The needler in the haystack.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Sick Leave Ordinance Meeting: No agenda, no leadership, no resolution

Even Magic  8-Ball is having problems.

The meeting several Plainfield City Council members called for to discuss the proposed (and now tabled) paid sick leave ordinance finally took place Monday evening at the Plainfield Public Library.

With no agenda and no chair to focus the discussion, the meeting was rudderless. The only agreement attendees could come to was to meet again.

How did things come to this pass?

The ordinance, modeled on one passed by a number of other New Jersey communities (including Jersey City, Newark, Passaic, East Orange, Paterson, Irvington, Montclair, Trenton and Bloomfield), was introduced this past spring. With four Councilors sponsoring the measure (Williams, Brown, Storch and Greaves), it breezed through first reading with a unanimous approval by the Council.

But, by the second reading, the business community had stirred and complained to Council that they had been blindsided by the proposal and wanted an opportunity for their concerns to be heard.

Council table the ordinance amid vague promises by all that the business community would be listened to.

In August, after several months, Councilor Williams proposed putting the ordinance back on the agenda, and Council President Bridget Rivers concurred. However, things got complicated when the Clerk's office failed to put it on the agenda, leading Councilor Gloria Taylor to issue her standard complaint of "something fishy" going on.

After some wrangling, Council President Rivers agreed their should be a meeting between the measure's proponents, Council and the business community. That is the meeting that finally took place Monday evening.

However, there were problems from the start.

After about twenty people had gathered and pulled their chairs into a circle, the first question was: Who was in charge?

The Plainfield Working Families group were evidently not prepared to take charge, nor did they seem to have a clear strategy of negotiation, a tenderfoot mistake.

Council President Rivers said flat out, "This is not my meeting." Representatives from the SID, who sat together began to ask questions and rather led the discussion by default, though there was no particular focus.

Working Families committee member Carlos Ponton handed out a flyer in English and Spanish that summarized the proposal (the first literature I have seen in the entire process). He also tried valiantly to get the group to agree to use the proposed ordinance itself as the outline for a discussion, but to no avail, with the business community refusing to work on that premise.

The meeting then devolved into both sides making statements and taking pokes at each other (to business people: Who do you represent?; to the advocates: Who are you to offer to drop items from the proposal?).

Councilors Vera Greaves (who had been there from the beginning) and Gloria Taylor (who had come late) took part in the discussion, along with Rivers.

With no chair and no agenda, the discussion lacked focus and began to drift into topics that weren't even germane: Why should I keep my business in Plainfield? How to attract new businesses to the community? Small businesses face too much regulation. Up-by-the-bootstraps stories of inspiring models.

At on point Councilor Taylor chimed in and said, "We're not here to just listen to the business owners' point of view. Where are the people who would benefit from this ordinance? We want to hear from them."

It is no secret that Taylor and I are hardly bosom buddies, but to be fair, the Councilor had a point.

Where were the low-wage workers who would benefit from the proposed ordinance?

The whole experience had a vaguely retro paternalistic feel to it, with an earnest group of well-meaning folks trying to do something "for" a group of people who aren't present and weren't included in the process from the beginning.

The outcome of all this was to agree to meet again, which Council President Rivers would facilitate. No date or place has been set yet.

I am not sure where all this will go, but if the other three sponsors lose the help of Councilor Greaves -- who seems now to be wavering -- it will be curtains for the proposal, whenever it is brought up again at the Council.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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