An attempt by two City Council members on Wednesday to cut down the length of public council meetings met with opposition from some fellow council members and aroused the ire of more than a dozen members of the public who didn’t like the possibility of having their comments curtailed.
In an effort to end council meetings before 2 a.m., when they have been ending recently, a resolution was put forth by Council President Peter Cunningham and Vice President Carol Marsh proposing new rules for meetings that included reducing the number of times the public could speak on agenda items, and other rules intended to end the meetings by 11 a.m.
“You cannot put a 41-item agenda together and expect to get out of here early.” – Perry Belfiore
“We, as the audience, can’t say [to council members], ‘Shut up,’ ” resident Mary Ondrejka said at the meeting, noting that agendas have been overloaded recently, including one that included finalizing the city budget and considering the police union contracts.
“What do you have, rocks in your head?” she added. “Don’t take this personally.”
Local politico Perry Belfiore said, “You cannot put a 41-item agenda together and expect to get out of here early…Until you impose a five-minute rule on yourselves, we’re going nowhere fast.”
Thomas Greaney called the public’s right to speak “the most sacred right we have.”
The resolution would have limited a member of the public to speaking out only once during the agenda portion of the meeting, such as on a specific ordinance or resolution. The public theoretically could still speak again at the end of the meeting during the “public portion” – however, a different rule would cut meetings off around 11 p.m. “unless the council votes to extend the time for adjourning such meeting.”
At the meeting, Cunningham said that this could be modified to allow the public portion to go on for a certain period of time after 11 p.m.
The resolution had some constructive aspects, like assuring the public has access to the council agenda by the Friday before a Wednesday council meeting.
One controversial measure would allow the council president to determine if speakers are out of order if their remarks are “personal, impertinent, slanderous, or profane.”
Extra meeting or caucus
The public made several recommendations to the council for alternative time-savers.
Greaney proposed adding an extra meeting every two months. Right now, the council meets twice a month. But until three years ago, the council would also hold Monday caucus meetings to discuss and understand some of the measures that were going to be put onto the agenda. They would not vote at these meetings, and the public would not be heard. Council members could elucidate confusing matters and ask questions.
Tim Occhipinti was one of several residents in favor of bringing back caucus meetings to save time during regular council meetings. Belfiore noted that the council members often grill their directors at meetings in order to understand what they will be voting on, rather than asking them questions during the week.
The caucus meetings were stopped around 2007, during the administration of Mayor David Roberts, according to City Clerk Jim Farina.
In some towns, the council meets in caucus just before the regular meeting. Others, like Jersey City, keep their Monday caucuses separate from Wednesday.
Right now, the public may speak on any agenda item during council meetings, as well as during the “public portion” at the end, once all business has been voted on. They are limited to five minutes each time they speak.
Since residents must wait until the council has finished its business to speak at the public portion, many people asked to have the public’s time moved to the beginning of the meeting. Some council members seemed open to the idea.
Less politics, more committees
At the meeting, Margaret O’Brien asked the council to consider banning election talk and politics at council meetings.
“There are political motives behind things that are said and done,” she said. “That has to stop.”
But Councilman Ravi Bhalla said that it would be difficult to decide what was political. He said that he and the rest of the council majority allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer has been subject to public criticism at meetings for promising a 25 percent tax reduction during last year’s election and not granting it. He said that he would still defend the right for people to hold the council accountable even if it means discussing campaign promises.
Resident David Liebler told the council to come better prepared for meetings.
“If we can’t speak now,” he said, “we will speak to all of you at election time.”
Inez Garcia-Keim asked that the council use their individual committees – which meet separately from the twice-monthly council meetings – to vet legislation, and submit reports and recommendations to the full council.
Councilman Nino Giacchi agreed and accused the council leaders of intentionally bypassing the Administration Committee with the resolution about public speaking.
“You’ve embarrassed me,” Giacchi said.
Would have stalled
In a follow-up interview, Cunningham said that he intentionally avoided sending it to the committee, which is chaired by Councilman Michael Russo, who is not an ally of the council majority.
“I didn’t expect it to get through [the Administrative] Committee,” he said, claiming the committee would just “stall” the legislation.
By airing the resolution in public, Cunningham said it would force the hand of the committee to act fast on the legislation while incorporating the public input from the meeting.
Not even a vote
At the meeting, Cunningham thanked the public for their input and said the time-saving resolution he put forth was never intended to be voted on.
He said other members of the council proposed changes to the resolution, but they were not integrated in time for the meeting. The resolution will be sent to the Administrative Committee for further work.
As far as the nine members of the council talking too much, he said, “There’s no doubt that the council should be limited [in the amount of time they can speak].”
At the meeting, Councilwoman Theresa Castellano accused Cunningham and Marsh of “waging war on the very public that elected them.” She said the reason meetings run so late is because of Cunningham’s “inability to run meetings properly,” and she further accused him of playing favorites at the dais by allowing some members to speak at length while abruptly cutting off others.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Actual work
Besides debating the length of their meetings, the council also accomplished a few things last week.
●The council voted 7-1 to hire an engineering firm, Boswell Engineering of South Hackensack, with Councilwoman Theresa Castellano voting against it because it was added to the agenda at the last minute. Councilwoman Beth Mason was absent from the meeting. Boswell’s contract is not to exceed $50,000 and expires on June 30, 2010. First and foremost, Boswell will be preparing work specifications so that the council can hire another firm to handle the crumbling piers along the Hudson River.
The council was expected to hire another firm, Maser Engineering, at their last regular meeting, but Maser was found to have contributed to the campaign fund of former Mayor Peter Cammarano, which created a “Pay to Play” violation.
●The council passed a city car-share program and approved a test program to use muni-meters, or meters like those used in New York City that print out parking passes that can be used all over town. For the car-share program, the city accepted a bid from rental car company Hertz to make rental cars available at a reduced rate to Hoboken residents.
●The council also took steps to secure a temporary facility to replace the municipal garage on Observer Highway, which has been sold to a developer and will need to be vacated by the summer. The council introduced a $1.55 million bond ordinance to build a temporary garage to house the city vehicles, but the council did not discuss in public the potential locations for the structure. They will need to take a final vote at a future meeting. – TJC