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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Plainfield City Council ponders abandoning its prerogative at Monday's meeting

As a Senator, John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer
for his 1957 book portraying Senators making
difficult voting decisions.

Plainfield's City Council faces a 'Profiles in Courage' moment at Monday's agenda-setting meeting.

'Profiles in Courage' is the book by John F. Kennedy profiling elected officials (Senators, in his book) who took a courageous stand on an issue on which they had to cast a vote -- and dared the consequences they might suffer for it. (The book is still in print, see here.)

Among those profiled were John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Robert A. Taft.

Perhaps less well known was George Norris from Nebraska, who opposed Speaker 'Joe' Cannon's autocratic rule of the House of Representatives.

What vote is facing the Plainfield City Council Monday evening?

The Mapp administration is putting forward an ordinance (M 2019-07) eliminating the City Council's role in approving layoffs (as currently set forth in the Municipal Code, Ch. 11, Article 12 -- see online here).

If approved, the sole authority for layoff of employees would become the Mayor.


Readers will remember that the Council failed to take up the Mapp administration's resolution at its February 11 meeting (R 093-19) that would have laid off the City's 9-1-1 operators.

The resolution failed for lack of a second to the motion, meaning the operators were spared -- for the moment. I noted at the time that the Mapp administration had not indicated whether it was going to pursue the matter further.

In the meantime, the Administration has posted job listings for new 9-1-1 operators -- as PART-TIME employees, meaning no health benefits and no pension contributions. It is fair to ask if reducing jobs from full-time is an effort to evade the Civil Service.

A further reason that changing the way layoffs are made is that the City may be facing a shortfall in the 2019 budget, which has yet to be presented to Council.

Rumors are the shortfall is in a range approaching $2 million (approximately 2.7% of the annual $72 million budget).

Layoffs of numerous personnel would be one way of avoiding a tax increase.

So, one way or the other, layoffs are going to be on the table.


To begin with, who makes appointments?

According to the Municipal Code (Sec. 11:2-2), the Mayor makes certain appointments (the City Administrator, Department heads, and any others for which no provision is made).

All other appointments (hires), as provided in Sec. 11:2-2 (b), are delegated to the Department heads --

Each Department Director shall appoint, promote and remove subordinate officers within his department, subject to the approval of the City Administrator, and in accordance with the Civil Service Statutes of the State of New Jersey. (R.O. 1957, 5:3-2, adopted Dec. 1, 1969)

So, to begin with the Mayor is limited -- it would appear by the Civil Service Act itself -- from being the Appointing Authority except in certain narrowly defined positions.

This is important when it comes to layoffs, where the Municipal Code (Sec. 11:12-1,2) as it currently stands provides that in the matter of layoffs --

(a)     Whenever there is a lack of work or a lack of funds requiring a reduction in the number of employees in a Department of the City government, the required reductions shall be made in such jobs or classifications as the Council may designate in consultation with the Mayor.

The City Council's role is to designate the titles that are to be laid off -- in consultation with the Mayor.

All this language is in the Civil Service section of the Municipal Code, which states as its first aim that --

...employment shall be based on merit and fitness free of personal and political considerations.

A careful reading of the Civil Service chapter shows a great concern to keep the chief executive at a certain distance from life-and-death decisions concerning Civil Service employees.

The proposed ordinance would eliminate that distance, putting the Mayor in direct control of the fates of the Civil Service employees.

Essentially, the Plainfield City Council is being asked to abandon its 50-year prerogative in adopting this ordinance.

The Council will have two immediate opportunities to exercise their own 'profiles in courage' -- at Monday's agenda-setting session, and if the ordinance is advanced, then at next Monday's business session.

City Council meets at 7:00 PM (note the new time) in the Council Chambers / Courthouse at Watchung Avenue and East 4th Street. Parking available on the street and in the lot across from Police Headquarters.

NOTE: I have seen officers in patrol vehicles allow Council attendees to turn onto 4th Street in front of Police Headquarters to enter the public parking lot. Exiting is no problem. Be cautious.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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