Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Wise Men Brought Gifts, Not a Pink Slip

It was ironic that the notice of termination from Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs to City Administrator Bibi Taylor was served exactly one month prior to the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who spent most of his life fighting for peace and justice for all. It is also worthy to note that the termination was to take effect on the date that a new King was born, the Prince of Peace.

Thus the decision of my colleagues last night proved, in the words of Dr. King, that no lie can live forever, and that truth crushed to earth will rise again. King also said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

I believe that justice was served last night and that the best interest of Plainfield was weighed in the balance and preserved. I applaud my colleagues, members of the public, and everyone who had a hand in turning a wrong on its head so that justice could stand erect and be dispensed for all of to see.

The unanimous vote of the council to reverse Mayor Robinson-Briggs’s ill-informed decision again evokes Dr. King's admonition that "...injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." It also reminds those who have faith and believe that the King who was born on Christmas day was the Prince of Peace, not Ebenezer Scrooge, and that the wise men brought gifts, not a pink slip.



Sunday, December 5, 2010

A "Thank You" to Leaders of Unions Representing City of Plainfield Employees

Please allow me to take this opportunity to thank all of you who participated in the meeting on Friday, December 3, 2010 with Cory and me and members of the Council's Finance and Administration Committee, along with City Administrator Bibi Taylor. The meeting gave us an opportunity to interact in ways that we never have before. Our discussions were very candid, and all of us at the table appeared to have an understanding and an appreciation for the difficult roles that all of us must play in the effort to save the jobs of fellow employees. It goes without saying that the task ahead of us is a very difficult and challenging one.

I appreciate your willingness to go back to your rank and file to explore opportunities that could lead to material concessions in both the short and long term. Please know that we, as elected officials, take no joy in making the very difficult decisions that we at times are called upon to make in order to strike a balanced budget under the strictures of the budget law and other applicable statutes. It is in the spirit of current economic reality and consideration for the well-being of all employees and tax payers, as well as a desire to not lay off fellow employees that we seek to establish a partnership that leads to meaningful and compassionate concessions.

Again, I convey our thanks and appreciation to you for extending the invitation, not only to meet with you, but for the spirit in which the meeting was conducted.



Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Ms. Drakeford Deserves an Apology from the Editor of the Courier-News

The editorial in this past Monday’s Courier-News (11/29) left me with the feeling that the editor of the paper reached deep down into the cesspool where some newspaper editors find their material. This editorial was nothing more than a journalistic lynching of a private citizen. At best, it was disparaging and, at worst, it was slanderous to the former Corporation Counsel, Jackie Drakeford.

First of all, for the Courier to opine that “The City Council has hired an old ally of the late former mayor, Al McWilliams” and that by choosing her “guarantees that the probe will be tainted, regardless of the outcome” is just plain wrong. It suggests that all appointees of a chief executive are allies of the chief executive and are therefore incapable of being objective and impartial. If one were to swallow such twisted logic, one might arrive at the conclusion that the current Corporation Counsel, Dan Williamson, is an ally of Mayor Briggs, who appointed him, and that, therefore, any opinion he renders to the City Council pertaining to her would be tainted by his allegiance.

Furthermore, for the editor to insinuate that the probe of the $20,000 expenditure is about “New versus Old Democrats” is a conclusion that has been reached through a pair of myopic lenses. The idea for a probe into the expenditure in question came from Councilor Rashid Burney, who has disavowed any and all connections he has had to the New Democrats; he did so way back in 2005 and has been a loyal disciple of Assemblyman Green and the “Old Guard” ever since.

This probe is about actions that are questionable and the council’s desire to get to the facts so that decisions can be made in the best interest of the tax payers of Plainfield.

Finally, the editor’s conclusion that “What Plainfield needs is someone without any agenda” is an unfair presupposition about Mrs. Drakeford and her politics. Here again, the editor besmirches Mrs. Drakeford by insinuating that she has an ax to grind and would therefore use it to pin the Mayor against a wall.

This kind of journalism that attacks the reputation and credibility of a private citizen who has a stellar reputation must be seen for what it is, an "Evil Knievel" leap of monstrous proportions fraught with danger. It’s a leap that sullies the name of a decent private citizen who has stayed clear of politics for as long as I have known her. She does not deserve to be tarred with the brush of political affiliation.

Mrs. Drakeford deserves an apology from the editor of the Courier-News.



Monday, November 29, 2010

Municipalities Must Face the Harsh Realities of Today's Economy

The much-talked about 2% levy cap was on the minds of the vast majority of attendees to the 95th Annual New Jersey League of Municipalities Convention. This new levy cap will make next year the toughest in recent memory for mayors and other elected officials, who will be forced to make some very hard choices from an a la carte menu of municipal services. Municipalities will no longer be able to seek waivers from the Local Finance Board. If the tax levy is expected to be greater than 2%, the municipality would have to seek permission from the voters by way of a referendum. Municipal leaders would need to know well in advance of preparing the budget whether or not a referendum would be needed.

A very popular topic at the convention was binding interest arbitration. It is the 800 pound gorilla that keeps consuming as much as 60 to 70% of the taxes that fund municipal operations. Current statutes allow a municipality to impose a contract settlement on non-public safety unions when there is a deadlock in the collective bargaining negotiations. However, under the current system, when there is a deadlock in the collective bargaining process between a municipality and the union representing police and/or fire, the dispute must be settled in binding interest arbitration--it cannot be imposed.

Historically, judges in binding interest arbitration have awarded salary increases that average 4% without any consideration given to any of the other components, such as longevity, holiday pay, uniform allowance, college incentive or acting pay which, together with the arbitrator’s award, pushes the overall increase to about 10% annually. The general feeling is that municipalities can no longer sustain the double digit increases that public safety employees have grown accustomed to, especially with a 2% tax levy.

Greg Fehrenbach, the League's Municipal Management Advisory Service Coordinator, opined that the only solution to binding interest arbitration is to get rid of it. He felt that more people are hurt by binding interest arbitration than are helped by it, and that simply rearranging the chairs on the titanic is no solution. He suggested that dismantling binding interest arbitration is a message that must be communicated, very strongly, to members of the New Jersey state legislature.

Municipal leaders were encouraged to pursue shared services opportunities with neighboring towns and with other local governmental entities in an effort to control and or stabilize rising costs. They were also reminded of the need to file copies of past and future shared services agreements with the Director of the Division of Local Government Services. Additionally, officials were reminded of the requirement to put the last three budgets on their websites.

One of the NJLM attorneys cautioned municipalities on the imposition of across-the-board furloughs (previously believed to be permissible under the rules of the Department of Personnel). The caution was based on a recent PERC (Public Employees Relation Commission) ruling which basically precludes municipalities from unilaterally imposing furloughs, but instead requires municipalities to negotiate furloughs with collective bargaining units. The same is true for reducing an employee’s work week from full time to part time.

Some of the legislation being considered as part of the Governor’s tool kit to address the issue of out of control property taxes would result in ending terminal leave for all new hires, giving municipalities the right to opt out of the Civil Service, and changing the current system of binding interest arbitration for public safety employees.

Officials were reminded of the need to create effective strategies for controlling health benefits costs. They were encouraged to move in the direction of the private sector model where employees’ contributions are based on the cost of the benefits and not on a percentage of salary.

Essentially, municipalities have to face the harsh realities of today’s economy and must, out of shared necessity, let unions know that there is no money to afford them the kinds of increases they have come to expect. If the jobs of their members are to be protected, they must be willing to agree to costs containment concessions at the bargaining table.



Friday, November 5, 2010

Congratulations to Column A

Election Day was a bitter sweet day in Plainfield: sweet because of the success of our local democratic candidates, and bitter because of the losses that were suffered by House Democrats. The congressional losses will slow the pace of reform at the national level and will affect President Obama’s agenda in a very negative way.

Nevertheless, the American people have spoken and the President must listen. It is important for him to make the necessary adjustments to his agenda and approach, as former President Bill Clinton had to do in the wake of the 1994 mid-term elections that brought us Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” President Obama, like all good leaders, must be willing to practice the art of compromise as he prepares to enter the negotiations arena with the new Speaker of the House. The challenges that the nation faces require a very strong bi-partisan effort.

The people of Plainfield can be proud of the fact that they stood with President Obama at a time when he needed them the most. They came out in large numbers to support one of his key allies, Congressman Frank Pallone. The number of registered voters in Plainfield as of October 14, 2010 stood at 21,630. Of that amount, 8,696 (40.2% of registered voters) voted in Tuesday’s election, a significant turnout in an off-year election. This was due in large measure to the tremendous efforts of New Democrats working to get the vote out in the 2nd and 3rd wards of the City, and to other Democrats who pulled the vote out in the 1st and 4th wards. I commend all of you who worked tirelessly to ensure such a significant turnout in a mid-term election.

Congressman Pallone owes his victory to the very strong show of support he got from Plainfield.

As we look to 2011 and beyond, we must do all that we can to tighten our belts in these austere times of record unemployment, a housing market that shows no sign of rebounding any time soon, dwindling state aid, declining revenues, and rising health benefits and pension costs. We must, out of shared necessity, find ways to reduce the costs of government so as to lessen the burden on homeowners who are stretched to the limits. One way to accomplish this is through an aggressive marketing effort aimed at attracting investors to our city. Another way is through shared services agreements that are based on economies of scale. We must also put pressure on our state elected officials to put an end to binding interest arbitration as we know it today.

Last, but not least, is for the state to force municipalities to consolidate and to expand the role of county government while at the same time redrawing county boundaries to align with reconfigured municipalities. These are some of the bold steps that must be taken in an effort to slow the rate of property tax increases.

Again, I wish to congratulate the entire slate of column A Democratic Party candidates for their victory on Tuesday, especially my dear friend, Councilwoman-elect Rebecca Williams, Bill Reid, and Freeholder-elect Linda Carter. I look forward to continuing to work in partnership with all of our local and county elected officials to effect change in a meaningful way.



Sunday, October 31, 2010

Stay the Course with President Obama

This blog post expresses my grave concern about a threat this country faces from an army of invaders who have surrounded the nation’s capital waiting to launch an invasion after the November 2nd mid-term elections. This army can’t wait to launch its assault on the President from within the halls of congress; we must not allow that to happen.

President Obama’s agenda is under attack from members of this invading army known as the Tea Party, short for right wing Republicans. The stakes are high as the millions of corporate dollars legitimized by the nation’s Supreme Court continue to flood our airwaves with misinformation designed to cast doubt on the President’s progressive agenda. Many of the president’s allies in Congress, such as Congressman Frank Pallone and Senator Harry Reid, the shepherds and guardians of his bold reform agenda, are under severe pressure from a tidal wave of corporate dollars aimed at influencing public opinion and creating a presidential derailment. Why, we must ask ourselves? The answer is simple: It is because the president has been able to make decisions that, though unpopular to some, are in the best interest of the nation as a whole.

President Obama’s agenda is a threat to the status quo and to America’s corporate culture of greed. He has given us comprehensive healthcare reform, with all of its imperfections, something that many presidents before him promised but could not deliver. He has given us Wall Street reform and has halted the downward spiral of an economy that had been behaving as if it had been pushed off of a cliff. It is for these and other reasons that the Tea Party army of malcontents is circling the nation’s capital with its wagons.

I urge you to come out for President Obama on Tuesday as you did on that historic day in November two years ago. The change that he promised is not change that can occur overnight, but that change has already begun. It is still change that we can all believe in. We must stay the course with President Obama; it is not wise to change course mid-stream. The forward thrust, though threatened, must continue. To that end, all of the President’s allies need your support; the Democratic Party needs your support.

Therefore, I urge all of you to show your support for the President by supporting Democratic Party candidates at every level of government. I am casting my vote for Frank Pallone, Linda Carter and the other democratic freeholders, Rebecca Williams for the 2nd and 3rd Ward Council At-large seat, and all of the other candidates in column A. A vote for column A, in Plainfield, and for Democrats around the state of NJ and the nation is a vote for President Obama. If you join with me, together we can defeat the Tea Party army.



Column A, all the way!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Shared Services: Cost Savings Through Economies of Scale

There has been much talk lately about information technology "shared services" between the Plainfield Board of Education and the City of Plainfield. The last time this was done or attempted, the City paid over $100,000 to the BOE and, to this date, the City has not been able to show the consideration received in exchange for the dollars handed over. As of this writing, I have yet to see an analysis of the benefits derived by the City as a party to that agreement.

Shared services must be more than the signing of an agreement and having one party turn over a check to the other--there must be some tangible measurable benefits derived by all parties to the agreement. There must be savings and or quality improvements!

The New Jersey Division of Local Government Services (DLGS) has been, since 2006, encouraging governmental entities to enter into shared services agreements where it makes sense to do so, and it has published a SHARE (SHaring Available Resources Efficiently) "best practices" handbook to guide municipalities interested in exploring shared services with neighboring municipalities, local school districts, or with county government. The theory of sharing services is simple: cost savings through economies of scale. Click below to download:


The DLGS in the Department of Community Affairs has also made grants available as a means of encouraging the pursuit of shared services agreements. Known as "SHARE," this program provides grants for feasibility studies, implementation, and for county and regional coordination.

One thing that is very clear to me: before taking the plunge into shared services there should be “estimates of cost savings and/or quality improvements.” It should not be about stroking egos, or covering up for shortcomings. It must be about the best interests of all parties.

I am opposed to any shared services agreement that simply takes money from one side of the taxpayer’s ledger and moves it to the other side without a clear articulation and demonstration of cost savings and/or quality improvements. I am for shared services agreements that would result in the delivery of services in a more cost-efficient and effective manner.

The attached handbook provides a plethora of ideas for shared services agreements and cost savings. All these ideas should be evaluated with a view towards embracing those that would deliver real savings. Municipalities should approach the shared services waters with cautious optimism and must avoid testing the depth with both feet; it might be more than they bargained for.

The SHARE best practices handbook should be read by all governmental entities before they take the plunge into the shared services waters in search of savings. The savings must be identified before the plunge is taken. Remember the old adage: “Only fools test the depth of the water with both feet.”