Your Turn

John Pfefferkorn
Guest Column

Your Turn John Pfefferkorn Guest Column

John Pfefferkorn
Guest Column

Are committee’s actions a lesson in liberty, or license?

Liberty or license? If you were a fan of Monday Night Football during the ’70s and ’80s, you may remember former lawyer and WABC sportscaster Howard Cosell using that phrase numerous times to describe citizens who ran onto the field to get a public moment with one of their sports heroes before being physically escorted off the field by security guards. Last week’s editorial, "Marathon committee meetings need to end," and the comment, "Limiting public comment at a (Millstone Township) public meeting" reverberates Cosell’s comments.

Webster’s defines "liberty" as the sum of rights and exemptions possessed in common by the people of a community, and "license" as a formal permission to do something.

Trying to restrict the rules of public engagement is a hypocritical barrier to all pledges for open government. Restricting public access time or a committeeman’s comments is blatant ignorance of our constitutional right of freedom of speech and our duty as legislators to uphold the constitution.

But is speaking at a township meeting the granting of a limited license or a basic liberty? Should our citizens dare challenge the perceived granting of a limited time license to speak out for fear of being gaveled? Or, is it a constitutional liberty without restriction and we need to enforce that right?

As a committeeman, I don’t know what was more disturbing, getting personally gaveled for trying to speak as allowed by our constitutional First Amendment, or watching the angry faces of citizens as they were being gaveled for their applause supporting legislative decisions, or listening to citizen after citizen plead their case at the microphone and being told not to speak about a topic or being called political. Are we evolving from a democracy of freedoms to backroom-controlled politicians squashing contrary views?

In any case, the atrocities that are being exhibited by the mayoral gaveling do not represent my opinions and I doubt those of the other committeemen. One thing for sure, the embarrassment of the public’s rights must stop now.

But to do so, one must first understand how Millstone is legally organized, and that is as a Township Committee form of government where the mayor acts on an equal basis as the other committee members. Sounds surprising? Well, that’s the law. It’s just that our mayors have taken some liberties (or is it licensing).

Sure, there are the privileges (and I do emphasize privilege) such as mayoral appointments that are allowed by state statute. But virtually all the mayor’s perceived independent power is only authorized through the committee resolutions allowing the mayor to act on behalf of the committee, such as signing contracts.

The committee must take back their power of five and run the town for the public welfare. The most obvious change that is needed is to return the power of creating the agenda to the committee, not as it is now controlled (without authority) by the mayor.

Supplementing the following suggestions can improve the community’s access to voice their opinions and receive feedback as well as allow the conducting of business.

First, I recommend that we hold a "town meeting." This is different from a Township Committee meeting, where the public is invited to listen to the business process of the local government and allowed a limited opportunity to speak.

Similar to the master plan public sessions, the New England-style town meeting format would be a monthly opportunity for the public to speak on an evening when no committee business was planned. The committee partnering with their constituents is a win-win.

Second, I agree we should implement workshop sessions just like we do for budget planning. In conjunction with a monthly town meeting format, it gives the public time to hear discussion and then comment at the town meeting.

Third, allow committeemen to have an open session period at the workshop meeting. This will allow them to present ideas that are unfiltered and would never make it to the agenda because of the veto power of a majority polling vote of the committee.

Fourth, before the first reading of any ordinance, schedule a public comment section that would allow public input for possible improvements that would assist the committee in their decision making.

Your elected officials are a conduit of the public’s ideas and wishes which should then result in clearly executed plans and fair legislation. Gaveling down the public because their views differ from the political power brokers is an atrocity we need to stop. Liberty or license, you decide.

John Pfefferkorn is a Millstone Township committeeman.