Here We Go Again

In 2017, just before the primary, Adrian Mapp latched onto an idea, issued a press release, got public backlash, empowered a committee and buried the resulting report.  Now 3+ years later, going into an election year, he is repeating this same scenario again with no notice to the public (aside from a required legal notice printed in the paper) or discussions at city council meetings.

As a person who hates to be told no, Adrian is resurrecting an idea most residents thought was dead and buried, that is the sale of the Albert Bierstadt paintings that were gifted to the City of Plainfield in 1919 by Dr. J. Ackerman Coles in memory of his father, and which hang in the municipal courtroom.

The issue is what the funds will be used for after the paintings are sold. Apparently, they are intended for Adrian’s borrowed project “Plainfield Promise”.  I say borrowed because it is directly based on The Oakland Promisein Oakland, CA (which is based on the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan) and would ultimately require millions of dollars in funding over many years.

In 2017, I was one of six residents appointed to the Mayor’s committee and personally handed our report to him in December of that year.  Committee/Commission creation is an oft-used political tactic to calm the public by saying “we will study the issue” and get back to you.  The problem in this instance, for Adrian, was the committee actually studied the issue, researched similar programs around the country, how they were funded, how they were managed and what their outcomes were.  The committee ultimately voted UNANIMOUSLY AGAINST both the sale of the paintings and the idea that city hall should manage a program like Plainfield Promise.

We elect Mayors to manage our cities (secretly hoping they will reduce costs and the burden to taxpayers), improve services, and work with the community to develop long-term goals for our city. We do not elect rulers who unilaterally develop multi-million dollar programs that are funded by the sale of our city’s assets and donations from developers (who are often getting tax incentives) without presenting detailed plans to the public and allowing open, transparent and robust vetting by those ultimately responsible for the costs.  

As far as I have seen, there is no website for Plainfield Promise, no PowerPoint presentation outlining how it is structured, how the money is managed (and safe guarded) or how the additional millions in necessary funding will be raised. This is a back of the envelope, poorly thought out vanity project with a high likelihood of failure and waste of public funds, for an issue that is not within the Mayors job description.

 In NJ our city government and educational systems are managed by two different bodies, they each have their own lane.  The Mayor should stay in his lane and mange the portfolio that he has – and that does not include education.  If the Mayor would like to get involved in our education system, he should resign and run for the Board of Education.    

Here are some of the issues related to this topic, some of which were raised by the Plainfield Promise Committee:

  • Why the secrecy by the Mayor regarding the sale of city assets and their intended use? 
  • Why didn’t the Mayor release the Committee’s 2017 report?
  • Why did the Mayor, roughly 6 months after the committee submitted its report, ask the city council to approve creation of a Plainfield Promise Trust Account on the cities books?  Especially, without making the committees report available to the council members.
  • Why is the Mayor spending money on Lawyers before having a public discussion?  City Council will ultimately have to vote to allow the sale or not – why not have that conversation first?
  • When did the Mayor decide he could negotiate donations from developers (often taxpayer subsidized) for his Plainfield Promise Trust Account (Current balance of ~$300,000) at the expense of other much-needed projects in the city, and are these developers getting a reduction (per the statute) on their property taxes as a result of the donations? 
  • Plainfield Promise would require extraordinary coordination with the Board of Ed to succeed. How is that relationship suddenly going to be cooperative enough for this to work?
  • How is the city going to manage something as complex as Plainfield Promise when they can’t:
    • Clean up the downtown 
    • Manage basic oversight, excessive cost and deteriorating service of PMUA
    • Eliminate illegal apartments and over crowding issues
    • Stop illegal dumping in neighborhoods
    • Reduce speeding and eliminate dangerous, obnoxious and illegal dirt bike and ATV racing in our neighborhoods
    • Update city systems to provide cutting edge service (COVID has exposed our systems and processes as antiquated)
    • Provide effective code enforcement (former Delta station on south avenue has been an issue for years)
    • Develop a city website that is not a disaster to navigate and has up to date, useful information 
    • Reduce or hold property taxes in a sustainable way (2020 cuts were Covid-19 related and not permanent reductions)
    • Stop re-inventing the wheel and wasting money (performing arts center, is another endeavor with no public discussion or transparency before spending several hundred thousand dollars of taxpayer money and adding another liability to our books)

I have no issue with the concept of Plainfield Promise.  These programs can be a beneficial “Band-Aid” of sorts until a preferred national solution is achieved.  My issue is a government entity managing such a program, especially when it is struggling to manage basic city operations.  Oakland Promise IS NOT managed NOR FUNDED by the city of Oakland and its residents.  It is run by a non-profit organization of which the Mayor of Oakland is a non-voting board member.

Queen City Promise, a non-profit started about a year ago by a resident is working to raise funds from foundations, corporations and private donors to fund the higher education endeavors of Plainfield children.  This is the type of organization that should be managing such a program.

These secretive projects are part of the reason the public is so cynical about politics, and I don’t blame them.  These paintings were given “to the people of Plainfield” and they should have a say in how they are used.  We don’t live in Mappville, a family owned and operated municipality, the citizens should be informed, allowed to voice their opinion and our elected officials should provide information and answer question to those paying their salaries. 

6 thoughts on “Here We Go Again

  1. Mary Burgwinkle September 13, 2020 / 9:56 pm

    Sean, thank you for doing the public service of filling in important factual information about the committee that studied the proposed sale of the Bierstadt paintings in 2017. Thank you for doing the committee work and for writing this essay, which could not have been easy. I am astounded by the administration’s lack of transparency on this recent suit seeking permission to sell the paintings. I am proud that our council member from Ward 2 is not afraid to give us the facts and to speak truth to power.

    Thank you, Mary Burgwinkle, 1785 Sleepy Hollow Lane


  2. Jeanette Criscione September 14, 2020 / 9:27 am

    Sean, will this topic be brought up at the Council meeting tonight, or another time? Do you know of any activities underway by this administration to provide the citizens of Plainfield with updated information? And, if the painting is sold, why is the city getting the money? Shouldn’t the profits be given to the heirs?

    Thank you for your diligence and all you do to keep us informed. Jeanette Criscione


    • SMcKenna September 14, 2020 / 1:00 pm

      It is not on the agenda tonight but can be brought up in public comments at the end of the meeting. As for who gets the money, that is above my pay grade and is up to the courts I believe.


  3. Richard Lear September 14, 2020 / 12:44 pm

    Excellent job, Sean McKenna! I will share this with everyone I know. Everyone needs to be informed.


  4. Gary Perullo September 14, 2020 / 2:15 pm

    As usual, you shed much needed light to the shady dealings of this administration. Let us know how we can help and what steps we can take to make our voices heard. We’re happy to lend our support.


  5. Diane DesPlantes September 14, 2020 / 10:46 pm

    Thank you for providing this information. It is a bit
    Disturbing to see the non- transparency.


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