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.