Friday, April 22, 2011

Bump-outs on South Avenue

The Planning Board held a capital project review hearing last night on South Avenue reconstruction. It was gratifying to participate in a vigorous debate on what features are important in a transit village and the pros and cons of bump outs and other traffic calming measures. Residents, property owners and merchants were present to share their views. By the way, I was swamped with emails this week, mostly in favor of bump outs and a few opposed.

Administration officials have been saying that the community wants the bump outs eliminated. One surprising comment shed light on the way we get input from the community. As it turns out, the meetings on this topic have been poorly attended by the public and not well advertised. For the most part, only two merchants and one resident have been part of the discussion. The resident has been advocating for speed tables, signage and other strategies to protect pedestrians and drivers and to retain the transit village feel. These comments have been ignored.

One speaker expressed frustration at the inability to get attention from the Mayors office and said that the previous Mayor responded quickly to calls to replace missing bump out signage on South Avenue.

After healthy discussion, the Planning Board put together recommendations to the City Council for the South Avenue reconstruction.

Merchant concerns were addressed: bump outs will be reduced in size and curbing will be beveled or recessed. One bump out next to PNC Bank is a safety hazard and will be eliminated.

Resident concerns were also addressed: high pedestrian traffic areas - Belividere Ave and Plainwood Square Park - will maintain current bump out size (with beveled or recessed curbing though). One astute Planning Board member pointed out that bump out visibility is poor and that accidents can be prevented with signage and painted curbing. This became a recommendation. Also, walkways created with pavers will be retained.

It seems to me that the Mayor and Assemblyman Green want to focus on mistakes made by the previous administration and that the answer is to denigrate and eradicate all signs of their projects. Last night we participated in a rationale, issues oriented discussion about the bump outs and came away with a middle ground that can benefit everyone.

Now it is up to the City Council to decide what to do with the Planning Board recommendations. There will likely be additional cost and time involved for the South Avenue project. We are already projected to spend $1.3 million. I will not be surprised if the Mayor and her people oppose the Planning Board.

I say lets embrace the Planning Board recommendations. South Avenue is a successful public - private partnership that brings tax ratables and shoppers to Plainfield. If we are going to do this, lets do it right, in the spirit of transit villages. The Council has recommended various ways the administration can save money on capital projects. But lets not be short-sighted about last nights outcome. That will be a good investment for Plainfield.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ugly Free Speech Update

At the last Council meeting, the Mayor expressed surprise that the Union County Prosecutors Office had taken the position that the Scarlet Letter was "ugly free speech". I just learned that the Prosecutor will be sending a communication to city hall confirming their position.

I also learned that the prosecutors office will not investigate a matter that doesn't rise to the level of a crime unless there is enough evidence to indicate that laws have been broken. That leaves it to Plainfield to do its own investigation.

The Hate Crimes and Ugly Free Speech resolution, passed by the Council this month, calls for the Mayor and her administration to conduct such an investigation and report to Council by April 15. There has been no such report to date. If the Council feels that the Mayor is not acting in accordance with the Council resolution, we may need to conduct our own investigation. I will be discussing this option with my colleagues.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Hate Crimes and Ugly Free Speech Resolution

The following is the resolution I wrote and that was approved unanimously by the City Council on April 11:

Resolution in Opposition to Hate Crimes and Ugly Free Speech

Whereas Plainfield is known as a diverse community where people who are different from one another live harmoniously together and celebrate their different cultures and beliefs, and

Whereas an anonymous, hateful letter was distributed at city hall in early April, attempting to stigmatize gays and lesbians, and making untrue and libelous assertions about individual elected officials and community activists, and

Whereas the Union County Prosecutors Office has labeled said letter as “ugly free speech”, and

Whereas said letter was distributed in all city hall mailboxes and there have been assertions that it was copied on a city owned/leased copy machine,

Therefore the Plainfield City Council denounces the anonymous letter and urges the Mayor to aggressively take the following actions:

1. Publicly denounce anonymous ugly free speech and hate crimes.

2. Activate the Plainfield Human Relations Commission to take all steps necessary to push back against hate crimes and ugly free speech, including recommendations to the Mayor and Council for ongoing promotion of tolerance, respect and mutual celebration of diversity in Plainfield.

3. Report to Council on April 11 and then in writing by April 15, 2011 the results of internal investigations including when, how and where the anonymous letter was produced and distributed at city hall and who was involved and who observed anything related to the letters production and distribution.

4. Obtain the services of an investigator from county, state or federal law enforcement offices to investigate the possible involvement of city officials and/or staff in the production and distribution of the anonymous letter and if government resources are not available, hire an independent investigator.

By way of this resolution the Plainfield City Council denounces the anonymous letter and all anonymous ugly free speech. All those who feel a need to express themselves regarding other groups or individuals are urged to put their names next to their comments.

Furthermore, the Plainfield City Council deplores the climate of division and fear that is created when people, in bad faith, spread hate anonymously and urges all people of good faith to stand against and speak against discrimination, stigma, prejudice and misinformation. Fear and hate can be stopped by positive action but will grow in the absence of response. At this difficult time, leadership is needed from citizens and elected officials to protect and promote the diversity for which Plainfielders are justly proud.

Hopefully, the Mayor will provide a report on April 15 on the investigations and actions taken to deal with this problem. I will give an update soon after.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Does Plainfield Embrace Diversity

One of the aspects of Plainfield I have always felt good about is the diversity, tolerance and celebration of differences among residents. Compared to surrounding towns and most places actually, Plainfield gets high marks for cultural competence and diversity. Of course we are not perfect. We are humans and the human condition includes struggling to live alongside those who are different from us.

It saddens and disturbs me that a hateful flyer was recently distributed throughout city hall, a flyer that bashes gays, lesbians, bloggers, PMUA reform activists and certain council members. I have seen these nasty flyers before, around election times. Previously, I felt that these anonymous, cowardly statements should not be dignified by a response. This time it becomes clear to me that the nastiness is not going away. In fact, I see a growing chorus of hate and fear in response to changes in the economic and political winds of Plainfield and beyond.

We should be coming together to deal with real problems like gang violence, foreclosures and rising taxes but we are being urged to divide on class, racial and political lines. This flyer is a hate crime of the utmost distatefulness. But it doesn't come out of nowhere. The tone for hatefulness comes from a few supporters of the current recreation division as they shout, wave their fingers, point at people and pound the table at council meetings. Unfortunately children can tune in to public access television to watch this behavior. Hatefulness is promoted when the Mayor says that certain Council members are responsible for shutting down city run recreation entirely. This message was carried into the Plainfield school system. Some of the Mayors supporters are now spreading the lie that certain council members, myself included, voted against much needed health and social programs currently operated out of city hall.

We need leadership to unite Plainfielders, to fight against our real problems like some of our young people choosing gangs and drugs over education. I remember the time of unrest over the Rodney King incident when urban areas around the country erupted into violence and looting. Then Mayor Harold Mitchell brought local community leaders together and cooler heads prevailed. That's what we need now in Plainfield. I will be calling for this approach at Monday's Council meeting.

Hatefulness grows when people of good will don't speak against it. I am one of those who thought hate would not gain traction in Plainfield. I was wrong.

I do have faith that the vast majority of Plainfielders are people of good will and willing to live among people who look, behave and think differently from them. But we need to stand against hate and fear. If adults can do that, there is hope that we adults can teach young people to make better choices than gangs and drug dealing. We elected officials have to start with respecting each other over legitimate differences on how we fund and operate city services.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

My Position on the PMUA

Dissolution of the PMUA? Some would have Council members just give a yea or nay. Many of my constituents want a yea from me on dissolution. That would certainly help my re-election campaign. But elected officials should not give simplistic or politically expedient responses to the PMUA problem.

The PMUA has dealt with two serious problems in Plainfield and in its early years, I was completely convinced the PMUA was a better solution than what we had.

First, our sanitary sewer system, under city control, had not been maintained for many years and was falling apart. Would city hall do better today with sewer maintenance? Looking at the ineffectiveness of the city to fix our roads, create a useful website and implement modern information technology (and seeing deficits with other city operations), I am not convinced the city can compete with the PMUA on this front.

Second, garbage pick-up is a mixed bag (pun unintended). PMUA workers get much better reviews than the private haulers of the past. But the cost for this service is well above the market rates. Cost has become the overriding concern for me and residents are saying this loud and clear. Here is where the various alternate solutions need to be carefully considered before we "dump PMUA".

Solution 1: dump PMUA garbage pick-ups and go back to private haulers. When we had this in place, some property owners discontinued trash pick-up and dumping became a huge problem. PMUA has made major inroads into this, with a cost shared by all property owners. Could we use private haulers, supplemented by periodic city wide dumping sweeps? That could be more affordable. We would need to do some number crunching.

Solution 2: dump PMUA garbage pick-up and give it to the city. As with sewer maintenance, can the city do this well and at a better price? City services have gone downhill. That's no surprise considering the Mayor's inability to attract and retain good senior managers. To make matters worse, her response to our leadership gaps is to spread blame rather than make concerted efforts to attract talent. Another concern about bringing garbage pick-up back to the city is around cost. Will this solution weaken further Plainfields inability to afford city worker pension and health benefit costs? I don't have the answers but we'd better analyze this before making cost saving claims.

Where does this leave us? Here are options as I see them:

1. Reform the PMUA. That's been my position up till now. I am less and less convinced that this is the way to go for two reasons: the PMUA Commission's refusal to meet with Council and the unfulfilled promise of bringing in service contracts from other municipalities to offset cost to Plainfiel residents. The bottom line on reform is that the Mayor will have to nominate 2 or 3 sharp critics with business experience and a desire to make changes to join the commission. We all know who they are. Mayor nominate them. They don't need to be in the majority on the commission. A fresh perspective will add much needed credibility to the PMUA.

2. Council creates an independent task force to study and make recommendations on Plainfields course of action. This would not be "study to death". It would be a six month time frame. Task number one - determine the Council's legal options. Once these are established, the task force would proceed to tackle the solid waste and sewer concerns expressed all over our city. Participants would have to commit to an objective fact based process. Plainfield has many such people ready to serve. Council would have to commit to take recommendations seriously. One conclusion could be dump PMUA. This should be a clear headed decision. Another conclusion could be keep PMUA with a revised charter and policy and operational changes. The only starting assumption for the task force is that the PMUA must become accountable to Plainfield residents. Current events have proved that PMUA is not accountable now.