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Public Participation Hot Topic at Twp. Council Meetings

During last week's Lawrence Township Council meeting, frustrated residents again asked council to allow public participation at the end of future meetings so that the public can offer a timely response to the township manager's report to council.

Public Participation Hot Topic at Twp. Council Meetings

Repeating a request she had made at the previous council meeting, Pine Knoll Drive resident Amy Davis stood before Lawrence Township Council at their meeting last Tuesday (Aug. 21) and implored council to allow members of the public to speak at the end of future council meetings, after Township Manager Richard Krawczun makes his regular report to council.

Council members listened while Davis read a prepared statement and, a few minutes later, Pin Oak Drive Allen Cohen stood up and made a similar request. Council members did not respond directly to either resident. At the end of the meeting, a 45-second discussion about public comment took place between two council members but did not result in any action.    

“At , the township manager’s report stated that as a result of the $932,000 shortfall projected for next year, the township had two options: lay off nine additional employees or eliminate trash pick-up. This bombshell report was given an hour into the council meeting and immediately before going into executive session,” Davis said at the start of her statement [which can be heard two minutes into the meeting Audio Part 1 file in the media box to the right].

“Despite there being no listed opportunity for the public to comment after the manager’s report on the agenda, I requested the mayor allow for public comment – which he has the discretion to do. He refused. I then requested that the mayor and council members strongly consider listing pubic comment every month after the manager’s report for all future meetings. I see this month’s agenda has none listed,” she continued. “While by allowing for a public session at the start of each meeting you may be complying with the letter of the Open Public Meetings Act, you are surely not complying with spirit of the law which is to encourage active public participation.

“As I stated last month, I wait with bated breath to listen to the township manager’s report,” Davis said. “If we as taxpayers of a small town are going to pay a municipal employee more than the governor and attorney general of the State of New Jersey, I expect brilliance to ring throughout the air.  I expect to be dazzled with incredible cost-saving ideas.  I have heard nothing of the sort. At a minimum I’d expect to be given the opportunity to ask a few questions and not wait a month later until the information is stale and right before a new report is issued.”

Davis went on to offer her summary of the township’s ongoing financial crisis. She spoke about the tax increase referendum that township voters defeated at the polls earlier this year, the municipal layoffs that will take effect at the end of this month, and the threat of additional layoffs at the beginning of 2013.     

“After having that kind of timeline burn a hole through this taxpayer’s stomach in the last six months, I’m told last month that I can’t speak until a month later,” Davis continued. “Again, at a minimum, from a least a public relations perspective, what are you thinking?

“Do you think at this point as individuals who seek reelection that you can really afford to further infuriate residents and alienate yourself from your own employees even more? This is not the right approach.  Despite whether you want to hear from us or whether you like what we have to say, we have the right to speak. Thank you,” she said in conclusion.

In response to Davis’ summary of past events surrounding the municipal budget, Krawczun invited her to visit his office to go over “line item by line item, point by point” the township’s financial records.

While it was an offer she quickly accepted, she noted that a “fundamental part’ of her speech concerned public participation.

“Why do we have a school board that has public session three times throughout their meetings – in the beginning, the middle and the end? Why do so many other public bodies have public session before executive session? Why isn’t this body open to public discussion?” she said in response to Krawczun but addressing council.

“I’m not here to debate that particular issue,” Krawczun answered, as council members remained silent.

“I want to echo Amy’s comments that public participation should come after the manager’s comments, or have a second public participation session,” Cohen said when he spoke before council a few minutes later [beginning at the 22:25 mark of Audio Part 1]. “The manager’s comments are not just for the benefit of council; they are for the benefit of all the people here in attendance. There’s no reason why there should not be public comment.

“When I’m making these comments, I’m responding to Mr. Krawczun’s comments in his manager’s report from a month ago, which could be dated [or] he could have more information which would take what I’m about to say and make it not applicable,” Cohen said. “If you want timely feedback, we should be able to speak after the manager makes his report.”

It was during the July 17 council meeting – after Krawczun spoke about to balance the municipal budget going into 2013 – that Davis to be allowed following the township manager’s report at future council meetings.

In response to that request, during the July 17 meeting, Councilman Greg Puliti told Davis: “The reason that we have public participation at the beginning of the meeting and then the manager gives the report to council is so that council can digest what the manager tells us and we get to ask him questions and be informed and be able to answer questions of the public at the next meeting. It’s his time for interaction with council, because we go back to him in the morning, and I say, ‘Rich, OK, go back to this, go back to this, go back to this.’ That’s why we’re up here on council. Certainly, with all due respect, at the next council meeting, we’ll take questions at the beginning of the meeting and answer them thoroughly.”

At the conclusion of last Tuesday’s meeting, after council had concluded its other business, Councilman Michael Powers broached the topic of public participation [beginning at the 25:50 mark of Aug. 21 Audio Part 3].

“The other thing, I guess, is public participation was bought up,” Powers said. “I don’t know… I know some towns have their public participation at the end of their meetings…”

Puliti immediately responded, saying: “I’ll give you my comments that I said before. It’s at this point that council conducts their meeting with the manager and gets new information. Ok? We have one…two…three…four…five council people and the manager that are available the next morning to answer any and all questions that the public has. We need to conduct our business in a concise manner and take back what he gives us for the first time, like this night. And it gives us time to digest it, as elected officials, to make policy decisions.”

The discussion ended with Powers agreeing, “And we’re not taking action on anything that the manager brings us...”

Ironically, it was members of the township council themselves who first raised the possibility of altering the time that public participation takes place at meetings.

During the Jan. 3, 2012, council meeting the following discussion took place, as council members discussed a resolution to move the start time of future council meetings up to 6:30 p.m. from 7 p.m. [The conversation begins at the 11 minute park of the Jan. 3, 2012, meeting audio, also available from the media box above.]

Mayor Jim Kownacki: “I’d like to see how council feels about moving the meeting from 7, for council, to 6:30. It would put us in line with a lot of other municipalities that start at 6:30. It’s something I think would be good if we do it. I know for some people it might put an extra stress on. We could talk about it. Anybody?”

Councilman David Maffei: “It’s OK with me.”

Councilman Michael Powers: “Councilman Puliti is not here… The one thing, obviously with the public… Sometimes people commute to New York City or whatever. I would just ask that if we do move it to 6:30, and someone does come and miss public participation because we do it at the beginning, if we would have some flexibility in terms of that… That’s the only thing that comes to mind.”

Township Clerk Cathleen Norcia “We could change the time of public participation in the agenda? That’s a possibility if there’s a problem.”

Mayor Kownacki: “We could do the public participation part later.”

Councilwoman Cathleen Lewis: “We could do it at the end of the meeting?”

Mayor Kownacki: “We could do it then, too. But then everyone has to stay.”

Township Clerk Norcia: “What we could do is we could just leave it as it is and if we see that it’s becoming a problem, then we can always move it.”

It should be noted that Councilman Puliti was not present at that meeting on Jan. 3. The township clerk, meanwhile, was not present at the council meeting last Tuesday (Aug. 21).

 

What do you think? Should Lawrence Township Council allow public participation at the end of its meetings? Vote in the poll below and share your comments.

 

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