Petition Calling For Montclair Township to Stream Council Meetings & Allow Remote Public Comment

Montclair, NJ – One of the lessons learned from the pandemic was local government meeting the challenge of engaging constituents, even when in person meetings were not possible. The switch to more virtual experiences proved to have wide ranging benefits beyond COVID, but Montclair seemingly took a step away from using this tool for engagement.

A petition, launched Tuesday, calls for the Montclair Township Town Council to stream their meetings and allow comment from members of the public who attend remotely, with the goals being increased engagement, participation, inclusion and transparency.

The petitioners, Eileen Birmingham and Courtney Redfern, write:

Our town council continues to govern the citizens of Montclair and make important decisions at town council meetings. Unfortunately, the Council is REQUIRING IN PERSON ATTENDANCE for those who wish to fully participate and comment. Half of the meetings will not even be televised or streamed. This is unacceptable in 2022, when citizens should have ready access to information around decisions that will impact their lives.

For example, tonight the council will be voting on a $4.2 million bond referendum which will affect everyone who lives in Montclair, whether they own property or rent.

But only the handful of people who attend in person will have the opportunity to ask questions and speak about it.

Not everyone can attend meetings in person — this includes:

people with disabilities and/or health concerns
anyone who doesn’t want to sit near others during this time of high COVID transmission.
people who are still commuting home from work

Meanwhile, the Town Council continues to take action (or fails to take action) in ways that affect us all.

On May 3rd, the Montclair Township Council’s conference meeting was not broadcast on TV34 or streamed on YouTube.

Councilor at Large Peter Yacobellis said the council would vote on Resolutions and Ordinances at that May 3rd conference meeting and found the decision not to broadcast “outrageous.”

At that time, Yacobellis said he was working on getting colleagues to agree with me to direct the Manager to change this protocol.

Today, May 17, the Township posted this announcement on its website:

The Township Council regular meeting agenda published on Friday, March 13, 2022, inadvertently included language which said that members of the public would be able to dial in to comment on pending ordinances. This information was incorrect, mistakenly included from a template used when Council meetings were held virtually.

The Township apologizes for any confusion this may have caused.

Please know that members of the public who would like to comment must do so in-person during Council meetings.

Today, Councilor Yacobellis offered this update:

“I appreciate that we have precedent here and I respect some of my colleagues’ views on that. I do think in normal times people should have to come to a Council Meeting to participate. But that precedent existed before we had a global pandemic where the whole world learned how to do things virtually. I think for now we should do a hybrid approach that allows people — especially seniors or people who are immunocompromised, to participate in our meetings virtually without having to come into the Council Chambers where they may encounter folks who aren’t vaccinated and where masks are optional. As for streaming — we have the equipment in the room already. So I really don’t see the big deal in turning the cameras on and streaming all of our meetings on YouTube and TV34.”

What do you think? And will you sign the petition?

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  1. This Council can’t catch a break. The township home page has 3 news items:

    Item 1 is an apology for their agenda stating dial-in public comment would be accepted for the public hearing segments.

    Item 2 is to remind the public to register to vote.

    Item 3 is the new Rent Control ordinance…which was introduced in the last, in person, untelevised Conference mtg before COVID turned everything remote. Yes, that was the conference meeting where rent control was NOT on the agenda, they introduced it anyway…even though they only had a draft version, and a small group said the public had years to speak up.

  2. I just love this Council.

    In spite of what Councilor Cummings says, I do watch the Council meeting after public comment is done. This body is not what I would call a particularly thoughtful Council. It is one of those Councils where the parts are greater than the whole…and each ‘part’ with their own clear, well-defined agenda. I think they see the need for democratic trappings, but get more than a little irritated if it becomes an impediment. And change, as a concept? Well, this is government. We have had decades of government that has yet to solve robocalls for land line phones.

    Councilor Hurlock is an attorney. His comments reflect the careful language of an attorney. He just now, just last night, imagined the Council should ask their attorney to ask the State about allowing hybrid meetings (where remote participation is included). He just thought of it last night. Thoughtful guy.

    What he was careful not to speak to is the separate question of streaming of conference meetings. Clearly there was no need to employ municipal resources to determine if this would be legal.

    Nope. The guys want to follow the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers. They want to preserve the clubby atmosphere of conference meetings over the interests of some small subset of their constituents.

    I’m fine with it. It is their sandbox, their rules. Change your rules anytime. But, could you be less dumb about it? At least try, please?

    You all banged on last night. You went into executive session just like the agenda said you would. Adjournment is to follow according to the agenda. So, yes, people will stop watching. Right? But, once again, this Council slips in a indemnification resolution for a donor – that 3 of the Councilors have a question about, but yet, still approve. The best part though was the “round the table” remarks where Councilors give shout-outs, heads-ups, and generally promote themselves. OK, didn’t y’all say people left after public comment? Did you stop and consider that people may not, unless they dozed off, left the meeting because your agenda essentially told smart people they should?

    Y’all just are not really trying anymore, are you?

    Frankly, it is not like we had a lot of candidates in the last two elections to choose from. But, follow your “rules”

  3. Just for clarity, the banging on I referenced the Council doing was when they returned from Executive Session…instead of adjourning.

    And per NJ Sunshine laws (funny, right?), the Council passed the required resolution to authorized executive session. At the end of the resolution, the courtesy is to indication, in writing, how long the non-public session will last…and if any further business will occur after returning to adjourn.

    Our Council didn’t bother to complete this. This simply indicated ‘they dunno’.
    Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t. What business is it of yours?

    It is a hoot.

  4. I appreciate your thoughts here and always learn something from your posts– or even better–your virtual calls into the Council over the past 2 years.

    I just want to point out that at this point far more people appear to be watching the stream online than are there in person. I was there (reluctantly) last week, and there were *maybe* 20 people in the room (a generous estimate). But already 241 people have streamed all or part of that meeting. Similarly, the April 19 2022 virtual meeting has been streamed 310 times. I was out of town, but I am going to bet there were not 310 people, or even 30 people, at the May 3 meeting that was not streamed or recorded and we have no public record of. If they are not going to stream or record the meetings, they should at least be required to release minutes promptly.
    But as you point out, covid cases are high right now. And there are a lot of other reasons that people cannot be present in a municipal building between 7-9 on Tuesday nights– health reasons, work reasons, childcare reasons, transportation reasons etc. By law, meetings are required to be public. The Council should move to ensure that all public meetings are accessible to as many people as possible.
    Other towns are doing this. Morristown and Millburn are both holding hybrid meetings that are streamed and allow for virtual comment. Our own Board of Education is doing this successfully.
    Based on what happened at the last meeting, it appears that the Council will be voting on at least one ordinance at the next meeting. This public meeting should be accessible to as many people as possible, and it can be easily done.

  5. I appreciate your critique. I likewise look forward to your follow-up comments on the coming Glen Ridge Fire Contract. It seems from yesterday’s news that Montclair’s firefighters ensure they compensate each other fairly, but the Township is unable to ensure Glen Ridge pays us fair value for our services.

    As Martin Schwartz will oft elucidate, realpolitik happens offline. In back (smokey? dimly lit?)rooms. I don’t think so. This is where the Town’s vintage equipment to communicate the business of the Council: the steno pads & #2 pencils, Hitachi cassette recorder, IBM Selectric II (OMG! self-correcting) typewriters, and the star – a Xerox 9200 (duplex!) copier. Up until the Clerk passes a hard copy to the IT Dept for OCR digitizing, the process is old school, proven & persistent analog.
    BTW, Summit is the poster town for excuses – hitting the trifecta: cost!, technology! & legality!.

    If you want to pressure on the Council over its lack of transparency, dramatically increase the labor-intensive OPRA requests…starting with the analog stuff. I advocate a wholly different strategy. But, I think I understand the Council better than most.

    PS: ask the health department about the number of influenza cases

  6. I’ll be laughing all the long weekend that attorney Hurlock was unaware of N.J.S.A. 10:4-8(b).
    Of course, I know the guy. Yes, he is that guy you suspect he is.

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