Changes proposed to meeting procedure

Critics contend ordinance shuts out public from govt.

BY CHRIS GAETANO Staff Writer

EDISON — An ordinance changing the rules of procedure during Township Council meetings was successfully introduced during the Dec. 22 meeting, much to the chagrin of meeting regulars who would be most affected by it.

The measure amends the meeting rules in several ways, with the most controversial involving how long meetings can run and how the public comment portions are conducted. Under the current procedures, meetings last until 11 p.m. unless a majority of the council votes for more time. Under the proposed rules, work session meetings will end at 9 p.m. and regular meetings at 10 p.m., with time extensions allowed only through a two-thirds vote. The time allowed for public comments would also be reduced.

Under the proposed regulations, individual residents will be able to speak for four minutes, down from the six minutes currently allowed, with an overall time for public comment restricted to one hour, unless a majority of the council votes to extend this period. Currently, there is no time limit.

The language immediately came under intense criticism from residents attending the meeting that night. Edison political culture tends to be characterized by frequent debates and discussions with local activists, many of whom attend township meetings on a regular basis. These same people have come out strongly against the proposed changes to the meeting procedures, saying that doing so shuts out residents’ input and harms the engagement that residents have with their government.

“This is really the people’s meeting. It’s not their [the council’s] meeting,” said Bill Stephens, a resident who can usually be counted on to speak at least once during public portions.

Another frequent attendant at town meetings, Esther Nemitz, expressed a similar point, but also added that she felt the proposed time limits were unrealistic. She noted that the council on that same night was in closed session for an hour, and she questioned the probability that they would be able to do that in the future and still complete public business by 10 or 11 o’clock and have enough time to hear from the residents.

“There are things here that are just plain unrealistic,” said Nemitz. “I don’t think this bodes well at all for open government.”

Supporters of the measure, though, felt that a change was needed in the way that meetings are run. Public meetings in Edison, especially for council, typically go for about three to four hours, sometimes more if a particularly contentious issue is being discussed that night.

“We wanted to change how government meetings are run by getting through business efficiently and engaging, perhaps, more people in the public conversation,” said Councilwoman AnnMarie Griffin-Ussak.

One part of the proposal that residents felt positively about, however, was an increased emphasis on technology. Part of the plan is to make sure agendas are posted online the Friday before a meeting is set to take place, as well as any ordinances and resolutions being discussed. Currently, anything the council is set to vote on is posted on a board at the back of the council chambers, which sometimes leads to people not having a chance to read over proposals that they might otherwise have questions on.

However, one resident, Jane Tousman, another meeting regular, noted that the ordinance lacks language to enact this aspect of the proposed change.

Another of the ordinance’s aspects is that it lays out how special meetings can be called. The measure states that the council president can call a special meeting upon obtaining approval from the majority of the council. The mayor, too, can call a special meeting if he or she has the approval of the majority of the council. And, a majority of the council can also call a meeting, in the event that it’s deemed necessary and if the mayor and council president can’t or won’t hold one.

Rules for how appointments are handled are also added in the ordinance. Under the proposed regulations, people cannot be nominated and confirmed in the same night. There must be at least seven days between the nomination and the confirmation in order to give the council time to give the issue enough thought.

The proposal also explicitly lays out the budget process, creating a timeline for when things should be finished. The text lays out eight steps: submission of the budget by the mayor, departmental budget presentations, introduction and approval of the first budget by Aug. 10, public advertising, public hearing, amendments and further public hearings if required, and adoption of the amended budget by Sept. 20.

Finally, the ordinance lays out rules of decorum for the council members, who, in the measure’s language, must treat other council members and township employees with respect and courtesy, no matter how much one may disagree on a particular issue.

Every council member, except Antonia Ricigliano, voted to introduce the ordinance. A public hearing on the measure, to be held before the council comes to a final vote, is scheduled for Jan. 14, 2009.

Contact Chris Gaetano at sentnorth@gmnews.com.