Founded in 2007, North Plainfield Citizens for Community Rights is a nonpartisan group of North Plainfield residents intent on empowering free and equal citizens to solve local problems through open public discussion and use of our democratic right to self-governance.
NPCCR sponsors monthly public Town Meetings and advocates for citizens on a variety of local issues.
Downloadable brochures are here:
Here’s an overview of the Town Meetings held August 2007 through May 2008:
AUGUST 13, 2007 – TOWN MEETING 1
We had an hour or so of public comments, to identify key areas of concern for local residents, and then presented information about tools people can use to solve problems. About 50 people attended.
1) Areas of Major Concern Identified:
- Land Use:
- Local Accountability/Authority:
- Schools funding, educational quality
- High Property taxes:
- Structure of local government:
- Poor Enforcement of Local Ordinances
- Poor Communication between government and citizens
- Power/strength of organized citizens
2) Open Public Records Act – State law that provides system for citizens to request documents related to public issues, review them for free and get copies of them for copy costs. Local Custodian of Records is Borough Clerk Gloria Pflueger, forms available at her desk at Borough Hall, 263 Somerset St.
PROBLEM: Citizens don’t know what’s local public officials are doing.
SOLUTION: Citizens can find out by filing OPRA requests and reviewing documents.
3) Initiative and Referendum – The initiative power is citizens’ right to propose new local laws and formally present them to the local governing body for adoption; if Borough Council doesn’t adopt them, ordinance goes on the ballot for direct voter adoption via majority vote. The referendum power allows citizens to directly vote to approve or reject ordinances adopted by the Borough Council, by filing a petition within 20 days after a new ordinance is adopted.
PROBLEM: Council refuses to adopt ordinances citizens want, adopts ordinances citizens don’t want.
SOLUTION: Citizens can adopt ordinances directly, directly reject unwanted ordinances.
4) Charter Change – State law recognizes citizen right to change the form of government, by convening citizen committees to review current form of government, review alternative forms, choose a new form for presentation to voters at the ballot, and, if a majority vote “Yes,” adopt a new form.
PROBLEM: Strong Mayor-Weak Council form locally.
SOLUTION: Citizens can adopt new charter to change local form of government, i.e. give more power to Council or more power to citizens for direct exercise.
5) Ordinance Enforcement
PROBLEM: Enforcement by the police and Department of Public Works/Code Enforcement Officer is frustratingly non-existent, lax or inconsistent.
SOLUTION: Borough residents can enforce ordinances independently. Details online
6) Self-Governance Ordinance – See “Post-Mortem Chart”
PROBLEM: Corporate-written state laws preempt many of the self- governance powers citizens believe they have as members of a democratic society.
SOLUTION: Citizens can attempt to reclaim that lost authority by “disobedient lawmaking” or passing local laws that transfer corporate decision-making power to local residents.
SEPTEMBER 20, 2007 – TOWN MEETING 2
Topics, discussed by 50-some people, included:
- Communications – Blog: Contributors were strongly encouraged to attend School Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, Planning Board and Borough Council meetings and report impressions, useful information, opinions, etc., by forwarding to firstname.lastname@example.org for posting on the blog.
- Communications – Changemaker Newspaper: First issue mailed to people on contact lists. Project discontinued pending a volunteer to coordinate pulling info from blog, formatting as newsletter, distribution.
- Democracy School/Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund – Villa Maria Self-Governance Ordinance campaign as one part of a national campaign to reclaim citizen democracy from corporate, legislative and judicial usurpation. Overview videos on-line here and here.
- Update on Campbell Lawsuit.
- Age Restricted Condominium zoning ordinance vote in October 2005 (05-22) was 4-2 but a supermajority of five affirmative votes was required due to a proper citizens’ objection petition having been filed. Nonetheless, Mayor Allen quietly signed the ordinance into “law” a few weeks later and Bill Campbell sued. He won.
- Superior Court Judge Victor Ashrafi’s April 2007 decision invalidating the 05-22 ordinance as improperly adopted: “This decision addresses only the precise legal issue that defendants have raised in support of their motion for summary judgment – whether a 4-2 vote constitutes a 2/3 enhanced majority when there is a vacancy on a seven-member municipal council. The answer to that question is no, five votes are needed. What a governing body cannot do when it is full, that is, make a zoning change with only four votes, it cannot do because of a fortuitous vacancy. The defendants’ motion as to adequacy of four affirmative votes is denied.”
- In September 2007, Judge Ashrafi also denied defendant’s argument that a March 2006 vote on a new ARC-amending ordinance (06-01) constituted a complete readoption: “No one on the Borough Council indicated a belief that the Council was voting again on the entirety of the zoning change. The court cannot allow ordinance 06-01 to stand and effect the re-zoning of the Villa Maria property because five members of the Borough Council have never voted in favor of the re-zoning provisions…Because ordinance 06-01 is dependent on the validity of ordinance 05-22, it too must be nullified until the proper number of Borough Council members vote in favor of the zoning change.”
- The Borough government is currently appealing to overturn these rulings, at taxpayer expense.
- Self-Governance Ordinance Update – See Post-Mortem Chart.
- Property Maintenance Ordinance Enforcement – Frank D’Amore step-by-step instructions.
- Property Taxes: Excellent data available at By the Numbers especially the Tax Trauma page, showing the impact of home values, average household incomes and tax rates on local property taxes.
OCTOBER 13, 2007 – VILLA MARIA SMALL GROUP MEETING
About a dozen people gathered, discussed, identified 14 proposals, all of which were strongly supported by the 50-60 people who attended the October 29, 2007 Town Meeting. Proposals were forwarded to Mayor, Council and Borough Administrator in writing.
- Get an accurate cost-benefit analysis of development v. open-space preservation for Villa Maria.
- Don’t rezone Villa Maria for Age-Restricted Condos, leave the zoning as R-2.
- Withdraw the appeal inCampbell v. North Plainfield
- Place an Open Space Municipal Tax question on the Spring Primary ballot for citizen referendum, to establish the Borough’s eligibility for open space grant programs.
- Prepare an Environmental Resource Inventory, Recreation and Open Space Inventory, Open Space Recreation Plan and other documents to become eligible for open space grant programs
- Adopt the Shade Tree Commission Ordinance to protect the healthy full-grown trees at Villa Maria and throughout Borough.
- Add Villa Maria Sanatorium, St. Joseph’s School and downtown Somerset Street as new local Historic Districts.
- Strengthen the existing local Historic Preservation Ordinance to better protect local historic structures.
- Apply to have Villa Maria added to National Register of Historic Places
- Get and publicize geological/hydrology expert reports on the flood zones and wetlands status of Villa Maria parcel
- Get and publicize environmental and toxicology expert reports on the environmental resources/endangered species/habitats/critical slopes at the Villa Maria parcel and the presence of toxic building materials inside the Villa Maria buildings
- Put Self-Governance Ordinance on the ballot.
- Collect back taxes on Villa Maria owed for 2005, 2006 and 2007, in the amount of approximately $949,134, plus late fees.
- Continue research and community support to find funding streams and technical expertise create a comprehensive land-and tree-conserving, history-preserving plan for the Villa Maria.
OCTOBER 29, 2007 – TOWN MEETING 3
Topics Addressed by 50-60 people:
- How to Apply for Somerset County and New Jersey Open Space Funding
- How to Apply for Historic Preservation programs
- How to Work with Non-Profit Land Trusts
- How to do an Economic Analysis of Open Space Preservation v. Development
- Villa Maria Fair Market Value, 2003 Appraisals
- Proposals to present to Mayor and Council for Villa Maria parcel (see above)
- Recall of Mayor Janice Allen and Council Members
- Why Regulatory Law Doesn’t Protect Communities and How the Rights-Based Self-Governance Ordinance Works
- Need for citizen coverage of Nov. Council, Planning Board, School Board, Zoning Board meetings
DECEMBER 4, 2007 – TOWN MEETING 4
Topics Addressed by 20 -30 people:
- Mission Statement, Vision Statement, Brochure for North Plainfield Citizens for Community Rights.
- Recall Campaign – Presentation, discussion of pros and cons, vote: consensus “Not right now, election year coming anyway. Continue gathering information about unresponsive actions of Mayor and Council and revisit recall issue in spring.”
- List of 50 specific areas of concern for local residents, some of which may involve criminal behavior by public officials, including federal (bribery, extortion; theft of honest services) and state (bribery (NJSA 2C:27-2); Unlawful Business Transaction Where Interest is Involved” (NJSA 2C:27-9); “Acceptance or receipt of unlawful benefit by public servant for official behavior (NJSA 2C:27-10); “Official misconduct, occurs when a public servant, seeking to personally benefit or to harm another, either knowingly commits an unauthorized act while purporting it to be an official act, or refrains from performing inherent job functions.” (NJSA 2C:30-2). Issues list is at https://communityrights.wordpress.com/2007/11/23/50-and-counting/
- Property Maintenance Ordinance Enforcement – Plan for coordinated reporting and tracking of ordinance violations beginning January 1, 2008.
JANUARY 8, 2008 – TOWN MEETING 5
Topics addressed by 25-30 people:
- • Update on Self-Governance Ordinance lawsuit (Judge kicked out ordinance by order Jan. 15, 2008; 45 days to appeal. See Post-Mortem Chart
- Property Maintenance Code Overview Property Maintenance Code – Translated
- How to do a Citizen-Led Economic Development Study of Somerset Street.
- How to do a Citizen-Led Environmental Resource Inventory
- Review of FY 2006 Audit: FY06 Audit – General Comments
- How recall process works, step by step; what types of information would provide factual support for a potential campaign.
- Farragut Place curbing issue.
- Draft brochure.
FEBRUARY 7, 2008 – TOWN MEETING
- PROPERTY MAINTENANCE: Jack Fowler reported that he reviewed all the Municipal Court records of Property Maintenance Code violation prosecutions for 2006 and 2007, and learned that 70% of the cases (including second and subsequent offenses) were dismissed by the Code Enforcement Official (James Rodino) before the Judge could make a ruling on the evidence or impose fines. Of the remaining 30% that were actually prosecuted to conviction and fine, the largest fine was $1,000 but most fines were for $25 to $30. Consensus of the group was that Mr. Rodino has been ordered not to enforce local ordinances, by the Mayor, to curry favor among local voters regardless of whether those voters are abiding by local law or not. Group decided to seek change (Mayoral direction to Rodino to begin strict enforcement of local codes, or Mayoral firing of Rodino and replacement with an individual willing and able to begin strict enforcement of local codes) by petition and direct action such as public protests outside Borough Hall and/or other Borough locations.
- NONPROFIT ESTABLISHMENT/FUNDRAISING – Consensus was to go ahead and file the paperwork to create a 501(c)4 organization for NPCCR. Treasurer Gary Lewis learned later that this is cost-prohibitive; attorney advised him that NPCCR conduct financial transactions using the business name (already obtained from Somerset County) and using the Social Security Numbers of two NPCCR members as Tax ID numbers at the bank.
- LOCAL BUSINESS STUDY – Frank and his subcommittee looking at the needs and concerns of local businesses plan to begin their interviews with local business owners this week. If you want to join that effort, contact Frank at email@example.com. Barbara Habeeb reported that she spoke with a representative of the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce, who said North Plainfield businesses are welcome to join that orgainzation to pool resources and work toward a coordinated approach to business development in the two muncipalities. Peter Haigney, local resident and Rutgers MPA student, discussed his research interests (Somerset Street economic activity) and repeated his invitation for interested North Plainfielders to be interviewed about their thoughts on Somerset Street for his research project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and said he plans to participate in the citizen-led business study as his schedule permits. One of his own ideas is that the district would make a nice “mini-Ironbound, culinary destination.” Larry LaRonde of the Economic Development Committee reported that Borough Planner Marta Lefsky presented a proposal for downtown revitalization at the last EDC meeting. We sought a copy of that proposal via OPRA and were told that none exists.
- ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE: Mike Castro did a presentation on his work with NP students, and encouraged local residents to support the program with donations and letters to the School Board. More detail here: Mike Castro’s ESL Proposal
- SHADE TREE COMMISSION ORDINANCE – Thalia presented background on the seven-year saga of the Shade Tree Advisory Board’s efforts to obtain Commission status with the enforcement teeth to protect the Borough’s shade tree canopy, and announced that, if the next round of revisions does not lead to a Council adoption of the ordinance by April 2008, she will turn to NPCCR members to do an initiative campaign and put the measure on the ballot for direct citizen vote. Based on voter turnout last November, 243 valid signatures would be needed on such a petition. [Update 5/30/08 – Council failed to pass it again in April – petition is a go. Ordinance here: Shade Tree Ordinance Petition forms in the works.]
- MEETING VIDEO
MARCH 5, 2008 – TOWN MEETING
- Elected New Co-Chair Mark Williams
- Property Revaluation – NPCCR plans to host a public information session, for residents to question the revaluation appraisers about the revaluation process, likely impact on property taxes, etc. Proposed date: Monday, April 7 at 7 p.m. at Vermeule Community Center.
- Joint Town Meeting – NPCCR plans to host Councilwoman Jenny Flynn (in keeping with her campaign promise for quarterly Town Meetings with constituents) and other Council members (if they’re interested) at a Joint Town Meeting [Ms. Flynn resigned from Council.]
- Candidate Debates – NPCCR plans to host a series of candidate debates leading up to June Primary Election and November General Election. Small committee formed to carry out this activity, invite the candidates, establish a format, etc. (NPCCR members said the most recent local debates occurred in 2004 – since then, incumbents have apparently declined challenger invitations to debate in every intervening election cycle.)
- Public Safety – Discussion of latest in series of five home break-ins along Sandford Avenue, while residents were in their homes. Unresponsive response of North Plainfield police officers: they arrived at the scene promptly, but have apparently failed to conduct follow-up interviews, investigations or public information campaigns to arrest the intruders and prevent future break-ins. Resident interest in forming a neighborhood block watch; NPCCR interest in finding out more from Police Department about the break-ins, about forming neighborhood watches, and about common sense measures to protect homes from break-ins.
- Villa Maria Historic Preservation: Application to state historic preservation program is just about ready for filing. Villa Maria nuns were contacted, requesting their cooperation. Upon advice of their attorneys, nuns declined to cooperate. Application process can still move forward and state might determine Villa Maria is of sufficient historic value to bring pressure to bear on the owners in favor of preservation even without their cooperation.
- Off-Track Wagering (OTW): Township Council in Green Brook rejected proposed off-track wagering business for the Saturn dealership on Route 22. North Plainfield officials are quietly considering whether OTW would be an appropriate business for the K-Mart building, soon to be vacated. NPCCR members had mixed views on the subject and had heard mixed reports from Woodbridge and Vineland officials. On the plus side: ratables would be good, and Route 22 is already a commercial zone with lots of parking and high traffic. On the negative side, OTW gambling business draws “a certain element” not presently circulating in and around North Plainfield, might require additional police presence. Overall view: North Plainfield should consider it, and NPCCR members should carefully gather and compile information from Green Brook, Woodbridge, Vineland and other communities that chose, or chose not, to host gambling establishments, so as to promote a healthy, open public discussion and decision on the issue. And if the community consensus is clearly against the proposal, as it was in Green Brook, then North Plainfield’s public officials should reject the plan equally clearly, rather than repeat the North Plainfield pattern of ignoring the will of the residents. UPDATE: Additional Courier-News coverage of the Green Brook vote.
- Vermeule Rental Discussion. Account posted here.
- Local Business Study – NPCCR member continue to work on a project to interview local business owners about their ideas and concerns for economic development throughout the Borough.
- 4-1-1 Challenge – Co-Chair Mark Williams urged people to distribute four copies of the NPCCR brochure to friends and neighbors, tell one friend about the group and its work, and bring one friend to the next meeting April 7.
APRIL 7 2008 – TOWN MEETING
MAY 8, 2008 – TOWN MEETING: