Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Welcome to New Monarch Neighbors

Image: Pouring the foundation, October 2007

Having followed just about all the steps leading up to occupancy of The Monarch, I recently decided to reach out to those whose names appeared as new owners in the city tax book.

I sent out 12 letters with a few questions and so far have two responses. (If I wanted to use a little statistical trickery, I could quote a 17 percent response, far above the 2 percent that is considered a good direct mail return. But that wasn't my goal.)

I was curious about these urban pioneers' experience. What is it like to be an owner in the city's first new condo in many years?

Of the two households responding, one was from a gentleman who is new to Plainfield. He reported "mixed" impressions of his new neighborhood, but in answer to an open-ended query about the city, he responded, "Because of its location and history, Plainfield has a potential to be a good place to live."

He commutes by train, but a couple who responded said they travel by car and sometimes by bus.
This couple lived in Plainfield before purchasing a Monarch condo. Their verdict?
"The condo unit is great - well laid out i.e. a good design, spacious bathrooms. Everyone seems to like their unit. We are comfortable."
The couple cited the need for alertness in the urban environment, but have had no problems.
"One can walk to the banks, post office, shopping etc.," the respondent said. "There is a lot that can be done to develop some parts of the area in the future, especially on 2nd street."
Both householders said they would like to know more about local cultural attractions. The gentleman householder said he would like to learn more about city government.
Both households rely on newspapers for news about Plainfield, but having included online links, Plaintalker is hoping there will be more online readership.
So far, there is not enough of a critical mass (only about a dozen sales for 63 units) to mobilize a condo association, which both households acknowledged. But both looked forward to the establishment of an association.
In general comments, the couple said, "Overall, we have had a positive experience."

Acknowledging the the adjustments of settling in a new condo building, the couple envisions a good resolution and concluded by saying, " Plainfield is a very beautiful town. We should strive to make it even more beautiful."
--Bernice Paglia

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Travel Adventure

When my neighbor proposed an impromptu car trip to Westfield recently, I agreed.

At Stop & Shop, I scored three loaves of my favorite Pepperidge Farm Oatmeal Bread. At Trader Joe's, I got shortbread cookies with raspberry or apricot centers plus grilled lemon chicken strips and the inexplicably-named oatmeal/raisin/walnut cookies, "Druid Circles."

For someone who hardly ever leaves Plainfield's boundaries, these were exciting acquisitions.

Along the way, I found out that Pepperidge Farm now has a bread called "Ancient Grains" that includes amaranth, teff and quinoa. What a concept! I only heard of such things in the mid-1980s when I lived in a commune on West Eighth Street, where a varied group of seekers explored religion, philosophy, dietary practices, poetry and other forms of living and expression.

We had a pantry full of such items as turtle beans, adzuki beans, dal, millet and many other non-mainstream food items. A myriad of healing spices perfumed the air.

At the time, there was a related heath food store that sold such things.

Recently, I have come to be fond of pupusas, empanadas and other Central American specialties and of course enjoyed the commune food, but every so often, I just want to have a good old grilled cheese sandwich.

Thanks to my trip, it is now possible.

Given the layers upon layers of food enjoyment, I encourage readers to go a little bit far afield and try both the old and new in Central Jersey. What have you enjoyed recently?


Sounds of Summer's End

Depending on your family situation, you may be looking forward to to a Labor Day vacation or doing back-to-school shopping and organizing. For some of us, the shifting sounds of nature are marking the season. Gone are the birdsong of marking territory and mating. Now we hear the crickets chirping as evenings shift from hot to cool.

One of my favorite sounds at this time is the song of the Snowy Tree Cricket. I have seldom seen this insect, but its presence is known by its loud calls. Click here to listen.

I came across a funny anecdote from an entomologist who solved his cellphone response issues with the help of the Snowy Tree Cricket. Click here to read about it.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tiny Living Spaces

Maybe the link below is why I misheard the one-bedroom apartment space as 150 square feet vs. the required 750 square feet in a recent development application:


There is a movement dedicated to finding the most concise living space possible, especially in urban areas, but as with most innovative living solutions, they may not meet the zoning requirements. Still, practioners of alternate living spaces persevere. Check this link.

Another premise that is gaining acceptance is the idea of "granny flats," accessory buildings that afford elders a proximity to family with a modicum of independence.

In many urban areas, single persons or elders are not really accommodated by land use laws. Plainfield probably has many individuals whose housing choices are extremely limited. Faced with the prospect of an aging population in coming decades, cities might do well to come up with innovations that offer options to warehousing people in "senior housing."

These thoughts came up again in reviewing plans for the West Second Street Commons Urban Renewal LLC. Many of the apartments are just at or barely over the 750 square feet limit. But maybe some of us urbanistas would even be glad for less, if possible. Somewhere between Japanese sleeping compartments and American McMansions, is there a viable small-space living solution for urban dwellers?

What do you think?


Pondering West Second Proposal

A proposal to build a five-story structure with 148 apartments and 12,300 square feet of retail space will be heard by the Planning Board on Sept. 2. The driveway above, currently one-way, will be converted for two-way traffic.

For those unfamiliar with the location, this is the view exiting drivers currently have on Park Avenue.
This is the historic building that the developer plans to relocate to a nearby site. Owned by PNC Bank, it currently houses Angels in Action, a group that includes several members of the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
A sub-committee of the Historic Preservation Commission will check the condition of the pre-Civil War Titsworth-Sutphen House as well as how this modern addition is connected to the historic building.

Does anybody know the proper terminology for this neighboring structure? Is it a power station?

It does not have high towers with wires that one associates with electric power lines.
But it does have these warning signs.
The original proposal was for 100 apartments and 11,500 square feet of commercial space. The project is named "West Second Street Commons Urban Renewal II." In various talks over the past couple of years, officials have spoken of the need for a certain density of population to invigorate the central business district.
Most of the block now consists of a bank-owned parking lot between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue. The PNC Bank anchors the northeast corner of the block and is also slated
for redevelopment to retail and nightclub use. Plans on file in the Planning Division show the bank relocated to the ground floor of the proposed new apartment building.
The Planning Board meeting will be 8 p.m. Thursday in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.
--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 26, 2010

HPC Mulls Historic House Relocation and More

Developer Frank Cretella came before the Historic Preservation Commission Tuesday with two applications needing review, one for a plan to place a nightclub on top of the existing PNC Bank building at Park Avenue and West Second Street, and the other for relocation of the historic Titsworth –Sutphen Pre-Civil War building from the proposed site of a 148-unit apartment development on West Second Street.

The bank proposal was a referral from the city Zoning Board, as the bank is within the North Avenue Historic District. The relocation of the Titsworth-Sutphen building was referred by the Planning Board.

The only thing the HPC can do is to issue a certificate of appropriateness for the proposed action. The other two boards must still vote on the applications.

Preservationist Gail Hunton questioned the scope of work on the bank building and also the addition of a glass awning to the front. Cretella said limestone on the bank will be cleaned and the awning will have internal gutters for rainwater. Hunton requested that the developer bring photos of the bank as it is now when he comes back for final design approval. Commissioners had no initial objections to the plans and approved forwarding them to the Zoning Board, which meets on Sept. 1.

There were several questions raised about relocation of the Titsworth-Sutphen house, which Hunton said was one of very few pre-Civil War buildings still standing. It belonged to a mill owner during the Civil War era, she said. The developer proposed possibly moving it about 250 feet to a city-owned lot at Madison Avenue and West Second Street.

Architect Dennis Devino said the building had to be moved to make way for a five-story building with retail uses on the ground floor and 148 apartments above. If it remained at the site, it would be blocked in by the new construction on West Second Street. If it could not be moved to the city-owned site, there were other possibilities nearby, Cretella said.

“I am personally uncomfortable recommending a relocation without a site established,” Hunton said.

The commission decided to have a subcommittee investigate the current condition of the building, including how it is attached to a more modern addition. The frame house would be lifted off its foundation and placed on a new foundation at the proposed relocation site, Cretella said. But commissioners gave approval to refer the application to the Sept. 2 Planning Board agenda.

Although the HPC could not comment on either of the applications except for the historic aspects, several details emerged in the discussions. The developer plans to change a current one-way driveway onto Park Avenue into a two-way driveway, which will serve parking for 132 vehicles on the block. Cretella already has two other projects on the block, one for four apartments over commercial space and one for eight apartments over space for which he now proposes 10 physical therapy offices on the first floor and in the basement.

In all, Cretella has seven projects in various stages in or near the North Avenue Historic District. He has purchased, through limited liability corporations, the former Mirons warehouse, the former Romonds Jeep building, the old Courier News building on Park Avenue and another that had been an addition to the PNC Bank as well as the former Appliance-Arama warehouse on West Front Street.

The two applications reviewed by the HPC Tuesday were jointly made by the developer and the owner, PNC Bank National Association.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

HPC Draws Fire Over Proposed New District

A little more than a year ago, Wil Gipp noticed a woman taking photos in his neighborhood. When Gipp asked what was going on, the woman said it had to do with a proposed new historic district.

Gipp and about 25 others attended Tuesday’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting to press for answers to the same question, claiming they have received no further information. Meanwhile, Gipp presented the commission members with petitions signed by residents who do not want their homes to be part of a new historic district.

The new district under consideration is bordered by Park Avenue, East Ninth Street, Third Place, Carnegie Avenue, Watchung Avenue, Woodland Avenue, Marlborough Avenue and Thornton Avenue, with a small jog on Hillside Avenue, according to a map Gipp distributed. It contains 413 buildings, and a completed survey by Preservationist Gail Hunton will be presented at the commission’s Sept. 28 meeting. Commissioners pointed out there are still several steps to go before the district is designated, including notifying every property owner by certified mail for a “yes” or “no” on the designation.

Gipp contended that the so-called opt-out process will be flawed, because a non-response will be counted as approval of the designation. A 51 percent favorable response will result in the commission recommending designation to the Planning Board, which will in turn recommend it to the City Council. Once the district is designated, all property owners will be subject to rules including review of any exterior changes by the commission in order to obtain a “certificate of appropriateness.”

Marlborough Avenue resident Demetrius Carson strongly objected to the possible designation, saying, “I have a really hard problem with people telling me what I can do with my house.”

Carson was under the impression that the commission had powers even over what color he could paint his house, but Commissioner Jan Jasper said, “People are not able to force their little whims on your d├ęcor.”

Hunton asked the crowd to think of the proposed district as a “study area.”

“Part of the study is learning that there are some objections,” she said.

Gipp said Chetwynd Avenue residents were “100 percent” against the proposal.

Speaking in favor of historic preservation, resident Oscar Riba said, “It is important to have a watchdog group that is looking out for the preservation of properties.”

Riba said the movement was not intended to make people spend more money on their homes, but that it “maintains and preserves the overall look” of a neighborhood.

After a couple hours of discussion, some residents expressed a better understanding of the process that has resulted in designation of six residential districts and three others so far. But Gipp said he still felt the new proposal was unfair and vowed to help people “who don’t want it.” Citing the collapse and demolition of a building in the North Avenue Historic District earlier this year, he called the city’s preservation movement “dysfunctional.”

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Check HPC Tonight for News of New District

An item on tonight's Historic Preservation Commission agenda is a "Survey of 413 properties for Proposed Historic District."

This proposal has been in the works for some time, but a reader tells Plaintalker that residents have not been given details and will be protesting tonight.

"We have received not one piece of communication," the reader states.

If the proposal goes forward, it would bring the number of historic districts to 10, although some do not have active district associations. As I recall, the process involves completing a survey of all properties within the proposed boundaries and evaluating whether properties contribute to historic significance or are non-contributing. Architectural elements, prominent builders and owners and current condition are among items considered in evaluating a building.

The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library and the proposal is pretty far down in the agenda. If in fact a crowd shows up with questions, perhaps it will be moved up.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Book Sale Opens Friday

While the Plainfield Public Library waits to see whether its budget will be restored in the 2011 fiscal year that began July 1, you can help out by going to the big book sale that starts Friday with a $5 preview from 10 a.m. until noon. After that, entrance is free and there are thousands of books to choose from.

Click here to see more information.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Praying Mantis Pix

Here is one of our resident praying mantises "praying" with his formidable grasping legs for some unsuspecting bug to come by. Its other four legs are for getting around.

This one is just hanging out in the cosmos patch by the fence. We have at least four nearly mature ones. Their behavior is fun to watch while doing garden chores.

"Aw shucks, are we really that interesting?"
Yes, indeed.

Gang Prevention, Mentoring Programs on Tap

Project Hope Plainfield, sponsor of a well-attended May 3 forum on gangs, has set two dates for a new effort to encourage youth mentoring to ward off gang involvement.

The first orientation to the Eagles Academy Mentor Me program is Wednesday, Aug. 25 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Parish Hall at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, 724 Park Ave., Plainfield. Parking is available directly across Park Avenue in Municipal Lot 7, also accessible from East Seventh Street. The second session will follow at the same time and place on Sept. 8. Light refreshments will be served.

Information in a reader-submitted article to the Courier News includes the following description of the Eagles Academy program:

"Project Hope Plainfield will sponsor two free orientations to Eagles Academy's Mentor Me program. Eagles Academy (EA) is a comprehensive, multi-tiered prevention, intervention, and post-intervention program. It offers pro-social solutions and resources to youth and young adults about violence and gang prevention, peer pressure and conflict resolutions, health and family services, entrepreneurship, and youth career development. EA provides pre-release transitional services to youth, young adults and adults exiting juvenile justice facilities and correctional facilities to reduce recidivism and provide support to their successful reintegration back to family and communities in partnership with their transactional teams. EA also provides mentors/services to children/youth of incarcerated parents to help break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration that affects society's vulnerable children and youth."

To read an article from the Newark Unitarian Universalism Examiner about Project Hope, click here.

The Star-Ledger has an article today about another program to reduce gang involvement. The first session is supposed to take place in Plainfield, but there is no date or location mentioned. This effort is backed by The Violence Prevention Institute. For a virtual primer by the institute on youth gang involvement , click here.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 21, 2010

This Just In! HPC Reviews

After blogging about expanded plans for the PNC block, Plaintalker received the agenda for the Aug. 24 Historic Preservation Commission meeting, which has two relevant items.

There are two referrals from the Zoning Board of Adjustment that refer to the plans. One is for "The Bank LLC" at 200-212 Park Avenue and describes plans to convert an existing four-story bank for retail and nightclub use, in addition to constructing a fifth floor for nightclub use. The owner is listed as PNC Bank/ National Association.

The other application concerns the Titsworth-Sutphen House at 101-209 on West Second Street. The applicant is listed as West Second Street Commons Urban Renewal LLC and the owner is also PNC Bank/National Association.

Anyone interested in historic preservation or downtown development should try to be there and hear the testimony. The meeting is 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24 in City Hall Library.


Developer Expands West Second Proposal

A development proposal for the PNC block has resurfaced in expanded form and will be heard by the Planning Board on Sept. 2.

For more than a year, the proposal has included 100 apartments and 11,500 square feet of retail/commercial space. But a legal notice today (Saturday, Aug. 21) proposes 148 residential units and 12,300 square feet of retail commercial space, with parking for 132 vehicles.

Formerly called West Second Street Commons, it is now called West Second Street Urban Renewal LLC. In March 2009, Plaintalker reported on this description by former City Administrator Marc Dashield:

The most ambitious project announced Tuesday is the “West Second Commons,” apparently to take place on the so-called North Avenue Extension behind the PNC Bank building. Dashield said 100 rental units and 11,500 square feet of retail space are proposed. The PNC Bank now at the corner of Park Avenue and East Second Street would relocate to the new complex. The current PNC Bank building would become a “hospitality operation,” Dashield said, with lounges in the former bank vaults.

The current application includes a portion of the North Avenue Historic District and the historic Titsworth Sutphen House. The project is one of several in the city that are subsidiaries of Landmark Developers of Jersey City. Developer Frank Cretella recently announced at another Planning Board meeting that he had received HMFA financing for the West Second project.

Cretella will be seeking preliminary and final site plan approvals at the Planning Board meeting to be held at 8 p.m. on Sept. 2 in City Hall Library.

--Bernice Paglia

Budget Process to be Launched

Susan Kilduff, chair of the 2010 Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, updated the City Council Monday on its status.

Kilduff said the committee has 12 members and had held an introductory meeting. Its first working meeting was “tomorrow night,” she said Monday. The committee was scheduled to “review and prioritize” council expectations. The committee will be working with the council’s own Finance Committee, which would be looking at how “peer cities” approach budget issues.

The governing body had given a “very, very broad charge” to the committee, she said.

Also during Monday’s meeting, City Administrator Bibi Taylor said budget introduction was slated for late August or early September. Council members are pushing for a speedier process than last year’s in which budget introduction took place in November and final passage did not take place until February, with three quarters of the 2010 fiscal year having elapsed.

The FY 2011 budget is for the year that began July 1. Some council members are in favor of foregoing a category of state aid that has traditionally not been announced until late in the budget year. Formerly called extraordinary state aid, it is now called transitional state aid. The city sought $3.5 million for FY 2010, but only got $250,000 with strings attached that curtailed all governmental spending on food, travel and other non-essentials.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 20, 2010

Commentary on East Orange Crime Reduction

Yesterday I happened upon an Associated Press article on the startling crime reduction in East Orange since 2003.

Read the article here.

As you can see, gunshot detection was one part of the solution, but there were many others. Police Director Jose Cordero personally developed a database to track crime by computer instead of paper reports. All patrol cars received wireless computers. Video surveillance cameras were placed in high crime areas. Most impressive of all to me, a "virtual community patrol system" was established so residents could text police about crime incidents.

The city also reached out to all sorts of funding sources, and some companies, apparently intrigued by the initiative, even donated time and equipment.

I hope you can take the time to read this article word for word. The themes are: Use of technology, vigorous innovation, easy grassroots involvement of citizens and a "community resolve" to change things.

So where do we stand here in Plainfield?

The ShotSpotter system was showcased without relevance to other aspects of detection and surveillance, at least until police officials gave more information to the Planning Board Thursday night. It now comes out in the wash that the funding source is not immediately known for the $1 million tab. And community involvement has consisted of bringing in The Rev. Al Sharpton for a cameo appearance along with an overloaded Town Hall panel, and putting residents on buses to hand out leaflets in trouble spots.

Not quite the same thing as the plan in East Orange.

Even contrasting Cordero's approach as police director with our situation here, we have seen police leadership expanded from five to seven captains and then reduced to three. The reorganization of the bureaus is not yet reflected on the Police Division web site.

These are the facts of our situation and just adding ShotSpotter is not likely to produce the same effect as East Orange has seen.

There is an urgent need to do something about gun violence, especially since Operation Ceasefire is no longer in effect. But on the face of it, Planning Board member Horace Baldwin may have had good reason for his feeling of "unreadiness" to embrace ShotSpotter as the whole solution.

--Bernice Paglia

Park Avenue Project Changes Approved

Developer Frank Cretella received Planning Board approval Thursday for changes in one of his projects, swapping medical offices for retail uses.

The project, Certified Green Property One LLC at 212-216 Park Ave., was previously approved with 3,565 square feet of retail uses on the ground floor, basement storage and four apartments on upper floors. Representing Cretella, attorney Jay Bohn said the new plan was to have medical offices on the ground floor and in the basement. Poring over new site plans handed out at the meeting, planners discovered kitchens and offices in the basement as well as an X-ray room, doctor’s offices and waiting rooms on the two levels.

Planning Division Director Bill Nierstedt called the new proposal a”major change” and noted that the developer tended to use “retail” to encompass uses as different as restaurants or offices. The discrepancy came about when city Construction Official Joseph Minarovich told Nierstedt he had received plans that differed from what was filed in the Planning Office.

Cretella was absent due to a family medical emergency, but after questioning Bohn, planners favored accepting the changes. But they wanted Cretella’s intentions documented in writing. Another component was a blank space on plans that Bohn said was intended for a temporary development office. Board member Ron Scott-Bey questioned what its ultimate use would be.

Cretella had casually mentioned the changes at the Aug. 5 meeting while discussing another application. On Thursday, Nierstedt said of the changes, “I sense very strongly that this will happen again.”

Cretella has more than half a dozen projects in the works in various stages of approvals, all of which have “retail” components. The one considered on Aug. 5 had 2,482 square feet of proposed retail space, which turned out to be a restaurant that extended to outdoor dining space.

Cretella is expected back at a Sept. 2 meeting for a hearing on Arts Loft I LLC, the former Romonds Jeep building, and in October for West Second Street Commons, a large apartment development on the PNC Bank block.

Councilman Cory Storch, liaison to the Planning Board, asked for a summary of all the projects.
(Click here to see Plainfield Plaintalker’s previous stories on Cretella proposals. Plaintalker II's stories are here.)

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Planners Recommend ShotSpotter for CIP

The Planning Board agreed Thursday to recommend to the mayor and City Council inclusion of a $1 million gunshot detection project in 2011 capital improvement plans.

The approval came at a second question-and-answer session with Police Director Martin Hellwig and Police Captain Steven Soltys, requested by the board after an Aug. 5 discussion proved inconclusive. City Administrator Bibi Taylor also attended Thursday’s meeting and said funding for the project is still being researched.

As described on Aug. 5, the plan would place 40 sensors in a two-square-mile corridor determined by crime reports to have the most shootings. The ShotSpotter system was demonstrated at a city ball field on July 28 and was touted by officials at a Town Hall Meeting on Aug. 1 as a vital crime deterrent. But at the Aug. 5 Planning Board meeting, members had a hard time envisioning how the system would work.

On Thursday, it was explained that the sensors able to triangulate the location of gunshots would be linked to both dispatchers and police vehicles for an instant response. Hidden cameras would point to the location and give police officers an extra margin of safety in responding. Currently, when callers report hearing gunshots, police must canvass the area and do not know what kind of a situation they may be entering.

The city has had a rash of shootings since May 1. As reported in the Courier News, there have been at least 20 shootings, leaving one person dead and 16 injured. The wave of gun violence has led to public meetings, a community rally and ongoing volunteer visits to troubled neighborhoods to alert residents to signs of gang activity. Supporters of the gunshot detection program point to a 75 percent reduction in crime in East Orange, among successes in other towns, after the system was installed.

Taylor said costs include the sensor systems for $750,000 and $250,000 for the mobile data terminals and all other technology. There will be a $100,000 annual maintenance cost that might possibly be funded by grants. Earlier, there was talk of refunding an old bond issue to provide the $1 million, but Taylor said Thursday the city may have to look at canceling amounts from bonds where projects have been completed. Funding plans will require state approval.

After learning more about the system, Planning Board member Ron Scott-Bey said, “It sounds like something that is going to work.”

But member Harold Baldwin voiced his “unreadiness” to embrace the plan.

“I’m just not totally comfortable with what we will ultimately gain,” he said.

Baldwin said he feared the “significant investment” might tax city resources and lead to cutbacks. He abstained from voting on the proposal.

If approved by the administration and governing body, installation of the system could lead to a temporary spike in gunshot reports, but Hellwig said the police force will be able to handle it without adding more officers.

The City Council’s next agenda-fixing session is Tuesday, Sept. 7 and the regular meeting will be Sept. 13.

--Bernice Paglia


Jerry Green, the veritable Ticketmaster of wolf tickets, is at it again, trying to hassle me as he has for about 20 years now. In reading his ruminations today, I am very sorry that in his world view nothing takes place without manipulation. In the world beyond petty politics, people do think for themselves and state their own opinions.

Jerry's "thoughts" are often far-fetched and nonsensical. If I had to pick the choicest example, it might be this pre-election gem from last October:

"Corzine hit a home run last night. Daggett did a very good job as well. The comments that I have received in regards to Chris “I Made A Mistake” Christie, however, were that he was a total embarrassment to the Republican Party. He had no answers and no plan, in fact it seemed like he was mad at the world. Now I see why Bo and Marty are running away from him, unfortunately, it is a little too late. It is obvious, from his remarks last night, that Bernice Paglia must have written his speech."

Just add the spooky theremin music to complete this otherworldly thought.


Late Summer at Shakespeare Garden

My neighbor wanted to visit the Shakespeare Garden Wednesday to see the improvements, so we took a ride over to Cedar Brook Park. The new pergola has honeysuckle planted and trained to climb over it, replacing the inauthentic Trumpet Vine. All the flowers in the garden are supposed to mentioned in Shakespeare's works and that vine was not.

The late summer garden was a bit scruffy with aggressive weeds challenging the resident plants in the borders and beds. Below is a glimpse of the garden.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

No Music in Plaza

Yesterday was the first of four dates approved by the City Council for the Music in the Plaza series. Seeing no publicity for the event, I checked with City Hall and was told today there will not be any Music in the Plaza concerts this year.

In discussions of Music in the Plaza earlier this year, the event's efficacy in drawing business downtown was questioned, as well as any cost to the city in the current hard times.
Luckily for residents in search of amusement, there have been several privately-funded events downtown, with another big fiesta coming up in September.
The fiestas organized by business owner Edison Garcia have been popular. The first year's event was held to celebrate Central American Independence. This year, Garcia put on a fiesta coinciding with the July 4th Independence Day celebration and has been granted city permission to hold the Central American celebration as well. The dates are Sept. 18 and 19 in Municipal Parking Lot 8 north of stores on East Front Street, with entrances from Somerset Street and Watchung Avenue. Parking will be available in nearby city lots.
To learn more about Central American history, click here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Council Endorses Solar Panel Project

After lengthy questioning Monday, the City Council agreed to participate in a proposed new energy-saving program sponsored by the Union County Improvement Authority.

Gina A. Bilangi of Decotiis, Fitzpatrick and Cole and Ryan Garner of Birdsall Services Group were on hand to answer questions about the program. Click here to see a summary from the UCIA.

Council President Annie McWilliams asked the pair to describe the goals and benefits of the program. Garner said the goal was to offer all municipalities and school boards in the county a chance to come together for a power purchase agreement that would offer a lower price than that established by the city's energy provider, PSE&G. The agreement would affect only the four municipal buildings identified as suitable for solar panel installation - City Hall Annex, Police Headquarters, the main Fire Station and the Public Works Yard on South Avenue.

In addition, the agreement would affect only the commodity of energy, not its delivery, which would still be charged by PSE&G. The agreement would be locked in for 15 years, but because it is still in early stages and no vendor has been identified, the exact savings could not be stated. However, Bilangi suggested savings might be in the range of 25 percent, based on a similar Morris County plan.

Council members questioned what might happen if solar technology changed within 15 years. Garner said he thought there might be a mechanism for adjustments.

The overall agreement hinges on getting commitments from all eligible entities within the county before seeking a vendor. Councilman Adrian Mapp questioned how the local public contract law provides for a 15-year contract, but Bilangi said it was an "exception" and a "nuance," noting the authority did not have to go to the lowest bidder.

After several more technical questions, the council ended up voting approval of the deal. If you have concerns, contact your council representatives.

--Bernice Paglia

More to Follow on Council

Plaintalker will follow up in coming days on several other stories that came out of Monday's meeting. Bloggers Dan, Old Doc and Piv and reporters Mark and Jeremy were also in attendance, so expect lots of news and views on the meeting.


Council, Administration Differ Again

Skirmishes between the executive and legislative branches of city government continued on several fronts Monday.

The City Council approved two ordinances over the objections of the administration, one allowing the governing body to review city bills and another to lower the bidding threshold despite Gov. Chris Christie having recently raised the threshold. On bill review, City Administrator Bibi Taylor said the same results could be achieved through the current process. Lowering the bid threshold when state government just increased it would just cause extra work for city staff, Taylor claimed.

The bills ordinance passed 6-1, with council members Rashid Burney, Cory Storch, Adrian Mapp, Bridget Rivers, Linda Carter and Council President Annie McWilliams voting “yes” and William Reid voting “no.” The bid threshold ordinance passed 5-2, with Burney, Rivers, Storch, Mapp and McWilliams voting "yes" and Carter and Reid voting "no."

The council also continued to probe why Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn is apparently avoiding cooperation with a newly-formed Recreation Committee. Last week, committee chairman Dwayne Wilkins said Wynn attended only one of the committee’s six meetings so far and imposed rules for how the committee could communicate with officials. Wilkins said the committee’s attempts to get basic information on recreation programs met with resistance, leaving the group stalled in its mission to make recommendations.

On Monday, Wynn was expected to attend the council meeting, but his superior, Public Works Director David Brown II, said Wynn called out sick and did not report for work that day.

The council had withdrawn an ordinance that would have created a Recreation Commission with broader powers than the current committee, but it will be brought back in September.

Another controversy over Housing Authority appointments thickened as new information came out Monday on rules for holdovers. Commissioner Rickey Williams, initially appointed to a three-month unexpired term, has stayed on since 2006 in what the administration calls a “holdover” position.

Throughout the discussion in recent weeks, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson has insisted that Williams had holdover status, but on Monday McWilliams said his stance, while it does not violate the letter of the law, “violates the spirit of the law.”

Mapp suggested that the council “pursue legal action” to settle the issue of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs’ insistence on the holdover, the mayor claimed the council refused to vote on the candidate she brought forward.

She urged the council to “go ahead and review” the issue.

But then City Clerk Laddie Wyatt informed the council that Williams’ name was withdrawn after being submitted in 2006, so the council had no chance to give advice and consent to the appointment. In public comment later, former Housing Authority Commissioner Robert Wilson said that state rules limit holdovers to two years, raising the question of whether Williams’ votes were null and void after the first two years.

Williamson said he would research the issues. Reid spoke against taking legal action, calling for the branches to settle the matter among themselves.

A further question arose over the submission and withdrawal of the name of Ken Scott as a Housing Authority commissioner on the same resolution with Williams in 2006. Scott was subsequently approved, but Storch asked which one of the two was the mayoral appointment. Robinson-Briggs had left the meeting by then.

The confusion pointed up the reason for the recent clashes between the two branches, as the council has pushed for greater fiscal oversight and resolution of outstanding issues such as holdovers on boards and commissions. But the administration has claimed the governing body is usurping powers of the executive branch. Council watchers are expecting more of the same in coming weeks.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, August 16, 2010

Evie Madsen's Bench

The spirit of one of the Plainfield Garden Club's longtime members will live on in the Shakespeare Garden with the donation of her own bench from her Crabapple Lane home.

Click here to read more about it.

Here is her obit from The New York Times.

Tending the Shakespeare Garden is a labor of love that club performs, but which benefits visitors from Central Jersey and beyond. Pay a visit when you can. The garden is inside Cedar Brook Park.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

PPL Highlights Graphic Novels

The Plainfield Public Library has now put graphic novels in the foreground by shelving them near the entrance.

If you remember Nancy and Sluggo and various action heroes but aren't sure what this new format is, here is an explanation.

I actually own two graphic novels, WIZZYWIG Volume 1: Phreak and WIZZYWIG Volume 2: Hacker, by Ed Piskor. Both were fundraising premiums from Off the Hook, the hacker radio show on WBAI which airs at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays.

On my visits to Seattle, one of my favorite places is the Kinokuniya Bookstore inside Uwajimaya Village. I like the pens and notebooks, but there are also hundreds of anime and other graphic books.

It's worth a dip into the world of the graphic novel to learn more about it and now the library invites you to take a look.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 14, 2010

PayPal Enabled

A dear reader of Plainfield Plaintalker convinced me to set up a PayPal account, but when I set up the successor blog Plaintalker II, I did not follow through.

Well, as of today, I have added the "Donate" button onto Plaintalker II, so any of y'all who feel inclined can throw some pennies my way. You have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the current posts to see the link.

There is some controversy about bloggers receiving donations. Click here to see viewpoints.


Gear Shifts on a Mantis?

I got a look at the undercarriage of this praying mantis while it nommed on a butterfly. While most of its parts were green or golden brown, its powerful forelegs were anchored to its body with wrinkled gray things that resembled the movable casings around a car's gear shift.

Always something new to discover in the garden!


Friday, August 13, 2010

Statistics - It Depends Where You Look

In the fall of 2009, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs made crime reduction a showpiece of her re-election campaign. A recently released 2008 Uniform Crime Report from the New Jersey State Police was cited as proof that violent crime had decreased. Indeed, the number was down from 10.1 per 1,000 of population to 9.9. The mayor also frequently cited the five homicides in 2008 in contrast to 15 in 2005, when she bested former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams in the June primary and went on to win her first term.

But along the campaign trail, when Republican mayoral contender Jim Pivnichny raised the question of a 70 percent increase in burglaries noted in the same report, he was kicked out of the senior center for “campaigning,” although both the mayor and Jerry Green actually did campaign at the same event.

The administration was sticking to “Part 1” crimes – murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults – to brag about the decrease, even though murders went up from four to five and rapes went from nine to 14. Robberies did decrease from 240 to 212 and aggravated assaults went from 232 to 230.

Pivnichny’s point was that non-violent crimes – burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft – affect many more people and their personal quality of life. Burglaries increased from 229 to 390, larcenies increased from 952 to 1,012 and motor vehicle theft decreased from 190 to 138, but the overall non-violent crime rate went from 29 per 1,000 of population to 33.1.

The Uniform Crime Report is a huge document with 24 categories of statistics for each municipality. But somehow, Courier News reporter Mark Spivey, while reporting on recent gang activity and gun violence, gleaned from the document the following:

“Only 11 municipalities in the state had higher violent-crime rates than Plainfield in 2008, the most recent year for which Uniform Crime Reports data is available. The city's rate that year was identical to those of Paterson and Newark.”

If you look into how the State Police rank municipalities, there are categories called “Major Urban” and "Urban 15,” denoting the largest cities. Paterson and Newark are among the “Major Urban” cities.

So Plainfield has the dubious distinction of matching two of the largest cities in violent crime rates.

Some may recall that officials attempted to foist off a 66 percent reduction in homicides as a “300 percent” reduction in crime. As blogger Dan Damon pointed out, that would result in an impossible negative number.

All of this tells us that statistics are meaningless without context, as the author “How to Lie with Statistics” described in his 1950s book.

The lesson is perhaps not to take numbers at face value, but to get the context before embracing an assessment.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 12, 2010

OMG! Ten Followers!

Thanks to all who have expressed support by becoming Followers.

I'm not totally sure I understand the concept, but I really appreciate the response.

Bless your hearts, as my old dad would say. We unpaid bloggers have no compensation except for the readers' recognition of our efforts to inform and amuse them.

--Bernice Paglia

Summer Beauties

Blogging for Ill

A note from Plaintalker in December 2008 after Jerry Green labeled (and libeled) me a Republican operative because I interviewed John Campbell:

"Tossing out smears against people has become a recurring theme on Green's blog. Because most of his charges are vague and lack factual substantiation, or as in the above case cross lines of confidentiality, they boil down to misguided mudslinging that adds nothing to the public discourse. Having an elected official who behaves this way leads to feelings of disenfranchisement and lack of legitimate representation in the halls of government. Conversely, Green seems blind to the shortcomings of the current administration and therefore cannot address objectively such things as the churn of finance directors since 2006 and the lack of movement on capital projects."

Now Green presents letters from a disgruntled employee as proof that Cory Storch should not serve in the Second Ward. These letters indicate the employee's gripes with fellow workers. A day after writing to Storch in March, the employee writes to Green to condemn the agency as a whole. Green does nothing until a second letter arrives in July and instead of responding to the individual, he publishes his letters on his blog, "Jerry Green's Page."

There is no way Storch can deal with this issue in a simlar fashion on his blog, as it would not be professional.

This attempt at political knee-capping is typical of Green's M.O. He alleges that people in the Second Ward are "too afraid to voice their concerns with Cory because of his close relationships with some of the police officers." What is he saying here? That some Plainfield police officers might intimidate citizens over politics? Such a notion impugns the dignity of local law enforcement.

The filing date for next year's election will not even happen until April, and even if Storch runs but loses the primary and general election, at this point he still has another whole year in office.He must be a mighty big thorn in the Assemblyman's side for such early mudslinging.

Like any other elected official, Storch will be judged by the voters on items such as constituent service and his record as a legislator. It is seldom that a person's work or profession is brought into the mix. Voters might be hard put even to name the employment of sitting council members. But for the record, here is what Storch does for a living.

The legal outcome of any employee/employer dispute might actually be harmed by exposition such as the Assemblyman has made on his blog. In a recent case in the school district, an employee who was poised to tell all against her boss backed off on legal advice. In his haste to make political hay of the dispute, the Assemblyman may have done the employee a disservice.

Time will tell who got played in this episode.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

OPRA on WBLS Delayed

Yesterday I stopped at City Hall to see whether my Open Public Records Act request was ready. I had filed it on Aug. 2, seeking to know the total cost of the town meeting with host Gary Byrd of WBLS and an appearance by The Rev. Al Sharpton.

Here is what I asked for:
COST OF AUG. 1 TOWN MEETING, including school rental, speakers’ honorariums or fees, security, setup, including WBLS requirements,cost of videographing, food and supplies, plus any other incidentals.

City Clerk Laddie Wyatt told me she just received my request and a couple others on Friday, as Deputy Clerk Abubakar Jalloh left for a vacation. So the clock that I thought was ticking since Aug. 2 was apparently rewound and I will have to wait until sometime next week for the information.

Meanwhile, at Monday's City Council meeting, Councilman Adrian Mapp said as chairman of the Administration & Finance committee, he had received city financial reports totaling 50 to 60 pages. One thing that jumped out to him, he said, was an expenditure for WBLS in the amount of $2,500 out of capital funds.

"Something was done that should not have been done," he said.

The discovery, he said, showed the benefit of receiving such reports.

The council is tightening its scrutiny of discretionary spending by asking the administration for bill reviews and other financial information.

Sandra Cummings, assistant comptroller and acting chief finance officer, was called to the table but could not shed any light on the expenditure.

The city still has no permanent chief finance officer or director of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services. City Administrator Bibi Taylor has had to be responsible for aspects of both posts since January.

Given the lack of normal checks and balances, both citizens and the governing body must exercise their right to know what is going on with public funds. Look for many more probes into fiscal matters in the near future.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wynn, Committee Still at Odds

A 90-day report by the new Recreation Advisory Committee Monday revealed essentially the same impasse that led to its creation: a stand-off between Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn and youth sports volunteers.

A scheduled 10-minute discussion with the City Council Monday took much longer as details emerged, such as an allegation that Wynn forbade committee members from sending e-mails to any city officials other than himself.

“It speaks to a lack of transparency,” said committee chairman Dwayne Wilkins.

The committee was formed after parents and coaches of the volunteer Queen City Baseball League alleged they were locked out of a municipal ball field, had lights turned off in the middle of a game and were otherwise mistreated by Wynn, who had formed a city league with paid staff. Council business was held up at many meetings while the volunteers poured out their frustrations.

Wilkins said Monday the committee held six meetings and came up with four “action items,” but Wynn only came to one meeting. Wynn also claimed conflicts on short notice to skip another meeting with Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and committee members, he said.

Wilkins said the committee conducted a facilities review, proposed having youth sports information online and wanted an organized outreach to small businesses for support, but a project designed to get a baseline on current sports offerings fell through for lack of feedback from Wynn’s office. The group, composed largely of men with professional skills, is now at the “point of general frustration,” Wilkins said, asking for council help to get the needed feedback.

Council President Annie McWilliams praised the report and the commitment of the group, saying, “We can never have enough volunteers in the city.”

The council then discussed re-establishing the group as a commission, which would have broad planning functions for recreation. McWilliams asked Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson to draft an ordinance on the change for a vote at next Monday’s business meeting and also requested that Wynn attend.

David G. Brown II, the city’s new director of Public Works & Urban Development , asked for thirty days to work on the problems within the Recreation Division, which reports to him. But McWilliams said she still wanted the ordinance.

Councilman Adrian Mapp, who previously suggested de-funding the division, called Monday for a new title, “recreation coordinator," to work with the proposed commission.

Councilwoman Linda Carter, who chairs the council’s City and Neighborhood Services committee, said she will be meeting with Wynn and the mayor on the immediate issues.

“I want this to work,” she said.

Wilkins said his group just wants to carry out its mission.

“We really want to be neutral,” he said. “I don’t care about sides, I care about kids.”

--Bernice Paglia

Posting Will Be Delayed

The City Council meeting ran past midnight and my attempt to do a blog post afterwards failed. Check back later.


Queen City Explained (Maybe)

So I was wearing my T-shirt that said Plainfield on the front and Queen City on the back. I was doing an errand and the business owner asked about "Queen City." I explained as best I could , but just now I found this YouTube exposition:


Quite outrageous but maybe Queen City nonetheless.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Reports and Discussions Dominate Council Meeting

The City Council's agenda session tonight (Aug.9, 2010) is heavy on reports and discussion items, so be prepared to listen and take notes before the resolutions and ordinances come up.

Topics include curfews, "council shadow initiative," the Recreation Comission and abandoned properties on North Avenue.

The council will be asked to grant permission for processions on Aug. 27 and 28 honoring the patron saint of Ecuador, Our Lady of Cisne. The Aug. 27 procession will go from West Fourth Street and Spooner Avenue to St. Mary's Church and the Aug. 28 one will start at Park Madison and proceed to the church.

Council approval is asked for a Union County Improvement Authority program to install solar panels in public buildings. The municipal buildings involved are City Hall Annex, Police Headquarters/Municipal Court, the main fire station and the Public Works yard.

The council will also be asked to approve conditions related to issuance of $4.4 million in refunding bonds. Most are related to actions that must be taken by the chief finance officer to inform the state Local Finance Board of the status of bond ordinances and proof that the city is adhering to the Municipal Qualified Bond Act. As readers know, there is no permanent CFO at present, so it is unclear who will do all the tasks required by the Local Finance Board.

The agenda is posted on the city web site. The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 8, 2010

July Was Second Hottest on Record

Image: Snow on the Mountain

"A measure of continuous discomfort and a health risk to all occurs when nighttime temperatures fail to fall below 70°. Examining Newark Airport lows in July as an example of an urban heat island environment, lows remained at 70° or higher on 23 nights."
--from State Climatologist David Robinson's July summary
For apartment dwellers without air conditioning, it was more like 85 or 90 degrees indoors at night for most of July.
Dr. Robinson's report includes an overview of the 2010 growing season. Most of it is technical, but it definitely quantifies what our Central Jersey hellish summer was like.
Meanwhile, some musings on the weather:
- We used to have a Plainfield weather observer whose findings were printed in the Courier News each day. I remember having to call Vivian Scherer as one of the daily newsroom chores and being somewhat in awe of her as a most faithful volunteer for this duty. Nowadays, readings come from the Rutgers Meteorology Department at Cook College in New Brunswick.
- I bought some Snow on the Mountain seeds this year just to see its cool white-and-green display in the heat of summer. An urban nostrum for summer heat seems to be a wet washcloth on the head while out on the street.
- As a self-declared "pagan" who follows the Wheel of the Year, I can't hardly complain about the heat. August 1, Lammas, is a pagan holiday celebrating the early harvest, which of course would not come about without the summer heat.
Anyway, July is over and soon we will have brisk fall days to energize us.

PBA, FOA "Give Back"

City residents were feted at two events Saturday by members of two unions.

From 1 to 4 p.m., the focus was on children at Library Park, where Police Benevolent Association Local 19 provided fun activities including a rock climb. Public Works Superintendent John Louise manned the grill, PBA President Sgt. Andre Crawford and others passed out ice cream bars, and children lined up for cotton candy and popcorn. Music was provided by George Moore of Universal Sounds in Plainfield.

Crawford explained that because the city did not hold the annual bike rodeo, the union stepped in "to give back to the kids."

"It just builds bridges," Crawford said.

Seeing law enforcement in a friendly light is part of a broad effort to deter city youth from gangs and other negative activity. The bike rodeo served the purpose in past years, but the city's acceptance of state aid for the 2010 fiscal year came with strict limits on spending public funds for food or festivities.

Using his sound system, Moore took a break from music and asked adults to "step back and let the children be served - this is their day."

Parent Diane Pender brought her sons Dion and Divon and daughters Diamond and Diana to the event.

"It's a lot of fun. We come every year," she said unaware that the police were substituting an all-volunteer event for the traditional bike rodeo.

The Pemberton Area Block Association's tent featured an array of healthy snacks and information provided by Terry Jonas, a nutrition assistant from The University Hospital.

"It's just a junior health fair," PABA President Indira Brown said.

Sharree Lilly looked on as her daughter, Jaliah, 6, had a blue butterfly painted on her cheek. She said she learned about the event from the city web site.

Later, from 4 to 9 p.m., the 100 block of Church Street was blocked off by fire engines as members of the Fire Officers Association hosted a barbeque party. The menu included grilled chicken, fish, hot dogs, hamburgers, turkey burgers, baked beans, string beans, potato salad and more. Battalion Chief Henry Robinson III was one of the chefs and FOA President Lt. Bernard Blake monitored a large grill.

"We're giving back to the community," Blake said, noting many people are having "hard times."

Blake was gratified by the turnout. A diverse crowd lined up at the food tent, then took seats at a dozen or so tables set up on the street. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson and Police Director Martin Hellwig were among city officials in attendance. Many city staffers helped out and Hugo's restaurant provided the grills.

Hugs and kisses were exchanged as people ran into friends in the large crowd. Members of the Plainfield Vulcan Pioneers were on hand, including Vice President Victor "Klose" Dakers, who explained that the fraternal group is the successor to C.O.F.F.E.E., which for many years supported firefighters in attaining higher rank and also held popular community events. (As I recall, the acronym stands for "Community Oriented Firefighters for Eminent Equality.")

Slide shows are posted below.


FOA Barbeque

Saturday, August 7, 2010

PBA Community Celebration

BOE Meets Twice Next Week

Here is the legal notice for upcoming meetings:


The Plainfield Board of Education shall hold the following meetings:

Gavett Plans Get Preliminary Approval

Planning Board approvals Thursday advanced developer Frank Cretella’s plans for a multi-use complex on Gavett Place.

Cretella’s proposal for 12 apartments and a restaurant in the former Miron’s furniture warehouse received preliminary site plan approval. That project, dubbed Gavett Place Properties LLC, is complementary to redevelopment of the former Romond’s Jeep building for 20 apartments and retail uses as well as an entertainment venue. The proposed new five-story structure, with a stage facing the main train station, is called Arts Loft I LLC. Cretella told planners he sees the two projects as “bookends” on Gavett Place.

Originally proposed with retail space on the ground floor, Gavett Place properties will now have a restaurant that will extend into an open air space outside the building. Parking will be offsite.

The apartments are one- or two-bedroom units, although space requirements for an elevator may reduce the configuration. Among nine comments in a planning report, the developer was asked to increase the size of one-bedroom units so they were at least 150 Correction: 750 square feet. Cretella said the units may have to be reduced from 12 to nine to make up for the elevator requirements.

Planners also requested that restaurant deliveries be made between 9 and 11 a.m. to prevent conflicts with commuter traffic. Plans call for occasional closing of Gavett Place for events such as a farmers’ market or entertainment once both sides are developed. For refuse collection, the developer plans a refrigerated trash room in the building, as outdoor storage is limited.

Councilman Cory Storch, the governing body’s liaison to the board, raised the question of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Cretella said he is aiming for the silver level of LEED standards, although he will not seek formal certification because of the cost.

The back of the building has no windows, something that concerned Planning Board member William Toth, as it can be seen from the train tracks. But Cretella said eventually there will be a new building to the rear.

The developer will have to return to the Planning Board for final site plan approval. Plans will be available in the Planning Division office and the public may speak before the board votes on the application.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 6, 2010

Library Seeks Capital Funds

Plainfield Public Library Director Joseph Hugh Da Rold asked Planning Board members Thursday to consider adding funds to the 2011 capital improvement plan for two projects.

Da Rold said the library needs $20,000 to repair roof leaks around the perimeter of the library building and $100,000 to bridge a gap between $700,000 raised privately in capital funds and the estimated $800,000 cost of renovations to the childrens' library.

When first proposed several years ago, the childrens' library upgrades were estimated at $500,000, Da Rold said, but rising costs outstripped the amount raised.

Although the City Council had already approved the 2011 Capital Improvement Plan, the Planning Board agreed to recommend to the council an addendum covering the changes.

--Bernice Paglia

Planners Ask More Info on $1 Million Request

Police officials asked the Planning Board Thursday to endorse a $1 million capital improvement plan to install gunshot detecting technology in the city, but board members sought more information and told them to come back in two weeks with answers.

Among the objections raised were the cost of ongoing maintenance once the system was installed, the cost of surveillance for cameras aligned with the gunshot detectors and greater proof of the efficacy of the system.

Board members said they only received the request that night, not even in packets sent out in advance of the meeting. Some were not pleased to have only a 1998 news clip on the program and asked for more recent information.

The program was recently highlighted in a July 28 Courier News article describing tests conducted at Rock Avenue ball fields. In addition, at a Plainfield town hall meeting Sunday, East Orange Mayor Robert Bowser claimed a 75 percent reduction in crime over the past five years since ShotSpotter sensors were installed.

But planners Thursday raised questions of how the technology would be implemented and who would pay the 15 percent ongoing maintenance cost.

Public Affairs & Safety Director/Police Director Martin Hellwig called the request “a priority project” due to a recent incidence of gunfire.

Hellwig and Captain Steven Soltys gave more reasons for quick approval and were backed up by Police Officer Leslie Knight and the mayor’s confidential aide, Barbara James, both Planning Board members.

Knight said she once had responded to a gunshot call and could not locate the victim, who died.

“You have to think about safety,” she said.

James said, “As far as safety and dollars go, it is a battle.”

But she said, “The need is urgent.”

But Councilman Cory Storch, the City Council liaison to the Planning Board, said the proposal had not come before the governing body and also questioned the surprise submission of the request to the Planning Board Thursday.

The issue will be taken up again at the Aug. 19 Planning Board meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 5, 2010

About the Cherry Tree

The definitive answer on the fate of the weeping cherry tree in front of the Police Division is that the tree was removed because there was a cavity at the base and the roots were causing problems with the foundation.

"We will be installing some new plant material at the site," Public Works Superintendent John Louise said.

So now we know. I am closing comments on the blog post about the tree's removal.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Union Protest Raises Eyebrows

The appearance of a coffin on Park Avenue Wednesday, accompanied by someone handing out a scary flyer, made blogger Maria Pellum wonder what was going on. If it had been a giant rat, it would have been evident to most people that it was a union protest. But a coffin?

A coffin, it seems, is the new rat.

Plaintalker did a little checking and learned more.

The target in this situation was a company doing asbestos remediation at a South Avenue building that is slated to house a charter school. So why put the coffin on Park Avenue? The address is where the Friends of the Central Jersey Arts Charter School are registered. The protest comes from Local 78 of the Asbestos, Lead & Hazardous Waste Laborers of New York City, New Jersey and Long Island. The object of the protest is Global Safety Contracting of Wayne.

Alerted to the protest, Global Safety General Manager Mark Jovic said, “They’re trying to slander my name.”

He drove to Plainfield, but the coffin was removed before he arrived. Workers in the office building, who expressed disgust at the ghoulish display, told him it would be back tomorrow. Jovic surmised that the union, which alleged that his company was not in compliance with state regulations, was trying to force him to take on union workers. But he said of a dozen bidders on the job, not one union company applied.

Jovic said he fully complied with all state and local regulations and had received no violations. He began the job when the building had a private owner, he said, but upon finding out it had changed hands and was going to house a school, stopped work to regroup and meet stricter regulations that apply to schools.

“We did everything by the book,” he said.

Baron Hilliard of the Friends of Central Jersey Arts Charter School also said state officials had visited the site Tuesday and found it in compliance.

“There was nothing wrong with the way they were doing the job,” Hilliard said.

The Friends group is the new owner of the building, according to the tax assessor’s office.

Local 78 organizer Eli Kent said the coffin and flyers were only meant to “raise awareness” of asbestos hazards. He alleged that Global Safety had done “80 percent” of the work without notifying the state of work on a public building, which triggers stricter regulations. The union did not seek permission to display the coffin, which Kent said fell under “freedom of speech.” Asked how long the protest might last, he said it could go on “for months.”

The flyer included phone numbers for Shalawn and Baron Hillard and urged residents to “tell them to hire only responsible contractors to perform this hazardous work.”

Jovic found the union’s alarms a bit ironic, saying a New Jersey local of the same union had merged with the New York local after one of its leaders was allegedly found guilty of taking bribes to allow non-union workers on jobs. (Plaintalker was able to find information online corroborating this charge.)

So if you see a coffin on the 1000 block of Park Avenue tomorrow, draw your own conclusions.


What Happened?

Last week, I noticed work had begun on the memorial for police officers who died in the line of duty. An area had been marked out around the flagpole, but I didn't have my camera with me to get a photo.

The City Council had given permission in June to hold the unveiling of the memorial, which will take place on Sept. 11.
On Tuesday, I was surprised to see all the shrubs and the weeping cherry tree had been removed from the front of the building, in addition to work commencing on the memorial site.

It was a bit of a shock. I don't think anything was wrong with the tree. Just curious to know what prompted removal of all the greenery.

I will follow the progress of the memorial and give details on the ceremony when available.


Taking a Bite Out of ...

No, not "taking a bite out of crime."

I skipped the National Night Out observance. Did not see McGruff the Crime Dog in the photo gallery, nor any of the fancy paraphernalia sold by the NNO folks. I suppose budget constraints put the kibosh on extra spending.

As I was mulling whether to assign myself to cover the NNO event, I saw one of our resident praying mantises taking a bite out of what looked like a stink bug. We are still finding these bugs around the house and you are not supposed to step on them, lest they stink up the place. You have to trap them and either take them outside or hold a burial at sea by flushing them. Or get a praying mantis on the case.

Tuesday was hot and humid - exactly like those July days that I thought we had put behind us. Dashing around on foot to do errands downtown left me wishing to do nothing more for the rest of the day or evening. Thanks to the Plainfield Public Library, I still have a stash of good books to read while resting up. By the way, the library folks want you to know that their improved web site has been launched.

Here's the message:

The Plainfield Public Library's Web Team is happy to announce the launch of our newly redesigned website.

The site's new look, created in-house using Adobe Dreamweaver, combines modern design with improved usability.

Some highlights of the new site include:

Customized site-specific Search Engine
Enhanced Calendar of Events
Expanded Children's Library page
Online Submission forms added to the Contact Us and Webmaster pages
Improved Directions page including an interactive map plus point-to-point directions

Check it out at http://www.plfdpl.info and don't forget to update your bookmarks as we have changed our file structure along with the new look.


The Plainfield Public Library Web Team

Hmm. Upgrading the web site. It can be done.

On another note, I have asked Saul Qersdyn to look into fixing his Plainfield blog aggregator site so it doesn't come up with a "fatal error" message. Some people tell me you just have to hit the "back" button and it will work, but really one shouldn't have to do that. The address is http://plainfield.inthe21.com/ if you want to try it.

For those who missed Tuesday's event, consider attending one or both of two on Saturday presented by Plainfield public safety people. The Plainfield Police Benevolent Association invites the public to "Community Appreciation Day" from 1 to 4 p.m. in Library Park, followed by a "Citizen Appreciation Day Bar-B-Q" presented by the Plainfield Fire Officers Association from 4 to 9 p.m. in the 100 block of Church Street.

Both events will feature free food and drinks. The Library Park gathering will also have rides and giveaways. They both sound like fun and a great way, especially for families, to meet some of the people who keep us safe.


Monday, August 2, 2010

A Spin on "Time is Money"

The July 28 special City Council meeting was the first to be recorded by the city's new videography service. The 8 p.m. meeting was not open to the public for two hours, but the videographer showed up on time, and can legitimately bill the city for those two hours plus the one hour or so in open session - $300.

The Courier News slide show on the Aug. 1 town hall meeting captured an image of the videographer at work for another three-hour stint. Ka-ching! $600 total within a few days.

Previously, the city had an employee who manned the camera at meetings and public events since 2006, until his recent layoff. Looking at his 2006 salary and assuming some increase over four years, his hourly compensation was only about $30 per hour.

The new situation raises several concerns. The contract, as approved by the City Council on July 19, is "not to exceed $30,000." Yet, at these increments, it will take only 300 hours, or less than six hours per week, to exhaust that amount.

The previous videographer often covered events such as concerts and parades that spanned many hours and also did community interviews for segments on cable programming. Add to that public meetings and the tally grows.

Another concern is who assigns the videographer to cover events. If it is the mayor's office, where is the departmental oversight? All city functions are supposed to fall under three departments mandated by the city's special charter, but the mayor has stated that media will be solely under her purview.

The layoff of the fulltime employee was supposed to result in saving money. Of course, an employee costs the employer in benefits, but if the rate of compensation just about triples, does hiring a consultant bring any savings?

It may take several months to track the comparisons, but Plaintalker hopes readers (and especially the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee) will look into the actual cost savings in this new arrangement.

--Bernice Paglia

Impressions of Sunday's Forum

This is not a full story on Sunday's "Call to Action" forum, just some impressions from the first hour and a half.

First off, the forum began in the time slot of Imhotep Gary Byrd's WBLS show, "Express Yourself." Byrd is a well-known radio personality and also has a show on WBAI, "The Global Beat Experience." Why his involvement was not mentioned in publicity last week is unknown, but surely is somewhat of a lapse.

Byrd hailed Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs as "a courageous sister" and added, "She's what we call a 'warrior sister.' "

He noted the reason for the call to action as the problem of gun violence and said that even as the program was being discussed, there had been a shooting incident in Harlem. Byrd mentioned a Monmouth County "Guns for Cash" program to get guns off the street.

Plainfield has had a rash of shootings since May.

The mayor said forum topics would include gang-related activity, affordable housing, foreclosure assistance, education, mentoring, and employment and lauded the recently formed "Taking Back the Streets" task force in Plainfield.

Byrd said there had been some objections to the program's announced focus on shootings, especially from the real estate community, as people felt it wrong to air "dirty laundry." But Robinson-Briggs noted wide coverage already of the issue, with panels and numerous newspaper articles on the shootings. She said the city worked very hard in 2009 to reduce crime, but suddenly this year there was a spike in shootings in the "West Ward."

She repeated advice given at a May 3 panel, which was to check bedrooms and backpacks of young family members for guns or signs of gang activity.

Byrd, noting keynote speaker Rev. Al Sharpton was on his way to Plainfield, said, "What we're saying is, let's network the community. Let's go back to a time when you actually knew who was living next to you."

Byrd said people came out "10,000 strong" for peace in Newark's West Ward.

After a break, Byrd said Sharpton would appear in the "7 o'clock hour" of the forum.

Next came a long list of panelists, including Salaam Ismial of United Youth Council, East Orange Mayor Robert Bowser, Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith, Bro. Lonnie of Nation of Islam Mosque No. 80, a representative of the ShotSpotter company that sells gunshot detecting equipment, local police officers and Union County Freeholder Nancy Ward. Robinson-Briggs mentioned she is the first female African-American mayor in Plainfield and is in her second term.

Both Smith and Bowser spoke in favor of the gunshot detection system. Smith mentioned the Weed and Seed program and also Ceasefire, both of which have been tried in Plainfield. The latter, which calls for investigating every shooting incident as if it were a homicide, fell to budget cuts and is no longer operating in Plainfield.

Advice such as "talk to kids" was given, also to form prisoner re-entry programs and to do community outreach. Bowswer said he went to Australia to learn how crime was reduced by 75 percent there over the last five years.

After another break, the program resumed with more general comments on crime reduction and a call for community involvement from Sgt. Kenny Reid, a former mayoral bodyguard.
People's Organization for Progress leader Larry Hamm also called for more community involvement.

By now, the program was well into the 7 o'clock hour with no sign of Sharpton. After another break, Bro. Lonnie spoke about supporting the youth in the community and the mayor talked about a job training program led by Debbie Myers.

I got as far as opening remarks from Congressman Frank Pallone after 7:30 p.m. and then, as I was listening in bed to the show on my big purple boombox, I dozed off. Maybe someone can fill in the rest.

Still to come were remarks from Sharpton and responses from audience members, who had been given cards to write on. The show was billed to air from 6 to 9 p.m. and by the mid-point, all I had heard was mostly speechifying. I'm sure Sharpton, if he actually showed, gave the best speech, as he can always out-orate anyone in the room.

I would have liked to hear more concrete information on how things are going with the task force, which has been meeting every Tuesday and visiting troubled neighborhoods. Are people responding? Are neighbors willing to defy the "stop snitching" mandate of gang leaders and cooperate with police? At the May 3 panel, it came out in the wash that police and community figures generally know who's who and what's what on the street, but can't get witnesses to testify in court. Gang members live by their code and residents do not want to risk being labeled snitches. It appears that only the dangerous stratagem of intense undercover work might yield enough solid information to pit the law against gang culture.

This is not to make less of the small increments of trust garnered by those who appeal to youth to forego gangs and gun violence. These one-on-one heartfelt appeals can turn young people away from crime, especially if they include an offer of longterm support for the individual's escape to a better life.

Plaintalker welcomes any comments on the forum or on the issue of gun violence.

--Bernice Paglia