Residents petition to allow virtual access to Montclair council meetings
Two Montclair residents have started a petition on change.org asking the Township Council to reinstitute livestreaming of all its meetings, and to let participants again call in for comment.
The petition, posted the morning of May 17, garnered more than 100 signatures in just a few hours.
Starting in March 2020, all township meetings — including both conference and regular council meetings — were livestreamed on Montclair’s YouTube station and on TV34. Residents could participate in the public portion of the council meeting by calling in.
But that ended in May, just hours before the first in-person council meeting since the pandemic, when Councilman Peter Yacobellis announced to the media and others that the meeting would not be livestreamed. The meeting was considered a conference session — when council members workshop plans — but action would still be taken on some resolutions and ordinances.
At the May 17 council meeting, Councilman William Hurlock said he was under the impression that hybrid meetings were not allowed by law and asked the township legal department to research it. But both League of Municipalities and Department of Community Affairs officials told Montclair Local it’s legal to hold in-person meetings in which some council members or some members of the public participate remotely.
Prior to March 2020, the township only broadcast regular meetings. 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 those 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.
One of the authors of the petition, Eileen Birmingham, said that the council’s choice to not livestream council conference meetings and to not allow virtual participants to comment is an “unnecessary barrier” to Montclair’s governmental process in 2022.
“Since the pandemic, I have been able to tune in and participate regularly in council meetings for the past two years. It was easier for me to attend. I didn’t have to worry about child care or transportation to get there or keeping safe,” Birmingham said.
“There are parents that depend on getting child care to attend. There are those who are immune-compromised and don’t feel safe. Seniors that are homebound,” she said. “For the last two years, it’s been accessible and transparent for all.”
The other petition author is Courtney Redfern, who Birmingham said is a “concerned citizen and a mother.”
Yacobellis said prior to the May 3 meeting that Township Manager Tim Stafford made the decision not to livestream the May 3 meeting based on the tradition of not recording conference meetings.
But at the May 3 meeting, the council voted through resolutions — which, unlike ordinances, only require one reading. It also introduced a few ordinances that would get their second readings and potential final votes on May 17.
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 the Diversity Inclusion Program.
Yacobellis has said the council remains split on the issue. He said that he has discussed with the mayor a suggestion that no second votes on ordinances take place and that the council avoid passing resolutions during conference meetings.
But Birmingham said that over the last two years there has been little distinction between regular and conference meetings, as action was taken at both.
As for public comment, Yacobellis said: “I support both until people can feel safe attending our meetings in person. I don’t like the idea that there may be a senior or an immunocompromised person in town who is afraid of getting COVID and we’re asking them to choose between being able to make public comments at a council meeting and take a risk by being in a room with potentially unvaccinated and unmasked people, or not participating.”
Councilwoman Robin Schlager said although she likes to interact with residents in person at council meetings, she said “as long as there is staff available and if there is a consensus amongst the council, I don’t see why we couldn’t televise or stream conference meetings.”
She also said that the council should reconsider instituting phone-in comments during these “unprecedented times.”
“I am certainly open to that and want to be sensitive to our residents, constituents and families,” she said.
Councilman Bob Russo said he is for transparency and public input.
“We are here to serve the public, the taxpayers and the great community of Montclair. ‘Progressive’ means open government to me,” Russo said.
Lisa M. Ryan, of the Office of Communications/Division of Local Government Services, said that it is legal to conduct hybrid meetings that allow for both in-person and virtual attendance for council members as well as residents wanting to call in.
“See N.J.S.A. 10:4-8(b), which authorizes local units to conduct public meetings through use of streaming services and other online meeting platforms,” Ryan said.
League of Municipalities associate general counsel Frank Marshall also advised that it is legal to hold hybrid meetings for council members and said that call-in options for council had been used years prior to the pandemic. If a town has the technology and advertises the option, it is legal to allow residents both in-person and call-in options, he said.
The council would need at least four members to approve livestreaming and to allow for call-in public participation, Yacobellis has said.
Other council members have not returned an email sent May 17 seeking comment on the petition.
“We cannot go back to before COVID. It’s not consistent with government in 2022. We have the capabilities, the staff and the technology to continue,” Birmingham said.
The Board of Education, although back to in-person meetings, continues to livestream and still allows for call-in comments. Planning and zoning board and historic preservation meetings are back to in-person, but are livestreamed. Anyone wanting to comment must do so in person.