily basis Other city-based agencies address the same needs. Never mind the panels and talking heads, what is actually going on in the neighborhoods to get young people through those dangerous years of temptation to negativity?

The news article today cites the need for outside funding to address the problem of violence. If Plainfield can't present its own case on what is being done and where funding should be applied, it is likely to be put in the hands of the outside experts who claim to have their fingers on the city's pulse or else to have a general cure-all program of their own devising.

Residents are being tapped for various task forces on issues such as the PMUA and economic development. Is there enough interest and energy left for one more, on preventing youth violence? Or if there is one already, may we hear from it? Hope for Plainfield, from within Plainfield, is needed now.

--Bernice

Posting Will Be Delayed

I will post later, I am trying to take advantage of a small window to get some things done at home while my knee is relatively cooperative.

--Bernice

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Guest Commentary on Muhlenberg


Jim Spear responds to a Muhlenberg commenter:

Dear RC,   

I hear you. . .I feel your passion and I hear your determination.  Please don't feel hopeless. Your passion and determination can influence what happens. I believe it. . . and as I always say  "We can't be so tempered that we are forced to standby".

When I spoke Wednesday night I started with, "I have a comment and a question".

My comment was that we should not be scared of development in Plainfield, (that doesn't mean I want 600 units on the Muhlenberg Campus).  And then I said  "I feel it's naive to think that we will get a full service hospital or manufacturing to return to the City".  I was wrong  to use the word "naive", I should have said "unrealistic".  Though I do feel strongly about my view that a hospital may never return, I hope I am wrong. 

Remember I was in the same room as you Tuesday night and I live in the same city as you, so I know how much we all want our hospital back. Those feelings led me to my questions which I feel had a significant outcome. . . 

My questions. . . first,  I asked Solaris if they had a developer. . ."NO"  was their response.  So there is NO developer in the back wings to do this project.  It's just their dream, their vision, not ours.  

My second question was more significant,  "If you get Planning Board and Zoning Board approval, (they need this to change the zoning to residential and adjust the density in the area),  and you move the Emergency Room into the Kenyon Building, (that's the building on the corner where the dialysis center is), will you NOT tear down the Hospital until you do indeed have a developer and an approved plan?  Their response was "Yes".  This is good for us and bad for them, because they have now said it in public, (for whatever it's worth).

Why is this significant?  It's good for us as it will take a long time to get all the leg work done.  During this time we can continue to TRY and find a better use for the campus.  If they tear down the buildings we will NEVER get a hospital or any related use,  and we will probably have an empty lot with no tax base.  

Why is it bad for them?  This is the scenario that led me to ask the question. . . Solaris say's it cost them 2.5 million annually to operate the empty buildings (7.5 million over 3 years). They also said it would cost 2.5 million to move the emergency room, and 5 million to tear down the hospital buildings, total 7.5 million.  What does this mean?  In 3 short years they recouped their money by saving 2.5 million dollars annually, and now we have a BIG empty lot, and again, no tax base. 

What I don't get with this scenario is why they threaten us with the 2013 deadline, (the date the State mandates that the ER must stay open to).  Why spend 2.5 million dollars moving the ER and then leave. . . I don't buy it.  There most be some windfall by having patients funneled through Muhlenberg and into JFK.  Overlook Hospital opened an ER at the closed down Union hospital, and the state didn't make them open it.

I would like to touch on my development comments.  For some reason, (and I am guilty of this myself by fighting to stop a 7 story building on the GO Keller property),  our automatic default response to development in our city is NO !!   Personally I think we should embrace it. Our future is in our housing stock and our transportation hubs. Any major density increases should be around those hubs, and maybe to a MUCH, much smaller scale on the Muhlenberg Campus, (if it gets to that).  And as I said earlier I was not advocating for 600 units there. 

Think about it. . . the campus could be developed with single family homes mixed with town homes.  The historic buildings on the site could be re-developed into condos or apartments.  It could be a nice place with minor density increases which in turns helps our faulting retail sectors and puts the property on the tax rolls.  It would be unfortunate if this property ended up with no hospital and another non-profit not paying taxes, (which is about to happen at the Armory)

It is important that any future development is done right and includes the stakeholders.  That's what the Transit Oriented Vision Study was all about, that's what the Charrette was all about.  Some people think it was all a waste of time, but that is not true.  The Planning board is in the process of a huge undertaking by revising and updating the city's Master Plan to include these changes.  So when the economy changes and building construction returns we can show developers what we, the residents of Plainfeld, vision these sites to be. 

Admittedly, to an extent, this is what Solaris intention is too.  They referred to this at the meeting when they stated, where they got their advise from, what that advice was, and admitted that they are not in the development business nor do they want to be. 

In closing RC, I must disagree with your comment that this has anything to do with race, I feel the comment is unfounded as it relates to me. And it certainly doesn't unite us and moves us forward as a city to solve this issue. I do feel RC that you should not give up, we have a very talented and dedicated Planning Board, and a large pool of committed and vested residents, somehow we ALL will figure this out. 
 

Jim Spear

Audit Findings Posted

Anyone interested in how the city is doing financially should take a look at the new audit report posted on the city's web site.

It is also in the newspaper today, but the format online is much clearer. Take a look!

Please note that the asterisks beside certain findings mean they are unresolved from previous audits. This one covers the state fiscal year beginning July 1, 2010 and ending June 30, 2011. That would include the time frame during which the WBLS expenditures took place.

The next audit period would be the six-month "transition year" from July 1, 2011 to Dec. 31 of 2011. Audits take a while to complete after a fiscal year ends, so look for that one in a few months.

--Bernice

The Winds of Change

Those strong gusts that are buffeting the Queen City today are a fitting analogy for the winds of change blowing over us.

For the past week, Dan has not set out at 5 a.m. to get his newspapers (and maybe some breaking news). He has not served up his daily dish of curations from the blogs. A routine set over the past half-dozen years or so is  blown away for hundreds of readers. Life has changed extremely for Dan, who is still awaiting his medical prognosis, and in a small but disconcerting way for the rest of us who crave our daily Dan.

Last night I was able to walk through the pouring rain to a Democratic City Committee meeting. Here was a roomful of familiar faces and a few new ones, most significantly that of Congressman Rush Holt, who received Plainfield as part of his district in changes brought about by the 2010 Census. Holt was impressed by the turnout and voiced hopes it would mean votes for him in November, when he has to run to represent the newly-configured District 12.

What Holt might not have detected was the change among Democrats that has flummoxed some and flabbergasted others, a joining of two Democratic factions that have long been in fundamental opposition. Individuals that have been maligned by one side or another are now standing shoulder to shoulder, with eyes on the June primary and the November election.

What does it mean? Democrats who are used to taking sides can now only pick from Column A, or so it seems. Critics of the party's announced City Council slate - Adrian Mapp for Third Ward, Rev. Tracey Brown for City-wide at-large - were in the room, but until the April 2 filing date, we won't know their intentions. For some Democrats, the political landscape may feel like it has suffered an earthquake and the ground under their feet has liquefied. Where to stand in this change?

By tomorrow, the weather will be sunny and calm. And so may the political atmosphere settle down in time. For Dan, we wish fair days as soon as possible

I for one am happy that the winds of change may result in having Rush Holt representing Plainfield. He spoke of getting to know our city and its people. He wants to speak face to face with his prospective constituents and walk Plainfield's neighborhoods. He complimented the Democrats on their skills at getting out the vote, which could help him take office on Jan. 1, 2013 in the new 12th District.

I could not stay until the end of the meeting and I had left my camera home in my last-minute rush to get there while my knee was still behaving, so I did not get to speak to Rush Holt or take his photo for the blog. I walked home musing on change. It comes to us all and can be good, bad or mixed. As the sages say, change is the only constant. Here are some quotes on change, including this one:

 “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
—John F. Kennedy



--Bernice

Friday, February 24, 2012

Good News from VWBHD

Plainfield's historic charms garnered a close look in this article on the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District.

Each historic district has an association to uphold preservation standards and President John Stewart, by all accounts, is doing an admirable job in the Van Wyck Brooks district.

It brought to mind some others who succeeded in getting broader attention for the city's preservation movement and its historic housing stock. John DeMarco got the attention of The New York Times and John Grady and Dorothe Pollard wrote a book. Years ago, Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield organized house tours and a picnic to showcase historic housing stock here.

Learn more about the VWBHD here. 

--Bernice

Maria Reports on Muhlenberg


Thanks to Maria for reporting on the Muhlenberg presentation Thursday. I am still having a problem with my knee and decided not to attend and Dan is still in the hospital. Read her report here and check the link for information from Solaris.

As she notes, there will be other occasions for the public to find out more about the plans and voice their opinions and concerns.

Any new project will have to receive approvals from the land use boards as well and those meetings are always open to the public. Any material submitted to the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Adjustment may be reviewed in the Planning Office in City Hall before an application is heard.

Of course, the media can be used to share information and concerns. Besides the traditional letters to the editor or Op-Ed pieces, there is the wide-open field of social media at hand to get the word out on meetings or forums. The City Council has scheduled four Town Meetings, one in each ward, in early 2012, at which general issues may be aired.

It's a good time for some "citizen journalists" to step forward. The Citizens Campaign can suit you up for the role (phone booth and cape not included). Give it a try!


--Bernice

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Plainfield Musical Club Program Saturday


The Plainfield Musical Club will present a special program 2 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 25) at the Plainfield Public Library, 800 Park Ave.

Members and others will be able to view archival club materials from its early days. Guest pianist Tomoko Harada will perform Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor and Chopin’s Ballade no. 3. Robert Romano and guest Paul McCullen, accompanied by Fred Fischer, will play Ponchielli’s “Il Conegno,” a duet for two clarinets and piano. Guest pianist Luba Vasilyeva will play the Chopin “Polonaise-Fantasia” and Prokofieff’s Sonata no. 3.

“We hope you will attend this meeting, where you will have the opportunity to see how the club operated back in the ‘good old days,’ when ladies came to meetings in long dresses, while gentlement wore tuxes,” President Bob Paoli said.

Read CN Story, Attend CAG Meeting

Mark Spivey has a comprehensive news story about the latest proposal for the Muhlenberg property. The hospital's closing after 131 years was perhaps the biggest Plainfield story so far in the 21st century. The city lost its largest employer and only a satellite emergency room remains on hand for general medical care. Click on the link above, read carefully and if possible plan to attend the Community Advisory Group meeting tonight.

CAG Meeting
6:30 p.m. tonight
City Hall Library
515 Watchung Ave.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hard Times for Bloggers

If you get an outfit, you can be a blogger, too!


Plaintalker began in June 2005 and Dan launched his blog in November 2005. We have both posted just about daily since then, and readers say they have come to depend on the blogs for news of Plainfield.

Well, both of us have our three-score and ten in the rear-view mirror. Nonetheless, we have been able to get around to public meetings and look under rocks for news and gossip - until now. Dan has been temporarily sidelined for health reasons and I have been struggling with unprecedented aches and pains that are getting in my way as a blogger. Maria  and Dr. Yood have been carrying the hyperlocal banner while most of the other bloggers on Dan's list have dropped back to occasional posts, if any.

We are all wishing Dan a speedy recovery, but if he needs time to regroup, we will just have to realize that blogs are no more monolithic than any other communication medium. Nearly all here in Plainfield are solo operations. And blogs in general may be going the way of the dodo bird in the face of chirpy blue-bird innovations.

At the library Tuesday I saw a Black History Month display featuring copies of The Voice,  a significant publication for its time. I once read through the library's archive of  The Voice in order to better understand the era of political and demographic change it documents. The weekly where I first started writing about Plainfield, called "Plainfield Today," is also on file in the archive. Like many print operations including the alternative newspapers of the 1970s, the weekly came and went. Currently, changing times are decimating the so-called "legacy media" of daily newspapers.

By contrast, in Jim Romenesko's column tonight I learned about a news outlet that was created to be read only on a tablet, that new electronic darling seen in the arms of early adopters.

So maybe in "blog years," the span from 2005 to present is a pretty good run. If  things slow down or stop, there will still be a valuable archive of news and gossip about Plainfield into which future historians can delve. If the fates allow, maybe the septuagenarian set of bloggers can eke out a couple more years. At 90 years plus, Dr. Yood is our paragon.

Have patience, dear readers, and send Dan your best wishes and prayers as he recovers. He may be wishing he had a magic wand instead of a pointy stick, but healing can't be hurried. All best from Plaintalker, too, Dan.

--Bernice

Downtown Dwellers Increase


Image of "Courier News" building while under renovation

When I was a kid, my family lived in an apartment “over the store,” a common urban situation. There was a deli downstairs from us where I sometimes had embarrassing encounters with teachers on days when I had conned my mother into letting me stay home from school.

Now developer Frank Cretella has a new apartment offering that is far more elegant. How about living over a “French Brasserie” in downtown Plainfield?

The 1909 home of Courier-News Publishing on Park Avenue now has eight apartments ready for occupancy, according to a flier I picked up there Tuesday on my way to the bank. There is a mailbox on the front of the building that contains the fliers. The ground floor will have "Restaurant Retour," described both as a brasserie and and bistro, either way a departure from American luncheonettes and fast food joints. If it's an authentic brasserie, count on Mark Spivey to tell you what beer goes best with choucroute.

In my wanderings downtown, I used to wonder why the floors over existing stores were not all occupied. Now, between the two refurbished mixed-use Paramount projects and the two Cretella buildings, all on Park Avenue, there is a new influx of downtown apartment dwellers. Cretella's approach is more sophisticated than Paramount's, but more people downtown has long been a goal of the TOD crowd. It will be interesting to see what kind of a difference these new apartments make, as Cretella plans a couple hundred more in various downtown projects.

The new apartments are ready for occupancy starting March 1, according to the flier. Rentals range from $1,200 to $1,350. Call (201) 761-0025 ext. 10 for a showing.

--Bernice

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

PMUA 2012: A Lot to Watch For

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority held its annual reorganization on Valentine's Day, but 2012 may not be all candy and roses for the authority.

The reorganization left holdover Commissioner Harold Mitchell still in the chairman's seat after two failed attempts to narrow his role to that of an alternate, but new Commissioner Malcolm Dunn still held out that possibility. Commissioner Carol Ann Brokaw stayed afloat as a holdover and secretary of the board, but said she might be stepping down. The clash over $1 million in settlements for Eric Watson and David Ervin pitted Mitchell and Brokaw against Dunn and new Commissioner Cecil Sanders Jr. and, according to executive session minutes just released, generated a complaint that now has the state Office of the Comptroller looking into the matter.

Interim Executive Director Duane Young did not receive a proposed three-year term and a search is ongoing for someone to lead the authority. Watson held the position for more than 15 years and Ervin was his assistant for the same time frame. Ervin declined to step down as the city's representative to the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority after leaving the PMUA; if, as rumored, he has now done so, that important role must be filled.

Meanwhile, a citizen movement to reform or dismantle the PMUA is gaining steam, most recently with a petition campaign for Gov. Chris Christie's intercession.

How will it all unfold? Here is the meeting calendar for 2012. Count on the usual cadre of PMUA watchdogs to be there and maybe more residents, as the issues of board make-up and control, executive leadership and representation on PARSA are hammered out. But if past practice is any indication, many of these meeting dates will be changed, so be sure to consult the DumpPMUA web site or the PMUA web site for updates.

What happens with the PMUA in 2012 will affect every household in Plainfield. The authority is poised to expand, finally, to operations that will bring in the outside revenue that has been a promise since its inception.
According to Young, its fiscal viability hangs in the balance.

So 2012 could bring solutions to internal money and people problems or not. It could be the year that the state turns its investigative spotlight on the PMUA or that mounting public pressure makes the city actively look at alternative ways to provide solid waste and sewer services to its 16,000 households. For the PMUA in 2012, change will be the only constant.

--Bernice

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reid's Rules or Robert's Rules in 2012?

The governing body's selection of First Ward Councilman William Reid as chairman of the whole is having some unintended consequences.

Always talkative and opinionated, Reid has taken to speechifying often when his role is to read from a prepared script that keeps the meeting running along parliamentary guidelines. For example, on Feb. 13 at the point of a roll call vote, Reid broke into a tirade against an attorney hired to investigate the use of $20,000 in public funds for the controversial Aug. 1, 2010 "town meeting" that was broadcast on WBLS.

Saying he was quoting Baptist preachers in South Carolina, Reid said the issue was a case of "Do as I say do, not as I do" and proceeded to condemn the payment of additional funds to attorney Ramon Rivera for the investigation. He insisted the amount of city funding in question was only $5,000 and that the council never agreed to pay the extra $11,014.48 in attorney's fees to Rivera.

During his lengthy commentary, Reid attributed motives to Rivera: "Then this stuff got good to this Rivera, so then he said, 'Oh hell,' ... " and demeaned him as "one attorney who apparently doesn't know much about the operations of the the city."

"I say don't pay him anything, because he don't have a contract at all. Don't accept this report," Reid said, alluding to the conclusions of the investigation.

Reid said the mayor arranged the broadcast, billed as a response to gang violence, "to stop some of the horrible things" that were going on. He said three people were shot near his home and the mayor "was trying to do something."

After calling again for the council not to pay Rivera anything, Reid allowed the meeting to proceed to a roll call vote on the resolution. The vote passed, 4-3, with Reid, Vera Greaves and Bridget Rivers voting "no" and Annie McWilliams, Cory Storch, Rebecca Williams and Council President Adrian Mapp voting "yes."

Reid was the longtime treasurer of the Regular Democratic Organization before his appointment to the council in 2007. He won an unexpired term in 2008 and a full four-year term in 2010. Along the way, he was campaign treasurer for Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs as well as others on the party line. In the longtime split between the RDO faction and the New Democrats, Reid has consistently been a cheerleader for the party and the mayor. The 4-3 vote on Feb. 13 reflected the split.

Last year, when McWilliams was council president, Reid clashed with her frequently, at one point calling her "unethical." Mapp is the chairman of the New Democrats and also came in for many challenges from Reid in the past.

It is said that the two factions came together during last year's general election in November and will be joining forces to work on the re-election of President Barack Obama. Having Mapp as council president and Reid as chairman of the whole may be a reflection of the new rapprochement. However, Mapp had to remind Reid on Feb. 13 of parliamentary procedure which prohibits random commentaries, especially during votes.

Irrepressible, Reid brought up his arguments against paying Rivera again at the end of the meeting, saying, "Not to beat a dead horse to death ...," and repeating his Southern Baptist preacher maxim, "Do as I say do, not as I do."

--Bernice


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Infirmities

By now, everyone within earshot has heard about my bad knee - how it is impeding my ability to get around on foot, how I have a lot of theories on how it got damaged but no facts and especially no official diagnosis or prognosis, how much I want this to be over with.

Like Dan, I try to have as little truck with the medical profession as possible, but several passes through The Merck Manual of Medical Information yielded no direction on where to start with home remedies. So I went to a doctor to ask for help on sorting out the possibilities. Heat? Ice? Support? The doctor added a couple of scenarios I never even thought of ( a dread bacterial infection, uric acid crystals from inner space) and prescribed an anti-inflammatory drug.

Being preternaturally suspicious of modern medications, I looked it up and found foremost among its possible side effects the following: Heart attack, stroke, maybe a hole in the stomach if not taken with enough food. No thanks.

The knee isn't talking. I have offered bed rest (long enough to read "The House of Mirth" in its entirety), extreme caution on stair steps and various prayers and imprecations. We'll see, says the knee.

Audrey wants me to come out to Seattle in May for my birthday and is planning attendance at the Seattle Rock Orchestra's May 12 Beatles Tribute by way of celebration. You better shape up, I growl at the knee. It's a five-hour flight to get there, so I will be practicing prolonged sitting at upcoming council meetings to get in shape.

As old age goes, both Dan and I are in the young-old phase (see more here), but when you are sick or temporarily disabled, you feel as creaky as the old-old. So, dear readers, wish Dan a speedy recovery and please wish me a quick return to being a fully ambulatory hyperlocal curmudgeon. (Wait, does that make me an old FAHC?)

--Bernice

Friday, February 17, 2012

WBLS Investigation: The Bottom Line


An outsider listening to comments Monday regarding the WBLS matter might have thought people were talking about two different things, so wide was the dichotomy of viewpoints.

On one side, speakers portrayed the Aug.1, 2010 Town Meeting broadcast over WBLS as the salvation to a city wracked by gun violence.

""WBLS planted a seed," one speaker said. "Our city is much better."

"The mindset is changing," said another.

Others talked about shots fired in their neighborhoods. One speaker described what happened when the wife of a shooting victim went to his aid.

"When she grabbed him, a piece of his head fell off on the sidewalk."

"The mayor sacrificed ... she did what she felt was right," another said.

In 2010 questions arose immediately after the radio show. Plaintalker filed an OPRA request on Aug. 2.

Questions on how the event was funded persisted for many months without answers. Finally the governing body invoked its investigative powers under the city's special charter. An attorney hired to conduct the investigation gathered information and asked questions at hearings. His report was given to the council in December.

An item on Monday's agenda was authorization of an additional payment for his work.

One resident said money would not have had to be spent, if the mayor had responded early on to inquiries about the funding.

Others said the $20,000 check to WBLS was really only $5,000 in city funds and the attorney should not be paid at all.

"We never investigated an amount of money," Council President Adrian Mapp said, adding the investigation hinged on "policies and procedures and statutes."

The mayor was reprimanded and fined $200 and the findings were forwarded to  the state Attorney General, the Union County Prosecutor and the director of the state Department of Community Affairs. Partisans of the mayor still say her actions saved lives, although the 11 homicides in 2011 kicked the rate up 450 percent from two in 2009.

The bottom line for the WBLS controversy appears to be a deep divide among both elected officials and residents over the mayor's role, backed on one side by a formal investigation and on the other by strong feelings. Is the mayor choosing demagoguery over governance? That is the question.

--Bernice

Keep On Truckin'

New 30-cubic yard PMUA truck


The behemoth vehicle pictured above and new 25-cubic yard trucks make a mighty rumble in the driveway. We also wonder whether their weight is helping to crumble our driveway, which predates them by about 70 years.

The maximum allowable weight of a loaded 25-cubic yard garbage truck is 60,000 pounds. Looking up what that would be in tons, I came across the interesting tidbit that 60,000 pounds equals the amount of copper in the Statue of Liberty, which is 31 tons. (Don't tell the copper thieves.)

The 30-cubic yard truck's maximum weight is 66,000 pounds. By contrast, the Dumpster alongside the building is one cubic yard.

Early on, these trucks mashed down one side of the driveway and careless drivers dislodged the Belgian blocks by running over them. Now the drainage grates are sinking down and my neighbor suspects the weight of these trucks is a factor.

Idle minds being the devil's workshop, I began wondering whether these heavy vehicles plying our side streets is also a factor in road deterioration. Any engineers out there who can explain?

--Bernice

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Resident's Plea to the City Council

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority has engendered more citizen interest and controversy since its inception than any other entity since its inception about 16 years ago. Residents have gathered reams of facts from the authority's own records and documents to back their views on why it needs change, if not reform. As an example of this close scrutiny I am posting Thomas Kaercher's letter to the City Council, which he copied to bloggers, as a guest column. This letter was sent to the governing body in advance of Monday's meeting.

Thomas Kaercher's Letter:



I attended the joint Council/PMUA discussion last Monday. As a PMUA ratepayer and Plainfield taxpayer, it is extremely frustrating that there is no one who will step up to reign in the abusive excesses of the PMUA. Before the PMUA was created, I bought trash services at market rates from a private trash company and I had no separate sewer bill; any sewer charges were recovered as part of my property taxes.  In addition, back then the City of Plainfield was owed $22.5 Million dollars by the surrounding communities for sewer facilities usage fees.  Sixteen years later, I pay more than twice the market rate for solid waste services (Grand Sanitation charges $31.07/month for curbside trash pick-up and recycling [and makes a profit doing it] while PMUA charges $66/month) and I pay almost six times the market rate for sewer services ($1,040/year here vs. $175.00/year in Cranford). In addition, during the same period PMUA has accumulated $23 Million dollars of bond debt, which the taxpayers of Plainfield are responsible for.  As part of PMUA’s solid waste fee, it collects $27.33/month for the shared service fee, which it claims is its costs to pick-up and dispose of trash in the public areas. Multiplied across the collection units in the City, this totals more than $6 Millions dollars a year or $16,400/day, 7 days a week. It is outrageous and it is more than 3 times the market rate for the same service.

The recent PMUA settlements with Eric Watson and David Ervin, totally more than $1 Million dollars is just the latest example of ratepayer/taxpayer abuse perpetrated by the PMUA. The most recent 4-year contracts were signed by Mr. Watson and Mr. Ervin in January 2010.  In addition to very generous annual base salaries ($148,600 for Mr. Watson and $124,400 for Mr. Ervin), the terms of the contracts, given the current economy, were really unbelievable).  They include a 4% cost of living raise each successive year of the contract, merit increases, a $360/month car allowance, and a total of 71 paid days off (30 vacation days, 8 personal holidays, 20 sick days, and 13 holidays) per year, which equates to over 14 weeks of paid time off each year. Then after working 18 months into their respective contracts and accruing generous pension benefits, Mr. Watson and Mr. Ervin chose to retire. They were allowed to stay on the PMUA payroll until they were compensated for all of their unused vacation and sick time. And in addition to all of that the PMUA Board of Commissioners gave them over $1 Million Dollars in settlements (PMUA resolutions 48-2011 for $275,000 and 09-2012 for $725,000 plus attorney and arbitration expenses). The $600,000.00 given to Mr. Watson is equivalent to 4 years salary and is more than the remaining portion of his 4-year 2010 contract. It was troubling that at last week’s meeting Mr. Toliver misstated the total value of the settlements, especially since voted for them.

There is no end in sight to PMUA’s abuse of the ratepayers. At last week’s meeting Mr. Young stated that he had cut back the PMUA budget $1 Million, which as much he felt was possible. The fact that the PMUA Board of Commissioners offset that savings with the settlements to Mr. Watson and Mr. Ervin not withstanding, Mr. Young said the only way to hold off future rate hikes was with the extremely uncertain revenues if PMUA is ever in position to sell services outside Plainfield. Mr. Young offered no definitive details on costs for these new services or anticipated revenues. Selling services outside the City ofPlainfield has been the PMUA pipe-dream since its inception. Mr. Young promised ‘competitive” pricing. If the PMUA pricing for these new services are as “competitive” as the rates they charge me for services, there is no chance any other community will willingly do business with the PMUA!  Also, at last months PMUA meeting Mr. Young announced his intentions to give PMUA employees an across the board a 2% Cost of Living Increase and up to a 3% Merit Increase. This is so out of touch with the current economy! If Mr. Young follows through on this it will mean that either our already abusive rates will go up again or the PMUA bond debt will have to be increased. Either alternative negatively impacts the residents of Plainfield.

It was a very sad commentary that the only way the PMUA Commissioners would agree to meet with the City Council was provided the settlement was not on the agenda. As was pointed out, the PMUA, by charter, is required to appear before the Council 4 times a year. Yet they haven’t been there since 2010. It is clear the PMUA answers to no one but itself.  They don’t have to listen to anything the Council says or even show up at a meeting if they don’t want to.  The only thing the City is empowered to do to rein-in the PMUA is dissolve it. With their compensation, self-approved benefits for part-time jobs, and their excessive miscellaneous expenses the PMUA Board of Commissioners is as big a part of the problem as the extremely high over-staffing.

First I strongly urge you tonight to reject the Mayors proposed candidates for the PMUA Board of Commissioners. According to Mr. Mitchell at last week’s meeting, the two recent appointees, Mr. Dunn and Mr. Sanders, subverted the arbitration process by making an unauthorized settlement with Mr. Watson and Mr. Ervin and then swayed the vote for approval.  Tell the Mayor she needs to put up candidates who have the independence to really oversee the PMUA and until she does, you will keep voting them down.

Secondly, and more importantly, please take the necessary steps to dissolve the PMUA.  It has been excessively over charging rate payers since its inception and is grossly mismanaged. Every year you permit the PMUA to go on, it will continue to overcharge ratepayers and its bond debt will continue to grow.    

Thank you for your consideration.

Mitchell is PMUA Chairman

Harold Mitchell, a former mayor and councilman and past chairman of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, emerged again as chairman Tuesday after attempts to sideline him fell through.

Mitchell was targeted for an alternate's role in two mayoral appointment rosters offered this month that did not gain City Council approval. As an alternate, he would only be able to vote in the absence of a quorum of PMUA commissioners and could not serve as chairman. He won Tuesday with "yes" votes from himself and Commissioners Carol Ann Brokaw and The Rev. Tracey Brown. Commissioner Malcolm Dunn voted "no" and Commissioner Alex Toliver abstained.

Had Mitchell been unable to serve, Dunn was expected to emerge as chairman, but his key role in granting $725,000 in settlements to two former top PMUA executives has made him a controversial figure, especially to PMUA watchdogs. In a public hearing after the annual reorganization concluded Tuesday, Dunn and PMUA critic Bill Kruse got into a verbal sparring match that escalated after the meeting was adjourned.

An attempt to seat Dunn as vice-chair failed Tuesday.

"We have an unusual situation," PMUA attorney Leslie London said as the roll call came up short of the three votes needed for approval. A second try also failed, leaving the seat vacant.

Brokaw received another term as secretary, although she alluded to plans to step down. She was not on either of the two mayoral appointment lists and would have been off the board Tuesday if either had prevailed. Under state authority law, she can stay on as a holdover even though her term has ended.

Commissioner Alex Toliver, now also a holdover, was named treasurer.

The voting included attempts by Dunn to have Cecil Sanders Jr. named as an officer, even though as an alternate he is ineligible. Sanders and Dunn both came to the PMUA board in November and both took part in going outside arbitration to strike the settlement deal with former Executive Director Eric Watson and Assistant Executive Director David Ervin. Toliver gave the third vote necessary for approval of the settlement in January.

A move to extend the one-year term of interim Executive Director Duane Young to three years faltered in favor of continuing a search for a new director.

In the public hearing portion of the meeting, several residents who have closely followed PMUA doings excoriated Dunn and Sanders for their part in the settlement, but Dunn said Watson deserved to be rewarded for his role in developing the authority. Councilman Cory Storch, who with Councilwoman Bridget Rivers is the governing body's 2012 liaison to the PMUA, expressed disappointment with the settlement and said a citizen task force appointed by the council to study the PMUA's workings will give its final report on March 19.

--Bernice

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

PACO and the Contracts

Nine contracts totaling more than half a million dollars for important services were withdrawn from the City Council agenda by the administration Monday due to lack of a Public Agency Compliance Officer.

Purchasing Agent David Spaulding had served in that role for several years, but on Feb. 6 a resolution to reappoint him failed to gain a council consensus to be put on the Feb. 13 agenda for a vote. Spaulding has been somewhat under scrutiny since he testified during an investigation into how the city paid $20,000 to WBLS for an Aug. 1, 2010 town meeting. Some of his answers appeared at odds with testimony by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who said the radio broadcast was made in response to an "emergency" situation due to gun violence.

For those not up on what a PACO is, here is the state's definition:

2.1  Public Agency Compliance Officer
In accordance with N.J.A.C. 17:27-3.2 , each public agency shall designate an individual to serve as its Public Agency Compliance Officer or P.A.C.O. (see Attachment#2). The P.A.C.O. is the liaison between the Division and the Public Agency and is the Public Agency point of contact for all matters concerning implementation and administration of the statute. The P.A.C.O. is also responsible for administering contracting procedures pertaining to equal employment opportunity regarding both the Public Agency and the service providers. The service provider shall include but shall not be limited to goods and services vendors, professional service vendors and construction contractors. As such, the P.A.C.O. must have the authority to recommend changes to effectively support the implementation of the statue and its regulations.
Each year, all Public Agencies are required to submit the name, title, address, telephone, number, fax, and email address of the P.A.C.O. designated by the Public Agency. This information must be submitted to the Division no later than January 10th of each year. In addition, it shall be the responsibility of the Public Agency to update the P.A.C.O. designation at any time during the year if any changes are made concerning the designated P.A.C.O.

Click here for the full document on contract compliance.

The PACO does not have to be the purchasing agent, but the city must have a qualified one.

Items covered by the withdrawn contracts included hiring a law firm to do tax appeals; funding for an Edmunds financial services system; a consultant for housing repairs; renovations to police headquarters for a CCTV system; engineering services; emergency power systems for the police/Municipal Court complex; environmental investigation on Lee Place; a night supervision program for juvenile probationers; and a baseball field upgrade. As soon as the administration and council agree on a PACO, the contracts can be approved. The next regular City Council meeting is March 12.

--Bernice

Young Orator Lauded at City Council Meeting


The City Council marked Black History Month Monday by inviting Havana Terborg, 12, to deliver a speech originated by Mary McLeod Bethune.

Her flawless rendition of "What Does American Democracy Mean to Me" drew a standing ovation from the governing body, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, city officials and the public, for both the message she conveyed and her exceptional oratory skills.

Havana is a student at Central Jersey College Prep Charter School in Somerset and lives in Plainfield. Her  appearance was the highlight of the Feb. 13 council meeting. It was captured on video tape and may be viewed on Comcast Channel 96 or Verizon Channel 34 local channels when the February schedule is up.

--Bernice

Much More Coming on Council Meeting

Monday's regular meeting was chock-full of topics, two of which Plaintalker has covered so far. I could easily stay on the computer all day today filing posts, but there is such a thing as life with all its chores and duties to address.

If you were at the meeting and are wondering why such-and-such a topic was not already covered on the blog, have patience. Think of other things for a while, like the fact that it is Valentine's Day and time to honor those who are dear to your heart!

Catch you later ...

--Bernice
XOXOXO

Cullen Named P/T CFO "In Time of Need"

While a search continues for a permanent chief financial officer, Finance Director Al Restaino said South Plainfield Borough Administrator and CFO Glenn Cullen will be "helping us in our time of need" by serving as part-time CFO here as well.

The council agreed to the appointment, but not before objecting to the lack of a resume with the nomination and prying more details from Restaino. Cullen will be paid $800 per week for five to seven hours' work, Restaino said.

"He's our neighbor. He's stepping up to the plate," Restaino said, adding Cullen will serve "before work, after work, during lunch."

Restaino said he would even go to South Plainfield to meet with Cullen if necessary.

The departure of CFO and City Treasurer Ron Zilinski on Jan. 31 thrust the city back into the void that caused the state Division of Local Government Services to threaten daily personal fines for the mayor and all seven council members in November 2010 for not coming up with a CFO to replace Peter Sepelya, who retired at the end of 2007. Each municipality is required by state statute to have a CFO (see job description here).

"Is the state buying that five to seven hours?" Councilman William Reid asked Restaino.

When Restaino began an explanation, Reid pinned him down first by asking, "Has the state been apprised of this?"

Restaino said the state had been apprised, but then Reid accused him of skirting the answer and asked, "Did the state say this sounds like a good idea?"

"Not to me directly," Restaino said, indicating the response went to City Administrator Eric Berry.

"I don't think I was being difficult," Restaino said, but Reid said, "You were being difficult."

Councilman Cory Storch said he saw no resume with the nomination and Council President Adrian Mapp said, "No, there was no resume."

"If you are asking the City Council to vote on a CFO, that will play a major role," Storch said.

It was then that Restaino explained Cullen's full-time responsibilities in South Plainfield.

"He doesn't have a lot of time for us," Storch said.

Restaino said Cullen would not just be "signing the bill list," but would be working on the budget and more.

"I hope the administration is feeling committed to fill this position," Storch said, to which Restaino said the search was taking place "diligently."

"Trust me," he said.

The vote to approve Cullen was unanimous and the council also approved an ordinance amending the salary band for the CFO post to a new maximum of $125,000. The previous maximum of $110,000 had been described as an impediment to attracting a full-time CFO. The ordinance must pass on two readings and then will take effect in 20 days, possibly pushing the timetable for the new salary and a full-time CFO into early April.

--Bernice

PMUA, Unchanged, Holds Reorg Tonight

Lacking City Council action Monday, the reorganization of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority will take place tonight (Tuesday) with the same board that split in January over a $725,000 settlement with outgoing directors.

Commissioners Malcolm Dunn and Alex Toliver and Alternate Cecil Sanders Jr. voted "yes" last month to settle with Executive Director Eric Watson and Assistant Executive Director David Ervin, with Chairman Harold Mitchell and Commissioner Carol Ann Brokaw voting "no." Sanders was able to vote because Commissioner Tracey Brown was absent. (See Plaintalker's post here.) With previous settlements, the two outgoing directors will receive a total of $1 million, which Mitchell said cannot be paid because the authority doesn't have the funds.

Dunn and Sanders were named to the board only in November and Mitchell also alleged that the pair went outside an ongoing arbitration process to cut the deal.

Appointment rosters offered by the mayor on Feb. 6 and for Monday's agenda would have put Brokaw off the board and demoted Mitchell to an alternate who could only vote if the board lacked a quorum. Mitchell was already a holdover whose term expired in February 2011. Now he and Brokaw, whose term expires this month, will both remain as holdovers, along with Toliver, whose term also expires this month. Sanders, who was named to a commissioner's term in the new rosters, will remain an alternate. Dunn's term extends to February 2014.

The lineup is unchanged because the council first decided not to add nominations as a new item Monday, but Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the mayor requested that the names be added. But then a roll call vote to add the resolution failed, falling short of the five votes needed. Council members Vera Greaves, Bridget Rivers, William Reid and Council President Adrian Mapp voted "yes" and Annie McWilliams, Cory Storch and Rebecca Williams voted "no."

At the PMUA reorganization tonight, three votes will be needed to choose a chairman and other officers for 2012. The authority, which provides solid waste and sewer services to the city, is at a crucial stage of transition in both its operational leadership and its fiscal viability. The board of commissioners for 2012 will face many hard decisions as well as an increasing public outcry for reform. The reorganization is 6 p.m. at PMUA headquarters, 127 Roosevelt Avenue.

--Bernice

Monday, February 13, 2012

Budget 2012 - Is the City Ready?

If departed Chief Finance Officer Ron Zilinski left a legacy, it may have been shepherding the city through the process of converting back to a calendar year budget. But now that the city has achieved the change through a six-month "transition year," a new, part-time CFO will be a key figure in the budget process that began Jan. 1.

There is also a new city administrator on the job and a new director of Public Works & Urban Development.

The transition budget passed without scrutiny by a citizen budget committee and so far no mention has been made of a committee for the 2012 budget year. Controversies over the Recreation and Purchasing Division were set aside for the six-month transition and the $100-per-hour videographer who taped council meetings was allowed to stay on, though his contract ended the day before the transition period started.

Newcomers or part-timers have no knowledge of issues that were put in abeyance for the transition budget.

Since the end of 2007, when veteran CFO Peter Sepelya retired, the city spent three years without a CFO, only hiring Zilinski under the threat of daily state fines on the mayor and council members. When the administration tried to make do with a part-time CFO in 2008, the budget document sent to the state included a $1.7 million typo despite the fact that the CFO and about a dozen other officials signed off on it.

The council has changed its meeting schedule since 2008 to just one agenda-fixing session and one regular meeting per month. Separate budget deliberations should start soon. Will the part-time CFO get up to speed on Plainfield's fiscal issues quickly? Will there be a Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee as before? The city's special charter calls for the mayor, with the assistance of the city administrator, to prepare the budget document and carry out other fiscal tasks, although Sepelya was the linchpin of budget preparation in the past. If interested, you can look up the whole process online under Article V of the City Charter on the city web site.

All the new people that will be involved in the 2012 budget process come with experience and knowledge of municipal government; the trick will be to gain insight into Plainfield's unique fiscal issues. Good luck to all in 2012.

--Bernice

Sunday, February 12, 2012

City Council Update


Saturday's visit to the Plainfield Public Library turned up even more twists in the PMUA appointment saga and no guarantee that Monday's City Council will bring closure.

The packet for the Feb. 13 regular meeting had a new lineup for commissioners and alternates on the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority. Mayoral nominations included in the Feb. 6 packet did not make it to the agenda and the revised roster is on as a new item for Monday. Of the five commissioners, The Rev. Tracey Brown is on board until Feb. 1, 2015 and Alex Toliver is up for a new five-year term succeeding himself. After that, it's a game of musical chairs on paper for the other three commissioners and two alternates.

Commissioner Carol Ann Brokaw is not being reappointed and Chairman Harold Mitchell is headed for an alternate's seat. Alternate Cecil Sanders Jr. is now up for a commissioner's seat. If readers can make out the chart above (click to enlarge), seats are shuffled in what seems to be a random way. If the council approves the latest nominations Monday, that lineup will be in effect for the PMUA reorganization on Tuesday (6 p.m. at 127 Roosevelt Ave.).

On other topics, a proposed settlement agreement with the DEP is up for approval. The DEP found violations of rules for underground storage tanks during inspections at City Hall, City Hall Annex, the Public Works Garage and Police Headquarters in 2009 and 2010, resulting in fines totaling $23,000.

A resolution for "night watch services" turns out to be about monitoring of juvenile probationers. The Union County Youth Services will, for an amount not to exceed $6,000 make home visits and inspections, random stops of juvenile offenders, "absconder investigations" of youth probationers, investigations of curfew violations and other services related to court-ordered supervision of juvenile probationers.

The governing body will vote on establishing an Advisory City Council Shared Services Committee with representatives from the administration, council, Board of Education, Housing Authority of Plainfield, Plainfield Public Library, PMUA, Union County and the Plainfield YMCA.

As previously reported, the council will be asked to approve a part-time chief finance officer. The resolution did not give details, but the nominee appears to be Glenn Cullen, currently the borough administrator and CFO of South Plainfield. An ordinance up for first reading will set the salary band for a CFO from a minimum of $83,172 to a maximum of $125,000.

Click here to view the Feb. 13 agenda. The meeting is 8 p.m.Monday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice



Whitney Houston R.I.P.

Our condolences to all family and fans of Whitney Houston.

Talent and torment are all too often are joined.

Her surcease of pain is now more hurt for the world of music.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

CFO, PMUA Names on Monday's Agenda

The City Council's regular meeting this month will take place at 8 p.m. Monday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave., with possible approval of a new chief finance officer and PMUA appointments on the agenda.

Under new items, the governing body is asked to approve "Glen  Cullen" as part-time CFO for Plainfield. If the Plainfield Public Library is open today (Saturday) and the packet is available, Plaintalker will try to confirm that the candidate is Glenn Cullen, currently the borough administrator and CFO of South Plainfield. The city lost its former CFO, Ron Zilinski, when he resigned last month after one year's service. Prior to that, the city had no CFO for three years and was under the state's threat of daily personal fines for the mayor and all seven members of the governing body unless the position was filled.

Zilinski was commuting from Trenton for a 28-hour week when he quit for another post. If the candidate is indeed from South Plainfield, at least the commute is better.

Also added as new items are appointments for several boards and commissions, including the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority's board of commissioners. Plaintalker wrote about a resolution that was in last week's packet but was not on the Feb. 6 agenda.  That resolution had six names and gave two new board members enhanced terms. The new one has five names, but Plaintalker needs to see the text of the resolution in order to comment on it. Commissioner Malcolm Dunn is not on the new list.Current Chairman Harold Mitchell is listed for an alternate's term and Commissioner Carol Brokaw is not named, meaning she could be off the board.

The significance of any action taken Monday is that on Tuesday the PMUA will hold its annual reorganization, choosing a chairman and other officers. A controversial settlement has heated up interest in who will be serving on the board in 2012 and the next few years. Opponents of the settlement are asking Gov. Chris Christie to look into the workings of the PMUA, and calls to disband the authority are intensifying.

Plaintalker will update these items as soon as possible. Be there Monday if you want to witness the action for yourself.

--Bernice

ShotSpotter Plan Still in the Works

Children's gun graffiti.
A gun detection system approved by the governing body in August 2011 is not yet operating, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig told the City Council Monday.

Meanwhile, he said, there was another shooting this month. (In answer to Plaintalker's query, Hellwig explained Friday that the Feb. 4 shooting of a New York man, 60, on West Fourth Street, resulted in the victim losing sight in both eyes.)

Hellwig said jurisdictional issues over use of utility poles and some technical problems have held up implementation of the much-touted "ShotSpotter" program, first offered as a $1 million solution to gun violence in the city and later as a $169,000 lease plan funded by a public safety technology grant. So far, no funds have been expended.

City officials had expected the system, which uses sensors to locate and analyze gunshots, would be operational within two months or less from the time of council approval.

"We believed it was a turn-key operation," Hellwig said Monday.

Equipment was redesigned due to "electrical concerns" and wind resistance of the sensors was also an issue.

"The saga is still continuing," he said.

Councilman William Reid, who opposed the plan all along, saying the city has "50,000 shot spotters" in its residents, repeated his comment Monday and said "It sounds like ShotSpotter sold us a bill of goods on that contract."

Reid cautioned Hellwig to make sure the $250,000 technology grant funding is not lost due to the delay.

The agenda Monday also had a resolution to authorize a contract for $221,843 to renovate the 9-1-1 center in police headquarters for monitoring CCTV cameras, but Hellwig said the cameras were not needed to start the gunshot sensor plan. Officials now know it usually takes about six months to get approvals for pole use, but Hellwig said he is "pressing them on a weekly basis" to resolve the outstanding issues.

--Bernice

Friday, February 10, 2012

Check Out Recent Comments

I agree with Dr. Yood, recent blog posts have generated a lot of comments and it might be interesting to go back and look at what people are saying.

While most sound genuine, I have detected an increase in comments that seem to be a bit orchestrated. As we all know, the political season is in full swing not only for 2012 but also for 2013, so if something sounds as if it came from a campaign playbook, don't be surprised.

--Bernice

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Damaged Lions Another Legacy Lost

For many years, a pair of lions flanked the entry of the downtown building currently restored as the Courier-News site.
One lion was literally knocked off its feet by a car that careened up on the sidewalk.
The remaining lion suffered the indignity of being defaced by vandals.
Last week, the surviving lion statue was horribly damaged.

Plaintalker does not know when the lions were first installed. The Frost Building, as we now know it, was built in 1909 and was the home of Courier-News Publishing. Later it became the Thomas Furniture building and before it was purchased by developer Frank Cretella, it was the home of Jeff Satkin's company, Atkol.

Cretella uncovered the original 1909 marquee during renovations. It would be nice if the lions could be restored as well. If not, chalk the loss up to changes downtown that include covering up stonework at the former Eiseman's Lighting building on Park Avenue and demolition of an historic 1886 building on North Avenue, along with the partial demolition of an 1885 building that was the original home of the Plainfield Music Store.

Thank heavens we have the postcard and photo archives at the Plainfield Public Library to remind us of remarkable structures of the past. Next time you are there, take a few minutes to watch the slide show on the monitor near the entrance. Through its annual exhibits, the library encourages present-day photographers to document Plainfield landmarks for future generations of scholars and historians.

--Bernice

PMUA Appointments Not on Feb. 13 Agenda

Appointments proposed by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, including six for the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, will not be on the Feb. 13 agenda, City Council President Adrian Mapp confirmed this week. If approved by the governing body, the PMUA appointments would have significantly changed the balance of power on the authority's board of commissioners.

Among items on the Feb. 6 agenda, the mayor informed the council of her nominations for appointments to the Historic Preservation Commission, the Shade Tree Commission and the PMUA. In the packet available last Saturday at the Plainfield Public Library, details of terms and successions were spelled out in prepared resolutions. See Plaintalker's analysis of the six PMUA nominations here.

Not seeing the resolutions on the Feb. 6 agenda, Plaintalker asked Mapp about them and the answer was that no resolutions were given to the council.

The council discusses all proposed resolutions and ordinances matters at the agenda-fixing sessions and those that receive a consensus get moved to the regular meeting for voting. The PMUA appointments were especially  significant because the authority reorganizes on Feb. 14, choosing a chairman and other officers for the year. Current Chairman Harold Mitchell would have been demoted from commissioner to alternate in the mayor's proposal and Commissioner Carol Brokaw would have been off the board. With no action on appointments, Mitchell remains a holdover and Brokaw becomes one.

As reported by Plaintalker here, Mitchell and Brokaw voted "no" on $725,000 in settlements for former top executives Eric Watson and David Ervin, while Commissioner Alex Toliver joined newcomers Commissioner Malcolm Dunn and Alternate Cecil Sanders Jr. in approving the award. Mitchell contends that Dunn and Sanders went outside an ongoing arbitration process to make the deal directly with Watson and Ervin and further that the amount cannot be certified for payout.

The PMUA reorganization will take place at 6 p.m. Feb 14 at the authority's headquarters, 127 Roosevelt Avenue.

--Bernice

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Election Flap Mars Education Mission

After school board president Renata Hernandez assailed the City Council and Democratic Party Chairman  Jerry Green attacked the board, and various others lobbed brickbats Monday, Acting Schools Superintendent Anna Belin-Pyles came to the microphone.

The school board has worked "diligently" with the city, she said.

"When the comment was made that the Board of Education has not worked with the city on shared services, that was not accurate," she said, calling it "critical that the community understands that the two bodies are working together."

But after the show of acrimony and rattling of political sabers moments before, her words had a brave but hollow ring. The issue that caused the outbursts Monday was the City Council's decision to move school board elections from April to November, an option allowed by law but promoted by Assemblyman Green in an accusatory way against the board. (Tuesday's BOE agenda included the other option, for the board itself to move the elections.)

Belin-Pyles went on to say that the school district needs additional community participation and that people should visit schools and see for themselves how things are going.

"Don't judge us," she implored.

Speaking of the urban district's challenges, she said, "Before we can educate, we have to assist in the wellness of families."

Despite a few other words on collegiality and cooperation from earlier speakers, anyone witnessing the exchanges Monday could not help but come away with the impression that relations between the city and the school district are strained. Not only did the display make the acting superintendent's job harder, one can only imagine what any candidates for the superintendency might be thinking as the New Jersey School Board Association search narrows.

More than one commenter has characterized Plainfield as dysfunctional in general, with the common good often taking a back seat to the "crabs in a barrel" syndrome. Whatever satisfaction individuals got out of the political posturing and power plays Monday, the overall effect was to give the impression of a combative milieu where administrative acumen is valued less than scrapping and scoring points at others' expense.

Belin-Pyles was addressing the grown people in the room with her pitch for togetherness, but surely one wonders what the district's 7,000 students would make of the behavior on display Monday. Educators talk about "teaching moments" - what was the lesson here? Do unto others before they do unto you?

Even if the superintendent's post ultimately goes to Belin-Pyles, as some surmise it may, will she be able to do her job and remain above the fray? Her only advantage in this situation is that she already knows all the combatants. A newcomer would have to walk even more gingerly on a path of leadership strewn with political IEDs. Either way, watching for danger underfoot will keep any chief school administrator from  looking up and looking ahead.

--Bernice

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

PMUA Poised to Attract Outside Revenues

The authority that provides solid waste and sewer services to Plainfield has cut $1 million in costs and has taken almost all steps necessary to increase revenues, Executive Director Duane Young said as Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority officials met with the governing body Monday.

PMUA attorney Leslie London passed out a pie chart detailing the mix of approvals sought for the authority to start taking outside business at the Rock Avenue transfer station, including a DEP designation as a materials recovery facility for Union County. That approval alone took a year and a half of effort and is now in a three-month trial period that began Feb. 1.

It was not until late in the discussion of four major topics that Councilwoman Rebecca Williams brought up a fifth - her constituents want to know, she said, why commissioners split over granting settlements totaling $725,000 to two former top PMUA officials who had already received $275,000 in prior settlements. PMUA Chairman Harold Mitchell, who voted "no" on the settlement, said two new commissioners went outside the arbitration process and negotiated directly with former Executive Director Eric Watson and Assistant Executive Director David Ervin, but he said the settlement can't be paid "because it can't be certified."

The process for funding includes a statement from the chief finance officer certifying funds are available.Click here for Plaintalker's post on the settlement.

"I don't see that item on the agenda," PMUA alternate Cecil Sanders. Commissioner Alex Toliver, who along with Sanders voted "yes" on the settlement, said the amount reflected a decrease from the $1 million resulting from arbitration which he characterized as stalled, with costs mounting for attorneys and arbitrators. When Watson and Ervin were offered the lesser settlement, "They said yes," Toliver said.

After more discussion over how the settlement came about, Young called it "a cost like any other cost," and said he would have to cut costs or increase revenues further to fit it in the budget.

"I await the direction of the board," he said.

Besides outside revenues and the state of PMUA finances, the other scheduled topics for PMUA's visit with the council were compliance with the pay-to-play ordinance and the authority's efficiency survey. London said the pay-to-play issue will be taken up at a PMUA committee meeting this week. The survey queried ratepayers on what options in service they might accept to keep rates stable.

Young said the PMUA has developed a favorable relationship with the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority, which conveys sewage from Plainfield and several other municipalities to the Middlesex County Utilities Authority for treatment. PARSA passes costs back to local ratepayers through PMUA to the tune of what Mitchell said was $700,000 per quarter. Young said PARSA helped PMUA by sharing equipment that identifies problems in the sewer lines, calling the authorities' ties "an open relationship that is only going to get better."

In public comment, PMUA watchdog Bill Kruse said he was shocked that the agenda was not dominated by the settlement. He called Mitchell's words on the lack of certification "hollow" and said Watson and Ervin can go to the American Association of Arbitrators and "get a judgment, so it's a done deal." Philip Charles, who organized the DumpPMUA group in 2009, said, "PMUA is living in la-la land"  and cited cheaper rates in surrounding towns. He said while PARSA's rate went from $2.1 million to $2,.8 million, PMUA rates soared from $3 million to "over $11 million" in the same time span.

Questioning the increase, he said, "The council can disband PMUA with the stroke of a pen."

Charles cited $23 million in PMUA debt that he said will skyrocket when bonds start to come due soon, and faulted the governing body for not looking into comparative rates.

The PMUA is scheduled to reorganize at 6 p.m. Feb. 14 at 127 Roosevelt Avenue. Although the mayor has recommended six appointments (see here and here), the council made no move Monday to put them on the agenda for the regular meeting on Feb. 13.

--Bernice