After two years of residents tuning into municipal meetings on Montclair’s YouTube station and on TV34, on May 3 that came to an end — at least for council conference meetings, as the council has gone back to in-person meetings. 

At 3:47 p.m. on May 3, just hours before a scheduled conference meeting, an email from Councilman Peter Yacobellis to the media and others announced: “I just learned that our council meeting tonight, because it is considered a ‘conference meeting,’ will not be broadcast on TV34 or streamed on YouTube. To be clear, we will be voting on resolutions and ordinances tonight versus just discussing items. I think this is outrageous.”

The council has been broadcasting and livestreaming both regular and conference meetings since the pandemic hit in March 2020. Prior to that, it only broadcast regular meetings. Both meetings have been recorded over the last two years as well for residents to view later on YouTube.

No separate announcement was made on the township website, but the township’s events calendar for the May 3 meeting did state that the meeting was to be “in person, no livestream.”

Before the pandemic, conference meetings were held in the second-floor conference room of the township municipal building, and were not broadcast or recorded. The council rarely took action on agenda items at conference meetings, typically only discussing them. The items were listed as discussion-only items on agendas as well.

Action on those items typically took place at the next regular council meeting, held in the council chambers, which are equipped with cameras and video recording equipment. Those meetings were broadcast on TV34 but not livestreamed. They’d usually be posted on YouTube sometime shortly after the meetings. 

Yacobellis said that Township Manager Tim Stafford made the decision not to livestream the May 3 meeting “based off of that tradition” of not recording conference meetings.

But that night, the council voted through a resolution in support of medical marijuana dispensary Ascend’s plan to expand to recreational sales, and introduced an ordinance amending Montclair’s cannabis law to allow for three retailers, instead of the two originally planned. 

Other ordinances and resolutions up for a vote that night included the Montclair Center Business Improvement District budget, an amendment to a 2020 bond ordinance to include an additional project and an ordinance renaming the Business Set-Aside Program to the Diversity Inclusion Program.

The May 3 meeting took place in the council chambers, where the township has the capability to broadcast and stream sessions. But the meeting was not recorded. 

Regular meetings will continue to be livestreamed, Yacobellis said.

But where residents had been able to call in to the public portion of the livestreamed meetings during the pandemic, residents will now have to comment in person. The council will no longer be taking call-ins by the public at both meetings.

Virtual council meeting. (SCREENSHOT)
Virtual council meeting.

Yacobellis said council members are split on livestreaming the conference meetings, but that it’s an ongoing conversation. The council has to have a majority vote to allow the livestreaming.

“At the very least what the mayor and I discussed was ensuring that we don’t hold second votes on ordinances and avoid passing resolutions during conference meetings until and if they’re livestreamed,” he said. 

“Personally I think the whole structure needs to be revisited, as I don’t find it makes sense on the other end of a world where everyone and everything easily went virtual.” 

Mayor Sean Spiller did not return emails sent on May 3 and May 6 asking why the council would not continue the practice of livestreaming if the township had the capabilities to do so. 

Councilman Bob Russo told Montclair Local by email on May 3 he had argued with management staff and Councilman David Cummings about the plans around meeting broadcasts and call-in procedures.

“We need complete transparency and availability for all residents, especially seniors, when now holding in-person meetings,” he said.

Yacobellis agreed that the council should be “mindful of seniors or people with health concerns who might not be comfortable coming into the council chambers given COVID spread and risk and how do we accommodate their desire to participate.”

Ellie Bagli, director of public relations for the Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place, said that the township’s decision to end the livestreaming of the council meetings would “definitely” have an impact on the senior population.  

“It’s been very helpful to be able to Zoom in for the evening sessions, as many seniors are uncomfortable driving at night. And of course, there are still many concerns about being together inside in small spaces,” Bagli said.

As of press time, other members of the council, Stafford and Deputy Township Manager Brian Scantlebury hadn’t returned an email sent May 3 seeking comment.

Planner Janice Talley said that Zoning Board, Planning Board and Historic Preservation Commission meetings will continue to be livestreamed via YouTube. Residents, however, will have to attend in order to participate in public comment. 

Regular Board of Education meetings are still broadcast live on TV33 and via a livestream. Residents can still comment during public comment virtually.