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Compromise Being Eyed in Public Participation Debate

In response to requests made by several residents and a suggestion made by the township attorney as a way to end the debate, Lawrence Township Council is considering allowing a second period of public participation at future council meetings.

A potential compromise has been reached in the debate over whether Lawrence Township Council should allow members of the public to make comments toward the end of future meetings in response to Township Manager Richard Krawczun's manager’s report, which often contains new information about the township’s finances and operations.

During last Tuesday’s (Sept. 4) meeting, in an effort to end a heated and rapidly-escalating exchange about the topic between Pine Knoll Drive resident Amy Davis and Councilman Greg Puliti, Township Attorney David Roskos suggested that council consider allowing such a period of public comment.   

“Rather than the debate going on and this trading of barbs, I’m going to make a suggestion,” Roskos said during the meeting. “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.”

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 Krawczun spoke about to balance the municipal budget going into 2013, that Davis to be allowed following the township manager’s report at future council meetings.

It was a request that . 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 then next day or come to the next council meeting to ask questions or offer comments.

During last week’s 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 .

“I don’t feel the township manager’s report is just for council. I feel that it’s for the public. It’s for anyone who takes the time to sit here and participate,” Davis told council members. “And I’m not asking any of you to comment on the manager’s report. That’s what you’re not getting. What I’m saying is the public should be entitled to the right to speak. We’re not asking for you to comment...

“It actually may be very informative to allow the public to ask those questions and get you thinking about things you want to follow up with the manager the next day. I’m sorry if you need the time to come up with your questions to speak with the manager. But many of us here, we don’t. We’re pretty good on our feet and we can ask him right after he gives the report. And you’re right – people are approachable. But I think there’s a reason we have public meetings and there’s a reason for public session and it should be done in the Sunshine [Law]; it should be done in the light of the meeting and not between private parties the next day,” Davis said.

Councilman Michael Powers expressed concern that during election season some people might use thesecond public comment period as an opportunity to “filibuster.”

“We can limit people’s time,” Roskos answered. “We have always been very courteous. I mean, there’s case law out there that says three minutes for a speaker, thank you very much. We let people speak for as long as they feel the need to. I mean we are an open council. And while people may not perceive this council that way, believe me they are. I’ve been to a lot of towns in New Jersey and there are people who really want to restrain public participation. That doesn’t go on here. It doesn’t go on here at all.

“So in an effort to end this little debate, I throw out the idea that you try it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If people want to come up here and filibuster after the manager’s report and we never get to the end of the night, then we’ll discontinue it. But I throw it out to you as an idea,” Roskos said.

Mayor Jim Kownacki advised Davis that he would discuss Roskos’ suggestion further with council members and they would during the next meeting on Sept. 18 announce their decision about adding a second public participation segment to future meetings.  

  

Listed below are excerpts from the Sept. 4 public participation debate, which can be heard it its entirety beginning at the 28:20 mark of the Audio Part 1 file in the media box above. Cleak’s comments begin at the 22:40 mark of the Audio Part 2 file, and Cohen’s remarks about public participation can be found beginning at the 36:30 mark of the Audio Part 2 file.

Amy Davis: “I understand you don’t want to be here all night. But guess what? We don’t either. I think people have been brief in their comments, historically. And you obviously have the right to curb the dialogue and if it goes on too long say, ‘It’s time to wrap things up.’” So I don’t see anyone being here till midnight. I know we all have other jobs and families to attend to...

Councilman Greg Puliti: “There’s a reason, again, and I’ll say it, that the manager’s report is at the end of the meeting. In this form of government, the manager works for the council and the council works for the people. We get this information. We are transparent in how we do it and how we deliberate when we hear, for the first time, information that the manager gives us. That gives us time to digest it. As I said before, we’re all open to…call me up, call any of the council people up, the next day if you have a question about the manager’s report. But I think that we have a right to digest what the manager says and be able to think about it so that we can respond to the public, since we’re the ones responding to the public.”

Davis: “Number one, I don’t feel the township manager’s report is just for council. I feel that it’s for the public. It’s for anyone who takes the time to sit here and participate. And I’m not asking any of you to comment on the manager’s report. That’s what you’re not getting. What I’m saying is the public should be entitled to the right to speak. We’re not asking for you to comment. If anything I would be putting the township manager on the hot seat by asking him questions through the mayor directly, and not yourselves. It actually may be very informative to allow the public to ask those questions and get you thinking about things you want to follow up with the manager the next day. I’m sorry if you need the time to come up with your questions to speak with the manager. But many of us here, we don’t. We’re pretty good on our feet and we can ask him right after he gives the report. And you’re right – people are approachable. But I think there’s a reason we have public meetings and there’s a reason for public session and it should be done in the Sunshine [Law]; it should be done in the light of the meeting and not between private parties the next day.”

Puliti: “And we do it in public. He presents his information to us. We deliberate in public…”

Township Attorney David Roskos: “In this form of government, the council – not one council member – makes decisions for this township. It’s only this council acting as a body that action is taken.”

Davis: “I completely understand that. What I don’t appreciate is I keep hearing from the one council person concerning this issue. And I’d really like to hear… Councilman Powers, to his credit, tried to speak up, and ask for there to be discussion last meeting and you treated him like a bully.”

Puliti: “Excuse me?”

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.”

Davis: “This is how every other public body that I personally deal with operates. They have public session several times.”

Roskos: “I throw that out to you just so we don’t have to continue to have this kind of give-and-take which I don’t think is productive for anybody.”

Davis: “I agree…. And there may be many times where there is no public comment. I’m not saying every time that there would be.”

Roskos: “I suspect there wouldn’t be.”

Davis: “So what’s the harm?”

Councilman Michael Powers: “The only thing, Dave, I would just point out is in terms of the timing of it. I know, right now, Amy’s obviously bringing this up in good faith, but there could be the opportunity – no good deed goes unpunished – during the silly season somebody wants to filibuster or embarrass somebody.”

Roskos: “We can limit people’s time. We have always been very courteous. I mean, there’s case law out there that says three minutes for a speaker, thank you very much. We let people speak for as long as they feel the need to. I mean we are an open council. And while people may not perceive this council that way, believe me they are. I’ve been to a lot of towns in New Jersey and there are people who really want to restrain public participation. That doesn’t go on here. It doesn’t go on here at all. So in an effort to end this little debate, I throw out the idea that you try it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If people want to come up here and filibuster after the manager’s report and we never get to the end of the night, then we’ll discontinue it. But I throw it out to you as an idea.”

Mayor Jim Kownacki: “Mrs. Davis, thank you for your comments… Me as a new person, being on this council for three years, I felt if it wasn’t broke, I don’t fix it, OK? So I’m not the type to repeat what Councilman Puliti says or any other council person up here. I do not like to be a repeater. So you don’t hear me repeat stuff or say stuff when it comes up because a fellow council person answers a question. I’ve always been like that. That’s my downfall. And I’m sorry for it happening up here. I hurt some people up here because of it, alright? And I learn. And I will change how I handle things. I will take into consideration what you said. I’ll take into consideration what council said.  Before I make a decision, my decision, I’ve got to talk to four other council members, my manager and my clerk, and probably my attorney, and see if this is possible, how we would control it, and does it have to be a three-minute [limit], or if a question is asked does it mean council has to respond? I will not let my manager respond because I have questions for him too, but I don’t feel that at this point I should be asking my manager those questions either. This is the first time I’m hearing it. I don’t hear it all. So the next day I do ask my questions. I understand what you’re saying. I will do everything I can to change it for you. But before I make the decision, we will talk about it. By next meeting, we’ll have an answer.”

Davis: “I appreciate that. It’s a lot further than we’ve gotten.”

Roskos: “And, mayor, I don’t want to be mistaken too. Councilman Puliti called me up at my office to ask me about this because he is concerned about public participation. He’s not as recalcitrant as he is made out. And I said to him, ‘Look, you can’t have a situation where people are quizzing your manager before you’ve had an opportunity to ask him about his report. You can’t have members of the public managing this town with you like we’re in some New England meeting house. That’s not our form of government. That’s not how we’re organized. That’s not what the law provides for. So to the extent we do this, it can become unwieldy, it can become a problem.’ That’s what I shared with him. And in fairness to him tonight, I am essentially changing my position. I’m recognizing that people want to be able, since they’re here at the meeting…[if] something comes up in the manager’s report [and] they have a comment to share, let them share the comment. It’s not going to be a give-and-take, it’s not going to be you get to quiz the manager and then the manager has to justify to you why he is doing whatever he is doing, alright? Council has to first interact with him. And then the township takes a position. And then the township goes in a certain direction.”

Davis: “It’s common sense that often during these council meetings when we get up here for public comment that there are many comments made that you can’t speak of – contract negotiations, pending lawsuits… We get it. We know that. But it shouldn’t prevent us from freedom of speech. That’s all. We understand that. There’s many occasions where you haven’t been allowed to speak…”

Roskos: “In fairness to Councilman Puliti, having changed my position here, I feel like I’ve pulled the rug out from under him, but what I’m really saying, quite honestly, is there is an opportunity to allow the public to comment – not to have a give-and-take, not to have an exchange, not to have a quizzing of our manager – but simply to come up and say, ‘Item B, I’d like to make you aware of whatever…’”

Puliti: “Which was my concern, about the back-and-forth. I wasn’t going to offer it, but he offered it, that I did call to check with him [Roskos]. And that was my major concern about going back-and-forth when we’re the ones – like it or not – up here and we’re the ones that have to make the decisions with the manager. And the comments, I get it. That’s fine... We’ve never, never stifled anybody in any form of public participation. We’ve had people come up and talk about just the economics of the country. And we sit here and listen and genuinely enjoy people’s opinions. And we never stifle anybody. And that’s why I asked him about that; if we did that, we’re going to have to basically set up rules that we don’t do.”

Davis: “I would argue that you don’t need strict rules. Right now you have the power. I mean, right now, if I got up here and went on and on and on, you have the power to say, ‘Ma’am, with all due respect, it’s time to wrap it up.’”

Puliti: “But I don’t ever recall in my 15 years [on council] that ever happening…”

Davis: “Rules are OK. Limiting, you know, if someone is going on, is OK.”

Puliti: “But the record needs to be straight. We never stifle anybody from public participation.”

Davis: “But I would argue you are if you don’t allow us to have public session before executive session and after such insightful information [is given in the manager’s report]. It’s really hard to speak about something that occurred last month when it’s stale and now the manager’s going to present new information that may change everything I was going to say. I actually think you will have less speech.”

Roskos: “Ok? I think we got it.”

 

Note: Councilwoman Cathleen Lewis was not in attendance at last week's council meeting.

 

 

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