Monday, October 21, 2013

Raritan Valley Coalition (RVC) meeting

                        We want to eliminate the need to switch platforms in Newark for service to and from Manhattan.

A dedicated group of RVC advocates gathered in Westfield on Monday to strategize on improving rail service on the Raritan Valley Line.  It runs from Newark Penn Station through Union, Cranford, Westfield, Plainfield, Somerville and beyond. Plainfield was represented by yours truly, Planning Director Bill Nierstadt, Darlene McWilliams and Jeff Dunn. 

Linda Stender was the guest speaker and she covered the legislative end of the RVC's work.  A new website has been created to inform residents along the line and encourage their involvement in the advocacy.  I fervently hope you will go to this website and partake of the opportunities to communicate with your elected officials.  But first the meeting highlights, which should convince you of the importance of this cause.

After the ritual lamenting of the demise of the ARC Tunnel project, the group turned to more achievable objectives. Top on the list is using dual powered locomotives for one seat rides to Manhattan.  We need many voices to get NJ Transit off the dime.  They purchased 36 dual powered locomotives.  It is taking a long time to get them in regular use.  12 of them were damaged in Superstorm Sandy but should be repaired within 6 months.  The rest are ready now.

The bottleneck at the Hudson River tunnel is for peak hour service.  So the RVC one seat ride will start on weekends and weekdays off peak.  In April, unless we can use our clout for an earlier start.  Here are the particulars on getting the coveted one seat peak hour service.
  • 20 NJ trains get through the tunnel during morning rush hour.  Most are from the Northeast Corridor Main Line.
  • The Coast Line also feeds 6 trains during morning rush hour.  Even though this line has only 30% more riders than Raritan Valley, we have no trains!
  • The completed development projects in Union, Cranford, Garwood and Fanwood add riders and clout to our coalition.  New projects in Cranford, Bound Brook and Somerville are in the works.
  • Currently Westfield's station has the most weekday riders with 2321.  Union and Cranford have 1230 and 1189 respectively.  Plainfield downtown is fourth with 1044 but we are the only town with two stations and combined, we jump to second with 1647 riders.  We have transit oriented development projects in the works as well.
RVC  clearly has increasing demand and currently has 10% of the total peak hour Manhattan bound riders from NJ.  10% of 20 peak hour trains.  That's 2 trains as our fair share.  This is not mission impossible.  Schedule adjustments can be made on the other lines that will minimize impact on riders.  For example, a significant number of northbound Main Line riders get off at the PATH station so don't need to compete with demand through Newark Penn Station and the Hudson Main Line Tunnel.

Advocacy efforts must increase.  I will have the website link in a few days and then there is no excuse.  A few clicks and your message to NJ legislators and NJ Transit is sent.  And my next post will have compelling data from studies on one seat ride impact on property values.  This is more than a time saver for NYC commuters.  We have to get mobilized.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Economic Development Report - the importance of food

Plainfield has many downtown restaurants representing Central and South American nationalities.  I just saw some new ones.  Time for a visit, anyone care to join me?  We also have a Middle Eastern market (good falafel) on Park Ave/Somerset St (sitting over the Green Brook) and classic American comfort food (Red Tower, Texas Weiner II, Plainfield Donut Shop, Bills).  Good food and very affordable.  I am only mentioning a few. 

My vision for downtown adds some variety to the existing compliment of eateries.  Plainfielders who have been in town for 30 years or more may remember What's Your Beef and Lily Greenleaves.  These places catered to $15 - $20 a plate diners - converting to today's prices.  The variety I seek is for these mid range priced menus.  Throw in some craft beer and music on weekends and I am very happy.  Remember the Clubhouse, with three floors of club scene for 20 somethings, back in the early 1980s?  The importance of having these establishments is the connection to unsubsidized downtown apartments for people with money to spend in our downtown.  I don't know which comes first, the nightlife or the apartments, but they go together. 

The new urban living - people living downtown, walking around, shopping, dining, listening to music.  It works with the right mix or should I say critical mass of apartment dwellers, convenient transportation and retail.  And a mix of people of various income levels.  Plainfield can be one of these places. 

We now have two developers who are using the f word (food, that is):  Plainfields designated downtown redeveloper, Landmark and  the new kid in town, Arkad (  While we are waiting to see what they will do to back up their words, you can do your part by dining in one of our downtown restaurants.  Here are two relatively new ones on Park Ave:


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Economic Development Report

My unscientific analysis of downtown Plainfield businesses, with no data whatsoever, is now complete.  The number one business is the sale of alcoholic beverages (no Rebecca, not mattresses).  Aside from its ability to stimulate anti-social behavior, alcohol is "probably the most social drug we humans have" (Michael Pollan).  Its importance in the revitalization of downtown Plainfield should not be underestimated.   It's part of my vision for downtown Plainfield as a place where all are welcome to earn a living, shop and have fun. All as in people of many ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic groups.

Plainfield has many liquor licenses and some bar licenses are used downtown to cater to a Latino clientele.  Notable among the downtown liquor establishments are two with frequent police calls for help - La Bamba and Pueblo Vieijo.  Its safe to say they are doing their part to dissuade new customers from using our downtown.  There is also Los Faroaenes and Chez Maree, both recently attracting attention as sponsors of street festivals.  These festivals are attracting new customers including families with young children (very desirable) but it is doubtful they are using our downtown as much as just being festival goers.

I've mentioned "new customers",  and "visions" for downtown and its time we have a healthy discussion about it.  As downtown becomes more and more a Latino gathering place, is there room for new customers who are not Latino?  Can we make downtown a place where parents feel more comfortable bringing or sending their children?  Is there a place for more shops that offer more than low end merchandise and services?

I fervently hope the answer to these questions is yes.  But a vision has to be backed by people with energy and resources.  One who fits this description is Plainfield's designated downtown redeveloper, the owner of Landmark.  He needs a liquor license.  Landmark's vision of downtown Plainfield is for apartment living, enhanced by restaurants, artisanal coffee shops and bakeries, and a healthy compliment of the arts.

In order to attract new customers to downtown, some restaurants will need to sell alcoholic beverages.  Alcoholic beverages = good business plan = enough profit to succeed = people having fun = attracting new customers.  Landmarks customers are retiring baby boomers and young people who enjoy the amenities of city living.  Sounds like diversity to me.

Back to my analysis of Plainfield's downtown.  My formula for success is:

1. support Landmark in any way possible to obtain a liquor license for a restaurant,
2. use the offices of city hall to bring together downtown stakeholders to create a shared vision, and convince merchants that diversity can be their ally, not a threat,
3. hire economic development professionals to enable city hall to do its part, in partnership with our merchants and turn would be investors into will be investors,
4. make downtown more friendly to shoppers and businesses through better code enforcement, ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) enforcement and more visible public safety measures (security cameras, police walking/cycling/segway patrols).

A central part of revitalizing Plainfield is converting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages from a detriment to an asset.  Not a easy goal but one worth the time and effort it will take to achieve.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Street Festival Report

I went downtown last night to observe the festival.  I was particularly interested in when the amplified sound would be turned off.  Around 8:00 PM, there I was along with hundreds of festival goers.  There had to be a least 500, maybe 750 people there.  Families were out in numbers.  People appeared to be having a good time.  

The music was loud, very loud and when the band finished their set at 8:30, I took a stroll down Somerset St, assuming one more band was setting up.  Minutes later I returned to the sound of a familiar voice at the microphone.  It was Adrian Mapp, speaking to the multitudes with help from a translator.  He was being asked by the event organizer to allow the music to go past the City Council mandated 9 PM  end time.  Talk about being put on the spot!  How Adrian responded is worthy of mention because in my opinion, it demonstrates how our potential Mayor will operate under pressure.

Adrian said that as a Council member, it was his duty to uphold the 9 PM requirement.  He said that everyone is welcome in our city and he was happy to see so many people.  He was pressed a second time about allowing the show to be extended, and the large crowd waited expectantly for his reply.  He said that there are many voices in Plainfield and that they must all be heard.  He promised that the future of downtown festivals would be decided with all of the voices being heard.  The audience responded with cheers and applause.

PS - I found out later that Adrian had been sought out by the event sponsor to speak to the crowd.  He had only planned to be an attendee, like me.  When the sponsor saw I was present he offered me the microphone also but I declined.  Adrian had sent the right message and that was all that was needed.

PS #2- the sound system was turned off promptly at 9 PM.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Plainfield festivals

The number of festival days held downtown has grown tremendously in the last two years.  No wonder they are getting so much attention.  Either join the festivities or grin and bear it if you don't like the noise and outdoor alcoholic beverage consumption.  For me it will be a bit of both. 

I will be attending this weekends festival sponsored by Faraones on Front Street.  I have done so in the last few years and have enjoyed the food (the roasted corn is quite good).  But the female members of my family won't go back.  They don't like the outdoor beer drinking and what comes with it.

Up till now, I have accepted the sponsor's sales pitch: a great cultural opportunity for Plainfield that brings people to town to see what a good place our downtown is for shopping and having a good time.  But with numerous complaints coming from retail store merchants and residents, the Council has decided to evaluate the future of downtown festivals.

Heeding the residents and downtown merchant complaints I voted against this weekends festival.  But the Council majority ruled that this year the show will go on.  The best I could do was offer two amendments to the festival resolution.  One, to ban sales of alcoholic beverages, was shot down.  The other, to close the festival at 10 pm instead of 11 pm and to end the music and 9 pm instead of 10 pm, was supported by my colleagues. 

I aim to use my blog to provide information on the Faraones festival by way of photographs.  Here are today's, showing that 1) our parking lot is used the day before the festival begins and 2) contrary to claims that attendees will see what is good about downtown, we have some serious (but fixable)eyesores that reinforce the reputation Plainfield currently has.

I have been told that the approvals for the rides must be given prior to the festival opening:

Parking lot 8 needs a lot of maintenance and code enforcement:




These scenes will be in plain sight during the festival.  I expect the incoming administration will take aggressive action.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

City Hall, the Local Business Community and Street Festivals

I attended the board meeting of the Plainfield Special Improvement District last week.  I wanted to ask the board for their thoughts on how city government can work more effectively with the business community.  I heard many ideas and actually got more than I bargained for since the use of downtown parking lots for "cultural" festivals was on the agenda.

The growing number of these festivals prompted much discussion and board member comments ranged from thoughtful to emotional.  Ultimately a motion was made to ask the City Council to deny the Faraones/Garcia festival request for September and it passed unanimously (eight members voting).  Here is a summary of the SID board's concerns:
  • merchants with stores near parking lot 8 where Garcia has held previous festivals estimated that they lose 20 - 40% of usual sales during festival days.
  • merchants who purchase tables for the festivals pay $800 per day and the SID board members believe that all of them are from out of town - they believe that not one downtown Plainfield merchant has participated in these festivals.
  • the SID board described the loud music and outdoor alcoholic beverage consumption as disruptive and discouraging of customer activity in downtown.  
  • Public urination, presumably related to the drinking activity, has not made for a family friendly shopping environment and according to the SID board members the smell lingers well after the festivals are done.
  • The stores near the sound stage experience music so loud that some stores literally vibrate from the music throughout the day and night.
I was unaware of the extent of these problems until the night of the August agenda fixing meeting when two downtown merchants spoke about these concerns.  When they left the meeting early, I followed them out and advised that if other merchants felt as they did, to circulate a petition around downtown and present it to the Council.  And so they did.  The number of signatures casts doubt on Mr Garcia's compliance with a stipulation in his resolution requiring he have the support of local businesses.

This should make for interesting discussion at Mondays Special Council meeting.  The Council has supported the growing number of festivals over the last 5 years because they were presented as opportunities to celebrate the cultures south of our border and bring people to our downtown.  The input we are getting now casts serious doubt on the benefits to Plainfield, especially the festivals as they currently operate.

Whatever the Council decides about the Faraones/Garcia proposal on Monday, it is clear that we need to revisit our ordinances regulating where, when and how festivals should be run.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

National Night Out in Plainfield

Thanks goes to the Netherwood Neighbors who organized the party I attended on Tuesday night.   I enjoyed the camaraderie, food and weather   Afterwards, I began to ponder a question prompted by a neighbor at the Cook School pond.  What is National Night Out about?  What are we trying to accomplish beyond having fun with neighbors.  So I went to the NATW website to learn more about the organization that started National Night Out:

"National Association of Town Watch (NATW) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the development and promotion of various crime prevention programs including neighborhood watch groups, law enforcement agencies, state and regional crime prevention associations, businesses, civic groups, and individuals, devoted to safer communities. The nations premiere crime prevention network works with law enforcement officials and civilian leaders to keep crime watch volunteers informed, interested, involved and motivated. Since 1981, NATW continues to serve thousands of members across the nation.
The introduction of National Night Out, “America’s Night Out Against Crime”, in 1984 began an effort to promote involvement in crime prevention activities, police-community partnerships, neighborhood camaraderie and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back. NATW’s National Night Out program culminates annually, on the first Tuesday of August (In Texas, the first Tuesday of October)."

This night is about empowering neighbors to claim and, in some places, take back their neighborhoods, even if just for a night.  It is to promote partnerships between citizens and law enforcement to fight crime.  So how did Plainfield measure up to the objectives of NATW?

Judging by the number of people who came out for the two get togethers - at City Hall and Cook School Park - pretty good.  And we had a good turnout of police, fire and elected officials.   All combined I estimate between 300 and 400 people joined in. 

My thought provoking neighbor challenged me (thanks Pat TK) to consider how we might do National Night Out in the future and that led me to the following ideas:
  • take the party to the neighborhoods that are "crime hot spots".  There are places in Plainfield where residents don't feel they can come out at night.  That's where we need to take back the streets.
  • we need to empower our block associations to take the lead in planning National Night Out.  Public Safety officials, Mayor and Council members should get behind them, not in front of them.
  • we truly need to empower our city-wide black association group.  Currently it is run by the police.  Our block association leaders need to take it over and get more support from the police.  They need to receive regular, real time crime information that they can take back to their neighbors.  When public safety problems (and proposed solutions) are brought up at their city-wide meetings, the police representatives may need to use the chain of command to provide the proper response.  But they do need to follow-up and bring back responses. 
We had a good night in Plainfield.  With new leadership coming in city hall, we have the opportunity to improve on our successes, try new approaches to public safety and make our streets safer, not just at city hall and Cook School Park, but in the places where people don't feel they can freely partake of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Plainfield's Opportunity

Now that the all important Mayoral primary is behind us, there is a strong possibility for new leadership to take the reins of city government.  I have felt for a long time that Plainfield's success has been held back by a lack of leadership and that a good leader can make a world of difference for our city.

The job of City Council for the next 6 months is to find ways to achieve small victories and to make sure that bad decisions are not made.  The City Council wisely budgeted in 2013 for the hiring of experts to bring us best practices in municipal government.  We want our new leadership to start in 2014 well armed with ideas to move Plainfield into the 21st century.  To use a baseball analogy, we have been a minor league farm team for too long.  Its time to join the majors. 

Code enforcement, building permits, recreation and economic development all need a makeover.  I will blog on each of these subjects in 2013.  We need to make city hall a friendly place for residents and business people.  Change needs to occur and change is never easy.  But when the opportunity arises, we need to embrace it.  We have turned away from opportunities too many times. Let's get ready for new leadership and be a part of the changes that will make us all proud to be Plainfielders.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Elmwood Gardens

Elmwood Gardens is an important project on the west side of Plainfield, actually just west of downtown, between West Front St and the train tracks.  It is also an indicator of what Plainfield can be and how its potential to overcome its problems can be realized.

This apartment complex, operated by the Plainfield Housing Authority, has been a crime hot spot for many years.  Its design is not conducive to residents safety.  To access your apartment, you have to pass through a main entrance and walk down a hall to your unit.  Cities across the country have been demolishing these types of apartments and replacing them with townhouse style living units, usually with a lower population density.  We can see that this has happened in Newark and Elizabeth, notably in Elizabethport where revitalization began when Miglori Manor and Pioneer Homes were knocked down.  These were designed much like Elmwood Gardens and were dangerous places to live and visit. 

                          view of the three Elmwood apartment buildings

 Some of us have been asking why Plainfield was not following the trend and finally we are hearing that progress will begin soon.  I contend that this project is as or more important than the redevelopment projects slated for downtown.  New projects add to our city in many ways but the new Elmwood Gardens also will remove conditions that drag down its residents, its neighborhood and the whole city. 

                      from a community focus group on the new Elmwood design

The new Elmwood Gardens will be a credit to the Housing Authority and its partners including city government.  It brings hope for more revitalization and momentum for private investors to join with the limited resources of government to bring Plainfield into the "major leagues"  where it once was and always belongs.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Plainfield Budget Amendments

This past Tuesday, the City Council approved budget amendments.  This is the Council's opportunity to make the annual city budget, introduced by the Mayor and her administration, its own.  That is the process at all levels of government- the executive branch submits a budget and the legislative branch modifies and approves it.  Some would call it teamwork, others the balance of power between the branches. Some in attendance at last Wednesdays Council meeting might call it a mess. 

It was all the above.  But mostly it worked. 

Every year I look forward to the budget amendment meeting, albeit with some anxiety.  For all the hours Council members put in throughout the year, our power and influence is not as great as most observers think.  Except for budget amendments.  This is when we get to say what are priorities and where the Mayor and administration must spend the city's resources. These amendments have a real impact on the rest of the year.

The Council was wise to employ David Kochel as our budget consultant.  He is a retired city administrator who previously served (8 months) in the Robinson-Briggs administration as interim City Administrator. He crunched the numbers and recommended various increases and decreases to the Mayors budget.  There were a few bumps in the road as we voted on each and every recommendation but ultimately all were approved. 

Some amendments were initiated by Council members.  One amendment, championed in part by me, added $75,000 to the Council budget to bring experts in municipal government operations as part of the transition to a new Mayor and administration.  Plainfield residents want change at city hall.  They deserve a city government that uses best practices to serve the people at the lowest possible tax rate.  We all know that some of city hall's operations are in need of overhaul.  Recreation, code inspections and communications are prominent on most people's lists.

I want the new administration to hit the ground running.  We have lost 8 years to lack of vision and inaction.  It's time to make things better for our residents.  It's time to give our city employees the tools they need to succeed and grow as municipal government professionals.  The $75,000 increase will enable us to use in expertise this year to plan improvements beginning in 2014.

The budget amendments went through the Council Finance Committee, which is Adrian Mapp, Bill Reid and me.  I thank the other Council members for their support of the amendments, especially Tracey Brown, who introduced an amendment at the Council meeting to increase summer youth employment opportunities.  A good move that was supported by all.  The sum total of the amendments did not add one penny to property taxes.  It was a good night for the residents of Plainfield.

Final budget approval will be this Monday at 8 pm in the municipal court chambers.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Primary Voting is Important

Plainfield's next Mayor will be selected by the voters this Tuesday.  Plainfield newcomers:  the overwhelming percentage of registered Democrats compared to Republicans has led to a Democrat  as our Mayor ever since Paul O'Keefe held the seat in the late 1970's.  The only times since that Democrats have crossed over to non Democratic mayoral candidates in significant numbers were the Donald Harris campaign (he lost to Harold Mitchell) and Al McWilliams, who came amazingly close to beating Sharon Robinson Briggs in 2005 as a write -in candidate. And Al was a Democrat who was forced off the party line.

This time around we can all assume a Democrat will win the mayoral seat.  The race will be determined Tuesday, June 4 between Adrian Mapp and Sharon Robinson-Briggs.  Registered Democrats:  you will have a major say in the future of our city on election day.  The contrast between Adrian and Sharon could not be greater.One has a track record of successfully representing all Plainfielders and the other only gives the impression of representing all of Plainfield.  With all my heart, I hope Plainfield is victorious.  Go Adrian!!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Budget Hearings

The City Council is moving towards budget adoption.  Budget hearings are in process.  Council members and the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee are hearing department heads and their key people present their budget requests for the new year.  The new year started January 2013.  Why budgets are adopted after the year begins is another story.  Suffice to say that it is considered good form in municipal government to adopt a budget 3 months into the year. Plainfield has been adopting 5-6 months, sometimes longer into the year and this year it looks like 6 months.

A recent hearing included the Municipal Court judge, the Tax Assessor, Tax Collecter and Treasurer.   Fiscal audit findings were discussed.  The administration claims to have fixed most of the findings and is working on the rest.  Since we have had repeat findings throughout the Robinson Briggs administration, I will wait to hear from our independent auditor.

The Tax Collector was the most interesting for me. The previous Tax Collecter left numerous problems and a backlog of work.  I assume that is why when I asked when the city was going to dispose of foreclosed properties that have reverted to Plainfield, I did not get an answer. Just we'll get back to you. The new person sounds capable and is working through them.  Let's hope for quick action on this.

Budget hearings continue Tuesday (Senior services, Plainfield Action Services, Women Infant and Childrens program (WIC), Health services) and Wednesday (taxes).  Hearings start and 7 pm and go to 9 pm.  I believe the location is t he Senior Center on East Front St but check the city website to make sure.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Attention Adrian Mapp Supporters – The Plainfield Primary Election Has Too Much at Stake to Take For Granted

We have suffered 7.5 years under Mayor Robinson Briggs. Her inability to collaborate with other elected officials at local, county and state levels has brought city government to gridlock. Although she has a talent for kissing and hugging her constituents, it only applies to some of her constituents. Many others are completely ignored. Talented city managers refuse to come to Plainfield. The few effective ones who have taken work with her administration have left quickly when they realized the ingredients for success do not exist under Mayor Robinson Briggs.

People who are tuned in to Plainfield government, even those who initially supported Robinson Briggs, know that she cannot under any circumstances be allowed to succeed in the June 4 primary. With her poor track record and run of embarrassing incidents, why would anyone vote for her? The danger is that there are voters who have busy lives who are not tuned in to what is happening to Plainfield. And they see that the Mayor has a talent for kissing and hugging. They may take that to mean she cares about all of Plainfield. They may not know how bad things are at city hall. There are people who will vote for her.

This blog post is expressly for Adrian Mapp supporters. Do not take this election for granted. We know how effective Adrian will be and how disastrous it would be if the Mayor is re-elected. Even if you think Robinson Briggs has only a slim chance, the risk in this election is too great. Get out the vote. Every vote counts. Strange things do happen on election day and we've had all we can take of strange.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

New Bond Ordinance - good policy or bad politics?

The Council will be voting on two bond ordinances in May totaling $8 million. The second was introduced this month, the first in April.  Last month I questioned why the first bond ordinance did not include new road paving projects. Administrative officials responded that we have enough road projects funded from our previous ordinances.  End of discussion, I thought.

That is, until the May agenda setting meeting when suddenly we were looking at an additional $5 million in capital improvements including $4 million for roads.  Clearly this was pulled together very quickly. Anytime the public is asked to pay for $5 million for projects, all by property taxes and not from grants, deliberation is required.  I hope the administration is up to the task of explaining and justifying this bond ordinance.  I hope this is not an end of term spending spree by Mayor Robinson Briggs.  She has not hesitated to spend the public's money on self serving things in the past - like the group of police that followed her around at the public's expense for her first two years in office.

Plainfield would not be unique in having an outgoing Mayor, Governor or President burden his/her successor with deferred or future expenses but that does not make it a good practice.  I hope my colleagues will evaluate this bond ordinance carefully.  Speaking for myself, I will not prejudge it.  I fear that one of my Council colleagues already judged me against the paving of West Third St.  Actually, I didn't know it was on the project list as individual roads usually are when a bond ordinance is presented to City Council. 

A good outcome would be to prioritize roads such as West Third and take out enough projects so the total dollar value of the two ordinances comes to $5 million.  The most fiscally astute of Mayor Robinson Briggs many City Administrators, Bibi Taylor, put an upper limit on new debt that came to between $4 and $5 million annually.  It is ironic that she now works as the chief fiscal person for Union County after being made to feel unwelcome by Mayor Sharon.

Some of the projects listed on the new ordinance are ones that, with reasonable time and effort, could be partially or fully grant funded.  That will take a Mayor and administration that are on their game, and a Mayor who cares that the homeowners are struggling with our property tax burden already.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

How to Organize City Hall

During the Charter Commission meetings, the question has repeatedly come up of how to organize the work at city hall. More specifically, how many and what departments of city government are needed in Plainfield? 

The current arrangement is not based on current needs but on arrangements of the past, sometimes as a Mayoral workaround when the City Council has been uncooperative and sometimes to create or preserve someones job. Bernice Paglia, our best historian of local government, has made this point effectively. 

I remember when the City Council refused to give consent to Mayor Al McWilliams' senior management nominations.  He juggled a few job titles and positions in an attempt to create a semblance of the the management team he wanted.  That refusal to grant him his team appalled me and was what helped me resolve my ambivalence about running for City Council.

The most recent reorganization at city hall was the elimination of the police chief position and creation of police director.  These initiatives were done without need of charter revision. 

The City Charter should set general parameters for the organization of departments but not be prescriptive.  Conditions change.  We are entering a phase of local government where shared services, consolidation of local government entities and outsourcing of non core services will become more common.  We might not want a lot of departments.  We might want to shift which divisions and offices report to which departments. 

The result of the June Mayoral primary will tell us something about direction.  Our current Mayor has not been responsive to suggestions for shared services and outsourcing.  A new administration may be different. Regardless of who wins this time around, the long term view is that the face of municipal government will change.

Here are some ideas for Plainfield:
  • outsource Plainfield Action Services to Union County Department of Human Services, the United Way and the Urban League, one or a combination of these organizations,
  • outsource the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) to the Neighborhood Health Services Corporation (aka Plainfield Health Center) or another healthcare provider,
  • doing the above would make the Department of Administration and Finance more manageable and its department head would not need such an unrealistically diverse skill set (which is impossible to find),
  • implement Martin Hellwigs idea for civilian Police and Fire Directors reporting to the City Administrator
Any changes will affect city employees and must be done with careful planning and respect for their job security.  Disruption can be minimized by timing changes with retirements, requiring new service providers to have Plainfield offices and setting outsourcing requirements to protect the jobs of current employees.

When we outsourced Dudley House, people in city hall (some suspect the Mayor) spread misinformation that brought concerned advocates to City Council meetings.  However, the deed was done and accommodations were made for some employees.  Most importantly, the people needing Dudley House services now receive better services from a highly regarded, state licensed substance abuse treatment agency, Sunrise House.  They have been more effective than city hall in generating revenues and not just depending on Plainfield taxpayers. Dudley House is a lesson for us about what we can do in the future.

Mayors and City Councils need some flexibility to reorganize government operations to meet the needs of the people.  The Charter should provide just enough structure, checks and balances so there is no free for all silliness with every new Mayor and administration.  But not so much that there is no room to change.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The City Charter

I recently joined the ranks of many former and present city officials who have testified before the City Charter Commission.  I shared the commissions meeting agenda with Councilwoman Rebecca Williams and Public Safety Director/Police Director Martin Hellwig.  I found their comments both interesting and educational.  I share Bernice Paglia's view that Martin's suggestion for civilian Police and Fire Directors reporting to the City Administrator was the highlight of the meeting.

Before summarizing my suggestions, I want to give credit to the Charter Commission members.  They take this job seriously.  They are Rick Smiley, John Stewart, Mary Burgwinkle, Marie Davis and Jeanette Criscione.  I don't know if their excellent work will lead to improvements in the city charter.  That's up to elected officials. What they will be giving us is a detailed and insightful recording of the recommendations of people who know Plainfield government from the inside over the last 30 years.  When they are finished their work, I look forward to reading the commission's report which will include their recommendations, distilled from the testimony of their many interviewees. 

In general I find Plainfield's charter adequate and non-controversial.  There is some room for improvement in my opinion:
  1. The City Council can investigate alleged wrongdoing and impose fines up to $200.  That's too low to be a deterrent so I recommend fines up to $1000.  Wrongdoing in city hall is a very serious concern.
  2. Compensation of elected officials for expenses -I have seen this abused at League of Municipality conventions and out of state conferences.  Approval for expenses by the full City Council by resolution should be required.
  3. The City Clerk must be appointed by the City Council.  The charter only requires that the "Clerk of the Council" be appointed by the City Council.  According to previous Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, these are separate positions and his opinion negates the balance of power needed for effective checks and balances between the Council and Mayor.
  4. The Corporation Counsel is supposed to serve the Mayor and Counsel. It does not put one branch of government above the other.  When there are differences between the two branches, the Corporation Counsel should be a legal resource to both.  That was not the case with Mr Williamson who saw his role as primarily serving the Mayor.  In my opinion, the previous Corporation Counsel, Ms Drakeford, had a more balanced approach to serving these two branches of government. To effect a more balanced approach, the charter should give the City Council power to reinstate the Corporation Counsel if he/she is fired by the Mayor, just like reinstatement of the City Administrator or department heads is a power given to the City Council.
  5. Annual budget submission deadlines are mentioned in the charter but municipal budgets are chronically late, often approved around 6 months into the year!  The charter should specify consequences to the Mayor for late introduction and to Council members for late approval.  Something like paying double property taxes (just kidding).
  6. Recall of elected officials should be a difficult task but not so difficult that citizens are discouraged from trying.  The percentage of signatures on recall petitions is set too high.  It should be lowered to a level that will make elected officials think twice before flagrantly disregarding the law and/or the public.
  7. The charter should mandate training for newly elected Mayors and Council members.  Such training must be completed within the first year of office or that seat is forfeited.  Knowledge of the roles and responsibilities of elected office is that important and most of us come to the job partially prepared at best.
I underlined two recommendations that deserve special attention.  The 7.5 year relationship between Mayor Robinson Briggs and City Council has brought balance of power forward as a major concern.  All branches of government tend to want their power maximized but this relationship is an outlier, for reasons related to personality.  Neither a charter, nor ordinances or resolutions, can fix this problem. But an adequate balance of power can minimize its negative consequences.  Educated elected officials - who know the responsibilities and limitations of their roles - will be more effective than Plainfield's municipal government has been these last 7.5 years.  Another preventative medicine would be for the Council to budget for and appoint a staff person to research and support Council legislative initiatives and to get answers to questions independent of Mayoral and administrative responses.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Defense of Trees

During Superstorm Sandy, 20 large trees lining Oxford Avenue came down, destroying cars, knocking down power lines and damaging homes.  All this in a one block area that had just been paved.  Our engineers believe that the installation of new curbs and blacktop affected the tree roots and made them  vulnerable to high winds. In the storms aftermath, one Oxford Avenue homeowner took down a spectacular 70 year old oak tree on their front yard.  The Shade Tree Commissioners recently asked homeowners on this street if they are interested in the city planting new trees in the tree lawn ( the area between the curb and sidewalk).  Many said no, some because of understandable safety concerns, some because they don't want to rake leaves in the fall.

I believe that, with more knowledge of the Tree Commission's plans and policies and of the benefits trees bring to a neighborhood, most people would welcome new city trees.  Here is why:

1.  Our Shade Tree Commission created a list of trees for planting along streets.  No longer will Plainfield plant the oaks and maples that grow to 60 -70 feet or more.  We are planting trees that mature small and moderate in size, 

2. Trees on our list don't tend to heave sidewalks or create excessive droppings for residents to contend with.  These policies are carefully researched with the assistance of a certified forestry expert.

3.  Trees cool your neighborhood during hot summer days and the shade they bring lower your cost of air conditioning.

4. Trees are beautiful and a tree lined street increases property values.

5.  Best of all, (definitely for me) a neigbhorhood with enough trees to create a forest somehow improves the quality of living.  I can't define why this is but just compare many of Plainfields neighborhoods with some newer suburban areas where there are few mature trees.  You will understand what I mean.

The good things in life require effort. Raking leaves is well worth it and brings people out of their homes to commune with their neighbors during the crisp days of autumn.  So be glad and say yes when a friendly Plainfield Shade Tree Commissioner asks you if you want a tree.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

What Plainfield Needs

We have an election coming in June that offers voters a real choice in the Democratic primary for Mayor.  We also have a Charter Study Commission that is taking its job seriously in studying the charter for opportunities to help Plainfield.

Both are important to the city.  But the primary election is what really matters.  Adrian Mapp was the more deserving candidate four years ago but Mayor Robinson Briggs got re-elected.  She's had 7 plus years to lead Plainfield and she has been a dismal failure as our leader. We are fortunate that we have Adrian Mapp who is willing to take on the huge challenge of putting city hall on the right path.  If he wins the primary and the November election, he will have a mess to clean-up. But he knows what he is taking on and I am grateful to him that he is willing and able to lead Plainfield.

The Charter Commission is doing exemplary work and we should be proud of this group of dedicated citizens.  I look forward to their final report. I am confident they will present some important recommendations for Plainfield municipal government.  They have had some astute past city leaders come before them to share their knowledge.  Many have provided testimony to the Commission saying that a new or revised charter cannot break a tradition of divisiveness, short term thinking and self serving. How true!Only leadership can do that.  Adrian Mapp presents us with an opportunity.  Let's embrace it.