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.