Resident Challenges Council Over Public Participation: ‘Do the Right Thing’
Since July, several Lawrence Twp. residents have been imploring township council to allow additional public comment at council meetings, but thus far council has taken no action on the request.
After backing off for a month to allow council members to focus their efforts on the township’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy, several township residents last week resumed their months-long campaign for changes to be made in how public participation is handled at Lawrence Township Council meetings.
Led by Amy Davis, a vocal critic of the way the township’s ongoing budget crisis has been handled, residents on Dec. 4 again implored council members to either add a second opportunity for public comment toward the end of future council meetings or move the existing public participation period from the start of meetings to a later position in the agenda.
The issue, Davis and the others argue, is that limiting public comment to the beginning of meetings does not allow residents to offer timely feedback or commentary, ask questions, and seek clarification of uncertainties they may have regarding new information presented to council by Township Manager Richard Krawczun during his “manager’s report” segment, which is among the last items on the agenda.
A resident who wishes to offer a comment or ask a question about something discussed during the manager’s report must currently wait until the public participation period at the start of the next council meeting, which is normally held two weeks later but which can be as long as a month later during certain months when only one council meeting is held.
During last week’s meeting, in response to Davis’ questions, Mayor Jim Kownacki said he had pushed the issue of public participation to the “backburner” because he did not want to have a discussion about it until all five council members were present at a meeting, something that proved problematic due to vacations and other scheduling conflicts. Then, he said, Hurricane Sandy struck and became the council’s priority.
All five council members were in attendance last week.
Kownacki said council will still tackle the issue, though he would not give a definite answer as to when.
The exchange between Davis and Kownacki on Dec. 4 (beginning at the 11:05 mark of Meeting Audio Part 1 in the media box above) went as follows:
Davis: “I’ve urged you continuously for a motion for a second public comment period. Please, is there any intent? I haven’t heard from any of you.”
Kownacki: “Last month I stated that because of the vacations we had, because of the scheduling, people on this board had conflicts when we came back that couldn’t make the meetings so we didn’t have a full board. So everything was put on the backburner. All right? I didn’t tell the clerk to put it back on until I know I’m going to have a full board. And then with Hurricane Sandy hitting us and everything I just pushed it off again.”
Davis: “And, honestly, that’s why I didn’t bring it up at the last meeting, you know, to give you some time, given Hurricane Sandy.”
Kownacki: “It was me who put it on the backburner. I said it. Vacations, okay? And when I wanted to bring it up, we had other problems. So I pushed it back. I stated at last month’s meeting why I done it. It’s still on, okay? I’m hoping we’re going to get…maybe next meeting. I won’t promise, okay? But we’re going to look at it.”
Davis: “I appreciate your honesty. And I appreciate your efforts. That’s all I’m looking for. It’s just been so many times where I’ve come here and I’ve spoke to you, I’ve looked at your faces and I get a blank response and no one says anything. When you don’t comment to someone as passionate as myself…you know… But I appreciate that. I hope you strongly consider it. It’s the right thing to do. I can’t think of any reason not to do it. Thank you.”
Later in the meeting, residents Max Ramos and Ed Wiznitzer add their voices to the call for improved public participation.
“I’d like to just reiterate the request to have either an additional public participation session at the end or, if we’re not going to do that, at least move it to the end so we can hear the manager’s report, we can hear the council interaction and the questions, and just for the betterment, I think, of the entire process,” Ramos, who lives on Woodlane Road said (beginning at the 25:45 mark of Meeting Audio Part 1).
Wiznitzer, of Darrah Lane, meanwhile offered an anecdote (beginning at the 15:05 mark of Meeting Audio Part 1) about why having public comment at the end of meetings would improve communication between council members and the citizenry they were elected to represent:
“I have tonight, of course, not yet heard the manager’s report or any administration reports, so what I have to say right now might turn out to be stale or redundant or a waste of everybody’s time after we hear those reports. But I don’t know that. And after I hear the reports I may have other things to say, I may have different things to say. I don’t know. But if I do, I’m going to have to wait until the next council meeting. And that’s not the most productive way to communicate.
“I want to tell you [about] the very first time I came to [a council meeting]. [It was] not your personal council; you folks weren’t sitting here. [It was] a very, very long time ago when my hair was a darker color and I was clean-shaven and I didn’t know the procedures because, as I said, I’m not an attorney. I saw the item that I wanted to talk about on the agenda, so I figured, especially since everyone else was talking about things that were not on the agenda, that I’m supposed to wait for the item to come up. Well, then the item came up and I tried to get up and say something and I got shot down and was told I was supposed to do it before. And I stood here, you know, like a dummy.
“But council at the time was gracious enough to let me say what I wanted to say, off the schedule. But I’ve never done that again. But that happened to me. And it can happen to anybody with this kind of sequence of activities. That’s why I support the idea of moving the public participation portion of your meeting to a later time slot on the agenda, as others have proposed before, and hold one public participation section after all those reports are given.”
Ironically, it was members of the township council themselves who first raised the possibility of altering the time that public participation takes place at meetings. At the Jan 3, 2012, council meeting (audio here, transcript here), during a discussion about moving the start of meetings up to 6:30 p.m. from 7 p.m., Councilman Michael Powers expressed concern that the earlier time might mean some members of the public with long commutes home from work might miss public participation at the beginning of meetings. Council members that evening concluded they would leave the agenda as it was, but could always move public participation to the end of meetings if the earlier start time posed a problem.
During last week’s meeting, Davis, who lives on Pine Knoll Drive, initially voiced her opposition to the bulk trash pickup fee ordinance that was going to be introduced by council later in the meeting, after the public participation period was over. (The public is not given a chance during a council meeting to comment directly on a specific ordinance at the time that ordinance is introduced by council. Instead, the public is given an opportunity to speak after an ordinance’s second reading – generally held at the next council meeting – and just prior to council voting whether or not to adopt the ordinance.)
“Unfortunately, since you have not listed, again, any public participation after the introduction of these ordinances I am left with no choice but to make my comments now without knowing the full details of the new ordinances being introduced tonight,” Davis said as she launched into her criticism of plan to charge all residential property owners a flat annual fee for the collection of bulk trash items regardless of whether or not they use the service.
Later, she specifically addressed public participation (beginning at the 6:20 mark of Meeting Audio Part 1):
“With all this turmoil surrounding our town and numerous lawsuits filed against you by your own employees, you have also refused to make a motion to allow for additional public comment after the manager’s report and immediately before executive session. If ever there was a time to allow for timely and active public participation it’s now.
“I have spoken to you several times since July concerning this issue and, to date, you have refused to take any action. You have let me down, you have let the taxpayers down, you have let yourselves down as elected public officials. Each one of you took an oath to represent and serve the residents of Lawrence Township and take whatever action necessary to serve in the best interests of this community. I don’t understand why you have not acted and, honestly, you should just be ashamed of yourselves.
“You have heard from members of the public at council meetings who support the additional comment period. The Lawrence Patch published a survey, with the results indicating overwhelming support for the measure. Your own legal council has urged you to allow it. And if that wasn’t enough your own sister municipal counterpart, the Lawrence Township school board, has even ridiculed you and your inexcusable behavior for refusing to allow additional public comment. I suggest you listen to the audio available online for the October school board meeting. I honestly don’t enjoy being adversarial with you. I just want you to do the right thing. Don’t you want to do the right thing?”
Davis and Township Attorney David Roskos then went back-and-forth over the issue of whether or not he “urged” council to add an additional public comment period.
“I don’t like you mischaracterizing what I say at public meetings. I did not urge this council to take any action. I told them what their options are,” Roskos said.
“You did,” Davis answered. “You urged a resolution for them to consider it.”
“I’ve indicated what their options are. And we’ve looked at other towns and what other towns do,” Roskos said. “So don’t mischaracterize what I say at a public meeting again, please.”
“Ms. Davis has a habit of doing that,” Councilman David Maffei interjected.
A review of the audio from the Sept. 4 council meeting shows that Roskos attempted to play peacemaker during a heated and rapidly-escalating exchange about public participation between Davis and Councilman Greg Puliti:
Roskos: “Rather than the debate going on and this trading of barbs, I’m going to make a suggestion. If the concern of the public is that a manager’s report gets issued and they have some thought or some comment that they want to share with the council, the council could open it up and listen to that comment. But it’s not going to be a give-and-take exchange where this manager is quizzed by members of the public as to what actions should be taken when the council hasn’t deliberated and acted on it.”
Davis: “We’re very much aware of that.”
Roskos: “So I’m throwing this out simply as an idea. I’m not suggesting that it has to be done. But if you wanted to have a brief re-open of the public participation where [for example] Mr. Krawczun’s report makes a suggestion about the Lawrence Hopewell Trail [and] somebody comes up and says, ‘Did you know something else is going on down there at the Lawrence Hopewell Trail?’ That information is disseminated; it’s spread on the public record. There’s no response by Mr. Krawczun. ‘Let’s have a dialogue. Let’s help him manage the town.’ That’s not what that open session would be for. It would simply be for comments.”
Davis: “That’s often the case – that people just make comments and the council doesn’t respond. And that’s OK.”
Roskos: “With the idea that this isn’t the public’s chance to manage the town, I think it might be worthwhile to allow the public to simply make comments on what’s in the manager’s report, not expecting a give-and-take, not expecting a response, but simply their opportunity to say, ‘I happen to be aware of this, or that or the other thing,’ and share that information. Action isn’t going to be taken until the next council meeting when again this body comes together and acts in unison because that is how this form of government works. So if you wanted to do that, I mean, there is an opportunity there for the public to say, ‘Hey, I happen to be aware of something in the manager’s report. Could I share that with you.’ There’s an opportunity for that.”
Maffei, meanwhile, went on during last week’s meeting to challenge a statement made by Davis, despite the facts seeming to support her claim.
“Honorable mayor, I’d like to say something. We have to resolve this issue. It’s been said that we tried to raise the taxes 17 percent on the public last year. That is not true. Now I don’t want it said any more, unless you can prove 17 percent,” Maffei said (at the 12:54 mark of Audio Part 1).
What was unclear during the meeting was whether Maffei was objecting to the phrasing used by Davis or if he did not recall the specifics of the tax referendum that was defeated by voters in April. Had the referendum been approved by voters, the municipal tax rate would have gone from $0.84 per $100 of assessed property value to $0.98 – an increase of 16.67 percent. Even with the referendum’s defeat, the municipal tax rate went up 5 cents to $0.89 per $100 of assessed property value.
The next council meeting will be held next Tuesday, Dec. 18. The four ordinances that were introduced at the Dec. 4 meeting will likely have their public hearing and council vote that night.
- Oct. 26: “Concerns About Traffic Safety Aired Before Council”
- Oct. 10: “Debate Resumes Over Public Comment at Twp. Council Meetings”
- Sept. 11: “Compromise Being Eyed in Public Participation Debate”
- Aug. 29: “Public Participation Hot Topic at Twp. Council Meetings”
- Aug. 21: “2013 Municipal Budget Discussion Resumes Tonight”