The following article was written by Randy Bergmann, a former editor at the Asbury Park Press and now independent journalist, originally published on his Facebook Page and republished with permission. Randy Bergmann has no affiliation to Shore News Network.
JACKSON TOWNSHIP, NJ – In towns that aim to keep participation at public meetings to a minimum, particularly when it comes to potentially controversial issues and applications, there are a variety of strategies. The Jackson Planning Board employs them all.
The coronavirus epidemic and the board’s embrace of virtual meetings has given it a whole new set of tools. Zoom meetings are perfect for making meetings even more tedious than normal and discouraging public input.
At Monday night’s Planning Board meeting, an application for two huge warehouses off Route 537 near the I-195 interchange drew intense interest from residents, environmental groups and activists. If approved by the board, it would be an environmental and traffic nightmare.
More than a dozen people opposing the project waited their turn to comment. They waited, and waited, and waited some more. They sat through more than four hours of testimony before the board determined at 10:50 p.m. it was too late to continue. Too late to take public comment. Now, the hearing, and the public’s opportunity to be heard, will come in 10 weeks. On April 5.
Before the meeting was concluded, the Planning Board clerk noted that there were 63 people on Zoom. Many more may have grown tired of waiting and signed off.
That was the idea, one of many tactics used by the board to discourage residents – the people they are charged with serving and protecting – from having their voices heard. The pandemic has given the board the opportunity to limit participation even more by holding meetings remotely on Zoom, ostensibly for health reasons.
But at Monday night’s meeting, only one of the dozen or so board members and associated staff – most of whom appeared eligible for AARP membership — wore a mask. They were sitting six feet apart, but that isn’t enough in an enclosed space. Also, different people were holding the same microphone. The board may have managed to turn the remote meeting into a super-spreader event.
Unlike many other Zoom meetings I have sat in on, the people on the call Monday night could not be seen or identified. What we witnessed instead was a wide-angle shot of the municipal meeting room that filled about half of the screen, with the other half filled by a board member who was attending remotely, had nothing to say and at one point was busy filing her nails.
We could only see the backs of the people testifying and saw only a small percentage of the exhibits that were displayed on a screen for the board.
One of the opponents to the application had hoped to present concerns about the hearing process itself prior to the start of testimony. Among other things, she wanted to ask the board to allow all participants to be seen on Zoom and to archive the Zoom meeting so it could be viewed by residents at their convenience. She “raised her hand” on Zoom but was told to lower it. Repeated attempts to be recognized failed.
It’s doubtful the board’s efforts to muzzle the public violates any laws. But its failure to provide ample opportunities to comment feeds into the public’s distrust of government. And rightly so.
There are several things the board could, and should do, to accommodate the public.
1. For applications with substantial public interest, the board should hold the hearings in the Jackson Memorial High School auditorium. It’s large enough to handle big crowds while allowing for social distancing.
2. Don’t make members of the public sit through hours of dry testimony before they are allowed to comment. Let them comment at the start of the hearing so their concerns can be addressed by the applicants while they are testifying. Another option would be to allow for public comment at the conclusion of one or two witnesses’ testimony. The board is allowed to ask questions; why not the public?
3. All meetings, Zoom and in-person, should be recorded and posted online along with the meeting minutes.
4. The board should accept written questions from the public at any time during the application process and require that staff professionals or the applicants provide written responses.
5. The board should not recess meetings before the public has a chance to be heard. Monday night, the applicant had only one more witness. The board should have let him be heard, then given members of the public who waited more than four hours to be heard, an opportunity.
In the weeks and months ahead, the Planning Board will be hearing from several applicants whose plans threaten to further diminish the quality of life in Jackson. It needs to change the way it does business.