May 9, 2009 [online]
PMUA chief defends cost of training conferences,
travel for Plainfield agency's employees
By MARK SPIVEY
Having fallen under fire earlier this year for introducing drastic rate hikes and laying off more than a dozen employees, the city's waste management organization is on the defensive again after it spent thousands of dollars to send more than a dozen top officials to a conference in California two weeks ago.
Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority Executive Director Eric Watson confirmed that 13 members of the organization's board of commissioners and other executives attended the 2009 National Forum for Black Public Administrators conference in Oakland, Calif., from April 25 to 29. The trip cost approximately $25,000, Watson said, with that amount covering hotel stays of up to six nights at the Oakland Marriott plus airline tickets and conference registration fees. Watson also said he was allotted a $140 daily per diem for the trip, with other staffers receiving daily per diems of $100 or $75 depending on their seniority.
The trip came less than four months after the authority raised its solid waste fees by 20 percent and its sanitary sewer fees by 14 percent for 2009, costing the city's average single-family household nearly $200 more per year. Officials cited falling revenues and rising costs as necessitating those moves, adding that 20 of the authority's 170 workers were laid off and the remainder asked to take unpaid furloughs to help offset deficits.
The California trip resulted in a flood of complaints from residents and authors of some of the city's popular blogs, and drew near-universal criticism from both sides of the city's sharply defined political fence that separates two powerful Democratic camps.
"I think it's ridiculous, it's an outrage, to have the PMUA — in light of the challenges taxpayers are facing lately, and the fact that people are being laid off — pay money to take (13) people out to California," said City Councilman Adrian Mapp, the mayoral candidate for the city's self-labeled "New Democrats." "I think it shows that the leadership of the PMUA is totally out of touch."
"This is the final straw, because the public is crying out that this has to stop," agreed Assemblyman Jerry Green, D-Plainfield, longtime leader of the city's traditional Democratic organization. "I'm looking at the bigger picture when I say some of the city's agencies ... run by commissioner appointment by the mayor and council almost feel that they're not accountable to anyone. Well, that's not true."
Authority officials vigorously defended the trip last week, claiming it was intended to help improve business practices and efficiency within the organization. Watson, who sits on the National Forum for Black Public Administrators board of directors, said classes and seminars at the conference centered on various topics including improving morale in the workplace, coping with stress associated with downsizing and applying for federal stimulus funding.
"I think it makes us better employees, and the more knowledgeable you are, the better. And if you have disgruntled and unhappy employees, that's pretty tough on your business," Watson said. "Conferences and training are part of your job, and we want our employees to be the best trained as they can be."
Authority Chairwoman Carol Ann Brokaw Boles, whose participation as a panelist during a conference seminar titled "A Three-Way Affair: Tightening the Bonds Between Local Government, Immigrants and Established Residents" is touted on the front page of the PMUA's Web site, agreed. Brokaw labeled recent criticism directed toward the authority as representing political posturing, not legitimate grievances.
"I'm not saying the PMUA is perfect, but nothing about any entity is perfect. And we certainly try everything we can to make our operation as efficient and intelligent as possible," said Brokaw, who recently announced her candidacy for mayor. "PMUA has just become political football this year, and some people have decided to make that the mantra of their entire political campaigns."
Watson further defended the trip by pointing out the authority's annual travel and training budget, which he estimated to have approached $175,000 in recent years, recently was slashed to $100,000 "because of the economy." He said the authority does not intend to curtail plans to send from four to six officials to two additional conferences in Las Vegas and Long Beach, Calif., later this year.
"To suggest a person shouldn't be able to go learn something and train is ridiculous," Watson said. "As long as I am executive director here, I will allow people to grow."
Explanations fell on deaf ears among many city residents.
"What are they doing? At a time like this, when the economy's bad and people are suffering, why would you do things that would create greater expenses for people and have to raise (rates) to pay for them?" asked Bill Pyfer, a 63-year-old retired federal agent who lives on Cedarbrook Road.
"It was a weekend vacation for these people," agreed Carol Pyfer, his wife. "I see very little being done for the good of the people here."
Philip Charles, who has spearheaded a residents' campaign against the PMUA by founding the Web site www.dumppmua.com and filing a lawsuit against the authority that features multiple charges and plaintiffs, said he and other fellow residents were "deeply saddened" by the news.
"The fact that they would continue to send this number of people to these, I'm going to say quote-unquote, "workshops,' ... I find it hard to believe," Charles said. "Even after they increased rates and let people go ... their spending doesn't look like it's changed."
Both Green and Mapp pledged action on the matter, with the assemblyman recently asking the Office of the State Comptroller to "examine the entire operation of the PMUA ... because of the high rate of dissatisfaction with this agency," as he wrote on his blog.
"I feel we should put all our different agencies on notice, the school board, the housing authority, everyone, that the city cannot tolerate this any longer," Green said. "These are all agencies that really govern themselves, but it's time now that the mayor and council sit down and come up with a city-wide policy dealing with travel."
Mapp, who earlier this year pledged if elected to disband the PMUA and bring waste management under the auspices of City Hall, said he feels one of the only ways the authority can reverse damage to its reputation is by taking matters into its own hands.
"I would go as far as to say that the leadership of the PMUA should reimburse the authority for all of the expenses that were incurred (during the trip) in order to show they understand in simple terms the hardships that taxpayers are facing," Mapp said. "I challenge the leadership of the PMUA to do the right thing."
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• For more on the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority, visit www.pmua.info, or call 908-226-2518.
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