Sunday, May 31, 2015

Read 'em and Weep

I just hit the "Publish" button for 45 comments I have been holding. Below are links to the posts that drew these comments. If you are so inclined, read them and decide for yourself how Plainfield is doing, who are the winners and losers, what is the nature of this discourse?

CBAC Recommends A Better Process

More on the Budget "Feedback" Meeting

CBAC, Budget Consultant Report to Council

Regarding Comments

Entering the Final Stretch

Council, CBAC Hear Recreation Plans

Town Meeting Features Awards, Staff Updates

--Bernice

Friday, May 29, 2015

Special Meeting on PMUA Commissioners

Now here's a head-scratcher - a special meeting for discussion and possible appointments of commissioners to the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority.

If I was not in such a fog, I would have called around to see what's up with that. As far as I know, there is only one vacancy, for an alternate. But I'm sure someone will fill in the blanks over the weekend.

As of the annual PMUA reorganization in February, the five commissioners were Charles Tyndale, chairman; Michelle Graham-Lyons, vice-chair; Henry Robinson, secretary; Carol Ann Brokaw, treasurer; and former Chairman Harold Mitchell, a holdover since February 2011. Alternate Charles Eke's term ended on Feb. 1 this year, making him a holdover also, and the other alternate seat is vacant.

Oh, so actually that might mean three possible vacancies, counting the holdovers.

Mayor Adrian O. Mapp and former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs made numerous PMUA nominations in the past, with few council confirmations. Most recently, Mapp was able to get council approval in January to replace holdovers Malcolm Dunn and Cecil Sanders with Robinson and Graham-Lyons. 

I am hoping to attend the PMUA's June meeting, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 9 at 127 Roosevelt Avenue. By then, the new executive director, Rodney Hadley, may be on the job. If you are interested, check the PMUA web site to make sure the meeting is still on for that date.

--Bernice

Meeting Conflict Resolved with Date Change

For all the anticipation of the 2015 Primary Election and its possible consequences, it is amazing that everybody (including me) failed to notice a glitch on the City Council meeting schedule. As all the political cognoscenti know, the Democratic City Committee is supposed to reorganize on the Monday after the primary and the Union County Democratic Committee reorganizes on the Tuesday after the election.

I didn't notice the conflict, even though for many years I made a sort of game of second-guessing the meeting schedule to avoid holidays and other complications. I blame my failure to pay attention on the great squirrel invasion that started on Dec. 9 and is still not fully resolved. It is a real mind-bleep to have to camp out in the front room for nearly half a year.

Anyway, the meeting error was even compounded by addition of a special meeting the same night. But never fear, both the agenda-fixing session and the special meeting have been moved from June 8 to June 10, so the Democratic City Committee reorganization can happen on the Monday after the primary as intended.

CORPORATION NOTICE
CITY OF PLAINFIELD

NOTICE OF MEETING CHANGE


PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THE SPECIAL MEETING AND AGENDA FIXING SESSION PREVIOUSLY SCHEDULED FOR MONDAY, JUNE 8, 2015 HAS BEEN RESCHEDULED FOR WEDNESDAY, JUNE 10, 2015.

THE SPECIAL MEETING WILL COMMENCE AT 7:00 P.M. AT THE MUNICIPAL COURT - COUNCIL CHAMBERS, 325 WATCHUNG AVENUE, FOR THE PURPOSE OF CONSIDERING POSSIBLE AMENDMENTS TO THE CY 2015 PLAINFIELD MUNICIPAL OPERATING BUDGET.

THE AGENDA FIXING SESSION MEETING WILL COMMENCE IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE ADJOURNMENT OF THE SPECIAL MEETING.


FORMAL ACTION MAY BE TAKEN.

BY ORDER OF THE PLAINFIELD
MUNICIPAL COUNCIL
BRIDGET B. RIVERS, PRESIDENT

/S/S/   ABUBAKAR T. JALLOH, R.M.C.  
    MUNICIPAL CLERK 

DATED:     PLAINFIELD, NEW JERSEY
         MAY 28, 2015.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

CBAC Recommends A Better Process

The Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee report had more information than I could fit in one post and I had intended to file it later, but CBAC Chairman Tom Kaercher has saved me the trouble by sending along the information in a comment. In case readers don't go back and check for all the comments, I am posting it here because these are very important points.

From Tom Kaercher, 2015 CBAC Chairman

Thank you for covering Citizens Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC)’s Report to Council. There are a few other key points from the CBAC Report that people need to know. 

First, the Council gave the CBAC five specific goals:
1. Compare Plainfield’s budget expenses, revenues, and service to municipalities of similar size and demographics.
2. Identify possibilities for shared service agreements similar communities have agreed to.
3. Identify core services, as defined by residents, and rank in their priority order
4. Identify structural budget imbalances caused by one time measures and recommend strategies to eliminate them
5. Make a set of budget recommendations for the 2015 Calendar Year Budget.

Next, for 2015, the budget review period was only two weeks long and covered only 11 of the 36 department or expense categories in the city budget and did not review any of the Revenue side of the budget or the City’s Debt Finance Plans. 

Since the CBAC had only a partial view of City Budget and only a few weeks to work, the CBAC was not able to work on Goals 1, 2, 3 and 4 and was not able to do a comprehensive job on Goal 5. 

As a result, the CBAC made four Budget Process Improvement Recommendations to the Council.

1. The CBAC should be formed in January and begin meeting as soon as the prior year’s books are closed and actual data is available. This would give the CBAC time to work on Goals 1 to 4.
2. A schedule of Budget Review Meetings should be set early in the year, even before the budget is available, to maximize the attendance from all stakeholders (Council Members, Departments heads, and CBAC Members) at all meetings.
3. There should be a much longer budget review period so all departments can be reviewed in detail, the Revenue side of the budget can be reviewed, and the City Debt Finance Plans can be reviewed
4. All Departments’ prior year Goals & Accomplishments and current year goals, should include the actual impacts (Cost savings, Efficiencies, and increased people served) that have been achieved by the things they have done.

Some of these items are carry-over recommendations City Council from prior CBAC committees. The 2015 CBAC hopes the Council and Administration will work together to implement these recommendations to ensure more comprehensive and thorough budget reviews and improved cost savings and efficiencies throughout Plainfield city government in the years to come.

More on the Budget "Feedback" Meeting

As noted in the last post, the budget meeting Tuesday was supposed to allow feedback from the Citizens'. Budget Advisory Committee and from Lawrence Caroselli, the council's budget consultant. CBAC Chairman Tom Kaercher gave the committee's report, also detailed in the last post.
Caroselli, who retired in 2011 after serving 29 years as Union County's finance director, drew on his experience to research the city's 2015 budget for savings and came up with cuts in appropriations totaling $282,000. His suggestion to eliminate the chief of staff position echoed a CBAC recommendation, but there was some disagreement over the proposed elimination of a grants coordinator.

Finance Director Ron West said the coordinator had brought in $1 million in grants. The coordinator monitors grants through the application process, awarding of grants and  timely use so the money is not lost.

Council President Bridget Rivers asked whether the grants coordinator also writes Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's weekly newsletter. West said the coordinator does not write it, but proofreads it.

"Under oath?" Rivers asked regarding his answer.

Rivers said she was told the grants writer writes the newsletter. Kaercher said the council had approved the grants coordinator for just what West said.

After more discussion of the budget, the focus shifted back to the vehicles for the mayor and city administrator.

Councilwoman Gloria Taylor spoke about the legislative and administrative branches, deploring the vehicle purchase "and then the City Council knows nothing about it."

As for the grants coordinator, she said, "You don't use the grants person to do the mayor's newsletter. If someone says they are doing this for the mayor, that's ridiculous. We don't want to do tit for tat, but what else can we do? This is the kind of crap that goes on."

Later Rivers asked, "When will the budget hearings be aired - after the election?

She suggested taking money from the budget elsewhere so they can always have the budget meetings taped and aired..

Councilwoman Tracey Brown said the meetings were not being aired because of politics.

West said the meetings are not being aired right now, but added, "We have thirty days for them to be aired."

Rivers said the council might have to hire its own person to tape and air the meetings.

The next step in the budget process is for the council to make amendments, which will be the subject of a public hearing at a special meeting, 7 p.m. on June 8 rescheduled to June 10 in Municipal Court preceding the council's agenda-fixing session. Final passage of the 2015 budget may then take place at the council's regular meeting on June 16.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

CBAC, Budget Consultant Report to Council

For the second time, both the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee and a budget consultant to the council called for elimination of the Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's chief of staff.

The recommendations came in a session Tuesday billed as "feedback" from the committee and the consultant, but some council members later turned to a probe of vehicles for the mayor and city administrator and a charge that the mayor is banning broadcast of the budget talks until after the June 2 primary.
CBAC Chairman Tom Kaercher presented the group's report, which recommended full funding for Economic Development, Media, Information Technology, Health and Inspections and even an increase for Public Works to add an equipment operator and an assistant supervisor. Kaercher called Economic Development "really critical" for bringing in new development and promoting Plainfield as "a viable place for business and and investment."

Media won support for a planned makeover of the city web site, in collaboration with IT, that the committee said "should have a necessary and positive impact on the city's image." The group backed IT's plans to upgrade systems to link departments and increase overall efficiency. The Health Division overcame a backlog of restaurant inspections, assisted residents in applying for Affordable Care Act and generally re-established its mission.

Support for the Purchasing Division's budget was based on its tightening of control over spending public money, and the committee backed the increase for Public Works after hearing of economies in snow removal, road repair and reducing the number of supervisors. Inspections is streamlining its permits process and performing greater code enforcement throughout the city, the group found.

Among cuts, the committee recommended de-funding the "Recreation Leader" position, though in public comment longtime youth sports advocate Nancy Jordan said the action would leave only two people in the department. The committee also called for an increase in participation, as only 200 of the city's 16,000 households are currently taking part in programs and activities.

Police overtime must be reduced by 10 percent and Fire overtime by 8 percent, the committee said, through use of contract negotiations, more stringent control and scheduling by department heads and "more active oversight and monitoring by Administration and City Council." The group also wanted a "cost-benefit/risk analysis" for outsourcing 9-1-1 calls to Union County and said the budget for the ShotSpotter gunshot detection system should be reduced to $15,000. (The last annual bill for the service was $120,000.)

With removal of the salary for the chief of staff, the committee said, the mayor's 2015 budget should be $115,000. (The budget request was for $199,050.) Kaercher said the committee found "no evidence" of the value of the job.

City Administrator Rick Smiley presented the budget for the office of the mayor on May 13.

"It would be helpful if we heard from the mayor," Kaercher said.

As happened on May 13, the discussion turned from the 2015 budget to the subject of two black Explorers purchased in 2014 with police funds but designated for use by the mayor and city administrator. Councilwoman Diane Toliver repeated her view that the two should have at most shared one vehicle, because both were working all day. Councilwoman Gloria Taylor said, "it's illegal," and called on Corporation Counsel Vernita Sias-Hill for support. Sias-Hill said her office is not involved in day-to-day operations and the finance officials are the experts (on fiscal matters), but she can give an opinion on an issue brought to her by the council.

Council President Bridget Rivers quizzed Chief Financial Officer Al Steinberg on the transaction, which she characterized as "unethical." (I do not have Steinberg's reply verbatim, though he did say items bought out of public safety should be for public safety. He added, "One of the premises you have to go by, last year's budget and this year's budget are two totally different things."

Taylor and Rivers continued to condemn the purchase and Steinberg continued to explain the process.

Later Taylor alleged that the grants coordinator, recommended for elimination by budget consultant Lawrence Caroselli, was writing the mayor's online newsletter. Finance Director Ron West said the chief of staff was in charge of the newsletter. The grants coordinator had brought in $1 million and eliminating the job would save only $35,000, he noted.

(to be continued)






Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Budget Meeting Tonight

The City Council, its budget consultant and the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee will give feedback on the 2015 municipal budget tonight.

The meeting is 7 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

The council has heard from the Police, Fire, IT & Media, Health, Purchasing, Public Works, Inspections and Recreation divisions, in addition to discussions of budget requests from Economic Development and the mayor's office. The next step after tonight's feedback is to formulate amendments to the budget and move on to a public hearing and final passage. The city has been operating on monthly temporary appropriations since January, based on what was spent last year. Any cuts will affect the balance of the 2015 budget to Dec. 31.

The schedule calls for a special meeting at 7  p.m. on June 8 to introduce amendments. This meeting precedes the agenda-fixing session at 7:30 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. A possible public hearing on amendments and final adoption of the budget may take place on June 16 at the regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court.

--Bernice

Monday, May 25, 2015

Plainfield's 2015 Memorial Day Observance

A new 20- by 30-foot flag flew at half mast over the War Memorial Monday as the city remembered those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. (click to enlarge)
Members of Johnson Jeter American Legion Post 219 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7474, city officials, police and fire personnel and residents took part in the ceremonies.
Preparing to place the wreath.
Detail of the War Memorial at Crescent Avenue and East Seventh Street.
This five-sided memorial on the grounds of City Hall was erected through the efforts of citizens in 2001.
Mayor Adrian O. Mapp and Commander Frank E. Coit of VFW Post 7474 placed the wreath.
Trumpet player Matthew Branch prepares to play the National Anthem.
The poignant notes of Taps.rang out in remembrance of those who gave their lives.

Mapp said the fallen gave their lives "so that we could live in a nation of the free."

While remembering them, he said, "Let us continue to thank God for the liberties we enjoy."

Commander Coit read the following:

"It is the veteran, not the priest, who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the veteran, not the journalist, who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the veteran, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble.
It is the veteran, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the veteran, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote. 
Without them, you would not enjoy the freedom that we all take for granted."

Flower Images Captured in Shakespeare Garden

Flowers are ephemeral, but their beauty lives on in photographs.

Meet photographer Steve Kanan on May 31 in the Shakespeare Garden, where he will be offering his prints for sale. See details of Steve Kanan's photography here.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day

Remember those who served
and sacrificed

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Regarding Comments

As expected, most recent comments have included personal attacks on individuals, including myself. I would like to remind people that this blog is a purely voluntary venture and I have no obligation to publish any comments. It is almost 10 years now that I began reporting on municipal government, land use decisions and PMUA to the best of my ability in the absence of other coverage. In the past three weeks, I have attended and reported on 11 public meetings. Sometimes it takes the equivalent of a full work day to research issues, attend a meeting and write it up. My daughter thinks I am crazy and sometimes I think so, too.

I retired from the Courier News in 2003. Barbara Todd Kerr created the blog as Plainfield Plaintalker in June 2005. I have been doing it on my own since early 2007 and created the successor blog, Plaintalker II, in 2010. As someone likes to say, it is what it is. If your comment is not published, it is because I decided not to publish it.

--Bernice

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Entering the Final Stretch

The primary is June 2 and from now on out, expect a lot of charges, counter-charges, wolf tickets, innuendos and prevarications showing up in your mailbox. Some are coming in as comments to the blog. I am currently holding three dubious ones and have to decide whether to delete or let 'em rip.

It is local folk wisdom that the June primary is the defining contest for council and mayoral seats, even though people can still file on June 2 to be on the November ballot as independent candidates. For city committee seats, it is the only contest, as the winners meet on the following Monday to choose a party chairperson for the next two years.

The chairmanship has been held by Assemblyman Jerry Green for a couple of decades. His committee candidates have only faced a major challenge once, when Mayor Harold Mitchell ran a slate and won enough seats to pick a new chairman. The factions made up and Green kept the chairmanship.
Correction: Former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams won the chairmanship in 2003 and served until Green won it back in 2005.

There are two slates this year, one for Green's Regular Democratic Organization and one for the Progressive Democratic Organization backed by Mayor Adrian O. Mapp. Mapp would have to garner more than half of the 68 seats ( a male and female in each of the 34 voting districts) to replace Green as the Plainfield Democratic Party chairman at the reorganization. Green's slate is on Column A and Mapp's is on Column C.

The two City Council primary races this year are for the Second Ward seat, with incumbent Cory Storch running on Column C and Charles Eke on Column A. The other contest is for the First & Fourth Ward at-large seat held now by Vera Greaves. Green gave the RDO line to Steve Hockaday and Mapp's slate includes Barry Goode. The council primary winners will be on the ballot for Nov. 3 general election, along with any independents who file on June 2. No Republicans filed for the council seats this year.

Green is also seeking re-election to his Assembly seat for another two years. Mapp's slate does not include Assembly or freeholder candidates.

So look at the campaign fliers and really look at your sample ballot if you want to see who is running in your voting district for the Democratic City Committee, if you are a registered Democrat or want to declare as one at the polls.

According to the latest voter affiliation report from the Union County Board of Elections, registered voters are down by 460 since November 2014. The number of Democrats is down by 306, from 13,177 to 12,871; Republicans dropped from 865 to 806 and unaffiliated voters declined from 8,087 to 7,992. Without a major race at the top of the ticket, turnout is expected to be low on June 2. If you have a point of view on who should be in charge of the Democratic Party for the next two years, look for the male and female city committee candidates in your voting district and act accordingly. Plaintalker does not endorse, but hopes voters will go to the polls on June 2 and exercise their right to vote for the candidates of their choice.

--Bernice

Friday, May 22, 2015

Irises

This yellow Japanese Iris showed up mysteriously after a couple of years with no blooms. It is very delicate, with tall, slender leaves. (Click images to enlarge.)
I was entranced by this dark purple Iris.
It has a lot more ruffles than some of the other Irises.
Gorgeous!
Here's a more conventional Iris.
The setting isn't so great, with an old tomato plant bag at the left, but look how tall these blue Irises grew next to a compost bin.

We had some other Irises, though many fell to a string weeder that was used indiscriminately to clean up a large plot that got very weedy last year while I was unable to garden after surgery. I was trying this year to get rid of the Field Garlic, Mugwort and Cleavers, but a landscaping crew clear-cut nearly the whole plot, including the triple red Daylilies and most of the Irises. Thank heavens the Butterfly Bush was spared, because it becomes a late-summer hangout for the Praying Mantises. I'm afraid the weeders and blowers may have done some of them in as well, but I will keep looking.

--Bernice

Council, CBAC Hears Recreation Plans

In a relatively congenial budget session Wednesday, Recreation Superintendent Veronica Taylor described innovations in both programs and operations for 2015.

While still offering a wide range of youth programs, the Recreation Division is adding more for "active older adults," she said. Online registration and computerized usage tracking are helping her to assess which offerings are most popular, and new social media and marketing plans are being developed to broaden appeal to the community.

Taylor said one pool, at Hannah Atkins Playground, will be open on Memorial Day. Others at Seidler Field and Rushmore Playground will open on June 27, after school lets out. Among her priorities are working on Americans with Disabilities Act compliance at recreation facilities and repairing playground equipment for safety.

Although speakers have challenged changes in the Recreation Division at City Council meetings for months now, only one former division employee did so Wednesday. Most of the questions from the council and the Citizens' Budget Advisory Board were civil inquiries. First Ward Councilwoman Diane Toliver asked about fixing an "unsafe" walking trail at Milt Campbell Field, but Taylor said it was a wildlife preserve area that could not be altered. She said she wants to put in a new fitness trail.

Councilwoman Gloria Taylor, no relation, asked what was being done differently from the last Recreation superintendent. Among other things, Veronica Taylor mentioned training that could help lifeguards pursue future careers in aquatics or as certified pool operators.

Asked why she was offering summer camp only for young children, Veronica Taylor said the school system was operating a camp program for children in grades 4 through 12. Councilwoman Taylor was surprised to hear that the Hannah Atkins Community Center was open, as speakers at council meetings claimed it was not open.

Other questions had to do with staffing, which now includes the superintendent, a program leader and a recreation specialist along with seasonal workers. A request for more staff was removed from the budget, Veronica Taylor said.

While past programs concentrated on youth, she said she wanted to serve recreational needs of older residents and already had Zumba programs at Richmond Towers and Covenant Manor elder housing. Besides encouraging physical activity, she said she wants to help overcome social isolation that may come with aging.

The new Community Pass program allows residents to sign up for programs online and, she said, "The data cannot be manipulated." A monthly program usage report can be generated with the push of a button, she said.

Finance Director Ron West had noted that the Recreation Division in the past used cash from fees improperly to make purchases, and the new system is meant to increase accountability.

Asked why the Recreation Division did not offer tennis and golf, she said there were other programs that provided instruction, some at no cost.

"I can't compete with free," she said.

(All the budget sessions were recorded for viewing on channels 34 and 76, so tune in for the entire discussion.)

--Bernice

Town Meeting Features Awards, Staff Updates

Mayor Adrian O. Mapp honored four city residents, one from each ward, at his Town Hall meeting Thursday that also featured presentations by key figures in his administration.
The First Ward honoree was former City Clerk Laddie Wyatt, who retired in 2010 after 23 years' service.
Second Ward resident Dorothy Henry was honored for her 30 years of service in the Plainfield schools.
Dottie Gutenkauf, a union organizer and Plainfield activist for many causes, received the Third Ward honors.
Former Councilman Elliott Simmons, a local business owner and coach, received the Fourth Ward plaque.
A large crowd turned out for the meeting at the Senior Center. Speakers included Public Safety Director Carl Riley, Public Works Director Eric Watson and Public Works Superintendent John Louise, Recreation Superintendent Veronica Taylor, Inspections Division Director Phil Izzo, Planning Director William Nierstedt, Finance Director Ron West and Deputy City Administrator for Economic Development Carlos Sanchez.

Over nearly two hours, the mayor and his staff detailed accomplishments of his administration and future plans.
Riley said the long-awaited closed circuit cameras will be ready in June. Thirty will be installed on poles with permission from Verizon and PSE&G. Much of the information had already been given at budget hearings. Louise said brine was used successfully to keep streets free of ice through the winter's many storms and also could be applied in advance of storms, sparing the city overtime costs.

Taylor came to the microphone blowing a whistle and gave a lively review of summer plans, starting with one pool opening on Memorial Day and two others due to open on June 27.
 The crowd erupted in delight at the sight of "Phin," "Fin,"the swimming mascot.

Nierstedt described the development process, including approvals by land use boards, and said a downtown parking deck is proposed.

West spoke about fiscal challenges, such as the city's dependence primarily on its housing stock for tax revenues in the absence of major industry or retailers. There are 200 abandoned and 700 foreclosed homes that need to be restored to the tax rolls. Bright spots are the recent Moody's rating upgrade for the city and savings of $600,000 through refinancing of city debt.
Sanchez told how he is "selling Plainfield" to potential investors and traced increased interest from a current $5.2 million in completed projects to $9 million more under construction and $17 million in the approval stage. He said one thing developers want from Plainfield is a speedier approval process and he is working with all other city departments to make it happen.

Among questions from the audience, one resident asked when flood maps will be updated, another expressed concern about the effect of increased development on the city's aged sewer system and a resident asked what could be done about heavy truck traffic on Randolph Road.

Senior Center star singer Gloria Spence took the microphone to render a rousing gospel song that set the mayor to dancing.

In all, the evening was both informative and enjoyable, judging by the frequent applause. It was recorded, so check local cable channels 96 and 34 for viewing at home.

--Bernice

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fencing Removed from Demolition Site

A resident told me yesterday the fences in front of a North Avenue demolition site had been removed.
 The demolition began on March 21, but was halted after debris struck an adjacent building.
The Mi Buenaventura Restaurant was destroyed. It has relocated to another building on North Avenue.

Walking over to the Senior Center for the budget meeting, I checked the site and found it was true that the fence was removed. Now there is a makeshift fence made of orange plastic safety fencing and sawhorses.
 The new fencing as of May 20.
No further action has been taken since March to remove debris.

The City Council approved a resolution to hire a legal firm to investigate the demolition in April, but on Sunday a notice appeared seeking proposals from legal firms to conduct an investigation.

Plaintalker will add more details as they emerge.

--Bernice 


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

City Mulls Legal Recourse for "Lemon" Ladder Truck

Finance Director Ron West said Wednesday the city may sue to recoup what it can for an aerial ladder truck that Fire Chief Frank Tidwell described as a "lemon."

Tidwell raised the issue in May 6 budget talks and said he told the administration about it two months ago. Council President Bridget Rivers criticized the administration for not responding, asking, "What are we waiting for, a fatality"?

As West explained to the council and Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee Wednesday, the $808,000 vehicle was ordered in 2006 and finally arrived late and "with eight major defects" in 2009. The manufacturer had declared bankruptcy, he said.

"We got less than four years' use out of that vehicle," West said.

Now the administration is exploring possible "legal recourse" before committing city funds to a replacement.

After pointing a finger at the current administration on May 6, Tidwell said he had told the prior administration about the problem in 2013.

Rivers said a new vehicle was ordered in the 2013 Capital Improvement Plan but was taken out and replaced by another type of vehicle. West said the CIP as approved by the Planning Board is only a request. (The six-year CIP is a projection and is subject to modification.)

"We have $18 million worth of CIP requests," West said.

In further explanation, he said the administration looked into repairs, but drawings of the faulty suspension system cannot be found. It appeared doubtful that any company would attempt repairs for fear of liability.

Tidwell said on May 6 the aerial platform truck was built by American LaFrance, which several online sites describe as legendary in the field of fire apparatus. See a history of American LaFrance from its roots in 1832 through closing of a spin-off fire truck division in 2008.

--Bernice

"Teaching for Sustainability"

Barack Obama Green Charter High School wants to share a new blog site showing how students are upholding principles of sustainability.

The Great Explorers Controversy

At the very end of Monday's 2015 budget discussion, the subject of the two Explorers came up again. We're not talking about Matthew Henson and Gonzalo Pizarro here, it's about 24-hour city-owned vehicles for the mayor and city administrator. How were these Explorers purchased, was the process wrong?

Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee member Tom Kaercher said he was looking in the budget and didn't see the money anywhere.

Council President Bridget Rivers said the purchase was in 2014.

That was part of the problem, mixing up budget years. Despite frequent reminders to stick to the current year, it was just too tempting not to drag in past history in the final weeks before the June 2 primary. Former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs  even wanted to know what became of the two cars assigned to herself and her city administrator, or should I make the latter plural, as eight different people held that post, including the mayor herself for three short stints.

The current mayor and his department and division heads all have two budget lines, one for salary & wages and one for other expenses. Items meant for long-term use, such as cars and fire engines, come out of the capital budget.

Public Safety Director Carl Riley said on May 6 he believed the money for the vehicles was "transferred to the city administrator's office." On Monday, Rivers insisted any vehicles purchased with Public Safety funds could only be used for public safety purposes. Chief Financial Officer Al Steinberg said money for the ShotSpotter system was used and transferred back, which brings up another question, as the ShotSpotter bill was left unpaid in 2013.

Another mystery, as long as we are turning over old rocks, is why objections were not raised when at the 2014 annual reorganization vehicles were authorized for the incoming mayor and city administrator. Or one might ask why nobody seemed to notice that vehicle authorizations were left off the agenda for the 2015 reorganization.

The short answer to any or all questions may be simply that it is the pre-election season, traditionally the time to make allegations and cast aspersions, hopefully on camera for the viewing pleasure of the electorate.

This year's budget process made me recall the format that former Councilwoman Annie McWilliams set in 2010, giving all department and division heads the same 10 questions to answer regarding their budgets.

“If anyone is coming before us asking for money, they should be prepared,” she said, noting the governing body deserved more than “five or six pages that we can read on the city web site.”

McWilliams set the bar high, saying she wanted five-year data comparisons that division directors “should be able to do off the top of their heads.”

(Recently married to Uche Ndumele, Annie has also just graduated from New York University with dual MBA/MPA degrees.)

While many officials came prepared this year with rationales for their 2015 budget requests, the sessions have all too often gone off the rails with other issues. But the end, whatever it may be, is in sight, as only one more session is expected before a public hearing, possible amendments and final passage.

--Bernice

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Public Works, Inspections Discuss Budget Needs

A five-year road repair program that began about 10 years ago is now eight years behind.

That was one revelation of Monday's budget session featuring the Public Works and Inspections divisions. But it is probably not news to residents who have racked up repair bills from potholes and bumpy roads. Public Works Superintendent John Louise said new equipment is helping to patch potholes, but Cynthia Smith of the Engineering Division said the city now needs to go beyond milling and repaving projects to complete reconstruction of roads. Repairs will take longer "because funding has been cut drastically," she said.

The governing body set a rule early on that funding should be divided equally among the city's four wards, but with varying needs, Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee member Richard Stewart said,  "Sometimes being fair is being unfair."

Public Works & Urban Development Director Eric Watson said he wants to "get an assistant engineer in-house" to help set priorities.

Watson previously served as the department head about 21 years ago before becoming executive director of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority. He said he remembered when the city had its own in-house engineer instead of relying on an outside company. Currently, the administration and governing body are at odds over engineering services.

Louise described several ways the division is saving money and incorporating technology, such as using brine instead of road salt to keep roads free of ice. Two new trucks are equipped with GPS devices that also yield lots of data about vehicle usage. In addition, Public Works borrows specialized equipment from Union County and the Plainfield Board of Education to cut costs, and no matter what their titles, workers pitch in for the job at hand. Louise said even with staff reductions, the division comes in under overtime costs year after year.

"We live within our means," he said.

One Public Works budget request was for two new hires to replace retirees and bring the complement up to 40 workers. Jackson recalled a Public Works division with 90 employees when he served.

Phil Izzo, the new director of the Inspections Division, and Chief Code Enforcement Officer Audrey Counts spoke on another thorny issue, property maintenance. Among tax revenues, residential property is by far the largest source, with commercial and industrial property minimal in comparison. Foreclosures and vacancies have led to more and more instances of neglect and the city has been chasing down banks and out-of-state owners to get grass cut and repairs made to housing stock.Finance Director Ron West the city now has information on only 46 of "a couple hundred" abandoned properties.

At the same time, the city is experiencing new developer interest in constructing rental property near its two train stations, so there is a greater need for timely electrical, plumbing and construction inspections. Counts said the division will soon be replacing a manual system with a computerized one that will not only streamline the inspection process, but will also generate property data.

The Recreation Division was originally scheduled to give a budget presentation last week, then rescheduled to Monday, but Council President Bridget Rivers said it will now be part of the Wednesday (May 20) budget meeting as Recreation Superintendent Veronica Taylor was at graduation ceremonies Monday. Wednesday's meeting was supposed to be for feedback from the council, the CBAC and the council's budget consultant as well as a public hearing and possible budget amendments, but another meeting will have to be added to the schedule.

Wednesday's meeting is 7 p.m. at the Plainfield Senior Center, 400 E. Front St.

--Bernice


Monday, May 18, 2015

Commentary on the Budget Process

Budget deliberations continue Monday (May 18) with reviews of the Public Works, Inspections and Recreation divisions, 7 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Coming as they are in the weeks before a primary battle over control of the Democratic City Committee, the budget sessions have tended to be heavy on rhetoric finding fault with the Mapp administration. I hope residents will be able to watch the budget talks on local cable channels and glean for themselves the facts as presented by some very capable city staff members. Economic Development Director Carlos Sanchez, IT and Media Director Chris Payne, Health Officer Denise Proctor and Purchasing Agent Cindy Lea Weber all had good news to share, as well as some concerns. City Administrator Rick Smiley presented the mayor's budget.

The seven-member 2015 Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee outnumbered the council members, with only three on hand for last week's talks.  It was no surprise to hear their comments against the mayor's wish to have a "confidential aide" aka chief of staff in his office, but it was somewhat surprising to hear Council President Bridget Rivers and former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs telling Payne he needs more staff,  in particular a Plainfield resident.

Payne said his division spent $48,500 on outside "techs and venders" last year. His 2015 budget request included from $25,000 to $50,000 for outside consultants. Looking at his list of "deliverables," Rivers first suggested shared services with the Plainfield Board of Education. In further discussion, Finance Director Ron West said the "world of tech changes so quickly" that staff did not always have the skill set necessary for the work. Rivers said it was more cost effective to hire Plainfielders and train them, saying of outside consultants, "They don't live here - they don't care about what they do."

Councilwoman Vera Greaves said she would like to see an apprenticeship program for young people, and later Robinson-Briggs said, "I agree with Madame President that IT needs more staff."

The council and committee made several other remarks about personnel last week, causing West to caution them about sticking to titles, not names of individuals.

A public hearing and possible budget amendments are scheduled for Wednesday (May 20), 7 p.m. at the Senior Center, 400 E. Front St., which sounds like a lofty goal considering the CBAC needs to make recommendations, but as of last Wednesday had not yet selected a chairperson. Monday's session is the last on budget requests.

--Bernice

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Demolition Investigation Counsel Sought

 The City Council vowed in April to launch its own investigation into circumstances surrounding the March 21 demolition of a North Avenue building. 

But perhaps they skipped a step. Today's Courier News includes this legal notice:

PLAINFIELD REQUEST FOR PROPOSALS FOR AN INDEPENDENT COUNSEL TO CONDUCT AN INITIAL INQUIRY ON BEHALF OF THE CITY COUNCIL RELATED TO THE NORTH AVENUE EMERGENCY DEMOLITION PROJECT SUBMISSION DEADLINE: FRIDAY, MAY 29, 2015 AT 11 A.M. ORGANIZATION REQUESTING PROPOSAL: MUNICIPAL COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF PLAINFIELD, 515 WATCHUNG AVENUE, PLAINFIELD, NEW JERSEY 07060 The Municipal Council of the City of Plainfield is requesting proposals from attorneys and/or law firms to serve as Independent Counsel to the Municipal Council to conduct an initial inquiry on behalf of the Plainfield City Council in regards to the investigation of certain affairs of the City regarding the facts and circumstances surrounding the procurement associated with the North Avenue Emergency Demolition project and other procurement matters. In accordance with the 2.8 of the Plainfield Charter the Municipal Council may make investigations into the affairs of the city and the conduct of any city department, office, commission or agency and for this purpose may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony and require the production of evidence. The Independent Counsel shall report directly to the Municipal Council. The Independent Counsel, on behalf of the City Council, shall be responsible for gathering all appropriate and relevant information and render a report to the City Council setting forth conclusions and recommendations, if any, for further action as may be deemed appropriate, together with any recommendations for corrective action. CONTACT PERSON TO OBTAIN COPIES OF RFP: CINDYLEA WEBER, PURCHASING AGENT PURCHASING DIVISION, CITY OF PLAINFIELD 515 WATCHUNG AVENUE, PLAINFIELD, NEW JERSEY 07060 COUNTY OF UNION Cindylea.weber@plainfieldnj.gov, (908) 226-2568 ($33.00) 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mayor's Budget Prompts Queries

Deliberations on the budget for the mayor's office Wednesday centered largely on Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's wish restore the "chief of staff" position at a cost of $83,255.

The City Council approved the title of chief of staff in November 2013, but after Mapp took office, the position was cut in May amendments to the 2014 budget. The administration then placed the individual who had been serving as chief of staff in the title of "assistant municipal clerk."

City Administrator Rick Smiley presented the mayor's budget Tuesday to the council and the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee. Among questions, CBAC member Pamela Razo, former chief of staff to Assemblyman Jerry Green, asked about the recruitment  process and whether the administration had someone in mind. Smiley had explained that the administration wanted to use the title "confidential aide" for the job, which he said was essentially the same as "chief of staff."

Smiley said a "uniquely qualified" individual was being considered. Razo asked whether the candidate spoke Spanish and Smiley said he did not. CBAC member Delois Dameron asked whether the person was doing the mayor's weekly newsletter and Smiley said he was, though Council President Bridget Rivers said, "That's not true."

Rivers said she was informed that a grant supervisor was doing the newsletter.

"That's not my understanding," Smiley said.

As the discussion veered back to what happened in 2014, Finance Director Ron West said, "We are talking about the 2015 budget."

Smiley also reminded speakers to discuss the budget by job titles, not by names of employees. When former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs turned the discussion to who was driving two new city-issued vehicles and what happened to the old ones from her administration, Smiley said, "Please tell me what that has to do with the mayor's budget."

It had been made public recently that two Explorers were purchased with police funds transferred to the city administrator's office and they were assigned to Smiley and Mapp. Robinson-Briggs asked about a Durango and Explorer assigned during her tenure. After she accused Smiley of not wanting to be "fully informative," CBAC member Richard Stewart said, "These budgets are supposed to be about transparency," and expressed disappointment.

As Smiley appeared to become annoyed, Stewart said, "Do you know who is using the cars?"

"I actually don't know who is using the cars," Smiley said.

After further remarks, Stewart told Smiley he was being "combative for no apparent reason," to which Smiley retorted, "Oh, there's a reason."

Stewart also asked why the mayor or chief of staff wasn't present and Smiley said he chose to make the presentation.

"Wow," Rivers said as Robinson-Briggs chuckled.

Later Robinson-Briggs returned to questioning the transfer to assistant municipal clerk and the funding source for the job, but CBAC member Jan Massey said, "That's last year's budget, not this year."

Councilwoman Diane Toliver asked whether a teleprompter the mayor used for his 2015 State of the City address came out of his budget, but Smiley said it came from the Information Technology division.

In citizen participation, resident Jeanette Criscione said of the budget talks, "Something toxic is going on. I just don't think you are being kind to each other or civil to each other and I don't think you give a rat's patoot about Plainfield."

Budget deliberations continue at 7 p.m. Monday (May 18) in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. Scheduled topics are budgets for the Public Works and Inspections divisions.

--Bernice

Friday, May 15, 2015

New Store on South Avenue

A 25-year employee of the now-shuttered Appliance-Arama just commented on a November 2014 post that he now works for SeeMore, a new appliance store on South Avenue that has the same 3 1/2 percent sales tax as the old store had downtown.

The new store is at 1320 South Avenue and hours are 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, closing at 6 p.m. on Tuesday and Friday and at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.

Stop in to shop for appliances or just to welcome them!

--Bernice

Save Date for Garden Tour

From the Plainfield Garden Club's web site:

The Friends of the Plainfield Public Library invite you to view ten amazing gardens created by homeowners who have a passion for garden and plants and want to share it with you. You will find unusual plants and garden ideas that you can adapt to your own property.

The tour will be held on Sunday, May 31, 2015 from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $30 per person. The tour will begin at 1404 Martine Avenue, Plainfield. Prepaid tickets and same-day purchases will be available at this location only. Tour brochures will list other sites.

We invite you to visit nine amazing gardens created by homeowners who want to share their passion for gardens and plants with you. (The 10th garden being the historic Shakespeare Garden!)

You will find unusual plants, and garden ideas that you will want to adapt to your own property.

Tickets may be purchased in advance through PayPal, online or at the library. 
Pay Pal: http://www.plainfieldlibrary.info/GardenTour2015.html

This fundraising event is sponsored by the Friends of the Plainfield Public Library, a 501c3 organization. Proceeds will support the Library's Local History Archives.:

Sanchez: Developers Now Flocking to City

With eight completed projects representing a $5.8 million investment in Plainfield, Economic Director Carlos Sanchez said the city has 12 others worth over $9 million under construction and 19 more approved that reflect a $17 million investment. 

To explain perhaps why, he told a story: His son was in his second year of college and very good at soccer. Urged to pay for a video, Sanchez first demurred, but then agreed.  With visual proof of his prowess, his son landed a full scholarship in a North Carolina school.

Similarly, word is spreading about new investment in Plainfield, he said.

“Now we don’t have to seek developers, developers are seeking us.”

Sanchez was making a pitch for his 2015 budget Tuesday to members of the City Council and the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee and asking to spend more on promotional material to tell the city’s story – its historic districts, Transit Village designation, 2015 Smart Growth award and more. He called its diversity “a cross section of the world.”

Sanchez said he has already been talking to developers at conventions and business meetings and asked for a larger travel budget in addition to marketing material. Councilwoman Diane Toliver questioned the expenses for travel and printing, but Sanchez said his overall budget was flat compared to 2014 and the requests were for shifts in categories of costs.

While fielding questions, Sanchez also informed the council of initiatives to keep developers coming. One is formation of the Planning Board's new Technical Review Committee to offset a perception that Plainfield is a tough place to get timely approvals for projects. Sanchez said he spent six months talking to developers and one common complaint was that the approval process was taking too long. To a developer, he said, "Time is money."

To help prevent repeat visits with highly-paid expert witnesses, applicants can meet with the committee to discuss issues and be better prepared for board meetings. The committee can also apprise applicants of funding sources such as the Regional Business Assistance Corporation. 

Sanchez said other perceptions concern the city's safety and cleanliness. Public Safety Director Carl Riley said in his budget presentation on May 6 that crime is down in the city. As far as keeping the city clean, Sanchez said business owners need to know they are responsible for cleaning up in front of their buildings. Finance Director Ron West said the city will be hiring 20 young people this summer for cleaning around the city, but Sanchez said, "At the end of the day, it has to become the community" that addresses the issue.

Among other concerns, Councilwoman Vera Greaves asked Sanchez to make sure city residents get jobs from developers. He said local hiring can be encouraged, but not mandated.

Former Councilman William Reid, now serving on the CBAC, said Special Improvement District officials should have attended the meeting on Economic Development, a view endorsed by former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, also serving on CBAC.. 

The council and CBAC are meeting with various city department and division heads at budget sessions through May. The next one is 7 p.m. Monday (May 18) at City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. and will cover the administration's proposed budget for the Public Works and Inspections divisions. The council, in conjunction with the CBAC and a budget consultant, may then formulate amendments to the 2015 budget before final passage.

--Bernice

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

PMUA Checking Payment of Sewer Fees

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority and the city are working together to make sure that all sewer connection fees for building projects since 2006 have been paid, an engineer said Tuesday.

Brian Grant of Grant Engineering & Construction Group LLC said he has the entire log for 307 projects and suggested that builders contact the authority to find out whether they were assessed connection fees. Grant said lack of a permit "may result in a lien."

Grant was among venders for various services who introduced themselves and spoke at the invitation of PMUA Board Chairman Charles Tyndale Tuesday.

"Do you know presently how many projects are finished or underway and haven't paid their sewer fee?" PMUA Commissioner Harold Mitchell asked Grant.

"As of now, we don't have a number," Grant said.

Mitchell said he wants a policy set for those who haven't paid.

Asked where a builder would pay, Tyndale said, "Here," meaning the office at 127 Roosevelt Avenue where the meeting took place.

Assistant Comptroller and now also "Acting Interim Chief Financial Officer" Leanna Walcott said normally the authority gets information from its sewer operation and gets an escrow deposit, but she said, "Lately it's been really a struggle."

In 2006, the city had numerous redevelopment projects, not all of which came to fruition. Some received all necessary land use approvals from the city early on, but delayed building until the economy improved. Recently, perhaps due to the promise of a one-seat ride to New York City on the Raritan Valley Line, development applications have increased, with many multi-unit apartment buildings approved or proposed. See a development overview here .and a downtown development map here.

In February, the PMUA board passes an increase in sewer connection fees, which are calculated per dwelling unit. From a previous Plaintalker post: The increase in the sewer connection fee will be from $2,140 to $2,300. As explained at a recent PMUA meeting, this charge is per dwelling unit, so for example a proposed 200-unit new development would require an additional $34,000 in fees over the 2014 rate.

Grant said his firm had also updated maps for the entire city, which has a 110-mile sewer system, and an 8- by 10-foot wall map is now installed at the authority's Cottage Place location.

Sewer information is posted on the PMUA web site and residents can also sign up there for notices and advisories.

--Bernice

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Williamson, Young Say They Were Locked Out

Departing PMUA executives said Tuesday they were locked out, disputing Chairman Charles Tyndale's May 7 statement that they "took it upon themselves to leave" the authority.

Outgoing Executive Director Dan Williamson and Chief Financial Officer Duane Young spoke during public comment at the authority's regular meeting. Williamson, formerly the city's corporation counsel, had a three-year PMUA contract through June 30, but said Tyndale informed him by phone on April 30 he was not a finalist in the search for the next director and asked his preference regarding his "day-to-day status."

"I advised you that it was not my desire to remain there on a day to day basis without any real authority to continue and carry out my responsibilities," Williams said in a letter to Tyndale, adding "it would make sense" to bring in the new person. "I further indicated that my preference would be a monetary buy-out through the term of my contract," he said, though assuming he would remain until the new person was approved by the board.

Williamson said when he arrived at his office the same day, he found himself locked out of the internet/computer system, as was the Finance Department, and locks were being changed. The authority's security manager then stood by while he packed all his belongings, he said, which was "inconsistent" with the phone call and a letter from Tyndale regarding their conversation.

Williamson called the experience "humiliating"

The board held a special meeting on May 4 to hire an interim director and name signatories for payroll and other expenditures. Tyndale alleged at another special meeting three days later that the two "took it upon themselves to leave," and the board approved a new executive director, Rodney Hedley, with a mid-June starting date.

Tyndale began to respond to Williamson Tuesday, but attorney David Minchello of DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole cautioned him not to speak further due to possible litigation. But when Williamson concluded by saying, "I did not deserve to be treated that way," Tyndale said, "I apologize for your discomfort."

Young reviewed his 15 years of service, including a stint as acting executive director after former Executive  Director Eric Watson and Assistant Executive Director David Ervin left in 2011. He also traced the sequence of events on April 30, saying, "I was completely shocked" to see two locksmiths arriving as he packed his personal belongings. He said he was willing to continue receiving bi-weekly payments or a lump sum for the term of his contract.

Tyndale also apologized to Young.

Earlier in the meeting, the board approved naming Assistant Comptroller Leanna Walcott as "acting interim CFO," effective immediately, at no additional compensation. As yet, no successor to Young has been named.

--Bernice

City Images

It's been a good old bridge. According to this plaque, the Watchung Avenue railroad bridge was built in 1907. Definitely time for the replacement now underway.
I've seen this before, but it always fascinates me. If you are on North Avenue in late afternoon, you may see this optical illusion of a floating plaque with a scary cat face at the top of this 1885 building. Click to enlarge.
PMUA cans flank a narrow pathway for pedestrians outside the Telephone Building on East Fourth Street. As more apartments come on line downtown, will we see more cans on the sidewalk on collection days?
Next time you're in City Hall, go up to the second floor and see this display on development and an honor the city received.. 

These are large versions of development charts that are also online. See development charts online here.

--Bernice

"Emergencies" Reflect Clash of Branches

A cracked pipe at the main firehouse and per diems for an engineer were surprise items at Monday's regular City Council meeting,

Councilwoman Diane Toliver began her plea for help "for our brave ones" just after a presentation by Finance Director Ron West. She said after hearing Fire Chief Frank Tidwell mention a cracked pipe during last week's budget deliberations, she visited the firehouse herself. The first thing she noticed was a strong odor of mold and mildew, she said, as a result of an ongoing problem with old pipes.

Toliver asked City Administrator Rick Smiley when he was made aware of the problem and after further remarks from her, Smiley said he was not given information.

"I will look into it," he said.

Toliver had urged repairs at once so the firehouse would not be without heat next winter and wanted the money allocated in the current budget.

"I was appalled," she said. "Our bravest do not discriminate in whose house they go to."

Though compelling, the request seemed out of line with the established process for capital improvements, as mandated by the state Department of Community Affairs. It involves review by both the governing body and the Planning Board and specifically prohibits expenditures that are not in the Capital Improvement Plan. As a freshman member of the council with less than six months' experience, Toliver may not be aware of the process, but it is surprising that Tidwell would apparently not be following it to help solve a chronic plumbing problem.

The other situation also hinged on an emergency, according to Smiley. Council President Bridget Rivers had denied Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's request last Monday to add an item to the agenda, namely hiring of engineers. Rivers asked Smiley to confirm whether, after she expressly denied Mapp's "walk-on" item, an engineer was hired the next day.

Smiley answered that an engineer was hired on a per diem basis to sign off on road openings and PSE&G matters. The utility company is currently upgrading power lines in the city as mandated by the grid operator, PJM. The project received Zoning Board approval in May 2014 and work may continue through 2015.

The city gave up an in-house engineering division several years ago in favor of contracting with an outside firm, most recently Remington & Vernick. But Smiley said, "To date, we don't have an engineer."

Rivers said the per diem engineers "have no grounds to be paid." Rivers and Smiley disagreed whether Remington & Vernick were actually in "holdover" status.

Corporation Counsel Vernita Sias-Hill cut the exchange off by saying it fell under the category of potential litigation and could only be discussed in closed session, whereupon the public was ordered out of the courtroom for about 20 minutes. No more was said on the subject when the council reconvened in public session.

The incident was another in a series where a council majority denies something the administration wants or needs, and the administration then does a work-around to make it happen. In this case, certain actions need sign-off by an engineer.  If the council wants one firm and the administration prefers another and can't get council approval, it's a stand-off. All the city web site says under Engineering is, "Please visit again for updates."

--Bernice


Monday, May 11, 2015

Budget Hearing, Road Repair Bond On Agenda Tonight

Tonight's City Council meeting includes a public hearing on the 2015 budget as it was introduced in April, and a vote on a $4 million bond issue to support road repairs.

The budget process includes requests from city departments and divisions which may be modified by the administration before being handed off to the governing body with budget introduction. The next step is review and possible amendment before another public hearing and final passage. The council is in the midst of talks on the budget, with amendments expected later this month. Tonight's hearing is on the administration's budget as described in the link above, not the final budget after council modifications.

The bond ordinance was the subject of a special meeting on April 27 that fell through for lack of a quorum. One crucial factor is timing on a Community Development Block Grant that, along with state Department of Transportation funds and proceeds of the bond issue will permit repairs of several city roads. If not used before a June 30 deadline, the CDBC funds could be lost.

On May 4, the administration also wanted to add a related item, hiring an engineer for the road work. Council President Bridget Rivers bristled at Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's request to consider adding that and the hiring of a redevelopment specialist, saying there was a firm deadline of noon Wednesday to submit agenda items.

Rivers reminded Mapp of his opposition to "walk-on" additions to the agenda when he was council president. The agenda is set by the council president for discussion at a meeting prior to the regular session at which the council votes on resolutions and ordinances.

"I'm asking my colleagues not to support any walking-on items," Rivers said on May 4. Mapp can pitch to have his requests added tonight as new items, but five of the seven council members must agree to do, and a majority has been inimical to the administration since it took over in January 2014.

Rivers pooh-poohed the need for a redevelopment specialist, saying Economic Director Carlos Sanchez could do the work, Sanchez said the role involved preparation of redevelopment plans.

"I don't think I have the capacity to do that," he said.

In terms of an engineer for road projects, Mapp said, "We do not have an engineer."

Road projects were previously managed by engineer Jackie Foushee of Remington & Vernick, who left the firm to become the first African-American female head of Public Works in Trenton. Foushee had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Plainfield roads and the repair schedule, which apparently is not matched by a successor from the firm.

In the midst of the discussion, Councilwoman Gloria Taylor said, "I have never see a mayor come in and take over a council meeting,"

As Rivers banged her gavel, Taylor asked Corporation Counsel Vernita Sias-Hill to review protocol, but she had been absent briefly with a coughing fit and missed the discussion  City Clerk Abubakar Jalloh then cited the option of adding new items by a two-thirds vote of the council at the regular meeting.

Ciouncilman Cory Storch argued that a mayor has the right to attend council meetings and request additions to the agenda.

"That's a lie," former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said from the audience as Storch said she had routinely done so.

Councilwoman Rebecca Williams warned that the city could lose an opportunity by not taking action, but Rivers said, "This council will not delay any streets being paved."

Councilwoman Diane Toliver reviewed what she had learned about the road project process as a new member and said, "Every ward is going to have something done this year, based on money."

Rivers went back to confronting Mapp, calling his request "very disrespectful," which Mapp refuted by quoting the city's charter on mayoral rights, but Storch's bid to add the engineering item failed when only he and Williams supported it.

Tonight's meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. View the May 11 agenda here.

--Bernice