Montclair residents ask: Why weren’t we heard?
KATE ALBRIGHT/FILE PHOTO
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Some Montclair residents are questioning why Mayor Sean Spiller deviated from the previously published agenda at a recent Township Council meeting to hold public comment later in the night, after a vote that could lead to an expanded temporary skate park at Rand Park had already taken place.
Two residents, David Greenbaum and Diane Herbst, called into the Jan. 18 council meeting in opposition to the plan, which also calls for closing all four tennis courts at Rand Park.
But because the vote took place before the public was invited to comment, they feel they were not heard by the council.
“What is the point of public comment happening after the decision is already made? It goes against the rights of citizens to be heard,” Greenbaum told Montclair Local
New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Law requires public discussion periods before ordinances – matters of law – are voted on for final adoption. It doesn’t require the same for resolutions, like the vote at the Jan. 18 council meeting.
The agenda as published prior to the meeting originally called for Montclair to hold its usual public comment period – which can be on any issues residents want to address, including ones not up for votes at the meeting – before a vote on a series of resolutions known as the consent agenda. That’s typical of past Montclair Township Council meetings as well, and the state law requires a general comment period at some point during the governing body meeting, though it doesn’t mandate when.
Items listed in a consent agenda are voted on all together, and usually include resolutions that are considered routine, though a council member can request that a resolution be pulled out for further discussion and a separate vote.
The Jan. 18 consent agenda included resolutions on vendor contracts, an extension of the township’s indoor mask mandate, the transfer of an alcohol license, a bills list, a statement of the council’s opposition to a bill regarding regulation of 5G deployment – and the matter related to the skate park extension.
Spiller also had moved that the council go into closed session to discuss a litigation matter before public comment. But due to a technical problem, the council returned within minutes to continue the public meeting.
When public comment did open up on Jan. 18, Herbst questioned why the council would not take public comment before the vote. She questioned why it would vote through a skate park on courts that had a $256,111 renovation in 2017. Greenbaum, both a skateboarder and tennis player, also questioned why public comment was moved when he called in to suggest that Erie Park be considered for a skate park instead of Rand Park.
Spiller told Montclair Local that a number of younger children lobbying for the skate park had tuned in to see the outcome of the vote. He said he felt it was important for them to witness the workings of their local government.
“We didn’t want to keep them waiting. We wanted them to see it moved,” Spiller said.
A temporary skate park was first opened in the summer of 2020 in two of the tennis courts at Rand Park. Then in July of last year, the Township Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution supporting a permanent skate park at Rand.
The vote Jan. 18 authorized an analysis of insurance costs and a review of implications of the skate park with the township’s insurance agent. If that’s cleared, the plan for the courts would follow. All four courts would close to tennis, and skateable sculptures designed by U.S. Olympian Alexis Sablone would be installed across two courts, beginning as soon as March.
A Township Council agenda is flexible and can be changed by the mayor, who runs the meeting. Spiller pointed to times when proclamations had been moved on the agenda to accommodate the groups receiving them, adding that his predecessor, Mayor Robert Jackson, also moved the order of items on agendas at times.
Spiller said that those in opposition had the opportunity to be heard at a Jan. 4 conference meeting, when resolutions for the following monthly regular meeting were listed as discussion items only.
Jan. 18 isn’t the first time the mayor moved a public comment session to be held after a vote on a consent agenda.
At a Nov. 1 conference meeting and a Nov. 15 regular meeting, public comment was moved to after the consent agenda. At those meetings, Township Council members discussed a proposed agreement to make some funding for the Montclair Public Library contingent on more municipal oversight, but that proposal has never been moved for a vote.
Public comment was opened 24 minutes into the Nov. 1 meeting, and an hour and 28 minutes into the Nov. 15 meeting. On Jan. 18, public comment was held an hour and 30 minutes into the meeting.
Longtime councilman and former Mayor Bob Russo told Montclair Local he recalled public comments being held at the ends of meetings in the past.
“That was about 20 years ago, but subsequent to that the public was allowed to comment either earlier or later during the meetings. We changed to a fairly consistent earlier public speaking period during the last administration of Mayor Jackson,” Russo said.
He said that although there is no fixed rule or schedule for public comment, and meeting lineups have changed over time, he strongly believes that it should be offered early in the meeting as an opportunity for the residents of Montclair to air their concerns and question the mayor and council and before the governing body goes into any closed executive session.
West Caldwell, Glen Ridge, Cedar Grove, Nutley and Verona typically have two public comment portions of their meetings, according to minutes from 2021. One session is first held on the consent agenda before it gets a vote, and another is held toward the end of each meeting for general public comments.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis told Montclair Local that because state law only requires a meeting to be opened up to public comments before an ordinance vote, not a resolution vote, it’s often only during an overall public comment period that residents get to weigh in on those matters. He said he, too, was confused by the change in the agenda.
“I want to make sure we are encouraging public engagement with their local government as much as we can, and so I think it's a good practice to make sure public comment takes place at the beginning of our meetings so that people have an opportunity to comment on items that council would vote on later in the evening,” Yacobellis said.
Spiller told Montclair Local that he moved the public comment session purely to accommodate Montclair’s young constituents, and not to deter the public’s input on issues.
“I get it. More often than not we hear what residents have to say and encourage that. We absolutely want to hear from our residents,” Spiller said.