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.