Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Comment on comments on my blog

My practice has been to post all comments unless they are personal attacks on anyone or if they are off topic. Lately I have been receiving numerous off topic comments that clearly have a political agenda. Dear readers, I welcome your comments but I will not post it if I am writing about the city budget and the comment is about how certain Board of Education members who supposedly oppose Jerry Green are harming our school district.

As an ex-Board of Ed member, I know how hard that job is and how important it is for the whole community to lend their support to the Plainfield schools. Lets do everything we can to depoliticize our school district and focus on the academic performance of Plainfield youth.

Regarding personal attacks, they are not welcome. I have excluded numerous personal attacks or non specific blog comments on Ms Robinson Briggs and Mr Green. Read my blog carefully and you will see that I am critical, not of Mayor Sharon or Assemblyman Green as people, but of their performance as leaders of Plainfield. I try to make specific criticisms and offer alternatives. And I give credit when it is due.

To my recent and frequent off topic commenter, either get in the spirit of my blog or try another blog, perhaps the Assemblyman's, for publication of your comments.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tough Times Ahead for Property Tax Payers....and Renters

And workers and business owners. People are losing their jobs, pension funds are shrinking, shopping is down and development has slowed almost to a halt. The impact in Plainfield is showing with an increase in home mortgage foreclosures. Increasing unemployment will surely hurt Plainfielders and we in city government will have to reckon with dipping property values.

Watching the actions of elected officials prior to my election to city council, I've been most interested in decisions made under difficult circumstances. Why did Governor Jim Florio raise income taxes knowing the price he would pay politically? Why did Governor Whitman raid the pension funds, knowing that New Jersey citizens would eventually see a day of reckoning? In Plainfield, why did the City Council squander in one year a huge payment from other towns for the sale of the sewer system?

The simple answer is that when elected officials are between a rock and a hard place, they often blink. The rock is usually angry tax payers who vote and the hard place is often workers protecting their hard won wages and benefits.

Where does that leave us in Plainfield? We are facing a 9.5% tax increase on the municipal budget and the school tax increase will continue to rise after decades of remaining flat. County taxes, the third component of our tax bill, have also increased most every year.

I will only speak to the municipal portion of the tax bill because it is the major part of the total. Also, the school tax increase, which started in 2008, is mandated as a decision made in Trenton regarding Abbott school districts. The City Council is deliberating on proposed cuts that could reduce the tax increase to around 7%. Beyond that, proposals for further budget reductions have been strenuously opposed by City Administrator Marc Dashield. These further cuts, he rightfully says, would have to be the elimination of jobs and consequently, services to residents.

The other side of the coin is property owners and renters, some of whom will get squeezed out of their homes by taxes and rents that exceed their incomes and ability to pay. So to blink or not to blink. Here is my version of the two options:

  • If the state legislature approves the pension payment deferral plan and the City Council actually defers a payment - that's a blink. Putting expenses off for future Mayors, Councils and taxpayers has a long history in our state but it is unfair and bad policy.

  • If the Council requires that non essential city workers go to a reduced work week for the last few months of this fiscal year (ending June 30, 2009), we will save money - it would be very unpopular among many city workers but that's not a blink.

  • If Plainfield elected officials continue to say "there are no sacred cows in our budget" but refuse to consider cuts in our police and fire division budgets - that's a blink.
  • If we eliminate out of state travel for staff and elected officials and food for staff and public meetings - that's not a blink.
  • If we freeze salaries of non union employees earning $80,000 or more - that's not a blink.

A good principle for budget action is that everyone shares the pain.

All budget decisions will be made knowing that the all important primary election is coming in June. This is an opportunity for Plainfield stakeholders to make your feelings known. The local budget process has not generally had as much input from the people who pay the property taxes as from the employees of government. This years budget advisory committee has stimulated some advocacy from residents. Lets see what the new year brings.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Going Green

No, I am not referring to an elected official. Green is the new buzz word in New Jersey government, referring to anything about sustainable, healthy communities. It means a lot for the future of Plainfield. That is why, come January, I will be working with my City Council colleagues to move Plainfield in the "green" direction.
There are many aspects to sustainability:
  • preserving open and public spaces
  • growing the local economy and keeping local money in the community
  • local jobs for our residents
  • energy saving buildings and vehicles
  • recycling
  • transit oriented development
  • walkable downtowns
  • teaching our young people to live sustainably

One of the first steps is to do energy audits of Plainfield's public buildings. This is a really good deal for Plainfield as the audit will lead to saving money every year. Money wasted on heat and air-conditioning leaking through windows, doors and poorly insulated walls can be re-invested in services that residents need, or tax relief. We will ask the Public Schools, the Housing Authority and the PMUA to join the city on this initiative. Along this line, we need a better plan for selecting city vehicles, ones that are fuel efficient.

We have already taken some steps in the right direction with energy savings. Look for Plainfield and other communities to pick up the pace in 2009. We can't afford not to.

Solar panels could be in Plainfield's future. Last Monday I attended a meeting to organize Union County towns for a group purchasing arrangement. Solar technology has improved to the point where the up front cost of the panels is recovered in about 7 years in the Northeastern USA. Under a creative new financing arrangement, a "purchase power agreement" would eliminate all costs for purchase, installation and maintenance of the panels. Plainfield would still save money on the monthly energy bills but we would share some of the savings with the solar panel installer, who would own and maintain the panels. Plus, having a group of towns and school districts do this together would help us negotiate a better deal. I spoke with School Superintendent Dr Gallon and he is interested in exploring this with the city.

Going green is not just about acting locally to help the planet. Its about making Plainfield a better place to live, work and visit. Creating local jobs for our people reduces traffic congestion and greenhouse gases but more local jobs also strengthen our tax base and stimulate local businesses. Each aspect of sustainability is connected in a synergistic way.

Imagine this: we hire an energy audit firm for our municipal and school buildings. The contract states that Plainfield High School students will taught to participate in energy audits. They also learn about the growing green economy and green jobs. Then they go home and help their families save money on the PSE&G bill.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hot Topics for New Jersey Municipalities

I attended the NJ League of Municipalities Convention this week. Two areas of interest stood out from the rest for the thousands of local officials.

The first was not surprising. When I showed up for the "Multi Year and Long Range Financial Planning" session (in the unpopular 9:00 am time slot!), I could not get in. Correction - I could not get near the door. Several hundred people were crowding in to hear about the scary prospects for city budgets and taxes and how to project expenses and revenues to anticipate problems. Walking towards the next hot topic workshop, it occurred to me that this is a job for the 2009 City Council Finance Committee.

Up next, the session on "The Green Future Roadmap - How to Go Green in NJ". Actually there were many workshops on sustainability and going green throughout the three day convention. I attended most of them and was happy to see my council colleagues Burney and Simmons in attendance as well. As Trenton Mayor Palmer said, this is not a fad. And its not just about polar bears and climate change. Its about changing the climate in our neighborhoods and making our communities sustainable. What does that really mean?
  • keeping residents money in the local economy
  • creating local jobs for our residents
  • city government and the Board of Education leading the way to energy efficient buildings and vehicles
  • educating our young people to live sustainably and prepare to join the green economy that President-elect Obama is talking about
  • using transit oriented development to maximize pedestrian friendly living, shopping and working

I also learned about Citi-Stat, a data driven city management system that measures the effectiveness and efficiency of city services and helps government become more accountable to the people. Neighboring Union Township is using this tool. We need this kind of change in Plainfield and 2009 is right around the corner.

A session on affordable housing detailed the convoluted and not very effective process of meeting New Jersey's demand for housing for working and lower income families. An important regulation for Plainfield is "Growth Share". Even if we think we have our fair share of affordable housing, we will create new obligations when we build new housing units - 1 new affordable unit for every 4 new units - and another affordable unit for every 8 new jobs created. Clearly, we will have to move away from our developer driven approach. What is needed is a city wide comprehensive plan that integrates the housing, job creation and business development elements. And residents and business owners will have to be welcomed into the planning process.

I will also share some information on property tax exemptions, immigration and language access, road paving (by far the most exciting topic) and energy audits. That will have to wait for my next blog.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Obama Administration and its Influence on Plainfield

"The Obama Administration" - words that still have me smiling 5 days after this historic election. Enough time for some of the euphoria to wear off and get me thinking about impact on Plainfield. Here is what I see in my crystal ball:

1. Young people of color will become more interested in public service, government and politics. Look for more Annie McWilliamses at the local, state and national levels.

2. Much credit is due to some local elected officials for helping turn out huge numbers of voters for Obama. Rashid Burney was there from the beginning. Will this help his political career? One can hope so, for his sake and for the sake of our city.

3. Obama ran for change. What does that mean at the local level? Certainly not the municipal budget mess we are currently dealing with. Certainly not the inadequate website and overall communications between the city and Plainfield residents. Not the inability to move on a shared services agreement with the Board of Education. I hope Obama's recent words about the economic downturn - "swift action needed" - is heeded in Plainfield, 3 years into the Mayors 4 year term.

4. Obama ran on tax relief for poor and middle class citizens. In Plainfield, we are facing property tax increases that are double the cost of living. The people who struggle the most are retired homeowners and working people in the middle income brackets. Will the City Council face up to some hard budget decisions this year and for the foreseeable future? I believe President Obama will. Will we in Plainfield have the courage to think out of the box about police, fire, inspections and public works services? Two new Council members, Adrian Mapp and Ms McWilliams, will help.

5. I think the tone of political campaigns is changing. The McCain campaign tried some desperate negative messages, especially near the end of the race. The people didn't buy it and Obama remained focused on his positive message. In Plainfield, it's the same. Dirty tricks, whisper campaigns and last minute smears will backfire on those who are foolish enough to try.

Plainfield was a leader in providing a huge plurality for Obama, for change. Can we now show leadership for change within local government? I urge you to listen carefully to elected officials. Important elections are coming in June 2009 that will decide Plainfield's leadership for years to come. Lets support the elected officials and candidates who are for the kinds of changes that Obama embodies:
  • environment friendly strategies that create jobs, save on energy bills and make our cities healthier places to live
  • using electronic media for meaningful communication with the people
  • grassroots campaign fundraising that shifts the balance away from big business and towards the average citizen who can give $10, $25 or $50 for the candidate he or she believes in
  • making public service a commitment to the greater good rather than a private club for pay to play contributors, family and friends

Plainfielders take note: November 4 is now glorious history. The all important June 2009 primary is before us. Everything said and done by local officials will be influenced by that event. We will select a Mayor and all 68 Democratic City Committee seats. This Committee selects a chairman who becomes the most powerful person in Plainfield, bar none. Lets hope the 2009 primary election results are as good for Plainfield as the November 4, 2008 result. Plainfield deserves it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Plainfield Budget 2009: Information Technology

Our city is far behind when it comes to the efficiencies created by information technology (IT). We have yet to enter the tail end of the 20th century, to put it kindly. The current administration acknowledges this and has spoken about the need for an IT plan and a major investment to bring us up to speed.

The problem has been hearing the words but seeing little action. There was cause for hope last year when the city announced a shared services agreement with the Plainfield Board of Education. This was a contract valued at $125,000 for a year of services including help desk and system maintenance. There was also an IT grant in our 2007 budget to help us move ahead. Then, just last week, the City Council heard that the agreement will not be renewed and that the Mayors team wants to go ahead without the help of our school district. We also heard that the grant hadn't come through. Unfortunately, the Council, including it's IT Committee, hadn't heard that news before. And the shared services agreement expired in June 2008. Left in the dark until the last meeting, I could only look on in amazement as the administration asked for a last minute budget change to let the city go it's own way for IT development. No plan was offered to get us on track.

At last weeks budget meeting, City Administrator Mark Dashield did not give a clear reason why the agreement was not renewed or why the grant was lost. I was left with the impression that the shared services agreement fell apart on the Board of Education's end. I decided to do my own research.

My sources at the Board of Ed tell me that there is interest in continuing the shared services agreement. Our Mayor even corresponded with the Board of Ed regarding a contract renewal. So what happened? We deserve answers, on the grant too. I hope they come at tonight's (Thursday) Council meeting. Unfortunately I am out of town and will have to catch up with this tomorrow.

We need a major investment in information technology for Plainfield. Speaking for myself, I will need to see a plan, not just for spending, but for a multi year roll out of hardware, software, staff development and technical assistance. I will also need to feel more confident in the ability of city government to spend our money effectively.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Plainfield Budget 2009: Dudley House

Dudley House is one of only two half way houses in Union County for people recovering from chemical dependency. The other one, Flynn House in Elizabeth, is privately funded and uses no government monies. They are both much needed.

Dudley House is disadvantaged in that it is run by a city. The kind of mission driven leadership, volunteers and private donations that are needed for an operation like Dudley House are most likely found within not for profit organizations. Dudley House, in the hands of Plainfield municipal government, has been able to tread water at best. This year Dudley House is experiencing city management at its worst. I feel strongly that Dudley House needs to either transition into a not for profit corporation or be taken over by an existing one.

Dudley House is facing a $150,000 operating deficit because it has lost two Union County grants that have sustained it for many years. Mayor Robinson Briggs and her team are proposing that Plainfield taxpayers take on this burden, even though not all of the half way house residents are from Plainfield. They propose this as bridge funding until we can get our county grants back. City Administrator Dashield recently assured the Council that "it looked very positive" to get the grants again. I decided to do my own research. My sources tell me that getting county grant funds back for 2008 will not happen. 2009 funds will only be available from the time of ADA compliance - so not anytime soon.

There are 15 organizations in Union County that receive alcohol-drug abuse services funding through the county. All were informed over 5 years ago that continued funding was contingent on obtaining a state license from the Division of Alcohol. Each was given until 2007 to comply. All the other grant recipients were able to get their licenses. Plainfield did not comply because Dudley House did not meet the handicapped access requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Plainfield asked for an extension but was refused because no steps had been taken in the direction of compliance.

This problem came to light at a Council meeting in early 2008 when the Mayors team said the future of Dudley House was uncertain. This led to a groundswell of community support from half way house graduates who explained it's positive impact on their lives. At that time the Mayor made a promise to address the problem at hand. That was the last the City Council heard until last weeks budget presentation when the administration asked for $150,000 on top of the traditional city contribution of $28,000.

What is the future of Dudley House? How can we bring it from it's current budget crisis back to financial health. In the long term, the city must act quickly to engineer a take-over. I know some qualified organizations that are capable of running Dudley House. Failing that, a new not for profit can be formed. There are many people in the community who feel passionately about it.

Meanwhile, Dudley House needs to be sustained in the short run. Perhaps our state legislators can come up with emergency funds. Think of all the charity care dollars that are no longer available to Plainfield residents due to the closing of Muhlenberg Hospital. This is a cause worth fighting for but should Plainfield taxpayers shoulder the whole burden?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Plainfield's Money: Who's In Charge

Saturday's Courier News lead story was about the $1.66 million dollar mistake in the Plainfield 2009 proposed budget. This mistake is disturbing for two reasons. One is the potential tax increase, an additional 3% added on to the already high 9.5% proposed increase. The second problem is that our city administration's official position is that this is the fault of the audit firm that does Plainfield's municipal annual audit. Just when we all want to take responsibility for a serious problem, we get finger pointing. Who was checking the numbers? The Mayor and her team obviously did not.

Is she saying that our audit firm created the budget that the administration introduced to the City Council. Whatever she was thinking, this incorrect budget has been submitted to the Council. It is now our mess to deal with.

To make matters worse, our City Administrator stated that we will use surplus to address this mistake. That may well be but only the Council can decide that, not the Mayor or her staff. And the Council has not even been consulted, let alone requested by the Mayor, to use surplus to fix this huge budget hole.

When there are performance problems in city government, the first reaction should be to be constructive and not just critical. Some will want to close ranks around the underperforming city officials and do patch work. That may be fine for minor potholes but not when the road is in need of total reconstruction. That is where we are right now with the city's fiscal operations and budget.

This $1.66 million mistake is, unfortunately, indicative of the Mayor's budgeting process and more. I will provide details in my blog later this week to explain some of our problems and possible solutions.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dear Anonymous

Thanks to Maria Pellum for her response to my blog on the Mayors security detail. Not only for her thoughts but for her name. Most responses have been signed "anonymous". Actually I have received some really good comments from anonymous. So I say to you mystery people: don't be afraid - give us your names. There is too much fear in Plainfield but it evaporates quickly when you stand up to it. Bullying is a shell game when you dig beneath the surface, if you know what I mean.

I am considering posting only signed comments in the future. What are your thoughts, reader?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mayors Security Detail

Thank you Mayor. Its never too late to do the right thing. Your opponents were salivating over this issue and now you beat them to the punch. I was astonished when you arrived at the Hillside Avenue Neighborhood Watch block party last weekend with one of your officers in tow. Now I am thinking more of you as a politician.

The Star Ledger reporter had it right when he wrote that local elected officials were reluctant to criticize the security detail, even though it has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. The only public challenges I am aware of are when Annie McWilliams brought it up during a debate at the library and when I asked for a risk assessment at a council meeting. What we got today was a political assessment from the Mayor in preparation for the contested June primary election.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Muhlenberg Hospital: How Politics and Help (and Hurt) - Part 1

Before dealing with the real and only important issue here, the future of Muhlenberg, I need to put to rest some local political silliness. Assemblyman Green, in his blog, uses Dottie Gutenkauf to attack me for "abstaining" from the Council vote to support the Mayors recent legal action regarding Muhlenberg Hospital. The Mayors action was to serve notice of appeal on NJ Health Commissioner Howard's decision on the closing of the hospital.

You should have called me Dottie. Or checked with any Councilperson. Then you would have known that I left the meeting (personal business) before it came up in public. Being absent is not "abstaining". I was present for part of the discussion in executive session. When the minutes and audio tape are made available, you will be able to note my saying to the Mayor that her action has given the Council more time to adequately address the Commissioners decision. You will also be able to hear that I was unhappy that the Mayor filed her notice of appeal without telling the Council, not even telling the Council's committee on Muhlenberg Hospital. We first heard this the day of that Council meeting.

So much for strength in unity. Lucky for the Mayor that the Council got past this oversight and supported the legal action. I was not ready to do so on such short notice. I needed time to understand if this was a serious step or just a political gesture. Given a few days, I decided that I would join the rest of the Council in supporting the Mayors appeal.

Notice of appeal is a step but it does not solve the long term challenge of providing medical services for Plainfielders. That is a tricky subject. When Assemblyman Green first mentioned "Plan B" to anticipate the hospital closing by bolstering services, he was attacked for giving up on Muhlenberg. Actually he was doing the right thing, but saying it in public was bad timing. Likewise, when I told Dottie Gutenkauf that, should Muhlenberg close, the financial health of neighboring hospitals such as JFK in Edison would be important to our residents health and safety.

I am very upset with the Solaris decision to close Muhlenberg. I am even more upset with our Governor, who disregarded the recommendations of his own NJ Commission on Rationalizing Health Care Resources. This blue ribbon panel recommended that essential hospitals that are financially stressed be given state support to remain open. I could ventilate about state legislators also who did not come to the rescue of our hospital (and who accept contributions from hospital systems). Maybe some other time.

Unfortunately, health care decisions in New Jersey are political, not rational. And we Dems are in charge. The heat is on, especially for those elected officials who are running in next years June primary (the Mayor, the Assemblyman, to name a few).

Citizens, you will have to carefully analyze our actions to see if we are just posturing, avoiding blame by pointing fingers at others, or if we are doing whatever we can to solve the problem of providing good health care in Plainfield. More on that in part 2.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pay to Play Feedback

After my blog about municipal audits and their relationship with pay to play in New Jersey, I received an interesting phone call. An influential state legislator who shall go nameless reached out to me, scolding me for "going after" Plainfield's audit firm.

It's as if he wanted to confirm my problem with the way Plainfield selects its auditor. Clearly his constituent for this phone call was the audit company and not the taxpaying citizens of Plainfield. That's the problem in a nutshell. The interests of the few come before the interests of the people.

For the record, I have absolutely no problem with the work of this audit firm. They have always answered my questions about the annual audit and budgets in a professional manner.

I do have a problem when a local political leader who does a good deal of fundraising calls to pressure a Councilman simply because that Councilman is advocating a position for limits on pay to play. I have an even bigger problem when that state legislator admits to me that he has received contributions from the very same audit firm I mentioned in my recent blog.

Let me be very clear: my problem is not with the audit firm. They are in the same boat as all New Jersey audit firms serving the public sector. My problem is with the few legislators who get the benefits of pay to play at the expense of the citizens of New Jersey.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Muhlenberg For Sale: clarification needed

Today's Courier News front page story is about Muhlenberg Hospital as discussed by City Council members and citizens at last nights Plainfield Council meeting. At the meeting I stated that the sale of the hospital is a private transaction but that the hospital and the Solaris system is so heavily funded/subsidized by taxpayer monies and supported by a property tax exemption that citizens have a financial interest in the sale. I asked the Council committee on Muhlenberg to take this into consideration as an issue to pursue. I stated that this could be an action item to bring to the regulators and legislators who have oversight on the hospital.

After the meeting I was asked by the Courier News reporter to explain my statement. He quoted me in the news story accurately. Unfortunately he mistakenly said I was calling for legal action by the council. I have called the Courier and asked for a follow-up correction to be made to clarify my position. News flash - after writing this blog the Courier reporter called to acknowldge the mistake and said the correction would be printed in Thursdays paper.

My position is that the Council committee on Muhlenberg seriously consider recommending back to Council the following: we request the Commissioner of Health to work with us and Solaris to make the hospital sale a more public process. This can be done in a number of ways. One would be to have an appraisal done to set a minimum bid for Muhlenberg and then do a competitive bidding process - all bids to be opened in public. There are others options such as legislative action by the New Jersey Legislature to make this sale process transparent. That will be up to the Council's Muhlenberg committee to consider.

Another point of clarification: when I say "minimum bid" I am referring to more than just the dollar amount. I mean medical services as well.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Pay to Play and audit firms

I read with interest a story in the Ledger about cosy deals between local governments and the firms that do their annual independent financial audits. It triggered some thoughts about Plainfield's audits:

1. Suplee Clooney have done Plainfields' municipal audits for many years. Are they a pay to play vendor? In order to be a successful government contractor in New Jersey, which they are, the answer is almost assuredly yes. Check the ELEC campaign contribution reports for Assemblyman Green, the state Democratic and Republican parties, etc. They should be there. Don't get me wrong. They seem to do a good job in Plainfield.

2. There are many good audit firms with municipal experience in New Jersey. I think Plainfield should go out to bid. Nothing against Suplee Clooney. Maybe when we've used a different firm for a number of years, we might want to go out to bid again and Suplee Cloney would win. And they are good enough that if pay to play was abolished, they'd do just fine. My guess is they would probably appreciate life without pay to play. But my concern is not just pay to play - see next.

3. Our city financial audit reflects on the entire municipal operation. It reflects on Mayor, Council and staff. But practically speaking the staff handle the fiscal transactions so the audit, to a large degree, is about the staff performance. And when the same audit firm is used for many years, a friendliness, even a cosiness develops between auditor and the staff. For that reason, fiscal oversight experts recommend changing audit firms every so often. I suggested this a few years ago. The response - why change when they do such good work. What do you think, reader?

4. Which brings me to my last thought. I said the audit is mostly on staff performance. It also reflects on the governing body's fiscal oversight performance. We, the City Council, vote to approve the annual audit and corrective action plans for any "findings" by the auditors. We could take it one step further. We councillors could initiate a bidding process for the audit contract and actually select the audit firm. It doesn't quite seem right that the staff recommend the firm that is mostly paid to audit them. This approach is not required by state law but it does pass the test of good fiscal oversight.

So pay to play and familiarity are obstacles to a truly independent audit. The first problem is more complex and ultimately needs a system wide solution. The second could be solved locally any given year.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pay to Play, continued

Sorry for the long delay. It's a hectic time of year.

Since my last blog, the City Council has taken up several agenda items related to "pay to play". First is approval of the list of administration recommended professional services vendors under the so-called "Fair and Open" option of the state pay to play law. I always refer to this as "so-called" because it is not what it says it is.

Professional services provided to government entities in New Jersey do not have to go out to bid. This is a gigantic lapse in government ethics that allows the exchange of campaign donations for lucrative legal, engineering, architectural and accounting/auditing contracts. Our state legislature has been under pressure to do something about it thanks to negative press and good government advocacy groups. The legislature came up with this "Fair and Open" process to mollify the public.

Under this option, Plainfield can advertise professional services opportunities in the most minimal way. If most vendors are unaware of the brief window in which we advertise, they are out of luck. And Plainfield doesn't even have to advertise in the Ledger or Courier-News. We use the city website, notorious for its inadequacy and infrequent usage. But we do seem to attract the interest of vendors who have already made donations to certain political campaign funds. Competition be damned. Adam Smith would be rolling over in his grave if he knew.

At Monday's Agenda Fixing meeting, I asked the Council to table this list of vendors so we could do more advertising. No takers.

The second Council item of business is a $1,000,000 engineering contract to Remington and Vernick. No typo, that is a million dollars. Not going out to bid. On Monday, I suggested a competitive bidding process. No takers. It would slow down road construction, it was said. That is a valid point. Another Councilman commented that we consider competitive bidding in the future. Here is why I am not happy with that response: I have brought this up before and heard this response. There hasn't been a real interest in follow-up from previous requests for action. So would that change going forward?

Why is it difficult for elected officials to confront pay to play directly. Two reasons. One is that high level officials and party leaders benefit from pay to play , leveraging large election war chests into real power. This is perfectly legal under current law. The party in power generally benefits more.

The other reason, more applicable in Plainfield, is that elected officials low on the totem pole like Plainfield City Council members, are under pressure from party leaders to keep the flow of pay to play contributions going. There could even be consequences for trying to close some of the loopholes in our current pay to play laws.

There is some good news. The Center for Civic Responsibility is holding education sessions for citizens who want to learn about citizen empowerment and good government. Google them to learn more about their campaign and the date of their next session in Plainfield. I think it is August 12 in the Public Library at 7 pm.

Next blog on pay to play: solutions.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pay to Play, Part 1 - the corruption tax

We all read the headlines with great anticipation when US Attorney Chris Christie indicts yet another public official for breaking the law. Yet the cost to the public for fraud and other illegal activities in actual dollars is very small compared to the total cost of government. A much more significant cost to the taxpayers comes from legal and "necessary" campaign contributions from the companies and individuals that do business with state, county and local government. This is true all over New Jersey.
Common Cause estimates the cost to New Jersey taxpayers to be close to $1 billion a year. One needs to go no further than Plainfield to illustrate the costs of pay to play.

But first, for the uninitiated, a little q & a:

1. Is pay to play "necessary"? - from the perspective of vendors, it is a necessary evil. Many government contracts do not require competitive bids and donations to the party in power can lead to lucrative business deals. A prominent New Jersey business cut back on pay to play donations a few years ago and lost significant business. They had to get back in this game to keep their business afloat (I did not have permission to use their name).

2. I thought that there are limits to campaign donations that level the playing field in the struggle for influence? - there are loopholes that allow companies to donate through each business partner, spouses and other family members. Donations can also be maximized by giving money to many campaign committees that are affiliated. Last but not least, there are a few campaign committees that have no limits for donations - these are the state Democratic and Republican Committees and the committees for the legislative leaders of each party.

3. What is wheeling? - that is how money, coming through the loopholes mentioned above can be funnelled from all over the state into select election campaigns. Big money was wheeled into Plainfield from south jersey Democrats to defeat Mayor Al McWilliams 3 years ago. I heard estimates of $100,000 to $200,000 but its hard to confirm facts given the convoluted paths this money follows.

4. What does this money get spent on in election campaigns? Mailings, robo-calls, lawn signs, television commercials, political polling, campaign consultants and much more.

Ok - so how does pay to play work in Plainfield?

In a mostly one party town, the primary, especially a contested primary, is where the action is. The Plainfield 2008 primary was a battle between the Regular Democrats, with pay to play money, and the challengers who got mostly local donations from residents. Why did the Regular Dems get all the pay to play money? Very simple. The Mayor and Plainfield Democratic City Committee chairman are Regular Democrats. The Mayor signs city contracts. If you want to get elected in Plainfield, it really helps to have support from the City Committee chair. That person decides your fate in the primary election: he or she decides who gets the party line on the ballot, a huge advantage in Plainfield.

The vendors know this and of course they want to back the winners. So when they have to choose between attending the Jerry Green fundraiser for the Regular Democratic candidates or the challengers event, its a no brainer. So if you were wondering why the incumbents could run numerous tv commercials and the challengers could not, wonder no more. In my 6 City Council campaigns, I've been on both sides of this situation. Feast or famine. But I was very careful not to take money from the party for anything more than lawn signs. Didn't want to owe too much to people whose agenda was not clear to me.

This kind of political fundraising is part of the American landscape. Why should we care? Because cost are high and guess who pays?

We taxpayers do in several ways. First, the vendors must build their donations into the cost of doing business with government. That road project includes the cost of engineering, a profession well known to make big pay to play donations regularly. Attorneys and auditors get no bid contracts so they have to play this game, like it or not.

The second way taxpayers/citizens are affected has to do reduced value for the services we pay for. If a business can get the contract through donations rather than offering the best price and value, there is less incentive for high performance to get and keep Plainfield's business.

To sum up, pay to play results in paying more and getting less. This is the corruption tax and it is perfectly legal.

In my next blog I will provide some details on local pay to play. If you like internet research, google NJ ELEC for a search engine that will locate the money and you can start to understand how it flows. Warning - you may get the feeling you are only scratching the surface by doing this.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Plainfield Democratic Party: Can we kiss and make up?

This is the question of the day. It will take leadership to bring us all together. We elected officials will have to take the credit or blame for how it turns out. I want to highlight one recent small step that points the way.

On election night, after the results were totaled and the McWilliams-Mapp celebration was in full swing, Don Davis, City Councilman, 3rd ward and candidate in the election, came over and personally congratulated the winners. I know Don and his family. They have deep roots in the community. There is a lot family pride here and it wasn't easy for him to come over and face the group that beat him in a heated campaign, especially after the painful hits he took near the end of the campaign.

It was a classy thing to do. We all need to follow his example. I wish Don the best in everything and lets not forget he continues to serve Plainfield until his term ends December 31. After that, I know he will stay involved as will the rest of his family.

We Democrats will have to take baby steps to rebuild our team. At McWilliams-Mapp headquarters, in the middle of the victory celebration, Don Davis said this to me: "Whats done is done. Lets move on. Its all about Plainfield"

Plainfield's Primary Election: What does it mean?

Congratulations to the Democratic Party winners who will be on the ballot for City Council in November: challengers Annie McWilliams for Council at large and Adrian Mapp for 3rd Ward. Lets not forget Bill Reid, who ran uncontested in the 1st ward. And there still is a Republican Party in town, to be represented by Deborah Dowe for the Council at large seat in November.

Some of my fellow Democrats are now cringing. I made the mistake of mentioning the opponents name, a no no in campaign tactics. I will make up for it by campaigning hard for Annie McWilliams who will be running against ......?????. Is that better?

It's hard to draw conclusions from election results in Plainfield because we are such a diverse town. And I don't just mean diversity along the black-white-hispanic-asian dimension. We are diverse socio-economically, culturally and politically.

By the way, can you name the Plainfield ward that is the most diverse along the racial, ethnic and family income dimensions? Hint - it is the same ward for all three dimensions. The answer will be in my next blog.

Here is my take on the election results:

1. A good door to door campaign trumped pay to play money this time around. I have yet to see the final spending reports but my guess is that the incumbents outspent the challengers by a 3 - 1 or 4 - 1 margin. Good news for good government!

2. Direct voter contact led our walkers to believe that people are impatient with local government. Mayor Robinson Briggs, who was campaigning actively for the incumbents, apparently did not deliver many votes. Significant pluralities for McWilliams and Mapp bear this out. They were not easy to find on the ballot but people were looking for their names. McWilliams' 1800 to 1000 vote victory over Gibson would have been much greater if we factored in ballot position.

3. Lack of action on roads was a concern over and over again. Taxes also. The incumbents campaigned on "the lowest tax increase in the county". The voters didn't care or didn't believe it.

4. The McWilliams name is still important. Not to take anything away from Annie. She ran a very good campaign as her own person.

5. The New Democrat label, thought by some to have suffered irreparable damage in the last few years, did not harm McWilliams and Mapp. On the other hand, it is not clear if it helped them either. The challengers did not use it much and the incumbents actually did use it, thinking it would work against McWilliams and Mapp.

6. Adrian Mapp's vote total might have been even higher if not for Olive Lynch's candidacy. She made a surprisingly strong showing.

One of the best comments I heard on election day was from a local resident who works for the state legislature in Trenton. He said the total Plainfield vote is more important than who wins local elections. Resource allocation decisions at the county, state and even national levels are influenced by the size of the voting public. How are we doing so far this year? Barack Obama certainly benefited from a very good Plainfield turnout in February. In the June primary, a slow year for local elections, Plainfields turnout was better than expected. McWilliams and Mapp get much of the credit for that. Our man in Trenton predicted a Plainfield vote total of 1600 based on his analysis of previous years voting totals. It was close to 3000. The challenge for all Plainfield Democrats is how to come together to maximize our potential influence.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Muhlenberg rally - May 16 - the good, the bad and the useful

I attended the Muhlenberg rally on Saturday. 100 people gathered in downtown Plainfield to march and hear speakers discuss the problems we face at our hospital.

I give much credit to the POP organization - Peoples Organization for Progress. They have skillfully organized and help sustain the grassroots movement to save Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center. It turned ugly for me when the rally was hijacked by Assemblyman Jerry Green for the purpose of promoting his slate of Plainfield Council candidates. I hope POP and any local organizers will not let themselves be used to advocate for an agenda other than fighting for the hospital,the people who need its medical care and the employees who work there.

City Council does not have direct jurisdiction on decisions concerning Muhlenbergs Certificate of Need or sale. What local elected officials can do is advocate for the hospital and for people in the greater Plainfield area who need its services so very much.

Such advocacy must be pro-active. Otherwise we will be in the same place as today: desperate measures, finger pointing and losing control to forces outside our community.

An example of pro-active advocacy would be for the Plainfield City Council to pass a resolution in support of State Senator Vitale's Universal Health care bill. This would be a step beyond just begging the state for more Charity Care money. This would provide health insurance for preventative and acute medical care. We would reduce the wasteful, inhumane and expensive use of the emergency room for non-emergency care. It would increase hospital revenues and make for a healthier hospital for our children and grandchildren.

I will be asking my council colleagues to co-sponsor this resolution. Senator Vitale's office has indicated willingness to work with Plainfield to push this bill forward. Some of my colleagues are saying "not now, the Democratic leadership is not ready". I repeat the famous saying "if not now, when?"

Yes it will cost money and Governor Corzine has said he is reluctant to support it at this time. But then again small towns organized to fight cuts to their state aid and they won. Is our cause less important? Why can't Plainfield fight this good fight? We are a mostly Democratic town. We are a town that gave a huge plurality in the last elections to the Governor and our three state legislators. We helped them. Whats in it for us?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Save Muhlenberg Hospital

Here are my comments, made before the NJ Health Planning Commission last Tuesday evening at Plainfield High School:

"I am a health care professional who has lived and worked in the Plainfield community for 30 years. I am also a Plainfield City Councilman. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to officials of the state Planning Commission.

We would be more prepared to solve the current problem if we were joined by state economic development officials and Congressional staff working on immigration reform.

When Muhlenberg Hospital was founded 131 years ago, it served a small number of patients and the cost could be covered by a few wealthy families.

In modern times, the number of beds rose to 400 and the cost of medical care increased significantly. Health insurance became necessary to spread the hospitals costs over a large population. But Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements never kept up with the true cost of care and the insurance system never provided coverage for all that needed it. Hence Charity Care.

Charity Care was never intended to solve the problems that plague New Jersey hospitals. Looking back, it is clear that we skipped the most important step in assuring that people have good health care: fixing the health insurance problem.

Charity Care is only a stop gap measure for Muhlenberg. The permanent solution requires the following acts on the part of our governments, local state and national:

1. pass State Senator Vitale's Universal Health Care bill (S 1557)- that would bring more revenues to our urban hospitals from uninsured and under insured Americans.

2. urge New Jersey's Congressional delegation and our Presidential candidates to fight for sensible immigration reform - helping illegal immigrants who are already here to become citizens means more people and employers paying taxes and insurance premiums.

These recommendation may sound relatively disconnected from the crisis we face tonight in Plainfield but without solutions on these fronts, we will be left with mostly suburban hospitals in New Jerseys.

3. Plainfield will need to seriously consider creating a medical enterprise zone. But we do need help from the state. How can New Jersey urge us to do Smart Growth, transit oriented development and at the same time close down the biggest economic engine in Plainfield.

4. The big solutions will take time. We need two years of Charity Care support from New Jersey for Muhlenberg. The state Commission on Rationalizing Health Care is on the right track. Some hospitals do need to close. But not essential ones. When will the state take responsibility by releasing the list of essential hospitals. Muhlenberg would surely be on that list.

I received a written statement from the Dept of Health saying there is not enough money to save Muhlenberg Hospital. But a truer statement is that there are other priorities. We need leadership from state government to create some winning options for local health care. You can see the local community is deeply committed to working with you {comment added: there were 1200 people at the hearing}.

I ask the state Department of Health to make a financial commitment to the health care of our urban communities. A good place to pick up the pace is right here in Plainfield."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Towards a City Council Agenda

Now is a good time for the Plainfield City Council to play a stronger role in local government. Long time followers of our local government will agree that when the Council exerts its authority, it is usually to say no to proposals from the Mayor. A major city initiative originating from the Council, like the 15 year road reconstruction plan, is the exception to the rule.

When there is strong leadership from the executive branch, the agenda of legislators is generally to follow and support that agenda. That is how I felt during the administration of our late Mayor, Al McWilliams. I also felt that I needed to give the current Mayor, Sharon Robinson-Briggs, a chance to lead when she began her administration.

Now we are two and a half years into the Robinson -Briggs reign and I see a need for a stronger role for the Council. Plainfield could be better served by its government. The current administration is working very hard on redevelopment plans. But what about our other challenges: high taxes, public safety problems, uneven code enforcement, poor internal and external communications and strained relationships between government and the local business community. These are problems that must be addressed with the help of local government.

The Council needs to demand more accountability from the Mayor and her administration. Oversight is one of our critical legislative functions.

Towards a Mayor - Council Partnership
The agenda in Plainfield is controlled by the Mayor and/or the executive branch. Our city charter gives the Council power to approve or vote down almost every action of the Mayor and some call this a strong council-weak mayor form of municipal government. That ignores the simple reality that the Mayor has staff and the council has none.

A Mayor-Council partnership is crucial to the future of Plainfield. It has been a difficult objective to achieve due to the shifting sands of Plainfield politics. Our best example, in my opinion, was the McWilliams - City Council relationship at the beginning of his second term. We saw good results: downtown street scape, Park Madison development, improved performance in Public Works, tax collections and Municipal Court.

Some would say that the supportive Council of the last two years has been helpful and I agree, up to a point. The Mayor has been given virtually everything she has asked for. Now the Council has to demand results. One way to go is for all elected officials to agree to a set of measurable objectives for public safety, code enforcement, economic development and financial performance. The Council and Mayor took a stab at this five years ago. We had a retreat and reached consensus on priorities but did not follow through on measuring our progress.

Towards a Council Agenda
In order for the city to succeed, the Council needs to demand more results from the Mayor and her administration. We are at a point where the act of setting measurable objectives is even more important than objectives themselves. I am confident that elected officials, with a healthy dose of community input, will get the priorities right. But we need the built in accountability going forward.

The Council needs to go further than that though. In order to improve confidence in local government, the Council needs to enact legislation to make local government more open, transparent and user friendly for residents, business owners and potential investors. We can't count on the administration, or any administration in power, to give up control. The legislative body, the City Council, needs to step up on this front.

It may sound a contradiction but the best way for the Plainfield City Council to help our Mayor succeed is to challenge the performance of her administration and demand more accountability. That will require a change in approach for some Council members or a change on election day.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

In God We Trust, but not Elected Officials

I was recently asked by a friend, "How will you deal with the last minute primary election filing of Annie McWilliams, candidate for Plainfield City Council?" It was not a question of whom I support (Annie McWilliams is the one!). It was how I, as an elected Democrat, would reconcile myself with the local Democratic Party which supports the incumbent at large Council representative.

This is not always an easy question for local Democratic council members to answer. There is heavy pressure to support the choice of Assemblyman Jerry Green, the chairman of the Plainfield Democratic Committee, who has ultimate authority for who gets to run on the party line in the primary election. There are also consequences for "not being a team player." For instance, my wishes to continue serving on the Council Finance Committee and as the Council's representative on the Planning Board were ignored in January by incoming Council President and "team player" Harold Gibson. Let's face it - that is how politics is played at all levels.

Supporting Ms McWilliams, my questioning friend thought, would not be good for my political career. It would weaken my influence in local government. Probably true in the short run. So why would I do it?

Two reasons:

1) It seems that when a political party maintains power for a long period, its leaders get overconfident from their success. They may forget that the purpose of a primary election is to strengthen the quality of candidates through competition. Does this sound familiar? I may support Frank Lautenberg, but isn't it a good thing that Rob Andrews gives the Democratic Party voters a choice? Same thing in Plainfield, especially Plainfield where we haven't always had much choice and as a consequence, not always quality candidates.

2) I am encouraged by Annie McWilliams' candidacy. As a life long Democrat who believes in the values and traditions of my party, I am worried that some of my party leaders are losing touch with the people. The people do not trust the people they elect. I see too much emphasis on protecting the power of the party over the needs of the party's constituents. For example: if the people came first, my party would have implemented real pay to play legislation by now. Young talented outsiders like Annie McWilliams are just what the Democratic Party needs.

I think we are a reflection of the national scene where Barack Obama has created hope for new solutions. Annie McWilliams is the local reflection of this phenomenon and we should be very glad to have her name on the ballot. Plainfield has many struggles at this point in time and progress will be slow in the short run. But Obama and McWilliams are why I am optimistic about the United States and Plainfield in the long run.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Progress in Plainfield ?

I recently commented that, in spite of some bumps in the road, Plainfield was making progress. To which a citizen wrote back:

"You state that Plainfield has made much progress. Would you please tell me what progress has been made? I've lived here for 20 years and do not see any. To the contrary, the town has continued to decline. ..something I didn't think was possible."

I stand by my statement. Here's why:
  • in the last 10 years, after decades of neglect, we began to rebuild our infrastructure. We installed storm drains and repaved North Avenue. We have a roads program underway. We have replaced police and fire division equipment. We have new equipment for road maintenance which will save Plainfield millions of dollars into the future.
  • we improved tax collections significantly from 87% to 95% within a 6 year period
  • we removed two of the three biggest obstacles to downtown development with the redevelopment of the Park-Madison and Teppers sites (perception of crime is the major obstacle left). Virtually all downtown stores are open for business, a far cry from 15 or 20 years ago.
  • Many of the abandoned buildings in town are now replaced or fixed up.

I could give more examples but these are the major developments.

But don't accuse me of wearing rose colored glasses. I see significant problems that we need to solve. Most of our roads need fixing. Downtown is still perceived by many as unsafe (even though crime stats reflect a much less negative picture). The tax collection rate should be more like 97%. We have eyesores and overcrowding problems in some residential areas and still no coherent plan to address this. Progress mentioned above is exactly that, positive steps towards outcomes we have yet to achieve.

Why is it so important to recognize progress and put it in a historical context? Because without understanding where we we started, how we got to the present state of affairs and where we are heading , we will never get where we want to be. You have a right to criticize the Park Madison or Teppers projects. I certainly didn't like some of the design features. But it is a big mistake to ignore what they mean to the future of downtown Plainfield. You have a right to be frustrated by the sorry state of certain roads. And our proposed solutions will not satisfy most residents in the near term. It will take many years to fix what took many years to deteriorate.

Criticism is important and we need more of it. There certainly is a reluctance in city hall to speak out on our problems. But criticism is only effective when backed up by facts, by understanding. Without the facts, criticism can be harmful. I got involved in local government because I got sick and tired of giving and hearing criticism that led nowhere.

Our progress has been slow and unsteady at times. But progress it is and it provides hope for Plainfield. That's what keeps me motivated.

I thank the person who posted the comment at the top of this blog. It would be a healthy debate to continue - are we moving forward or not. Successful businesses answer this question by tracking measurable objectives over time. I hope this debate is about that rather than blanket statements for or against the performance of government officials.

Cory Storch

PS - I recognize that the frustration of citizens is, in part, a lack of faith in their government at all levels. I will try to respond to this mistrust in the local levels of government in my next blog.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Police Chief vs Police Director

An ordinance is supposed to have lasting influence, not be a temporary, short term measure. I am asking myself what the impact of this proposed change to Police Director will have not only on this administration but succeeding ones as well. My vote will be based on what is best for Plainfield in the long run.

The advantage of Police Director is in the short run. The disconnect between public safety policy and implementation could be solved this way. The disadvantage is that political influence on the police force, already considerable, will likely increase.

This is a tough decision for me because both sides of the argument are strong. I will be voting against the change to Police Director because the political influence argument is a stronger one in my opinion.

Political influence can be positive or negative. At its best, "political" can mean finding common ground between opposing groups to find a solution that all can live with. Ray Blanco comes to mind when I think of political in this positive way. At its worst, it means finding jobs for friends and supporters even though there are more qualified people available for the job or the commission appointment. This is a real concern for me in Plainfield. We have had a culture of connections over qualifications for a long time. This definitely goes back decades. I think we started to move away from it and I do not want to see us take a step backwards. A Police Chief clearly provides a better shield than a Police Director from elected officials requesting promotions, disciplinary actions and hirings.

A City Council member is from the legislative branch of government. As such, a vote on this ordinance should be about the position and not the people involved. I do not believe my Council colleagues are out to get the Police Chief. If they vote differently from me, I believe they are seeing the issues in a different light. And I expect that, if Plainfield chooses the Police Director position, they will work with me to make sure that political influence in the police department is of the good kind and not the other.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

My take on the 2008 Plainfield City Budget

The budget is approved, finally, 8 months into the municipal budget year. Under state budgeting rules, towns cannot do the sensible thing: approve a budget before the year begins. Most towns declare budgeting victory if they can get it done 4 months after the fact. For urban municipalities that depend on the special tax relief called "extraordinary aid", the best we can do is 6 months late. So blame New Jersey for the first 6 months and Plainfield for the last 2 months delay.

By the way, waiting for that extraordinary aid was well worth it for Plainfield. We got $800,000. Credit Assemblyman Jerry Green for that.

Given the time we had to produce a budget, how did we do as a city? I give us a mixed review.

On the positive side the Mayor and her administration made some tough spending decisions to deliver a budget to the Council that had an 8.5% tax increase. It might not sound that good until you understand the mandated salary increases from union contracts and state health and pension costs that are way out of control. Also, the Council was not tempted to dip into surplus to lower taxes. In another blog, I will explain the downside of using surplus as a one time fix for property tax relief.

Area's for improvement:

1. Get the budget approved earlier in the year, certainly no later than early to mid December. This goal is for the administration and is directly related to hiring and retaining qualified financial leadership, a serious problem for this administration.

2. Increase revenues! Money coming in to offset our continual cost increases is a must. We have to get back to the increases in various revenue producing activities that we saw in the last administration.

3. We have cut a lot of fat out of local government in the last 10 years by looking at budget line items. Now we have to take aim at systems to make sure we are getting our money's worth as Plainfield residents. Some of the questions we need to ask are:
  • Do we need 3 fire stations given how Plainfield and surrounding towns share firefighting assignments. Can we do this without sacrificing response time.
  • Are we getting value from the deployment of property code inspectors to closely regulate each and every house that is sold. Instead, should we use them more strategically to address eyesores and serious safety problems.
  • Can we significantly reduce legal and workers compensation costs through a comprehensive risk management program.
  • When will information technology and public relations become more than a hole to pour money into. When will it result in a more efficient government that is more convenient for the people and more cost effective as well.

The 8.5% tax increase was reduced to 6.5% as a result of the extraordinary aid and some cost reductions made by Council. I voted against this budget but I am relieved that it passed. Tax bills need to be sent out. I will vote for a tax increase if residents are guaranteed that every effort was made to keep taxes as low as possible and that they will receive the best quality services.

We are not there yet although I have seen some improvements in recent years. Most important for me is that the potential for significant progress exists in Plainfield. The pace of progress is directly connected to citizen participation in government. Get (or stay!) involved.

Cory Storch , City Councilman, 2nd Ward

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Public Safety and the Police Chief

I was unable to attend the Council meeting that approved the submission of the layoff plan to eliminate the Police Chief position. No, I did not stay home to avoid voting against the resolution. But I do feel obligated to state my position and to add something useful to the discussion that has begun on this controversial topic.

As Plainfield enters into this debate, we need to be focused on the real objective and separate it from the political agendas and personal feelings that swirl around Chief Santiago. It is that Plainfielders need to be safe in their homes, neighborhoods and community. And they need to perceive that they are safe as well.

Before I give you my thinking on the layoff idea, a comment on crime statistics. The homicide rate is a critical measure of community health but is not an effective measure of police effectiveness. Police cannot prevent homicides directly. So beware politicians using it. We have, however, proved in Plainfield that the homicide rate can be used to elect a mayor.

Crime stats can be useful. The numbers comparing burglary, assault and other, more common crimes from year to year in Plainfield are very helpful for police strategy. The national, regional and local trends over time are also useful to see whether Plainfield is merely following the overall decrease in crimes or, as we fervently hope, beating the downward trend. My opinion as a citizen (I am not a public safety professional) is that we are not improving as much as we could and not doing enough to narrow the crime gap between Plainfield and surrounding towns like Scotch Plains, Westfield and Dunellen. This is where the Police Chief comes in.

We have all heard that some high crime cities have made major strides in crime reduction because of a progressive police chief exhibiting strong leadership and using creative policing strategies. I have come to believe that Plainfield needs to emulate these cities. I do not believe we have done so yet.

We have an excellent police force. Local elected officials, in my opinion, understand the importance of public safety and have the desire to do what is necessary for improvement. Chief Santiago is a truly honorable and dedicated Chief. Who could be more responsive to citizen complaints than our Chief? So why isn't Plainfield beating the national crime reduction trends. I believe there is a disconnect between the stated desires of elected officials and citizens on one hand and police policy implementation on the other.

The message I hear from our Police Chief is - we are doing a terrific job (I agree for the most part) and - we are doing everything we possibly can (I disagree). I am not quoting him but paraphrasing what I have heard him say about the departments performance over the last four years. He deserves our respect and gratitude for what he has accomplished in Plainfield under the current policing approach. The real question is how do we improve public safety going forward. I want to see a Police leader who is bringing us new public safety initiatives and lessons learned from other cities. I am not seeing that. Council members have continually asked for more quality of life enforcement and I do not see a satisfying response. I do not see a coordinated effort to implement police policy between the Chief and the city administration (current and previous).

If I was in attendance at the last Council meeting I would have voted in favor of submitting the layoff plan to the state. I believe the citizens want the mayor and council to do a better job with public safety, more than satisfaction with the current approach, more than proclaiming a drop in the homicide rate. The administration deserves the opportunity to try some new approaches in our police department.

Further City Council action will be needed to switch from a police chief to a police director, assuming the state approves the layoff plan. I have not yet taken a position on future steps. I have questions about state law and regulations that I need to answer. For now, I think we are pointing in the right direction. We need to make changes. We must be very careful to do this effectively. I do not want to see a good police force become less effective. We could do a whole lot worse than where we are right now. But we need to do better. I hope our discussions are based on an honest assessment of where we are today in the public safety domain, what we want and the best way to get there.

Cory Storch
City Councilman, 2nd Ward

PS - I missed the last Council meeting because I have been accepted as a fellow in Leadership New Jersey. Thursday night was part of a mandatory training session to set the stage for a 12 month program. Leadership NJ brings together leaders from all walks of New Jersey life to identify and and work on the states' problems. Plainfield has been represented in the program in past years by Kaili Baucum, Andrea West, Reverend Gerald Thomas and Jim McGreevey among others.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Redevelopment in 2008

Development activities in Plainfield and around New Jersey in general have slowed down. My colleague Rashid Burney explains why in his recent newsletter. Along with the obvious disadvantage (we do need redevelopment!) there is an advantage to our being in the down part of this economic cycle. We have more time to plan and to get it right. We can make the shift from reactive to proactive. In a reactive approach, you wait for developers to tell you where, when and what they want to do. Being proactive means the partnership with developers becomes more balanced toward big picture thinking with an emphasis on local preferences. Here is what we should be doing in 2008:

1. The Planning Board must continue its work to revise the Zoning Ordinance so that we increase density around the downtown train station and the central business district while protecting the lower densities in our residential neighborhoods.

2. The Council and Administration should do an economic development plan for the whole 4 mile railroad corridor.

3. Once we have consensus on what we want in the way of commercial development and business retention, we should develop and implement a marketing plan to attract new businesses.

4. The city should continue to study sustainable building and land use and approve an ordinance that promotes use of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

5. The city should conduct a traffic and parking study that will tie together all proposed redevelopment impacts.

6. The city should identify buildings in our redevelopment areas that can be preserved through adaptive re-use. After all, historic architectural features distinguishes Plainfield from most of its competitors.

7. The city needs a planning process that ties the above elements together with an emphasis on local input. Residents and business owners do not feel included and their partication will lead to buy-in (and less threat of lawsuits).

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