Tuesday, January 31, 2012

PMUA Addendum

Another date to remember is PMUA's meeting and annual reorganization, 6 p.m. on Feb. 14 at 127 Roosevelt Avenue.

Valentine's Day usually requires all hands on deck at home, preferably bearing flowers and candy or other tokens of love (like a sworn oath not to leave socks on the floor). If you can break away, this meeting should be extremely interesting, as a chairman and other officers will be selected for a really crucial year in the PMUA's existence.

The day is historically known both for romance and mayhem. How will things go at the PMUA reorg this year?


PMUA Comissioners to Meet with Council

A small notice in this morning's Courier News plus an email with the same text confirm that the long-awaited face-to-face meeting between the governing body and at least a quorum of the PMUA board is imminent:

PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that the Commissioners of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority have been asked to attend, and a quorum of such Commissioners are expected to attend, the Agenda Fixing Session Meeting of the Plainfield City Council scheduled for Monday, February 6, 2012 at: 7:30 p.m. at 515 Watchung Avenue, Plainfield, New Jersey. Consequently, Notice of this Public Meeting is being provided to the public in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act.
Dated: January 27, 2012 Duane D. Young, Executive Director 1/31/2012

The agenda for the Monday meeting is usually available online over the weekend. The bloggerati (blogarazzi?) will no doubt let the public know of any interesting items on the agenda, but the PMUA visit alone is enough to demand close attention.


A Milestone for Plaintalker

Plaintalker II hit the 1,000-post mark after 20 months. The original blog, Plainfield Plaintalker, got up to 2,400 posts over 60 months. If you're new to Plainfield or just want to get some idea of how things have gone around here in the past six and a half  years, browse on a topic (PMUA, for example) or search a name (Jerry Green?) by using the box in the upper left corner.

Besides politicians and developers, you may encounter Mau the cat or our resident praying mantises among the posts. Local businesses and points of interest such as the Shakespeare Garden are featured on the blogs, along with interesting sights that turn up when one takes advantage of Plainfield's walkability.

Thanks to Barbara Todd Kerr, who in 2005 created the nuts and bolts of the blog and also contributed posts for several years. And thanks to all the readers, even the guy who told me he liked the "blob" a lot. Call it what you will, just call it up on your computer/tablet/phone or whatever and get a hyperlocal glimpse of our Queen City!


Monday, January 30, 2012

Musings on Plainfield Politics

While I have been somewhat hors de combat due to illness this past week, I was intrigued by the push for the City Council to move school board elections to November. Both Dan Damon and Jerry Green want it to happen, Dan saying the governing body could beat the board to the punch and Green claiming on Thursday that the board "is not moving on this issue."

Reviewing the sequence of events, it appears that first all concerned had to get guidelines from the state. Dan says he got "notice" of the guidelines Wednesday afternoon; the guidelines appeared Thursday on the DOE web site, the same day when by 12:19 p.m., Green determined the board was "not moving" on the issue. Green said "therefore" he had spoken to some council members because they "have the ability to move on the issue."

The council has an agenda-fixing session Feb. 6 and a regular meeting Feb. 13. Dan carps about the school board scheduling a special meeting Jan. 24 after he raised the question of changing the election date, but then they took no action. Well, did they have the guidelines at that time? The board calendar calls for a special meeting on Feb. 1, a Policy/Work & Study meeting on Feb. 7 and a business meeting on Feb. 21. The Feb. 1 agenda is not posted as of this time (2 a.m. Jan. 30), so for all we know the board may yet beat the council to the punch.

Why all this rigamarole anyway about one public entity beating another to the punch in taking action on a matter of (one hopes) general community interest? Could there be a political angle to all this? Think back to 2008. Annie McWilliams and Adrian Mapp, with the support of "kingmaker" John Campbell, beat Green's Democratic Party line candidates in the June primary, thus winning the Democratic line on the November ballot. But up until late last year, Mapp staunchly retained his "New Democrat" identity. The sight of Regular Democrats and New Democrats (including Dan) together on Election Night 2011 startled more than a few observers and gave rise to speculation that Mapp would receive the party line in a 2012 re-election bid.

The April 2 filing date for the June primary is still months away, but chatter about possible candidates is rife. Feb. 27 would have been the filing date for the school board, but with moving the election apparently now inevitable, the primary could be the first opportunity for the public to assess political shifts that may affect future contests.

Beyond all that, some of the nuances of the school board election change still need to be spelled out regarding Plainfield. For example, the state in its attempt to re-balance the 80-20 funding ratio for Plainfield has mandated increased local tax levies. That was why, in 2010, the City Council took no action on the $21.8 million local school tax levy, because it was mandated by the state. In contrast to suburban districts where most of the school costs are borne by local property owners, the great majority of Plainfield's funding came from the state. Year by year, the levy was to be increased until the proportion of local to state funding was to reach about one-third, as I recall.

Currently the budget is set in April for the following school year. Under the new guidelines, the budget must be under a 2 percent cap or voters will decide by referendum on an amount over-riding the cap and possibly on a capital spending proposal. Being too literal-minded for my own good, I can't envision how this change will work for the district and its charter schools after the school year has begun. I guess it will take a year or so to see how it plays out in real life.

But of course the technicalities of this change are not as much fun to think about as the possible political power plays that may emerge. Kingmaker John Campbell's SLAM team, including his wife, swept the last two elections. Four seats will be up this year. Jerry Green, profiled as "King of the Queen City" four years ago, claims to stay away from the Board of Education, but as chairman of the Regular Democratic Organization, he must meet any municipal challenges from the Campbell camp head-on. In 2008, he complained that Campbell was "dividing the black vote here in Plainfield."  Will the kingmaker take on the king again in some fashion this year? We'll see on April 2.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

PMUA, PARSA Reorgs Looming

Three separate authorities are involved in dealing with Plainfield's sewage: Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority and the Middlesex County Utilities Authority. As the annual reorganization date for authorities looms, questions may resurface regarding who represents the city on PARSA.

For many years, Assistant Executive Director David Ervin of PMUA has held the post. Each of the eight municipalities served by the regional authority have representatives to PARSA, but even before Ervin retired from PMUA and a controversy arose over settlements sought by Ervin and former PMUA Executive Director Eric Watson, there were questions about whether he should serve on PARSA.

It came out last fall that Ervin actually had an unexpired term on PARSA which he intended to fulfill, regardless of the city's wishes. Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson told the City Council that it was up to Ervin to resign.

Click here to read a Plaintalker post on the issue.

PARSA's annual reorganization takes place on Feb. 2 and PMUA's reorganization is coming up soon as well. Plaintalker recently gave an overview of the PMUA board of commissioners in regard to the naming of a chairman for 2012. The split vote on the settlement appears to portend more clashes over important decisions the board must soon make and possibly supports Ervin's refusal to step down from PARSA.

New PMUA Commissioner Malcolm Dunn, while a member of the City Council, frequently invoked the Frederick Douglass saying, "Power concedes nothing without a demand." Who will emerge with the power in February and what demands may be made?


Friday, January 27, 2012

Ghostly No More

Way at the top of this building is an old Courier News sign, faded to the point where it is considered a "ghost sign."
Ghostly no more, it has been painted over. The logo with a hyphen predates the current one, that has no hyphen. A story, perhaps apocryphal, is that the name wouldn't fit on a sign at a local ballpark, so the hyphen was dropped.
The building housed Thomas Furniture for many years. Today the marquee was being removed.
Perhaps the most fascinating sight of all was this marquee, which reads "Frost Building A.D. 1909" and places the building in the heyday of downtown commerce.

If anything should be preserved, surely this hidden but very historic element deserves it. Preservation of the ghost sign was part of the plan for the building, but who knew about this marquee?

I was downtown on an errand to the bank despite being sick with a bad cold and so could not zip over to the Plainfield Room in the Plainfield Public Library to look up this building in a city directory from the era.

Oh well. I will pass on my photos at some point and will also try to learn what I can about the Frost Building.


Warm Now, Roasting Later?

Mau's cooling center, July 2011

Today (Friday, Jan.27) the temperature may rise to 61 degrees.

In the old days, we might call it the "January thaw," but there hasn't been much to thaw in 2012.

In the third week of April, I recall a break in the weather where my family would plan a trip to Bowman's Hill to see the wildflowers. But the temperature was in the 70s, not the 90s.

New Jersey State Climatologist Dave Robinson was busy last year documenting record highs in the Spring and the Summer. Click here to read his July 2011 report.

In light of the tendency toward warmer winters and hotter summers, I would like to propose that energy companies rethink their assistance to seniors and disabled people and provide a discount for cooling in summer. It could be a floating benefit, usable for heat or air conditioning, but I bet seniors would rather put on extra sweaters or a down vest in winter rather than suffer excessive heat in summer.

Local senior housing has air conditioners, but the cost must be borne by the tenant, I'm told. Seniors end up trying to tough out a heat wave without running up the electric bill, but 100-degree heat has many punishing effects on the body, especially for those who are old and frail.

As much as I love getting around so easily now on foot and on public transportation, I am very aware of how this trend is going to play out in July. I actually did have to contrive a "cooling center" for the cat last July. My personal weapon of choice against the heat was a spray bottle for frequent spritzing.

We certainly have had extreme winter weather in recent years, but the ratio of record lows to record highs is shifting.I am suggesting that public health advocates and energy suppliers take a look at how to cope with those 90- to 105-degree days that are becoming more common.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Commentary on North Avenue

I have been sidelined by a nasty cold and so have not been down to North Avenue since Tuesday afternoon. If Dan is to be believed, late that afternoon a citizen took action to board up the building and get the street opened up. So ends a chapter of the story about this building, a tale that began with a disastrous fire on Dec. 17 and now seems headed for a possibly happy ending as part of a long-awaited push for development on North Avenue.

From the Park Avenue side, this building appears very substantial and, if plans to keep the facade are true, perhaps new construction can take place behind it.
It might be tricky, however, as direct access to the rear of the building appears to be blocked by other structures.
The back of the building was a big mess on Jan. 24.

Over the years, Plaintalker has taken an interest in the state's landlord-tenant law. One aspect of the law, as described in the "Truth in Renting" booklet that every tenant is supposed to receive from the landlord, is that the identity of the landlord and emergency contact numbers are required to be posted in rental property and to be kept on file with the city. Apparently this was not the case here, because the landlord's address was listed as the same as the North Avenue building when according to merchants and former tenants, he lives in California.

Technically, the issue of the landlord's true identity and other requirements of the state law only kicks in every five years, when multi-family inspections take place. Click here to see the law. However, Plaintalker can attest to the fact that it may not happen even then.

One way to remind landlords of this obligation might be for Inspections to check on it at the time of other visits to the premises, whether for certificates of compliance, area inspections or specific complaints. A form with all the required information is supposed to be posted in the building and filed with the City Clerk.

The North Avenue saga seems destined for more twists and turns as Landmark acquires various buildings on the block and those who don't want to sell exercise whatever rights they have. Stay tuned.

Progress at last on North Avenue development could give the mayor something to brag about, just as The Monarch did in her second election bid. The North Avenue Historic District is referenced on the Landmark web site. (Click on Development.) Maybe 2012 will be the year for action.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year

Happy Year of the Dragon 
to all our friends and neighbors who are celebrating the occasion.

Click here for some nice images.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Take a New Look at Development

A frequent commenter had harsh words over the weekend for the Park-Madison complex and blamed his issues on the current mayor. The fact is, the project was largely completed during the McWilliams administration. However, some problems described in this 2006 Plaintalker post remain unresolved, notably the disposition of the street clock.

Plaintalker began reporting on development and other city topics in June 2005 and the archive is still online. Readers may search by keywords such as Landmark, Cretella, Capodagli, Marino's, UCIA, Netherwood, etc. or just browse by year and month to see what was happening in the recent past. Plaintalker II began in May 2010, but there has been little to report on development projects except for the seven Cretella proposals.

The City Council has agreed to hire an economic growth consultant and to form an economic growth committee. Perhaps 2012 will hold some promise for movement on development, if only to focus on the possibilities in this changed and changing economic climate. Councilman Cory Storch began his third four-year term this month and is chairman of the governing body's Economic & Community Development Committee. We look forward to his reports as residents and business owners join in the "Plainfield 2021" planning process.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

A "Ghost" Tale

A Dec. 17 fire brought attention to this building on North Avenue and to this old "ghost sign" dating back to the early 20th century.
As of Thursday, half the building had been demolished in a new twist in the saga - first the building had been declared in danger of collapse, then officials said the owner planned to save it, then  the city issued a demolition permit.

Inclement weather has prevented me from venturing downtown for an update on the building. I hope to offer one soon.

Meanwhile, nearby on Park Avenue the former Courier News building received an upgrade in windows on its facade, which includes a ghost sign at the top. I'm told the plans for the building call for preservation of the ghost sign. Here's a picture from Jan. 14.
After the Courier News, Thomas Furniture and later Atkol occupied the building. The large Thomas Furniture sign that once hung from the facade had to be removed after it started to come loose.
The many-paned glass panels were taken out as part of the rehabilitation of the building for residential use on the upper floors.
The change is complete in this photo. Plaintalker is hoping that the ground-level facade will soon get cleaned up, as it is very unsightly.

Over on Watchung Avenue, there is a building with an interesting painted sign dating back to the 1970s. Even though I remember some of those days as if they were yesterday, the decades are marching on and soon it will be a half-century since those heady days.
Click on the image above to enlarge it. The Equity Press dates back to 1902, according to the sign, which proclaims "over 75 years" of business. Interstate Printing boasts a founding date of 1926.
This building across from police headquarters has an odd shape that must have been related to its beginnings as a print shop. The message harks back to the days when Plainfield had a solid industrial base, while now its main ratable base is housing stock. These signs are valuable to historians and should be preserved, if only in photos. If you know of any in your own neighborhood, consider documenting them for posterity.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Vandals Target Plane Tree

Last summer, I was rather appalled to see this damage on a tree by Kennedy Fried Chicken. It was gouged by a saw or machete.
The vandal had the nerve to autograph his work!
So Thursday I was going by and saw these big holes in the same tree. Why anybody would do this is beyond me. I couldn't tell what caused the holes. A drive-by? Target practice? This block has been the scene of a lot of violence, even homicides. Looks like even a tree isn't safe from harm on that block.


Times Are Changing on North Avenue

Checking on North Avenue Thursday, I could see a lot of daylight through the back of the fire-damaged building. Turns out it was being demolished from the rear.
The site is still blocked off and has a police guard, the same situation as a month ago after the Dec. 17 fire.
At first, I couldn't figure out what was going on, but then I saw this machinery moving behind the facades.
Looking down the alley off East Second Street, I could see a Dumpster being filled up with debris.
The extent of the demolition at that point could be measured by the fact that only the "Bull" part of the Bull Durham ghost sign remained.
By chance, I met the owner of the boarded-up building on the train track side of the block, who told me he has sold his building to Landmark. Then I encountered the owner of the bar on the block, who said an adjacent building had  also been sold, but that he was holding out against selling his building and his liquor license. Meanwhile, small businesses next to the fire-damaged building have been shuttered for a month and some people on the block think the goal is to shut them down permanently.

These new developments point to more change coming in the North Avenue Historic District. Could more demolition be in the offing? The original plan in 2006 was for developer Frank Cretella to acquire historic buildings and restore their facades, then build high-rise structures behind them. But meeting resistance from owners, Cretella refocused on the PNC Bank, where he has three projects including one with 148 residential units proposed.

If the dam of opposition has indeed broken among owners on the North Avenue blocks, things could change   rapidly. Let's hope the Historic Preservation Commission and the public at large will be given the favor of an update soon.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Who Will Be PMUA Chairman?

In about two weeks, the board of commissioners of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority will hold its annual reorganization. The current chairman, Commissioner Harold Mitchell is a holdover whose term expired in February 2011. The terms of Commissioners Carol Brokaw and Alex Toliver expire on Feb. 1, but under authority law they can remain as holdovers. Commissioner Malcolm Dunn was named to a vacant term in November and only began attending meetings in December. Cecil Sanders was erroneously given a five-year term in November when he succeeded an alternate - his term that began in November technically is up Feb. 1. Perhaps that is why the mayor wanted to offer his name again this month, to give him a proper new term from Feb. 1, 2012 to Feb. 1, 2014. According to city records, Rev. Tracey Brown has a term to Feb. 1, 2015 and her former term as alternate is vacant.

So how did the very significant vote on the Watson-Ervin settlement break down?

Dunn, Toliver and Sanders voted "yes," while Mitchell and Brokaw voted "no." Brown was absent. As an alternate, Sanders only got to vote because only four of five commissioners were present. If present for the vote on the chairman, given the alliances over the Watson-Ervin vote, Brown holds the deciding vote.

Political pundits will point out that Brown is the mayor's pastor and good friend and that the mayor plans to run for a third term. This could color the vote, depending on who is supporting the mayor. Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green, the mayor's mentor during her first term, has stated he is not endorsing anyone at this time.

Dunn is coming to the board with lots of ideas and a track record of entrepreneurial fervor. There may even be a few more reasons why he would feel the mantle of power belongs to him. The City Council did nothing with the mayor's "intention" to name new people to the board, so for the immediate future the players will remain the same.

Meanwhile, Watson's successor as executive director, Duane Young, is attempting to get the PMUA off on a new footing of transparency and responsiveness to the ratepayers. At the same time, DumpPMUA founder Philip Charles is uncovering more settlements and questioning the authority's need for existence even more vigorously than when he began three years ago. Who wants to step into this whirling maelstrom of conflicting directions? More importantly, who has the votes? We'll soon see.


City Council Reprimands Mayor

The mayor in happier days.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs “willfully” broke state purchasing laws and directed her staff “to violate the law” in paying $20,000 to radio station WBLS, the City Council said in voting unanimously Tuesday to reprimand her and assess a $200 fine. Results of the council’s investigation will now be forwarded to state and county law enforcement officials and to the Department of Community Affairs.

At issue was funding for an Aug. 1, 2010 event featuring The Rev. Al Sharpton, for which radio station WBLS received $20,000 taken from an account marked “hardware and software maintenance.” Questions arose immediately after the event, but a year passed without answers from the mayor, prompting the council to invoke its subpoena powers under the city’s special charter. The resulting investigation determined the mayor did not tell the truth about the revenue source nor did she prove an emergency warranted the payment, as she testified in the council investigation (see post here).

The mayor used a $15,000 donation from Investors Saving Bank to offset the cost, even though it was earmarked for the annual July 4th celebration, and insisted the amount in question was therefore only $5,000. But testimony by former City Administrator Bibi Taylor painted a picture of frantic scrambling for a $20,000 check on the Friday before the event, with the mayor pressuring Taylor and others to sidestep fiscal procedures.

Robinson-Briggs said nothing Tuesday night, but her attorney, Richard Angowski, objected to the resolution, which was read into the record as the meeting was being taped for viewing on local cable channels.

Council Chairman Adrian Mapp said the investigation was “not a trial” and never was, and the mayor was not accused of criminal acts.

“The time for closure has arrived,” Mapp said, adding it was “time to pass the baton” to outside agencies. “As far as the governing body is concerned, this brings closure to the investigation.”

But defenders of the mayor, including Councilman William Reid, quickly began rehashing her stance that an emergency existed due to gang violence and that only $5,000 was at stake. Reid expressed a wish that the mayor would not “try to take it further” and said regarding gangs, “Tell those boys not to cause a problem again.”

Resident Roland Muhammad questioned how much was spent on the investigation and assailed Mapp, whose term as Third Ward representative ends this year.

“We’re going to vote a change this year,” Muhammad told Mapp, and said to the mayor, “You didn’t do anything wrong – we love you.”

Resident Xavier Jesus Delvi also defended the mayor, invoking the Bible verse about the stoning of a “prostitute caught in the act of adultery” which advises those without sin to cast the first stone.

Saying the investigation was a waste of money and time, he said of the mayor, “You got a hero right there, my sister.”

Robinson-Briggs is in the third year of her second four-year term and is said to be planning to run for a third term.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Park Avenue Trees Are Failing

As pedestrians will, I often stop in my tracks and look around at interesting sights. Recently I saw a tree that was dotted with shelf-like fungi, some white and some brown or dark red. I was guessing that a tree hosting so much fungus was way past its prime, and so it was no surprise to see that the top split off.
But I had noticed several others in the same state and fretted over the thought that they might fall into the street. Loose bark (as above) is one clue to a dead or dying tree.
This tree is far from healthy.
This Park Avenue tree has a deep cavity, probably from insect infestation.
This tree is just plain dead and is falling apart. Now that we have new apartments being created on Park Avenue, maybe it is time to revive street scape plans that have been in abeyance for some time. The street is also the main north-south route through the city and needs to look a little nicer than it does right now.

A walk from Second Street to Seventh would quickly reveal the problem trees. Whenever they can be removed or replaced, the street will be safer as well as more aesthetically pleasing.


Philip Charles Comments on PMUA

Plaintalker asked DumpPMUA founder Philip Charles to comment on the latest move by the PMUA board of commissioners, i.e., the agreement made Jan. 10. Here is his response:
In order for Plainfield residents to fully understand the audacity of the recent Resolution passed by 3 members of the PMUA board, it is important to understand what has happened regarding Mr. Watson & Mr. Ervin before their resignations were announced in March 2011.  All contracts for both men historically were yearly contracts. In 2009 DumpPMUA.com was founded and began to expose the practices of the PMUA and the wasteful spending which revealed that some board members and some employees of the PMUA were using the ratepayers as their personal piggy banks. After referrals to other outside agencies, the PMUA executives and board began to feel the pressures of that public scrutiny when questions were being asked by people outside of our city.

At the end of October 2010, an OPRA request was made to the PMUA for the contracts of Mr. Watson & Mr. Ervin. The response to the OPRA request was that there were no contracts other than the 2009 contracts previously provided to us.  Again, employment contracts through that period were yearly contracts.  The PMUA would have the public believe that four year contracts were given to Mr. Watson & Mr. Ervin between November 2010 and March 2011.

Just five months later, a press conference is held to announce that Mr. Watson & Mr. Ervin will be separating from the PMUA.  Despite the last day of employment being June 30, 2011 both remained on the payroll until October 2011 (Watson) and November 2011 (Ervin). The reason provided for this is that they were being paid for unused vacation and sick time. It is important to note that the language of the contract permitted each a set number of vacation and sick time "or any greater amount as approved by the board".  In June 2011 the PMUA enters into an agreement to pay Mr. Watson $151,000 and Mr. Ervin $124,000 "for employee compensation claims under their contracts", but leaves room for both to seek more compensation in the future. On January 10, 2012 3 members of the PMUA board (including the two newly appointed commissioners) passed a resolution approving additional payments $450,000 to Mr. Watson and $275,000 to Mr. Ervin.  The total cash compensation to them totals $1 million. That total does not include the costs of attorney's fees, arbitrator fees, payment of sick and vacation time or the millions of dollars wasted by the PMUA under their watch.

Our suspicions are that the contracts of Mr. Ervin and Mr. Watson were purposely written at the end of 2010 to give them a term longer than any other in anticipation of the separation. The PMUA board then rather than looking out for the residents and ratepayers looked out for their own and set  them up with an initial settlement with room for more. There is no other explanation for entering into a settlement like the one entered into in June.

Ultimately, we will never get that money back or change the mentality of both Mr. Watson or Mr. Ervin that they deserve a handout. They cited their contributions to the PMUA as a reason they deserve this compensation. We cannot and never will be able to force people to have a moral compass, but we can seek outside assistance from the state to take a look at this issue. We encourage you to call, fax, and write to the Governor's Office, State Comptroller, attorney General, Union County Prosecutor, and any other agency you would like. We also encourage you to sign the petition that is being circulated.

The actions of the PMUA and the board are getting so egregious that the council and mayor cannot deny it much longer.  The committee created by the council is looking closely and any hopes they may have had of reform are probably dashed now. Until we rid our city of the PMUA, they will continue to do what they want with our money.

We may not be the only community where a quasi governmental agency like the PMUA is abusing its powers, but we can be the first community to come together to stop it. We can also be the first community that impacts the way other agencies conduct business.

Philip Charles

We will have a special section on DumpPMUA.com which includes all of the public records that illustrate these egregious acts.  Sample letters and addresses will also be provided.

Office of the Governor
PO Box 001
Trenton, NJ 08625
Phone: 609-292-6000
Fax: 609-292-3454

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Lame Duck Rules Up for Vote Tuesday

Among items up for votes at Tuesday's regular City Council meeting is an ordinance that would prevent "lame duck" municipal officials from spending public money on events, ceremonies, seminars and the like.

Municipal officials usually attend the annual League of Municipalities convention and some have taken part in the annual "Walk to Washington" train ride, the Black Issues Conference, National Forum for Black Administrators  and other events. The council has a budget line from which members may be compensated for attending such events.

The new ordinance would disallow spending of public money on such events for any official who loses a general election or for any official who submits a notice in writing that he or she is not seeking re-election.The measure would have to pass on two readings and would take effect 20 days after final passage, barring a successful veto by the mayor, who is also currently eligible for compensation for attending such events.

For the general election in 2012, incumbents Annie McWilliams and Adrian Mapp would be affected. McWilliams is completing her four-year term in the citywide at-large seat and Mapp is doing the same in the Third Ward seat. The 2012 election schedule calls for candidates to declare their intention to run by April 2 for the June 5 primary. If either declares and wins the primary but fails to win the Nov. 6 general election, any public expense for events from then on would be disallowed, but individuals could attend events at their own expense.

If either declines to file for re-election in April and advises the city clerk in writing of intention not to seek re-election, the time period from then until Dec. 31 would be subject to the new rules.

Next year, the mayor and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Bridget Rivers are up for re-election, followed in 2014 by First Ward Councilman William Reid and Second and Third Wards at-large Councilwoman Rebecca Williams. In 2015, Second Ward Councilman Cory Storch and First and Fourth Wards at-large Councilwoman Vera Greaves would be affected.


Facade Work on Park Avenue

This building, once the home of the Courier News and later Thomas Furniture and Atkol, is being transformed into apartments on the upper floors, with retail space on the ground floor. On Saturday, workers were removing the multi-paned windows.

As with all of developer Frank Cretella's projects, it has a unique name: Next Step to Collins Avenue LLC.

The building to the right has been renovated and is leasing four apartments over medical offices at ground level. This one is known as Certified Green Property One LLC.
Click on image to enlarge and see the ghost "Courier News" sign.
In all, Cretella has seven projects in various stages of development. There are two more on this block, which is anchored by the PNC Bank. The largest is called West Second Street Commons Urban Renewal LLC and includes 148 residential units on what is currently a large parking lot next to the Raritan Valley Line train tracks. The bank itself is up for redevelopment as a nightclub and retail space, where Cretella once hinted at Trader Joe's as a tenant. That project is called The Bank on Park LLC.

There has been no action recently at  the former Mirons warehouse on East Second Street and Gavett Place, the former "luxury condos" Cretella has dubbed Gavett Place Properties LLC. Twelve apartments are to be part of that project.

Still to come are 20 more apartments on East Second Street in construction above the former Romonds Jeep site, now called Art Lofts I LLC. An office project, Front Street Offices Urban Renewal LLC, would occupy the former Appliance Arama warehouse, but work has yet to begin.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Waiting for Action on North Avenue

On my walk home from the PMUA building, I stopped by North Avenue to see what was happening. In early afternoon, this big thing was sitting unattended in front of the building damaged in the Dec. 17 fire. The street was still blocked off.
Strong wind gusts were tossing around the barriers.
These businesses - two restaurants and a hair salon - have been closed since Dec. 17. One wonders what the owners will find when they get back inside. Our sympathies on the loss of business.

Once the fire-damaged building is boarded up and secured, the street may finally be reopened and the 24-hour police guard may cease. If owners can get to Tuesday's council meeting, expect some angry comments about this month-long wait for action.


Reprimand for Mayor?

This item appears on the agenda for Tuesday's City Council meeting:


The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.


PMUA Settles With Watson, Ervin

In a split vote, the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority's board of commissioners has agreed to settle with two former top executives for $725,000, down from the $1.2 million they initially sought in compensation claims.

The settlement was approved late Tuesday night. Plaintalker obtained a copy of the resolution, which is to be signed in “mid-January,” according to a notation on the OPRA receipt. Payment hinges on certification of available funds by the authority’s chief finance officer, James Perry, but Chairman Harold Mitchell said Friday he voted "no" because the amount could not be certified. A call to Perry was not immediately returned Friday afternoon.

Former Executive Director Eric Watson had already received severance amounts of $151,000 and Assistant Executive Director David Ervin had received $124,000 after resigning in March 2011.After months of arbitration over additional claims, lawyers for the pair made a settlement demand in November of an additional $750,000 for Watson and $300,000 for Ervin, along with legal fees of $80,200 and arbitration costs of $15,500.

In making the demand, attorneys for the pair cited the continuing costs of arbitration and the uncertainty of the outcome of arbitration hearings, as well as the pair’s “significant contributions” to development and growth of the authority.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the PMUA’s board of commissioners voted to settle for an additional $450,000 for Watson and $275,000 for Ervin. Commissioners Alex Toliver and Malcolm Dunn and alternate Cecil H. Sanders Jr. voted “yes,” while Mitchell and Commissioner Carol Brokaw voted “no.” Commissioner Tracey Brown was absent.

Between the initial payments and the settlement, Mitchell said, "It's almost a million dollars. Carol and I didn't agree on the amount."

The agreement calls for equal payments annually for four years, pending certification of the availability of funds by the chief finance officer.

Watson and Ervin, who along with the late Lou Jones were founding executives of the authority, resigned after 15 years of service. All three had been administrators in the city’s Department of Public Works. The new authority took over solid waste services that had previously been furnished by private haulers contracting with property owners. It also took charge of sewer services that had been provided by the city’s sewer utility.

The authority grew to be the fifth largest employer in the city, but came under fire from a ratepayers’ group after steep increases in 2009. The group uncovered and made public extensive tabs for travel and business lunches incurred by PMUA executives and actively encouraged property owners to “opt out” of the PMUA for trash pickup. The group maintains a web site, DumpPMUA, that continues to monitor authority costs. Besides its troubles with ratepayers, the authority has been at loggerheads with the City Council over its operations and the governing body last year formed a PMUA Task Force to examine the authority’s workings and make recommendations.

Meanwhile, new Executive Director Duane Young has promised more transparency and cooperation with the City Council and ratepayers, adding much more public information to the web site and more convenience to customers. At a rate hearing in December, the authority announced there would be no rate increase for solid waste rates in 2012 and a 2.6 reduction in sewer rates.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Zone for the Weary

Getting off the train Tuesday, I spotted this ribbon across a section of North Avenue.

I have seen plenty of yellow police tape, but never any like this. Having been rushing around all day, I thought it would be the very thing to festoon my bed when I crashed. Any overworked mother or harried homemaker might feel the same.

The odd thing was that this tape stretched across the street at the east end of the barricaded section, while the building thought to be on the verge of collapse on Dec. 17 was at the west end. The rest was marked off with standard yellow tape. In my many visits to the block since Dec. 17, I never noticed this tape before.

As it turned out, the building did not collapse and now the owner intends to reconstruct it. The street may finally be opened up in a few days. Hmm ... wonder if I can be there at the right time to get a piece of that tape?
Mau demonstrates a state of collapse caused by enduring a dark, rainy day.


Note to Readers

If you are reading this blog on Internet Explorer and can't make comments, it is due to an innovation by Blogger that needs a little more work. Blogger is aware of the problem.

I use Google Chrome mainly and have had no problem. I don't know how other browsers are working during this change by Blogger.

If you want to comment and get a frozen screen on IE, try switching to another browser.

Thanks for your interest and support!


JG's School Board Law Criticized

The Star-Ledger is reporting that 186 school board members must step down immediately for failure to submit to a background check as required under new legislation championed by Assemblyman Jerry Green. The newspaper also has taken an editorial stand against the ouster.

In Plainfield, board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq has already been forced out by the legislation due to a long-ago drug offense and the board is seeking an appointee to serve until the April 17 school board election. However, there is some confusion over who must approve the appointment, the board or state officials.

The 186 board members are those remaining after numerous reminders to register for the required background check. All their boards will now be in the position of seeking an nterim appointee. Anyone wishing to run in the April 17 school board election must file by Feb. 27.

The measure has both fans and detractors. Locally, even though Abdul-Haqq has spent .most of his adult life as a community activist and education advocate, some see his resignation as the price to be paid for his past actions, while others call it harsh in his case.

All new school board members will be subject to the background check and may have to bear the cost, unless the school board decides to pay. Charter school trustees must also comply with the new law.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

HAP Seeks Shared Services Program

A proposal for a shared services partnership with the Housing Authority of Plainfield lacked details, City Council members said Monday as they asked Executive Director Randall Wood to return in February with exact parameters of the plan.

Councilman Cory Storch called the plan “very vague” and said he couldn’t tell what was being proposed. Councilman William Reid agreed that it was not clear what the city and HAP were each doing and questioned the $60,000 cost.

Wood introduced Eric Graham as coordinator of the program and said, “He is doing a phenomenal job doing outreach.”

Wood mentioned a coat drive and other assistance that was being given not just to HAP residents, but to any city resident.

“I would like to share my guy with the city of Plainfield,” Wood said, although he conceded that the information provided in the council packet was very vague

“Basically, it was a PowerPoint presentation,” Wood said.

Wood added that HAP had received 14 national awards for its work.

The council asked City Administrator Eric Berry for information and Berry called on Finance Director Al Restaino to explain.

“We recognize the current economic climate,” Restaino said, noting the program would have office space in City Hall Annex.

When Councilwoman Annie McWilliams asked how officials arrived at the $60,000 figure, Restaino said it represented “our share” and in-kind use of the office space. Wood further explained it would go toward Graham’s salary. When McWilliams asked how much the whole salary was, Wood said it was about $69,000 for the salary and benefits, but if it was done through shared services, there would be a new title and it would also include an assistant, he said.

Wood said he hd received 10 letters in support of the plan “from stakeholders” and there would be no duplication of services with city programs already in place.

Storch said the documentation did not explain the services, but Graham said they would include employability and senior needs, among other things.

“We want to take on the youth,” he said.

Reid said he wanted to see the shared services agreement “reduced to writing.” Councilwoman Rebecca Williams said she had the same questions and was “not sure what it was.” She questioned a component labeled “spirituality” and said the city’s Senior Center does senior services.

“We need something concrete,” she said.

Storch asked for examples of what the proposed program would do differently from existing services and suggested that Wood and Graham return in February with eligibility criteria and other details. McWilliams asked them to identify gaps in service that the program would fill.

Although shared services have been named as a priority for 2012, council members in the past two years have sought a reduction in city-based social services. A longtime substance abuse prevention program was successfully handed off to an agency with experience in operating such programs and the Bilingual Day Care Center was also scrutinized for change. The city also has a program that assists the needy and those experiencing emergencies. .


Problem Fixed on North Avenue

The fence is secure, the holes are filled in - it's a happy ending (we hope) to a problem that Plaintalker began ranting about in October 2010 after the site of the March 2010 demolition on North Avenue showed signs of severe settling. See that blog post here.

As of November 2011, nothing had been done.
Plaintalker's concern was that the holes were a potential liability for the city. The site was open to traffic from the rear and was flush in front with the busy sidewalk across from the train station. A little kid or even an impaired adult could easily have slipped into one of those holes and ended up under the sidewalk in one of those deep vaults.
 The new fill looks pretty solid and makes the site much more secure. It should still be monitored for settling after the winter weather.

Meanwhile, it's a good job and may save the city from a lawsuit by removing a hazardous condition.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

PMUA Meets Tonight

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority meets tonight at 6 p.m. at headquarters, 127Roosevelt Ave., for a rate hearing followed by the regular meeting for January.

A few days ago I got off the No. 59 bus at Richmond Street and walked over to Cottage Place to get a closer look at the shiny new trucks in the PMUA lot. I had been seeing them from the bus window and tried to get a photo without success. Although I had counted as many as five at times, on this day only two were in the lot.

The authority has taken different tacks for solid waste pickup since its inception, first contracting with an outside hauler, then (if memory serves) purchasing its own fleet and then leasing as a better option. Whether these shiny new trucks represent a purchase or lease, I can't say, but they look like state-of-the-art vehicles for solid waste and recycling pickup.

The handout at the December meeting included a notation of $100,000 for capital outlay and I wrote down a comment that the authority was starting to acquire equipment. These vehicles look like they must cost that amount each. It would be interesting to know the full capital outlay for this equipment and what budget year it belongs with.


Ready for Anything!

My Eton radio arrived Monday. It has a solar panel and a hand crank for power, a bright LED flashlight and good sound on WBAI and WNYC. It will even charge a cell phone. If winter storms strike, I will be ready!


Getting Personal

Between a slice and a pie, there is a new middle ground at Ferraro's - the personal pizza.

More than a munchie, maybe a meal, the personal pizza inhabits that part of the gastronomic universe that belongs solely to you. You pick the toppings, no need to negotiate over pepperoni vs. mushroom, You are the decider!

Ferarro's has already broken ground in the fast food nation at Park & Seventh with exotic flavors that your Nonna never imagined. Now it's the personal pizza, a perfect palette for foodie self-expression - and you get to eat your mini-masterpiece!

Nor will your special pie be on view at the counter. Like all improvisation, it is created in the moment and lives on only in fond memory (unless you are the Charlie Parker of pizza and then somebody may document  your works for posterity).

So go on and feed your inner artist, your innovative spirit, your creative genius and yourself all at once! Off to Ferraro's for a personal pizza!


Owner Wants To Save Burned Building

The owner of the North Avenue building  that was severely damaged in a Dec. 17 has advised the city that he wants to save it,  Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig told the City Council Monday.

The building was first thought to be in danger of collapse and the city was considering an emergency demolition, but Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said owner Dexter Humphrey has agreed to assume responsibility for the building and has submitted a structural engineer's report in support of his plan to save it. However, Hellwig said there have been some "false starts" in taking action.

Councilman Cory Storch asked when the street will be open to traffic, as merchants on the north side of the streets have been unable to do business since Dec. 17. Hellwig said vehicles will be permitted once the building is "structurally secured."

Williamson said officials had a "very straightforward conversation" with the owner about businesses losing money and the city spending money. The site has been under 24-hour police guard since Dec. 17. Hellwig said he has been keeping a running tab of city costs and they will be passed along to the owner.

If the owner does not act within a day or two, Williamson said, officials have talked about taking over the project.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Elected Officials' Benefits Targeted

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and two of seven City Council members could lose their health benefits if an ordinance proposed Monday achieves passage.

A new state law prohibits benefits for future elected officials, but the proposed ordinance would also affect current elected officials in the city.

Five of the council members already forego the benefits, which can add up to as much as $9,000 for a single person and $18,000 for a family, Finance Director Al Restaino said. The mayor was not present for the agenda-fixing session where the matter was discussed.

If approved on first reading on Jan. 17, the ordinance would be up for second reading and final passage on Feb. 13. The mayor would then have 10 days to approve or veto the measure.

The mayor and council are all part-time officials. The mayor receives $35,000 annually and council members are entitled to $10,000 by law, but took a voluntary cut to $9,000.

Although Councilman William Reid called the benefits “an incentive to serve,” Councilwoman Rebecca Williams said, “That’s not the kind of service I want representing me.”

The council split on whether to put the ordinance up for a vote next week, with Reid, Bridget Rivers and Vera Greaves saying they did not support it and Williams, Cory Storch, Annie McWilliams and Adrian Mapp agreeing to move it to the Jan. 17 agenda.


Council Meeting Tonight

The City Council will hold its first agenda-fixing session at 7:30 p.m. tonight in City Hall Library. The regular meeting will be 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan.17 in Municipal Court.

For those who want to plug the dates into their 2012 calendars, subsequent agenda-fixing sessions will be held on Feb. 6, March 5, April 2, May 7, June 12 (Tuesday), July 9, Aug. 13, Sept. 4 (Tuesday), Oct. 1, Nov. 13 and Dec. 3. Regular meetings will be held Feb. 13, March 12, April 9, May 14, June 18, July 16, Aug. 20, Sept. 10, Oct. 9 (Tuesday), Nov. 19 and Dec. 10.

The agenda-fixing session for the 2013 reorganization meeting will be Dec. 17.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Fire Aftermath Drags On

"Buenaventura," my Spanish-English dictionary says, means "fortune" or "good luck."

But the owner of this North Avenue restaurant has been out of luck since a suspicious fire on Dec. 17 closed the business and several others. Customers looking for food or a haircut on the block instead found barricades and a 24-hour police watch.
A gathering of officials and contractors on Dec. 19 pointed to possible early demolition of the building. In March 2010 another North Avenue building, deemed in danger of collapse, was taken down in one day after the declaration. Officials made similar estimations of the building that was gutted in the Dec. 17 fire, causing the police watch with the Mobile Command Center and a battery of high-intensity lights at night.

Businesses across the street were slowed down by the street closing, but not shut. As the days wore on without action, barbers posted their phone numbers in the window of a popular hair salon in an effort to keep contact with customers. (Click on any image to enlarge.)
Now three weeks have passed. A chain-link barrier surrounds the front of the building, where broken glass and debris are still strewn. The Mobile Command Center is gone. The power cord for the massive emergency lights is unplugged. But the block between Park Avenue and Gavett Place is still blocked off and businesses next to the fire scene are still closed.
Plaintalker learned on Friday that city officials are taking the position that the owner, Dexter Humphrey, is responsible for the demolition. Humphrey's address in the tax book is the same as the fire-damaged building, which except for one restaurant on the ground floor was vacant and boarded up by the city for  many months. Just days before the fire, Plaintalker was tracing the route that occupants of new Park Avenue apartments would walk to the train station and recorded this evidence of someone breaking in to the building.
 The entire North Avenue Historic District between Park and Watchung avenues - the city's original commercial base across from the train station - was supposed to be consolidated for redevelopment in 2006 by acquisition and stabilization of its historic buildings. But then the focus shifted to the PNC Bank block. Some owners on North Avenue said they recently received offers again to sell their properties, but they declined. Now they wonder what's next.

Meanwhile, the tally for loss of business and cost of the 24-hour police guard is not known. There has been no public explanation of why things are still dragging on in the current  situation three weeks after the fire or what the arson investigation revealed. Could this literally be a trial by fire for new City Administrator Eric Berry? A lot of people are hoping for answers soon.