Debate Resumes Over Public Comment at Twp. Council Meetings
"If you can’t make a decision that’s as logical and reasonable and easy and simple to make as that, how are we supposed to trust that you have the capacity to get anything right, let alone solve the ongoing budget crisis?” ~ resident Amy Davis to council
The debate over whether Lawrence Township Council should allow a second opportunity for public comment during council meetings has resumed, with exasperated township resident Amy Davis during last week’s meeting asking why council has taken no formal action to allow such public participation despite an apparent compromise to the months-long argument having been reached at the Sept. 4 council meeting.
“While we may differ on our opinions concerning recreation and trash and bulk pickup, I just don’t understand why anyone would disagree with allowing another public comment period after the manager’s report and before executive session,” Davis, a Pine Knoll Drive resident, told council members Cathleen Lewis, Greg Puliti and David Maffei during the Oct. 2 meeting.
“I mean, it leaves someone to wonder – if you can’t make a decision that’s as logical and reasonable and easy and simple to make as that, how are we supposed to trust that you have the capacity to get anything right, let alone solve the ongoing budget crisis looming over our heads?” she said.
Mayor Jim Kownacki and Councilman Michael Powers were not at the meeting, with Kownacki said to be sick and Powers out of town on business. Lewis ran the meeting in Kownacki’s absence.
General public participation is currently held at the start of council meetings. Additional public comment beyond that time is currently limited to addressing specific ordinances and bid awards prior to council voting on those items.
It was at the July 17 meeting – after Township Manager Richard Krawczun spoke about additional layoffs and changes in trash collection as two possible ways to balance the municipal budget going into 2013 – that Davis first made her request for public comment to be allowed following the township manager’s report at future council meetings.
It was a request that she reiterated at the Aug. 21 council meeting. Each time, she was told by Puliti that the manager’s report was time for council alone to interact with Krawczun so that council members could have time to “digest” the new information he offers. Members of the public, he said, could call Krawczun or council members the next day or come to the next council meeting to ask questions or offer comments.
Davis, meanwhile, argued that the contents of the manager’s report concern everyone in town and members of the public who take the time out of their busy schedules to attend council meetings should be allowed to make comments in response that same night.
During the Sept. 4 council meeting Davis, joined by Pin Oak Drive resident Allen Cohen and East Darrah Lane resident Jim Cleak, again requested that members of the public be allowed to comment after the manager’s report. Davis noted that during a meeting in January some members of council seemed open to allowing public comment to occur later at their meetings.
A heated and rapidly-escalating exchange about the topic quickly erupted between Davis and Puliti, prompting Township Attorney David Roskos to intercede and suggest that council try allowing such a period of public comment.
During their Sept. 18 meeting, council took no formal action to allow a second public comment period, although at the very end of the meeting Township Clerk Kathleen Norcia distributed to council members a packet of information concerning the issue.
“We spoke briefly at the last meeting about changing the makeup of our agenda. I have packets that I want to hand out,” Norcia said during the Sept. 18 meeting. “They contain the ordinances setting our agenda as is. I also downloaded agendas from other towns with the council-manager form of government, and then a sampling of other towns in Mercer County as to how they have their agenda. I just thought this might be helpful, if we make a decision to change or not to change going forward.”
During the lone public participation period of last week’s meeting, with the meeting’s agenda again showing that no action was going to be taken about adding a second public comment period, Davis stood up and again called upon council to allow the public to speak after the manager’s report during future meetings.
“There has been support from the public [and] the press, to allow for a public comment period after the township manager’s report. There has even been support from your own council members. Your own township attorney has chimed in and supported and tried to come up with a resolution,” Davis said.
“You’ve asked the township clerk to look into it. She has. What she has found is exactly what I said – there are numerous public bodies who allow for public participation after the township manager’s report and before executive session – Hopewell, Robbinsville, West Windsor…numerous other public bodies. Your own school board in Lawrence Township asks for public comment several times throughout their meetings,” she continued.
The three council members present did not comment on Davis’ remarks and the meeting continued as usual.
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During her public participation appearance at the Oct. 2 meeting, Davis also spoke out against a proposal (discussed at the Sept. 18 meeting) whereby the township could possibly generate as much as $400,000 per year by charging each residential property owner in town a “flat fee” of $55 for the pickup of bulk trash items like furniture and old appliances.
“As far as trash, I continue to urge council not to eliminate trash pickup,” she said. “I also do not support a $55 annual fee for bulk trash pickup. It would be grossly unfair to many residents who do not need nor use this service. This is nothing more than another attempt at a back-door tax disguised as a new user fee. I support a sticker program were individuals who need this service would pay accordingly. It’s a fair and reasonable alternative. Furthermore, nowadays you can sell large items on eBay for pickup only; many people have garage sales; and there are even stores who will remove old items when they deliver new items.”
Davis also questioned the fairness of a previously-discussed cost-saving proposal whereby the township could cut some expenses by eliminating recreation programs for children and adults, while still maintaining recreation department-provided services for senior citizens.
“It’s also grossly unfair to eliminate all programs for children [but] continue to provide services for seniors. If sacrifice has to be made, shouldn’t it be shared?” Davis said.
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In response to a resident’s question during the Oct. 2 meeting about longevity pay for township employees, Krawczun noted that the township is currently obligated to pay longevity because it is built into the current contracts the township has with its various labor unions. But he said it is something that the township will be looking at during negotiations for future contracts.
“On the matter of longevity, I don’t think that there’s any disagreement – I won’t speak for the council – about the financial impact of longevity, but we took a quick look and I think it took four minutes to find an ordinance back to the ‘70s that had longevity included for the compensation for employees,” Krawczun said. “So that’s not something new; that has probably a good 40-year history to it, at least here in Lawrence Township. There are labor agreements. That language on longevity is included in labor agreements. We need to negotiate that language going forward with that particular compensation.”
Also during the Oct. 2 meeting, Krawczun discussed the township’s answers to the state’s “best practices checklist,” a document that the township had to complete and submit in order to receive the full amount of state aid due to be distributed in December.
(A copy of the checklist can be found in the media box above, along with an audio recording of the full meeting.)