City Charter – Guest Post, Very Important

The below post is by Mary Burgwinkle related to the city charter changes.  By current social media mindsets it might seem a little lengthy but it is very worthy of your attention and contains important information.  This is from an e-mail sent by Mary to the Plainfield City Council Members related to the recent changes to the city charter.  

Dear City Council Members:

I am writing to you in advance of the upcoming City Council Meetings where the Charter changes will be read and a public hearing will be held. I have a number of questions about the proposed changes to Plainfield’s organization chart and the amendments to the Municipal Code that you are being asked to approve.

  1. What study was conducted prior to making these organization changes and who participated?

There is no question that the City’s unusual three department structure was the subject of discussion almost immediately after the Plainfield Charter (1968) became law in 1969. Charter study groups formed in 1972, 1983 and 1990 all mentioned changing the three departments. The Charter Study Commission elected in 2012 made its recommendation on the topic, ending with the following language that appears on page 20 of the Amended Final Report dated December 31, 2013:

The Commissioners believe that the city would have more flexibility with the possibility of between one and three additional departments, and the ability to rename them. We fully recognize that change from the current system would require careful study, as it would impact the budget, human resources and physical space considerations, among other things. As a result, we are recommending language that would leave the existing three departments in place as named, with no additional departments unless approved by a council vote of 2/3 of the members, after careful planning and budgeting. The Commissioners want to emphasize that we do not believe that 9 departments, per the Faulkner Act, are necessary or advisable in Plainfield. That was one of the major drawbacks of the Faulkner Act Mayor-Council form in the opinion of the Commission.

So, we now know that the Mayor called the legislature and materially changed that recommendation (adding more departments, diluting the voting and adding 10 confidental assistants) with no authority from you. That is unfortunately, water over the dam. But what careful study was conducted prior to this reorganization?

On July 6, 2018, I sent an OPRA request for the following documents:

All communications including but not limited to emails, memos, meeting minutes, texts, voicemail or writings from the Mayor, City Administrator and any cabinet member with any person concerning or mentioning Plainfield Charter (1968) and/or any changes or proposed changes to Plainfield Charter (1968) between 1/1/17 and 6/22/18

On August 8, 2018, after a three week extension of the request, I received a response that produced 7 documents. Two were minutes of the City Council meetings on 3/12/18 and 4/9/18. Four were communications concerning the petition to the legislature dealing with ministerial matters such as proof of publication. One was an email from the City Clerk to City Council at the request of Council President, forwarding a link to the Charter Study Commission Final Report and advising Council Members to direct questions to Corporation Counsel. None of the documents contained any substantive discussion about implementing changes or reorganization.

Perhaps there was a study group working on this reorganization that did its work and drafted memos without ever mentioning the word Charter, and that is why I did not get any relevant documents in response to my request. If there was, citizens should know about it.

What alternatives were considered before publishing this reorganization? Who worked on this project? Was there study of other communities in our size and population range and how they organize? Were communities that are known to engage in best practices studied? What was the rush on this? After 50 years of a less than optimum organization, why weren’t ideas and alternatives presented to the public? Also, a reorganization to make the City work more efficiently is a good goal, but the City should be careful about inadvertently growing government in an atmosphere in New Jersey where the pension system is in disarray and the ability of local taxpayers to bear tax hikes to pay for city government is at a breaking point. Of course 4 more departments will end up costing more eventually, and I am concerned about fleets of cars being driven by cabinet members who are not underpaid. We taxpayers deserve a better and more comprehensive explanation than we are getting.

 

  1. What Public Safety alternatives were considered prior to announcing these changes?

It is my understanding that 60 to 70% of the budget of the City of Plainfield is devoted to Public Safety and Fire costs. Under this reorganization, Police and Fire, previously under one department headed by an appointed director serving during the term of the Mayor, will be separated into two departments. Both Departments can be headed by an appointed director (which adds a department director), although it appears that an option was built into the new Municipal Code to allow a division director to be Director of Fire. Following are the relevant provisions of the proposed new Municipal Code Sections.

Article 11 of the Municipal Code is now titled “Department of Fire”. Section 2:11(a) reads as follows:

(a) As allowed by the Charter, there shall be established a Department of Fire, the head of which shall be the Director of Fire who shall be appointed by the Mayor with the advice and consent of the Council and may be one of the division heads. The Director shall serve during the term of office of the Mayor appointing him/her and until the appointment of his/her successor, subject to removal as provided by the Charter.

Article 12 of the Municipal Code is now titled “Department of Public Affairs and Safety (Police)”. Section 2:12 (a) reads as follows:

   (a)     As required by the Charter, there shall be established a Department of Public Affairs and Safety, the head of which shall be the Police Director who shall be appointed by the Mayor with the advice and consent of the Council and shall serve during the term of office of the Mayor appointing him/her and until the appointment and qualification of his/her successor. The Police Director shall be qualified by training and experience for the position, which training and experience shall require a minimum of five (5) years experience in a responsible capacity in public administration.

What alternatives were considered to splitting the Department into two? Who worked on this project? Was there study of other communities in our size and population range and how they organize public safety? Were communities that are known to engage in best practices studied? Again, what was the rush on this? After 50 years of a less than optimum organization, why weren’t ideas and alternatives presented to the public? Under what circumstances would the Mayor appoint a Fire Director who is not a Fire Division head, and will that happen now or in the near future? How much expense would that add?

  1. Administrative Assistants and Confidential Assistants.

In the proposed Municipal Code, there are seven departments. In each of the Articles describing Departments, there is a new section governing administrative assistants. (See sections 2:6-1(b), 2:7-1(b), 2:8-1(b), 2:9-1(b), 2:10-1(b), 2:11-1(b), 2:12-1(c)).

The sections provide as follows:

Within the [Department of _________] there may be an Administrative Assistant designated as Secretary to the Director, who shall be appointed by the Director with the approval of the [Business? word is missing] Administrator. The Administrative Assistant shall serve during the term of office of the Director appointing him/her, subject to removal as provided in the case of a Department Director appointed by the Mayor.

In addition, at the request of the Mayor, the Charter was amended to add section 4.5(b), as follows:

(b) The director of each department may, with the approval of the mayor, appoint one confidential assistant, who shall be in the unclassified service of the Civil Service. In addition, the business administrator may authorize a division director to appoint one confidential assistant, who shall be in the unclassified service of the Civil Service. No more than 10 confidential assistants in total shall be appointed pursuant to this subsection across all departments and divisions.

Looking at the language of each of these sections, these do not seem to be the same positions. So, are we adding 7 Administrative Assistants and 10 Confidential Assistants? Does each Department Director get an Administrative Assistant and a Confidential Assistant?

Are these 17 positions that the City would like to fill as a work-round to Civil Service? If they have all been hired already, the mayor should tell us that and how much the positions cost. To the citizen who does not work at City Hall, this looks like a lot of people getting political appointments.

  1. Why is there a Manager of Motors at Section 2:9-16 and a Bureau of City Garage at 2:9-7?

If the Manager of Motors is managing all of the city cars that are being driven by the Mayor, Cabinet Members, and certain of the State Appointed officers, I will repeat the question that I asked in my last letter as follows:

In this administration, many executive branch and state mandated employees appear to be driving City automobiles. Plainfield is 6 square miles and City Hall is centrally located. Why should anyone (other than Police/Fire) have a City automobile at taxpayer expense? If you work here and do not live here, that is not the taxpayers’ problem. The public should be provided with a list of people in the administration driving City cars along with a cost breakdown. Other perqs should also be listed. Additionally, supporting documentation should be provided to show the date and ordinance number passed by the council for each of the individuals who are driving taxpayer funded automobiles.

  1. Why does Section 2:9-5 pertaining to Division of Public Works still contain references to the Bureau of Sewers and Pumping Stations?

The Ordinance amending City Code attached to proposed Ordinance MC 2018-22 contains 123 pages. 64 of the pages contain a wholesale strikeout of every section of Charter 2 of the Municipal Code, followed by 59 pages of retyped sections that are not marked to show changes. There are no footnotes or other guidance as to what changes were made and why. Included in all of these unmarked sections is a wholesale retyping of many of the sections relating to the Division of Public Works (among others), most of which were enacted in 1980 and many of which were superseded by the PMUA many years ago so far as I know. In any event, they were not changed, just retyped.

If you are going to the trouble of striking out and retyping most of the sections in Chapter 2, why not amend them if they need amending? Further, and a better question, why not just pull out the sections that you intend to amend, then mark them to show changes and include a sentence about the rationale for the changes? City Council and taxpayers who follow these sorts of things should be concerned about the shoddy presentation of this ordinance. There are scores of typos, missing words and other errors and it was done in such a manner that it was hard to distinguish what was changed and what was not changed.

City Council and taxpayer citizens deserve a better presentation of something that should have been taken very seriously, amendments to municipal code due to the first charter changes in 50 years. I have always respected the City Clerk, but if this came out of his office, I do not think that he has time to be both City Clerk and Chief of Staff for a legislator. Lets try to do one job well, and please proof read this presentation before it is enacted.

Mary Burgwinkle, 1785 Sleepy Hollow Lane, Plainfield

City Charter Topic – Guest Blog Post

Below is a guest blog post (which are always welcome by the way) from Mary Burgwinkle regarding the changes to the city charter that were recently passed by the state legislature and signed by the Governor last week – but not requested by the Plainfield Charter Commission nor the Plainfield City Council.

 

Dear City Council Members:

I am writing to you to remind you about separation of powers under our City Charter, and your role as Legislative branch.

Our city Charter describes separation of powers in Section 2.10 as follows:

The legislative, executive and administrative powers of the City are divided between the legislative and executive branches. No person or persons belonging to or constituting one branch shall exercise any of the powers of the other unless specifically authorized by the Charter. Neither the council nor any council member shall intervene in administrative matters, except for legislative purposes.

So far this summer, the Mayor (Executive Branch) has taken several actions that suggest that he believes that there are no checks on his power whatsoever.

I am a member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment and at our June 6, 2018 meeting, there was an application pending by a local church that needed an extension of a zoning resolution and conditions that had been granted earlier by the ZBA. A church representative was testifying why they needed the extension, when they were asked if they had complied with the sign conditions of the resolution. As the witness was giving sworn testimony, she was coached from behind by a Planning Board member that she should testify that the Mayor told them that they did not have to comply because the sign ordinance was about to be amended. So, after Zoning Board has worked hard to enforce existing statutes, the Mayor is telling applicants that there is no need to comply?

Not long after that, and after both houses of the legislature had passed the bill making changes to the Charter not recommended by Charter Study or in the City Council resolution, I discovered that this had happened. I wrote to all of you and the Mayor asking for an explanation. I got no direct response from the Mayor, only a short “non answer” from the City Clerk. At the July 9th City Council meeting, the Mayor essentially admitted that he stepped into your legislative role, and suggested changes to the Legislature with no notice to you or any notice to the Plainfield citizens. No City Council member asked a single question or made a comment during his long and winding explanation why he did this, during which he kept losing his train of thought.

The Charter changes the Mayor made will forever burden Plainfield Taxpayers with 12 jobs and supporting jobs that were not recommended by Charter Study. He has claimed in a roundabout manner that these changes will not result in additional expense. You will need to approve many of these changes, and I would like you to get the answers to these questions.

  1. New Departments will be created and new Department Directors appointed. Who will be appointed and what are their qualifications for their proposed positions? How many people will report to each Department Director?
  2. Will the compensation of existing Department or Division Directors change because of these other changes and by how much?
  3. If Division Heads are promoted to Department Head, will there be compensation changes as a result and by how much? The public should see a schedule of the compensation for each of these individuals during the past year including any increases.
  4. What additional compensation will Department Directors receive other than salary? In this administration, many executive branch and state mandated employees appear to be driving City automobiles. Plainfield is 6 square miles and City Hall is centrally located.
    Why should anyone (other than Police/Fire) have a City Automobile at taxpayer expense? If you work here and do not live here, that is not the taxpayers’ problem. The public should be provided with a list of people in the administration driving City Cars along with a cost breakdown. Other perqs should also be listed. Additionally, supporting documentation should be provided to show the date and ordinance number passed by the council for each of the individuals who are driving taxpayer funded automobiles.
  5. How many “confidential aides” will be hired? Who will they report to? Presumably, each “confidential aide” will get a computer, a cell phone, a place to sit, health insurance, pension benefits, and maybe other perqs. What will be the all-in cost of each? Will a Civil Service employee be eliminated for each “confidential aide” hired?
  6. Did the budget passed in the Spring 2018 contain provisions for these new Departments and Directors?

I worked hard to get this Mayor (and most of you) elected. I recognize that many good things happened in the City during the administration up to now. I am very disappointed that the Mayor abandoned his open, transparent, good government platform as soon as he got cover from the County Party. He has, unfortunately, invited citizens who value public policy to distrust his administration. I will not stop questioning and I expect you to question as well

Mary Burgwinkle, 1785 Sleepy Hollow Lane

Plainfield Deserves Quality

For 10-12 years (or more depending on who you ask) – the city struggled to manage their road repair program.  Between not enough money being allocated or the wrong streets being done (for the wrong reasons), our roads took a beating and had the marks to show for it.  The last couple years, Mayor Mapp has pushed for greater investment in road work, and I applaud him for those efforts.

There are many types of road repairs, from simple milling and paving to very intense road reconstruction with curbs and driveway aprons etc.  Typically this is done based on the condition of the road – and many of our roads can be updated with a simple mill and pave and 3-5 days of inconvenience.  Overall, I think the choices made have been very good.

However, I do think we need to think through how we manage these projects because the quality of some of the mill and pave work leaves a little to be desired.  Mill and Pave is generally considered a 5 year road – meaning it will hold up well for about 5 years before it requires repairs.  That doesn’t mean that all mill and pave is the same and that we shouldn’t make sure that the vendors we hire (usually through state vendor contracts) aren’t held to the same standard they would be held to in Scotch Plains, Fanwood or Westfield.

Last fall three roads were done in the Netherwood area – according to residents, it was the first time roads had been touched in the area for 15-20 years.  When Belvidere and Ravine were completed I noticed that the center joints were not particularly tight or smooth.  When asphalt is laid in strips, the joint is the portion where the two strips meet – in this case that happened to be roughly the center of the road.  I also noticed that manholes were not lifted to be closer to the new level of the roadway – so when you drive down the road you drop into them rather suddenly – much the same as a deep pothole.  At the intersection of Park Terrace and Belvidere there were 3 such manholes, all quite noticeably lower than the street level and because of placement, very difficult to avoid.

Now, I am not an expert on road construction – but I do know when something isn’t quite right and I do have friends who are experts at this sort of thing, so I asked.  Turns out, manholes are supposed to be raised when roads are paved (there is actually a process for that – learned something new) and there is a whole technique to dealing with the joints so that they are as smooth and integrated as possible – to avoid water getting in, freezing, cracking and damage to the road etc.  So I geeked out on learning some new things and sent an e-mail to DPW to ask that they have the vendor revisit the roads and make adjustments before winter came.  My main reason was that if we are spending hard earned taxpayer money, we should get quality work – and if the work is not sufficient, we should catch that on inspection before we release any bond that is held against the work.  DPW replied to my e-mail that they would look into this and address any issues that needed to be fixed.  The roads in question included Belvidere, Ravine and Hillside (i got three calls about that one from friends).

It didn’t appear that anything has been done – and the manholes were certainly not adjusted.  While walking my dogs I check out the neighborhood like most people do, mostly wondering why others have an easier time getting green grass than I do – but my eye always ends up going to the center of the roads and the now very noticeable problem with the joints.

Below you can see the joints in three spots on Belvidere – keep in mind that this road is not even a year old – by next winter these joints will have more ice and snow that will get inside and cause the road to crack – which will make a 1.5 year road ready for patching – at taxpayer expense. (all pictures below taken 7/23/18 – color difference is due to sun)

 

On Ravine Road (a section is in front of Councilman Storch’s home) it is even worse – with one section in the lower left that already had to be patched this year because the asphalt was poorly put down – I sent a picture of this to DPW last year but apparently they didn’t make the vendor come and repair it.  So now we have expense for a road that should have lasted 5 years (ok its the northeast and winters are rough – but we couldn’t get 4 years out of our 5 year road?). (all picture below taken 7/23/18)

My point is this – WHO IN THE HELL IS INSPECTING THESE PROJECTS BEFORE THE VENDOR IS PAID?  Seriously – do other towns just let contractors get off the hook for shoddy product?  Look at South Avenue in Fanwood next time you drive in that direction – from Terrill Road to Park Avenue – its really well done (and that was a mill and pave).  Why doesn’t Plainfield deserve the same level of quality as other cities?  This is a waste of taxpayer money and next spring we will waste more of it when we have to repair the 1.5 year old roads and our oncen smooth roads are pock marked with asphalt patches – yet again.

The City Council just approved the Capital Improvement budget – which includes $4 Million for more road work this year – we should aspire to having vendors that respect us enough to give us quality work – and we should respect ourselves enough (and our hard earned tax dollars) to ask that our city officials make sure the work is the best quality before the invoice is paid.  Lets start treating this money like it is our own – BECAUSE IT IS!

 

Your Commute Is About To Get Worse

Tomorrow night (Wednesday August 1st) @ 7:00 PM in City Hall, the Plainfield Zoning Board will hear from the HOPES Community Action Partnership, Inc. about their request to expand their operations at the former Armory Site on East 7th Street and Leland.

The expanded services will cause severe issues for those who use Leland and East 7th Streets (in any way) as part of their commute to work – including getting to the Netherwood Train Station. For those living on Gresham, well, good luck.

I strongly encourage residents to attend the Zoning Board meeting and hear for themselves about the proposed expansion and make their voices heard about the impact that it will have on this area.

The previously approved concept for the site was a creatively designed project that nicely utilized the former state owned parcel. The proposed expansion will have a crippling effect on local traffic and create congestion that will slow the movement of cars in the area dramatically.

Here is a comparison chart of the approved elements and the requested expansion that the Zoning Board will hear on Wednesday evening:

Approved Proposed Expansion Difference
Students 270 362 +92
Staff 76 95 +19
Parking Spaces 82 82 0

What these proposed changes mean:

  • Traffic, Traffic, Traffic
  • Over 250 kids will be brought by individual parents during the 7:00 – 9:00 rush hour period. Applicant states that about 105 will arrive via multiple bus drop offs. That could be over 250 cars in a 2 hour period + 4-5 buses
  • Shortage of parking will cause parking to creep onto neighborhood streets
  • Cars will be queued up along 7th and Leland waiting to enter parking lot to drop off infants and non-school age children – all waiting for one of the 6-8 drop off parking spaces.
  • Parents late for work will be double parking along 7th/Leland and running with their kids across the street
  • For the next 4-5 years, Woodland and Cook Elementary Schools will be combined at Cook School – almost doubling the congestion along Leland.
  • Imagine waiting for multiple traffic light cycles just to get to the train station or Route 22!

This proposal could have lasting effects on the area and your commute – it is important that you hear the facts and let your concerns be heard by the Zoning Board members.

Code “Enforcement” – Stop It Some More

Anyone who has dealt with code enforcement issues in their neighborhood knows that it a terrible experience.  I am often asked by people to help with code enforcement issues in their neighborhoods.  As a planning board member I don’t have anything to do with code enforcement but am happy to help people who have either gotten little assistance from the city OR the issue has just dragged on for months without any resolution.

During the 2017 primary campaign we regularly got code violation complaints.  We started forwarding these complaints to the relevant departments at City Hall – standard customer/constituent service stuff. I kept a log of the items and would periodically follow-up on the requests and drive by the properties to see if there was any progress.  Everyone gets their day in court so I didn’t anticipate that these issues would be resolved overnight, however, as May 2017 turned into July 2018 it is interesting to note that fewer than 10% (it is actually less but I am in a good mood today) of the issues have been resolved –  many are worse.  One of those is an issue that was reported directly to the Mayor and under Phil Izzo’s (Zoning Officer) management it has gone unchanged in the 14 Months since being reported.  I know this because I have countless e-mails to inspections (mostly unanswered) for status updates and have had to OPRA information twice (not fully answered by the way).

Code enforcement in Plainfield, based on my observation, is managed (term used loosely) from a defensive position – mostly responding to complaints versus proactively pursuing code violations.  Anyone that has been in e-mail exchanges with Phil Izzo can attest to the delayed responses and utter confusion as he forwards your e-mail with some sort of clarifying point about how someone else will handle it – then he disappears.  I don’t fault the inspectors by the way, I have spoken to many of them and get the sense that they are eager for all their work to show results.  I chalk it up to poor processes, poor management and a lack of effective oversight by the administration and the city council.  A management consultant would no doubt have a field day in that department.

Code Enforcement is always important but even more vital right now.  With the level of active development taking place in the city, to the credit of efforts by the Mayor and his administration, effective code enforcement is even more of a priority – especially in those areas with active investments.  Strict enforcement will enhance these investments, improve quality of life issues and impact property values.

The Gateway Project on South Avenue is a perfect example. The developer is investing over $50 Million in a project on one of the main entry ways into The Queen City. South Avenue (or any other part of the city) can not be improved in bits and pieces just when new development occurs on a parcel of land, existing properties need to be brought into compliance with the laws.

Here are some examples of issues along South Avenue that, if corrected, would enhance the area and help existing and future development opportunities succeed:

Former Delta Gas Station:

The gas tanks and pumps were removed and now the gravel lot service station is crammed with cars (often on the sidewalk) with an unsightly and unused sign (change of use requires removal), outdoor storage of barrels (of who knows what) and numerous cars in various stages of repair in the parking lot – one appears to be used for parts when needed. The grass/dirt lot next door is being used by someone as a holding area for cars, either for the service station or the car lot next door.  Not to mention the lack of maintenance to plantings and general litter on property.  This mess has got to make the task of getting good renters at the building across Belvidere Road even harder.

 

 

Train Station area to Walgreens:

The building across from Netherwood Station has weeds in place of a missing shade tree (replacing was likely part of their approval to build).  Grass and weeds in front of convenience store and likely excessive window coverage (Not to exceed 10% of total window area with 1 sign per business per window, not to exceed 2 signs per business on any wall).  South Avenue Liquors has a temporary sign chained to a pole (those signs are required to be taken inside after business hours), banners attached to building for too long (Banners are currently allowed 2 times per calendar year for no more than 2 months at a time), window coverage likely over allowed percentage.  Walgreens has a sidewalk that has been in various stages of construction for months and property is often littered with garbage.

 

 

From Leland to Terrill Road:

Fig Market has banners and pennants up well passed allowed limit (no longer than 2 months), outdoor storage in parking lot, curbside trees that are not maintained.  The Verizon lot, south side of street, is a dumping ground for vehicles.  While parking is a permitted use they chronically have vehicles sitting for months without moving.  Anyone remember the boat and trailer that was there for years?  How about the dump truck that replaced it and had trees growing out of the back?  Now its a pick-up truck with a salt spreader that has been sitting there for months, along with a Subaru that will soon be overtaken by bushes.  B&B auto has numerous “temporary” signs on their fence in addition to really attractive barbed wire – that should help rent some apartments!

 

 

Further down at the old nursery location you have barbed wire on the fence and a rusted sign (change of use or occupancy requires sign be removed) and big metal rusted pipes laying on the property – this is next to Dairy Queen & Coffee Box (who have invested money in new signs and landscaping).  Further down at Fine-Fare you have tattered banners that have been up too long and the window coverage likely exceeds allowable percentage.

 

 

Correcting these, and other issues not mentioned, will aid in the Gateway Projects ability to rent apartments and demonstrate to other investors that we welcome their investment and are here to help them succeed  It will also show support for those who do take care of their properties – McDonalds, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Freppe’s and Giovanna’s (not a complete list).

The city should move quickly to start enforcing the codes along the corridor (ideally from Terrill to Watchung), which should include making sure all signage is legal (i.e. they got a permit and followed all guidelines in place at time of installation).

The city council, in their oversight role, should have Mr. Izzo appear before them at a Council Meeting and explain how he is going to improve the management of the department, when significant improvements will be achieved and how success will be measured and reported (regularly to Council and public) so his progress can be monitored and publicly applauded when successful.  Mr. Izzo’s appearance will provide him with the opportunity to discuss what help he needs to be successful – new technology, stronger/additional ordinances and what sort of activities take up the valuable time of his dedicated inspectors that impacts productivity.

I mentioned in a prior blog post that hiring additional staff should not be on the top of the list of options.  The reason is that the heavy lift should be temporary – so hiring more people that won’t be needed later is a waste of taxpayer money.

For those of you who would like to report a code violation on your street, in your neighborhood or within Plainfield, I encourage you to call or e-mail Mr. Izzo with your complaints @ 908-753-3386 or phillip.izzo@plainfieldnj.gov – you should copy all three of your respective council members so they can assist in getting the issues resolved.

1st Ward – Diane.Toliver@plainfieldnj.gov

2nd Ward – cory.storch@plainfieldnj.gov

3rd Ward – Charles.Mcrae@plainfieldnj.gov

4th Ward – Steve.hockaday@plainfieldnj.gov

At-Large, 1st & 4th Wards – barry.goode@plainfieldnj.gov

At-Large, 2nd & 3rd Wards – Joylette.mills@plainfieldnj.gov

At-Large, All Wards – Elton.armady@plainfieldnj.gov

A Semantic Miscommunication

Last week, Mary Burgwinkle and I were interviewed by Nick Muscavage of the Courier News (his request, not ours) regarding opposition to the Mayor’s solo changes to the city charter. Today I read the article and my first reaction to the Mayor’s remarks were 1) he seems to have a lot of miscommunication and misunderstandings with people because he keeps mentioning it, 2) He certainly fails to understand the separation of powers and his overreach, 3) He doesn’t understand that Democracy is a Team Sport.

The best way to address the comments is to break down each one that caught my attention:

Mayor Adrian Mapp, however, said he believes the concerns were the outcome of a misunderstanding and that the changes were made clear to the public at a council meeting on July 9. Moreover, he said, if the adjustments go into effect, they would result in no cost to the city.

My Comment: The only misunderstanding is the Mayor not understanding his official role. His presentation to the public on July 9th was well after the bill passed both houses of the NJ Legislature and was only done because Mary Burgwinkle happen to catch the secret charter changes. His July 9th performance was only an attempt to try to justify the fact that he over stepped his authority.   The proper approach was to have made a presentation to the public in March/April with organizational charts and cost impacts and then take questions from the audience (i.e. the people that pay his salary and get stuck with the other costs) and then present his recommendations to the council for consideration. After the fact presentations are just theater and treat citizens and their tax dollars disrespectfully.

Lets remember that this Mayor sends endless e-mails out on any range of topics and achievements – but for some reason the news of this achievement got overlooked.  Maybe the approach was more like “better to ask forgiveness than permission”.

The charter changes would allow the city to add more departments in the administration, which would allow the city to better serve its residents, Mapp said. 

My Comment: I’m sorry but this is such a throw away line with no meaning. The corporate world has gone through a period recently of “flattening” their organizational charts to be more cost effective and efficient – but the Mayor thinks increasing it will be the secret to better serve to residents? This requires a little more than a single sentence and better management is probably more important than more management.

Mapp is claiming the ordeal is all a misunderstanding.

My Comment: According his comments in this article, he has misunderstandings and miscommunications with a lot of people – and unless he is saying that he misunderstood his role as Mayor, then this remark is meaningless.

The mayor said the creations of these departments would have zero affect on the city’s budget, since he plans on having the departments headed by people who are already employed by Plainfield.

My Comment: Transparency would mean that not only should the public be aware of the changes being made and that the council approves them but that the Mayor present the facts in writing – which would mean showing the math on these cost estimates, including benefits and perks (assuming the latest trend continues for every Director getting a city car, insurance and gas card).

As for the 10 confidential aides proposal written into the charter, Mapp said it was a case of miscommunication and semantics. Mapp said there was a “simple error” conveyed to the state’s Civil Service Commission that made it seem there was no authority in Plainfield to hire confidential employees………….There was a mix-up of semantics, though, Mapp said, between the words “aides” versus “secretaries.” Mapp said the city never went on a hiring spree for confidential employees, and he doesn’t plan to, but that he just wanted to get the language in the charter so the right was protected.

My Comment: Oh darn, another miscommunication (and semantics too!). This is the biggest mess of nonsense to unpack – its almost laughable. The real issue is that “he decided to include the language of ‘10 confidential aides” – again he is saying that he decided to make the changes – no need to consult the citizens (who have to pay for them) or the Council (who is responsible for approving charter changes) – he just decided he wanted the changes so he had them penciled in as an amendment. He may not be thinking past himself, but by adding these “10 aides” into the charter, he is making it possible for a future Mayor to fill those positions and for the citizens to pay the bill – $80,000 X 10 + Benefits + Retirement = Taxpayer Stuck With Tab. ($80K salary is an estimate as I have seen $65K and $90K salaries)

“We have no plans to go out and hire 10 confidential aides/secretaries,” Mapp said. “Absolutely no plans.”

My Comment: Sorry, but there is a credibility problem here. Didn’t we buy 3 new SUV’s in December to replace “aging DPW fleet vehicles” and those all went to administration employees instead? The only car that was “replaced” was the clerks Crown Vic. The Mayor’s prior SUV (only 4 years old) was given to his Chief of Staff.

The mayor added that there’s more than financial worries behind the objections. Both Burgwinkle and McKenna said they were critical of Mapp’s decision to endorse Scutari for chair of the Union County Democratic Committee. “These same forces are the same forces that were annoyed and upset with me because I opted to support the candidate that I truly believed was the best person for the job when it comes for the leadership of the county’s Democratic party,” he said.

My Comment: I can’t believe Mapp would swing at that.  Nick mentioned the UCDC election to me as well and my response was that I am a supporter of the Mayor’s work but even supporters can disagree – Mapp has a saying for that,  “Unity Without Uniformity”.  If people questioning Mapp’s decisions and pointing out a lack of transparency or over reach of his authority is such an issue, then a democracy may not quite be his thing.

Mapp said although the charter proposals, if approved, would allow for the creation of eight departments, he is only proposing the creation of seven.

My Comment: So the leftover one is just a spare part in case one breaks? That is just another opportunity for a future Mayor to add more cost – and since Mapp removed the requirement for a 2/3 majority of council for approval I guess that will make it easier.  This is sloppy legislating!

The crux of this issue is – the Mayor took it upon himself, without transparency and communication, to make changes to the Charter that he wanted.  That is outside his authority and a perfect example of why people are so frustrated with government.  It also does not align with how Mayor Mapp ran for office as a steward of good government and transparency – this kind of behavior is what he ran for office to change.

Anyone interested in signing the petition to ask Governor Murphy to veto the city charter changes can do so here.

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