Plainfield’s Branch of Gov’t – Part 3 of 3

This is the 3rd and final installment of Plainfield’s Branch of Government blog post regarding Plainfield’s Legislative and Executive Branches losing sight of their roles and responsibilities as elected public servants. For Plainfield’s City Council, they need to start doing their job, read their packets and ask meaningful and substantive questions and then vote accordingly on resolutions, ordinances, budgets, appropriations and hiring decisions (Alert: Legislative Check/Balance). Their role is to work WITH the Mayor not FOR the Mayor to impact positive, cost effective and long lasting change in our city. No Mayor is all knowing and no Mayor is omnipotent – they need to be questioned and challenged like anyone else, including the Council (this may require them not being afraid to speak at Council meetings or relying so much on Corporation Counsel to answer questions for them – it’s a pretty good gig when you think about it). At the end of the day asking questions, providing proper oversight and having other Branches support and defend their initiatives makes everyone involved work a little harder and a little smarter and Plainfield is the ultimate winner (which I am pretty sure is the point).

The council meeting on Monday demonstrated the lack of responsibility by the council and was highlighted by questions that were asked later when they addressed regular agenda items. At one point Resolution R234-18 (Granting approval to hang an event banner across Front Street) was up for passage and a councilmember asked the “vital” question of “how long will the banner hang across the street” (Answer: 1 Month – whew good to know) and another asked how much the city was saving on a new contract with Pitney Bowes (R240-18) with a total annual expense of $2,883.36 (Answer: Approximately $500 – not major but savings is savingt, but still no question on the charter changes huh?). When it came to Bond Ordinance 1264 with issuance of bonds totaling over $3 Million for city-wide capital improvements, the question asked by a councilmember was “what is this for?” – now that may not seem like a silly question on the face of it but it is actually a little scary, and here is why – each council member receives a packet with detailed back-up documentation for each agenda item. I know there was a detailed list supporting these capital improvements because I serve on the Planning Board and we approve the capital improvements before they go to Council for final approval. So this would mean that the councilperson that asked the question did not read their materials related to spending over $3 Million of taxpayer bonded funds. Think about that – there was an elected official (possibly others) that showed up to vote on an expenditure of over $3 Million and did not know what the city was getting for that. Seriously, take a moment and think about that. Then think about the fact that we pay them to do this job.

Checks and balances are important, elected officials knowing their roles is important, keeping power from being concentrated in too few hands is important. I don’t know if this Councils failure to do their duty is a lack of understanding of their role, the fact that the Mayor, as local Party Chairman, controls their ability to get the line on the ballot or their day job is in the public sector and causes discomfort with carrying out their responsibilities. But I can say that they are failing the checks and balances portion of the Civics 101 class and the results will certainly be added costs to taxpayers and continued underperformance of city services.

Here are a few suggestions for council members to exert their checks and balances and oversight authority, at Council Meetings, so the public is as informed on the issues as they will be:

  • Abandoned Properties – Ask for a monthly report presented at council meetings showing status of the abandoned properties program – this is an oversight function to confirm that monies appropriated in the budget (by you, the appropriators of $ – one of those check/balance things) are being used successfully. If this program is running successfully the costs of the program should be greatly offset (or even covered entirely, fingers crossed it turns a small profit) by adding properties to tax rolls and increasing city revenue. And by the way – this should be a no-brainer to calculate on a rolling basis. Should you find that it isn’t successful there are many approaches to working with the administration to make the program more effective – which is the point here, being successful.
  • Parks & Recreation: Ask for a regular report (monthly, quarterly) on P&R programs to be presented at council meetings – how many programs are in operation for a period, how many kids are involved in the programs and how does participation differ from prior years? What programs are run with non-city organizations that we can support but don’t have to own (e. cost savings, not duplicating efforts). This is just like the Attorney General/Secretary of Defense/Director of IRS etc. appearing before congress to report on programs and operations for their respective departments. Standard checks and balances oversight doesn’t have to be confrontational, just informative so that you know how taxpayer monies are being spent and how effective the programs are for child/youth engagement (the actual point of P&R – not hiring staff and creating programs that already exist or don’t produce results).
  • Inspections and Code Enforcement: Have Phil Izzo appear before the Council and provide a report related to inspection violations issued, time to resolution and the rate of complaints over a defined period of time – this allows you to see that they are working effectively, proactively and achieving results across every Ward. If the results are not promising, inquire as to what the issues are that they face, what can be done to improve the process internally and then make requests to the administration to address those issues and look for improvement in the next report. By the way – the first issue will likely be “not enough resources” and the wrong answer is “lets hire more people”. The proper place to start is by asking “what can be done within your department to increase the output and capacity of the existing staff, what things are keeping you from doing your jobs effectively, can investments in technology help you do more with less, do ordinances need to be rewritten/strengthened because you keep losing in court etc.

There are many more things that can be done to exert your authority as the Legislative Branch of Plainfield and make sure that taxpayer money (including that being spent on each of you) is being used effectively and achieving positive results – but lets start with asking some questions, following up on issues publicly and requesting necessary action from the Administration’s various departments and divisions when it is necessary.

Non of this should give the impression that one branch is the enemy of the other – on the contrary, you are all Plainfielders and have the future of Plainfield as your #1 priority (note that I said Plainfield, not anyone’s next elected office, new SUV or paid trip to a conference – those are distractions, not priorities). It does mean that maybe you spend a little less time cloistered together and hanging out – spend a little time in your Ward(s).  Canvassing during an election (to me anyway) is one of the most exhausting and exhilarating experiences and I enjoyed every step of the 200+ miles I walked last year in Plainfield.  However,  during election canvassing, one of the top comments from citizens was “how come I never see you until you need my vote?”  Yeah, how come?  So, go walk the neighborhoods, chat with people, hear what is going on and, first and foremost, focus on your own branch – there is after all more than one.

1st Annual Queen City Film Festival

The Queen City Film Festival will present an exciting new event on Friday July 13, 2018 at the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, New Jersey.

Presenting the best projects from locally based filmmakers, festival organizers have curated short films produced in Plainfield New Jersey.

Scheduled screenings of projects crafted in and around Plainfield including, The Shhfilm, Moves We Make, White Pickett Fence, and Heroin(e).

Viewing starts promptly 7: 15p and concludes with a Meet and Greet/Talk Back featuring an award winning line-up of area filmmakers hosted by BKS 1 Radio Personality Latoya Dawson.

Featured panelists include Plainfield natives Kalani Mackson (Cinematographer, DP), Allison McWilliams (Production Manager) and film and television production veteran Lamar David Mackson. Other panelists include actress/writer Okema T. Moore, Patrick Coker /Director, Adam Wiesen/Writer and Director Jamal Hodge.

The event is also Co-sponsored by Brooklyn based Tryboro Productions which used Plainfield as film locations on White Pickett Fence and Heroin(e).

Tickets may be purchased for $15 (Cash Only) at the door – 724 Park Avenue Plainfield NJ.

Box Office opens at 6:30pm. Seating is limited, early arrival recommended.  

For more information call (908) 205-1176 or visit Nonstop Show Group on Facebook or Instagram. #QueenCityFilmFest #qcff2018

Moves We Make Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5cELHXCmDI

White Pickett Fence Trailer –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbZDuJ7r0v4&list=PLW8P3rmPWGuewZrYt2660oZau3FWW4DZY

Heroin(e) A short Film Trailer – https://vimeo.com/275738109

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Plainfield’s Branch of Gov’t Part 2

As mentioned in part 1 of Plainfield’s Branch of Government, the city of Plainfield has morphed into a single governmental branch operation, against all standards and norms of democracy (not to mention little things like constitutions.) In part 1, I ended with an example of not only a lack of separation of powers but what appears to be a lack of understanding by City Council members about their roles, their authority and how they are to conduct themselves with respect to the Executive Branch of municipal government. Prior to the May 2018 forum organized by the Plainfield LWV, candidates were sent three questions (easy stuff, definitely not heavy lift types of questions) to answer in writing and submit to the League for publication. Because Councilwoman Mills-Ransome and Ms. Ashley Davis (candidate for Ward 1 Council Seat) are the presumed winners for the general election this November, I will use their answers as examples of this issue related to separation of powers and checks and balances (please note these answers can be found on the Plainfield LWV website).

Question from Plainfield LWV: How will you uphold the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches?

Councilwoman Mills-Ransome’s Response:I can uphold the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches because once appointed, I made the effort to ensure what I had learned years ago about separation of powers was still intact.  The executive branch, the administration, initiates resolutions or ordinances following a line of approval – Department Director – City Administrator – Council President – for placement of items on the agenda for Council Consideration.  The Administration also runs the day to day operation.  The City Council represents the legislative branch.  Once the Council President has approved placement on the agenda of the items the administration has presented, the Council receives the agenda items with backup information on the Friday before the Agenda Fixing session.  At this session the Council makes the decision on items that will go to the Regular Meeting agenda for Council Action.  Some items in the agenda fixing session are moved by consensus to the regular meeting agenda.”

Other than the fact that the question was in no way answered (not even close) it also erroneously states “…the administration, initiates resolutions or ordinances…” while there is truth to this it misses a very important part, the City Council (Legislative Branch) also has the power to write and present legislation, just like congress they have the power submit their own bills for consideration.  The balance of Councilwoman Mills-Ransome’s answer is a checklist of the review and approval process for creating an agenda (basically its like really boring party planning) and has nothing to do with actually “checking” the other branches authority. As a side note, I would be interested to know how she went about ensuring that the checks and balances she learned about were “still in tact” – maybe they keep them in a cabinet or drawer at the Drake House and they can be observed?

Candidate Ashley Davis’ Response: I would uphold the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches by asking questions, which helps to provide clarity. Another way to uphold the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches is to carefully review and understand the budget to ensure that the resources provided by the council are used appropriately. The council cannot get involved in administrative or day-to-day functions of the city, but through serving as liaisons to various city agencies, as well as serving on council committees, the council will provide the necessary checks and balances that are part of any effective democracy.

Take away starting the answer by repeating the question and do 3-4 more Google search’s and I feel like this answer may have ended up closer to the “Correct” column, however “questions and clarity” and being a “liaison” are not checks and balances. They may be part of checks and balances but they are not, in fact, actual checks or balances. Not sure what to do with “serving on council committees…..part of any effective democracy” – sounds good but means absolutely nothing, pure essay filler kind of stuff. It does have energy so only right to give a point or two for that.

Here is one definition of Check and Balances – there are many but NONE support the above answers:

Governmental: Extension of the separation of powers doctrine, under which each branch of a government can (if necessary) counter the actions or decisions of the other branches. This arrangement ensures transparency, and prevents domination of the government by any branch.

There is no arguing with the fact that changing a city charter is important and can have a great impact and cost to its citizens. Putting 10 “confidential aides” in the charter and saying “there is no intention of hiring them” is not the best way to safeguard taxpayers from increased costs and in fact gives this or future administrations the legal authority to use these as patronage positions (i.e. all cost no value). At best this is sloppy legislating done with haste, no public notice and without oversight (Alert: Legislative Check/Balance).  More tomorrow in the Plainfield’s Branch of Government Part 3.

Made In The Shade

When I first moved to Plainfield, after living in Newark for 10 years, someone mentioned the Shade Tree Commission to me and I laughed and thought “a what commission?”

Well, I am big enough person to admit that I quickly learned how ridiculous my snickering was – not only because of the tremendous amount of work that the commission does, but even more so because the beautiful old trees were one of the many attributes that sold me on Plainfield and capture my attention with each season.

With that said, I want to bring attention to an event that is sponsored by the Plainfield Shade Tree Commission that I think people will find very informative and helpful in caring for one of our greatest city assets:

Event:  Tree Keepers Workshop (By NJ Tree Foundation)

What:  An opportunity to learn about caring for trees on your property, in your neighborhood and speak with your Shade Tree Commissioners

When:  Monday, July 23rd – 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM

Where:  Plainfield Public Library – Anne Louise Davis Room (lower level of library)

Cost:  Free to all Plainfield Residents

 

Plainfield’s Branch of Gov’t – Part 1

This is a three-part blog post regarding my primary takeaway from Monday nights City Council meeting. During that meeting it became overwhelmingly apparent to me that we have a local government that is operating as a single governmental branch – using processes and procedures only for the purposes of making things “official”. Our municipal government is set-up like all governments within the United States with three distinct branches – Executive, Legislative and Judiciary, each with its own role, responsibilities and authorities. The intent is that each branch performs their duties and acts as a check against the others – standard Civics 101 kind of stuff, or is it?

At the council meeting on Monday, the Mayor was straightforward about his approach to the changes in the city charter. (I won’t get into the background but information can be found on TapInto, Plainfield Today and Old Doc’s post). He clearly stated that the City Council performed their duty by passing (Made It Official) the recommendations as submitted by the Charter Study Commission (a publicly elected body established to study the cities charter and make recommendations for modifications) and then, without public announcement, citizen input or review by the Council, he had the legislation amended once it was in the hands of the NJ Legislature, giving the Executive branch the ability to greatly expand the operational structure and hire additional staff (up to 10 Confidential Aides) as desired. While some of the reorganization ideas are good (some not so much) and were part of the intent of the Charter Study Commissions recommended, and much narrower, modifications – the process for making these changes without proper public vetting is troublesome.

Even more troubling is our City Council’s apparent lack of understanding of their role and the lack of concern that the Executive branch usurped their authority (which they apparently are unaware they possess). Following the mayor’s presentation, the 6 Council members in attendance did not have a single question for the Executive Branch of which they are equals (i.e. they don’t report to the Mayor’s office). NOT… A… SINGLE… QUESTION. Imagine that – the legislation they passed, to in essence amend our cities constitution, was modified after the fact, without their consent or a public meeting and they were neither upset nor did they have any questions about such important factors as cost implications as a result of the added Department head positions and confidential aide positions, breaking apart the current Public Safety department or how the future Director of Communications and Technology is qualified to manage something as vital and sensitive as the city governments technology infrastructure (quick reminder – it was already hacked and held hostage for ransom once already.)

The administration (Executive Branch) seems to be under the impression that because the City Council (Legislative Branch) is composed of 7 democrats and six are aligned with the Mayor that his branch of government supplies the legislation and the Council just rubber-stamps it into law without question or oversight. For anyone that has been at a Council meeting they know that there are very few, if any, questions and little to no dialogue about resolutions or ordinances. This lack of separation between the primary branches of government in Plainfield reminded me of the candidate answers to the Plainfield League of Women Voters questions provided prior to the most recent forum in May. More on that in part two of Plainfield’s Branch of Government.

Plainfield Vision Blog Launch

Musings and Insights on The Queen City

As one of the many Plainfielders left frustrated and feeling the void of Bernice Paglia’s Plaintalker II blog, I have decided to channel that frustration with a blog of my own.  It would be impossible to come close to matching the many skills of Ms. Paglia – my ruminations are inspired by her aptitude and I can only hope to pay homage to her craft.

Last year, I was honored to be on the Executive Committee for the Plainfield Vision 2025 city-wide strategic planning initiative.  The experience was a wonderful opportunity to spend time all over our great city listening to Plainfielders share their ideas and vision for Plainfield by the year 2025.  For me personally, the variety of topics were fascinating and extremely educational and the experience greatly contributed to my appreciation of Plainfield residents hopes, dreams and aspirations for our community.  My hope, is that this blog will continue the open, honest and thought provoking conversations that were shared during the PV2025 project, along with the occasional humorous anecdote.

My goal is for this blog to create thoughtful discourse and conversation amongst my fellow lovers of Plainfield.  While I am not a reporter, I will work to provide content based on facts, figures and available information and leave rumor, innuendo and gossip to other sites.  That doesn’t mean a post may not be critical, but when it is, it will be done in a constructive and positive manner with a focus on opportunities for improvement.  With that in mind, I hope that readers (if there are any) will feel free to share their thoughts and opinions on issues and do so in a respectful and fact driven manner.  We all like a little gossip now and then but fact based conversations are much more beneficial in helping our community to continue to grow, prosper and improve.

I plan to blog regularly, but not likely on a daily basis.  In full disclosure, as a member of the Plainfield Planning Board, my posts will not include topics that could result in any legal or ethical issues for the city, myself or any of my fellow hard working board members.  For information and to ask questions on any Planning Board matters, I strongly encourage residents to attend Planning Board meetings (held @7:30 on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of each month in the city hall library).

Lastly, I welcome and encourage contributions by any other Plainfielders interested in sharing their thoughts and opinions on their favorite topics, pet projects or an Andy Rooney style humorous rant.