Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Some final words on the charter change fuss

Council takes up charter changes Monday evening.

Plainfield City Council will take up a large ordinance (123 pages) numbered 2018-22 to reorganize city government to conform to the revised city charter which was signed into law by Gov. Murphy on August 10.

The manner in which the charter was finally amended has become an item of some interest among residents and I thought to take one last opportunity to review what all the fuss has been about.

After reading the July Courier story on the changes to the city charter (see here) and Sean McKenna's response on his blog (see here) -- CORRECTION: the correct post by Sean is HERE -- it seems a good opportunity to clear up some misconceptions and sharpen the points to be made.

Let me start off by saying that I do not object to the two changes that have created all the fuss (the number of departments and the provision for ten confidential aides).


Already when I moved to Plainfield in 1983 there were grumblings about the inadequacy of the departmental limitations.
Even though the charter was less than 15 years old, the purview of city government had expanded greatly with Richard Nixon's bureaucratization of LBJ's Great Society programs (the ancestor of Plainfield Action Services) and his development of the block grant system of distributing Federal aid.
Hampered by Plainfield's charter, the response was to combine financial and social services in one monster department, making no one really happy.
Though there had been talk of charter revision over the years, concrete steps were not taken until Mayor Mapp's first administration put up a ballot measure.
So a Charter Study Commission was duly approved and its members elected by the voters.
This group worked long and hard and in public view.
They studied other charters. They looked at the options under the Faulkner Act. They interviewed elected officials and others with experience or expertise on the subject.
Finally, they issued their recommendations to the City Council and were discharged. From that point on they had no formal responsibility for the fate of their "baby".
The Council's role in the process was to formalize the report as a petition to the New Jersey Legislature.
The ball was then in Assemblyman Jerry Green's court to act as "godfather" and shepherd the proposed charter changes through the legislative process.
And there things sat. And sat. And sat.

It was not uncharacteristic of Jerry to use this tactic to extract concessions on some point of local interest.
And so things stood until Jerry passed away in April of this year.


Suddenly things began to move very fast.

Mary Burgwinkle, who had chaired the study commission, tracked the progress of the bills (separate Senate and Assembly versions) and noticed that changes had been made from the petition the Council had approved.

She quickly put together an OpEd on the situation which appeared in the Courier a s well as on Olddoc's blog and generated considerable discussion.

Only at this point does it appear that Mayor Mapp decided to explain the situation.

Which he did at the July 9th combined Council session.

At that Council meeting he asserted that the Administration had made the changes, with a rather vague and convoluted explanation as to why the matter of confidential aides needed to be addressed.

Mayor Mapp repeated these statements in the Courier story with a slightly different explanation of the confidential aides (as Sean notes).


So there are three questions looking for answers:

  • By what authority did Mayor Mapp have the changes made?

  • Why was the decision made to change the number of departments originally recommended?

  • Why was the confidential aides matter inserted at all?


As I understand the statutes (and I am not a lawyer), only the Council could make changes to its petition on the local end.

But Mayor Mapp never mentioned the Council in either his July 9th presentation or in the Courier article.

It is his prerogative to have called a special or even an emergency (if he could justify it) meeting of the Council to ratify the changes, but he does not say he even thought of it.

Of course it is perfectly within the prerogatives of the Legislature to amend any legislation before it (it is done all the time) but Mayor Mapp has never suggested that is how things went down -- quite the opposite.

If anyone had the money and the moxie to pursue the matter, they could try to compel an answer to the question. My guess is no one will step up to the challenge.

On the other hand Mayor Mapp could more fully explain himself on this point.


On this question there is more to the story than the public is aware of.

Sources on the Charter Study Commission tell me that Mayor Mapp was asked directly at the time of preparing the final report if he had a preference for more departments and his reply was "No".

So now Mayor Mapp should explain more fully why he evidently changed his mind.

I will not go into a discussion of whether the changes will be "budget neutral" as the mayor asserts.

The administration will have an opportunity to explain this at the August combined meeting.

Al I can say is I wonder how two division heads will take to becoming department heads without getting a boost in their salaries.


Lastly there is the matter of the confidential aides and whether they properly belong in the charter.

My opinion is that they do not and the Civil Service Commission ruling in the city's may make Mayor Mapp's argument moot.

I do not agree with Sean that a patronage appointment automatically means the person is incompetent and a drag on the body politic.

The mayor is right to assert that there is a long tradition of them, both in Plainfield and elsewhere throughout New Jersey and nationally.

One might look through the tube the other way and conclude that ten is the maximum the charter will allow and no administration will ever be able to exceed that number.

Unless they want to go back to the Legislature for another charter change.

Plainfield City Council will meet for its August combined session on August 13, at which time the Administration will bring forth the enabling ordinance need to effect the changes.

Plainfield City Council meets in the Courthouse / Council Chambers at Watchung Avenue and East 4th Street. Parking available on the street or in the lot across from Police headquarters.

 -- Dan Damon [ follow ]

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