Berkeley Heights Transparency Threatened

In an age where towns are being pushed for Open Government,  Berkeley Heights has chosen to take a step backward, a step towards secrecy.

During the Jan 24, 2017 Town Council Meeting, the Berkeley Heights Township  Council will introduce changes to The Code of the Township of Berkeley Heights.   These changes are designed to close the door on Committee meetings disallowing the public to attend.   Not only that, but the Committees will no longer even have to file an annual report on their accomplishments.

I question the motivation as to why they would choose to deter the public from witnessing what is going on in these meetings.    The members of these Committees are all appointed by the Mayor to perform the mandates of the Charter set out for these committees.

This is the second attempt by the Council to limit what the public is allowed to see.   In September  2016,  the Council introduced an ordinance to limit video recording of all public meetings. They introduced an extremely restrictive ordinance which included that the original version was handed over to the Council, as well as placement of the recording devices behind the last row of chairs ( about 40-50 ft away from the dais ).

As part of an open government initiative by the town’s residents, public meetings are currently being recorded and streamed to the public and archived for future review.

In addition to this latest attempt to limit what the public sees there have been other issues in Berkeley Heights, including private conversations being held via smartphones during the course of the Council Meetings. This is not only disrespectful to the public but possibly a breach of the Open Public Meetings Act. If the meeting is supposed to be done in public,  private communication should be limited during the meeting. Personally, I don’t think cell phone use is appropriate when having dinner let alone by the Council during deliberations and during citizen hearings. There have been other offenses as well: the abuse of executive session, preferring to negotiate behind closed doors rather than in public;  delayed  release  and poor quality of  meeting minutes;   and abridging public input with a selectively enforced 3 minute timer to limit comments that do not align with the Council’s personal agenda.

I propose that the Council abandon its latest attempt to work in secrecy and to adopt a new ordinance titled the Berkeley Heights Sunshine Act. This act provides guarantees that the Council and Committees provide transparency to those interested in witnessing  the deliberations of local government representatives and appointees. The text of the Berkeley Heights Sunshine Act is as follows:

Berkeley Heights Sunshine Act

  1. Short title: This Ordinance may be cited as the “Berkeley Heights Sunshine Act” and is referred to below as the “Act” and shall constitute a new chapter named “Public Meetings” under Title 2 “Administration of Personnel” of the Municipal Code.
  2. Findings: The people of the Township of Berkeley Heights find that good government depends on knowledgeable citizens who are able to observe and participate in government meetings to the maximum possible extent.  Such enables citizens to more effectively participate in public affairs, help determine governmental priorities and to hold their public officials accountable. Inadequate or delayed public access to meetings and information allows corruption to flourish undetected and unpunished. Government secrecy allows backroom deals to set public policy in the interest of the few rather than the many.  It is understood, accepted and intended by the people of the Township of Berkeley Heights that this Act will impose responsibilities upon the Township’s bodies, officials and employees greater than that which is required by the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-6 et seq.
  3. Scope: This Act shall apply to the Township Council, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment and each other body set forth in Title 2 of the Municipal Code that is subject to the provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act.  
  4. Agenda:  At least 48 hours prior to each meeting, each public body within the scope of this Act shall prominently post on the Township’s Internet site its meeting agenda.  The agenda shall include the date, hour and location of the meeting and each individual item to be discussed or acted upon, and a brief description thereof, and shall identify the names of the parties to and approximate dollar amounts of any contracts, including employment contracts, to be discussed or acted upon. No public body shall act upon a matter that is not listed on the agenda for which notice was given 48 hours prior to the meeting except that a public body may, upon the affirmative vote of a majority of the members present at a meeting, add an item to the agenda for that meeting when necessary to deal with a matter of such urgency and importance that a delay for the purpose of providing adequate notice would likely result in substantial harm to the public interest, and provided that the minutes contain a statement that explains in detail: a) the reason for adding that item to the agenda, b) why the item did not appear on the agenda for that meeting, and c) why delaying consideration of the item would be likely to result in substantial harm to the public interest.  Whenever a public body publicly discloses an agenda pursuant to this subsection that includes a reference to an attachment, appendix, or other document that is a government record, the public body shall simultaneously make that attachment, appendix, or other document available to the public on Township’s Internet site, and shall include within the agenda an easy to access hyperlink to that the attachment, appendix, or other document.
  5. Public Participation: Every public body within the scope of this Act shall provide a general public comment session near the beginning of each public meeting which provides each member of the public who wishes to address the public body at least five minutes to do so.
  6. Recording equipment:  No member of any public body within the scope of this Act shall, during a public meeting, communicate privately by means of communication equipment, including electronic mail, instant messaging or similar technologies.
  7. Closed or executive meetings:  Prior to excluding the public from a meeting, every public body within the scope of this Act shall pass a resolution which shall, in addition to the requirements of N.J.S.A.10:4-13, describe each topic to be privately discussed in as much detail as possible.  Such public bodies shall also record comprehensive minutes of its meeting, including those from which the public is excluded, showing, at a minimum, the time and place, the members present,  the subjects considered, the actions taken, including all motions made, the identities of the moving and seconding members, the vote of each member and each member’s stated reasons, if any, for his or her action or vote, the identity of each member of the public who spoke and a summary of what was said, and any other information required to be shown in the minutes by law.  Such minutes shall be posted on the Township’s Internet site as soon as possible but not later than 60 days after the meeting, or by the second meeting of the public body occurring after the meeting for which minutes were prepared, whichever occurs later, to the extent that making such matters public shall not be inconsistent with N.J.S.A. 10:4-12.
    At least quarterly, each public body subject to this Act shall conduct a review of the minutes of any previous meeting that occurred on or after January 1, 2016 and where any part has been withheld from public access. The review shall determine whether any parts of any such minutes that have been withheld from public access can now be made accessible to the public. If the public body determines that any part of previously withheld minutes can now be disclosed to the public, it shall make that part thereof accessible to the public on the Township’s Internet site.
  8. Audio recordings:  Each public body within the scope of this Act shall cause audio recordings to be made of each of its public meetings and unedited versions of those recordings shall be made available on the Township’s Internet site not later than the 5th business day following the meeting.
  9. Effective Date and Scope: This Act shall take effect on the sixtieth day after enactment and shall be published as required by law.
  10. Construction: This act is remedial and shall be liberally construed to effectuate its findings and purposes.
  11. Saving Clause: If any portion of this Act shall be declared to be unconstitutional, invalid or inoperative, in whole or in part, by a court of competent jurisdiction, such portion shall, to the extent that it is not unconstitutional, invalid or inoperative, remain in full force and effect, and no such determination shall be deemed to invalidate the remaining portions of this Act.
  12. Repealer: All ordinances inconsistent with the provisions of this Act are repealed to the extent of such inconsistency.



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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by steve on January 24, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Interesting–what form of govt. do they have ? AND WHAT DOES THEIR CHARTER ENTITLE THEM TO?—SOUNDS LIKE IT WILL NOT STAND LONG—-SUNSHINE SOUNDS IDEAL

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tom Maciejeski on January 24, 2017 at 9:15 am

    We are a Faulkner Municipality ( Mayor, Council, Administrator ). Traditionally the town is republican, with Mayor and all Council Members hand selected by a single person from the Republican Committee.

    It has been a disturbing trend lately where the Council has basically ignored the Residents and seem bothered by their questions, at times actually attacking them for asking questions in the meetings.

    Reply

  3. Posted by steve on January 24, 2017 at 6:06 pm

    In union we had the same problem except they are dems ,parties not withstanding-it is personalities that were the problem–keep brow beating back (as a collective council– not individuals) and public awareness is key and you will gradually wear down the sharp corners on these squares time is on your side

    Reply

  4. Posted by Tom Maciejeski on January 25, 2017 at 12:33 am

    Thanks for the words of support. It is rough. I have started broadcasting as many of the public meetings that I can to FB live. The Berkeley Heights Town Council doesnt seem to like that people are getting to see what is really happening in town and they have tried to block the recordings through what equated to an illegal or unenforceable ordinance. Now they are just closing the meetings to the public.

    I sent the Berkeley Heights Town Council my Berkeley Heights Sunshine Act like 10 days ago so that the Council would have a chance to read it and discuss it. They didnt even read it and after asking like 5 times finally one of the council agreed to read it.

    What people need to know is that their local governments may not really represent the majority but rather be just doing their thing in their own personal best interest.

    ( BTW if someone from another town wants to try to get this passed in their town msg me ) .

    Reply

  5. Posted by bpaterson on January 25, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    Tom M: did the council publicly discuss at a council mtg the reasons for wanting to close the comm mtgs? What committee actually was tasked to discuss it for validity toward a council resolution. You may be able to opra emails and notes on that committee that is presenting it to the floor for the vote. In addition, about the iphones going back and forth during council, that is public not ex-parte so you can opra the text messages if they are saved somewhere. And there should be a policy in place that allows such exchanges between councilors. Possibly get john paff the libertarian involved. link: http://njopengovt.blogspot.com/

    Reply

  6. Posted by Tom Maciejeski on January 25, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    yes, going down that route.

    In the meetings they said that the “Volunteers” which they emphasized many many times during the meeting as they referred to the Committee Appointees and Chair, do not wish to be recorded. They claim that recording the meetings will deter potential volunteers from “volunteering”.

    Really there has been some crazy stuff going on in town lately and I am sure they would prefer that the residents dont have a clear picture of what is going on.

    Reply

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