Majority of Montclair Township Council supports livestreaming all meetings
There is an element of nostalgia to this saga, when, to hear Montclair Township Council members tell it, they could rub elbows and do the business of the people in an intimate setting around a conference table in relative privacy. Lots of the nitty-gritty of their work got done this way, in what were designated as “conference” meetings on the second floor of the Municipal Building, with roughly 50 folding chairs for anyone in the community who wanted to cram in with their elected leaders.
Since the spring, after the remotely held meetings that marked the COVID-19 period ended, conference meetings, mostly held these days in a more spacious first-floor hearing room, have continued with the same rules – an in-person crowd allowed, but no livestreaming. Alternating with “regular” meetings, which are available live on YouTube, many residents have expressed confusion and anger, persistently calling for the airing of all meetings.
Now, the council, pushing away conflicted thoughts, seems poised to bring livestreaming to all of its meetings. Four of the governing body’s seven members have told Montclair Local they would support consistent livestreaming, effectively lifting the on-again-off-again blackout.
“I’m ready to say that it’s time,” said Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams, whose earlier public comments had conveyed reservations. “Whether we go upstairs again or not. I think we can and should find a way to make it available to the public that wants to stream it, watching it live or watching the recording in the future, that we have the archive of it. This is the expectation and it's doable.”
She joins Councilors-at-Large Bob Russo and Peter Yacobellis and Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager, who also told Montclair Local they would vote to make livestreaming the norm. During a time filled with a number of contentious and complex issues – from the Glen Ridge fire contract, to a lawsuit by the town’s chief financial officer that compelled the council to place the township manager on administrative leave, to the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment – the officials said that rejecting livestreaming would turn a deaf ear to the public’s demands for more transparency.
“First and foremost, it’s the right thing to do,” Schlager said. “I look at it as best practice, so why wouldn’t we do it? It’s a new age, and I feel that if we did it during COVID, we can do it now.”
Schlager said that meeting in close quarters around a table created more camaraderie and facilitated an easy give-and-take, including when department heads reported to the council. Ultimately, she said, she was persuaded by the community.
“That’s what they want, and at the end of the day I’m here to serve the residents,” Schlager said.
Still, if the aim is to signal more accountability and accessibility, the council may have sent a contradictory message at its last meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 20, when it decided to reduce the number of meetings next year from 22 to 20. Days of apparent horse trading before the meeting led to Mayor Sean Spiller first putting forth a resolution for 21 meetings in 2023, one less than in 2022. But in a rare flurry of deal-making in public, with council members saying their personal schedules presented conflicts, next year’s calendar ended up being further abbreviated. Council members later said the number of meetings could be increased with “supplementary” meetings, as needs arise.
The question of livestreaming, though, has divided the council, presenting it with a kind of post-COVID dilemma and a decision of whether to take something away that many people have become accustomed to. Spiller said at a council session two weeks ago that all meetings during the “winter months” would be livestreamed, but he has not endorsed livestreaming in the past. Neither he nor Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock responded to requests for comment on their positions.
Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings, while declining to state his position, seemed to confirm that full livestreaming was destined to happen.
“The council heard the people and agreed to live-streaming all meetings,” Cummings said in a text.
Yacobellis said that if livestreaming did not continue past the winter, he would “introduce a resolution ensuring all meetings are live-streamed going forward.”
“You can’t give people a right and then take it away,” he said in a phone conversation. “The world has changed, the technology exists, and people deserve and expect transparency, and we need to be doing this.”
Russo, the longest-serving member, framed the issue in epic terms as a basic right, saying that openness in government is a core value he espouses in college courses he teaches.
“Yes of course, I’m for broadcasting of ALL meetings,” he wrote in a text. “Conference as well as regular!”
He added, “We MUST make government more accessible & transparent to all residents, especially our growing older population, those with disabilities & busy, working families! What better way to protect our Democracy!”
Although the upstairs conference room is apparently not equipped with the technology to livestream, Schlager and Price Abrams said that should not be an insurmountable hurdle. “It wouldn’t seem all that complicated to do,” Schlager said.
In any case, the community may have forced the council’s hand, promising to livestream meetings from their phones if the council failed to meet its request. Before the Dec. 6 conference meeting in the first-floor chamber, Yacobellis said he would enlist a volunteer to set up a tripod and stream that meeting by phone. Arriving at the Municipal Building that night, he learned of Spiller’s intention to have wintertime meetings streamed.
Eileen Birmingham, a regular presence during the public comments portion of each meeting, said livestreaming was important to reach people unable to attend.
“This is long overdue,” she said. “We should not have had to fight as hard for it as we did.”
She agreed that COVID had changed the equation, giving the council little choice but to abandon its livestreaming policy.
“I’ve just kept telling them,” she said, “‘that's an option that is no longer available to you.”