PLAINFIELD, NJ — The intention to sell two Albert Bierstadt paintings currently hanging in Municipal Court that were gifted to the Queen City by Dr. J. Ackerman Coles -- for whom Coles School in Scotch Plains is named -- in 1919 was announced in a legal notice early in August.
The Order to Show Cause was filed by David Minchello of Rainone, Coughlin Minchello, LLC, on the City of Plainfield's behalf, in Union County's Superior Court. Funds from the sale of the paintings, according to paperwork filed with the court, would benefit the Plainfield Promise program, despite the recommendation of Plainfield Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's committee three years ago that found the paintings should be retained by the City of Plainfield.
Dated August 7, 2020, this order stated parties would appear and show cause on August 28 before the Honorable Robert J. Mega, P.J. Ch. A judgement would allow for the sale of the paintings — The Landing of Columbus and Autumn in the Sierras — and dedicate the funds to the Plainfield Promise to: create a financial literacy program for Plainfield youth; create a scholarship fund for Plainfield residents lacking financial means to attend college; and establish and build a Plainfield Center of Excellence.
On August 17, Minchello notified Judge Mega that the Office of the Attorney General requested an adjournment for one cycle in order to file its submission.
On August 19, Minchello's office provided Deputy Attorney General Jay Guzman with a copy of the amended Order to Show Cause. Judge Mega heard the case on September 11 at the Union County Courthouse, at 2 Broad Street in Elizabeth.
The idea of funding the Plainfield Promise through the sale was originally broached early in 2017, but residents were outraged. The order ended up being rescinded, and Mayor Mapp said a committee would be formed to determine next steps, with a report with recommendations delivered to him six months later.
"I listen and take feedback very seriously when given constructively and in a spirit of cooperation, especially when it comes to the well-being of Plainfield," the mayor said then. "We will take a new look at Plainfield Promise bearing in mind your feedback, especially surrounding the proposed sale of the Bierstadt paintings."
(Video: Mayor Mapp rescinds order in 2017)
What the Plainfield Promise Committee Found
The Plainfield Promise Committee of six — Liz D’Aversa, Pedro Estevez, Gordon Fuller, Dr. Margaret Lewis, Sean McKenna, and Wendell Woods — delivered its final report to Mayor Mapp in December 2017. The committee's goal was to evaluate the program meant to provide post-high school educational opportunities, and evaluate the benefits of selling the paintings, with proceeds funding the Plainfield Promise program.
According to the committee's report, the "first step was to investigate methodology to monetize the Bierstadt paintings without selling the assets,” to include touring opportunities, exhibits, and museum loans that would recognize the City of Plainfield.
A second action was for the committee to contact states that had similar programs. California's Oakland Promise was one that stood out. However, a major difference is that Oakland Promise is an organization separate from the city, a non-profit that gets its money from corporations, foundations, and individual donors. City assets were not sold to start the program.
Mayor Mapp's committee found the use of funds from the sale of public assets like the Bierstadt paintings creates significant issues, including:
- The lack of resources to manage a program of this size long-term;
- The governance of the program using public funds is more complex, and will foment more detractors than a program utilizing private donations, i.e. what happens to funds if a child moves out of Plainfield;
- The inability to guarantee a future administration would not be able to redirect funds set aside for the program, and;
- The lack of long-term accountability for proper governance of a program supported by the sale of public assets.
Another committee finding stated, "the funds saved will be too small to affect the total cost of higher education," but acknowledges the program could have significant effects on improving financial
awareness and college prep skills for both students and parents.
Barriers to success, the report found, include long-term management of the program; the state ranking of the Plainfield school system; and a necessary unified and coordinated effort across all stakeholders, including City Hall, Board of Education, non-profits, and parent/civic organizations.
Recognizing the need to create a youth-focused entity at City Hall, alternative recommendations were provided. The committee also identified existing programs in New Jersey, and opportunities that could be leveraged. But the committee unanimously recommended that the Bierstadt paintings be retained by the City of Plainfield as mandated by their donor, and not be used to fund the Plainfield Promise program.
See the budget account status for Plainfield Promise, January 1, 2018, to August 18, 2020.
(Reader supplied photos taken at Scotch Plains Baptist Church, Scotch Plains, N.J.)