Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Little Redbud Tree

Intrigued for decades by the purple-pink flowers of the Redbud tree, which appear before the leaves, I was entranced to find a whole bunch of them on Cleveland Avenue.

The seed pods were very tempting and I finally collected a few.
Over the winter, I followed the rather arcane directions on how to propagate the seeds: "Dip in boiling water, hop on one foot while singing the national anthem and mumble an incantation while planting."
Ooops, just fooling except for the boiling water part.

I got four sprouts and guarded them from the cat, who had developed a fondness for knocking over anything on the propagating shelf on the porch.

Started in vermiculite, they grew nicely, but then I realized there was no nutrition in the medium. So outside they went, in compost-filled pots.

One is doing very well (see above) and maybe in 15 years I will actually have a tree (if I am still on the planet).
Not one for longterm plans, I tend to deal more with annuals in the garden. But for the Redbud tree, I will ignore my familial lack of longevity and keep my hopes high.

Seven Years Later

Tomorrow will mark seven years since I retired from the Courier News.
For the past five years, I have been blogging about Plainfield.
Many things have changed during these years. Four people have worked the Plainfield beat for the newspaper since 2003. The local blogosphere has exploded since 2005 to include more than 20 bloggers. People have gone from asking, "What's a blog?" to becoming used to receiving both hyperlocal and mainstream news online.
Some things, however, have been slow to change. There is probably a 10-year file on the topic of security cameras downtown. The city has yet to make effective use of online communication. Development, one of the issues that prompted the launch of Plainfield Plaintalker, has been stalled due to the economy and there is little to report.
Plainfield is currently beset by turmoil in the school district, an impasse between the City council and the administration over fiscal management and a dark cloud of gang violence hanging over the community. Sometimes good news is hard to find.
Still, there does seem to be a more energetic engagement by residents in community affairs, if only to comment on how things are going or to suggest possible new directions.
Certainly in 2003 I never could have imagined the changes that have come about, especially becoming a blogger. Thanks to all who read the blog, and keep those comments coming!

Friday, July 30, 2010

On Press Releases

Take a look at the link to "Press Releases" on the city web site and you will see five for this year, between March 29 and May 17. Before that, the latest one is from March 24, 2009.

It's hard to believe that the public information function is still rudimentary after four and a half years of this administration. It is equally puzzling that the web site is so confusingly laid out. I wish I had known to look for the press release on the Hispanic Affairs commission in May. It would have been evident that it is heavily skewed toward one organization.

So now a panel discussion is imminent on a topic of great importance to the city and all we know is that The Rev. Al Sharpton will speak. Sharpton is certainly a larger-than-life personality, but can he approximate a panel?

Other things are going on that would warrant a press release, but we are left in the dark. What is the program for National Night Out? Will it be a continuation of the Tuesday night bus rides to troubled neighborhoods to counter gun violence? Or hot dogs al fresco in the City Hall parking lot?

One hopes that among the many tasks on Chris Payne's list as IT director, an overhaul of the cumbersome and confusing city web site will soon be near the top. And perhaps there is someone on board among the city's several hundred employees who could spare a few minutes to put together a press release when one is needed. The 25-words-or-less flashing gizmo is not cutting it.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Key Posts Remain Unfilled

City Council action on two crucial cabinet posts fell through at Wednesday's special meeting.

The administration withdrew a resolution for council advice and consent to a director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services. City Administrator Bibi Taylor said the unnamed candidate is "still deliberating" the offer. The post has been unfilled since Jan. 31.

The governing body spent more than two hours in closed session, some of it with William I. Scherer, candidate for the post of certified municipal finance officer. But after the meeting opened, the council voted to table the resolution to appoint Scherer, a former councilman and mayor of Manalapan who has CMFO certification but no experience as one. Scherer was named manager of the Freehold Motor Vehicle Commission agency in 2003 and still held the title last year, according to public records.

Council President Annie McWilliams said the city needs someone with experience, "not that we need a body in place."

McWilliams said someone is needed who can train employees, put financial processes in place and "clean up some of the issues we have" in Audit & Control. The city has not had a permanent CMFO since Peter Sepelya retired at the end of 2007 and recent audit findings have pointed to the need for better fiscal management.

The city has been under a state order to appoint a CMFO since October 2009, but has received three 90-day extensions for a search. Meeting on the July 19 deadline for the third extension, the council agreed to ask the state Division of Local Government Services to appoint someone, a move that drew strong objections from the administration.

It was just at the point of a vote on the resolution for state intercession July 19 that the administration said a candidate had been found. The council then passed the resolution with the understanding that it would become null and void if an appointment was made at Wednesday's special meeting.

Just as a similar resolution urging action on filling the AFH&SS directorship was up for a vote on July 19, the administration asked for its withdrawal, saying an offer was being made to a candidate.

Corporation Dan Williamson, who has been communicating with the state DLGS, said Wednesday he will inform officials of the ongoing process. If the council rejects Scherer, the city will have to request a further extension, he said.

In public comment, resident James Pivnichny objected to having a resolution on the agenda with no candidate's name.

"Is this the way Plainfield should be doing business? I hope not," he said.

A former Republican mayoral candidate and presently the GOP candidate for the Second & Third Ward City Council seat, Pivnichny said, "Obviously the mayor is engaging in delaying tactics."

McWilliams said neither the council nor the city clerk's office had received the name of the candidate for the directorship.

Dr. Harold Yood asked what the effect of tabling would be on the CMFO resolution and McWilliams replied, "The resolution clearly states that if no action is taken, it goes to the state."

She added the decision to table was based on a desire to put someone in place, but the council not having all the information to do so.

Councilman William Reid voted "no" to table the resolution and said after the meeting he felt the matter could have been resolved that night. Reid said he felt Scherer had enough experience to do the job.

The council meets next for an agenda session on Aug. 9, 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. Its regular meeting will be 8 p.m. Aug. 16 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Masjidullah Celebrates Re-Opening

A mosque described as an integral part of the city and especially the West End for decades will hold a grand reopening Friday after $200,000 in renovations.

Imam Khalil Abdul-Aziz, board president of Masjidullah, will lead a ribbon-cutting ceremony from 11 a.m. to noon on Grant Avenue between West Third and Fourth streets. The event is open to the public. It will include a history of Masjidullah, details of the renovation project, remarks by masjid leaders and local dignitaries and a viewing of the masjid’s interior.

The mosque has been located at 321 Grant Avenue since 1969.

Imam Abdul-Wali Muhammad, the community’s leader for more than 30 years and only the third to serve in 41 years, said Wednesday the renovations, including turrets and pediments and a new stucco exterior, give the building a more Islamic look outside.

Inside, he said, “It’s much more attractive than it used to be. It means a nice environment (that) enhances operations.

“It’s been a long time in coming,” he said.

The building now also has new windows and doors and a new foyer. Carpeting, ceiling tiles and fans, wall treatments and a podium are also new, board member Siddeeq El-Amin said.

The building was once a hardware store and became home to the first local temple founded by members of the Nation of Islam. After the Hon. Elijah Muhammad passed away in February 1975, his son, Minister Wallace Muhammad was elected to be leader of the community.

According to a brief history of Masjidullah, “As Imam Warith Deen Mohammed transformed the community from the Nation of Islam to a community that practiced the religion of Al-Islam, the guidance of the Holy Qur’an, and the life of the Prophet Mohammed Ibn Abdullah, the Plainfield community continued to support the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed.”

Nowadays, Friday services at the masjid attract about 150 men and 20 to 25 women, El-Amin said. Imam Abdul-Wali Muhammad said both observant Plainfielders and those from Islamic homelands around the world attend the prayer services. The masjid also offers classes in Arabic, Islamic and Quranic Studies and an after-school program. In addition, for 15 years it has operated a Muslim Community Soup Kitchen that is open to the public.

The grand re-opening comes as the Islamic observation of Ramadan fasting approaches, starting on August 11 and ending with a celebration on Sept. 10 to mark the end of fasting.

--Bernice Paglia

Forum Will Be Live on Radio

According to a flier posted on the city web site, Sunday's "Call to Action" panel discussion will be broadcast live on WBLS and WLIB. Click here to to see the flier.
If you don't have radios all around the house as I do, you can listen to WBLS on your computer or phone. See more here.
WLIB also has live streaming audio on the computer.
If you want to be there in person, it's 6 p.m. Sunday at Washington Community School.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Notebook Love

People who write nowadays may only do so digitally, but for the rest of us there are notebooks.

If you are of the latter tribe, check out these exceptional examples.


Town Hall Meeting To Focus on Gangs

Image: A home-made gang shirt displayed at a June 3 forum on gangs.
Another panel discussion on gang violence in Plainfield will take place Aug. 1, according to the city's web site.
"A Call to Action" will be held 6.p.m. on that date at Washington Community School.
To read about the June 3 panel discussion, click here.
The announcement of the Aug. 1 meeting included no further information.
A series of gang-related shootings led to a June 28 rally at City Hall, after which participants boarded buses to be taken to three troubled neighborhoods, where they distributed fliers and talked to residents about the need to increase awareness of gang activity and to report it to authorities. Residents were advised to check bedrooms and backpacks of young people for weapons and to learn gang signs and culture. The neighborhood visits have continued on Tuesday evenings.
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fiscal Governance a Key Issue

Now that the temperature is a bit more amenable to serious thinking, this writer took a fast spin through the 129 posts since Plaintalker II was launched on May 2. A dominant theme is the filling of two cabinet posts, a chief finance officer and a director for the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services.

Deemed an urgent matter in an October letter to the mayor and governing body from the state Division of Local Government Services, the issue of appointing a CFO has dragged on through three 90-day extensions. Meanwhile, the governing body has pressed the administration harder to take action, most recently with a proposed resolution to seek a state-appointed CFO.

On July 19, the third deadline for action, the City Council was prepared to force the issue through legislation. But the administration countered by saying a candidate had been identified, though giving no details. Similarly, the administration said an offer would be made to a candidate for the directorship of AFH&SS.

Now there will be a special meeting Wednesday at which the promises will either be revealed as pie in the sky or an actual good-faith effort to comply with the governing body's ardent request to see these two vital cabinet posts filled.

Plaintalker's crystal ball sees a Monmouth County Democrat emerging as the CFO candidate, but alas, no verification that the candidate is a certified CFO. The director's post was supposed to be offered to a city resident,

Given the passion of a council majority to see these two posts filled with qualified people, it is unlikely that the governing body will allow itself be put in a trick bag by the administration Wednesday by acceding to conditions on the appointment of the CFO. Candidates are slated to be interviewed by the council in closed session before the special meeting.

The administration has pointed to a dearth of certified CFOs as well as the council's earlier rejection of a candidate as reasons why the situation has gone on so long. Should the council find the CFO candidate wanting on Wednesday, the dilemma for the council will be whether to be blamed for yet more delay or to stick to its guns and take nothing less than a highly capable person.

The department head should be an easier decision, if the candidate has agreed to the administration's offer. In that case, the candidate must be assured of being able to do the job without interference from the mayor. Much of the recent discussion at council meetings has consisted of the city administrator and corporation counsel speaking for the mayor in opposition to the governing body's concerns. Council President Annie McWilliams held her ground on July 19 and has since explained the goals of seven items in what she calls the Fiscal Accountability, Integrity and Responsibility (FAIR) legislative package.

It may well be that citizens will not get to file into the City Hall Library at the dot of 8 p.m. Wednesday for the special meeting. If the closed session goes past the appointed hour, so be it. Better to have all questions answered and issues aired on these important appointments, so that advice and consent can hopefully take place at the special meeting.

If not, state intercession is the next logical step.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Here You Go, Folks!

My mini-rant about lack of information on National Night Out is answered here in this mini-flash on the city web site.

"Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-That's all, folks!" as a certain porcine fellow used to say.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Inquiring Minds Ask: National Night Out?

According to the web site for National Night Out, the anti-crime event, the date for such observations is Tuesday, Aug. 3.

In Plainfield, the event was championed for many years by First Ward Councilwoman Elizabeth Urquhart and more recently by First & Fourth Ward Councilwoman Linda Carter.

Under Carter's aegis, the event ballooned to several weeks one year, with competitions among wards for participation.

So what of 2010? Time is short and there is no mention on the city's web site of any preparations, although the national web site indicates that Plainfield registered for 2010.

Given the city's recent tribulations with shootings, surely an anti-crime event, if only symbolic, is in order. May we please know more?

--Bernice Paglia

Special Council Meeting Wednesday



ON WEDNESDAY, JULY 28, 2010 AT 6:30 P.M.






Grace Church Event Today

Grace Episcopal Church is holding a Health Fair and Yard Sale today.

Click here for full details.

This church and its diverse, friendly congregation are a prime asset of the Park & Seventh neighborhood. Mark your calendar now for noon on Aug. 29, when the annual Carillon Concert and Peach Festival will take place. Click here to learn more about Grace Church.


NCCA Fundraiser Tonight

This year’s annual fundraiser for New Covenant Christian Academy will reflect the times, co-founder Stephanie DeGeneste said Friday.

Enrollments are down from 52 last year to 38 now, as some parents have lost jobs and one student no longer has a benefactor paying tuition.

Economic circumstances make the school’s annual scholarship fundraiser all the more important this time, she said.

The event is 6 p.m. tonight, July 24 in the sanctuary of First-Park Baptist Church, 315 W. Seventh St.

Local artists are donating their talents in music, spoken word and dance, and admission is free, although a “love offering” will be accepted at the event. Those unable to attend may send a donation to the school.

The school currently offers K-8 education and hopes to offer high school classes soon.

The school’s tuition is only $4,500, compared to what DeGeneste said was about $15,000 for public school tuition.

As a private religious school, DeGeneste said, “We fill a particular niche out here.”

DeGeneste wrote a book about what she called “the miraculous journey” of the school, which began four years ago on a $250 shoestring. The book, “WHAT GOD CAN DO With a Slice of Bread and a Teaspoon of Peanut Butter,” was released in May and has brought widespread attention to the school, she said. It is currently available only through the school office and proceeds of its sale benefit the school.

DeGeneste said the school family is very excited to have a student accepted into the NJ SEEDS program, which "prepares academically talented, financially limited youth for success at competitive secondary schools," according to its web site.

For more information about New Covenant Christian Academy, click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, July 23, 2010

Three Meetings Ahead for BOE


JULY 24, 2010 9:00 A.M. BOARD RETREAT



A Torrid Weekend Ahead

A Praying Mantis rousted by the garden hose.

One of the books I just took out at the Plainfield Public Library was Graham Greene's "A Burnt-Out Case." Appropriately for the current heat wave, the author vividly describes the climate in which the protagonist finds himself: "Even at night the air was so humid that it broke upon the cheek like tiny beads of rain."

Saturday's prediction is for temperatures in the high 90s that will feel like 103 degrees or so. Once again, we must take heed of the health warnings about extreme heat's effects on the body (and, I will add, on the mind). I plan to be resting with a good book in the afternoon as we endure this prolonged spell of hot weather.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

We Are Grateful!

Thanks to Platoon 2 of the Fire Division, Battalion Chief Henry Robinson III and members of the Police Division who responded to a situation Thursday involving a smoldering garage roof behind our six-family building.

Workers had been using a propane torch to apply tar paper on the roof. A breezy day no doubt contributed to the problem, which only affected my neighbor's garage before it was quelled.

Without the quick response, nearly a dozen garages might have been affected. Thanks to all!


Dog (and Cat) Days Are Here

"The Director of Public Affairs and Safety shall, promptly after February 1
of each year, cause a canvass to be made of all dogs owned, kept or harbored
within the City limits and shall report on or before May 1 of each year, to the
License Bureau, the Health Officer and to the State Department of Health
the result thereof, setting forth in separate columns the names and addresses
of persons owning, keeping or harboring such dogs; the number of licensed
dogs owned, kept or harbored by each person, together with the registration
numbers of each dog; and, the number of unlicensed dogs owned, kept or
harbored by each person, together with a complete description of each
unlicensed dog. "

The language above is from the city's Municipal Code. It is of interest because the city is now proposing a 2010 census of all dogs and cats. Many years have elapsed since there was an animal census. The Health Division has long since been transferred out of Public Affairs & Safety to Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services. The cost of visiting each of the city's 15,000-plus households and processing the licenses is not known.

A notice about the impending canvass is posted on the city's web site. Click here to see it.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

McWilliams Summary, Plaintalker's Commentary

Thank heavens City Council President Annie McWilliams has posted her overview of Monday's meeting. I heard the acronym "FAIR," but didn't catch all of the statement she read. Her new post sums up how Monday's actions relate to the FAIR (Fiscal Accountability, Integrity and Responsibility) Legislation Package.

Read her post here.

The meeting was turbulent and hard to follow even for an old hand (albeit one impaired by the ongoing heat wave and then the unaccustomed chill in Municipal Court). I had to rewrite my post three times. So I am grateful to Annie for spelling it all out and giving residents a framework for understanding crucial fiscal decisions in the near future.

The council expects to hold a special meeting on July 28, at which action may be taken to fill the posts of chief municipal finance officer and director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services. The administration is to bring forth its candidates and the council anticipates interviewing them before possibly giving advice and consent to their appointments.

Plaintalker is hoping to report that the candidates are well-qualified and ready to take charge of their respective fiscal roles. Although there is a provision in state law to name a temporary CFO who then has two years to get certified, this writer is hoping that will not be the scenario offered.

The city needs a fully qualified CFO to guide the city during what is shaping up to be an extremely difficult budget process, one that will require the highest expertise.

Monday's revelations of two candidates in the wings are only the hint of a solution to the city's fiscal woes. Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said Monday he called the state Division of Local Government Services with the "tantalizing info" that the city had a CFO candidate. This on the eve of a third deadline since October 2009 to come up with one. Adding intrigue to the situation, the acting DLGS director with whom Williamson had been in talks had just gone out on a two-month leave and the city's personnel director was out on jury duty.

It remains to be seen whether the proposed CFO is certified and the proposed finance director is willing to step in to a messy situation. Will the fiscal maelstrom subside into calm waters? We all have to wait and see.


Senior Freeze

If you are a senior and also a homeowner, you must learn more about the Senior Freeze program. Those in the know who have filed proper applications will soon be receiving checks to keep their property tax level constant.

Read more about the program here. Take note that if you are a new applicant, you may not get a check in 2011, but your filing will establish your eligibility for future benefits.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

CBAC Named

In the final vote Monday, here are the members of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee for the budget year that began July 1:

Lilas Borsa Donahue, Pat Barksdale, Jan Massey, Wilbert Gill, Shari Effman, Jeanette Criscione, Dee Dameron, Alan Goldstein, Linda Casey, Susan Kilduff, Charles McRae and Robert Darden will comprise the committee.

The last two names were added at the July 19 meeting. Councilman Rashid Burney nominated Charles McRae and Mr. Darden nominated himself from the audience.

The committee will review the FY 2011 budget and make recommendations before passage.


Ought to Have Brought a Pashmina

I had a fleeting thought that it might be cold in Municipal Court for Monday's City Council meeting and even considered stowing a pashmina in my messenger bag.

Well, too bad I didn't follow my instincts.

Initially, the transition from 90-degree weather outside to air conditioning apparently in the 6os required only a somewhat odd bodily shift. But then as the bone-chilling temperature wore on, this writer became increasingly distracted. Finally, before public comment, I had to leave.

I have a thyroid condition that makes me mind the cold. As previously reported on Plaintalker, the newsroom summer temperature of 60 degrees used to force me to go outside to sit in my car and warm up.

BTW, my pashmina was a gift from daughter Audrey. It's not anything I would buy myself, but it is lovely and in August I may have to use it at the regular meeting.

If you plan to attend the next regular City Council meeting on Aug. 16, keep in mind that you may need a sweater, blanket or pashmina to get through the whole meeting.


Administration Offers Surprise Cabinet Posts

Just as the governing body was ready to vote Monday on seeking state intervention to get a chief finance officer after two and a half years without one, City Administrator Bibi Taylor announced that a candidate for the job had accepted the city’s offer.

“This is very good news,” said City Council President Annie McWilliams, who on her blog and also in a statement at Monday’s meeting had stressed the need for someone to fill the statutory post and for other fiduciary gaps to be filled.

But without further details, such as the offer letter and a resume Monday, some council members remained skeptical.

“If the city administrator did not make that statement in front of so many people and on camera, I would not take it seriously,” Councilman Adrian Mapp said, adding he was “appalled” that the administration had made an offer for a position that requires advice and consent from the council.

Taylor said the offer letter contained all the stipulations, including advice and consent of the governing body. The candidate must also be bonded (showing proof of being able to handle money responsibly).

Mapp asked for the proposed salary, but Taylor gave only a range of $90,000 to $95,000. When Mapp asked again and demanded to know who made the offer, the answer was that the mayor made the offer, but Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs said she did not prepare the offer letter.

The council ended up taking a 10-minute recess to allow the administration to retrieve the documents in question, but the recess ended with no action by the administration.

Taylor said the administration had done its part by identifying a candidate and making an offer and asked the council not to go forward with the resolution. But the council passed a modified resolution stating it would become null and void if, by a July 28 special meeting, a CFO is appointed. The resolution assumes all background material will be available by then for a council decision.

The scenario for hiring a CFO was complicated by the fact that the acting director at the state Division of Local Government Services suddenly went on leave for two months. The city must now deal with a new interim director. Although the acting DLGS director in October sent a sternly-worded letter to the mayor and governing body about hiring a CFO, the division then granted three extensions, the last of which expired at midnight Monday. The administration expects the current temporary CFO to stay on until the new CFO is hired.

Later in the meeting, a similar scenario occurred as the governing body prepared to vote on legislation calling for appointment of a director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services, a post which has been vacant since Jan. 31 but which previously had seven handoffs since January 2006.

Taylor said a candidate had been identified and an “offer will be made.”

Again, the candidate must be bonded.

The vote on the director may also be taken at the proposed July 28 special meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, July 19, 2010

Plainfield Has Downloadable Books!

Library Director Joseph Hugh Da Rold (also New Jersey Librarian of the Year) sent me some good news:

"The good news is that you do not have to travel to Westfield or Seattle to download books to your e-book reader. In fact, you don't even have to get out of your easy chair. From your home, you can download about 750 titles to your e-book reader with a library card from the Plainfield Public Library.

"We have been participating in the statewide ListenNJ program for several years now. Although it started with audio books (now over 5,000 titles), last year it began adding e-books, with about 25 titles added each month. Suggested book titles are welcome.

"To access, go to our website at, then under "Services" click on "Listen NJ'. If you don't already have a PIN number, there will be instructions on how to obtain one.

"Heads up: you can download to the Sony Reader and the Barnes & Noble Nook reader, but not to the iPad or the Kindle. If you have any questions, please contact our Coordinator of Public Services, Tina Marie Doody at 908-757-1111 ext. 146 or"

I don't have an e-book reader as yet, but for those who do, here is a great way to save time and energy. Another reason to appreciate the Plainfield Public Library!


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Garden Marauder Contained

Here is the giant caterpillar the my neighbor and I found on her big tomato plant. It was a Tobacco Hornworm, which had eaten up a bunch of leaves and also attacked some fruit.

Thanks to the Internet, we got its history and identification right away, compared to the Tomato Hornworm.
Somehow, this insect got to live out its life cycle with a chapter in Park & Seventh environs.
Our opinion is that it came here in a pot from Down South , with larvae in the dirt.
One never knows, does one?

Flowers and Seeds

The heat is keeping me from traveling much farther than Park & Seventh, but luckily my yard is producing some interesting images. The Cosmos plants above are the 14th generation of some that were planted on the grounds of Seattle Center. Attending the Bumbershoot music event on Labor Day weekend in 1996, I saw the plants being trampled by crowds on the last day and picked a few seed heads to stash in my bag. The annuals came through the next summer in my yard and have done so every summer since.
Here's how the seed head looks when ready for saving. The brown seeds must be separated from the yellow cases and saved in envelopes or bottles for spring planting next year. Or left to their own devices, they will self-sow in the same spot.

This year for the first time I grew Thunbergia, or Black-Eyed Susan Vine. Figuring out the seed mechanism was rather intriguing. I spotted what looked like a seed structure inside a green capsule, but didn't see anything like the ones in the packet.
They mystery was solved one night when I heard a faint "pop" and the case, now brown, split open to reveal the seeds. The force of the seed's splitting tossed the outer case about a foot from a table onto my keyboard.
The variety of seeds and seed pods never ceases to amaze me. Whether they explode, fly, roll or just drop to the ground, seeds guarantee the future of the next generation.

CBAC Named for FY 2011

Eleven residents are expected to be named to the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee Monday night for review of the FY 2011 budget.

The group includes several members who served on the FY 2010 committee, which should help the committee get up to speed quickly. Nominees are Ellsworth Williams, Jeanette Criscione, Joanne Macaluso, Fred D. Ellis, Jan Massey, Alan Goldstein, Carrie Faraone, Lisa Casey, Shari Effman, Susan Kilduff and Dee Dameron. The council will vote on the committee names at its regular meeting, 8 p.m. Monday in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The FY 2011 budget covers the fiscal year that began July1 and ends on June 30, 2011.

One of the findings of last year's committee was the need for a renewed effort to attract development to the city. To read Plaintalker's Feb. 10 post on the topic, click here. The FY 2010 committee had begun work in 2009 as part of a new system involving both citizen and council committees. To read more, click here.

The City Council's Finance Committee will also study the new budget once the administration produces it, and will make recommendations to the full governing body. The council cannot introduce the budget until the administration reviews department and division requests and makes its own recommendations. Once it is introduced, the governing body may then make any changes it deems necessary before final passage.

The FY 2010 budget resulted in two rounds of layoffs. State restrictions on spending are likely to force more hard choices in FY 2011. Budget hearings will be open to the public.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Books for Heat Waves

No sooner had I heard an interview with Adam Ross on WNYC than I found his novel, "Mr. Peanut," on the New Book shelf at the Plainfield Public Library. In addition, there was Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad."

By coincidence, my daughter Audrey had holds on both books in the Seattle Public Library system. I love the ability to dialogue from coast to coast on all sorts of things, but especially on books.

Audrey has an extra advantage in that she can download available books and read them before the reading date expires. Around here, I think only Westfield has downloadable books.

Anyway, "Mr. Peanut" kept me transfixed through the last heat wave and the Egan book (some parts of which I remember from The New Yorker) is doing the same in this new heat wave.

When one can only recline and wait for the heat wave to be over (especially with no air conditioning), a really good book is a great distraction.


Developer Seeks Approval for Apartments

A recent City Council vote to permit rehabilitation of the former Mirons warehouse has cleared the way for developer Frank Cretella to seek Planning Board approvals.

The building was removed from the North Avenue redevelopment plan in the council vote and is now up for an Aug. 5 Planning Board hearing for preliminary and final site plan approvals for 12 apartments and 2,482 square feet of retail space in the long-vacant building.

The hearing is 8 p.m. Aug. 5 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

The developer is seeking a variance from off-street parking regulations. Twenty-three are required for the development and the developer is proposing no parking spaces.

Once nicknamed the "luxury condos" project for a previous redevelopment project, it is now called Gavett Place Properties LLC. The site is at the northwest corner of Gavett Place and East Second Street near the main train station.

Cretella has several other projects in the works. Click here for a Plaintalker summary from March 2009. The 100-unit West Second Street Commons proposal did not move forward, but is still under discussion as city officials mull the need for greater residential density downtown.

The Front Street Offices LLC project is also in abeyance. That project envisioned building on the existing Appliance-Arama warehouse and incorporating two city-owned lots on the West Front Street block anchored by McDonald's restaurant.

--Bernice Paglia

Important Issues on Monday's Agenda

In her blog post today, City Council President Annie McWilliams explains several items on Monday's agenda and their significance for the city's future fiscal health. Click here to read her post.

Over the past five years, Plaintalker has traced some of the steps that led up to the current situation - Administration & Finance duties being handed off seven times in the mayor's first term, no permanent CFO since the end of 2007, a pattern of adding food to all public events, an increasing disdain for the governing body's calls for austerity.

Monday's meeting is shaping up as a watershed moment for governance as intended by the city's charter and code and by state law, or conversely a city run on whims and indulgence. Never mind the apologias from the city's attorney and its top executive, the administration is looking more and more like a train wreck. All the governing body seeks, it seems, is for it to be put back on the rails.

Monday's meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.


Friday, July 16, 2010

CFO Ad Posted, No Director Sought

The New Jersey League of Municipalities maintains a job listing page on its web site. As of today, there is no listing for a director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services.

Click here and scroll down to see what kinds of jobs municipalities are offering.

This is a good web site to watch in these changing times for other governmental information. The annual League of Municipalities conference is held in November. Click here to read a message from Executive Director William Dressel on this year's conference.

One reason to attend these conferences is to earn credits for ongoing education in one's field. Another is to learn the latest strategies for best practices in municipal government. Former Gov. James E. McGreevey took another view the first time he attended one of these conferences (read his book).

Over the years, the contingents from Plainfield have fluctuated from a whole bunch of people to selected individuals. With money tight this year, it will be interesting to see what level of participation takes place.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New Animal Control Guidelines Posted

In response to citizen concerns about animal control, Health Officer Mark Colicchio offered new guidelines at Monday's City Council meeting.

The city recently laid off two long-time animal control employees who served within the Health Division. Services are now provided by Associated Humane Societies of Newark.

Colicchio said agency staff is on hand in the city during business hours and is on call after hours for emergencies. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., residents may call the Health Division at (908) 753-3092 or the Police Division at (908) 753-3017 with any animal control concerns. After hours, the Police Division should be contacted at the same number. Colicchio said police will determine whether an emergency exists and if so, will call Associated Humane Societies.

The full guidelines have been posted on the city's web site. Click here to review them. Lost and found pets may be reported to Associated Humane Societies at (973) 824-7080 between the hours of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. For lost pets, owners should describe the animal and indicate the time it was lost. To report lost or found pets after hours, call the Police Division at (908) 753-3107 and police will contact Associated Humane Societies.

For questions on spaying and neutering, residents should call Associated Humane Societies during regular business hours. To adopt a pet, call the agency or visit its web site at

Anyone with questions about the guidelines may contact the Health Division at (908) 753-3092.

(Plaintalker's question is why nobody proofread the guidelines before posting on the city web site. They are more than slightly garbled.)

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Check Mark's Article for Joe Black Story

Thank heavens Courier News reporter Mark Spivey has posted a definitive story on the issue of creating a suitable memorial for baseball star Joe Black.

I struggled with this story today, but being a sports illiterate and also having a hard time following the nuances of the efforts to honor Joe Black, I was at a loss to explain the details.

So read Mark's story here and be informed.


Seen on the Street

OMG! My favorite car, the SmartforTwo! I love this car and would have gladly bought one if not for fear of Escalades and other giant vehicles that might have squashed me like a bug on one of Plainfield's unofficial raceways.

Oh dear! Perhaps the driver was not so Smart ... check out the parking ticket.
I still love this car. I know there is a mid-life crisis where people (mostly men) go wild and buy red cars. If there is a female late-life equivalent, I still might cast caution to the winds and get one (maybe in lavender or luna-moth green, if such is available).
What is your dream car nowadays?

Council Wants Posts Filled, Costs Curbed

Tension between the governing body and the administration was an undertone at Monday’s City Council meeting as the two branches continued to spar over appointments and finances.

The appointments in question are those of a certified municipal finance officer and a director of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services. The finance issue involves curbing discretionary spending by the mayor for such things as flowers, food and employee parties.

The city has had no chief finance officer since 2007. In October 2009, the state Division of Local Government Services sent Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and the council a stern letter warning the use of acting or interim CFOs would not be tolerated and requiring a status report on the appointment of a CFO within three weeks. Since then, the city has received three extensions, the latest one to expire on July 19. The council is now considering a resolution to ask the state to appoint a CFO, but City Administrator Bibi Taylor and Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the mayor considers that an infringement on her powers.

On Monday, Councilman William Reid said the resolution “kind of pits the council against the mayor” and called for a joint request for state assistance “so it looks like we are concerted.” The dissension may be deterring applicants for the post and reflecting on the future of city development, he said.

Reid said the council could take “boxing gloves and guns” to work things out with the mayor, warning of a possible state takeover if the impasse continues.

“We just have to tell the mayor she has to do her job,” he said.

The finance director post has been vacant since Jan. 31 and before that, had a high turnover in the mayor’s first four-year term. Taylor has been informally covering AFH&SS responsibilities in addition to managing day-to-day city operations, but council members questioned the workload as well as a possible lack of checks and balances.

The city’s municipal code limits acting appointments to 90 days, but when Councilwoman Bridget Rivers asked, “Are we out of compliance?” Williamson said there was not a yes-or-no answer. When Rivers repeated her question, Williamson drew a laugh from the audience when he said, “The answer is a hybrid of yes and no.”

Despite the 90-day rule, he said, “We have to get things done.”

Taylor said without someone in the post, if she didn’t carry out the functions, nothing would happen. The department is the largest of three mandated by the city’s special charter. She said the administration takes exception to the council’s proposed resolution urging the mayor to appoint a director and in turn urged the council not to act on it.

Unless removed from the agenda, both resolutions will be up for a vote at the council’s regular meeting, 8 p.m. July 19 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

A proposed council resolution on discretionary spending follows the administration’s declaration July 1 that the city will forego special state aid in FY 2011. Although the reason given was to speed budget passage by not having to wait for the announcement of extraordinary state aid (now called transitional aid), some council members perceived it as a way to dodge constraints on spending now tied to acceptance of such funds.

In FY 2010, the mayor had to sign a Memorandum of Understanding for the city to accept extraordinary state aid, agreeing to limit spending on travel, food and employee celebrations. On Monday, Taylor said the administration took exception to the proposed resolution that would limit purchases of what Councilman Adrian Mapp described as “flowers, food, water, gifts, hosting of employee picnics and those kinds of things.”

Taylor said the governing body was “overstepping,” but Council President Annie McWilliams asked whether it was stepping into day-to-day operations or setting policy. Williamson equivocated, but Councilman Cory Storch called it policy, saying such restrictions are now actually being promulgated by the state.

Reid said he agreed with the idea of restricting spending and hoped the mayor was already doing so. He said “sodas and waters and candies” should not come out of city funds.

“By us saying we don’t want it, the mayor should at least listen to us,” he said.

In a related proposed ordinance, the council is seeking review of the city bills list.

‘We’re not voting to approve bills, we just want to look at them,” McWilliams said.

Taylor said the municipal code already allows for bills review “after they are paid,” but Mapp said most governing bodies in New Jersey review bills before payment. Taylor said such a change would slow down payment and create a backlog. But McWilliams said if the governing body sees a pattern of spending in the reviews, it could then have a discussion with the mayor and administration.

The proposed legislation is expected to be on the agenda next Monday.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shame on You!

No sooner did our new SID sign go up at Park & Seventh than some misguided person scrawled graffiti on it. Come on folks, can't we do better than that? I'm hoping the signs are made so that they can be cleaned. The broken-heart image echoed how I felt to see this petty mischief.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Money Matters on Monday's Agenda

Monday’s City Council agenda session includes a proposal to commit $1 million in Urban Enterprise Zone funds to a $1.8 million revolving fund for redevelopment loans in the city.

The other partners in the program would be private lenders and a third entity, possibly the New Jersey Redevelopment Agency, or a newly-created city entity.

Terms would allow loans of from $2,000 to $250,000, from six months to 84 months for repayment. (More later if it moves to the July 19 agenda).

Another proposed drawdown on the UEZ funds is $800,000 for the long-awaited CCTV program where strategically-placed cameras will assist public safety efforts. The new plan is to refit the Police Division basement for the surveillance operation. Previously, the former Tepper’s building basement had been considered.

My cursory study of the City Council packet in the Plainfield Public Library Saturday did not allow me to remember all the discussion items, but there are several. So all you council watchers, gird up for a long session.

There are a number of engineering items for Remington & Vernick, mostly for preliminaries. For example, the $140,875 tab for design and other preliminary services is for a $1.5 million reconstruction project on South Avenue. Council observers would have us believe that R&V is a favored firm for political reasons, but Plaintalker has no proof.

In other matters, JPMorgan Chase Bank has decided to drop municipal accounts, which in Plainfield’s case leave the municipality with more than $300,000 in checks that need to be canceled and put in the Budget Operations account. The check dates range from July 1, 2008 to June 15, 2010.

Another item would grant BC Productions of Plainfield a video recording contract at $100 per hour. Challengers included a Snellville, GA firm that wanted $173.25 an hour plus travel expenses. Not sure whether this is for regular City Council recording or something else.

Unfortunate that the public can no longer get the agenda online (Correction: Deputy Clerk A. Jalloh said Monday the link to tonight's agenda has been up since Friday. He suggests hitting the "refresh" button. Also links have been on the city web site all year, he said.)and especially the documentation that explains all. If you are able, the Plainfield Public Library council packet is now your best bet on getting advance info on the meeting.


New Aggregator on Plainfield: "Wow!"

Saul Qersdyn's new venture, compiling all Union County blogs on one site, quickly turned up the fact that Plainfield alone has 21 blogs. Qersdyn was suitably impressed and made a separate link to Queen City bloggers. Click here to see it.

Not all of the 21 municipalities have listings right now. Qersdyn is inviting would-be bloggers to learn more about "citizen journalism" by taking The Citizens' Campaign's 25-minute course on the subject. Successfully completing the course can lead to "certification" as a citizen journalist.

Some Plainfielders may remember The Citizens' Campaign as the force behind passage of the Civic Responsibility Act of 2005. Click here to read Plaintalker's post from Aug. 20, 2005. The list of opportunities to serve on boards and commissions is still not available from City Hall. In fact, many of the rosters have become garbled over the intervening years and need to be straightened out. But that is another story.

Regarding Plainfield blogs, some are single-topic efforts such as Dr. Gregory Palermo's posts on Plainfield trees, while others are round-ups of information and opinions. Two are anonymous takes on the school district. Several are published by legislators. Qersdyn's format lays them out in alphabetical order, without additional comment.

Blogger Dan Damon is also an aggregator of online local news and blogs. He posts on Plainfield Today and aggregates on CLIPS. Jackie Schnoop's blog is mostly about television, with weekly summaries and photos on life in Plainfield. Maria's Blog includes masses of information on the workings (or not-workings) of the school district, along with more slices of life in the Queen City.

It is worth a new look at all of the blogs on Qersdyn's Plainfield link. Readers will see differences such as frequency of posting and proportion of news content. Quersdyn states his goal this way: "The purpose of this information warehouse is to have a centralized starting point where people can look for various issues and information to all the towns in Union County. It also allows for a network of numerous bloggers and citizen reporters to support and assist each other in their pursuits."

When Qersdyn first contacted me by e-mail about his intentions, I replied, "Personally, I think the idea of hyperlocal blogs is diluted by aggregating them on a county-wide basis. I think most readers just want to know about their own communities and can't really relate to issues in other municipalities. Just my opinion."

Very provincial of me, no doubt. Qersdyn, as stated above, sees a value in knowing how other towns address common issues. I still think readers have their hands full just digesting what their own elected and appointed officials are up to.

Qersdyn's format is still being worked out. For example, there are several local "Patch" sites that are in fact a "platform" of online media, with advertising and professional editors. Click here to see the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Patch. These sites are quite different from the solo blogs and while they share the hyperlocal function, they are not aggregated on Qersdyn's countywide "information warehouse."

The question of how "local" news must be to interest readers is one that caused a radical change in the front-page format of some daily newspapers, who now relegate world news to a one-page summary at the rear of the first section. Local stories about adopting lab beagles or the latest bank robbery now merit the A-1, above-the-fold spot. This has come about because by the time a daily newspaper hits the porch, everyone has already heard or seen the world news on other media. Still, both the Patch and hyperlocal blog format give the reader just the hometown news, not what happened in the next municipality or county, a possible advantage over a daily that attempts to give local news from dozens of towns.

As a reader, what captures your interest among all these possibilities? Do you spin through many sources on your Blackberry or is reading the paper with your morning coffee a must? Do you like to see Plainfield in contrast to 20 other Union County towns or do you want to zoom in on City Hall and the school board?

Would you want to be a citizen journalist or just a consumer of well-reported local news? There are so many choices today. What are yours?


Thursday, July 8, 2010

From the Farm to You

Farm stand next to Salvation Army.

Fresh produce will be available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. this summer every Monday and Thursday on Watchung Avenue near East Seventh Street, and qualified residents can receive vouchers for fruits and vegetables.

After a short break for the July Fourth holiday, the farm stand will now be open until Thanksgiving. While anyone can shop there, participants in the federal Women, Infants & Children nutrition program will be eligible for $20 vouchers for produce, excluding white potatoes, which are considered a starch, not a vegetable.

The program's educational component seeks to increase knowledge of nutritional values of various foods. Participants can take lessons in English or Spanish at special kiosks in the WIC office in City Hall Annex, 510 Watchung Avenue, or online at

As a frequent buyer for several years, I can say it is a pleasure to have this opportunity. The farm stand also has flowers and one of my all-time favorites was a pot of gorgeous "wave" petunias for my topiary basket.

Pay a visit! You may find it quite useful.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

State Sets Audit Example

One of the last stories I worked on as a reporter in July 2003 was an overview of City Council cell phone use. Actually, I started working on it much earlier, but due to a certain editor's dilatory ways, I spent much of my first day of retirement on the phone answering his questions.

The story ran on A-1 and jumped to a double-truck centerfold. Its charts, graphics and copy told a tale of cell phone usage that ran the gamut from zero for one council member to shocking excess by another. Soon the governing body established strict policies for cell phone use, with reimbursement required for costs over plan limits.

Today news broke of flawed oversight at the state level. For example, one employee's cell phone bill continued to be paid for six years after his resignation. Numerous unused phone lines were also found in state offices. Click here to read the full audit findings. You can be sure that phone and wireless usage will now be tightened up for millions in savings.

Now that city staffers and officials have pricey devices such as Blackberries, let us hope that the new "DoIT" (Division of Information Technology) plans to look into municipal policies and costs. A tale recently heard in City Hall was that one individual ran up a $2,000 wireless tab before voluntarily reimbursing the city. Unless a person carries two Blackberries, one for official business and one for personal use, it is easy for costs to be commingled. And all that texting under the table may also be expensive.

It's a different world from 2003 in other ways as well. Every year, the city has the same listings in the phone book. There are two listings for the formerly city-run substance abuse recovery program, Dudley House and Project Alert. It has since been privatized. Safe Haven, a grant-funded program that expired many years ago, is still on the list, but callers are asked to leave a message for the "engineer," a role that has also been outsourced. These are small things that could be corrected.

The IT division has only one employee. At the June 28 special meeting, City Administrator Bibi Taylor said the city requested a waiver from a state-imposed hiring freeze to add another employee, but the state never acted on it. IT Director Chris Payne has given one overview of goals for the division and was supposed to give another last month at a council retreat, but it did not take place.

Given the newness of the division and lack of staff, it is not likely that all issues can be addressed. But certainly the lack of fiscal oversight doesn't help. The state audit was performed by the Office of Information Technology within the State Comptroller's office. As bloggers and council members alike have pointed out, the city has no chief finance officer or finance director to mind the local purse strings. The mayor has stated that media and communications should be under her purview, not that of a department head as required by the city's special charter.

The state audit is a good reminder that periodic reviews of various operations can lead to savings. It's a lesson for city officials to take to heart.

--Bernice Paglia

Blame It On the Heat

That big word I used for the City Council meeting schedule is probably real, though I could have talked about the "inefficacy" of the schedule and cut it back by one syllable.

This heat is enough to addle the brain and we are promised a week more of it. The cat refuses to take my advice about where to lie down to be cool. But as long as he indulges in his favorite trick of manipulating his water dish to make it splash all over, I guess he is coping with the heat.

He first inspects the dish while giving just the most contemplative small tail-twitches, then does his best imitation of having opposable thumbs by lightly pushing the dish from side to side with his big mitts. When the inevitable happens and water splashes over the side, he studies the spreading water with great scientific interest, taking mental notes on the pattern and sometimes giving a small squeak as if to say, "Eureka!"

This experiment holds never-ending interest for Mau. He used to just flip his old metal water dish from its holder by hooking a claw under the rim. The Pfaltzgraff one is heavier and presents more of a challenge, but Mau is always up to it. It is also a great way to exert his influence in the household, because the water must be mopped up and the dish must be refilled by somebody.

As long as his water-movement studies continue, I must conclude he is his normal self. I just hope it cools down soon.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Block 832 is HOT!

Had to run errands on foot this morning - the post office, bank, Twin City, library - and came home to find out it was 105 degrees before noon!

Take care, everybody. I plan to sit still and read a book until it cools off later today.



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"Abnormal Warmth"

No, we are not talking about this week. State Climatologist David Robinson says this abnormal warmth has been going on since March.

Click here to read his report for June.

Now we are having a genuine heat wave, and temperatures may stay in the 90s for several more days. July in New Jersey, ick!


Monday, July 5, 2010

Save the Dates/Timeliness

The next City Council action will take place at the July 12 agenda-setting session and the July 19 regular meeting.

Those of us who deplore the once-a-month business meeting will be able to provide evidence of its inefficaciousness by citing the many left-over items, most recently presentations at the June 21 meeting that should have occurred at the June 14 agenda session.

In the past two years, meeting changes have only taken place partway into the calendar year. This has caused quite a bit of confusion. Plaintalker's stance is that if changes are warranted, they should be timed to kick in with the annual publication of meetings from Jan. 1.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, July 4, 2010

State: Want Aid? Tighten Controls

After reading the new state rules for transitional aid (formerly extraordinary state aid), I can see why the administration may not want to apply.

Localities have to demonstrate strict fiscal prudence, meaning no discretionary spending and curtailing costs for city services. Click here to read the full document.

The city spent the last six months of FY2010 under similar controls due to a Memorandum of Understanding that was tied to the $250,000 in aid received. The city had asked for $3.5 million. All municipal spending on food and parties had to be halted, among other constraints.

Without new restrictions, the administration can resume its pattern of adding food to public events such as the annual Holiday Tree Lighting and many others. Meanwhile, the city still lacks the two key employees that are mandated to examine and guide spending, a chief finance officer and a finance director.

Although the administration said the reason for the decision not to seek aid was to speed budget passage, Councilman Adrian Mapp correctly pointed out the other side of the coin: No reins on spending for food, parties and other amenities. The only thing the governing body can do is raise objections, but the administration will have the last word, unless citizens also demand an end to the partying.

--Bernice Paglia

Fourth on the Third

The sunny side of the street had a sparse crowd Saturday as the annual July Fourth Parade kicked off on July 3.

There were no marching bands, but churches, steppers, community organizations, beauty queens, sports teams and others took part.

Politicians and dignitaries were plentiful in the line of march.

The Rev. Tracey L. Brown, pastor of Ruth Fellowship Ministries, former school board member and also a PMUA commissioner, served as grand marshal.

An enthusiastic bunch in green T-shirts represented Investors Savings Bank.

Youth soccer and baseball teams took part.

Many public safety vehicles could be seen. Fire Division mascot "Sparky" waved to the crowd.

The Plainfield Branch of the NAACP was represented.

A contingent of riders and their handsome steeds enlivened the parade.

The city's youth baseball team had a float.

Omega Psi Phi steppers wowed folks with their energetic moves.

The reviewing stand was down by the YWCA instead of the Park Madison plaza. Here is the emcee stand.

Colorful balloons delighted the eye.
Participants also included the Nation of Islam Mosque No. 80, the Independent United Order of Mechanics Western Hemisphere Inc. , Community Girl Scouts, the New Democrats, Maritza Boutique's Bolivian dancers, the Plainfield Board of Education, American Red Cross, Angels in Action, the Jersey Wolves and many others.
For today, I will be playing some John Philip Sousa marches at home and trying to stay cool.
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hotter Than the Hinges of Hell

I took a lot of parade pictures today, but the prospect of a big heat wave is distracting me.
Forecasts call for unrelenting heat from Monday through Friday.
Over the years since retiring, I have promised myself to avoid being in New Jersey in July, but the promise has yet to come true.
Make a game plan to have loose clothes, water, fans if not air conditioning and early-morning shopping if you are a senior. Feel free to lie down and rest during the day and do things at night after it cools down.
Heat waves are serious threats to health and require strategies to be safe.
-- Bernice

New Signs Mean Business

This handsome sign was spotted near the main train station, in the city's original commercial district. More will be placed throughout the Special Improvement District to alert residents and visitors to businesses.

The Special Improvement District includes both the downtown and South Avenue commercial areas. A quarterly SID newspaper, Positively Plainfield, is mailed to all households and includes a listing of businesses by category. I find the Park & Seventh business district especially convenient and I am looking forward to the new signage there.

A Tree Grows on Block 832

Coming home from the Plainfield Public Library Thursday, I was struck by the size of the ailanthus tree that has grown up in our front yard by the Lot 7 fence. This tree is a big weed! After a new owner in 2000 cut out landscaping services, a number of weed trees and vines began to take over. Asiatic Bittersweet is rampant along the fence. City workers regularly trim the city side of the fence, but over 10 years our side has become a jungle.

Ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven, is featured in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," symbolizing the main character's ability to thrive in poor circumstances. We actually have a lot of these trees on our block, too many now to remove without a lot of trouble. My neighbor and I yank up any young ones we come across. The presence of these invasive trees nowadays symbolizes neglect and urban decay.

Take this as a cautionary tale: Let ailanthus get a foothold and within a few years it will be three stories high!


Friday, July 2, 2010

City Will Forego Extra State Aid

City Administrator Bibi Taylor said Thursday the administration will not seek extraordinary state aid for FY 2011 to avoid the delay in budget passage that usually comes with the request.

The new fiscal year began Thursday and Taylor promised to present a budget to the council for introduction by August or September. Without having to wait for word on state aid, the city could conceivably pass the budget well before the third quarter, which is when the FY 2010 budget passed. By that time, payment of salaries and expenses left little leeway for cuts.

But Councilman Adrian Mapp said the decision puts the city "between a rock and a hard place."

Mapp said he doesn't like waiting to hear from the state, but he does like the "discipline" imposed by last year's Memorandum of Understanding with the city. The MOU tied acceptance of the funding to strict reins on spending for food, travel and other discretionary items. Click here for an earlier Plaintalker post on the subject. Part of the agreement was that any future application or acceptance of extraordinary state aid, now called "transitional aid," would carry the same caveats.

"It pretty much restricts unnecessary spending," Mapp said.

The governing body has clashed with the mayor over funding for special events and other non-essentials.

Councilman Cory Storch asked whether the governing body could impose similar restrictions on the administration's spending, but Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said, "My gut feeling is, no."

As the council approved a temporary budget for the first three months of FY 2011, Storch questioned whether it allowed for contract settlements. Taylor said five of six union contracts expired on Dec. 31.

"So this may not reflect the true cost?" Storch asked.

"Correct," Taylor replied.

As passed, the temporary budget reflects only what was expended per quarter last year.

The budget process will be for the administration to review departmental requests and make modifications before presenting the proposed budget to the governing body for deliberation and final decisions. In recent years, the council has relied on its own Finance Committee and a panel of citizens to review the budget before taking action. The final bit has been to wait for the state Division of Local Government Services to announce the special aid amounts. The FY 2010 budget for the year beginning July 1, 2009 did not pass until February of this year.

--Bernice Paglia

FY 2011 Opens with Debt

The city entered the 2011 fiscal year Thursday more than a quarter million dollars in debt, a tab that may go higher when winners of FY 2010 legal judgments press for payment.

The biggest chunk of the debt came from an emergency appropriation of up to $200,000 in March to take down a failing historic building on North Avenue. While the demolition took just one day, the cleanup went on for a month. At this time, City Administrator Bibi Taylor said no additional bills for the work have yet come in.

In addition, because budget transfers were not approved before the end of FY 2010, various salary payments totaling $82,275.69 must be made up in FY 2011, Taylor said.

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said motions are being filed by people who won lawsuits in 2010 but have not yet been paid.

Taylor stressed that Thursday’s transfers were the first of the new fiscal year, but others may be made up until Sept. 30.

The council made adjustments to the $460,700 transfer total to allow for possible payment of a repair bill for Drake House Museum, a city-owned building where programs are administered by the Historical Society of Plainfield. The repairs were made with a $50,000 loan from a trustee, in anticipation of city funding. But Councilman William Reid opposed the amendment, saying the council had no documentation of the cost and no assurance that the work was done in accordance with New Jersey contract law.

Discussion of the amendment took up most of a “special emergency meeting” with the transfers as the sole item.

The council also held a separate special meeting to allocate funds for the first three months of FY 2011. Most of the proposed costs represented about a quarter of last year’s funding, but a few – the Independence Day celebration and a summer youth program, for example – were “front-loaded,” Taylor said, and needed to be paid at a higher rate.

The July 4th celebration cost of $50,000 will be expended this week, with fireworks on Friday and the parade on Saturday.

During the lengthy discussion of transfers, Williamson reminded the council that “the responsibility of approving or rejecting certain items” goes through the chief finance officer and director of Administration & Finance. Though possible, council involvement in such decisions could be “inappropriate,” he said. But the city has not had a CFO officer since the end of 2007 and there is currently no director of Administration & Finance. The situation has led to some sparring between the governing body and the administration over finances. A closed retreat Monday was meant to increase cooperation between the two branches.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Library Cuts Upheld

Hopes to restore library funding were dashed Thursday when budget transfers were approved without consideration to what speakers at the June 21 council meeting called a community gem, a necessity and a vital source for education.

The ostensible reason was that a resolution on budget transfers referred only to expenses incurred in the 2010 fiscal year.

Once the 2010 city budget passed in February, the library found itself operating at a budget reduced from a proposed $1.9 million to $1.556 million. The result was numerous staff reductions, curtailed hours and other deficits.

Thursday’s council vote on a temporary three-month budget for the 2011 fiscal year retained the current funding level, although Councilman Adrian Mapp held out the possibility that future temporary emergency allocations month-by-month would be at the discretion of the governing body and could include restorations to past funding levels.

The library also suffered from an administrative decision to turn back $300,000 in employee benefit costs from the city to the library. Plainfield Public Library Director Joe Da Rold said the council restored half the cost, but questioned whether the same rule would apply in FY 2011. City Administrator Bibi Taylor said after the meeting that as of the present time, no change was contemplated, but she said the FY 2011 budget was “still in its infancy stage.”

In a presentation on June 21, Da Rold and others spelled out the losses that would occur from funding cuts, while citing the current administration’s view that the library was not part of municipal government.

The next round of arguments on support of the library therefore may not take place until September or October, by which time staff cuts and other reductions will have been ongoing for about a quarter of the 2011 fiscal year.

--Bernice Paglia