Thursday, February 28, 2013

Neighbors Tell Mayor Woes

It took a while, but Wednesday's "neighborhood meeting" yielded concerns such as speeding and trash on Emerson Avenue, late-night rendezvous in cars on quiet East End side streets, the hazards of trying to cross South Avenue at Belvidere Avenue, lack of local hires for city tasks and inconsiderate snow plowing. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs promised to look into all of them and get back to those who complained.

But first the meeting at Emerson School was heavy on recitals from the "State of the City" address and a long  review of what happened after Hurricane Sandy struck in October. At some point the mayor said, "I want this to be a dialogue, not a monologue," but for those who already heard her January address at the annual reorganization, it did seem like a one-woman show at first. Plaintalker was conflicted about attending in the first place, having sat through one too many of these events. At least it was heartening to know that those with concerns were heard this time.

The mayor said she had expected to have cabinet members on hand, but of four directors, one was on vacation and three were ill. Thus perhaps the reading aloud of minute details (587 potholes filled) from a very thick volume on her table. There were some tidbits of new news, such as the Social Security Administration's wish to close the satellite office at the Senior Center and the pledge of Congressman Rush Holt and Assemblyman Jerry Green to see what can be done to keep it. Holt staffer Matthew Hall was present and announced "Community Office Hours" from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 11 at the Plainfield Public Library, where constituents can seek help with problems involving federal agencies or programs.

The mayor also wants to expand the city's Office of Emergency Management to include a number of new committees, and announced a mayor's task force called "YOUNG" (Youth Operating in Unity for a New Generation) that will do projects such as cleaning the Plainfield Avenue cemetery. The group will hold a kick-off event from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday (March 1) at the YMCA.

Among the neighborhood concerns, residents said there are no speed signs on Emerson Avenue, despite many requests, and no street cleaning. One man said after he diligently clears snow from his driveway, it gets plowed in and snow from the Emerson School grounds is pushed across the street directly into his property.

Former Councilwoman Elizabeth Urquhart said St. Nicholas Boulevard residents have complained to her about people parking late at night for illicit activities, and a Seneca Place resident said cars park late every night there. Both streets abut Milt Campbell Field. The mayor said the issue had been raised at a meeting of the Plainfield United Block Association and Lt. James Abney of the Plainfield Police Division was looking into it.

Another resident asked for help because of foreclosed properties on her block that are in need of repair, leaving others struggling to preserve the neighborhood. The mayor said she would write a "blurb" on the computer and send it to the department head.

Resident Jim Spear described the problem of people trying to get across South Avenue at Belvidere Avenue, where a crosswalk was covered over in new construction and now there are no markings to slow down traffic. He said once he and a neighbor got stuck in the middle of the street when drivers would not slow down.The mayor said officials knew of the problem and were looking into solutions, though some devices would have best been installed during construction. She suggested having the city's Mobile Command Unit placed nearby as a warning to drivers to slow down.

A demolition company owner said his firm was not getting any city business, though the mayor seemed to recall that it had been used early in her tenure to demolish a fire-damaged structure. The mayor said there had once been a "minority set-aside" for local firms, but it was later deemed illegal. The two agreed to continue the dialogue after the meeting.

And despite the number of potholes filled in 2012, speakers had a few more to tell the mayor about. She concluded the evening with a quick review of notes she took on all the problems raised by residents and promised responses to all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Charter Study Commission Meets Thursday

The Charter Study Commission continues its interviews with past officials at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 28) in City Hall Library.

The scheduled interviews are with former City Administrator Larry Bashe, former Third Ward Councilman Don Davis and Harold Gibson, who served in both administrative and legislative roles, most recently as the Citywide at-large council representative.

To see more about the commission's work, minutes and documents related to charter review, click here 

All Charter Study Comission meetings are open to the public and there is a portion for public comment.

HPC Moves Talks on Cretella Plans to April

The city's most prolific developer had four applications before the Historic Preservation Commission Tuesday, but glitches caused all to be postponed until April.

All four matters involved exterior changes to buildings in the North Avenue Historic District, meaning the developer had to seek a "certificate of appropriateness" for each, in accordance with preservation guidelines. While each had a different corporate name, all the proposals involved Frank Cretella's company, Landmark Developers.
"Next Step to Collins Avenue LLC," also known as the Courier News building at 226-232 Park Avenue, has been renovated to house eight apartments and a restaurant is planned for the street level. The application Tuesday was for canvas awnings, but the discussion bogged down over seeming discrepancies between the drawing on architect Jose Carballo's easel and copies in the hands of the commissioners. When Landmark associate Gabe Bailer mentioned the firm would be seeking a 20 percent federal tax credit for the project, which he called "a beautiful, beautiful enhancement," city Preservationist Gail Hunton deemed it all more important that the drawings be precise. The matter was first put off until the March meeting, then later to the April 23 meeting.
Bailer began the next presentation, for 134-36 North Avenue LLC, by apologizing for the fact that vinyl windows had already been installed. Told vinyl was unacceptable, the manager for Cretella's Black Dog construction firm proposed painting the window frames to look like wood, but Commissioner Jim Galvin said, "We want wood windows, period." Manager Fernando Fernandez called it "an honest mistake," but commissioners were incredulous that the applicants were unaware of the city's Historic Preservation Design Guidelines.

Among other concerns, commissioners wanted to make sure the proper type of mortar would be used to re-point the brick facade and that storefronts would not look overly modern. Bailer noted tax credits would be sought for the project and effusively repeated, "It's an exciting time" for North Avenue. Again, commissioners called for more information and a solution to the problem of vinyl windows.

The third application got off to a bumpy start when Bailer produced revised plans for 177-185 North Avenue LLC, exchanging them for what the commissioners had in their packets. The developer had not yet decided whether there would be two or three storefronts and when commissioners asked how people would get upstairs, Fernandez said, "That's what's missing," and promised another set of drawings. With questions outstanding, that application was also carried to`April 23.

The last application dated back to 2009, when Cretella suggested the PNC Bank might become a Trader Joe's. Although the drawings still indicated the possibility, Carballo said, "Those conversations have gone by the wayside."

The application Tuesday, for The Bank on Park LLC, had to do with a proposed new "lounge space" on top of the bank building. It would be made of clear glass and metal and would be a place to go "pre-function or after-function, to go have a drink and enjoy the views," Carballo said.
Carballo said the developer wanted water on the roof in the form of a shallow pool, four to six inches deep, but commissioners had reservations about it. Commissioner Bill Michelson predicted it would attract mosquitoes. Hunton suggested the possibility of a "green roof" with living plants instead, noting architect Frank Gehry was creating such a roof for the new Facebook building.

"It would be better than water," Hunton said.

Commission Chairwoman Sandy Gurshman asked for more detail on the rooftop structure and Hunton asked to see drawings "that are farther along," leading to another postponement until the April meeting.

The roof addition drew praise from residents Gerry Heydt and April Stefel, and Michelson said, "This is the biggest opportunity we have ever had."

Cretella's projects numbered seven in 2010 and now there are 11 working their way through the land use boards or awaiting construction. The largest proposal is a 148-unit apartment complex on West Second Street.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013


As someone who likes to observe the cycles of nature, I was interested to learn more about phenology here in New Jersey. It's always a thrill to me to hear the first grackles returning to nest in the pine trees on the grounds of Grace Episcopal Church or to see the hatching of my beloved praying mantises in the back yard.

Keeping records year over year can tell us a lot about climate trends and changing populations of plants, birds and animals. Find out more about phenology here.

I was amazed to see that the killing frost - the one that finally did in the Calendulas - did not occur until the end of January. But the snowdrops in the Grace churchyard are right on time, ready to bloom now.

State of the IOU - Do We Know?

Today's Star-Ledger article on big payouts to public safety personnel does not use the phrase "uncompensated liability," but that's what it's called (or used to be called) in state budget parlance.

Longtime workers can accrue sick and vacation days that must be paid when they retire. A municipality can put money aside for this purpose, but when Plaintalker wrote about it a few years ago, no funds had been set aside. Obviously, this is one of those fiscal issues that should be watched, but with limited oversight, is anybody watching?

Here's the explanation from the Plaintalker archives.

Press, Blog, Media, Content

What is news, anyway?

When I retired 10 years ago, the newspaper was still the recognizable medium of most readers' childhood. People of my age might deplore the loss of the Newark Evening News, the Herald Tribune, the Journal American, the Daily Mirror and such, but could still see the bones in modern newspapers.

No more. Now we have "platforms," "multi-media," and generic "content" that tries to cling to your brain like mental lint. Just read about a local murder? Maybe you would also like to read about another murder that happened two months ago, in another state. "Driving traffic" is not about rush hour, it is about competing for and capturing your attention for a few moments.

So now this melange of actual news events and assorted stuff known as content is being put behind paywalls.  The Seattle Times has just announced a paywall beginning in mid-March, with this rationale. I rely on this outlet for news of the Pacific Northwest, just as I'm sure others read regional newspapers online to keep up with what's going on where dear ones live. It's also the winner of nine Pulitzer Prizes, though reader reaction to the paywall seems to lump it with any and all other attempts to monetize online news.

If I want to read about the exact neighborhood where my dear ones live now, I can always check the West Seattle Blog, which appears to have enough advertising revenue to keep it afloat. Similarly, former Plainfielders can get a glimpse of life in the Queen City by clicking on local blogs. The few that are left are largely labors of love, subject to closure at will as has happened to the other 30 blogs that once made up the roster.

The promise of "media" for added value does not always materialize in the online newspaper. I'm thinking of a recent photo gallery where every caption was the same - no names of those pictured, just a generic squib.

The New York Times has the most clever and engaging use of multi-media, after that it drops off sharply to "why bother" levels in other outlets, except that it can be claimed as content.

One vestigial remnant of the old days is the predilection of certain politicians for calling a "press conference," as if a strapped local newsroom will cut loose a reporter to travel to a remote location to hear officials speak on a topic that will then be handed out as a "press release." There is no press, the presses no longer roll, the presses will not be held in the modern news cycle. The best can break news online in an instant and the rest will get around to it as resources allow.

It's a curious world for news nowadays. Newspapers used to have a finite "news hole" that had to be filled judiciously. Online, it's a bottomless pit where news and content cohabit. I have seen "news" stories as short as two sentences and "content" links as old as two years.

These musings are probably just the work of a brain muddled by mid-winter illness, but if readers have any thoughts on these topics, please comment.

Monday, February 25, 2013

First Annual Herbert Green Forum on Education Hosted by League of Women Voters of Plainfield

On Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 6:30 pm, the League of Women Voters of Plainfield will present its First Annual Herbert Green Forum on Education,with guest speaker Dr.Arnold L. Glass, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Rutgers University. The talk will take place in the Anne Louise Davis Room at the Plainfield Public Library, located at 800 Park Avenue in Plainfield.

Dr. Glass, whose research focuses on cognitive learning, heads the Learning and Memory Laboratory of the Department of Psychology at Rutgers, and he has published widely in the American Journal of Psychology, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Memory and Cognition, and other professional journals.

The Herbert Green Forum on Education is named in memory of our beloved colleague, who died recently at the age of 87 after a brave battle with cancer. This event is free and open to the public, and the League especially encourages educators to attendto hear Dr. Glass's presentation. Refreshments will be served after the talk.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Neighborhood Meeting" Wednesday

The mayor has set a two-hour meeting Wednesday to inform the public and businesses on transit-oriented development and other topics.

See the flyer here.

Plaintalker may or may not be able to attend, but having covered these topics for a while, updates from the administration are certainly something worth hearing.

TOD: The City Council will soon be asked to approve the TOD-N plan for the vicinity of Netherwood Train Station. The governing body has already passed the TODD plan for downtown development around the main train station on North Avenue. Apparently there are still plans for transit-oriented development around the sites of two former stations as well, at Grant and Clinton avenues. The city is also seeking "transit village" designation from the state. Plenty to talk about here.

Economic activity: Planners touted the West Second Street Commons project as having the critical mass to transform the downtown district. So far, the development tally downtown consists of a couple of other projects yielding 12 apartments. How are things going with the big one?

Roads: There was supposed to be a big push last summer and fall to get a lot of roadwork done. Of course, then there was the hurricane. What's the scorecard? Was the money spent? Does the schedule have to be re-set yet again?

Public Safety: The public has certainly heard many a spin on public safety in recent years. Shot Spotter's president was supposed to come here personally to meet with officials about the program, which has been "tweaked" about as much as anything can be. Any news here?

Your voice: Speak up!

For the click-averse, here are the details: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27. Emerson School, 305 Emerson Ave.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Armory Topic at March 6 Zoning Board Meeting

A year after being auctioned off by the state, the Armory will be the topic of  a Board of Adjustment hearing on its proposed use as a "daycare and aftercare facility."

HOPES Community Action Partnership of Hoboken is the applicant, according to a legal notice published today. The Armory at Leland Avenue and East Seventh Street is in a low/moderate density residential zone where the proposed use is not permitted. The use variance and other relief is on the agenda for the March 6 Board of Adjustment meeting, 7 p.m. in City Hall Library.

The Armory was auctioned off for $926,000 early in 2012 after various city schemes for its use fell through. The auction results had to be passed by legislation and was not final until December. (Note: Click here, but story links no longer work).

The HOPES web site lists three addresses for its services in Plainfield, at 7-9 Watchung Ave., New Horizons at 110-128 W. Front St., and St. Mary's at 513 W. Sixth St.

According to the legal notice, variances needed for the Armory site are:
17:9-7.B - The proposed uses are not permitted in the R-3 Zone. Requires a use variance.
17:9-7.D - A minimum rear yard setback of 30 feet is required, the existing warehouse has a rear yard setback of 9.83 feet, while the proposed addition will have a rear yard setback of 9.83 feet.
17:9-7.D - The maximum permitted lot coverage is 40%. The existing lot coverage is 82.26% which will be reduced to 79.61%.
Relief Required from Supplementary Zoning Regulations
17:9-23 - There is a limitation in the residential zones of a single principal structure. There are presently two principal structures on site.
17:9-24A&B - A residential use shall have a 10 foot buffer from all uses other than one and two family dwellings. The existing warehouse has a buffer which is 9 feet, 10 inches from adjoining residential property designated as Lot 3, Block 625.
17:9-24.D.2 - Loading areas shall be screened by a minimum 10 feet tall visually impervious screen. The two loading areas on the northwest (rear) elevation do not meet this requirement.
17:9-24.E1&2 - HVAC and utilities must be buffered 3 feet wide and screened 4 feet high around all sides. This is not met.
17:9-27 - Encroachment is not permitted in the public right-of-way without approval of Plainfield City Council. Landscaping, 5 light poles, curbing, and a portion of the first 22 parking spaces are located within the public right-of-way facing East 7th Street.
17:9-42.E - Parking lots are not permitted in any required side yard setback area and front yard area. Parking is located within the side yard setback and front yard areas.
17:9-42.H - Curb cuts for 10 feet wide driveways shall be a maximum of 14 feet wide. Curb cuts for 20 foot wide driveways shall be a maximum of 26 feet wide. The driveway on E. 7th Street is 24 feet wide and the curb cut is 35 feet, 5 inches. The driveway on Leland Avenue is 24 feet wide, and the curb cut is 38 feet, 5 inches.
17:9-42.K - The Land Use Ordinance does not contain an off-street parking requirement for the requested uses. The parking requirement shall be determined during a Public Hearing. The applicant proposes 82 parking spaces. A parking variance may be required.
17:9-42.N - Driveways in Residential Zones shall not provide access to non-permitted uses. The driveways on both E. 7th Street and Leland Avenue now and with the proposed uses will provide access to non-permitted uses.
17:9-42.P - All uses other than one and two family homes shall not have parking within the front yard area. The parking is located within the front yard area.
17:9-43.B - A minimum of 5% of the interior of a parking lot shall be provided with planting islands containing a minimum of 1 deciduous tree for every 5 parking spaces abutting said island. The 82 parking spaces which are proposed have a total of 4 new trees, sixteen are required. No deciduous trees are proposed. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

2013 Town Meetings Set

The City Council will launch its 2013 Town Meeting schedule in March, with one in each ward through June.

Ward 1
7 p.m. Tuesday, March 12
Plainfield Senior Center, 400 E. Front St.
Ward 2
7 p.m. Wednesday, April 17
Cook School, 739 Leland Ave.
Ward 3
7 p.m. Wednesday, May 22
Cedarbrook School, 1049 Central Ave.
Ward 4
7 p.m. Wednesday, June 19
Jefferson School, 1750 E. Front St.

These meetings are intended to allow residents to share their concerns with the governing body in an open forum. While each ward is highlighted, residents from any ward have been welcomed to any of the four meetings.

Topics that have emerged at past meetings include the PMUA, youth concerns, economic development and more. Depending on the turnout, speakers may have more than one chance at the microphone. One of the most intense meetings concerned a proposal to put a 600-unit condo development in the Third Ward, on the Muhlenberg property.

Though aired at the meetings, many concerns require action by the administration or other entities not present at the council forums. The main benefit is that council members get a vivid picture of what is on the minds of constituents.and can follow up with legislation where possible.

Residents can always attend council meetings and speak during the public comment portion, or simply call or e-mail their council representatives with concerns. The added value of the town meetings is to have the full attention of the council for a couple of hours in your own ward.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

One More Try Today

I'm hoping today to pick up where I left off Friday, trying to get my taxes done. I had gone to the library as I thought that was where I scheduled my appointment, only to find I had to dash on foot from Park & Eighth to the Senior Center at 400 East Front Street. But after waiting there for an hour or more, I was told the computers were malfunctioning. It was after I trudged home that I got really sick for the rest of the day and then on into the long weekend.

I really appreciate the opportunity to have skilled AARP volunteers figure out my taxes and file electronically.  My retirement income is small, but as everyone knows, journalists can't do math very well (with a few exceptions - we had one person in the newsroom who could wrangle numbers and statistics and mountains of data with aplomb (shout-out to BB, now at APP).

Thanks to everyone who sent get-well messages. This is the first time in many years that I have gotten really sick and I realize the difference of being older and creakier. I appreciate your concern.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

CFO Temp Passes Year Mark

A temporary arrangement to have a part-time chief finance officer has now passed the year mark as the city faces preparation of its second calendar-year budget.

Former CFO Ron Zilinski left the city in January 2012 and in February officials announced a deal in which Glenn Cullen, the borough administrator and CFO in neighboring South Plainfield, would serve five to eight hours a week in Plainfield while a search was underway for a permanent CFO. Council members were skeptical, perhaps because all of them plus the mayor had been put under a state mandate to fill the statutory role in 2010 or face personal fines of $25 per day. At that point, the vital post had been vacant  since former CFO Peter Sepelya retired at the end of 2007.

Cullen was to receive $800 per week for giving his services in his spare time. Finance Director Al Restaino hailed him for helping the city "in our time of need." Meanwhile, the council approved a higher salary range for the post in hopes of attracting a permanent CFO.

Among interim solutions after Sepelya left, the city in 2009 attempted having the city administrator sign off on fiscal matters. City officials also asked the state to name a CFO, but the Division of Local Government Services put the onus back on the city, leading to Zilinski's hiring in late 2010.

Zilinski saw the city through a transition from a fiscal year beginning July1 to a calendar year. The change included a six-month "transition year" budget from July through December 2011. Plaintalker had questions at the time (see here).

The first calendar year budget did not start out well. A state review found numerous errors and omissions. Budget consultant David Kochel was able to straighten it out, leaving the city with just a small tax increase instead of the initial $1.5 million shortfall.

Budget time is at hand once again. How will things go in 2013?


Sunday, February 17, 2013

I Don't Usually Get Sick

... but when I do, it's horrible! The cat wants to know why I am spending hours sleeping in the daytime and coughing when I get up.

When possible, I am working my way through Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" on the Kindle or trying to crochet something, but it is hard to pay attention. At least I will lose those four or five pounds I gained over the holidays by sleeping so much and hardly eating.

WFMU cheered me up this afternoon while I was attempting a simple crochet pattern (mainly dc in ch sp, ch2, 1 sc, repeat) and then having to rip it out after mixing up the stitches. I'm glad I am not responsible for anything more complicated today.

Nothing cogent is emerging from my foggy brain, so I will sign off now.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Taking a Sick Day

Something caught up with me and I was .sick in bed all afternoon and evening. So blogging will be delayed.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Urquhart, Mitchell Give Charter Views

The Charter Study Commission launched its interviews of past officials Thursday with former 16-year First Ward Councilwoman Elizabeth Urquhart and former Mayor Harold Mitchell, who also served terms on the City Council.

Urquhart introduced herself as a native Plainfielder who came through the school district and married a Plainfielder. She now serves on the Union County Board of Taxation. She served on a 1990 charter study committee whose report was accepted by the governing body, but not acted upon. One of the disadvantages of the 1968 special charter, she said, is that any changes would have to be enacted by a two-thirds vote of the state legislature.

She was largely satisfied with the city's present system of four wards and approved the current strong mayor/weak council form of government. One change she supports is separate legal counsel for the governing body instead of having the corporation counsel represent both mayor and council, she said.

A summary of the 18 questions and answers will be posted on the commission's blog at

Mitchell, now a commissioner and former chairman of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, spoke from  his experience of service in both the administrative and legislative branches of city government. One advantage of the charter, he said, was that it specifies a director of Public Safety instead of a police chief. He said municipalities have problems with police chiefs because they "don't listen" to mayors and "do what they want to do."

He said he favors having three at-large council members in addition to one for each of the four wards. Currently there is one citywide at-large member, one representing Wards 1&4, one for Wards 2&3 and one for each ward.

He did not see any reason to change to non-partisan elections.

"I believe in a two-party system," he said.

While he approves of an in-house corporation counsel, he concurred with Urquhart that the governing body should have its own legal counsel.

On mayor-council relations, Mitchell cited "personalities" as the cause of possible friction.

"When you're dealing with human beings, you have to have a cooperative spirit," he said.

The commission had hoped to interview former Mayor Mark Fury as well Thursday, but as an attorney Fury had a conflict with a trial that prevented him from appearing.

The next meeting is 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 28 in City Hall Library. Former City Administrator Larry Bashe and former Councilman Don Davis are expected to attend. Commission members agreed to offer former officials who do not live nearby the option of responding by e-mail.

All meetings of the commission are open to the public and include a portion for comment. Click here for the meeting schedule and links to background documents.

Note to Rob: I did not attempt to document each one's answers to all 18 questions, so don't take this report as the absolute bottom line. Look for minutes later on the CSC blog.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Be Kind In Comments

Some recent comments have not been posted because they describe people as "brainless," "slime," "pigs," or make allegations about people not paying their taxes. I don't feel like dialing up the tax collector to check on folks; if they haven't paid, they will show up on the next tax delinquent list for all to see.

As far as tossing epithets at elected officials, I know it is a favorite indoor sport in the Queen City but I don't see how it advances our understanding of the issues. If you want me to push "Publish" instead of "Delete," please try to say what you feel needs to be improved and how you think that can happen, or point something out without the personal insults.

This caution is not just because it is Valentine's Day and everything is supposed to be bluebirds and roses, it is just my wish for a more civil tone in comments.

Now listen to something nice and have a Happy V'Day!

New Tax Collector Named

See Adrian's corrections in Comments

The City Council unanimously approved the appointment of  David Marshall as tax collector Monday, filling a brief gap. Marshall was also approved as tax search officer.

The addition of a residency waiver to his appointment brought a small flurry of questions. The requirement to be a resident of Plainfield can be waived if  there are no qualified candidates who reside in the city, and Councilman Cory Storch asked whether that was the case. Corporation Counsel David Minchello said to his knowledge, there was none. But Councilman Adrian Mapp said there were two other people qualified to do the job.

Storch said if that was true, he didn't see why a resident could not be appointed.

But Council President Bridget Rivers asked, "Is it the will of the administration to appoint this person?" and called for a vote.

The vote to amend the resolution was 4-3, with Rivers, William Reid, Tracey Brown and Vera Greaves voting "yes" and Storch, Mapp and Rebecca Williams voting "no." The vote to waive residency was 5-2, with Mapp and Williams dissenting. The council then unanimously approved the appointment of Marshall as tax collector and a second resolution to name him tax search officer.

Besides keeping track of revenues, the tax collector also has the important task of organizing tax lien sales to recoup money owed by delinquent payers. The office also organizes tax lien sales for money owed to the PMUA. Former tax collector Maria Glavan increased the collection rate in 2008 to 96.08 and was urged to push it higher, but the economic downturn caused the rate to drop.

For a bit of history on the tax collector's office, click here. Regarding residency, it used to be a hard and fast rule until 2006, when the city administrator and two of three department heads lived out of town. Since then, few cabinet members have lived in the city. The mayor herself dodged the issue of a requirement for four years' residency before election when a judge declared that they did not have to be consecutive.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sanders Named PMUA Chairman

Just 14 months into his tenure on the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, business owner Cecil Sanders emerged as chairman at the authority's annual reorganization Tuesday.

The City Council approved Sanders as an alternate on the PMUA board of commissioners in November 2011. He was taking part in only his second PMUA meeting in January 2012 when he was able, in the absence of then-Commissioner Tracey Brown, to provide the third vote necessary to approve a $1 million settlement with two former executives.

In February 2012, holdover Commissioner Harold Mitchell was able to retain his chairmanship for another year, as an attempts to have Sanders replace him fell through. Another nomination for Sanders to replace holdover Commissioner Carol Brokaw was also thwarted in February 2012.

After Tracey Brown left her PMUA seat to become the citywide at-large City Council representative in January 2013, Sanders was approved to fill the vacancy with Brown supplying the fourth vote necessary.

Mitchell and Brokaw are still on the board of commissioners as holdovers, despite five attempts by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs to replace Brokaw and replace or switch Mitchell to a non-voting alternate's seat. (Alternates only vote if needed to make a quorum.)

Other officers named Tuesday were Alex Toliver as vice chairman, Brokaw as secretary and Malcolm Dunn as treasurer. The reorganization included approval of numerous other arrangements for 2013, including contract awards, establishment of a meeting schedule and naming of various consultants.


More Snow Coming

Mau finds snow too bland, says "Needs some catnip."

Council Queries Energy Program "Opt-Out"

Excerpt, NJSA 48:3-93.2

A spokesman for a money-saving electrical energy plan startled City Council members Monday when he said residents could "opt out" of it.

Baye Wilson, an associate with Ethical Electric, said the city could use its size "to buy more in the marketplace" by adopting a Community Choice Aggregation Model that would include three accounts. The municipal portion would cover energy usage in municipal buildings, businesses could opt in and residents could opt out.

Wilson said with the city's large number of older houses, the ability to reduce costs was "a big plus." But Councilman Adrian Mapp asked, "Why would the residents of Plainfield be put in a position where we have to opt out?"

"You're telling me it would be mandatory for residents to take it?" Councilwoman Vera Greaves asked Wilson.

Wilson said no, residents can opt out and there would be a "significant education process" on the program.

Councilman William Reid said he was in agreement that an opt-out situation would be worse than an opt-in, because a lot of people would not understand.
 According to a Board of Public Utilities sample notification for an aggregation program, residents would be automatically enrolled and would have 30 days to indicate they did not want to participate.

In other questions, council members asked what municipalities in New Jersey have an aggregation program and Wilson named Bordentown. In answer to Councilman Cory Storch's question about the possible percentage of savings, Wilson said, "No one is going to say what number, because it has to be bid out."

Pressed later by Councilwoman Rebecca Williams, Wilson said clients in Maryland saved between 5 and 10 percent.

Public Works Director Eric Jackson said savings depend on the number of participants aggregated, but estimated for municipal buildings as much as $80,000 to $100,000 might be saved, though he added more research had to be done.

The presentation was for information only and no action was taken Monday. In answer to Williams' question regarding other companies providing the program, Jackson said the city would  issue a request for proposals.


Monday, February 11, 2013

PMUA Reorg Tuesday

The Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority will hold its annual reorganization Tuesday, naming officers for 2013 among other actions. The meeting is 6 p.m. at 127 Roosevelt Ave. See the agenda here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Notes On July Fourth, Baseball Plans

A detailed draft of plans for the 2013 July Fourth Celebration will be presented to the governing body in April, Public Works & Urban Development Director Eric Jackson said at the Feb. 4 council meeting.

Jackson said the tentative event date is Saturday, July 6 and it will include a parade and fireworks, and possibly a concert.

Council members and residents have been asking for particulars on how much last year's celebration cost. Resident Jeanette Criscione, who served on the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee last year, said at the Jan. 22 council meeting she had just received the information that day. Councilwoman Rebecca Williams asked for a full accounting and alleged individuals were fraudently asking merchants for large fees to take part in the 2012 celebration.

The issue of disclosure of costs of the event goes back to 2006, when the City Council refused to approve a $55,000 budget transfer for a concert and another $51,000 to hire an "event planner' for the event. Click here for details.

Recreation Superintendent Dave Wynn left city employment in the Fall of 2012. According to the city web site, the post is still vacant. In addition to holiday events, the Recreation Division organizes use of playgrounds and pools, sports and activities of many kinds, field trips and the city's annual art festival.

The city youth baseball league and a volunteer league that clashed over use of fields and other issues for the past few years were scheduled to merge this year into one league under city auspices. But speakers at the Feb. 4 meeting indicated differences are still being hashed out. Jackson said discussions on the consolidation are ongoing.

"We are working toward that goal," he said of the merger.

The regular City Council meeting is Monday (Feb. 11) at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court. Click here to see the agenda. Plaintalker posted on some topics and Dr. Harold Yood has commented on his blog, Doc's Potpourri.


Planners Seek TODN Designation

The main topic at Thursday's Planning Board meeting was a discussion of new zoning for the Netherwood Train Station and surrounding blocks. Members are still refining certain standards, but hope to have the zoning changes before the City Council for approval soon.

The acronym at the top, TODN, stands for Transit Oriented Development-Netherwood.

In 2012, the Planning Board devised and the governing body approved new zoning designations for the main train station and environs, called Transit Oriented Development Downtown, or TODD. If you did not attend one of the public meetings where the TODD plan was discussed, maybe you picked up the tri-fold handout at the City Council's annual reorganization in January.
Inside, there is a map of the new zoning, which has designations including the Cleveland Avenue Arts District, a College District and a Parking District where a deck may eventually replace Municipal Lot 6. Click to enlarge.
Last year, I had thought this new zoning could be a good topic for the blog, but I was quite put off by this request and never wrote about it. I kind of felt the same way about trying to do a post on the TODN zoning.

Only a handful of people attended the Planning Board meeting Thursday to hear the discussion. The city has little or no PR capability, so residents seeking more information on transit-oriented development must either attend public meetings or go read the ordinances in City Hall.

The board will soon be making a similar zoning review for the area around the former Grant Avenue train station.

In 2007, city officials talked about four "transit villages" centered around the two existing train stations and the two that were demolished, on Grant and on Clinton Avenue. The transit village designation actually goes to the municipality and Plainfield is now seeking the designation. The term for planned growth around rail stations and other public transportation is transit-oriented development.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Happy Year of the Snake

Wishing happiness and prosperity
 to all who are celebrating
 the Lunar New Year

Mau's Disillusionment

"A ball of string, a catnip mouse, a box 
... is that all there is?"

Some Council Topics For Feb. 11

Monday's City Council agenda includes a pitch from a new energy provider, appointment of a tax collector and a resolution regarding the highly-coveted "one-seat ride" to New York City.

Ethical Electric is scheduled to give a presentation regarding "energy aggregation," with a time limit of 10 minutes. One hopes that will be enough time to discern how old this company is and exactly what role they play in providing renewable energy.

David Marshall is the nominee for tax collector as well as for tax search officer. Marshall was the part-time tax collector in 2006. Will he be serving fulltime if appointed? Those who were not on the council when Marshall last served the city may want a quick review of his service to the city and to other municipalities as tax collector. Plaintalker recalls him as a very energetic individual, which may be just what the troubled tax office needs to get up to speed.
David Beale,
In 2009, city officials were looking forward to a "one-seat" commute to New York City with the help of a rail tunnel project. But Gov. Chris Christie rejected the project in 2010. Now a dual-power locomotive may be the key. Councilman Adrian Mapp suggested at the Feb. 4 agenda-fixing session that Plainfield should show its interest in the one-seat ride by passing a resolution in its favor on Monday. Municipalities with one-seat rides are said to see an increase in property values.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Remembering a February Storm

It was 20 years ago this month that I drove my daughter and son-in-law to the airport in a blizzard not unlike the one today. They were going to Seattle to search for an apartment. I picked them up in a rain storm when they returned, then later drove them to the airport again for their one-way flight to their new home town.

That experience of driving white-knuckled in white-out storm conditions on Route 22 led me to give up airport runs forever, once I had fulfilled my motherly duty to see them off on the third trip.

I feel sympathy for anyone who must drive in such bad weather. If at all possible, defer your trip to another day. At least you won't have to make an airport run today, as flights are grounded.

P.S. Audrey and Peter left Plainfield for Seattle without any prospects, but have done very well. I have visited often, and they are now waiting for me to fly one-way someday to join them in their West Seattle home.

No more nor'easters - it's a tempting thought on a day like today.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Meditation Center Clears Zoning Hurdle

Uses permitted in the Light Industrial Zone on North Avenue

It was a squeaker, but after some pondering the Zoning Board of Adjustment agreed a proposed meditation center at 1112-1118 North Avenue could be construed as a "health and fitness club."

Applicants Daniel Galczynski and Ruben Lambert waited through two hearings Wednesday for their turn to get an opinion from the board. Galczynski has a background in martial arts and physical education and Lambert holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. The premise of their center is to work toward mind and body wellness, a holistic approach considering a sound mind to be the foundation of all physical health.

The concept goes far back in both Eastern and Western philosophies, but is being rediscovered today. Type in "mind-body fitness" or "holistic wellness" online and literally millions of links pop up. But the Zoning Board discussion hinged on just one sentence, then just one word in the city's Land Use definition of a health and fitness club: "An establishment that provides facilities for physical exercises and/or saunas, showers and lockers." 

The bone of contention was "or." Were they planning to have showers?

"I'm all in favor of good hygiene," Lambert said, but noted the center would be non-profit.

As happens with the quasi-judicial board, the discussion went back and forth.

"If you have showers, you will fit the definition," board Chairman Scott Belin said.

Board member Melvin Cody suggested having a plumber in to get estimates on the cost of putting showers in the building, but board attorney Peter Vignuolo reined him back in to deciding whether the proposed use met the city's definition of a health and fitness club.

Board member Frank Johnson said showers were necessary, but colleague Alejandro Ruiz said most people want to do their 30 minutes of exercise and go home.

Belin said the applicants met the principle of health and wellness.

"Everything does not have to involve weights and Zumba," he said.

Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said if the board wanted to work on a new definition, it could do that too.

But Belin said even without a shower the proposal fit the definition of a fitness center.

When finally polled, the board split. Two motions followed, one that the proposal did fit the definition and one that it didn't. But each failed for lack of a second.

Belin had asked earlier about the "and/or" part of the definition and brought it up again, calling it "ambiguous." He reviewed the theme of physical exercise with meditation and said, "Each of us has his own interpretation" before offering a motion that the proposal did fit the definition of a health and fitness club. That motion led to a second, and the roll call produced unanimous approval.

Galczynski and Lambert will now have to appear before the Planning Board to discuss issues including parking, but at least they cleared the hurdle of defining their project. Given the proposed center's proximity to the Netherwood train station, Nierstedt suggested they might be interested in tonight's Planning Board meeting at which the new Transit-Oriented Development Netherwood zone will be on the agenda. Nierstedt said two other health and fitness clubs are proposed, at  1000 and 1280 North Avenue near the train station.
Galczynski said he and Lambert hope to have the Soshimsa Meditation Center open "as soon as possible." The format of mind and body wellness is "the gold standard of today," Lambert said. As for their expected clientele, it is "anybody who's interested."


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

ShotSpotter President Will Explain Tweaks

Six months after the expected end of a one-year ShotSpotter program, the gunshot detection system is still being tweaked, according to comments Monday from Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig.

Hellwig said eight more sensors are being added to the system, as shots are still being missed. The president of the California-based company is coming to Plainfield to explain how service will be improved, Hellwig said.

The ShotSpotter system was showcased in 2010 at a price of $1 million, but the governing body did not endorse use of the system until asked in August 2011 to approve a $169,000 lease option to be funded through a $250,000 grant. Even then, supporters had doubts. Click here for Plaintalker post on the approval.

In February 2012, Hellwig said the program had encountered difficulties including jurisdiction over use of utlity poles and had not yet begun operations (see post here). By April 2012, it was still being refined (link).

By August 2012, the program was still failing to detect shots (link here) and more "fine tuning" was needed.

On Monday, in addition to his updates, Hellwig said half the cost of the program had now been paid to the company.

His remarks were related to a report from Councilwoman Rebecca Williams, the 2013 chair of the council's Public Safety Committee. Williams noted establishment of a "High Impact Crime" team that will both walk and ride on patrol in areas identified through Comstat reports as experiencing high crime levels. In other public safety matters, six new radar units have been added and one or two of the city's constables wish to become auxiliary police officers.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

PMUA: Double Bubbles of Troubles

The spearmint may lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight, but Plainfielders may never lose their urge to chew over PMUA issues.

Monday's City Council meeting featured PMUA Executive Director Dan Williamson getting his teeth into residents' questions, and then more than a mouthful of allegations of wrongdoing from PMUA critic Alan Goldstein. Dr. Yood will probably stick to the high points - after looking at my notes I feel I will only gum them up.

Seriously, the list of issues was so long and, to anyone here since PMUA began, so repetitive that it was largely an exercise in rumination. How are water usage rates calculated? (Based on last year's usage.) Why must we pay for shared services? (Because they benefit everyone.) Why pay ex-directors a million dollars? (Because three commissioners said so.)

Really seriously, Williamson did his best to cast the authority in a favorable light, citing a rate reduction that will start in April, new business from other municipalities that is bringing in revenue, a closer look at operations aimed at cutting costs and a willingness for ongoing dialogue with city officials.

By lowering rates to drop vegetative and bulky waste at the Rock Avenue transfer station, the PMUA is "trying to expand the horizon of the authority," he said.

Williamson said the authority is "making great strides in re-branding itself" and announced a possible tax credit for sewer fees in legislation proposed by Assemblyman Jerry Green.

Goldstein was not so sanguine and offered copious documentation disputing compensation for PMUA commisioners. PMUA attorney Leslie London said a court decision settled the matter of health benefits not being counted as compensation. The PMUA's five commissioners and two alternates receive $4,500, but Goldstein said they receive thousands more in benefits. His presentation was too detailed on many aspects of the PMUA's history to recount here, but he said the original agreement between the city and the authority was "subverted."

Councilwoman Rebecca Williams raised a new issue, the hiring of Harold Gibson as the authority's first director of security, over just four security officers. Gibson previously served in law enforcement in Essex County and held positions in both city and Union County government as well as elected office as a Plainfield councilman. Williamson could not state Gibson's salary Monday, but said, "We believe we need security."

Another new issue was removal of about 25 trash cans from downtown streets. Initially explained as a PMUA move to thwart illegal dumping, the matter was apparently more complicated as most of the cans belonged to the Special Improvement District program. Williamson said it was "an orchestrated agreement" to remove the cans as "it wasn't working." Several residents and council members complained that trash has increased since the cans were removed.

Amidst all this, the PMUA's annual reorganization is scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. Feb. 12 at 127 Roosevelt Avenue, with selection of a chairman and other board officers for 2013.

Disgruntled residents called for disbanding of the authority in 2011 and a council majority endorsed a dissolution study in April 2012, but the administration proposed an alternate study in July 2012. For this year, the reorganization coincides with the Chinese Year of the Snake, so maybe the PMUA will just get "Wrigley" and "Stride" past controversy. (OK, that's the last chewing gum pun.)


Sunday, February 3, 2013

July Fourth Discussion Needed

City Council President Bridget Rivers is on time with her request for a discussion Monday of plans for the 2013 July Fourth Celebration.

When there was an active Independence Day Committee years ago, plans began very early. One main organizer liked to say they started the day after the parade to plan for the next one. More recently, an ad hoc group has been planning the event and details on costs have not been freely shared with the governing body. An all-Plainfield committee was established by ordinance after outside towns stopped supporting a joint celebration, but memebrs were never named.

Click here for a past Plaintalker post that sums up some of the concerns about the annual celebration.


Council To Discuss Concession Stand, Condo Fees

Installation of a controversial concession stand is among topics up for discussion at Monday's City Council meeting.

The pre-fabricated structure cost $71,432, but an additional $19,275 was required for design and engineering work at the Joe Black Baseball Field. Now the governing body is asked to approve $96,050 to install the concession stand.

Council members and residents both deplored the cost when it was detailed last year. A resolution to pay $71,432 for the structure alone was brought on as a new item at a March 12, 2012 meeting and resurfaced in August, only to be tabled. It was finally passed on Nov. 26, 2012. Questions still remained on how the purchase was initially authorized.

The $96,050 contract to Tec-Con Contractors of East Orange is up for discussion Monday and will be voted on at the Feb. 13 regular meeting if moved to the agenda.

Another issue with a controversial background is the proposed payment of $33,000 to Dornoch Plainfield LLC for condo association fees for the Senior Center. The center is on the ground floor of The Monarch, a 63-unit condo development at 400 East Front Street. Touted as a brand-new center built at no cost to the city, the center was later the subject of a bill from the developer for fit-out costs and condo fees. The $287,371.97 tab was never paid in April 2010 and was said in mid-2012 to still be under negotiation.

The payment up for consideration now is for 2013 condo association fees at the rate of $2,750 per month.

If the matter was never settled, the city could be liable for $104,500 in arrearages for condo fees from Nov. 2009 through 2012.

The city also has another condo arrangement for the Tepper's basement. Click here for an April 2010 post on that one.

Dr. Yood has already commented on the three discussion items and other matters up for consideration Monday. Click here to see the entire Feb. 4 agenda.

Join the blogger band and come out to Municipal Court at 7:30 p.m. Monday to see your elected representatives in action.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cretella Adds A New Project

Developer Frank Cretella has a new project to add to the 10 already on his to-do list. It's a long-neglected office building next to the main train station, which he plans to transform into eight apartments.

His application to renovate the building at 109 East Fourth Street was before the Zoning Board of Adjustment in January and the hearing will continue at the board's February meeting, 7 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Unlike some of his other projects, the building owned by an eponymous limited liability corporation is not in a designated redevelopment area. It doesn't have a whimsical corporate name, like "Next Step to Collins Avenue," another Cretella project with eight apartments and a planned French bistro at ground level on Park Avenue. Because the East Fourth Street building takes up its whole footprint, it lacks yard space and has other issues that the board is discussing with the developer.

It also has some other challenges, as it has been a target for squatters. On Friday, the front door was open and waving in the stiff wind. I did not have my cell phone with me, but planned to contact police when I got home. By chance, there was a police car nearby in the train station driveway, so I told the officer that the building was unsecured. She said people are in and out of the building often. The huge chain and lock that  gave the appearance of security were just dangling on one side of the open door Friday.

Cretella has received approvals for a number of projects, both renovations and new construction, though not all have yet come to fruition. The "Next Step to Collins Avenue" building is now known as the Courier News building, in a nod to its historic use. Click here to read a February 2012 post about its renovation. Another project on the same block but on the West Second Street side is expected to bring 148 apartments to the downtown.

Cretella's company, Landmark Developers, has descriptions of some local development proposals, including the West Second Street project. Take a look here (click on Development, then on Building Green).