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.