The needler in the haystack.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Council President Rivers opening can of worms?



Besides removing the initial public comment section at Council meetings, Plainfield Council President Bridget Rivers' proposed rules of order for 2013 provide that the public has no right to expect on-the-spot answers to questions posed to the Administration, nor should Council members comment on the public's questions.

Instead, President Rivers proposes that the Robinson-Briggs administration be given an opportunity to answer the questioner in writing within some unspecified length of time.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the time of public questions to the current administration and the answers given.

The call-and-response has given Administration members, who are supposed to have the qualifications necessary to execute their respective offices, an opportunity to show off their chops, demonstrating that they understand their responsibilities and authority and are in touch with the personnel, day-to-day issues and conduct of business in their respective bailiwicks.

When well done, these public back-and-forths have had the sense of satisfaction that comes from watching a tennis match well and skillfully played.

Not only does the new proposal provide an escape hatch for the Administration from facing the public, it emasculates the Council's conduct of the public's business.

More than this, Council President Rivers may have opened a costly can of worms.

A things have stood up to this point, the questions asked and answers given have been part of the public record. They are recorded and can be listened to by any interested citizen (and, theoretically, viewed on the public access channel if the Robinson-Briggs administration ever gets around to posting the previously taped meetings).

Under Rivers' proposal, the answers would be severed from the questions, without any specific guarantee that -- if and/or when issued -- they would become part of the public record for that meeting. Barring that, how would the public come to know of the Administration's answers?

Does the asking of a question at a public meeting create an obligation on the government's part to make the answer available as a public record?

Would the Municipal Clerk have to transcribe each and every question and post same to the city's website with the answers generated by the administration? Would this be unfairly burdensome to the Clerk's office?

Would the failure of the Administration to answer the questions, or not make the answers available as a matter of course as part of the public record expose the city to liability if challenged?

These procedures seem to have been conceived in haste, and we all know what haste makes.

OTHER SURPRISES AND NON-SURPRISES

  • What accounts for the sudden reappearance of Mayor Robinson-Briggs, who has boycotted Council meetings for months? Surely it can't be that she expects to be given the floor at meetings at which she is only a guest, especially in light of Council President Rivers' assertion that there will be 'no grandstanding or campaigning' at Council meetings.

  • Councilor Storch and Corporation Counsel nominee Minchiello crossed swords over why the city was relying on a no-bid contract to designate the City Engineer for 2013 instead of open public bidding as required by an ordinance the Council passed last year. Minchiello asserts the ordinance does not comport with state law, and the Robinson-Briggs administration feels itself under no compulsion to award contracts in any way other than it always has.

  • The Council will now be faced with paying Mayor Robinson-Briggs' legal tab for the WBLS investigation, something it had declined to do when Robinson-Briggs' allies were in the minority.

  • When resident Jeanette Criscione asked what was behind the removal of trash cans from downtown streets and whether the PMUA's shared services charges would be correspondingly reduced, she was greeted with puzzlement from the Council and administration. But was I imagining that I read in a recent PMUA newsletter that 51 trash cans had been removed because businesses and residents were using them improperly? And if the PMUA did put out such a story, why can't it be found on their website?

  • The sleeper surprise (to me) came in the discussion of the resolution setting interest rates for delinquent tax payments. Part of the discussion involved revealing that as of the first of the year, Plainfield no longer has a Tax Collector. When talk turned to catching up on checks that had been received but not posted to the electronic accounting system, Director Restaino casually remarked that at the time of posting, a clerk could simply date the payment with the date it was actually received, thereby negating any interest charges or penalty owing to a technical 'late payment'.

    This seemed innocent enough, but it did occur to me in a flash that if a clerk could do this when it was justified, what would prevent a politically-connected taxpayer who was late with a payment from having the payment date fudged by the employee?

    Can you see a potential for abuse here? Or does the system have protections of which Director Restaino is unaware?

    Either way, discomfiting.

  •  Lastly, the surprise statement by Councilor Brown that she didn't know anything about Remington & Vernick or contributions by the firm or its members to her campaign. More on that later.




-- Dan Damon [follow]


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9 comments:

Anonymous said...

When you sleep with dogs you wake up with fleas. This City is a dirty, corrupt, dump.

Anonymous said...

Will someone please step up and run for Mayor. I have had just as much as I can take of all this negativity.

Renee

Bob said...

This council president is concerning many of the citizens who follow such events. I will be attending as many council meetings to see what happens and let people know what is going on. If the city council votes to pay for Sharon's illegal dealings, I think such a stink should be raised that it follows those council members who voted for it to their next election and defeat. Politics in Plainfield and Union County is dirty and with this council president things in Plainfield will get dirtier. A pox on them all if they don't keep the citizens of Plainfield first. Don't hold your breath though.

olddoc said...

Right after Monday's meeting I personally expressed my objections to Council President Rivers about r4efering public questions to administration to be answered privately later and thereby excluding the public from information they were entitled to learn. She said she would permit replies at the meeting. We will see Monday.

Alan Goldstein said...

I am still waiting for answers to questions I have asked before both the McWilliams and Mapp-led City Councils. In no instance did either Council president demand an answer, and in no instance did either follow-up at subsequent meetings, or by contacting me later with an answer. So let's not be hypocrites about this. Obviously not every question can be answered on the spot, and we will find out soon enough if Rivers is willing to bring them up again as old business.

As for your contention that the pay-to-play ordinances require open public bidding of professional service contracts, that is not true. They require competitive negotiation (MC 2011-10can be found here- http://www.plainfieldnj.gov/Agendas/Special_Mtg._11.1.11.pdf) and that in itself is a complex story. Far more simple is that from the time these ordinances were approved, and still today, the City Council members barely understand them.

Let's also not forget that between the day they were voted on and the day they went into effect, Adrian Mapp took a contribution from R&V that was over the soon-to-be contribution limit. He later refunded a portion of it, enough to make it appear kosher. Though he may be miles ahead of the mayor when it comes to technical competency, he does take the cake when it comes to hypocrisy and opportunism, from which will no doubt stem a good amount of grandstanding in the months to come. Even if we don't ever get the meetings back on public access TV, 'City Dysfunctional' might be a good reality show to sell to the networks.

Anonymous said...

To 8:17am - I was trying to respond to Dan's column and was so angry because of the obvious abuse in this city, and the lazy people of Plainfield who let this happen. When I read your comment, I thought - there, that says it all.

Jackie said...

I mentioned on my blog that the trash cans on North Avenue opposite the train station had been removed. I do know that the residences and businesses were dumping all their trash in them. Now they just throw bags on the sidewalk. Sigh.

Michael Townley said...

In my 33 years in municipal government, 23 of which were served as a department director in two different municipalities, there may have been a dozen Council meetings where department directors could not answer questions posed by council members. I think we all recognized our duty and obligation to know our department, it's operations and personnel, and to respond to questions when asked. In part, it was a matter of pride in our professions as public administrators.

Dottie Gutenkauf said...

There wasn't much wrong with the Council's rules drafted by the late Ray Blanco when he was Council president.

Dan, what you are reporting about the treatment of public comments and questions is very distressing!