Published in the Courier News, Monday, October 23, 2006
In Plainfield, many candidates focus on one topic -- change
By CHRISTA SEGALINI
PLAINFIELD -- With residents concerned about a variety of issues facing the city, the three Republican challengers and one Independent candidate are battling more than the city's single-party dominance in their campaigns to unseat Democratic incumbents Rayland Van Blake, Rashid Burney and Harold Gibson on Nov. 7.
Insisting residents want change, Republican hopefuls Arlington Johnson, Angela Perun and Deborah Dowe and Independent Robert Edwards are working to establish their positions -- and distance themselves from their opponents -- as the general election nears.
But Van Blake, Burney and Gibson are also running on platforms of change, hoping that residents will give each of them four more years to address the city's hot-button issues of open government, crime, taxes and development.
Ask Perun why she's running for the 2nd and 3rd Ward City Council seat now held by Burney, and the answer, she said, is pretty straightforward.
"I don't think we have a very open government at this time," said Perun, who has been a state assemblywoman as well as a Plainfield City Council and Plainfield Board of Education member. "Elected officials are supposed to be public servants. But the City Council seems to have this attitude they will either get back to you, maybe, or they will send you a letter, maybe, and I think they have a real obligation to respond to the people."
Perun's frustration with the transparency of the city's government is echoed by Dowe, Johnson and Edwards. They also feel the City Council needs to do a better job of making information available to residents, either through better communication with the administration or new approaches to disseminating information to the public.
It's an issue incumbent Burney said he is making one of his top priorities as well.
"A lot of what we do on the council is perception, and one of the best ways of getting past that is by putting the minutes of our council meetings right out there for the public to see," Burney said. "The city's Web site -- I would like to put some money aside in the budget to make sure we can get as much information on to that as possible. That's an easy way to make everything more transparent for residents."
Van Blake, the current City Council president and First Ward representative, said he would also like to see the city's official Web site become full-service so residents can access information from their homes.
The process he said, will require funding and planning.
"Our technology infrastructure is so far behind, and it's going to take a lot of money to bring that up to speed," Van Blake said. "But I believe the council minutes should be on the Web site. In fact, I think the city's budget should be right there on the Web site for everyone to see. That Web site should be full-service."
Gibson, who was appointed to his Councilman-at-Large seat in August following the death of Ray Blanco in late July, said often, residents do not know the procedures for requesting information from the city and that officials need to do a better job of explaining that process.
"I think we have to get residents to understand what the role of the City Council is and then assist them in getting information that is open to the public," Gibson said.
While the number of homicides in 2006 is below the record number of 15 in 2005, residents' concern over public safety is still at an all-time high, and the council election challengers are demanding that the City Council do more to address the issue.
Combating crime, said First Ward council candidate Johnson, begins with mobilizing the city's residents.
"Nobody is organizing block associations. Nobody is going out to the people to let them know how to help themselves," Johnson said. "If elected, one of the first things I would do is to invite the community to organize themselves and offer government assistance to do that."
Dowe, who is vying for the City Council at-large seat held by Gibson, said more focus needs to be put on finding jobs for the city's youth that will keep them off the streets and away from the influence of gangs.
"As soon as a young person is eligible to get their working papers, we need to set up a program to walk them through that process of getting a job," Dowe said. "We've got to help young people see they can find gainful employment and for them to not give up on being part of society."
Van Blake also would like to see the city step up its efforts to help youth find jobs, and believes a wider variety of after-school programs should be made available to young people.
"I think we need to work to form a partnership with merchants in the downtown to get the youth after-school jobs to give them a way to make some money and to take up some of their after-school time," Van Blake said. "We can't depend on athletics alone. I'd like to see an arts program geared toward young people -- musical or theater-based -- to give kids a creative outlet."
Gibson, who in addition to being a former city administrator is the current Union County Public Safety director, said the City Council has to up its role as a liaison between the public and city law enforcement.
"City Council members need to be willing to visit people in their homes and speak to them about their real concerns and then bring that information back to the council as a whole to see what we need to be doing to address that," Gibson said. "The assignment of the personnel on our police department is a serious issue also that deserves to be looked at to see if we aren't wasting valuable personnel resources."
Burney said he would like to see law enforcement crack down on "quality of life" crimes, such as graffiti and speeding, that he said negatively impact the city's reputation and perpetuate a false sense that the city is accepting of smaller crimes.
"I realize that our police have a lot to deal with -- robberies, homicides -- but we can't let people think it's ever OK to break the law, even if it is a small, petty crime," Burney said.
Residents' concern about taxes is not new, but incumbents and challengers said that City Council members need to be more creative and aggressive in their approach of how to address the problem.
Attracting sustainable commercial taxable properties is one approach Van Blake and At-Large council candidate Edwards said needs to be researched in order to ease residents' tax burden while maintaining important services.
"That is one area that clearly needs to be better looked at," Edwards said. "We need to look at areas of the city where we can encourage business ratables to come in so they can spend their money here for the long-term."
Burney, Johnson and Dowe pointed to an increased need for grant funding as another way to shield taxpayers from additional costs.
"I think we need to be looking full-time into what grants are available out there," Burney said. "We can't just talk about cutting incremental costs from the budget, because that's not going to make a big enough difference."
Dowe, who said she's had a lot of experience writing grant proposals, said she would make grant research a personal priority, if elected.
"We need to do a better job of getting supplemental funding for the city," Dowe said. "There are so many philanthropic foundations, the state and county who have money available for municipal projects and program, but we have nobody doing the work to get that money to Plainfield."
Several redevelopment proposals have come before the City Council and Planning Board in the last few months, sparking renewed interest in the future of the city's building stock and available land.
Specifically, the administration's support of transit-oriented development -- higher density residential and compatible commercial development near the city's Netherwood and downtown train stations -- is emerging as the future of city's redevelopment plans.
Included in the city's redevelopment initiatives are the former Marino's Tract, a 7.3-acre parcel at West Front Street and Plainfield Avenue for which a supermarket is proposed; and plans for high-density residential and commercial development on an approximately 3-acre parcel in the city's North Avenue Historic District at the intersection of Watchung Avenue and East Second Street.
The City Council also recently heard conceptual plans by Pompton Plains developer Capodagli Property to transform a 4.2-acre area at the intersection of Richmond Avenue and East Third Street into a residential complex of 352 condominiums and a 7,800-square-foot retail building. Those plans have not been approved.
While all of this year's City Council candidates said they would like to see development and redevelopment in the city, concerns abound over how the proposed development would affect residents' quality of life.
Although proponents of redevelopment, Van Blake and Gibson said they are concerned about how high-density housing and payment in lieu of tax opportunities for developers -- such as the Park-Madison redevelopment project -- could become a burden for residents.
"I'm not certain that the high densities of the redevelopment projects proposed is something that over the years will necessarily benefit the city because of how it can impact services and schools," Gibson said. "But my biggest concern for redevelopment is entertaining redevelopment with tax abatements. I do not believe we should be giving away tax money in the hopes that something positive will come out the development."
Burney said he is a major supporter of transit-oriented development and wants to ensure the city's redevelopment plans will translate into money for the city. But what the city doesn't need more of, Burney said, is low-income housing.
"We need more development in town -- more ratables -- but we have to do it smart," Burney said. "I'm a real supporter for transit-oriented development because I think the train stations are some of our biggest assets. What I do not want is more subsidized housing. We need a balance of low-income and middle-class capital development."
Dowe said that while she feels the city needs more taxable properties and isn't opposed to higher-end housing projects, she would like to see more research done on the city's current housing stock before deciding whether a need exists for more affordable housing.
"There's a feeling in the city that certain people are being priced out of their homes," Dowe said. "I think the city needs to remain diverse. We definitely need to do a better job of bringing more ratables in to Plainfield. But we need to remain aware of the type of development we really want for the city."
Johnson said more attention needs to be paid to what the motives are behind redevelopment.
"I support redevelopment in the city, however, I don't support the method," Johnson said. "There are too many profit motives, either from the developers or the administration, and nobody is asking residents what they would like to see as far as development. There needs to be community forums on this. Residents need to know what their futures will look like."
Christa Segalini can be reached at (908) 707-3142 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.