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.