By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank council meeting attendees would regain their ability to ask follow-up questions of officials under proposed changes slated for discussion Wednesday evening.
Ballard wrote that he submitted the proposed revisions for discussion at the council’s monthly workshop session, scheduled for 6:30 p.m., “because I believe Red Bank Borough Government should be accessible, responsive and accountable to the residents.”
Under the proposal, all comments and questions would be directed to the mayor, as chair of the session; that’s a provision already in place, though loosely enforced. But the chair would regain the ability to immediately answer or engage in dialogue with the speaker, “or refer the question to whomever on the dais he feels is best informed to answer the question,” Ballard wrote.
Council members could request an opportunity to address questions and comments, as now.
The posted proposal contained an overall one-hour limit for commenting, but after a Facebook user called that provision “garbage,” Ballard replied, “I’ve already been told that the 1 hour limit can not stand and will be stripped. I included it only because I’ve seen it in other boards I’ve sat on.”
More public input on the proposal is “welcome,” he said. See the full text of his proposal below.
Under protocol rules adopted by the council in 2019, audience members who wish to speak during the public comment session are limited to five minutes. If “more than 15” individuals want to speak, the mayor may limit them to three minutes apiece, “provided there are no objections from the majority” of the council, the policy states.
Business Administrator Ziad Shehady said at the time that the rules were aimed in part at cutting down on “grandstanding.”
A year ago, in an effort to blunt the criticism, Menna said would hold monthly open-door sessions in his borough hall office for anyone who wanted to speak to him. But after just one such session, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, prompting officials to close the building to visitors.
With council meetings conducted via Zoom during the pandemic, attendees have repeatedly criticized the strictures. Ballard has said on more than one occasion, as he did at the January 13 workshop, that the policy “inhibits follow-ups.”
“There’s not that back-and-forth” that clarifies information, he said.
Councilman Hazim Yassin replied that there were some 20 people waiting to speak that night.
“Five minutes each adds up,” he said. He suggested individuals “can reach out to us directly. We all have emails, we all have contact information” available online.
Shehady said the existing protocol complies with New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, or Sunshine Law, and that the comment session “is not intended to be a public debate.”
Instead, he said, it’s meant “to ensure that each speaker has the full five minutes, and so that it doesn’t turn into a back-and-forth debate, and to ensure that everybody can have their questions answered succinctly and sufficiently.”
But familiar complaints remained, many focused on the omnibus “answer” session once the public comment session has been closed.
“When we wait to the end, things don’t get addressed,” said Angela Mirandi, of West Lake Road. Questions “may be misunderstood,” she said.
“It is important for us to have dialogue with you people,” she added.
Cedar Street resident Sue Viscomi noted that attendees are often advised to seek their answers directly from borough hall, but “offline answers don’t bring the community together,” she said.
Here’s Ballard’s proposal:
The council meets virtually at 6:30 p.m. to comply with pandemic guidelines. No action is taken in the form of ordinance or resolution adoptions at workshop sessions, but public comments and questions are taken via the Zoom platform and by phone. Access and participation details can be found here.
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