Sunday, December 27, 2009

2010 - Predictions for Change

Having heard a presentation from the Plainfield Cable TV Advisory Commission last fall, I was impressed by a vision, clearly defined goals and attention to policy details. The vision is to use the cable TV channel to showcase Plainfield. That would be a good antidote to the mainstream news coverage of Plainfield which likes to focus on crime. Our cable TV station has been an wasted opportunity crying out for fulfillment. I am hearing plans to teach Plainfield students about TV production and teach viewers around the greater viewing area about Plainfield's many assets. Maybe it is time for our TV station to become an asset to the city.
In contrast, the PMUA did not share a vision for the future when they came before the Council in 2009. They seem to be satisfied with their current performance. I have been satisfied with my service but as the costs go up, it is not good enough to say that because waste costs are escalating everywhere, that it is acceptable. I am waiting for the PMUA leadership to step up to the plate and repair its public image so surrounding towns will become purchasers of services. Business expansion and a composting program are my vision for PMUA. Composting and other strategies to reduce waste at the source are going to become more important than recycling as we know it.
Leadership will make the difference between a commission that anticipates the future and achieves its goals and one that does not. I am hoping that the Council will be presented with commission nominations that have vision and are serious about improving services to our residents and not merely politically connected people who will maintain the status quo. The Cable TV and PMUA commissions need people who understand the opportunities that exist to connect Plainfield with the rest of the world in useful and cost effective ways. I would like to be as hopeful about the PMUA as I am about the TV station. That is another holiday wish.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Holiday Wish or Two for Plainfield

If I could have it my way for Plainfield government, here is what would be wrapped and waiting for me under the Christmas tree:

1. A sincere promise from city administrators to give straight answers to questions from the Council and the public.

2. A Council that is willing to take the necessary disciplinary actions against administrators who engage in dishonest and unethical behavior such as the deceitful responses to questions about the city's new baseball/softball program.

3. A pledge from the Clerks office to immediately convert the Council packets from paper to email and put all agendas and minutes on the city website for all to see.

4. A commitment from the Council President and Mayor to hold a January retreat that would result in shared goals for 2010.

5. A new PMUA Commission that would set the PMUA on a more business oriented path. The new commissioners would have to be more than mere replacements. They would have to be strong and firm in insisting on changes in the performance of the PMUA staff leadership. Well intentioned "nice guys" need not apply. There will be resistance and the Commission will have to be on its game.

6. A real economic development plan to create jobs for our residents that treats the Special Improvement District and Chamber of Commerce as real partners with the city.

I have more wishes but they are for another day.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Other Towns Are Doing About The "Budget Dilemma"

More information gathered at the League of Municipalities Convention:


- layoff plan - city administrator urged starting early so savings are not limited to a few months

- reduction in workforce - 102 positions including 20 vacant positions, 19 demotions, 49 permanent employee terminations and 14 seasonal terminations. This included 10 vacant police positions and 3 demotions.

- The savings from the reduction in force is reduced by increased unemployment benefit costs

- Non union employees absorbing increased co payments for drug benefits (from $10 to $20)

- 79 user fees increased

- Voluntary furloughs offered to save some employee positions but no-one came forward

- Superior police officers accepted 0% wage increase for 2010


- Council knew of $2.5 million shortfall early and worked closely with administration to introduce a budget

- layoff of 20 positions including 3 police positions

- Renegotiated FMBA contract (firefighters) to save $1.1 million and staff positions

- 12 furlough days per year (fire and police not included in this plan)

- raised user fees

- layoffs and furloughs resulted in staff morale problems


- county took over police dispatching, saving $600,000

- sharing IT Manager with Board of Education saving $50,000

- reduction in workforce from 166 to 137 over a two (or three?) year period

These towns are ahead of Plainfield in developing solutions to the fiscal crunch being felt all over New Jersey. At last nights Council meeting, the responsiblity for the budget shifted from the administration and Mayor over to the Council. There will still be a need for the Mayor and Council to cooperate in order to work with our unions to make the tax increase less devastating. We shall see.

Plainfield's budget - part three

Or what I learned at the NJ League of Municipalities Convention

The last post, part two, explained how the state has capped the annual increase in municipal expenditures (the annual cost of living cap on expenditures is usually 2.5 % with significant exceptions allowed for pension, health benefit, capital and other costs). I also covered how this affects Plainfield.

Now to the all important revenue side of the budget. Municipal revenues are heavily dependent on property taxes to pay for local services. Important miscellaneous revenues in Plainfield are state aid and local user fees, both of which are not increasing along with our personnel expenditures. In fact the economy is taking its toll on these revenues and they are going down.

So property taxes have to increase more than expenditures on a percentage basis to compensate for the poor revenue picture. In other words, a 2.5% increase in Plainfield's annual budget (and allowing for all the cap exceptions mentioned above) may require a 10% property tax increase! That is, in fact, the situation facing Plainfield right now.

That's what motivated me to take a trip to Atlantic City to the League of Municipalities Convention (at no cost to the city), to learn about strategies used around the state to cope with our fiscal dilemma.

In one workshop Robert Casey outlined five ways cities can cope:
1. increase miscellaneous revenues - Mr Casey said that there are limited opportunities here and in fact, Plainfield has already done some of the things suggested in this category.

2. reduce expense - he said cities have to operate as businesses and seriously reduce ongoing expenses and not just use one time fixes

3. transfer costs to another entity - Plainfield has used this approach - can anyone guess what it is - the answer is at the bottom of this post.

4. shared services agreements - to get economies of scale. An example shared was a town that split the cost of an IT Manager so each paid $50,000 towards the salary.

5. advocacy - lobbying the state legislature to take action on binding arbitration and unfunded mandates.

The take home lesson for me is that in the near term, while Plainfield needs to pursue each of the five general categories above, the most important way to control property taxes is to reduce local expenses.

In the next blog post, I will share details from three towns that are working hard to get a handle on the difficulties we all face. Here is a sneak preview - layoffs, furloughs and increased user fees.

- Answer from question about transfer of services - Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority
- Bonus question - who is Robert Casey? Winner gets mentioned on my blog. Awesome prize, right!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Plainfield's budget - part two

The state legislature recognizes that New Jersey property taxes are too high and will continue to escalate. There is a state law to address this, ineffective though it may be. This law states that local governments cannot exceed the previous years budget by more than 2.5 %. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately there are so many exceptions allowed that taxes can go up 10 or 15% anyway. In addition to the exceptions, a municipality may pass an ordinance each year to increase its expenditures an additional 1% (from 2.5% to 3.5%) and establish a "cap bank" permitting a town to increase its budget the following year if it doesn't need the full 3.5% expenditure increase in the current year.

Plainfield has passed such an ordinance every year I have been on Council. I started voting against this two years ago but have always been on the losing side of this vote. Passing this "cap waiver" ordinance this year would allow us to add $588,000 to our expense budget. This year I spoke out against this at each of the four meetings required for its passage - two agenda fixing two business meetings. This year my one "nay" vote sent the ordinance down in defeat. 5 votes are needed for passage and it went down with 4 yes votes to my one vote of opposition. Two Councilors were absent. It is critically important to understand the implications of the defeat of this ordinance :

  • It forced the Plainfield administration to go back and make more cuts to the budget that will be introduced at the Council meeting this coming Monday, November 16.
  • There will be no cap bank next year (fiscal year 2011) which will mean more drastic action will be required to address the inevitable increases in wages and benefits. Employee lay-offs will become more a more important budget balancing strategy.
  • Proposing lay-offs will bring all parties to the negotiating table for serious talks about employee contributions to health benefit premiums, furloughs and wage givebacks.
  • Without a credible threat of layoffs, the unions will not engage in substantive negotiations or renegotiations.

I do not like to see reduced compensation for city employees. But I do not like to see families lose their homes because property taxes are unaffordable. And the fact is that for many years government workers compensation increases have outpaced all other workers and are exceeding working families ability to pay. Unless we rebalance government worker compensation, we will see more and more city job positions eliminated. That would be most unfortunate.

I believe serious and painful action must be taken to bring property taxes under control. If we don't act at the municipal level, we are postponing the inevitable and it will be even more painful that what we face today.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Life Just Got Safer on Kensington Ave

Speed humps have been installed on Kensingtion Ave! This street has long been a speeders paradise in spite of the 25 mile speed limit. The only traffic calming device this street had up till now was potholes. With the much needed paving of Kensington winding down, speeding would have become an even bigger concern.

Speed humps are different than rumble strips or speed bumps. They are more effective because failure to slow down will damage the underside of your vehicle. They make walking and biking more safe and so must be a part of any successful traffic circulation plan.

Speed humps are not preferred by fire and police officials. They don't like to slow down when they are driving to a crime or fire scene. They have successfully prevented installation of speed humps in Plainfield until now. Elected officials must balance their concerns with the need for pedestrian safety in residential neighborhoods. And it is true that speed humps must be used judiciously - good examples are streets like Kensington or Belividere Other towns including Westfield and South Plainfield have made good use of speed humps.

I have been an advocate for speed humps for my five and a half years on the City Council. So this is especially gratifying to me. I want to thank those responsible for the decision to use speed humps on Kensington. Rashid Burney was a strong advocate and Mayor Robinson Briggs dealt with the barriers posed by public safety officials. My advocacy was stalled until they jumped on the band wagon.

It's important to celebrate progress in Plainfield. Going forward we will have to make major changes to our roads program to keep it moving and make it more affordable. I am happy to say that traffic calming is now part of the plan.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Plainfield's 2010 budget and property taxes - part one

I have a lot to share about the municipal budget, having served as an elected official through 5 city budgets and 6 school board budgets in the last 15 years. This is the first of three blogs concerning the Plainfield 2010 budget and will serve as an introduction to the process.

The budget process starts with with the Mayor and administration drafting and introducing a budget to the Council. At the time of introduction, this budget is sent to the NJ Department of Community Affairs. From that moment, the budget is in the hands of the Council. Its final form and adoption is the responsibility of the Council.

It is mid October and the City Council has yet to see a budget or even get an estimated property tax increase. The final adoption typically takes place in October, November or December. In a particularly difficult year, it might take until January. By the way, the budget year starts in July - the previous July, not the following one. To be fair to local government, the state rules make it impossible to strike a budget before the year begins and almost impossible with the first three months of the year! Still, it is worrisome that the Council hasn't seen or heard anything about the administrations budget.

Once we get the budget, the City Council will hold budget hearings to review each departments requests in depth. In my five years on Council, these hearings have led to the Council making various adjustments, mostly to cut expenditures. Examples include reductions in police and fire overtime pay and many cuts to to non-personnel budget lines that were underspent in the previous year. There were a few areas where Council increased expenditure such as staffing for road repair crews.

One aspect of the budget that often gets overlooked is the capital budget for expenditures having an expected life of at least 5 years. I did get a look at the 2010 proposed capital budget Thursday night at the Planning Board meeting (Planning Board reviews this first and sends its recommendations to the Council). The administration is proposing bare bones capital expenditures, probably a good idea in the current economic climate. Most expenditures are for grant funded projects, with the exception of engineering for next years road paving program which would be bond funded.

The second part of my budget blog will be more exciting - I promise. Something unusual happened at the last Council meeting that went under most people's radar. I will need a little more time to post on that.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The City Council and the Mayor

When Plainfield government does something good, the credit is shared by elected officials. Then things are not right, the blame must be shared. More importantly, the solution must be a shared decision.

Those of you who follow local government may see that something has changed with the Council. Concerns about the performance of city hall are increasingly expressed by Council members. Some of these concerns come out at public meetings and others must, by law, be addressed privately.

You will know how well the Council is working together and how well we are working with the Mayor by tracking some current issues between now and early 2010:
  • 2010 budget - how will we rise to the challenge of reducing expenses to stay within the state requirement of a maximum 2.5% increase in expense over 2009. This will require more cooperation between the Council and Mayor than ever.
  • If lay-offs and union contract give backs are part of our budget solution, will the Council speak with one voice. Will the Council and Mayor speak with one voice. When there are differences in strategy, will all parties put their cards on the table respectfully and make compromises to achieve real solutions?
  • Will the Council get straight answers by the next Council meeting to questions regarding the transfer of Dudley House to a private not for profit organization?
  • Will the Council and the Mayor ensure that the Muhlenburg Community Advisory Group has a fully operational complaint procedure so that citizens know where and how to make complaints and that they are resolved within specified time frames?

These are some of the current concerns/issues that our city government is charged to deal with. Get out your score cards to measure the performance of each Council member, the Council as a whole and the Mayor. We all need to be held accountable individually and even more importantly, as a team. It will take a team approach to navigate Plainfield through some very challenging problems and times.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Monday night Council agenda

I am posting to alert citizens to the fact that there are two new items on the Council's agenda for Monday's business meeting:

1. A resolution for the transit oriented vision study. The city will apply to use $80,000 from our Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) fund to pay Rutgers and NJIT to assist Plainfield in creating a vision for our downtown and along our rail corridor. I plan to vote yes for this resolution.
2. An ordinance creating an IT position including a salary range and job description. I will vote yes for this also.

These items should have been on the agenda for last Mondays meeting. I was expecting to see them at that time. It is unfortunate that we are not following our normal procedure for these important and necessary initiatives. I hope an explanation is provided for this. Nevertheless we need to move forward on both fronts.

Since I have been very involved with the vision proposal I can shed more light on that process than on the IT initiative. We have been working hard with Rutgers and NJIT to craft the vision proposal so it meets Plainfields needs. There has been input from the Council, the Mayor, City Administrator and the Planning Board members. This proposal has received attention from the Courier News (a favorable editorial this past spring) and I have reported on it at several Council and Planning Board meetings. In addition to meeting Plainfields needs the study needs to align with the academic calendars of both partner institutions. We have a timetable that all parties agreed to and it includes an approved Council resolution by 8/17. That sets the stage for an application to the state UEZ office and eventual approval so that all partners can get to work this fall and into 2010. So I am not happy that this was not up for discussion last week and I promise to have a full discussion this coming Monday. But we need to approve this resolution now.

I should also note that there is a lot of speculation that the Monarch tax abatement will be put back on the agenda Monday. I have not heard this and I do not believe that a group of Council members would orchestrate such a move without disclosure to the rest of the Council. Call me naive but we will know for sure on Monday. This has become a hot button issue because people are upset about their taxes and PMUA fees. When this does come back to the Council and if we do vote on it, many will say a yes vote puts you in the developers and Jerry Greens pocket. All I can say is that neither Jerry Green or the developer has lobbied me for this tax abatement. I am not categorically against tax abatements and am still gathering and weighing the facts in this particular proposal. If I do vote against it, I will still be open to the possibility of tax abatements in the future if I think they will help Plainfield.

Lets focus on the facts and not the personalities.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Passing of Rick Taylor

Rick Taylor was a unique figure in the history of Plainfield. As Lois and I became more involved in the 1990's in the political life of Plainfield, we saw Rick as larger than life, a media star who was not content to see Plainfield as a small, out of the way place. We came to know him first through the Courier-News, the Star-Ledger and even the network tv news.

In some ways he put Plainfield on the map with his amazing ability to use the news media to promote his interests. The details of local government he left to others but he worked his way onto a bigger stage with his connections to Jesse Jackson and other African American leaders. To his credit many residents and people who worked for him during his time as Mayor of Plainfield were helped to see Plainfield in a broader context.

Lois was involved in one of his mayoral campaigns (she was into local politics more than I was in those days) and I also knew Rick as a fellow not for profit executive director from his work at Grant Avenue Community Center. I always liked that after his government service ended he stayed connected to city government and attended Council meetings. I will miss his blunt manner and sometimes poetic way of speaking. I liked how he carried himself - like he knew he had to be reckoned with and you'd better know it too. I didn't agree with everything he did as an elected official but when you wanted some action or decision to happen in Plainfield, you wanted Rick Taylor on your side more than anyone else in town.

My condolences to Mayor Ricks family and close friends.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tax Abatements

Generally speaking Plainfield should not be categorically for or against tax abatements. Each situation should be carefully analyzed for benefits and disadvantages to Plainfield. The best tax abatement is a wise investment of taxpayer resources for current gain and increasing future benefits. The worst is an ill conceived special interest benefit that saps resources from our city. The two tax abatement proposals on the July City Council agenda are somewhere in the middle.

First the senior citizens apartment tower proposal on Park Avenue. I voted for this and it extends the current tax abatement by an additional 16 years and increases the owners annual tax payments. So property tax payers are seeing this apartment building pay a larger share of taxes but for a longer period of time. I did not like the idea of adding the 16 years, even with the increased tax payment. But I voted yes. I am not a fan of apartment towers. They have a higher potential for crime and drug dealing when located in low income neighborhoods. We are seeing some demolitions nation-wide and I think it is a good trend. The tower in question is for senior citizens and with proper maintenance such an apartment building has good prospects for staying a good neighbor. This tax abatement, I am told by our city administrators, will inject needed funding for building upgrades. So my yes vote is an ambivalent one but based on the future benefit of a well maintained, viable senior citizen apartment building.

The more controversial tax abatement is proposed for the Monarch on East Front Street. I voted yes on first reading to keep the door open. It is in Plainfields interests to do what we can to support this project. We have already contributed the land with the benefit of a new senior citizen center. No additional assistance was requested by the developer when this project was approved. Now we find ourselves in a down economy and the developer has come back wanting more from Plainfield property tax payers.

I have requested a cost-benefit analysis from the City Administrator. That will be a major influence in my vote on second reading. It has to be clearly demonstrated that the 5 year tax abatement cost to taxpayers will be more than offset by the increased taxes from more rapid condo unit sales. I also have to be convinced that this ordinance will truly prevent a significant trend towards renter occupied units.

While I await more information from the city's administration, I have proposed to my colleagues the following amendments to the ordinance, should it be approved:
1- require unit owners to prove they are occupying their units on an annual basis
2- make the tax break available only for owners who keep their units for the 5 year period the abatement would be in effect.
Thanks to Dan Damon for posting these ideas on his blog.

Last but not least, I asked questions at the last Council meeting about the property taxes on the land and improvements for the Monarch and when the taxes on the building units goes into effect. Those questions could not be answered so I requested the Tax Assessor be present at the next meeting. This ordinance requires clear factual answers to the Councils questions. Anything less needs to result in the defeat of this tax abatement.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The November Election

Maybe its the history of fighting political factions in Plainfield. Or maybe its bad feelings in the aftermath of a spirited mayoral contest. Whatever the reason, I have heard that some local politicians are concerned that I am not supporting the Democratic ticket in the November election.

I am a Democrat, always have been and always will be. I am disappointed in the local primary election outcome. But that is water under the bridge now that the primary election is over. I am supporting the whole Democratic ticket from Governor Jon Corzine on down. That includes Mayor Robinson-Briggs.

More than ever, Plainfield needs all levels of government to work together for the good of the city. One example is the need for City Council and the Mayors office to work as partners to engage the community in creating a vision for our Downtown train station area and the whole rail corridor. There is no other way forward for Plainfield.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Victory for Plainfield

Readers have probably seen Rashid Burney's blog on the sale of the Catherine Webster Home on Franklin Place. His kind words about the selling agent are deserved (Lois Mattson is that agent -she happens to be my wife). Considering the flack she took during the lengthy sales process (2 years!) Rashids' comments are appreciated by my family.

At the risk of sounding self interested, I feel compelled to say a few things in response to those who made unfair accusations about Lois and her role in the sale:

1. To Jerry Green who made tasteless and untrue insinuations about my "real estate family", if you were more in touch with your community, you would know that there is no-one more dedicated to her community than Lois. She has never asked for recognition for the volunteer work she has done over 30 years for the Plainfield Youth Soccer Club, the Plainfield YWCA, the Plainfield Symphony and the Cook School Parent-Teacher Organization, to name a few of her causes. Assemblyman -Lois and I are still waiting for an apology.

2. To the Crescent Ave neighbors who pressured the city and the Webster Home owner to address property code violations, you were right to express those concerns and it was to Lois' credit that she did not take those complaints directed at her personally. She was not the owner but as the owners realtor, she did everything she could to deal with those concerns. I think we can all agree that the new owners intention to make the Webster Home a single family home is a near miraculous outcome. They will be responsible for code compliance and I believe they have a serious commitment to improvement of their new property and the neighborhood as a whole.

3. Lois was bound, as a realtor, to keep certain real estate information confidential during this lengthy sales process. Some criticized her for not violating her business code of ethics because they did not understand. Others did understand but criticized anyway.

I look forward to meeting the new owners and wish them success as new neighbors. The Crescent Avenue neighborhood has had its ups and downs over the years. The soon to be renamed Catherine Webster Home is an encouraging example of how this neighborhood can be revitalized, much like the property around the corner on East 7th Street renovated by Faith, Bricks and Mortar. Our new neighbors have gone through an arduous process to buy their home and if they are as persistent as Lois in meeting their goal, the Crescent Avenue neighborhood will be moving in a positive direction.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Plainfield Primary Election - what does it mean?

The people have spoken. In this case I am referring to the people of the Democratic Party. Sharon Robinson - Briggs won. Congratulations to her and to Bridget Rivers, our incoming 4th Ward Council representative. Jerry Green also won and although he may face a bit more competition in November, he has to be the heavy favorite to win.

Here is how I see it. I will try not to spin this as heavily as some have done, but readers know my bias.

1. Assembly - Jerry Green received roughly twice as many votes as Rick Smiley. Jerry received 38% of the total votes and Rick had 18%. Rick ran a campaign with very little money and he concentrated almost entirely on one town in the election district - Plainfield. His Plainfield total was very close to Assemblyman Green's, a remarkable achievement in my opinion. I looked at the Senate and Assembly races state-wide. Of all the Democratic races, Rick Smiley had the highest percentage of votes of any challenger. This seat is up again in two years. The Assemblyman has some serious exposure.

2. Mayor - another close race. Along with Smiley, Adrian Mapp had much less money and a disadvantageous ballot position. For those of you who did not vote (shame on you), column B had the Governor, state legislative, state committee, Freeholder, Mayor and local committee candidates. Column F, all the way over to the right, had Smiley, Mapp and one or two local committee candidates. Visually a real advantage to the incumbents. The bottom line is that Mayor Sharon gets another 4 years. I hope she is thinking about doing more than counting to 4 votes on this years City Council, considering what the future will bring.

3. Plainfield Democratic City Committee - the New Democrats held 10 seats in the outgoing committee and will now have 28 seats. There are 68 seats and 35 are needed to elect the new chairman. It would appear that Jerry Green will continue as chair. This is the most powerful position in Plainfield politics although Jerry does not like me to say it. He is sensitive to the term "boss" when applied to him. When I say it, I do not mean to insult but merely to call it what it is. An interesting test of how much a boss Jerry is will be the approach he takes at the City Committee re-organization meeting this coming Monday. I have asked him to have the election of chairman done by secret ballot. Then if Jerry's 40 votes hold, he can claim that the committee members truly support him for reasons other than intimidation.

4. Bob Ferraro and Tom Turner for Mayor got virtually no votes. It is widely believed that Bob was running as a favor to Jerry Green. You may remember my comments from a previous blog.

5. I thought Carol Brokaw for Mayor would do much better than the results showed. Was it the PMUA concerns or that she hardly campaigned. Probably both, I think.

6. The Martin Cox mayoral campaign would be an interesting story if I knew for sure why he ran. Time may tell.

I am feeling more hopeful for Plainfield even though the people I supported did not win. I was part of a campaign that affirmed the goodness, talent and commitment in Plainfield that I have always appreciated. To my fellow campaign team members: there is no losing team I would rather be on than this team. Let's win next time.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rick Smiley for State Assemblyman

Rick Smiley is a good man who is an Assembly candidate in the Democratic primary for the right reasons. He really wants to put Plainfield first. I served on the school board with him and he was a positive influence at a time when the school board was divided. Ultimately, he helped unite it and was instrumental in bring Dr Larry Leverrit to Plainfield as the Superintendent who set the Plainfield schools on the right path.

The one argument against Rick and for the incumbent, Jerry Green, is Mr Green's experience and seniority in the state legislature. Until recently I believed this argument for Jerry Green's tenure myself. That is until the closing of Muhlenberg Hospital and the state take back of Abbott school funding. It's not that Mr Green is at fault for the closing of urban hospitals. And the new school funding formula, while increasing Plainfield's property taxes, does have it's merits when viewed from a state-wide perspective.

The problem is that Mr Green is reactive. He doesn't have a vision for Plainfield. So when larger, state-wide and national forces hit home, he isn't ready to help his local constituents. He jumps into action when it is too late, when the only thing to be achieved is protecting his own public image. One of his strategies for self preservation is attacking others, even when they have no jurisdiction over a problem.

Mr Green -stop complaining about Dan Damon's blog. Simply respond with some facts if you don't agree with his. Stop attacking family members of local officials, people like the wife of Christian Estevez. Chris is an asset to our community. And don't you realize that attacking his wife opens the door for people to attack your sons who to my knowledge are doing real work for local governments. Stop making insinuations about real estate families. What are you talking about! How dishonest it is to hint about improprieties with no facts whatsoever. Put your cards on the table.

As for your attacks on me, please continue. My constituents think more of me because of them.

This brings me back to Rick Smiley for Assembly. Even if he wasn't a good, honest man, even if he didn't have a Masters degree in Public Policy from Rutgers University, even if he didn't have years of government experience, he is the right choice because he will represent Plainfield first. Jerry Green represents his own survival first and in the most divisive way.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mapp is the Leader Plainfield Needs

In my last blog I explained why the PMUA issues offer leadership opportunities and only Adrian Mapp stepped up to the plate. Here are some other reasons I support Adrian:

1. He was one of the council members who initiated the road paving program five years ago. Mayor Sharon dropped the ball on it and we are only just getting to the roads, after a 3 and a half year delay.

2. Municipal finance is one of the weakest aspects of city hall performance. Mayor Sharon has had a revolving door of finance management staff, leading to budget mistakes, misinformation and missed opportunities. Adrian has a strong finance background, including municipal finance.

3. Adrian would bring honesty and transparency to city hall. Mayor Sharon and her coach, Assemblyman Green, have been anything but transparent. Sharon was a no show at a debate organized by Shiloh Baptist Church. Her campaign literature has no credible facts supporting her accomplishments with the exception of completing the Monarch/Senior Center. That's not much to show for 3 and a half years.

4. Mayor Sharon has yet to disclose that as Mayor she is on the Board of Trustees of Muhlenberg Hospital and has not attended one meeting, not even when the hospital was operating.

5. Adrian has a positive approach to serving the public. Contrast that with the strategy of Sharon and Mr Green, who are waging a negative campaign through his blog. Jerry Green's Page is used for insinuation, misinformation and personal attacks. Sharon allows the Assemblyman to make her attacks for her. A leader would disavow and seperate him or herself from such vindictiveness.

This is a choice between business as usual and positive change. There are other mayoral candidates but it comes down to Adrian and Sharon. Plainfield needs Adrian Mapp.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Election Issues in Plainfield

A recent poll by Monmouth University/Gannett Polling Institute indicated that property taxes are the issue of the day. Monmouth U. pollster Patrick Murray states that most years there are more than one top issue for candidates to campaign on. But New Jersey 2009 apparently is the year of tax concerns: 36% of those asked said so. For a gubernatorial election year that is the highest percentage for "top concern" since 1972!

It would make sense that 2009 New Jersey legislative candidates would tune in to property taxes. And it seems that our very own Assemblyman Jerry Green is doing exactly that. He is on record as opposed to all kinds of spending, but it all seems to be municipal rather than county or state spending that has captured his attention. He is against spending for municipal information technology, visioning study and most recently has called for the state to investigate the spending habits of the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority.

I support all serious efforts by elected officials and citizens to question government spending. A healthy debate on government finances is needed to improve efficiency of services and eliminate waste. But it needs to be more than election season rhetoric. Lets consider how serious Assemblyman Green is about local spending.

The Assemblyman has called for the state to investigate local finances on numerous occasions. Over the years he has claimed to call for investigations by the Attorney General, the County Prosecutor and the Department of Community Affairs, always targeted on his political opponents. It always seems to be a request reported in the news media and during election season. There have never been any findings announced on these investigations and some people have questioned whether he has actually made any formal requests for these investigations. It is possible that his requests are merely election campaign tactics. Mr Green could clear that up for us by releasing his written communication with state and county agencies on these matters.

Mr Green's PMUA "investigation" is more interesting yet. Echoing the call of others for transparency on PMUA travel and conference expenses, Mr Green presumably is opposed to any wasteful PMUA expenses such as patronage jobs. So why did he call me several times to ask my support for the PMUA to hire Bob Ferraro? The quid pro quo, according to Mr Ferraro, was that he promised Mr Green not to run in anymore City Council elections. At least that is the message Mr Ferraro left on my telephone answering machine at the time of his hire as PMUA inspector. Now he is running for mayor so maybe he wasn't telling me the whole deal he said he made with Assemblyman Green.

Just because a candidate states opposition to property taxes or PMUA rate increases, it doesn't mean they can deliver an effective solution to the problem. Jerry Green's PMUA message is not consistent with his past behavior and his timing looks self serving. Sharon Robinson Briggs has been silent on these matters. Adrian Mapp made a proposal to address PMUA concerns and he did so before all the Courier News headlines about PMUA trips to California. I am supporting Adrian Mapp for Mayor and this is one example of his offering a serious solution to a Plainfield problem. In contrast, our Mayor and Mr Green don't look like leaders. Leaders are what Plainfield needs.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Transit oriented visioning study

Plainfield is considering a community visioning study for the land around our two train stations. This study would be a partnership between the city, Rutgers and NJIT. Some of New Jersey's leading development and transportation experts would work with graduate students, local residents and business owners to shape a blueprint for the future of Plainfield's land around the downtown and Netherwood train stations. Here are the arguments against doing this study and why they can't be allowed to derail the community visioning process:

  • We've studied the train station development options to death. In fact there has been much planning done around the downtown station. Thanks to the current and previous city administrations and the Planning Board, we have the North Avenue redevelopment areas, Phases One and Two. We also have a redevelopment agreement with a designated developer, Landmark. We have not, however, created an overall plan for the whole train station area. Doing this is extremely important if we want a well coordinated plan for this area, which is the centerpiece of all future Plainfield development. We will need to include the following into our overall vision:

1. the downtown station south area,

2. the area around Union County College (with the college as a partner)

3. the huge and mostly vacant parking lot between the Green Brook and Front St between Roosevelt and Watchung

4. Furthermore, the overall downtown plan needs to mesh with planning around the West End study area (aka the POWER study) and the Netherwood station.

  • We already have input from the community. After all, our hard working Planning Board meets in public and advertises its activities in the Courier-News. But if you have attended a Planning Board meeting in any town, you know that the usually small and devoted public struggles to follow the highly technical discussions and often has to wait several hours to ask questions or state concerns. Not exactly a community oriented process. It is safe to say that new Planning Board members (myself included) need about a years worth of meetings to get up to speed. So how difficult it is for the average citizen to influence the process? Very. And how many have the perseverance to stay with the process? Very few.
  • We can't afford it - the only valid concern in my opinion. Considering that we spend over $70 million each year on city government and property taxes continue to escalate, we should think hard about any new initiatives. They need to be either: 1) absolute necessities, 2) expenses that lead to cost savings or 3) investments in Plainfield's future that will bring significant value to residents. This study definitely fits the investment criterion and also the cost savings one when you think about an engaged, supportive community as opposed to a fearful, resistant one that creates roadblocks to Plainfield's future plans. Funding for this study can come from the UEZ fund, not from property taxes. We have spent UEZ funds on things with much less lasting value than the proposed study.

The new Manhatten tunnel is coming with a one seat ride from Plainfield. Development and economic growth opportunities will arise in advance of its expected completion date in 2017. Unlike the past, this time Plainfield must be ready. I say to my fellow Council members and to the Mayor: our leadership is needed to create a vision for Plainfield's future, a future that holds much promise as long as we are ready for it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Plainfield Political Power

Sorry for the delay in posting the answers to my quiz. Let me say up front - Old Doc got it right! 100%

1. Which position has the most power in Plainfield? The answer is "d" - none of the above. The real power in Plainfield is in the position of Plainfield Democratic City Committee chairperson. "No way" you say, it has to be the Mayor. Guess again. In the last 20 years, no Mayor has been elected to a full four year term more than once except Al McWilliams. That list includes Sharon Robinson Briggs, Mark Fury, Harold Mitchell, Rick Taylor and Everitt Lattimore. On the other hand, Jerry Green has been the Plainfield City Committee chairman for almost all of these Mayors combined years in office. The exception, once again, was the 2 year period that Al McWilliams served as City Committee chair. Whenever the Mayor builds a constituency and starts to flex some muscle, he (she?) gets taken out.

How can that happen, you ask? If you accept the reality that Democrats will get elected to every city council seat and to the mayoralty for many years to come, then the second question becomes all important.

2. Which election is most important in shaping local political power? The answer is "a", the primary election. Whoever wins the primary for the Dems wins the November general election. The only place with an outside chance of a Dem loss is for the 2nd Ward Council seat. The 2nd Ward has a high percentage of independent voters, not affiliated with a political party, but who may choose to vote in a primary election. That is my seat by the way. That's why I wore out my shoes going door to door when I ran for election and re-election. Another way to look at this is to understand that, with a few notable exceptions, you can coast to victory as the local Democratic Party candidate.

So the Plainfield Democratic candidate chosen to get the party line on the ballot will have a huge advantage over all challengers - in ballot position and campaign financing and, if elected, in the power of incumbency. A self perpetuating system, similar to the U.S Congress, with the added advantage in Plainfield of having an essentially one party system.

You might be wondering how the first two questions tie together. It's all about how local Democratic candidates are given the party line in the primary election. That brings us to

3. How many local elected positions are on your ballot for the June primary election? This applies to Democratic voters for 2009. The answer is "b" or "c", three or four positions. Everyone gets to vote for a Mayoral candidate. Everyone gets to vote for two city committee candidates. And in the 4th ward, you can vote for a council candidate.

So we are back to this mysterious entity called the Plainfield Democratic City Committee. It's this committee, 68 people from 34 voting districts, a male and female from each district, elected to a two year term every other June primary, that decides who gets the party line in the upcoming primary elections.

To make matters more interesting, this committee re-organizes the Monday after its election and chooses a chairperson by majority vote. The committee by-laws invest great power in the chairperson. The current and longstanding chair, Jerry Green, has used his power to shape city government. If you want to run for Mayor or Council on the party line, you have to go to Mr Green. The chairman can ask the whole committee to participate in selecting local talent for elected office. Or the chairman can change the selection process to meet his needs. I have been on both sides of this process, both willingly and not, in order to get my two cents in about Mayoral and Council candidates.

Our primary election is June 3. On the party line, you will see Governor Corzine, Assemblyman Green and Assemblywoman Stender, Mayor Robinson Briggs and two city committee members from your voting district. They will be in one column. In a contested local primary, you might see another column with other Democratic candidates competing with the local party line candidates. This is good. This is the purpose of a primary election - to give you some choice in who represents you from your political party. This June you might see some competition among Democrats. It is exactly that primary election competition that gave Obama the opportunity to beat Hilary Clinton as the Democrat for President. That's what will be happening in Plainfield come June. I'm for that.

And pay attention to the bottom of the ballot. That's where you will find the city committee candidates. Think hard on your choices here. It very well may determine who holds the political power in Plainfield.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Real Political Power in Plainfield: A Quiz

Question 1:

Which position has the most political power in Plainfield:
a) Mayor
b)City Council President
c) local Assemblyman
d) none of the above

Question 2:

Which election is more important in shaping the local government:
a) the June primary
b) the November general election

Question 3:

How many local elected positions will be on your ballot in the June primary? (Local means strictly Plainfield elected positions)

a) two
b) three
c) four

The answers will be in my next blog along with explanations and some Plainfield political history.
Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hard Times. Downtown. Plainfield. Opportunity.

The good and the bad in downtown Plainfield(see below for the ugly)

Recently I attended the New Jersey Future annual conference on development. This conference brings together hundreds of the best and brightest leaders for residential and commercial development and redevelopment. One session was about temporary infill opportunities. Not having a clue what that meant, I sat in.

The speaker reviewed extensive research on shoppers habits and downtown dead spaces. Essentially, shoppers gravitate towards activity and away from empty spaces. They shop more when there is more sight, sound and people. When leaving a store, a shopper will turn left if the shop in that direction is open and the one to the right is closed. Dead space discourages shoppers and makes them feel less safe.

In Highland Park, a vacant corner store on the main street was considered bad for the rest of the merchants. The city approached the building owner and asked if he would leave the lights on the nights shops are open late. They also asked him if the storefront windows could be used to advertise chamber of commerce and municipal programs and activities. Keep the store from being a dead space until it could get rented.

In New Brunswick, a vacant downtown lot became a temporary sculpture garden for high school art students. Vacant stores with huge "for rent" signs were replaced with smaller signs. Empty storefront display areas were hidden with attractive posters fully covering the glass storefronts.

Speaking of visual impacts, some towns have a program to subsidize shop owners who want to replace their ugly full metal security gates with see through gates. There is research indicating that the see through gates improve business owners bottom line in comparison to the "prison" style gates.

Another speaker described the business trends in downtown New Jersey. 2008 was a bad year for store vacancies. 2009 will be worse. How is all of this relevant to Plainfield:

  • the bad news is we are starting to see vacant stores again downtown. The trend will continue.
  • the vacancies create the temporary infill opportunities
  • we in government must be good partners to the business community to support them in these hard times
  • one way is to bring together the downtown business people, the public schools and city hall to capitalize on the temporary infill opportunities

I could be accused of putting a smiley face on a bad situation. After all "temporary infill opportunity" is another way of saying "unemployment, boarded up stores, hard times". But the most outstanding accomplishments come out of adversity, by finding opportunities in unlikely places, by facing the problem and chipping away at it.

I promise to use the City Council Economic Growth Committee to promote the approach described above, one that is being used by a few progressive and creative towns and one that is very well suited to Plainfield.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Economic Growth Committee minutes, March 2 2009

Present: Cory Storch, Rashid Burney, Marc Dashield (city administrator), Jacques Howard (city staff), Ken Robertson Planning Board), Jeff Dunn and Jim Uffer from Plainfield Chamber of Commerce, members of the public and Mark Spivey from Courier News

1. Discussion of NJIT/Rutgers community visioning process for transit hubs/rail corridor - the purpose of this visioning study is to get input, support and full engagement of local residents and business owners to create a guiding vision for future development at our two train stations and along the rail corridor. The resulting study would position Plainfield for future development opportunities and grants. While the economy is slumping, we can make preparations to "hit the ground running" with all stakeholders on board. It was noted by Councilman Burney that development means job creation as well as residential development.

Input was received from Marc Dashield and Ken Robertson to help tailor the proposal to Plainfields' needs. Members of the public were supportive of the proposal, feeling that it would be an opportunity to engage the community to educate, get their input, and to get buy-in and active support for Plainfields future development efforts. Cory Storch will follow-up with Marc Dashield and the proposal writers to address the concerns expressed at the meeting including the need for articulating specific deliverables/outcomes of the visioning process and to clarify the roles of the graduate student facilitators, the city administration, the council and the planning board. It was expressed by the council members present that this is an investment in Plainfield's future.

2. Discussion of the downtown summer concert series - the goal of this initiative is to stimulate business activity in the central business district. There was consensus around the table that consideration should be given to having some of the concerts in the early evening. One idea was to schedule one of the events on Thursday shopping night and recruit downtown restaurants to offer promotional deals for dinner. Having more than one venue was discussed with the possible locations being Park Madison Plaza and the North Ave block in front of the train station.

Cory Storch mentioned that the SID president was invited, could not attend but expressed a desire to have the SID participate in the concert series planning. Jim Uffer from the Chamber mentioned that their membership was from more than downtown businesses, that there are overlapping memberships with the SID and that the SID represented many more downtown merchants. Marc Dashield indicated that the administration was already considering the evening concert idea.

It was felt by all present that the concert series presents a great opportunity to unite city hall, the police department, public works and the merchants in a concert series that would provide new shoppers, many of them Plainfield residents, a positive experience in the downtown shopping district. There was discussion on how to engage hispanic business owners and shoppers in the concert series. Cory Storch agreed to reach out to the SID president and the SID Council representatives to share the ideas from this meeting.

Meeting adjourned at 7 pm.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

City Council Economic Growth Committee Meeting

The Council created the Economic Growth Committee to to facilitate communication and cooperation between the Council, the administration and the business community. The first meeting of 2009 will take place on Monday, March 2 from 5 pm to 7 pm at City Hall. The Council members on this committee are Bill Reid, Rashid Burney and myself (chairman). We will be discussing a proposal from Rutgers and NJIT to do a community visioning study for Plainfields' transit corridor and transit hubs.

Members of the public are welcome. I have invited representatives from the Special Improvement District and the Chamber of Commerce. We will also be discussing plans for the downtown summer concert series. The goal of these concerts is to entice more shoppers to come downtown and spend money in Plainfield stores. Stimulating the local economy is an important feature of a sustainable community.

So join us.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Social capital is alive and much needed in Plainfield

Last Thursday I attended a meeting of Friends of Sleepy Hollow (FOSH). When I arrived at the Plainfield Public Library for the meeting I was pleased to see that other community oriented activities were happening in full force. I stepped into the main meeting room downstairs only to find the literacy volunteers organizing an all out attack to promote basic reading skills of local residents. In another room a group of church members were strategizing on a search for a new minister. When I was directed next door, I was surprised to find, not FOSH but the League of Women Voters Board meeting. Finally I found the right meeting.

My evening at the library demonstrates what is good about Plainfield. Dedicated citizens working together to improve the community. In contrast to staying home watching television, we have social connectedness of the best kind, teams of people working for the common good.

According to Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone", the term social capital originated in the early 1900s when the state superintendent of West Virginia schools wrote that it meant " coming into contact with neighbors so there is an accumulation of social capital which may satisfy individual social needs and have potential to improve living conditions in the whole community".

What does it look like in Plainfield:
  • parents at a PTA meeting
  • citizens speaking at a City Council meeting
  • healthy attendance at Plainfield High School boys basketball games (by the way, we are ranked 4th in the state)
  • a full house at church services on Sunday

Social capital can be for destructive causes as well. Gangs and the Ku Klux Klan are examples. So social scientists distinguish between kinds of social capital with bridging and bonding being the most beneficial kinds. We certainly need more of both in Plainfield.

The need for bridging was illustrated Thursday at the four library meetings. There was a good mix of male and female, young and less young, black and white. Not many Hispanic residents in attendance though.

The presence of gangs is a clear indicator for lack of positive social capital. In its absence young people create their own. The solution can't be just increased law enforcement. It needs to be more adult role models, mentors, a stronger role for educators in children's lives and job opportunities.

Today I attended a meeting of the Hillside Avenue Neighborhood Watch. At the meeting, Herb Green, a passionate advocate for Plainfield children, urged residents to get involved with the local school, Evergreen School. Bob Chanda urged the Public Safety Director to create volunteer opportunities for citizens at the new video surveillance center when it is up and running. These volunteer actions are not just cost saving measures. They will increase buy in for good causes and the interconnectedness of all Plainfield stakeholders.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Honoring Al McWilliams

I read the following statement into the record at the February 2 City Council meeting:

"It is very fitting that the City Council is approving a resolution honoring Al McWilliams. Al exemplified what is good in the city of Plainfield. The Al McWilliams Memorial Plaza will serve as a reminder of all he accomplished in Plainfield. We see his accomplishments everyday: the Park Madison complex, the elimination of the blight at the Teppers site, the downtown streetscape, putting abandoned and dilapidated residential properties back into service. Some of his projects continue: the Senior Center and the restoration of City Hall to name a few.

Mayor Al with wife Darlene

In a way he is a local predecessor to President Obama in that he stood for change when Plainfield desperately needed a new and progressive direction. When he was first elected, most Plainfielders felt that local government was not working for them. He brought us hope and a new attitude about public service being for the people.

He will be remembered as Mayor but let's not forget that he also served as Councilman and as Chairman of the Plainfield City Committee and part of his legacy is sitting here tonight – four City Council members that he ran and now a daughter following in his footsteps.

On a personal note, Al was the reason I ran for office. I had been considering a run for City Council but I wanted to spend more time with my children. But when Al became Mayor I could see we finally had a leader with a vision for Plainfield. Plainfields time for progress had come and although it was too early according to my plans, I decided to jump into politics to support Al's vision. I look forward to the day that we dedicate the Al McWilliams Plaza. He truly deserves the recognition".

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hard Times Trigger Responsible Proposals from Elected Officals Around the Country

The following Associated Press story by Julie Carr Smith is very timely as the Plainfield City Council prepares the final budget for the current fiscal year:

Governors across the nation are seeking significant concessions from public employee unions in hopes of helping to balance their
teetering budgets during the economic downturn.
From Maryland to California, Ohio to Hawaii, governors have asked or ordered state workers to accept furloughs, salary reductions, truncated workweeks or
benefit cuts. They say the concessions are a better alternative to further job losses in the face of record-breaking unemployment.
Unions argue their members shouldn't be singled out and are even more vital in hard times -- securing neighborhoods and prisons, educating children and
providing social services to growing numbers of citizens.
In hard-hit Ohio, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland has been a friend of the unions. But as the state's budget woes have intensified, he is asking unionized state
employees to consider a 5 percent pay cut, a 35-hour workweek and the elimination of paid personal days and holidays, to save the state hundreds of millions
of dollars.
According to a union memo obtained by The Associated Press, the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association is waiting to see Strickland's upcoming budget
and the state's share of a federal stimulus package before making a decision. Executive director Andy Douglas declined comment because the union is in
The memo noted there's no guarantee that accepting concessions will preclude later job cuts.
Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland, another state facing an unexpectedly deep budget shortfall, imposed furloughs and salary cuts on thousands of
state workers in December, a move expected to save an estimated $34 million.
In November, New Jersey trimmed two paid holidays from state workers' annual allotment: Lincoln's Birthday and the Friday after Thanksgiving. Eliminating
the former required legislative action, while Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine cut the latter on his own.
Utah eliminated one paid holiday a year and is experimenting with a four-day state workweek.
Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, has raised the possibility she will pursue furloughs for the islands' 36,000 state employees and ask them to pay a
larger share of their health insurance coverage and forego raises.
On Thursday, Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell -- facing down a widening budget gap -- said layoffs and unpaid furloughs are likely in that state as
well. He braced state workers for sharing in the "universal pain."
In California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger imposed furloughs two days a month beginning in February as a way to curb costs for the 230,000-
member state payroll amid a budget deficit projected to grow to $28 billion by 2010.
He has had less success shaving two paid holidays off the current 14 state workers receive, an allotment that is among the most generous in the country.
Spokesman Aaron McLear said the governor is "looking under every rock" to cut costs and believes it's only a matter of fairness for state workers to do their
part. "The governor doesn't believe it's fair to increase taxes and cut programs on Californians without reducing state government spending first," he said.
Kerry Korpi, director of research and collective bargaining at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said members
understand that governments are in economic crisis.
"The entire country is in a dire situation," she said. "Our members, though, haven't quite been lifted back up from the last fiscal crisis in 2002 and 2003, so
we've been asking governors to sit down with us and let's look at all the spending, instead of going straight to the people who provide these vital services."