Montclair residents demand livestreaming of all council meetings
From summer stretching into fall, through one hackle-raising issue after the next, one theme has run through the demands of agitated Montclair residents on the leaders they elected – a call for more transparency.
With the winter approaching, many in the community came to the latest Township Council meeting on Monday, Nov. 14, insisting on an early New Year’s Resolution from the council – that it function more openly in 2023. The answer they received was at turns discouraging and promising.
Angered by a draft resolution that would cut the number of council meetings to 17 next year from 22 this year and move the start time up an hour, to 6 p.m. from 7 p.m., a group of residents showed up at the Municipal Building to protest once again, with one woman carrying a sign saying, “No More Secret Votes.”
The draft resolution also calls for seven conference meetings, shifting them upstairs from a large first-floor hearing room to a tightly spaced conference room, with seats for only about 20 spectators. Unlike Monday night’s regular meeting, the conference sessions are not livestreamed.
In the end, the governing body decided to defer debate until its next meeting, with two members – Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis and Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager – saying later they support the streaming of all meetings.
Another member, Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams, expressed some concerns over the proposal, saying it was news to her.
“I found myself a little bit surprised that that was the direction we were talking about going, as there's a lot of conversation with the public about transparency,” Price Abrams told her colleagues.
“I wasn't aware that there was a thought to move the meetings to 6 o’clock until I heard about it officially. I would think that would be a matter we would discuss among ourselves.”
She added, “Six o'clock doesn't really work for me particularly, but I'm mindful it also doesn't really work for the public.”
Likewise, Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings said that an earlier start time would conflict with his work schedule and questioned reducing the number of meetings. But he said that he had no issue with limiting livestreaming and suggested that with many large issues in the pipeline, including the redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza, additional conference meetings were in order.
The idea of moving up meetings to 6 p.m. began with Yacobellis, who said he was partly concerned with the length of meetings, with many stretching toward midnight. His notion, he said, was to move executive sessions – typically running more than an hour and held toward the end of the open session – to the beginning of the meeting. In that way, he said, the public would not be inconvenienced.
Fewer meetings on the calendar, said Schlager, could be supplemented by special meetings, which had been held in the past for particular issues that arose and the presentation of budget proposals by department and agency heads.
In an interview the day after this week’s session, Schlager said that council meetings held around a conference table on the second floor create a more productive atmosphere for the members. Of late, these meetings have been held in the first-floor chamber, which seats about 100, with space for additional seating plus standing room. The chamber is equipped with streaming technology, while the conference room is not.
“Sitting around the conference table, rolling up our sleeves and doing hard work was very meaningful to me,” Schlager said.
Mindful, she said, of recent meetings marked by dissension and open vitriol between council members, the upstairs conference meetings created more camaraderie.
“We got to know each other a little bit better, always very respectful, shared ideas, shared opinions,” she said, sounding wistful.
But these considerations were tempered by her desire to open up proceedings to as many as possible, she said.
Before going into executive session Monday night, Schlager and Yacobellis had an impromptu meeting in a corridor to speak with several residents. Both council members said that they favored the livestreaming of all meetings and that they believed there were enough votes among the seven-member panel to make that happen.
Yacobellis said he plans to introduce a resolution that all meetings be held in the council chamber and livestreamed.
Resident Eileen Birmingham has been a constant presence at council meetings, calling for more accountability and greater access for the public. She told the two council members that she knows people who wanted to attend the Monday night meeting but were kept away by personal matters. If it had been a conference meeting and not available on YouTube, they would have been shut out.
“As a community, we should strive to make public meetings accessible to as many people as possible,” she said in a text the next day. “Streaming and recording meetings allows for people to be included, and that should be encouraged.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect last name for Eileen Birmingham.