Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Democracy in Action

Monday nights Council meeting demonstrated why Plainfield is such an amazing place. I am not referring to the decisions that were made. It was the audience participation in the process of government that was so riveting and gratifying to see. After honoring local film-maker Alrick Brown whose movie Kinyarwanda was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival (quite an honor), I want to say "Alrick, make a movie about the civic spirit in Plainfield." We have the tension created by diversity and conflicting agendas that can drive many a story line.

There were two important story lines at last nights meeting. The one involving the Mayor and Bibi Taylor has been covered by Bernice Paglia, Mark Spivey and (soon I am sure) by Olddoc and Dan Damon. The other story will not get the attention it deserves. That is the 2011 municipal budget. A long list of budget amendments were read and approved, bringing the Council closer to final budget approval. Lost in the details were the many budget reductions that will result in reduced services and staff lay-offs. This arduous process included many hard decisions by the Mayor, senior managers and Council. Yes there was some finger pointing and blaming for staff lay-offs but the reality is that we have a state imposed cap on how much we can spend and tax. And budget reductions were made by every elected official- Mayor and all seven Council members. I hope that realization leads to better collaboration going forward.

Looking at the budget story line further, there are two sub-plots I must mention:

1. the Library amendment restores $150,000 to expand its hours back to what they were before the last reductions were made. If you are a Library supporter, you should thank each Council member as this amendment received unanimous support. Particular thanks should go to the members of the Council's Finance Committee - Adrian Mapp, Annie McWilliams and myself - who made this happen by finding the funds in other expense lines rather than increased property taxes.

2. Recreation! Alrick - what a sub-plot we have here. A rumor starts in the community that the City Council members have a personal vendetta against local hero and champion of youth, the Recreation Director. They are going to cut him off at the knees (reduce him to part-time). A groundswell of grass roots support grows and spills out into the Council meeting chamber. Speaker after speaker blast the Council members for mean-spirited disservice to the community. But wait, are those rumors distortions of the truth. The Council actually recommended moving $30,000 from administrative salaries into youth programs, leaving Recreation with the same overall budget as recommended by the Mayor (who happens to be the chief supporter of the Recreation Director). And the Recreation Director's position will be unaffected unless the Mayor decides to reduce his hours - not going to happen. Alrick can you clean up the plot a little, make it a better story than what I just told. Annie and Sharon can play themselves but I suggest you use Sean Connery ( a younger Sean) to play me.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mark Your Calendar for Monday December 20

I urge Plainfield residents to come to the City Council meeting Monday at 8 pm.

The word has spread quickly that Mayor Robinson-Briggs has fired City Administrator Bibi Taylor. The Council has made numerous requests for the Mayor to explain her reasons. It is reasonable to expect the Mayor to come forward and give her reasons. She did not do so at last Monday's Council meeting and she has an obligation to do so this coming Monday.

The Council has the power to re-instate Ms Taylor by resolution. Five votes will be required. The City Administrator position is important - he or she is responsible for the day to day operation of city government. Your Council representatives need to hear from you on this critical subject. There will be an opportunity for residents to speak to the Council at the beginning of the meeting. Make your views known.

Everyone I have ever spoken with about Ms Taylor agrees with my assessment that she has been doing an excellent job. Perhaps there are people who agree with the Mayor. We need to hear those views also. Whatever you think, please come to the meeting.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Plainfield Needs a New Budgeting Process

The following draft resolution was introduced at the last Council agenda fixing session. Credit cannot go to one person as it includes the many suggestions made over the last year by members of Council and the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee. Not all recommendations will be popular but the point is to collaboratively make hard decisions and not avoid the inevitable.

The true test of collaboration between all stakeholders is whether Mayor Sharon Robinson Briggs will convene the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, City Council Finance Committee members, the unions and members of her administration in January to begin working on the 2012 budget. Everyone has pledged their commitment. Mayor Sharon: the ball is in your court.

2012 Plainfield Municipal Budget Planning Resolution

The municipal budget is a set of priorities of the government. With a finite budget, we can only spend so much money. Money spent in one area means there is less to spend in another area. As such, forward directional priorities are necessary to start the entire leadership of Plainfield thinking about pro-active and multi-year budgeting.

Whereas the state of New Jersey is imposing a 2% tax levy cap for Fiscal Year 2012 and

Whereas Plainfield’s municipal government expenses continue to rise while non-property tax revenues are decreasing in the short term and

Whereas the City Council desires to plan proactively to prepare for a difficult budgeting process that will challenge municipal government to meet the needs of residents and employees and

Whereas 2011 Council wishes to work pro-actively with the Mayor and administration to create a budgeting process that meets the above challenge,

Therefore the 2011 City Council recommends the Mayor and administration, in partnership with the City Council, utilize the following strategies:

1) An aggressive budget timetable for SFY 2012 that includes creating a 5 year municipal budget projection to be presented at the January business meeting.

2) The Council and Mayor appoint the CBAC no later than February and empower the 2010 CBAC as a holdover body until then; the Council Finance Committee, Mayor and administration to work closely with the CBAC beginning January to prepare the 5 year projection and 2012 budget.

3) 2011 should be the year we begin to migrate non-core services to other entities. Further continuation of non-core services puts pressure on the budgets and causes the elimination of core-services like Fire, Police and Public Works. Council understands the value of our non-core services to the community and intends for these non-core services to be continued for our community which needs them.

4) In anticipation of the non-continued funding of non-core services Council directs the administration to work with great haste to find new ownership of these programs. New ownership should be in place by June 30th for at least one of the non core services identified by the 2010 CBAC. Administration shall report monthly to the Council on the progress of migrating these services to a non-governmental agency. An example and model of such a successful transfer is our own Dudley House.

5) The Citizens Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC) has endorsed this thinking and has named some non-core services to be migrated to non-profits. These include Plainfield Action Services, WIC and the bi-lingual day-care center.

6) The inspections department should be reorganized to include focus on core needs: greater inspection enforcement and reduction in C of C which is already done through the normal market forces.

7) Council directs the administration to utilize the auxiliary Police to the maximum allowable extent of the law. This may mean training, uniforms etc. The Council is hereby directing the administration to come up with a comprehensive plan utilizing the auxiliary department and the Council is committed to fully funding this as a means of increasing public safety.

8) Council directs the administration to continue consolidation of government divisions, bureaus and offices and to redirect scarce resources by shifting unneeded management staffing to direct services.

Only by the timely and collaborative effort of the executive and legislative branches of local government can we remain in control of Plainfield government’s future and avoid outside forces dictating how residents needs best be met. This requires leadership of all elected officials.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Anti-violence rally last week

I attended the rally organized by the Peoples Organization for Progress last week on West Front Street. I was struck by the hunger of the participants for leadership to emerge in Plainfield to address the problems facing the youth of our city.

Most of the recent focus by elected officials has been on law enforcement solutions like spot shotter technology and promoting anonymous tips to the police about criminal activity. And there is no doubt about the importance of the police department to ensure the safety of Plainfield residents. But lets be honest. Law enforcement will not solve our gang and drug problems. We need to get to the causes.

So I was encouraged when Councilwoman Annie McWilliams put the idea of a youth master plan on the table at the last Council meeting. It is a starting point. Bring together all the adults and young people who are currently serving as role models and providing services, opportunities and mentoring to young people. Get them to work in a more coordinated way. Bring more volunteers into the helping process. Learn from other cities that have implemented best practices in youth programs.

There are signs of hope. I heard one of the youth baseball leaders say at a recent Council meeting: why can't the two leagues play each other so the kids can mingle. I would prefer we have one league but hey this is a step in a positive direction after many months of accusations and ill will between the adults of the two leagues.

If we want our children to become good citizens, we adults will need to lead the way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

League of Municipalities Convention

I attended for one day this year. I attended a session named "Real Property Tax Reform - How do we get there." Professor Ernie Reock from Rutgers led off led off and told us the bad news we already know - New Jersey is a leader in taxation. He listed principles to follow for tax reform - tax changes need to be broad based, progessive and shifted away from property tax. He felt that an increased sales tax is a good way to replace property taxes. It tends to hurt people at the lower end of the earning spectrum and he said this can be corrected by exempting items such as clothing and over the counter medications. Dr Reock was following by three state legislators. There was a fair amount of rhetoric and not much substance. The highlight was Jon Bramnick saying that municipalities have done a better job of budgeting than state government because they are forced to make hard decisions every year and the state can defer its problems year after year. He urged the audience not to send its money to Trenton. Another legislator advocated an increased gas tax as long as the revenue is dedicated to the Transportation Trust Fund. I agree with that.

The most useful session for me was "Doing Less with Less - Prioritizing Needs and Staffing". I knew this would be good because the moderator was Reagan Burkeholder, the retired City Manager of Summit and instructor of the class for newly elected officials in New Jersey (I took his course 7 years ago). Reagan is active in the national movement to use comparative performance measurement to improve the performance of municipal government. This approach is currently used in only 12 of the 566 towns in New Jersey. Plainfield is not one. We did take a step in the right direction thanks to Annie McWilliams who required Plainfield division heads to use goals, objectives and data when they made their presentations recently at the Council's budget hearings.

Here is what Reagan had to say:

1. from 2004 - 2009 the average NJ municipal budget
* grew 4.9% per year
* surplus shrank .4% per year
* non property tax revenues few 2.5% per year
* delinquent taxes grew 4.7% per year
* taxes grew 7.6% per year

2. the experts projections for 2010 - 2015
* total revenues will grow 2.3% per year
* surplus will continue to shrink
* delinquent taxes will grow 3% per year
* taxes will grow 2.5%/yr (this accounts for the 2% tax levy cap and exemptions)

3. The outcome: without a drastic cutback, expenses will exceed revenues by 15% after five years. Not all municipal expenses are under the control of local elected officials. So 80% of the budget would have to be reduced by 20% over five years.

Imagine what that would do to Plainfield city government. If we do business as usual, it would not be possible to maintain our public safety staffing at current levels.

4. What to do:
* decide what services are needed
* least expensive way to provide them
* much more engagement and education of citizens in the budget process
* comparative performance measurement - how do we stack up against other towns
* 3 year budgeting
* engage employees in discussion of how to save money and improve services

A panel of city administrators and CFOs spoke about initiatives in their towns. The highlights:
* two towns share overnight police patrols
* once a week trash pick-up
* talk honestly and early about lay-offs in all departments
* apply credit card company business practices to the tax collection office
* combine divisions with city government to share administrative support staff:
examples - planning and economic development
- city administrator and city clerk
- recreation and health
- finance and tax collection

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

2nd Ward Roads Update

There is a flurry of activity on roads in the 2nd Ward. Here are the highlights:

1. Watchung Ave between 7th St and Hillside is being paved. Curb work continues this week. Concrete driveway aprons will be installed beginning later this week or next week. Paving is expected to happen the last week of November or the first week of December.

2. Old and missing street signs are being replaced in the Netherwood neighborhood today and tomorrow.

3. The intersection of 7th St and Belividere Ave. will have crosswalks painted tomorrow or Friday, weather permitting. Pedestrian crossing signs will be added for west bound traffic along 7th St east of the intersection. This busy intersection has seen many accidents and has a lot of pedestrian traffic going to and from the Netherwood train station.

Thanks go to the Public Works employees and to the local advocates for speaking out on behalf of their neighbors for these improvements. More to follow.

Monday, October 25, 2010

CFO update

I spoke last Friday with the Deputy Director of Local Govt Services, a division of NJ Department of Community Affairs. He said Plainfield will be hearing from DCA imminently with a resolution to our CFO problem. He would not disclose what the answer would be because his letter was sitting on the Commissioners desk for approval.

I am not sure if this is good news or not. It would be a real let down if DCA does not come to the aid of Plainfield on this matter. What is DCA for if not to assist local governments in need. I will hope for a temporary resolution to our problem as well as a permanent one.

Thanks must go to Maria Pellum who contacted DCA herself to urge them to action. I asked the state official if he could acknowledge any communications from Plainfield citizens and he said he had heard from a number of people.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Attending the NJ League of Municipalities Convention

I applaud Councilman Rashid Burney for his decision not to attend the League Convention in November. It is not a good use of taxpayers money for an outgoing elected official to spend city dollars in such a way. This should hold true for the Board of Education, the PMUA and the Housing Authority, each of which sends elected and appointed people to conventions on the taxpayers dime. When I was on the Board of Education, I argued for the same approach to be made policy but did so in vain. It is on the to do list of the City Council's Finance Committee. The only thing one official can do for certain is to set the good example as Burney does.

I want to make sure there is not a misperception on the cost of the League of Municipalities Convention. Rashid mentions saving $1500. The cost for Council members to attend is more like $400. That assumes the costs are limited to registration ($60), two nights for the hotel (at $140 per night) plus gas and tolls. I do not believe that Plainfield Council members are requesting reimbursements for food and drink. There was one unfortunate exception in the past but that person is no longer on the Council. And when that came to the attention of the Council, we refused to make the reimbursement.

As for getting the most from the convention, Rashid makes good points. I only need to add that every sitting Council member I have attended the League convention with has been an active attendee at sessions and networking events. I agree with Rashid that the convention sessions are very helpful.

I plan to attend for one day as I did last year. Last year I did not stay overnight. This year I am still undecided but if I do, it will be for one night only. I promise to share through my blog what I learn from the 2010 convention and hope to implement.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Shot spotter technology: two things to consider, two things to avoid

Plainfield is poised to purchase technology that will enable the police to instantly locate gunshots in our city. The upfront cost is $1 million to cover an area stretching completely across the city from east to west. The ongoing cost will be $100,000 per year for the service contract. Proponents say we will get more convictions and the shot spotter program will be a deterrent to crime. Other cities are getting onboard and the company that sells the shot spotter program claims that it reduces crime.

Public safety is a huge concern in Plainfield and nowhere more than in some west side neighborhoods. Citizens deserve to be safe and to feel safe so this technology needs serious consideration. The Council has already approved the financing for it on first reading. Second reading will likely be in October.

I am in favor of Plainfield becoming a shot spotter city. My problem is the approach we are taking. Two things we must consider:

1. We are taking a buy first, plan later approach. Technology in and of itself will not solve our crime problems any more than a computer on a desk at the One Stop Career Center will get someone a job. We need a comprehensive strategy for crime. It needs to include technology, adequate police manpower, best practices in rapid response, recreation programs for youth and jobs programs for young adults. If we are going to spend $100,000 a year on a technology contract, we need to ask if some of that money could instead help balance our strategy by hiring mentors to work with kids evenings and weekends. It appears to me that we are rushing into this because no-one wants to appear to be against crime fighting. The reality is that fighting crime does not address the core problems facing our youth and we need to deal with them and fight crime at the same time.

2. Big problem, limited resources. Our administration wants to spend taxpayer dollars without having really looked for the grants that are out there and being used by other towns. When faced with an expensive gamble that shows promise, a sensible thing to do is ease into it. I am not saying study it to death. I mean install shot spotter in a smaller section of town. Starting with the west side makes sense because our crime statistics tell us we should concentrate there. We can see how it works and decide later if the east side of town would benefit from shot spotter. Hopefully we will have made some progress on getting grant money. Or perhaps we would decide to concentrate more on the core problems through recreation and jobs programs for kids in the sections of town where gang activity is prevalent.

There are many unanswered questions. What if silencers are installed on handguns? What if a gang member fires shots in the eastend to divert the police from a planned gun confrontation in the westend? We need answers and comprehensive strategies. Lets move on this but not rush into an emotional decision that may or may not be the best way to use Plainfield's limited resources.

Two things we need to avoid as debate on this initiative continues:
1. I don't believe Council members are polarized on this issue as New versus Regular Democrats. But some members of the public will want to pressure Council members by accusing them of being "political". I heard that during the public comments at the last meeting. I worry that elected officials may be pressured to rush into this to avoid the accusation of not caring about citizens safety. That is nonsense.

2. The perception that city resources are unfairly distributed between the 4th ward versus 2nd ward also came up at the last Council meeting. The comment referred to people on the hill. I live on "the hill" and here is a news flash: there are gunshots on the hill. Another news flash in case you think "the hill" is synonymous with white people: it is the most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood in Plainfield. By far. And people "on the hill" care about what happens in other parts of town. We understand that for Plainfield to thrive, the whole town needs to be safe and secure.

I hope we can move on the shot spotter proposal but not before elected officials look at this with open eyes and rational minds.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dear Assemblyman Green – Cease and Desist in Your Actions to Smear a Non Profit Agency that Helps People in Need.

In light of the fact that Assemblyman Green has inexplicably brought my employer, Bridgeway, and its internal personnel transactions into the public arena, my Board of Trustees has asked me to respond on behalf of Bridgeway.

It is unfortunate the Assemblyman’s political agenda would lead him to attack a leading organization that champions the rights of disadvantaged people to lead lives worth living. Every person served by Bridgeway has a diagnosis of a serious mental illness. These individuals deserve the same respect and opportunities as everyone. Additionally, most of Bridgeway’s clientele are poor with a high percentage of people representing minority groups.

Bridgeway is dedicated to the rights and equal opportunities of minorities, advocating to eliminate disparities based on disability, gender and sexual preference as well as race. Bridgeway’s services continue to be cited as “exemplary” by both the State of NJ and the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, the international agency that accredits mental health providers. The NJ Association of Mental Health Agencies named us as the Mental Health Provider of the Year in 2007. To maintain those standards, Bridgeway strives to recruit and retain the best employees in the field and ones who can relate to persons served because they look and speak like them.

It is true that 3 people, myself included, who helped build Bridgeway over many years to what it is today, are not members of minority groups. But we at Bridgeway are proud of the fact that our employees truly represent the communities we serve. Our most recent Affirmative Action Report (AAR) shows that of 167 full time employees, 54 were African American, 25 were Hispanic and 10 were Asian. So the minority employees totaled 89 or 54% of all Bridgeway employees. The total number of promotions for the most recent reporting period shows that of 4 promotions, 1 was African American and 2 were Hispanic. None of the most recent promotion information is contained on the AAR. Of the last 5 promotions, one (Assistant Director) was African American, one (Quality Improvement Director) was Asian. Four of the five were females. They bring the total number of current minority employees who are managers and supervisors to 13, of which 6 are African Americans. We are proud of the efforts made to recruit and promote minority employees but we will continue to push for more minority employees to climb the career ladder at Bridgeway.

Bridgeway does not use a civil service system approach to promoting staff. Our system is merit based with seniority being an additional factor. This ensures that Bridgeway’s service recipients, who have been discriminated against and have frequently been denied opportunities, receive the very best in services.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

When Two Worlds Collide

Fans of Jerry Seinfeld may remember the Seinfeld television episode when George tried and failed to keep his two worlds separate. Like George, I try to keep my two worlds apart. In my case, it is my elected official life in Plainfield and and professional life as Executive Director of Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services, Inc. A recent blog post by Assemblyman Jerry Green distorted my track record as a mental health professional and that of my employer, Bridgeway. To my Plainfield constituents - I wish to set the record straight.

Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services is a not for profit psychiatric rehabilitation service organization. We serve adults who have been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, people whose psychiatric illnesses have been exacerbated by poverty and co-occurring substance abuse, chronic medical conditions and homelessness. Most of the people Bridgeway serves have spent time in state and local psychiatric in-patient units. State psychiatric hospitals are not humane environments and cost the taxpayer $180,000 per patient per year.

Bridgeway offers recovery, a new way of viewing and coping with serious mental illnesses. We offer a wrap around service that supports people to not only manage their symptoms and take their medications but to strive for a life worth living. That means working, going to school, having your own apartment and a circle of support comprised of family and friends - what everybody wants.

Bridgeway is part of a state-wide network of service providers who work with the state to help institutionalized people re-integrate into the community. Years ago it was believed that mental illness was a life sentence to be spent in an institution like Greystone Park or Trenton State Psychiatric Hospital. As treatment improved, it was believed that people could live in the community but in a group home or boarding house like the Park Hotel. Group homes cost the taxpayer $65,000 per year per resident and up. Today we've taken a big step further because the research clearly demonstrates that most people with serious mental illnesses can live independently with flexible supports. This approach, called supportive housing, is what Bridgeway specializes in.

Supportive housing costs the taxpayers $10,000 to $30,000 per year per person, depending on the complexity of the needs of the person served. Supportive housing as done by Bridgeway, is scattered site. That means each person has his/her own apartment and they are not clustered or in a congregate housing arrangement. Unlike the Park Hotel or a group home, that is true community integration. Bridgeway serves 1500 people each year, spanning 8 counties in central and northern New Jersey. Over 90% are in supportive housing. Some live with their families and a few live in places like the Park Hotel. We offer them the opportunity to move out into a more independent living arrangement. It's their choice.

Bridgeway believes choice is critical for service recipients and it is maximized by helping people find apartments in the existing rental market. That means properties are not taken off the tax rolls. The only exception Bridgeway made was when we purchased 4 two bedroom condomiums in Union County and 1 three bedroom house in Hunterdon County for use by our service recipients. To maximize choice, we did not purchase in the two urban centers, Elizabeth and Plainfield, because we felt that more living opportunities should be created in suburban areas. And those condo properties were taken off the tax rolls (Elizabeth and Plainfield were clearly doing more than their share to assist people with disabilities).

Supportive housing works because Bridgeway offers multi-disciplinary service teams that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to come out for home visits. One of these teams is based in Plainfield and rents office space on East Front Street. Most Plainfield residents are unaware of this because our community integration approach is working.

Bridgeway was recognized as mental health agency of the year in 2007 by our trade association, NJ Association of Mental Health Agencies, representing over 160 organizations. I was recognized as psychiatric rehabilitation agency director of the year in 2008 by the U.S. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association.

Although Bridgeway is prominent in its field, Bridgeway and its service recipients are virtually invisible in the community and that is a good thing, considering the stigma that comes with mental illness. People with mental illnesses deserve the opportunity to become productive members of our communities and do not deserve to be stigmatized, especially by elected officials with political agendas.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Response to Assemblyman Green

Thank you Assemblyman Green for recognizing the power I have to influence the course of events in Plainfield. For the record, however, the Park Hotel was converted into a boarding home in 1970. I was a college sophomore in Buffalo, NY at the time.

As for group homes, I am guessing that you forgot the discussion we had a few years ago about the Park Hotel and group homes. I will refresh your memory. You came to me with a plan to close the Park Hotel. I told you that plans for the 170 residents would have to be included so they weren't just put out on the street. I explained that there are more humane solutions than warehousing people in large boarding homes. I mentioned supportive housing as a solution and that I work for a non profit organization that subscribes to the supportive housing model. You may recall that I am the co-founder of the New Jersey Supportive Housing Association and I invited you to speak at one of our meetings in Trenton. You did so.

Boarding homes and group homes are the traditional approach to housing for people in need. In fact, most special needs populations are capable of living independently if they are offered services and supports by human service professionals who visit them in their apartments. This is supportive housing - what I do for a living.

Supportive housing has the advantage of helping people with special needs integrate into the community. They are not in congregate housing which calls attention to them. They are living just as you or I do. Supportive housing as done by the non profit I work for does not take properties off the tax rolls. We do it as market rate rentals. Assemblyman Green - your claim about a bank being converted into a group home has nothing to do with the organization or work I am associated with. In fact I don't even know what property you are referring to. I hope this is not an example of throwing out misleading information and hoping some of it sticks.

It is sad that you are attacking me with false accusations. Recently you offered to give me the party endorsement in next Junes City Council primary election. Suddenly you have changed your mind? Would that have to do with my criticisms of your unethical campaign accusations of your political opponents?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Election Campaign Thoughts

Bernice Paglia and Old Doc have done an excellent job of telling it like it is and I thank them for their service to the public. We are lucky to have bloggers that are energetic and persistent in following the often confusing chain of political events in Plainfield. I do not wish to be repetitive so my comments are more on the personal side.

This campaign brought a very difficult choice for me. I have a lot of respect for Rashid Burney and Rebecca Williams. And they are both close friends of mine. It is safe to say that there are few people in Plainfield who have done more for our city than these two. Certainly none of those who criticized one of them during the campaign has their record of civic accomplishments.

Both candidates inspired passionate supporters, also friends of mine and on both sides, to work on their behalf. It's a huge compliment when serious, committed people line up as your supporter. And both Rebecca and Rashid deserve this kind of support. Neither one deserved the personal attacks that surfaced during the campaign.

My definition of an ethical, issues oriented election campaign does not include personal attacks. Here is my hope for the future in Plainfield elections:
1. Stick to the issues.
2. The incumbents record is fair game. The challengers past civic activities and related employment are fair game. Get their histories right. Use facts, not the assumptions of others (which can be self-serving). Do your own homework on your opponent. Attack the record, not the person.
3. If a candidate "misbehaves", attack the behavior, not the character of the person.
4. When an overzealous supporter engages in personal attacks, his/her candidate disavows the unethical attack.

In this primary, the rhetoric and accusations escalated as we got closer to election day. There is one source of contentiousness that was so "over the top" that it needs to be highlighted as harmful to Plainfield and not just to the candidates. Jerry Greens mailer and blog exemplified the textbook use of scapegoating, guilt by association and distortion of facts. I know Rashid Burney very well and there is no way he had anything to do with the Assemblyman's attacks on Rebecca Williams.

Hard feelings will linger from this primary campaign. It is important that Rebecca, Rashid and all their dedicated supporters resolve differences and unite behind the cause that led us into politics in the first place: the betterment of Plainfield.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rebecca Williams for Plainfield City Council

I am voting for Rebecca Williams for Plainfield City Council in the June 8 primary election. Plainfield needs a strong, intelligent, independent voice to join the City Council at this critical point in time and Rebecca fits this description completely.

She is not reluctant to take a principled stand in the face of pressure from "the powers that be". This will be a very useful trait as we approach the new budget year. Plainfield is not out of the fiscal woods by a long shot, and the temptation to the Administration to outsource its way out of difficulties is questionable at best. It will take a strong Council to put the interests of Plainfield taxpayers first and make prudent budget decisions in the face of special interest groups. Rebecca is a person who will weigh the needs of Plainfield and not cave in to business as usual.

The City Council provides checks and balances to the Mayor and her administration. When the Mayor shows no willingness to cooperate with the Council as is sometimes the case, a strong City Council is needed to set Plainfield in the right direction. In the past few years we have seen wasteful spending, insensitive managers and ineffective services. Two examples are the Mayor's wasteful use of police bodyguards for herself and her inability to direct the Recreation Department to cooperate with the Queen City Baseball League. Rebecca would have made a difference in both situations. Only a strong City Council can stand up and help the administration make corrections that our residents need and demand. Vote for Rebecca Williams on June 8. Plainfield needs her.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Bit of Campaign Season Silliness

Assemblyman Green has cast aspersions again as he tends to do near the end of a local political campaign. This time Inez Durham is in his spotlight. Why would he insinuate that she has some responsibility for Plainfield's Board of Education woes and at the same time connect her to Rebecca Williams, challenger to Green's incumbent candidate for City Council? The answer is Steve Gallon. This is a campaign tactic that can be called guilt by association. I would like to set the record straight on Inez Durham.

Inez has a record of exemplary service to the Plainfield community. I know of her work directly through our joint service as Board of Education members. Inez has had a long and successful career as an educator and, I believe, she retired after serving as Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Piscataway. She was and is exactly the kind of person we need in Plainfield to strengthen our community. If we had ten more of Inez, Plainfield would be a lot better off.

It was her reputation and track record of community service that led Steve Gallon to offer her a job. She took it and served briefly, not because she needed the work, but because she saw an opportunity to once again help the Plainfield school system. If Assemblyman Green looked into the circumstances of her leaving this position, he would know how inaccurate and unjust his blog post is. But we are in what many call "silly season", when politicians twist facts and count on the voters accepting distorted viewpoints.

Cooler heads are part of the Assemblyman's campaign team and they need to set the record straight on Inez, unless of course if the Assemblyman himself does so first.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day in Plainfield

Earth Day was Thursday and Adrian Mapp, Darlene McWilliams, City Administrator Bibi Taylor, Plainfield Planning Director Bill Nierstadt, yours truly and members of the news media converged on the Green Brook on the western border of Plainfield. We were there to celebrate a $229,000 NJ Dept of Transportation grant to begin construction of a multi-use trail along the brook. The Green Brook Trail project originated during the second term of late Mayor Al McWilliams and it was fitting that Darlene was present at the soon to be trailhead on Jefferson Ave.

Al McWilliams had the vision to pick up on the original 1920's concept created by the Olmsted Brothers, sons of Frederic Law Olmsted, planner of NYC's Central Park. It has taken 7 years of planning, grant writing and designing to get us poised for action. April Stefel and Bill Nierstadt deserve much thanks for their efforts over the years. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has kept the vision alive and it was a shame that she was not available to join us.

It must be mentioned that Adrian Mapp, Bill Nierstadt and I rode our bikes down Myrtle Ave which runs parallel to the brook and trail route. Check out the Courier News photograph above to learn which law-abiding cyclist had his helmet on.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Visioning Charette a Success

70 people came out to the community visioning meeting today at Washington School. The presenters from NJIT described opportunities for development along the Raritan Valley rail line. The opportunities for investment in Plainfield's underutilized properties will increase as we move closer to dual powered locomotives and the completion of the new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

Participants included residents, business owners and local officials including Planning and Zoning Board members, Council members, the Mayor and our Assemblyman. An informative presentation by the NJIT graduate students set the stage for the "charette". Participants circulated around 6 tables where they offered input on what development should look like. There were tables for each proposed development opportunity:

1) Grant Ave around the old train station
2) Clinton Ave around the old train station
3) Downtown station north - North Ave, Gavett Place, East 2nd St
4) Downtown station south - the area bordered by Watchung Ave, Park Ave, East 4th St and East 6 St
5) Netherwood Station
6) South Ave between Terrill Road and Leland Ave

I thought the participant input was excellent and will help Plainfield achieve several objectives. First and foremost, citizens need to be a part of the planning for important Plainfield decisions. When development deals are strictly behind closed doors, resident quality of life concerns take a back seat to outside interests. Involving all stakeholders in Plainfield's future is the only way forward.

Citizen involvement increases buy-in for critical land use and financial decisions. Translating our vision into reality means confronting the real world. What are investors willing to risk on downtown projects? What prices are home buyers, renters and new businesses willing to pay to become part of Plainfield. Taxpayers and voters may be asked to support tax abatements and will only do so if they feel there is something in it for them. They will need to feel confident in the decision making process, to be part of it.

Next blog will address the question everyone has asked me about the vision study: will it actually lead to real action or just sit on a shelf?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Plainfield Visioning Study

Community Visioning Meeting Saturday, March 27 from 9 am to 3 pm at Washington School. Repeat - March 27 is the date, not this Saturday as I originally stated.

Why are we doing this?: to open up the discussion and planning for Plainfields development to residents and business owners.

Who will be there? Local officials, Rutgers and NJIT professors and students, the community.

What's in it for me?: you can have a say in creating the blueprint for the future of Plainfield. This is not a presentation. It is an interactive meeting in which your input will be solicited.

What is the focus for the meeting?: development of the areas around our downtown train station, Netherwood station and Plainfield West along the rail corridor. The new Hudson River train tunnel will increase access to Manhatten for Plainfield residents and businesses. A one seat ride into NYC will be one outcome of the tunnel.

How can I participate?: show up for the meeting!!

It is important to lend your voice to this discussion. The future of Plainfield is at stake.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Be Concerned about Next Years Budget This Year

A 7 1/2% tax increase in this years municipal budget is something to be concerned about. Taking a multi year budgeting approach, we should make every attempt to average 3 3/4% tax increase for this year and next.

In other words, we need to aim for a 0% increase in the fiscal year 2011 (FY 2011)budget. Sounds unrealistic? Perhaps not. Here is what needs to happen:

1. Start working on the budget March 1 the latest. This part has to be done by the Mayor, City Administrator Bibi Taylor and their staff. Aim for a July or August budget introduction to Council.

2. Hold a retreat to get consensus between the Mayor, Council and senior management on FY 2011 priorities. This needs to happen in March or April. We can argue about details later but let's start with general agreement about what we want our tax increase to be and what is most important to spend our municipal revenues on.

3. The Council has consensus on a FY 2010 budget that has $1 million in budget cuts and sets the stage for savings in FY 2011 that could be full year savings. That will only happen if the Council sticks to its guns at the Tuesday 8 pm budget hearing.

4. The Council will have to direct the administration to reorganize some departments and offices in city hall to make them more efficient and cost effective. This will need to be done by resolution. The sooner this direction is given, the sooner the Mayor and administration can come back with recommendations. This part of the process would have to begin in the next month or two.

5. One thing working in our favor was pointed out by the city administrator recently. Last years pension deferral will be completely paid in the FY 2010 budget and the pension expense for FY 2011 should decrease significantly.

6. A wild card is state aid to Plainfield. We could very well see a decrease in this revenue source in FY 2011. All the more reason to work hard to hold future expenses in check and create the conditions for increasing tax ratables. One strategy would be to keep Plainfield's property taxes lower than surrounding towns. This would make Plainfield more attractive to home buyers, developers and new businesses.

We need a short term and long term budget strategy. The short term approach is up for a vote Tuesday at 8 pm. Please come out and support the Council. Naysayers will be present.

In the long term, there is cause for concern but each of the suggestions above are do-able. Previous city administrator Marc Dashield gave the Council a 5 year budget projection last year that showed a 50% increase in municipal property taxes over the 5 years. We don't have to go there but we will have some very difficult decisions to make. Employees will certainly be affected. Plainfield tends to protect their needs better than the needs of residents in general. Local elected officials have the challenging job of balancing the needs of all constituents.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

It's Time to Approve the Budget

We should have done this earlier in the year but here we are in February, preparing to vote on budget amendments, the next step in the municipal budgeting process. Unfortunately it has been a typical year - we are trying to reduce a high tax increase by cutting expenses. Revenues increases continue to be flat or down so we have no other method to attack the proposed tax increase.

So where are we?

1. the administration introduced a budget with a 9.6% tax increase.
2. the Council Finance Committee (I am a member) proposed $1.1 million in cuts.
3. the Council, as a whole, agreed with most of the changes proposed by the Finance Committee, leading to Monday's Council meeting: the consensus changes will be on the agenda in the form of budget amendments. The Council must vote to approve these amendments so we can advertise the budget to the public, hold a public hearing and (finally) approve the budget for the July 1, 2009 - June 30, 2010 fiscal year.

I hope the final steps in the process are not typical of some previous years decisions. Painful budget cuts have sometimes been beaten back by special interest groups. That would be a big mistake this time around. The Council budget truly spreads the pain to all concerned. Each group agrees that property tax increases are hurting our residents but fights to prevent the cut that affects them.

Expect some groups to be present as the Council works on the budget. Expect some to advocate in the spirit of constructive debate. Expect some to threaten the Council and to spread misleading rumors in the community (example - eliminating positions in the top heavy police division is a personal vendetta against a few captains).

I urge residents to attend our Council meeting Monday night. One of the interest groups that is always underrepresented is homeowners. When elected officials hear primarily from employee unions, budgeting for compensation, health benefits and pensions can and have become a burden that threatens the future of our state and city.

If the Council resists special interest group pressure the 9.6% tax increase reduces to around 7.5%. That is still too high but some of the budget cuts set the stage for more significant cuts next year when we can get 12 months of savings instead of only a few. If the Council bows to pressure, the tax increase goes back towards 9.6% and will mean a higher increase next year. That would be disastrous to residents struggling to make mortgage and rent payments. Come out and advocate for a balanced approach to Plainfields budget. That is what the City Council will be voting on Monday.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Plainfield Leadership at a Crossroad

We have been here before. Rumors swirling, fingers pointing, people choosing sides, leaders hesitating. I am talking about proposed city budget cuts that could shake Plainfield residents and city workers out of the status quo.

Are we going to take an objective yet compassionnate look at our budget choices? Council president Annie McWilliams' latest blog is a good example of that approach. Or are we going to shoot first and aim later? That seems to be the recent response from our police union with their vote of no confidence in Martin Helwig.

Martin Helwig, Plainfield's Public Safety Director, has my full support. He has to be responsive to the residents of Plainfield and their safety concerns. He has to balance that with the needs of our excellent police force. That means he cannot possibly meet every demand of the public or the police union.

As we enter into union contract negotiations, his voice is crucial in approving the current year budget and positioning ourselves for next years financial challenges. I believe he is doing a good job of balancing the needs of residents and police employees.

Our police union has had very beneficial contracts over the years. They have negotiated with the city in a hard nosed manner. Kudos to their leaders. Our property tax burden has not been their concern. That is why we have a Mayor, Council, City Administrator and Public Safety Director.

Local governments all over New Jersey are asking employees to share the pain of our economy in recession. People living in cities are experiencing more pain than the suburbs and exurbs. If we can't find common ground with our unions, Mayors and Councils have little choice under state law and regulation but to propose layoffs. This can be a less painful process if local officials and unions work together.

It is most unfortunate that the police union voted no confidence in Helwig. Of course it is their right to do so. But a rationale and measured approach is needed from all parties in Plainfield government. Why not request a meeting with the Mayor, Helwig and the City Administrator? Why go public and "in your face"?

Followers of our municipal government know we have been here before and the results have been unsatisfactory. Lose - lose as some would say. Demoralized police, overburdened taxpayers, unempowered government officials.

There is still the potential for a solution but cooler heads must prevail. Larry Leveritt, Plainfield Schools Superintendent in the 1990's, came to town and immediately joined hands with the unions, school board and other stakeholders. He led us into interest based contract negotiations. After years of contentious haggling over pay and teacher prep time, he helped all parties to see their mutual interest: satisfaction at seeing students learn and grow. Negotiations revolved around that and the solutions for compensation and conditions of employment fell into place. Of course with different school leadership, the cooperation can slip away.

Why can't we do the same with our police unions. It will be a long, steep climb but good leadership on all sides can get us there. Unfortunately, in Plainfield the tradition is to divide and conquer. It is so ingrained that I honestly think some of our leaders who do this are not aware of it. All the more reason to get behind leaders like Annie McWilliams and Martin Helwig. Let's hear from some more leaders who want to unite rather than divide.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Gay Marriage Legislation

State government is poised to enact legislation that would give the same rights to gay and lesbian citizens that other citizens now enjoy. Will it happen on time for Governor Corzine to sign it? We will know very soon. I hope this is not a last minute gesture not intended for approval.

Whatever the outcome, it seems like destiny to me that this will eventually come to pass. Young people are increasingly influential in electing our leaders and they are more and more accepting of gay rights than their elders.

Still it would be unfair to make people wait at least four more years for justice to be served and that is what Governor Christie's election could mean.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Speed Humps - more input

The speed humps on Kensington Ave have triggered much reaction. Everywhere I go in Plainfield, people are telling me that this is a good idea. One of the most interesting comments came from a Kensington Ave resident who was originally opposed to speed humps but who has come to appreciate their effectiveness in slowing down vehicles.

Recently I have heard from residents of Kenyon and Putnam Avenues who want these traffic calming devices installed on their blocks. To these residents and anyone interested in this subject I have a few thoughts to share:

1. Speed humps have an important place in Plainfield's overall traffic management strategy but they must be used selectively.

2. With our budget problems, we must be extremely careful about where we spend our tax dollars. Installing speed humps selectively and at the time of repaving is a cost effective way to go.

3. There are other traffic calming methods that are cost effective and must be considered. An example is stop signs. One or two well placed stop signs on Putnam could be even more effective than speed humps. This would create intersections with four way stop signs. Another approach would be flashing yellow or red traffic signals at the dangerous Putnam intersections.

4. When we do use speed humps, they should be used judiciously. Some have commented on the number of street signs that accompany the Kensington speed humps and that they do not have an attractive appearance. Perhaps we could have installed one or two fewer humps or used less signage. I trust we will use our experience on Kensington to inform our future actions.

A photo from Councilman Burney's blog

5. Not everyone favors speed humps. One of my best friends called me last month to ask me who was the idiot whose idea this was. I did take responsibility! Residents who want them installed will face opposition from police and fire officials and from skeptical neighbors. I strongly recommend to any advocate that a neighborhood petition be circulated to demonstrate support. This was done to good effect regarding other road problems by the residents of Thornton Ave and Cedarbrook Lane. In each case they got what they needed.

The bottom line is we have taken a good step forward in pedestrian safety. Again I thank Mayor Robinson-Briggs and Councilman Burney for leadership on this. I urge the 2010 Council committee dealing with roads to take this up for policy development.