The untimely death of Eric Watson has created a void in leadership of the Department of Public Works and Urban Development, which includes six vital divisions - Inspections, Recreation, Planning, Building, Engineering and the City Yard. While the city administrator can take over as acting head of the department, there are still 17 months remaining in Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's current term and a search for Watson's successor is likely.
Watson was uniquely qualified for the job, as he had held the same post under Mayor Mark A. Fury in 1994. When he became the first executive director of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, many Public Works employees became the core staff of the new authority and though autonomous, it was linked to the city in several ways. Two other Public Works officials, Lou Jones and David Ervin, joined Watson in the initial leadership of the PMUA.
Watson was the second director to serve in Mapp's administration since he became mayor in January 2014. Eric Jackson had served from September 2011 through the end of 2013 in the administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and was so well-regarded that Mapp kept him on, with City Council approval, when he took office. Jackson left to become mayor of Trenton in July 2014 and City Administrator Rick Smiley served additionally as acting DPW&UD director until Watson returned in September 2014.
Because Watson was so well-known, a successor must be prepared to meet a clamor of needs from the public in as capable a way as he did. Public Works Superintendent John Louise is in the front line in that regard, dealing with residents' concerns about potholes, leaf collection, street trees and the physical state of the city. He also works closely with the other divisions to set up public events such as Tuesday's National Night Out.
The city's charter requires three departments under which all divisions are distributed. Two that are now in the DPW&UD, Recreation and Inspections, were under the Department of Public Affairs & Safety until Mayor Fury moved them. The story goes that Fury wanted to name a boyhood friend as tax collector, but the person's background was in social services. So Fury took Health and social services out of the Department of Public Affairs & Safety and moved them to Administration & Finance. Other divisions went to the DPW&UD, leaving only Police and Fire divisions in DPA&S. The result is a mixed bag of responsibilities in the other departments, which could be remedied in the next mayoral term by realigning them.
When Watson rejoined city government, some surmised that plans were afoot to bring operations of the PMUA under city control with his help. However, no steps were taken. If that was in fact a goal, a new DPW&UD director might find the array of responsibilities even more daunting.
Whatever happens next, Eric Watson will be remembered for his service. Passing at the age of 59, he had given most of his adult life to Plainfield. May he rest in peace.