Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Candidate Forum Tonight

Hear Democratic Primary Candidates tonight

7-9 p.m., Cook School

Second Ward -Tony Rucker, Cory Storch
First & Fourth Ward at-large - Delois Dameron, Vera Greaves

Primary Election is June 7

Sponsored by Friends of Sleepy Hollow and Hillside Area Neighborhood Watch

Vets Still Waiting for Center

City veterans at 2011 Memorial Day observance.

With a city-owned Front Street veterans' center still on hold, veterans are looking into alternatives, American Legion Post 219 Commander Lamar Mackson said Monday.

"We want our own space," Mackson told Plaintalker after Memorial Day ceremonies that included placing wreaths at war memorials on East Seventh Street and on the grounds of City Hall.

Promises of a center as part of a building on East Front Street date back to 2006. Besides 63 residential condos, the building was to include a large senior center and a place for veterans to meet. See Plaintalker's 2006 report here. The senior center had a one-day opening in May 2009 and opened full-time in November 2009, but although a sign indicates a Veterans Center on the ground floor, the space was stipulated for use as a sales office for the condos. According to a contract with the developer, it was not to be turned over to veterans until all units were sold.

Meanwhile, market conditions have led to a lease for purchase plan to fill up unsold condos, putting the veterans' center in limbo.

City Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said last week that talks are in progress with the developer regarding occupancy of the veterans' space. Mackson said veterans are currently meeting at the senior center, but they are chafing at restrictions on access. Asked whether he was encouraged by the city's attempts to get the contract terms modified, Mackson replied, "Not at all. We continue to have difficulty accessing the (senior) center in an unfettered way."

Mackson said he has provided Senior Center Director Sharron Brown with a list of meetings and events veterans have planned, but as he has stated at City Council meetings, the veterans have to wait to be let in to the building after hours. The same issues of free access with their own key would apply to the veterans' center when it comes under city control, Williamson said.

The veterans are now looking into acquiring their own building, Mackson said.

Both the senior and veterans' centers are considered condos as part of The Monarch, as the building is called. The senior center is liable for 13 percent of common costs of the building. If and when the the veterans' center is turned over to the city, it would pay 1 percent of common costs. In an update on the senior center, Williamson said the city was paying the $2,750 monthly condo fee out of a bond issue. The city is working on closing of the property, he said.


Monday, May 30, 2011

Longtime Family Business Leaves City

A family-owned auto parts and machine works business that began here in 1913 has left the city.

Founder Nick Thul was on the verge of moving to Nova Scotia for another business opportunity when he discovered a need he could fill right here, according to a history of the company. Click here to read the story.

The business will continue in other locations. Its sites on Roosevelt Avenue and East Third Street were threatened in 2006 by a developer's plans for 352 condos in five new buildings. Click here for Plaintalker's report. In 2008, the ambitious development plan was dropped. Read about it here.

Plaintalker did not want to pester the family on a holiday, but did verify a news tip on the firm's departure by checking the block where the business was based.

Another nearly century-old family business, Cozzoli Machine Company, was on the same block before moving to Somerset several years ago and its location had been slated to be part of the development site, as was property owned by the PMUA.

Thanks to the Thul family for being city employers and a landmark business destination for so many years and best wishes for ongoing success.

--Bernice Paglia

Holiday Schedule?

Crash! Bang! Squeal!

Ten minutes of infernal racket starting just before 1:30 a.m. heralded yet another mixed message from the PMUA.

From the web site:

"PMUA Closed Monday 5/30 in observance of the Memorial Day Holiday. Garbage collection will resume Tuesday, May 31st."

From my window? A bit of a wake-up call for those trying to sleep.

This happens on every holiday. Hope the workers are getting double or triple overtime for working on a designated holiday or a Sunday, however you reckon it. See you on Sunday, July 3 or Monday, July 4, guys!


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011

PMUA Board Meets June 1

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority met last week to discuss contracts for the executive director and the assistant executive director, as well as to discuss hiring a new executive director. No decision on a successor to Executive Director Eric Watson was made and a new special meeting has been called for Wednesday.

PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that the Plainfield Municipal
Utilities Authority (the "Authority")
has scheduled a Special Meeting for
WEDNESDAY JUNE 1, 2011 AT 1:00 P.M.
at the Authority's office located at
127 Roosevelt Avenue,
Plainfield, New Jersey:
The Board will convene and then go into
Executive Session pursuant to N.J.S.A. 10:4-12
to discuss and take action regarding the following:
1. Contract negotiations involving Executive and
Assistant Executive Director;
2. Possible appointment of an Interim Executive Director;
And, take action regarding the following:
3. Rejection of Bids for Five (5) 28 Rear Load Packers and One (1) 25 Rear Load Packer.
/s/ Eric C. Watson
Executive Director

Weekend Events

Verdant downtown Plainfield.

Primary candidate interviews will be broadcast on TV Channel 96 at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m., according to a Facebook entry. The June 7 primary will have Democrats Cory Storch and Tony Rucker vying for the Second Ward City Council seat and Dee Dameron and Vera Greaves for the First & Fourth Ward at-large seat. Winners will be on the ballot for the November 8 general election, along with Second Ward Republican candidate William Michelson.

The Stop the Killing event starts at 1 p.m. at Plainfield High School. Click here for more on the event.

Memorial Day observances will include a 10 a.m. gathering Monday at the War Memorial at City Hall for prayers and laying of a wreath. Click here for more information.

The long weekend is also a good time to take a walk downtown, sample some of the new food choices (I tried yuca fries from Pollo Campero last week) and admire the greenery around the Park-Madison office building. It's looking good!


Friday, May 27, 2011

Job Plan Needs More Thought

A swell of support for young men who want to leave gang life behind now includes a city-led campaign to help them get jobs, according to a story in today's Courier News. The city is not only holding a job fair, it is "purchasing a van and acquiring free bus vouchers to help transport workers to and from job sites."

This idea set off in Plaintalker's mind a clang as loud as a steel door slamming shut, the very thing such an initiative is meant to avoid. Why such a response? First of all, the governing body for years now has spoken against the city supporting social service programs that might better be managed by private non-profits or by other governmental entities. The City Council has already gone through the lengthy process of relocating the substance abuse rehabilitation program known as Dudley House/Project Alert under the aegis of an agency specializing in such services. The Bilingual Day Care Center and the WIC (Women, Infants & Children) nutrition program are also targets of this thinking.

As for purchasing a van, how would it be financed? Would it not be a capital expense? What part of city government would provide a driver, insurance and maintenance and schedule its use? This just seems like one of those impulsive, emotional moves that engenders disregard of the fiscal process, kind of like the WBLS matter now under investigation.

In addition, didn't legislation just pass barring people with criminal records from serving on school boards? The target of that legislation, Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, has long advocated a half-way house to re-acclimate parolees to community life and responsibilities, but that idea has gained no traction despite the fact that hundreds of people leave prison each year to return to Plainfield.

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority has touted its policy of giving parolees jobs and also claims to be the fifth largest employer in the city. Coincidentally, Plaintalker was trying this week to find out who the other largest employers are when a search on the state web site turned up a program already in place to help employers who want to give jobs to parolees. The program notes that the Parole Board can serve as a silent partner in the process in that it provides checks on parolee behavior and performance, in addition to drug and alcohol tests. Employers can also receive tax credits and "free Federal bond insurance for each ex-offender they hire." Click here for full information.

As far as largest city employers, one can guess that two would be the school district and municipal government, both of which have rules that may bar parolees from jobs. Speakers at public meetings have indicated that the Recreation Division may be an exception. It might be helpful to determine what, if any, public employment is open to ex-offenders.

So before plunging into a city effort to find and facilitate employment for parolees, perhaps a step back and a look at the facts is in order. It does not have to be a long look as in a study, just a review of all the salient points of costs and implementation of such a program. One or more of the City Council committees should be at the table and certainly any existing program such as that offered by the state Parole Board should be publicized.

It will be interesting to see what Rasheed Abdul-Haqq has to say about all this as well. If anyone has redeemed himself in society, he has. And yet his service to the community, endorsed by those who voted for him to be on the school board, may soon end abruptly. It seems ironic in the light of the outpouring of love and hope for those who just took the first step away from criminality.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

High Turnover Mars Administration

In March 2006, the man in charge of the largest of three city departments left Plainfield to become the first city manager of Topeka, Kans. As of July 1, Norton Bonaparte Jr. will be parting ways with Topeka after six years – actually a very good run, compared to what has happened here.

No fewer than six people have held his former job here since he left, four as head of the Department of Administration, Finance, Health & Social Services and two city administrators who covered the department during extensive vacancies.

Bonaparte himself had been the city administrator in Plainfield when Sharon Robinson-Briggs won the June 2005 primary, defeating Mayor Albert T. McWilliams. When Robinson-Briggs took office on Jan.1, 2006, she named Bonaparte acting head of the department that included 14 divisions, by far the largest of three departments mandated by the city’s special charter.

When Bonaparte left for Topeka in mid-March 2006, his duties apparently fell to Acting City Administrator Carlton McGee, although the City Council was not given the customary notice. The AFH&SS post remained vacant until December 2006, when A. Raiford Daniels was named department head. Meanwhile, McGee had departed in November 2006, leaving two key posts unmanned.

Daniels left the job in November 2007, by which time Marc Dashield had been city administrator for less than a year. It fell to Dashield to cover the department until the hiring of Douglas Peck as head of AFH&SS in April 2008. But Peck only lasted until December of that year, leaving Dashield wearing two hats once again until Bibi Taylor was hired as department head in July 2009.

Meanwhile, the mayor won a second term and Dashield was not expected to be art of the new cabinet. He left to become township manager in Montclair. Taylor was appointed both acting city administrator and acting head of AFH&SS in January 2010, but was expected to leave the city for East Orange within the month. As it turned out, Taylor stayed on all year, holding both posts until Al Restaino, head of the Office of Community Development, was named director of AFH&SS, a post he retains to the present.

The Municipal Code calls for acting designations not to exceed 90 days, but as described above, AFH&SS suffered not only high turnover but also extended vacancies in violation of the rule.

There was more cabinet hurly-burly when in December the mayor fired Taylor, who was nine months pregnant. The City Council rescinded the firing, but Taylor chose not to return to the city after a maternity leave and took a Union County post as finance director. In January, the mayor named Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson acting city administrator, which in turn necessitated naming of an acting corporation counsel. At the end of March, the mayor named herself acting city administrator. As of May 11, another acting city administrator has been hired.

Among the other department heads, Martin Hellwig has been director of Public Affairs & Safety throughout the mayor’s first and second terms. He also holds the title of police director, which was created after the police chief’s title was abolished.

Public Works & Urban Development had only one director, Jennifer Wenson-Maier, throughout the mayor’s first term, but she was not reappointed in January 2010 and took an administrative job in Hoboken. David Brown II served as department head from February 2010 to November 2010. Jacques Howard of the Office of Economic Development was named acting department head in January. His term expired at the end of March and the post is currently vacant.

As previously reported, the statutory post of chief finance officer was vacant for three years until the state Division of Local Government Services threatened daily fines for the mayor and each council member unless one was hired. The administration and governing body met a November deadline by hiring retiree Ron Zilinski, but he did not begin until January and works just 28 hours a week. The title of city treasurer was created for him to meet certain pension rules.

The churn of top officials, especially in financial areas, is concerning, as the city faces ongoing budget pressures that require close attention. Layoffs have thinned staff, further setting the stage for erosion of basic services. But the mayor has two and a half years to go in her second term and still has a chance to put together a solid administrative team, if qualified people are willing to set foot where so many have recently trod. The degree of turnover, especially in AFH&SS, means any new city administrator and department heads will have to play catch-up on some key issues.

Meanwhile, Norton Bonaparte Jr. will leave his $137,500 post (and $550 monthly vehicle allowance) with $100,000 in severance pay after six years of service in charge of 1,400 employees and a $224 million budget. His credentials are such that he is sure to find another administrative role. Plaintalker wishes him well.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 31 Forum Features Primary Contests

City Council candidates in a Democratic Primary contest will take part next week in a forum endorsed by neighborhood associations.

The forum, from 7 to 9 p.m. May 31 at Cook School, will include Delois “Dee” Dameron and Vera Greaves, who are vying for the First & Fourth Ward at-large council seat; and Tony Rucker and Cory Storch, who are seeking the Second Ward seat.

Greaves is an appointee to the unexpired council term of Freeholder Linda Carter. She and Rucker, who is making his second run for a council seat, are running on the Regular Democratic Organization line. Storch, a two-term incumbent, and Dameron, making her initial bid for public office, are running under the New Democrats banner.

Winners of the June 7 primary contest will go on the Democratic line for the November 8 general election for four-year terms commencing on Jan. 1, 2012. Republican Bill Michelson will also be on the November ballot for the Second Ward seat. Independents may file June 7 to run in November.

Although the Clarification: local League of Women Voters does not hold primary forums, sponsors agreed to use the traditional nonpartisan LWV format and have engaged a trained moderator, Dawn Clarke of the Springfield LWV. The format will include two-minute opening statements, written questions from the audience and three-minute closing statements. Clarke will screen questions for appropriateness and whether they should be posed by ward or in general.

The Friends of Sleepy Hollow and Hillside Area Neighborhood Watch are primary sponsors, but all neighborhood associations and block groups are urged to lend their backing and to encourage members’ attendance. Organizers expect the event to be taped by the Plainfield Cable Television Advisory Board for broadcast on local access Channels 96 and 34.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lead Us Not Into TEMP-tation

Dear Readers: I toiled over a post on the evils of filling cabinet-level jobs with people in temporary or acting capacity only to have most of the text disappear when I tried to publish at 4:15 a.m.

Suffice it to say that because the mayor still has two and a half years left in her second term, it was my opinion that she should make every effort to identify permanent cabinet members to fill the roles of city administrator and director of Public Works & Urban Development. The ongoing turnover at the top, coupled with layoffs in key divisions, has weakened the administration's ability to provide optimum stewardship of city resources.

At this point, I am not able to recreate the full post with names, dates, etc. Maybe I can do so later. My apologies.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

PMUA Seeks New Director

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority will have a special meeting Tuesday, with one item being employment of a new executive director.

According to a legal notice published Saturday, the meeting will open at 1 p.m. in PMUA headquarters at 127 Roosevelt Avenue and its board of commissioners will then go into closed session to discuss "and take action" regarding contract negotiations involving the executive director and the assistant executive director and employment of a new executive director.

Both Executive Director Eric Watson and Assistant Executive Director David Ervin announced earlier this year they would be retiring. Chief Finance Officer James Perry also said he would be stepping down in the fall. All three have been with the authority since its inception in 1995.

While contractual matters are one of the topics that can be discussed in closed session under the Open Public Meetings Act, any votes arising out of such discussions normally take place in public. Given the time of the meeting, not many members of the public will be able to attend to witness any vote that may occur.

As Plaintalker previously reported, since Watson announced his retirement, several speakers at public meetings have portrayed him as being under some kind of duress that led to his decision. Even before that, in meetings with the governing body Watson often took a defensive stance. A successor will face the same challenges of management that Watson had, but will also have the opportunity to set a more collegial tone with peers in city government and to choose a new approach to ratepayers' concerns.

Change is coming to the PMUA. Its past model may no longer fit the times. Let us hope the commissioners can identify individuals who can build on the authority's accomplishments while bringing leadership that can take the organization to a new level of service to Plainfield and beyond.


Saturday, May 21, 2011


So ... some people are expecting the end of the world, others will be shopping the garage sales.

"Repent!" has been an imperative so long that there is a whole bunch of cartoons about it. Click here to see some of "the end is near" genre. If the rapture is delayed once again, a lot of us will not be surprised. The smart alecks among my Facebook friends have come up with some funny responses to the billboard alarums about May 21. For example, irreverent Ed P. declares, "I plan on eating bacon nonstop today."

But seriously folks, the topic of repentance comes to mind when thinking about the gang truce in Plainfield. Are these young men truly ready to put their violent ways behind them? The thought came to mind that if so, they should be willing to turn in any weapons they possess and get others in their sphere of influence to do the same. But then what about out-of-towners who come here to mess with folks? How far out will the peace ripple? To East Orange and Irvington? To wherever young people come from to hang out at Park & Fifth after the bars close?

If the sun does come up tomorrow and the next day, let us hope that gang members will be at police headquarters Monday morning talking about how guns can be turned in without the owners getting charged for weapons possession. The local gang members could also decide not to congregate at places likely to engender violence, such as those 2:30 a.m. gatherings of tipsy troublemakers on weekends.

Willpower can do a lot to get a person steered in a new direction, but habits die hard. This nascent movement toward social responsibility could also use the counsel of clergy or some old heads in the neighborhood who know something about personal struggle in the face of temptation. Mentors could help this process of change stay on track.

Now that the gang members have gone public with their truce, a lot of people will want to put in their two cents on what should happen next, this writer obviously being one of them. But ultimately change is in the hands of those who took the first step. Reactions online have been mixed, some supporting the young men's vow, while others snort and sneer. Mainstream society is skeptical of repentance, but redemption is well understood in African-American culture and ultimately that may be the saving grace for these young men. I wonder what words will be spoken from church pulpits tomorrow on this topic - that is, if the world doesn't end today.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Just Maintain

Mark Spivey's report yesterday of a gang truce left me thinking, "Hmmm ..." more so than "Whoopee!"

Turning around a complex network of violent interactions seems akin to re-routing a battleship in a minute - not easily done. And yet as impossible as it seems, we nervously hope it will happen.

My personal interest in a gang truce is being able to walk a short distance back and forth to night meetings without wondering whether I will be in harm's way. This despite Municipal Court and City Hall being just steps from police headquarters. I have been teased for wearing my many-pocketed travel vest around the city as if I am trekking the wilderness, but having my ID and valuables on my person as opposed to dangling from my shoulder in a purse gives me a small feeling of security as an elderly woman on foot.

At first glance, the truce appears to be the real thing, according to a police sergeant who should know. Those who gathered to enact the truce, then tell reporters about it, are influential in the city's gang world, he says.

So why am I not unequivocally glad to hear of this turn of events? Because over the past 25 years, I have seen too many young men hardened by street life into simulacrums of classmates who have made better choices. They look the same, but inside they have decided that violence is a more effective means to power than the mundane route of study and work. Their lifestyle is vaunted and validated by the gangsta culture, in all sorts of media.

So now that they have expressed the intention to change and lead others to change, they may face a most insidious form of peer pressure, that being the pull to stay in the depths where hurting people is a code and dying by gunfire is street martyrdom.

In thinking of what will keep these young men and their friends and enemies on their new path, I remembered a phrase I heard somewhere: "Just maintain." The Urban Dictionary defines it this way: "To hold composure, even in the stickiest of situations; to be a juggernaut with grace 100 percent of the time ... every time."

That is my wish for them and for the city as summer approaches. May it come true.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Maidens in May on Sunday

This week's rainy weather is supposed to give way to sunshine in time for the Third Annual Maidens in May House Tour Sunday, but tour goers may want to choose footwear that can handle squishy grounds. There will be a reception after the tour in a lovely garden setting at Grace Episcopal Church.

This effort not only benefits two worthy causes, it is a stellar example of community participation to showcase Plainfield's renowned architectural treasures. The United Way of Greater Union County's Manager of Community Engagement, Jeff Scheckner, deserves credit for living up to his title in an exemplary way.

Click here for more information on the event, and be sure to tell friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers about it.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Music Directorship Open

Next to its rich historic housing stock, Plainfield is very well-known for its music legacy.

Everything from the Plainfield Symphony to P-Funk has a chapter in the city's musical story and its churches provide a very large component of musical legend, from the Pittis carillon at Grace Church to the gospel heritage that is played out every week in the spiritual nourishment of numerous congregations.

I began attending the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield in the early 1980s and have always enjoyed the music provided by its dedicated choir members and its talented music directors. At present, the church is seeking a new director. Whoever gets the job will find very appreciative listeners and participants at Sunday services and will get to know the many talented individuals who share their less formal musical expressions in a number of contexts.

I never actually joined the church by "signing the book," as the UUs require, but I have always found FUSP to be as close to a church home as I am ever likely to get. At present, the church is looking for a new music director and as a favor I agreed to publish something on the blog about the opportunity. Here is their ad:

First Unitarian Society of Plainfield Seeks Music Director
The First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, NJ, is seeking a Music Director, 10 to 20 hours per week for up to 42 Sundays/year, starting August, 2011. The work schedule is negotiable, but runs roughly from August to mid-June.
We seek a candidate who can help us grow our music program and encourage congregational participation, a collaborative “people” person and a skilled music educator.
Duties include planning and overseeing the music program in consultation with the Minister, regular choral or ensemble rehearsals, direction for three Sunday services per month, and occasional special music programs.
Candidates should be competent in piano and voice, be comfortable with a variety of musical styles, have good administrative skills, and be willing to work with the Minister in service preparation and other church activities. Experience with organ, guitar, and other instruments is desirable.
Qualifications: Choral directing experience, knowledge of choral repertoire, ability to work with instrumentalists and other congregational or outside musicians. Familiarity with Unitarian Universalism highly desirable.
Salary range: $10,000 to $15,500
To apply or for more information, please contact John Hawkins at johnhawkins40@gmail.com.


Monday, May 16, 2011

On Media Mores

Regarding the role of bloggers in the community, let me explain that my blog is only about six years old and most others are newer. Each has its own raison d'etre - mine is mainly to cover aspects of development and municipal government. Bloggers don't get paid and pick their own topics. For example, Dr. Yood often draws on his extensive historical knowledge of Plainfield and is an advocate for better government. Dan publishes a community calendar and rounds up items of interest for the readers. I hope to furnish information that encourages civic engagement, among other things.

So when bloggers get a scolding over low turnout at a play, I just don't follow the logic.

Let me offer some advice based on my past experience as a reporter and also for five years after retirement as publicity chair at my church.

Reporters do cover breaking news, but an event that has long been planned is not in that category. Reporters also do feature stories, initiated either by knowledge of what's going on in the community or through a press release. Given the constraints of newsrooms in recent years, as publicity chair I knew it was important to meet the reporter more than halfway to get coverage for our holiday dinners for those in need, our theater group's productions and other events.

I knew that newspapers require at least two weeks' advance notice of an event. I sent press releases that had all the five W's - who, what, where, when, why - along with my contact information and contacts for those involved in the event, perhaps the director of the play or the organizer of the dinner. In the case of a play, I included something about the plot, any awards the playwright may have garnered and any "news hooks" such as a lawyer-turned-actor or an octogenarian making a splash in community theater.

Rehearsal photos can be requested, or furnished by e-mail along with a cleanly-written press release directed both to the news desk and to the Features editor.

If this sounds like a lot of work, consider how much effort goes into stage design, lighting, costumes and rehearsing before the curtain goes up. Publicity should be a parallel activity to a play or any event where the community is invited. Certainly it is a valuable skill for students to learn, as it involves language and communication.

Nonetheless, I used to tell my church "clients" that PR alone is no guarantee of coverage or high attendance, as on any given day reporters are pulled in many directions. To an editor, breaking news will always take precedence over features.

Still, I would venture a guess that someone like Stefanie Minatee has quite a pile of clippings from knowing how to work PR. We certainly got our fair share at the church as well.

After 16 years I hung up my reporter's hat, never realizing there would be such a thing as blogs or that I would become a blogger myself. But it was my newsroom experience that served me well as a volunteer doing publicity for my church and a few other organizations. When I turned over the PR task to someone else, I passed along the guidelines noted above as well as a list of media contacts. I also suggested use of the Courier News self-publishing feature, which is currently being used to good advantage by some people on Plainfield InJersey.

As for my blog, I make no apologies for its content. A lot of it comes from sitting through long meetings or doing research at City Hall, in addition to those hours at the keyboard in the wee hours. I have featured local businesses and the Shakespeare Garden on my blog, among other items, as I felt inclined.

Bloggers are sort of like cats. They can't be herded. Nor can they be successfully scolded. Take my word for it.


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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mayor: Pick Up Armory Tab

The May 9 City Council meeting was replete with surprises, one of which was a new scheme regarding the Plainfield Armory.

A charter school has dropped its plan to move into the Armory, but in order to keep a $1 lease agreement between the city and the state viable, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs wants the governing body to consider paying monthly maintenance costs for the building while the administration seeks another tenant. The mayor did not make her pitch in person, as she left the meeting early due to illness. Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson made the request to the governing body on her behalf.

In answer to Plaintalker's question at the meeting, Williamson confirmed that the cost would be about $6,000 per month. Later in the week at City Hall, he said the total might be more like $20,000 for three months.

The request may be considered at the (Tuesday) June 14 agenda-fixing session, 7:30 p.m. at City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.


Monarch Revenue Cup Filling Up

The 63-unit condo development known as The Monarch is still not producing the projected $400,000 in annual tax revenue touted by officials at its inception, but the cup is more than half full.

In answer to Plaintalker's inquiry last week, Tax Assessor Tracy Bennett said condo owners are paying a total of $$95,835 in taxes and the developer is paying $131,383.86 on the unsold units.

Sales have been slower than expected at The Monarch and the developer recently offered condos in a lease-for-purchase plan. Unsold units had been assessed at a minimal amount and questions arose about how and when they would go on the tax rolls. At the May 9 City Council meeting, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said 32 units now have certificates of occupancy and full assessment is expected this year. The issue came up as the council was discussing return of a performance bond to the developer in the amount of $334,089. The measure passed, although questions remained whether the developer was required to install solar panels.

Besides the 63 condos, the building at 400 East Front Street is home to the city's Senior Center, which is tax-exempt. However, because the center itself is legally a condominium, the city is liable for $2,750 a month in condo fees. The developer included back condo fees in a request for $287,371.97 in April 2010, but the matter was never resolved. Click here for Plaintalker's report on the senior center costs. The condo fee is $33,000 annually and has presumably been accruing monthly since the city took possession of the center.

A Veterans' Center is also a condominium and will have to pay a monthly fee once it is turned over to the city, but so far the space is being used as a sales office for the developer. Under terms of the contract, all units must be sold before the Veterans' Center can be occupied. The new situation with rentals of the residential condo units has clouded the outcome and veterans are meeting in the Senior Center temporarily.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

More on PMUA Task Force Issue

From the PMUA 10th Year Service Catalog

Besides some council comments opposing the PMUA task force on May 9, resident Dave Morales took the microphone in public comment to call formation of such a task force "harassment" of an already beleaguered entity.

Based on what he said was his own research on the PMUA, Morales said the authority had 2,700 delinquent accounts and also lost half a million dollars when Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center closed. In addition, he said, the authority lost money on the Connolly properties. (You may recall that the PMUA had to pick up trash at Connolly's numerous multi-family buildings whether the bills were paid or not.)

Morales also noted the authority employs parolees who would most likely not be able to work there if the city took it over. He also praised PMUA Executive Director Eric Watson for his "vision," starting the authority with only two trucks.

"Now we rag on him to the point where the man is sick," he said, alleging in addition "the state is on him."

Topping all that was the task force "harassment," Morales said.

In other comments perhaps alluding to the authority's hiring of parolees, Morales talked about "kids wilding" and said, "I'm training them into a betterment."

Morales said he would rather have Watson and the PMUA the way they are.

Later in the week, a lien sale notice appeared in the Courier News with more than 900 delinquent accounts, mostly for sewer services. The city has been conducting these sales on behalf of the PMUA for several years. If I heard Mr. Morales right and there are 2,700 delinquent accounts in all, that is a collection rate of only about 76 percent. Whether or not that is the case, the delinquency rate evidenced in the five and a half-page May 11 lien sale notice is reason enough for the task force to inquire how a higher collection rate can be achieved.

In light of what Morales had to say, it is also interesting to review the "press statement" released by the PMUA earlier this year in reaction to perceived "relentless negative criticism" over the past two years. It sets forth eight new initiatives "ready to be launched" in a "continuing strategy for improvement," followed by "bitter sweet" accolades for departing executives Watson, Dave Ervin and James Perry.

Despite the statement's emphasis on the departing executives' legacy, there have been other instances of people coming to the public microphone to paint Watson as a victim. Click here to read remarks from Watson supporters at the March 15 council meeting.

Besides the current drama, the PMUA has long had political overtones, perhaps no more so than when an ad for "Democrats for Change" appeared in the Courier News just before the June 2009 primary in which then-PMUA Chairwoman Carol Brokaw was one of five challengers to Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs' re-election. The ad pointed out numerous reasons why eliminating the PMUA would be a bad idea.

The council's charge to the task force is simple and narrow, and is supposed to result only in a report. Neither the task force nor the public fretting over the PMUA changes the basic issue of solving the present standoff among the governing body, the administration and the authority. To that end, the council resolution calls for a meeting, in accordance with the Interlocal Services Agreement, among the three entities at a mutually agreeable location no later than May 30. Can the ice be broken? We'll see.


Gun Graffiti - Why?

East Ninth and Third Place.

Gun images, along with blue paint, have popped up in or near the Crescent Area Historic District.
Park Avenue near Crescent Avenue.

It would be interesting to know whether this is only happening in this neighborhood or whether it is widespread.

East Ninth and Park Avenue.

Is the blue color a gang thing? People around here would like to know what, if anything, the image is supposed to signify. Is it territorial? If any readers have theories or especially facts about this new phenomenon, please leave a comment.


Friday, May 13, 2011

PMUA Task Force Approved

In a 4-3 vote Monday, the City Council approved formation of a seven-member task force to study and make recommendations on the authority that provides solid waste and sewer services to Plainfield.

The resolution cites high comparative rates coupled with the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority’s rejection of discussions with the governing body as the reasons for creation of a task force. Each council member will have one appointment and the task force will report back to the council in four months. Its work will be to compare PMUA costs with those in neighboring and similar municipalities, to recommend ways to control and reduce costs, to name steps to maximize the number of PMUA jobs for Plainfielders and to examine the options on what entities should “operate and deliver PMUA services.”

The last item refers to a notion that the city should take over operations now provided by the PMUA. Before its inception, the city had a sewer utility and residents contracted with private carters for trash pickup. Opponents of a city takeover have cited PMUA debt as a deterrent, as well as the cost of shifting operations.

Before the vote on Monday, Councilman and former PMUA Commissioner William Reid gave a lengthy defense of the authority, followed by Councilwoman Bridget Rivers’ challenge to the proposed makeup of the task force. Reid and Rivers are the council liaisons to the PMUA and have consistently taken its side in council discussions.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs also objected to the seven-member makeup at the May 2 agenda-fixing session, saying the administration should have a representative. When her suggestion was rebuffed, she withdrew it, saying “Good luck!”

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson then reminded the council that it has no authority over the PMUA, which is autonomous. But supporters of the proposed task force said only a study was being proposed.

On May 9, Rivers rehashed the idea of a mayoral appointee to the task force along with an additional council appointment to yield an odd number, but supporters of the task force said the mayor had withdrawn her request.

The next agenda session, on June 14, should yield names of appointees or perhaps a mayoral veto.

To trace how the PMUA saga got to this point, Plaintalker is offering a bit of history.

After a rocky start in the mid-1990s, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority sailed through a decade or more of providing solid waste and sewer services with nothing more than some random grumblings from the 16,000 householders served.

Then came the January 2009 rate increases, 20 percent for solid waste and 14 percent for sewer services. Hardly anyone attended the required public hearing before commissioners approved the rate increases, but when bills hit the ratepayers’ mailboxes, a revolt ensued. A group of outraged residents formed DumpPMUA and began probing the authority’s operations, posting their findings on a web site for all to see. They launched an “opt-out” tutorial and used the Open Public Records Act to ferret out details of pricey “business lunches” and trips, and compared PMUA rates to those in nearby towns for the same services.

The PMUA board of commissioners soon faced unprecedented crowds at its monthly meetings and even a legal challenge from DumpPMUA organizer Philip Charles. The authority eventually prevailed in court, but meanwhile changed some of its policies in an apparent tacit recognition that the public was fed up.

In 2010, PMUA executive director Eric Watson and the commissioners began backing off joint public meetings with the governing body. Watson announced he was stepping down, along with second-in-command Dave Ervin and chief finance officer James Perry, all of whom had served since the authority’s inception. Appointments to the board of commissioners faltered and a small band of holdovers was left in charge of doling out millions of dollars in annual contracts. A 61 percent increase for “shared services” – affecting even those who opted out of PMUA trash pickup – coupled with refusals to meet with the governing body brought the simmering controversy to a boil this year. Hence the task force.

But even as it was voted into existence Monday, a council member who voted “no” predicted that the task force resolution would soon be vetoed by the mayor. Clarification: Resolutions are not subject to mayoral veto. Disregard the following. And a fifth vote needed to override the veto would most likely be lacking on the council, rendering the task force just a stillborn casualty of governmental stasis. If so, too bad for ratepayers and taxpayers alike who want to see elected and appointed officials collaborate on effective stewardship.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Fourth Ward: More Cops, Jobs Needed

More police and more jobs are two things that would make life better in the Fourth Ward, speakers said at the City Council’s final 2011 Town Meeting Wednesday.

A mother and a pre-school teacher spoke of their fears for children growing up where gang members dominate neighborhoods, while others called for rescuing young people from the streets by giving them mentoring and jobs. A police sergeant spoke of fellow officers saving a young shooting victim’s life by plugging bullet wounds with their fingers, but a former councilwoman alleged witnessing a seven-officer beat-down of another man.

“The police are tired, stressed out,” resident Dave Morales said. “How can we help the police be better police?”

“The police can help themselves by getting involved with kids,” school board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq said.

Abdul-Haqq called for creativity in coming up with jobs for young people, such as having flea markets and community gardens on vacant lots. He also called for sale of city-owned art treasures, saying, “The point is, we have to fund our own needs.”

About 40 people, including several from the East End, gathered at Clinton School for the meeting with the full council listening to residents’ concerns. Sgt. Kenny Reid of the Police Division’s Gang Unit urged citizen involvement in solving crime and said he is always on call personally to assist anyone.

“We have recovered a lot of guns,” he said.

A city proposal to lease a gun detection system drew mixed opinions, both on its cost and perceived effectiveness.

“We need more cops and we need them to get out of cars,” said Housing Authority Commissioner and former Councilwoman Joanne Hollis, who said she was “tired of going to funerals” of crime victims.

Near the end of the meeting, Council President Annie McWilliams asked members of block associations to stand and representatives of half a dozen groups across the city did so. Jim Spear of Netherwood Neighbors suggested attending a citywide block association meeting that takes place on the fourth Tuesday of every month at 525 East Front Street to learn more about how to get involved.

While Wednesday’s meeting was the last in the town meeting series, contact information for all council members is posted on the city web site (click here) and residents may also speak on their concerns at council meetings throughout the year. The next City Council meeting is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 14 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tardy Budget Transfer Resolution Rejected

A budget transfer resolution handed to the City Council just before Monday's meeting was rejected until the governing body receives more information on reasons for the transfers.

"Why are we seeing this for the first time tonight?" Council President Annie McWilliams asked Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, who said it had been provided by Chief Finance Officer Ron Zilinski. McWilliams said she was not comfortable getting the document "literally when we walked in," and said henceforth Zilinski must attend council meetings, even if it is by phone.

Zilinski was hired at the end of November when both the mayor and council were facing state daily fines for not hiring a CFO for three years after the retirement of former CFO Peter Sepelya. The former Trenton official began working for Plainfield for 28 hours a week in January, but has only attended council meetings a few times since then.

Transfers are a regular part of the budget process. The council may, by a two-thirds majority vote, make transfers in the last two months of the fiscal year between budget lines that are over or under appropriations for the year. The total amount of the proposed FY 2011 transfers is $471,700, with the largest transfers being $100,000 each to Fire and Police division salary lines and $100,000 for "accumulated absence buyouts."

Perhaps the biggest surprise Monday was the proposed use of $30,000 in Recreation Division seasonal salary funds to help plug holes in the budget, this after a protracted exchange in past months between the council and administration over a Recreation cut in the same amount. In a conciliatory move, the council voted in April to restore $25,000 to the Recreation Division. Monday's proposed transfers included adding $5,215.76 in salary and wages to the division.

Councilwoman Rebecca Williams called pulling $30,000 from Recreation "ridiculous" Monday and said the transfers were "giving us a blueprint for budget cuts," an apparent reference to the upcoming budget process for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Councilman Adrian Mapp, a certified CFO himself, said there were 12 salary and wage lines being increased through transfers and pointed out the administration should not be over-expending salary and wage lines. The transfers, he said, indicated "a lot of fat in the budget."

"This is the reason why the Finance Committee needs to meet with the administration," Mapp said.

The Finance Committee is one of several established annually in recent years by the governing body through its "Rules of Order." Mapp said the committee has been denied meetings with the the chief finance officer.

Monday's council meeting was the last scheduled before the end of the fiscal year. Correction:There are meetings on June 14 and June 20. Last year, the governing body held a special meeting July 1 to deal with $460,700 in FY 2010 budget transfers. Click here for Plaintalker's post on that meeting.


More Council News to Follow

Image: Forget-Me-Not flowers.

Monday's meeting was full of news. Two items are covered below. More reports tomorrow and in days to come.


Monday, May 9, 2011

ShotSpotter Lease Proposed

A gunshot detection system is now available for lease at a fraction of last year's $1 million tab to purchase it, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs told the governing body Monday.

The $169,000 cost for one-year coverage of three square miles can be covered by a federal grant, the mayor said, and with council approval in June, the system could be in place by July.

A spate of shootings last year sparked interest in the ShotSpotter program, which locates gunshots and can even identify the type of weapon used. A July 28 demonstration of the system at a city ball field was followed by an Aug. 1 Town Hall meeting where East Orange Mayor Robert Bowser claimed a 75 percent reduction in crime after ShotSpotter sensors were installed. The proposal was pushed for approval a few days later at a Planning Board meeting, but then questions arose over the cost. Click here for a 2010 Plaintalker post on the issue.

Since then, there have been many more shootings, some fatal. On Monday, the mayor mentioned the shooting of a 15-year-old male over the weekend as she brought up the lease proposal.

"It's not a million dollars any more," she said.

The number of homicides has escalated as shootings have continued, as reported here by Courier News reporter Mark Spivey. The mayor has resumed holding community meetings to explore ways to curb violence.

The City Council will meet on June 14 for agenda-fixing and will hold the next regular meeting on June 20, at which time the ShotSpotter lease plan may be approved.


New Acting City Administrator Coming

A retired administrator who served in Metuchen for seven years and in Ocean Township in Monmouth County for 20 years will take charge of day-to-day city operations starting Wednesday.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who has been serving as acting city administrator, will relinquish the post to David Kochel, a senior manager at Jersey Professional Management, she announced at Monday's City Council meeting.

Kochel will be the third person in the seat this year, succeeding the mayor and Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, who served from January through March following former City Administrator Bibi Taylor's announcement that she was not returning from maternity leave to resume the job. Kochel can serve up to 90 days in acting capacity under the city's municipal code.

To read more about Kochel, click here and scroll down to his name on the staff roster.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Two Good Things on the Agenda

I skipped blogging yesterday and was almost inclined to do so today, as things seem to have slowed down quite a bit in the hyperlocal blogosphere - not many bloggers posting and not sure how many folks are reading.

Anyway, there are a couple of things on Monday's agenda that I feel are of interest or should be of interest to Plainfielders.

The first is the imminent naming of India Cole as deputy city clerk. From the first time I met India Cole in a prior role she held in City Hall, I was impressed with her knowledge and professionalism. Most recently, she has been serving as assistant tax assessor and she has always been professional and helpful to the public in that role. Recently I was at the counter and she was helping a resident with a problem that did not exactly pertain to the Tax Assessor's office, but which was perplexing to the individual and needed to be clarified. Using her knowledge of the workings of Plainfield municipal government, India Cole made sure the citizen understood what had to be done.

What a contrast to the "It's not my job" attitude that makes the average person hate to deal with government at any level! Going to City Hall is not a walk in the park for residents who are unfamiliar with how things work around there, and even the slightest rebuff from a staffer can cause frustration and feelings of paying taxes for naught in constituent service.

City Clerk Abubakar Jalloh called India Cole "one of the hidden talents in City Hall" and said Friday she will be a great asset to the clerk's office. Once appointed as deputy city clerk, she will have all the powers of the clerk when serving in his absence. Since his appointment as clerk, "AJ" has demonstrated the desire and ability to modernize the office and make its services more easily available to citizens. India Cole fits right in with that credo and in this writer's mind is an excellent second-in-command for that very busy office.

The other item is an application for funding that could eventually provide a bus for seniors. If the application is successful, the grant will be funded 80 percent by the federal government under the Federal Transportation Administration's 5310 Program and 20 percent by NJTransit. The city will be responsible for fuel, maintenance and insurance of the bus, if acquired.

One question is whether the city was able to meet the stated NJTransit deadline of May 6, given that the council will only approve submission of the application Monday. The notification was sent out on March 25, 2011. There is also a wait of 18 to 24 months for the process to be completed, so any such request needs to be integrated with the needs of the Senior Center for adequate transportation.

Years ago, the city paid for a bus in what this writer recalls as a cumbersome and protracted process that ended with receipt of a bus with flaws. Here is the promise of a fully-funded new bus at no initial capital outlay to the city, so one hopes it will happen.

In thinking about this program, Plaintalker recalled last year's budget process, which Council President Annie McWilliams attempted to streamline with the same questions posed to all divisions. Only a few presenters came prepared with hard facts and figures to back up their budget requests. Observers, including the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, could clearly distinguish those individuals from others who could not answer council questions about their operations and budgetary needs.

One hopes that after the last budget process, managers are marshaling their facts along the way to be able to explain things better this year. There will be two budgets coming up soon, one for a six-month transition budget and one for a full calendar year as the city shifts from a state fiscal year format under the direction of Chief Finance Officer Ron Zilinski. Being able to explain how a division is actively seeking grants to offset city spending is something managers should keep in mind, whether it is for capital expenses or day-to-day operations.

Monday's meeting should be short, unless one of the ongoing city controversies brings out the troops. It will also be the last chance for candidates to make points in that context before the June 7 primary. See you at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court on Monday, or next at the Tuesday, June 14 agenda-fixing session. That meeting is on Tuesday because the Democratic Party will be reorganizing on the Monday after the primary, with election of a chairman for the next two years a key item.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Notes from Planning Board Meeting

Acting Fire Chief Frank Tidwell makes a capital improvement presentation to the Planning Board.

Planning Board meetings are always interesting to me and Thursday was no exception. Among the items were a final site plan approval that disappointed Edwin Place residents, a conceptual hearing for a Habitat for Humanity proposal that would place a second new home next to the latest one completed and several capital improvement plans.

Here are some informal notes:

- A small group of Edwin Place residents were disheartened to hear that a proposed store and two apartments will have traffic in and out of their small block after the Union County Planning Board rejected permitting use of Terrill Road for ingress and egress to the project's parking lot. The matter had gone to court, but apparently the residents received no notice of a hearing and cannot appeal the ruling. Resident Margaret Washington was incredulous at the decision and a 70-year resident of the block fretted over the change. Washington said the property currently has a driveway onto Terrill Road. However, the applicant was relieved to have a decision after four years, although no decision had yet been made on the type of store to be built.

- A conceptual hearing sought by Greater Plainfield Habitat for Humanity about subdividing a lot at Franklin Place and East Fifth Street did not yield a clear consensus from the board. The group completed construction of a four-bedroom home at one side of the lot and is now seeking to build a smaller, three-bedroom home on the other side. The smaller home would have the same design as two others previously built at 1208 West Fourth Street and 1038 West Third Street, and would fit in with the neighborhood on East Fifth Street, said The Rev. Jeremy Montgomery, the group's executive director.

Board member William Toth called the proposal "entirely compatible and consistent" with the neighborhood and said he thought it was "a desirable situation." Police Officer James Abney, also a board member, favored the proposal. But board member Ron Scott Bey declined comment and Chairman Ken Robertson said he was "wavering" over increasing the density. Montgomery said the group hoped to bring the matter before the board "as soon as possible," noting the project would "allow us to serve one more family."

Board attorney Michele Donato noted any position taken by the board at a conceptual hearing was "non-binding" on an actual application.

Meanwhile, Montgomery invited board members to a May 15 open house at the new home. Click here to learn more about the group, its work and the upcoming open house.

-The board heard several capital improvement budget plans. These proposals are for expenditures on items such as heavy equipment or building improvements that are expected to last a long time and may be funded by bonding. Capital improvement plans span several years.

- Library Director Joe Da Rold presented items including a phone system upgrade and architectural and engineering studies for a project to fill in the library's central core with an elevator and study rooms.

- Acting Fire Chief Frank Tidwell discussed needs such as new pumpers, a fire command vehicle and a heavy duty rescue truck to replace outdated equipment. Other Fire Division capital items included parking lot repairs, security cameras, plumbing upgrades, hose replacement, computers and a public address system to serve all three fire stations. Somewhere "down the road," Tidwell said, he hopes for a new fire station.

It was interesting to hear Tidwell, who is in line to become the next fire chief, talk about possibly having a "more green, more hybrid, more computer-friendly" fire station some day. He came across as a forward-thinking administrator of the kind needed by the city to adapt to changing times.

Planning for and funding capital improvements is supposed to be an ongoing function of municipal government, but to Plaintalker's knowledge it has not kept on a steady course. Click here to see a blog post from December 2009 on that subject. Now that the city has a chief finance officer after a gap of three years, perhaps the means can be found to keep capital improvements more on track.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Posts May Be Filled Soon

Image: Purple Queen Tradescantia

Monday's City Council meeting included hints of key posts soon to be filled, but Council President Annie McWilliams called on the administration to give updates on all the major vacancies.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who named herself acting city administrator after Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson's 90-day stint in the post ended, said Monday a new acting city administrator may soon succeed her. The candidate still needs to be bonded to serve as the person in charge of day-to-day operations of the city.

City Clerk Abubakar Jalloh said a name will be submitted Monday for the job of deputy city clerk, the title he held before former City Clerk Laddie Wyatt retired and he moved up to his current position. The clerk's office is entering a busy season with the June primary and the annual renewal of more than 30 liquor licenses. Council members have expressed concern that the office, which serves the City Council and maintains important records, has been short-staffed due to layoffs. Filling the deputy clerk position should ease the burden.

The city is still without a director of Public Works & Urban Development, but no successor to acting director Jacques Howard has been named. The title is one of three department heads mandated in the city's special charter, all reporting to the city administrator.

The regular meeting is 8 p.m. Monday (May 9) in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.


Notes on BOE Reorganization

New school board members Dorian Hurtt, Jameelah Surgeon and Alex Edache.

Before going into closed session to discuss "reduction in force" actions, Board of Education members including three elected on April 27 recited the entire 12-point New Jersey School Boards Association Code of Ethics. Read it here in a Plaintalker post from last April. There is one addition since Plaintalker copied it: "I will behave toward my fellow board members with the respect due their office - demonstrating courtesy, decorum and fair play at all public meetings and in all public statements."

Thus will be the watchwords as the board starts a year with Renata Hernandez as president and Wilma Campbell as vice president.

The "Grand Slam" winners of last year welcomed a slate they backed this year, Dorian Hurtt, Jameelah Surgeon and Alex Edache. Two incumbents declined to run in the election and one, Agurs Linward "Lenny" Cathcart Jr., lost to the slate. In remarks on their election, Edache warned incumbents up for election next year that they will face a similar challenge.

Speakers in public comment alluded to the district's two turbulent years under Dr. Steve Gallon III and hoped for a continuation of progress and stability under acting Superintendent Anna Belin-Pyles.

Dr. Yood has a good overview of the meeting on his blog, Doc's Potpourri, though neither of us waited out the board's estimated 10 p.m. return from closed session on the reduction in force. Bloggers Dan Damon and Maria Pellum and Courier News reporter Mark Spivey were also on hand for the meeting. Pellum and several others objected to the anticipated targeting or world language teachers in the reduction in force, but as mentioned above, this writer did not wait out the board's return from executive session on the topic.

Hernandez proposed having all regular board meetings at the centrally-located high school instead of at schools across the city, saying she had not seen an increase in the turnout at the alternate locations. The board agreed to the change. Another innovation announced at the meeting was a new law that requires boards to give a time by which they will return from closed session. On Tuesday, the board set a one-hour limit for the executive session, a welcome change from the open-ended situation that left the public languishing sometimes for hours awaiting the resumption of public session and possible votes. Having been out Monday until midnight at a council meeting, Plaintalker had to pass on waiting for the board to return last night.

Bookmark this link for future district news, meeting announcements and more. Agendas are posted online before meetings and bloggers have tried to highlight important items to encourage public turnout.

Congratulations to the new board members and officers and best wishes for a productive year in office. Affable "kingmaker" John Campbell pointed out that the slate might have had Plainfield spelled wrong on their campaign signs, but he said, "They certainly know how to spell 'win.' "


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

BOE Reorganizes Tonight

The Board of Education will hold its annual reorganization tonight at 7 p.m. in the Plainfield High School Media Center. Newly-elected members will be sworn in, a board president will be named and many other arrangements will be authorized, such as depositories, official newspaper, etc.

Click here to see the agenda. Between now and April 2012, many very important decisions must be made by this board. Plaintalker wishes them all the best in their service to the community.


IT Shared Services Progressing

A municipal phone service conversion stalled since 2008 will be solved today, IT Manager Chris Payne told the City Council Monday.

That and the promise of free Wi-Fi inside City Hall were two of the revelations as Payne gave the governing body an update on an IT shared services agreement with the school district. The city has paid out half of a $60,000 tab for the six-month plan that began in January with the goal of providing staff the city lacks while making Payne the manager of both city and district IT operations.

Payne presented a voluminous written report to the council, detailing the status of each of the services to be provided. The district’s “deliverables” included website development, user accounts for all city employees, completion of the Voice-Over-Internet Protocol phone system and media support for press releases, while the city was to provide several kinds of services related to local television broadcasting, offsite storage of Board of Education data for disaster recovery and sharing costs of district technical/media staff.

Many of the services were still works in progress and in comments after Payne’s presentation, Council President Annie McWilliams called for formation of an ad hoc IT committee to “share in prioritization of action items.” The committee would include three council members, Payne and someone from city administration.

Councilwoman Vera Greaves asked whether residents would ever be able to pay their taxes online and Payne said yes, though not saying how soon. Councilwoman Rebecca Williams questioned the use of various personal e-mail accounts by city employees and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who is also the acting city administrator, said all employees will soon use city accounts. Payne said the current plainfield.com address will be changed to a “.gov” suffix.

Williams also asked how soon the “humongous” council meeting packet could be distributed electronically and Payne said he was looking into it, with the goal “to do away with as much paper as possible.”

The discussion included other possible ways to save money by sharing services, but no specific action to follow expiration of the six-month agreement. The mayor said she has talked to Acting Superintendent Anna Belin-Pyles as well as officials in other communities and in Union County government. She said she will be discussing options “with our new acting city administrator.”

Later in the meeting, McWilliams noted the city has already had two acting city administrators this year and said there could not be another. But Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said that was not true and a plan was in place to get an acting city administrator as soon as “technical issues on bonding” were resolved.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, May 1, 2011

IT Shared Services Update Monday

Image: Barberry Bush flowers.

Dr. Harold Yood has hit all the expected highlights of Monday's City Council meeting in two posts over the weekend. Here is a link to his blog. He and I arrived at the Plainfield Public library Saturday morning with the same mission, to look at background documents in the packet for the May 2 meeting. We had a chat about some, which makes me feel I contributed a bit to his findings.

The item I am most interested in is the scheduled discussion of the shared IT services plan with the school district. See Plaintalker's post here from December. As noted, Councilman Adrian Mapp had strong objections and I await his usual incisive questioning on the update.

The presenter will be Chris Payne, who formerly worked for the school district when the city had a prior shared services arrangement. After Payne was hired by the city to handle IT and media, it turned out he had no staff to help carry out his mission. Somehow the new arrangement was supposed to help Payne by making district staff available for the shared services.

This report should be crucial in helping the City Council to decide whether to prolong the arrangement past the initial six months. Residents with any opinions on this subject should let their elected representatives know of their concerns, either by e-mail or by speaking in public comment before a further commitment is made.

The meeting Monday is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The regular meeting is 8 p.m. May 9 in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.


Gallon's Plainfield Legacy Upheld

New blogger Kenneth Schuman has posted a veritable apologia for Dr. Steve Gallon III and his impact on the Plainfield school district. Schuman details the search that brought Gallon here as well as credits for specific accomplishments during his tenure. Click here to read the post.

Whether one believes Gallon's work was a success or that he failed in his mission to reform education in Plainfield, his chance to affect the district's direction has for all intents and purposes expired. The next chief school administrator is likely to want to make his or her own mark without reference to Gallon's legacy. Schuman's analysis may help Gallon in future endeavors by offering the positives and pinning the negatives on "politics." Indeed, the blog itself is titled, "The Politics of Plainfield, New Jersey."

So what effect might these words have on a new superintendent's search? Plainfield already has the reputation of a place beset with political snares and pitfalls. Those who monitor municipal government here are hoping the school district's well-known revolving door will not be reflected in a similar portal at City Hall, where vacancies and acting positions currently dominate the cabinet. On a map of administrative job venues, will Plainfield simply be marked "Here there be dragons" due to politics?

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Schuman's points about Gallon, he writes well and will be a blogger to heed as the district and its stakeholders continue the struggle for stability in leadership and success in student performance. Add http://politicsofplainfield.blogspot.com/ to your bookmarks or blogroll now and keep reading.


Facade Details Going, Going ...

A building in the 400 block of Park Avenue appears to be getting its ornate facade covered over with modern materials. As one who is frequently looking up at city facades to admire the details, I am sorry to see this one disappear behind a bland treatment, possibly that spray-on stucco stuff that is becoming more prevalent around Plainfield. This block has no historic preservation protections, so it is fair game for such exterior changes.

It just seems to take away some of the flavor of the city when these details get obliterated.

Over on Cleveland Avenue, the same owner covered up an Art Deco facade in favor of a uniformly smooth look. Click here for Plaintalker's post from July 2009. Someone who tracks down and tries to preserve such old automobile designs contacted Plaintalker about this building, but by then it had been covered up.

The Park Avenue facade appears to be stonework, but the trend makes us fear for the interesting terra cotta work on other facades. They deserve some documentation before they, too, get homogenized out of existence.