Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Payouts and Preparedness

Today's Star-Ledger online has a tale that all taxpayers need to read.

It is about the recently reformed practice of allowing public employees to accumulate sick days to the point where they get a large payout at retirement. The example given in this article may make readers think reform came too late for some taxpayers.

Plaintalker wrote about this topic in 2008 in a post titled "The Big I.O.U."

There are still a few long-term public servants around here who have been piling up perks from various titles like a Dagwood sandwich of yore. Serve here, serve there, pretty soon it's enough to guarantee a tasty payout when a public career finally comes to an end. And even then, who knows, there might be a state commissioner-ship that could keep one's place at the public trough.

Curiously enough, even though this statement of what is owed to employees for unused sick and vacation days is required, the 2012 budget data sheet from Plainfield went to Trenton with a blank page for Compensated Absence Liability. To this observer of the municipal scene, it was an indicator of how half-baked the budget process has become without a strong fiscal team in City Hall.

At the last budget session, Councilman Cory Storch  remarked on the answers the council is getting from  presenters, saying this year he is receiving "the least amount of information in the eight years I have been on the City Council."

Now that the budget has been introduced and is in the governing body's hands for final decisions, Storch deplored having to make decisions on possible changes with the least amount of information.

Council President Adrian Mapp said that he, Storch and Councilman William Reid as the council's Finance Committee "have a job to do" on the budget. Storch said the council had asked for measurable objectives from each division and department, but said, "We haven't done that this year."

There are two more budget sessions, on May 1 and May 10, and Storch said he wants presenters at those sessions to give the data as requested.

"I'm expressing my frustration," Storch said, "and I'm very frustrated."


Act IV's New Show

Act IV Productions, a community theater group based here in Plainfield, is offering J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" in May.

The sign above is outside First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, 724 Park Ave., where the production will take place in the Parish Hall. Parking is available across the street in Municipal Lot 7.

The group now has a Facebook page (click on photo to enlarge) which has more information. Act IV is one of the city's cultural assets, like many a labor of love by volunteers who want to share their enthusiasm and talents with the Central Jersey community. Call (908) 756-0750 to reserve tickets.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Shop Local

Don't forget, you can get hardware supplies and rent tools right at Park & Seventh!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Arbor Day 2012

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs opens Arbor Day ceremonies at the Plainfield Public Library. Five Kwanzan cherry trees were planted.
Kindergarten students from Evergreen School joined the Shade Tree Commission, library staff and other dignitaries to mark the occasion.
Shade Tree Commission Chairman Dr. Gregory Palermo greeted everyone and described this year's Specimen Trees, noteworthy for their size, age and beauty. They are an American Elm on Park Avenue and a Copper Beech on Watchung Avenue.
Officials unfurled the city's new "Tree City USA" flag.
Library Board President Anne Robinson talks to the children about the importance of both Arbor Day and the Plainfield Public Library.
Children used pails and shovels to spread mulch on the newly planted trees.

Happy Arbor Day to all!


Budget Recap

The formula to determine a minimum funding amount for a free public library in New Jersey is about 125 years old, according to an article Plaintalker ran across online. Our own former city administrator, Marc Dashield, proposes cuts to the Montclair Public Library budget in this article from 2010 highlighted by the New Jersey Library Association.

As readers know, the mayor here wants to cut library funding to the minimum 1/3 mil, a position conveyed by budget consultant David Kochel Wednesday night for the administration.  Read Plaintalker's post here.

The council is holding budget deliberations and has made no decisions yet on amendments. Library officials have been invited back on May 10 for further discussion.

Thursday night's deliberations covered Planning, Economic development, Community Development and the Municipal Court. No major news came out of the session. The next one is 7 p.m. May 1 in City Hall Library and will cover the Senior Center, Plainfield Action Services, the WIC program, Bilingual Daycare and the Health Division as well as the office of the Corporation Counsel.

The latter may be of interest this year especially because Dan Williamson, who has held the post in the current administration since 2006, is leaving to become executive director of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority as of July 1. The city has had an in-house law office since 1998 and the corporation counsel is the highest-paid member of the cabinet.

Williamson will be in charge of the autonomous authority that provides sewer and solid waste services to city households and which has become increasingly controversial in recent years. See Mark Spivey's article here.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

July 7 Events: Who's Running the Show?

Not only was there no definitive rundown of costs for expanded July 4th activities at Wednesday's budget session, officials did not even seem to know how the parade, concert and fireworks get funded normally.

Somehow nobody knew that the Independence Day allocation is not under the Recreation Division, but is on a separate line under "Community Purposes" along with such things as Drake House and an allocation for veterans' activities.

However, that did not stop Councilman William Reid from talking up the proposed "welcome home" parade for vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and spilling the beans that yard signs, 250 bumper stickers and 1,000 "badges" have already been ordered for the event. The news brought an exclamation of surprise from Council President Adrian Mapp, who had been trying to pin down the costs of an add-on concert that was only recently announced.

Reid said the Recreation Division and the mayor are reaching out to veterans' groups and he suggested that the city's new public information officer, Terry West, will be able to handle publicity to draw crowds from around Central Jersey for the July 7 events.

Given that there are no members on the Independence Day Committee, these plans appear to be coalescing in an ad hoc manner since being introduced very recently. There is a longstanding joke about how things get done by committee (ex: a camel is a horse designed by a committee, a platypus is a duck designed by a committee), but one might say that planning a multi-faceted event, meant to draw many thousands of people to Plainfield, without some fiscal oversight from an official committee is a recipe for mischief at best or disaster at worst.

If only select people are in the know on the July 7 plans and things get complicated, it will not absolve the entire governing body from censure, as the council is supposed to have the final say on expenditures. The Recreation Division and indeed the administration must be forthright with the governing body on Independence Day plans and the precise costs involved. Accountability up front will save a lot of headaches later, as witrness the WBLS fiasco. Have lessons been learned?


Mayor: Give Library Minimum Funding

Library officials were surprised to find themselves on the agenda for City Council budget review Wednesday, but then faced a bigger surprise when told Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs wanted to reduce their budget by 40 percent to the legal minimum.

The amount allocated to the Plainfield Public Library in the introduced budget is $1,556,338. But after Library Director Joseph Da Rold and Board of Trustees President Anne Robinson pitched for a $66,000 increase, budget consultant David Kochel said the city was only required under a state formula to give the library $926,517.

After explaining that city finances were adversely affected by successful tax appeals and a declining ratable base, Kochel said the $1.55 million was “68 percent more” than the amount the city was mandated to pay for the library.

“Are you saying to us that the library budget be cut by almost 50 percent?” Council President Adrian Mapp asked Kochel.

 “The mayor’s position is that we need to have some degree of austerity,” Kochel said.

Although Da Rold said the library was providing increased services to the community with just 19 full-time staffers, Kochel said when part-timers were added, the library actually had the equivalent of 25 full-timers. Dividing library hours by 25 indicated a total of 13 people on the payroll every hour the library is open, an “extraordinary staffing level,” Kochel said.

Robinson called the proposed reduction “unprecedented” and said the library had never received just the 1/3 mil minimum. (The amount is calculated by multiplying the equalized valuation of  property by .000333333.)

Kochel and Robinson sparred a bit over responsibilities, with Kochel claiming the library had not given the city an audit report and an annual report. Robinson said audits cost $25,000 and the library tried to save money by alternating full audits with reviews. The library did send an annual report to the city, she said.

Councilwoman Rebecca Williams reminded Kochel that the budget at hand had come from the mayor and that it was now the governing body’s budget. She called the library’s request for additional funds “reasonable, given the importance of the library” and said it was “actually saving residents a great deal of money.”

Da Rold had begun the discussion by citing an increase in circulation of children’s books from 8,000 to 11,000 since the new Children’s Room opened. He also mentioned the library’s assistance to job seekers, its literacy program and its GED program. All these and more would be harmed by curtailed hours if funds were cut, he said.

Robinson said the library has 21 computers for public use and will be adding 12 more. Citing the “digital divide” that exists for those without computers, Robinson said, “It is a screaming need that we see every day.”
Given the short notice to appear and the mayor’s new stance on only providing the minimum funding, Councilman William Reid suggested that the library officials meet with the administration to discuss it and then to revisit the council at the May 10 budget session.

But Williams said, “This budget has been given to us – this is what the administration wants,” referring to the $1.55 million in the introduced budget.

After appearing on short notice, Da Rold and Robinson waited half an hour for the meeting to start and then spent about an hour in discussion before the inconclusive ending. Robinson took leave on a gracious note, inviting the council and budget committee to stop by Friday and see the new cherry trees being planted at the library.

The council also heard from the divisions of Public Works, Inspections and Recreation and reviewed the budget for the mayor’s office and the city administrator’s office Wednesday. Tonight (Thursday, April 26) the council will review budget requests for Planning & Economic Development, Community Development and Municipal Court. The meeting is 7 p.m. in City Hall Library.

(Disclaimer: My son has a 15-hour a week, minimum wage job at the library.)


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Budget Meetings Resume Tonight

City Council deliberations on the 2012 budget resume tonight (Wednesday, April 25) with a 7 p.m. meeting in City Hall Library.

The governing body is going over 2012 requests from city departments and divisions, which have been reviewed and given recommendations from the administration. The budget as introduced last month is now subject to amendment by the council before a public hearing and final passage, which could come next month.

The council and the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee will review proposed budgets for the Public Works, Recreation and Inspections divisions as well as the offices of the mayor and the city administrator.

The Recreation Division is seeking an increase from $613,148 last year to $651,384 in 2012. The Inspections Division budget proposed for 2012 is $993,710, up from $975,858.

The Mayor's Office budget for 2011 was $123,116. The departmental request for 2012 is listed as $213,070 and the administration is recommending $286,070. In a breakdown of costs, the category for "Programs/Community initiatives" was $1,250 in 2011. For 2012, $63,500 was requested and that amount was modified to $136,500 by the administration.

Deliberations will continue at 7 p.m. Thursday in City Hall Library, when Planning & Economic Development, Community Development and Municipal Court budgets will be considered.

The council has tentatively scheduled a special meeting on May 15 for introduction of budget amendments, with budget adoption possible at a special meeting on May24.

A copy of the binder of budget information used by the council and budget committee is available for the public in the City Clerk's office during normal business hours and will also be on hand at the deliberations.

The sessions began on April 12 with Police and Fire divisions. The Police Division's budget of $14,678,882 for 2011 has an anticipated increase to $14,979,038 in 2012. The Fire Division's budget was $9,167,627 and is projected to increase to $10,164,454 in 2012.


Primary Candidates' Forum May 23

The Friends of Sleepy Hollow Candidates’ Forum for the June 5 primary will take place 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 23 at Emerson School, 305 Emerson Ave.

Vying for the Third Ward City Council seat are the incumbent, Council President Adrian Mapp, and former Board of Education member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq.

Candidates for the Citywide At-large council seat are The Rev. Tracey Brown, currently a commissioner with the Plainfield Municipal Utilties Authority, and former Board of Education member Veronica “Roni” Taylor.

The moderator will be Dawn Clarke, vice president for Voter Services of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. Though not a League-sponsored forum, it will be conducted according to League policies.

Unopposed Republican candidates will be acknowledged, if in attendance.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cat Logic

Mau, the formerly feral cat who now rules my household, invokes plausible deniability on the charge of waking me up multiple times a night. He blames my interrupted sleep on the mockingbird that has begun singing all night just outside my window.

But, I argue, it is not the mockingbird who is meowing loudly in my ear and clawing my arm to get my attention at random intervals in the dark.
Mau asserts innocence. How could such a darling creature have malicious intent, he asks. It must be that thing with the clocks - springing ahead? - that is keeping cats and birds awake at odd hours.

Besides, a cat that wants to eat, drink and play at whatever hour is surely much better than a cat that just sits there. If that were the case, you'd have to call Confuse-A-Cat.  As it is now, all you have to do is get up and do my bidding, he says. That is, now that the mockingbird has already awakened you. And anyway, that alarm clock will be going off in, say, one or two or three hours from now. So get up!


Monday, April 23, 2012

A Familiar Name Emerges in Hillside Dispute

A name in the news in Hillside reminded Plaintalker of an odd saga here at City Hall.

The news article tells how a construction official who retired then came back to do the same job, displacing his successor apparently at the mayor's insistence. The move has sparked a fight between the Hillside mayor and council that may be headed for court, reporter Ryan Hutchins relates.

Hutchins gets the spelling wrong, but the official at the center of the dispute is none other than one who served Plainfield during the first term of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. The mayor replaced the former director of Public Works & Urban Development, a Plainfielder who had served the city for decades, with a councilwoman from Rahway. The former director then took the title of assistant director of the department, but the mayor brought in another assistant director, Nagy Sileem, at a similar salary, apparently hoping the Plainfielder would yield the title.

This took place during a time when nearly all top officials came from outside the city and all got residency waivers, a strange turn of events for a city that had been fiercely insistent on having Plainfielders in charge.

Sileem meanwhile was listed in state records as having a job in another municipality while holding the Plainfield post. He eventually left Plainfield without displacing the the incumbent assistant director. Plaintalker commented on the Sileem saga in the context  of a 2008 Star-Ledger article on Hillside politics.

After Sileem left the city, the person still holding the assistant director post was the target of a layoff plan that included only one person - herself - and resulted in savings of $10,000 or less. The title of assistant director was vacated and the individual took a lesser title that she held until her retirement, though not without stress.

In contrast to the pressure placed on this Plainfielder to move aside for a politically-favored outsider, Sileem seems to be positioned to be rewarded even after retirement by being given a job while receiving a pension. And we wonder how Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure came up with a book titled "The Soprano State."


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Lampkin House on the Market

I'm told the Lampkin House on Terrill Road has been cleared of various legal impediments to its sale and is now on the market.

This article from 2009 describes the property in detail.

See the second item on this link from Preservation New Jersey for more information.


Parade, Concert Plans Raise Questions

A notice on the city's web site tells us the July 4th celebration will take place on Saturday, July 7 and will include a parade, fireworks and a concert.

The traditional concert was not held last year, but according to the notice, it is being put together to make up for a popular Union County concert that was canceled. The parade slogan is "Declaration of Unity - Honoring Our Veterans, and Building a Better Future." Let us, as the modern kiddies say, unpack these two items.

The concert: Union County's decision to cancel the "Rhythm and Blues by the Brook" concert and another event called Musicfest was announced in early March. The reason given was a tight budget, although Musicfest was marred by "accounting mishaps" as well, according to a Star-Ledger news article.  However, the county will now be helping Plainfield to put on the concert, the city flyer notes.

One wonders how the city can plunge in and save the day this year when last year the Plainfield concert was canceled ostensibly to save money. And in exactly what capacity will the strapped county be pitching in?

Performers get booked early for summer events. Before the city lost the backing of other municipalities for the annual celebration, an Independence Day Committee normally began making arrangements a year ahead of the event. Now that the city does its own thing, there is supposed to be a committee made up solely of Plainfield residents, but instead an ad hoc group does the planning. Maybe at Wednesday's budget session, the City Council can get the Recreation Division to pin down exactly how much it will cost the city for this late decision to put on a concert.

The parade: Alex Toliver, a veteran and a PMUA Commissioner, suggested at the March 5 agenda session that the city should hold a parade welcoming home veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He called on council members to commit to the plan. Part of his premise, as outlined in an April 6 letter was that the theme would increase attendance at the parade and "encourage surrounding cities to honor their veterans as well." Toliver said he would take on the task of "coordinating and urging participation from all veterans" in the parade.

The idea for such parades was sparked by one in St. Louis in January that drew 100,000 spectators and 20,000 participants. Toliver told Plaintalker his proposal was not related to the efforts of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to promote the parade concept, but it did make one wonder how much it might increase the scope of the traditional hometown parade. This is another situation that might need explanation of funding and logistics at Wednesday's budget session. The interface of municipal and volunteer efforts should be spelled out.

The fiscal aspects of the July 4th celebration have come up every year in recent times, as noted in this Plaintalker post from last year. It is not unpatriotic to ask questions about spending the taxpayers' money, especially in the current economic climate. Plaintalker hopes to take a separate look at the broader scope of work by IAVA and other organizations to assist returning veterans. The issue here is what will happen on July 7. The date change itself, as also happened last year, is no doubt based on costs of municipal employees working on a holiday.

The budget deliberations on Recreation, Inspections and Public Works divisions as well as the offices of the mayor and city administrator are 7 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall Library.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Jackson Details Pole Work

Utility work by Grace Episcopal Church, August 2008

At Thursday's budget meeting, the topic of utility pole replacement came up and Public Works Director gave some insight into the process.

Residents were alerted to the upcoming PSE&G work by this notice on the city web site. Someone asked when the "double poles" would be removed, referring to the practice of installing a new pole next to an old one. Jackson explained that the process can take two or three months. First the new pole is installed, then the utilities are changed over. The last utility company to complete work on a pole, which he said was usually Verizon, then takes the old pole out and does restoration of the site.

Jackson said normally the hole is filled with stone and topped with straw, but he said the city doesn't want straw blowing around, so another method will be requested. Hearing of this meticulous approach, Plaintalker   wished all our problems were so easy to solve.

Council President Adrian Mapp mentioned one location where a road was realigned some time ago, but a utility pole was left standing about five feet into the new roadway. Jackson promised to look into it.

It was interesting to see both City Administrator Eric Berry and David Kochel, current budget consultant and formerly acting city administrator, nodding in agreement as Jackson gave various explanations to the governing body. It seemed to signify a shared knowledge of municipal government and how it should work optimally, which was encouraging after the cabinet vagaries of 2011.

Kochel mentioned that he served as acting Public Works Director while also being acting city administrator for part of last year. Now all three departments mandated in the city's special charter have permanent directors. If the city can get a full-time chief finance officer to round out the cabinet, maybe the city can regain stability.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Council, Committee Hold Second Budget Session

Maybe because I am so eager to hear about the Recreation and Inspections budgets, or maybe because oak tree pollen has clouded my mind, I posted the wrong topics for the budget meeting that was held Thursday. It was "Department of Public Works & Engineering/ Capital Budget and Other.". Next week, on Wednesday to be exact, the topics will be "Division of Public Works, Recreation & Inspections/Mayor, City Administrator."

Thursday's session was very impressive for the forthright way in which Public Works Director Eric Jackson and staffer Cynthia Smith made their presentations.Among the highlights:

--The resurfacing of 30 to 35 roads is a priority in 2012, but Jackson said he doesn't want to do so many streets "just to do them," he wants excellent work done.

--Smith said the Engineering Division's only source of revenue is street opening fees (charged to utility companies and others who cut open streets to do work). The fee is only $25 per cut and hasn't changed since 1984. "Raise the fee," said Council President Adrian Mapp.

--There will be an increase in lines for staff development, Jackson said, as it has not been done recently. Mapp commended the move.

--Jackson held a CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) Orientation for staff that covered how to fill out forms and meet deadlines. (Capital requests are for items with long-term value, such as heavy equipment or major repairs. All capital needs must be identified 90 days before the end of the year. The capital improvement plan spans several years and costs are met through bond issues.)

Jackson gave credit to Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson for putting together the entire capital budget last year, but he said Robertson wants to give it back to the administration. Mapp expressed shock that the chairman had done what the administration is supposed to do. "That's a no-no," Mapp said.

--In answer to budget committee member Jeanette Criscione's question about shared services, Jackson said the city "will engage in as many shared services as make sense for Plainfield." Jackson said he has been meeting with "surrounding communities" to identify possible shared services.

--Mapp asked about the use of mobile speed humps to slow down speeding, but Jackson said he is not an advocate of speed humps or speed bumps in the urban environment, based on feedback from public safety personnel about damage they may cause. But Mapp said police and fire personnel "are not the people to ask" about the use of such devices. He said he is talking about mobile speed humps that can be moved as needed.

Jackson only came to the city in September 2011 and so could not offer historical background on some issues, but the governing body seemed pleased with his approach as department head. Councilwoman Annie McWilliams thanked him for using a format she developed for budget deliberations when she was council president in 2010 and 2011. Jackson's term is concurrent with the mayor's, meaning he will serve through December 2013.

Aspects of his department will also be discussed at the next two budget sessions, 7 p.m. Wednesday (April 25) and Thursday (April 26)  in City Hall Library.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Buy Library Benefit Tickets Now

Plaintalker's format is not one that includes submitted press releases, but here is an exception for the Plainfield Public Library:

Robert “Stix” Darden, a Newark native, a long-time educator and a community leader
in Plainfield, has been appointed “honorary chair” for the 10th Annual Wine Discovery,
May 19, to benefit the Plainfield Public Library.

Another Newark jazz star, Carrie Jackson, is the featured attraction with her “Jazzin’ All
Star Trio” at the event which will be held at the Library, 800 Park Ave., 4 to 7 p.m. The
evening will also “star” wines from Garden State vineyards, a sumptuous buffet, a silent
auction and a tricky tray raffle.

Darden became interested in playing the drums as a youngster, and served in the Elks
Pride of Newark Lodge’s Drum and Bugle Corps in parades and other events all over
New Jersey. He also played in the West Side High School Band.

He continued playing the drums in the band at what was then Morgan State College,
now University, in Baltimore, one of the historically black universities and colleges, an
education interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

When he resumed his education, he returned to playing drums, and picked up the
nickname “Stix,” still used. During this period he had the opportunity to play with
Charlie Rouse, Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk, Cannonball Adderly and others. “Stix”
became good friends with Max Roach and Art Blaky, and still has cymbals Roach gave

Darden said he was a charter member of the popular Emanona Jazz Quartet, and was
often mistaken for Blakey. Around New York, he was called “Little Art.”

Darden combined his love and talent for jazz with his career in education by introducing
innumerable students to this original American art form.

He received his master’s degree in (educational) administration and supervision, while at
about the same time playing with Charlie Mingus and his Quartet in the Village in New
York City.

Choosing to dedicate himself to education, Darden nonetheless became a member of the
Ernie Scott Trio.

“Stix” retired from actively playing music in 1976 after 25 years. In 1977, he “retired”
from education after 41 years.

Tickets for the Friends of the Plainfield Public Library 10th Annual Wine Discovery cost
$60, $100 per couple. Reservations are available by phoning the Library at (908) 757-

Public Speaks on Roads, Health Care, More

Road conditions, health care and South Avenue reconstruction were among topics at Tuesday's Second Ward Town Meeting in Cook School.

Barely a handful of residents spoke, leaving plenty of time for elected officials to expound at length on chronic city issues. They were able to promise relief soon from rutted roads with passage of three bond ordinances that will provide for repair of 30 roads, but had no immediate cure for the city's loss of acute medical care at the shuttered Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center.

In answer to resident David Cook, Council President Adrian Mapp said the work on South Avenue will be completed over the next couple of months and will include paving of some side streets. The traffic-calming devices known as "bump-outs" were removed last year in preparation of the reconstruction.

Cook asked about the Armory on East Seventh Street and was told the state has finally sold it.

Residents Delois Dameron  and Robert Darden talked about car damage due to road conditions, but Dameron also deplored the city's limited ambulance service. She said when she came back to Plainfield in 2005, she was shocked to find out there was only one ambulance, and today there is still only one ambulance. Resident Tony Rucker also questioned the need, saying he recently had to wait 50 minutes for an ambulance after becoming ill from possible food poisoning.

"If anybody's having a heart attack, they're pretty much dead," Rucker said.

Dr. Harold Yood traced the history of ambulance service, saying up until the Korean War, it was provided by the hospital, but after that a group of dedicated volunteers formed the Plainfield Rescue Squad. in response to Councilwoman Rebecca Williams' comment that she understood the city was getting another ambulance provided by the state, Yood said an extra ambulance was not an answer to the city's needs. Without ambulance service and a community critical care facility, he said, "We will never have health care again."

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf said she chairs the Restore Muhlenberg group as well as the Community Advisory Group and  passed around clipboards with sign-up sheets for email updates on efforts to regain a hospital in Plainfield.

Among other topics, resident Rosa Winston criticized both the mayor and council for the negative image they give the city by bickering at public meetings. She called the behavior "just shameful" and said, "You need to grow up."

Williams said the council each year adopts rules of order for its meetings and both she and Councilman Cory Storch called on residents to identify specific behaviors that they would like to see improved. Storch called it "a very sensitive issue."

Storch spoke at length about economic development, a topic raised by Rucker, his opponent in the 2011 Second Ward election. Rucker said "nobody knows" what the city's economic development strategy is, but Storch cited a study by a Rutgers team that has now led to hiring the Anglin Group to come up with a comprehensive economic development and growth strategy.

"Let's be honest about it," Storch said. "We do not have a plan right now."

But he said with the Anglin Group bringing together the expertise of the business community, the plan will emerge.

"We will not see results in the near term, but this is what we need to do," he said.

The remaining two Town Meetings are Ward 1, 7 p.m. May 29 at the Senior Center, 400 E. Front St. and Ward 4, 7 p.m.June 26 at Jefferson School. The latter will be a joint meeting with the Housing Authority of Plainfield.

Council members also urged residents to attend budget deliberations. There will be a session 7 p.m. tonight (Thursday, April 19) at the Senior Center's Conference Room. Topics will be budget requests for Public Works, Recreation, Inspections and the offices of the mayor and city administrator.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More Talent from Trenton?

Could the Terry West introduced at last night's Second Ward Town Meeting as the new public information officer be the same Terry West who was vice chair of the Trenton Democrats?

West was asked to introduce himself to the audience of about 40 residents and to tell a bit about himself. He did not mention anything about where he came from. This writer, out and about after being sick for three days, had a coughing fit and had to leave the meeting before it ended, so did not get a chance to talk to West.

One hopes he can do better than the person who penned the recent news release about the economic summit.
This release on the city web site was unsigned, but showed an appalling lack of knowledge regarding punctuation.

The city has not had much luck with PIOs since 2006. Some may recall the dust-up between the mayor and the Courier News, which resulted in many column inches of excoriation by the mayor and a promise (or threat) of three "positive" press releases per week. Not only did that not happen, the city has had no press officer for several years now.

For a city that is embarking on a new thrust toward economic development, a professional PIO is a must. The problem is, where will the good news land now that the dailies are so thin? With luck, a press release might get printed in its entirety with the notation "Staff Report," meaning it came in over the transom, or under the "Get Published" umbrella. The best strategy would be seek coverage with such a compelling request for a story that Mark Spivey or someone from the Star-Ledger would jump on it. Skilled PIOs know how to do this and how to facilitate access to the mayor and others for real quotes, avoiding the "did not return repeated calls for comment" syndrome.

Well, good luck to Terry West. He has ready-made good news in the sudden move to repair city roads after years of puny effort. The proposed "welcome back to veterans" could be a good hook if handled properly. There are other examples of worthy material to dangle in front of the press, if West can sort them out from campaign puffery.

Unfortunately for the "good news" aspect, even as the Town Meeting started, the city had its second homicide happening over on Watchung Avenue. The press release from the Union County Prosecutor's Office will, at least for today, eclipse all other news.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Commentary on PMUA

Over the objections of Commissioners Harold Mitchell and Carol Brokaw and in the absence of Commissioner Tracey Brown, the triumvirate of Commissioners Malcolm Dunn, Cecil Sanders Jr. and Alex Toliver gave city Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson the job of running the troubled Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority on April 10.

The leadership of the PMUA once consisted of another troika, all from City Hall, to operate and manage the city's sewer system and to provide solid waste services to as many as 16,000 households. Eric Watson was executive director, David Ervin was assistant executive director and Lou Jones was chief of operations. After Jones retired in 2008, no successor was named. More recently, the post of assistant executive director has gone unfilled. I'm told Duane Young is handling both executive roles for one salary.

The stated premise of the $1 million settlement was that Watson and Ervin created the mighty PMUA out of nothing, so retroactively deserved compensation, or one might say, reparation. But now that it is fully formed and functioning, is one person expected to handle the work of two while a new director gets up to speed?

Anyone who has witnessed Dunn's grilling of Young on minute details of the operation may find it hard to picture Dan Williamson giving chapter and verse on solid waste and sewerage issues anytime soon. Nor has Dan managed a workforce of 140, interfaced with PARSA and SWANA or weighed the economics of ventures such as the Tunnel that was or the tunnel that may yet be. More than likely, Young will still be answering the hard questions for some time to come.

The devolution from three top executives to two to one seems curious; to then put the sole remaining person  with directorial knowledge and experience in a secondary role to a seeming political figurehead - curiouser and curiouser.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Second Ward Town Meeting Tonight

The Second Ward Town Meeting will take place at 7 p.m. tonight TUESDAY at Cook School, 739 Leland Ave.

The format of these meetings hosted by the City Council is an open forum in which residents can air their concerns. While each meeting showcases a ward, any resident is welcome to attend.

Last year, the Second Ward meeting was dominated by calls to disband the PMUA.

The City Council recently voted approval of a comprehensive study on legal, fiscal and engineering aspects of dissolving the PMUA. If the study shows dissolution is possible, the city would then have to get permission from the state Local Finance Board to proceed.

Meanwhile, the PMUA is looking into rate reduction to ward off such a move, as one of residents' strongest objections to the authority is the rate structure.


Query Dan Quick Before He Leaves

While Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson is no doubt studying a cheat sheet on the types of solid waste, Plaintalker is plotting how to get some outstanding questions answered before he becomes the executive director of the PMUA and leaves city legal matters to a newbie.

A big one is, whatever happened in the matter of money owed by the city for senior center fit-out and condo fees? The $1 price tag touted in campaign season later emerged as a monthly tab and other expenses totaling $287,371.97. 

When Plaintalker asked a while back to see the Inspections folder on 400 East Front Street, it was supposed to be in the Corporation Counsel's office. It was actually not in City Hall at all, but in an attorney's office elsewhere.  The issue was how many condos were sold and occupied, as the city was only getting minimal taxes on the others. At some point, unsold condos became rental, or "lease-to-buy"  units, further complicating the situation.

Later the governing body was told the $2,750 monthly condo fee for the senior center could be paid out of a bond issued to build a center before developer Glen Fishman built it "at no cost" in exchange for the right to build 63 condos above the center. 

So was the matter settled or does the city still owe any money to the developer?  

The building also includes a Veterans Center. PMUA Commissioner Alex Toliver is promoting a big welcome back for Afghanistan and Iraqi war vets at this year's July 4th celebration, but can we get a bottom line on when vets can use the Veterans Center and who will pay that condo fee (1 percent of maintenance costs for the common areas of the property)? 

There will either be a new corporation counsel for the last 18 months of the mayor's current term or maybe six 90-day acting stints. Anybody with outstanding questions on unresolved city legal matters better giddyup and get them answered soon.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Update on ShotSpotter, CCTV Cameras

A program that would pinpoint gunshots and convey information to police is nearing implementation, Police Director Martin Hellwig told the City Council Thursday.

The ShotSpotter program, first introduced in the summer of 2010, won City Council approval in August 2011 after offering a $169,000 lease plan instead of a $1 million purchase proposal. But instead of a 90-day "turnkey" installation, the program faltered over conflicts with use of utility poles. (See Plaintalker post here.) In answer to Councilman William Reid's question at budget talks, Hellwig said PSE&G resolved the problem by offering to put up 24 utility poles at no cost for the ShotSpotter sensors, which he said will be operative as of June 1.

Reid also asked about closed circuit television cameras that that been promised for about a decade to help fight crime. Among concerns that stalled that program were whether civilians or police should monitor the cameras and where the monitoring would take place. The ill-fated city-owned basement of the former Tepper's building was considered and rejected. Finally the city appropriated funds to renovate a section of police headquarters for monitoring the cameras. Construction started "the day before yesterday," Hellwig said Thursday.

Hellwig said officials are working with vendors for the "best possible situation," wireless cameras to cover the entire city. The cost might be covered by use of confiscated money from arrests, he said. The camera system may be in place by next year, Hellwig said.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Fire Chief: Build New Station

When his turn came up at Thursday's budget session, Fire Chief Frank Tidwell took the occasion to pitch for something really big - a brand new fire station in the East End.

Addressing the council members as possible "agents of change," Tidwell said the Fire Division could be "on the cutting edge of the 21st Century" by working with the Union County Improvement Authority to replace a dilapidated, 125-year-old station with one that can accommodate today's technology, apparatus and staffing.

According to a news article Tidwell passed out, the UCIA built three new stations and renovated a fourth as part of a $25 million modernization of the Linden Fire Department.

The picturesque, tile-roofed  fire house on South Avenue has a floor too weak to accommodate new fire equipment, is not handicap-accessible, had a cracked foundation and a failing roof, Tidwell  said. He proposed acquiring an adjacent parking lot and tearing down the station, which would yield a footprint big enough to accommodate the modern facility he envisions.

The new station would likely improve the dispatch rate designation that affects property insurance, he added.

Tidwell rejected the idea of saving the building as a museum.

"Tear it down," he said.

Councilman Cory Storch said the Planning Board was in the process of creating a Transit Zone and said the land would become very valuable. He suggested swapping for another parcel of land.

"This is a real Planning Board issue," Storch added.

Tidwell said he had spoken to Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson and other officials about his proposal. Citizens Budget Advisory Committee member Jeanette Criscione questioned how the city would pay for such a project.

"That is a very good question," Tidwell answered, but noted that Linden was able to come up with a "creative plan."

With that, the discussion turned back to issues more germane to the purpose of the budget session, which was to look at requests for operating costs. Council President Adrian Mapp reminded Tidwell that .the council wanted to use a system developed under former Council President Annie McWilliams' leadership, in which all presenters at budget deliberation sessions provided the same kinds of information, such as historical data, five-year trends, metrics and charts.

"We have all that," Fire Lt. Bernard Blake said, but added they only had one copy.

The normal nuts-and-bolts talks also suffered from the recent transitions in City Hall. When a question arose over discrepancies in staffing numbers for the Police Division, budget consultant David Kochel said when he was acting city administrator in late 2011, he handled the "other expense" budget requests, while former Chief Finance Officer Ron Zilinski worked on the salary lines. Zilinski resigned on Jan. 31, causing the city to rely on a part-time, interim CFO while the administration again searches for a full-time CFO.

Sections of budget spreadsheets were empty and others were confused Thursday, due in part to the city's use of a six-month "transition year" to shift from a July1-June 30 budget year to a calendar year for 2012. Kochel, only hired as a consultant on Monday, promised to do his best to assemble the correct numbers for the council and the budget committee.

(More later on the Public Safety budget if I don't escape to the back yard or to Westfield -  I need a break.)


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Budget Talks Start Tonight

Just a reminder that the City Council's budget deliberations start tonight with Public Safety, which constitutes the lion's share of municipal costs.

The meeting is 7 p.m. in City Hall Library.

Topics to be covered are the Police and Fire Divisions, along with the Signal Bureau and Traffic Division.

All six scheduled sessions will begin at 7 p.m. The next one will be held April 19 at the Senior Center, 400 East Front Street. Topics are listed as "Department of Public Works & Engineering, Capital Budget & Other."

Next up, on April 25 in City Hall Library, is "Division of Public Works, Recreation & Inspections" along with the Mayor and City Administrator's offices.

Pick up the complete schedule in the City Clerk's office in City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

PMUA Search is Over

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority's search for a new executive director ended last night with a vote to hire Plainfield Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson to fill the position as of July 1.

Williamson confirmed the news today.

The authority had been conducting a search and as of last month had four finalists. Williamson said he was among them, "as far as I know."

Here is Plaintalker's post on the status of the search in March.

The PMUA board of commissioners voted on the appointment after coming out of an executive session last night, with Chairman Harold Mitchell and Commissioner Carol Brokaw voting "no" and Commissioners Malcolm Dunn, Cecil Sanders Jr. and Alex Toliver voting "yes."

Plaintalker reported on the regular meeting but did not stay for the closed session. Look for Mark Spivey's  report in the Courier News online today and in print tomorrow.


PMUA Will Review Agreement with City

A day after the City Council approved a study on possible dissolution of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, the PMUA board of commissioners approved a review of its 15-year-old agreement with the city.

The PMUA's solid waste and sewer services are provided to the city's 16,000 households by way of an interlocal service agreement signed in 1997. At Tuesday's meeting, authority attorney Leslie London said, "Clearly things have changed. It is time to revisit (the agreement) to see what changes can be made."

The commissioners passed a resolution to hire legal, financial and engineering experts to review the agreement and report back to the board within 60 days on changes, especially in the rate structure. One of the City Council resolutions called for the PMUA to "drastically reduce" its rates. A citizen task force that reported to the council on March 19 claimed comparable municipalities gave the same services at much lower rates.

In other business, PMUA officials hailed a new contract with South Plainfield for bulk waste disposal as a harbinger of more outside income, a longtime goal of the authority. The authority will make $13.50 per ton on the bulk waste brought to the Rock Avenue transfer station.

Interim Executive Director Duane Young read a statement into the record in which he alleged a change from "excitement and enthusiasm" in the workplace for his first four and half months on the job to a "hostile work environment" in past four and a half months. Young said he had the support of the board after being named to the post on July 1, but recent months have been "difficult," with some commissioners using "condescending tones" when speaking to him. He alluded to an "abuse of power" and said even a commissioner had asked another why he was so hostile. The commissioner in question, whom he did not name, allegedly replied that he was not being hostile, just "authoritative."

Young encouraged the board to make changes that must apply to him and any future executive director, setting a "clear division" between the board and the executive director," Young said. He "humbly" requested that the board review its bylaws.

"I am not resigning nor phasing out my position," he said. "I desire only to offer constructive advice that will assist me and the board" to have a better working environment.

The time frame Young referenced coincides with the advent of two new commissioners, Cecil Sanders Jr. and Malcolm Dunn, in November. The two came in for criticism after they met with former Executive Director Eric Watson and Assistant Executive Director David Ervin and negotiated a $1 million settlement in December, bypassing ongoing arbitration. On Monday, the council passed a resolution calling for the settlement to be rescinded, even though the commissioners can ignore it. Councilman Cory Storch called the settlement "a cynical act against the ratepayer" and resident Dottie Gutenkauf called going outside arbitration for the settlement "morally reprehensible."

As he did when he served as a councilman, Dunn asks many questions at the PMUA meetings On Tuesday, he asked London whether commissioners could sit in on union negotiations. London said it was a board decision, but she would recommend that the board not be there. When Dunn asked why, London said she did not see any true benefit "unless you feel information is not being accurately conveyed to you." Dunn invoked what he said was a phrase he learned from world leaders: "Trust but verify."

In another matter, Commissioner Carol Brokaw said she attended a meeting of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewerage Authority and she learned that PMUA Chairman Harold Mitchell and Councilman William Reid need to be sworn in as Plainfield's voting representatives to PARSA. Ervin had been the city's representative and stayed on even after retiring in 2011, but resigned after the settlement. PARSA conveys sewerage from Plainfield and seven other municipalities to the Middlesex County Utilities Authority's treatment plant.

The next PMUA meeting is 6 p.m. May 8 at 127 Roosevelt Avenue.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Apology to Planning Director

Plaintalker's suspicions about a $2,500 item for the Environmental Commission were unfounded.

Planning Director Bill Nierstedt explained Tuesday that the budget request for 2012 was aimed at launching the commission, which was established in 2001. No members have been appointed since then, but the funds would go toward educating potential members, paying dues to join the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions and providing matches for grants. At the April 26 City Council budget deliberations session, Nierstedt will explain the request as part of his presentation. The meeting is 7 p.m. in City Hall Library.

The idea of getting the Environmental Commission going came up in talks with Eric Jackson, the city's new director of Public Works & Urban Development, Nierstedt said. It will hinge on whether the governing body approves the expenditure for this year. If not, the Planning Division will make the request next year, he said.

A full description of the membership, duties and powers of the commission is online at the city web site. Click here and search in the upper right-hand corner for Environmental Commission. One member must serve on the Planning Board and the commission has advisory review powers similar  to those of the Historic Preservation Commission.

Spotting the item in a budget document, Plaintalker did not understand why a commission with no members needed funding, but now the intention is clear. Sorry for thinking it was a dubious item, like some others in the city's recent history. If it comes into being, the commission certainly will play a valuable role in the city's future development.


PMUA Meeting Tonight

In case you are not all PMUA'd out, there is a regular PMUA meeting at 6 p.m. tonight at 127 Roosevelt Avenue.

The PMUA web site as of 3:30 p.m. had only the agenda for March. But there was some good news - the authority has its first new client since getting approval to open the Rock Avenue transfer station to outside customers. South Plainfield will be taking bulk waste to the transfer station starting today.


Council Moves for PMUA Reform, Dissolution Study

Controversy over the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority raged for nearly two hours at Monday’s City Council meeting before the governing body approved, in 4-3 votes, resolutions calling for drastic rate reductions, rescinding of a $1 million settlement and a study on whether the authority should be dissolved.

Opposition to the PMUA began after large rate increases in 2009 and increased after a watchdog group formed and uncovered excessive costs for travel and business lunches. More recently, commissioners declined to meet with the governing body, leading to formation of a council-appointed task force to look into the PMUA’s operations. At a March 19 meeting, the task force recommended reform or possible dissolution of the authority.

The $1 million settlement with departing executives Eric Watson and David Ervin, arranged by two new commissioners outside ongoing arbitration, is under scrutiny from state officials after some residents complained to Gov. Chris Christie.

PMUA employees and officials crowded the courtroom Monday as the meeting convened. In public comment, PMUA attorney Leslie London refuted various points in the task force report and urged the council to drop the proposed dissolution study in favor of “meaningful discussions” on changes to the agreement between the city and the authority.

“Dissolution is not the answer,” London said.

Councilman Cory Storch, who supports the proposed study, expressed surprise at London’s mention of possible revisions to the Interlocal Services Agreement, which dates back to 1995.

“It’s the first time I heard that,” he said.

Storch said the resolution was not for immediate dissolution, but to hire “professionals who are really going to get to the facts.” The findings will have to be reviewed by the state Local Finance Board, which may or may not allow dissolution of the authority.

Other speakers asked the council to save PMUA workers’ jobs, but resident Roni Taylor told the council, “You were elected to represent the ratepayers.”

Council members split over similar issues, with William Reid, Vera Greaves and Bridget Rivers favoring preservation and reform of the authority, while Council President Adrian Mapp, Storch, Annie McWilliams and Rebecca Williams voted “yes” on the study for possible dissolution. The latter four also voted for asking PMUA commissioners to rescind the $1 million settlement, although acting Corporation Counsel David Minchello said the commissioners were not bound by the request. They also voted “yes” to ask the PMUA commissioners to drastically reduce rates.

Among counter-arguments, speakers suggested overturning the settlement would only lead to costly lawsuits and said the council, administration and PMUA officials needed to work out the issues without hiring experts for a study.

Storch said he was “looking for hope for the PMUA to reform itself,” and said he thought he found it in interim director Duane Young. To the employees, he said, “Your worst enemies are your PMUA commissioners.”

He assured workers that their jobs were valued.

“The amount of work is not going away and it can’t be outsourced overseas,” he said. “We need you.”

If solid waste and sewer services provided by the PMUA come back under city control, residents might be able to take a property tax reduction, said resident Dottie Gutenkauf, who also praised the employees. Gutenkauf said the criticism she has heard was not for workers, but a “top-heavy” and “somewhat out of control” administration.

Gutenkauf also faulted the “around the corner, back door settlement” saying she had never seen a situation where a couple of executives went outside arbitration to settle.

To launch the dissolution study, the council amended the May temporary budget in another 4-3 vote to add $50,000 to the council’s “other expense” line. The city will be seeking a qualified firm to conduct the study.


Monday, April 9, 2012

Council Meeting, Budget Hearing Tonight

Tonight's City Council meeting includes a hearing on the 2012 introduced budget, but it is likely that few citizens will come with comments.

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

The documents on file for public scrutiny at this point include only the administration's budget, to some degree a wish list that the governing body and its Citizen Budget Advisory Committee will now study over coming weeks. The council has set a schedule of six budget deliberation sessions over coming weeks, at which department and division heads will be asked to explain their budget requests. By May 15, the council may have budget amendments ready to modify the administration's requests and the goal is adoption of the 2012 budget by the end of May.

Documents are on file in the City Clerk's office. One of the problems in comparing the 2012 budget with the previous one is that the city converted to a calendar year by having a six-month "transition year." The figures for "TY 2011" on the documents are roughly half of a full year, but former Chief Financial Officer Ron Zilinski has resigned and is not around to explain any nuances.

Plaintalker spotted a couple of oddities in a quick review of the introduced budget, such as a small amount for "other expenses" for the Environmental Commission. This commission was established by ordinance in 2001 but has never had any members or meetings, so how could it have an expense line? It seemed at first glance like a bit of creative accounting such as was uncovered in the WBLS investigation, where expenses for a radio broadcast were attached to budget lines such as "hardware and software maintenance."

Anyway, residents concerned about municipal spending can take a look today at budget documents and can follow along at the deliberations that start with a session 7 p.m. Thursday in City Hall Library on the Public Safety budget.

Tonight's meeting also includes a vote on hiring David Kochel as a budget advisor. Kochel served as acting city administrator in 2011 and has 33 years of experience in municipal government. His advice should be extremely valuable in the current situation where there is no permanent CFO and a new city administrator. The full schedule of budget deliberation sessions is available in the City Clerk's office.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Nesting in the Northwest

What's cuter than a passel of Peeps?

Maybe this little hummingbird on a nest in West Seattle, where former Plainfielders Audrey and Peter live.

West Seattle offers great opportunities for nature photography, with plenty of eagles and hummingbirds, orcas and seals and more. Take a spin through this file and see for yourself.


Happy Holiday Weekend

Happy holidays to all celebrating the Jewish festival of Passover and the Christian feast day, Easter, this weekend.

Even if your family is non-religious, it is a good time to celebrate the season with a walk in your favorite park or just around your neighborhood to admire the flowering trees and gardens.

The cycle of seasons is not always so evident to us today as it was in the days when people were more closely tied to the natural world. Coming out of a time of want or hardship, people naturally gathered to celebrate their survival.

Whatever your religious tradition or understanding of the season, Plaintalker extends best wishes for a festive   weekend!


Friday, April 6, 2012

Happy Passover!

Chag Pesach Sameach

to all our friends and neighbors
 observing Passover

Flowers, Real and Imaginary

The Plainfield Public Library's lovely cherry trees are bursting into bloom. Here is a branch with Thursday's almost improbably blue sky as a backdrop. Click on the image for a closer view.
Over at the main train station, someone has chalked a fanciful abstract pair of tulips. I was entranced by these images last week, but was bound for Westfield without my camera. They were still in place Thursday when I walked to PNC Bank with a few detours for odd or pretty sights.
Outside City Hall, I saw these Trout Lilies in full bloom while on my way to the 59 bus. I have posted photos of these plants before, but the contrast of the sturdy, glossy leaves and the delicate, nodding flowers is worth another look while they last. They are among the quintessential harbingers of the season, as are their wild counterparts in Cedar Brook Park.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Following the Action at Council Meetings

Councilman William Reid is the 2012 chairman of the Committee of the Whole, which means he leads the discussion at agenda-fixing sessions. Having viewed some sessions on television, Reid said he realized the viewer couldn't tell what was going on, as agenda items were often referred to by alphabetical designations rather than content. So a viewer might hear, "Is everybody OK with item A?" and not have any idea what the council was considering. Reid decided he was going to read out the title of every item.

Monday's agenda had a total of 36 proposed resolutions and seven ordinances. But first the council had several discussion items, reports of committees and public comment. By the time the council got around to considering the resolutions and ordinances, it was after 10 p.m. Council President Adrian Mapp told Reid he didn't have to read every title, but Reid said after he got FiOS, he saw the council meetings and that's when he decided that people couldn't tell what the council was considering.

Plaintalker has long felt that meetings were hard to follow, even for those sitting in City Hall Library or Municipal Court with a copy of the agenda in hand. There is a binder with the text of each resolution and ordinance on hand at the meetings, but the best bet for anyone who wants to understand the proposed legislation is to review it ahead of time, at the Plainfield Public Library on the Saturday before the meeting or in the City Clerk's office on Monday before the meeting. That is where the details emerge, and residents including bloggers with questions or concerns can then raise them during public comment.

For example, Reid read item W: "Approve authorization to execute an access agreement between the City of Plainfield and the South Second Street Youth Center for the use of city-owned property located at Block 120 Lot 4.01 commonly known as 208-222 Lee Place to cultivate a community garden." This site is actually a former dry-cleaning plant that was the subject of a brownfields remediation to remove hazardous materials.  Someone who knew the details raised a concern about use of the site and was told the garden plots will be raised beds that will hold fresh soil. The item will be up for a vote next Monday and anyone else with concerns can speak in public comment before the vote.

Items Z through Z2 all  pertained to liens for boarding or cleanup of properties, and Z3 through Z9 were all escrow refunds. They could have been grouped as was the custom in the past, but Reid read out each one.

And then there was this gem of obscurity among ordinances up for first reading next Monday: "Bond 1254 - Bond Ordinance amending Section 3 of Bond Ordinance No. 1245 adopted September 15, 2008 as amended by Bond Ordinance No. 1246 adopted July 20, 2009 to amend the project description for said purpose to be undertaken in and by the City of Plainfield, in the County of Union, State of New Jersey."

Well, that is actually a rollover of $6.3 million to fund road repairs first proposed in 2008. Good news, but who knew from the title?

However worthy Reid's intention, there is still a gap of comprehension that can only be filled by knowing the details. This used to be one of the functions of reporters, but since most news organizations have moved away from covering municipal government, that leaves it up to others to flesh out the meaning of important legislation. Sometimes council members themselves will ask the administration to explain exactly what they are being asked to approve, including full costs and other implications that are not apparent from the title alone. Citizen watchdogs and bloggers also try to bring out ramifications of new legislation, and those who might be affected may do the same by speaking out before a vote.

So does reading out each title help? Plaintalker is interested in the opinions of viewers of council meetings as well as those who attend in person. How do you follow the action?


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wrong Word Riles Volunteer Peacemaker

Monday's City Council meeting held no indication that an attempt to get Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs to drop her lawsuit against the governing body had worked.

At a special meeting on March 28, Council President Adrian Mapp said he had made a request through the mayor's attorney to call off the lawsuit. In return, the council would  consider rescinding a $200 fine and a reprimand that followed an investigation into use of funds for an August 2010 "town meeting." According to testimony in hearings, the mayor had pushed through issuance of a check for $20,000 to WBLS on the Friday before the Sunday radio broadcast of the meeting.

Mapp, Councilman William Reid and longtime Democrat and professional mediator Dottie Gutenkauf had volunteered to meet with the mayor to seek an apology and dissuade her from pursuing the lawsuit. But meanwhile the governing body "lawyered up" just in case, approving a $250-per-hour contract with a prestigious law firm.

On Monday, Gutenkauf told Plaintalker she had "no comment" on whether any meeting took place over the weekend. Monday was supposed to a deadline of sorts for the mayor's apology, as a court filing was imminent.

Mapp apologized Monday for the use of the words "misappropriation of funds" on the printed agenda in a description of correspondence. The item referred to Mapp's letter to mayoral counsel Richard J. Angowski, but Mapp opened the meeting by stating emphatically it was a misprint and he had never used the word in his letter.

In public comment, Gutenkauf thanked Mapp for his apology, but then questioned him on whether he had gotten an extension of the deadline. She also asked why, if there was a 35-day limit, he waited until last week to consider acting on the matter. She then asked whether he had apologized to the mayor and Mapp reiterated that he never used the word "misappropriation" in the letter.

Gutenkauf again pressed Mapp, resulting in several minutes of back-and-forth exchanges, until City Clerk Abubakar Jalloh said it was he who used the word "misappropriation" in error and that he had called the mayor to explain.

The evening passed with no official statement on the status of peace talks with the mayor, apparently meaning the legal battle is on.


Schedule Set for Budget Talks

The City Clerk's office has released the dates for budget deliberations, with possible adoption of the 2012 budget projected for late May.

The sessions will begin April 12 with Public Safety, the department that includes Fire and Police divisions. These are the two most costly divisions in Plainfield city government. The meeting is 7 p.m. in City Hall Library. Presenters will most likely be department head Martin Hellwig, who is also the Police Director, and Fire Chief Frank Tidwell.

This is the city's first calendar year budget since reverting from a state fiscal year budget that ran from July 1 to June 30. If the budget gets adopted by late May, it will be a step up from the chronically late budget passage under the old system.

At Monday's council meeting, Councilman Cory Storch suggested that because new City Administrator Eric Berry came to the city so late in the last budget process, the city might hire David Kochel as a consultant. Kochel was acting city administrator throughout most of 2011 and was much appreciated for his expertise, honed over 33 years. Berry said the city is already "working out arrangements" to hire Kochel.

The city is also without a full-time chief financial officer currently, but a search is on and an ordinance increasing the maximum salary to $125,000 has taken effect. Currently the borough administrator and CFO of South Plainfield, Glenn Cullen, is serving a few hours a week to help the city out.

The second budget meeting will be at 7 p.m. April 19 at the Senior Citizens Center, 400 E. Front St., and will cover Public Works and Engineering.

Plaintalker will post the other dates later. The full schedule is available in the City Clerk's office.

The council will re-activate its Citizen Budget Advisory Committee, which did not take part in the budget process for the six-month "transition year" from July through December 2011.


Pressure Mounting for PMUA Reform, Dissolution

A City Council majority favors undertaking a study that could lead to dissolution of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority and will put the matter up for a vote at the April 9 regular meeting.

At Monday's agenda-fixing session, Councilman Cory Storch asked his colleagues to consider three resolutions, one thanking the PMUA Task Force for its work in reviewing the authority's operations, another to launch to study needed for the authority's dissolution and a third to ask PMUA commissioners to make an $8 million budget reduction to reduce the rates it charges city property owners.

Storch said the dissolution study and the budget reductions could go in parallel tracks, as the study would take time, but meanwhile the authority could move forward with the budget cuts.

Dissolution was one of the options presented by the PMUA Task Force at March 19 special meeting, as was the $8 million reduction. See Plaintalker's post here.

At the end of the March 19 meeting, Council President Adrian Mapp called for a council supermajority - five of seven members - to get behind a move to dissolve the authority. On March 28, Assemblyman Jerry Green said in a blog post that the city had the power to dissolve the authority, if certain steps were taken first.

Storch, Mapp and Councilwoman Bridget Rivers met with attorneys Monday afternoon who outlined state law requiring a study conducted by engineers, fiscal professionals and attorneys. Mapp said the talks provided "a good road map of where to go" toward dissolution. The study would need approval of the state Local Finance Board before any action could be taken to dissolve the authority.

But although Storch, Mapp, Councilwoman Rebecca Williams and Councilwoman Annie McWilliams agreed to vote on the matter next week, other members wanted to focus more on the $8 million budget reduction proposal and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs was cool to the idea. Councilman William Reid expressed concern that under city control, sewer lines might be neglected and garbage would pile up as it had before the PMUA was established. Councilwoman Vera Greaves worried about the cost of a study and Rivers said the council alone could not take action, but needed the "buy-in of the administration."

The mayor said the city should seek experts who would do the study "gratis." She said there have been no complaints about PMUA services, just the rates, and raised fears of a garbage strike and streets "overrun with rats" if the city went back to private trash haulers. Other concerns were the fate of PMUA employees and the city's assumption of authority debt in the event of dissolution.

Mapp and the mayor, rivals in the 2009 election and widely expected to be contenders in 2013, sparred a bit when Mapp said he tried to call the mayor three times, but her voice mailbox was full. She countered by saying he could have just knocked on her office door. When Mapp asked her to pledge her cooperation, she asked to speak with the same attorneys who met with the council members.

"I think we can move ahead on this," Storch said. "The mayor's request to speak to the lawyers is reasonable."

He then handed the mayor a business card with contact information for the attorneys.

Storch urged a consensus on the study and also pushed for  agreement on rate reduction. But Rivers asked whether the council had any power over the authority.

"You do not," Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said, adding the council could only give recommendations.

"I think we as a council are making bogus resolutions that are falling on deaf ears," Rivers said. "We are continually stepping into people's back yard and we need to clean our own."

A further suggestion that the authority should rescind a $1 million settlement for two top executives also met with mixed reactions, but there was a consensus to put a council resolution up for a vote on Monday.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Two Seats, Three Filers for Each

Six people met the 4 p.m. deadline to file for City Council seats today.

For the Third Ward seat, filers were incumbent Democrat Adrian Mapp for the Regular Democratic Organization of Union County; Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, running as a Democrat with the slogan, "Progressive Leadership, Better Government; and Randy Bullock for the Regular Organization Republican of Union County.

For the Citywide at-large seat, the Rev. Tracey Brown is the candidate of the Regular Democratic Organization of Union County; Veronica Taylor is running with the slogan, "Democrats for Roni" and William F. Amirault is the choice of the Regular Organization Republican of Union County.

The lineup means there will be a Democratic primary in June. Republicans will be on the ballot in November, along with the Democratic primary winners and any independent candidates who file on Primary Day, June 5.

Republicans reorganize this year, selecting a chairman and a slate of officers and ward leaders for the next two years. Ten candidates filed for Republican committee seats today. The Republican municipal reorganization will take place on the Monday after the primary.


LWV Meets Wednesday

Interested in voter education?

The Plainfield League of Women Voters is embarking on a major campaign to help voters understand and participate in the electoral process. To join in this important work or to learn more about the League, you are welcome to attend Wednesday's meeting, 6:30 p.m. in the Plainfield Public Library.

Young people are especially welcome to take part in this year's "Ready, Set, Vote!" initiative.

Click on the link above for more general information on the Plainfield League of Women Voters.


Council Meeting Tonight

The City Council meets tonight at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, by which time we shall know who filed for two council seats in the June primary. Petitions are due by 4 p.m. in the City Clerk's office.

Among items of interest for council consideration, the city will have to pay $80,000 in the matter of Pamela Gwinn, who sued because of "disparate treatment, emotional distress, and a hostile work environment" between October 2004 and January 2005 in the Police Division. An employee roster from 2006 lists her as a police officer with a salary of $72,505. There is a docket number, but no further details in the resolution. It makes me curious to know more, especially who her superior was. I hope whatever led to this lawsuit has since been rectified.

Road repair, once the topic of a comprehensive study and a plan that was then not carried out, appears to be getting a proposed $11 million boost by a new bond issuance of $8.2 million and a rollover of another $2.7 million in unused bond funds. Notations on the ordinances mention many streets or portions of streets to be repaired, the main one harking back to a "2008 Road Program." Others list 2011/2012 road improvements.

A cynic might point to the fact that this bonding would allow the incumbent mayor to play catch-up and fix the roads in the waning days of her second term, thus being able to claim road repair as an accomplishment on the campaign trail for a third term. One wonders about the timing, but who will carp if the roads finally get repaired? I wish we still had Rashid Burney's eye on this important issue, as he used his web site to explain and track it for the public. One also hopes the debt has been vetted as not too much of a burden for the city, as fiscal astuteness has not exactly been a hallmark of the administration so far.

The audit corrective plan that all council members must sign is several pages long. A quick review at the library Saturday brought out a couple of things that need more explanation, such as the administration's plan to hire a budgetary consultant. The city has had at least two highly qualified budget advisers in the past, who served quietly and without notice except by a certain Deep Throat in City Hall Annex. Could it be their advice was not heeded? Will this new budgetary consultant's advice be followed?

Plaintalker hopes both the bond ordinances and the corrective action plan will be discussed tonight for the public's benefit.

As for the negotiations with the mayor over dropping her lawsuit against the council, one might feel more sanguine if they hadn't presumably started over the April Fool's weekend. The deadline was supposed to be today unless she agreed to an extension.