RED BANK: BALLARD SEEKS PROTOCOL FIX

Councilman Michael Ballard said his proposal would encourage exchanges between officials and residents that clarify information. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot topic red bank njRed Bank council meeting attendees would regain their ability to ask follow-up questions of officials under proposed changes slated for discussion Wednesday evening.

The revisions to the council’s often derided question-and-comment protocol were announced by Councilman Michael Ballard on Facebook Tuesday afternoon.

Business owner Ingeborg Perndorfer addressing the council during a meeting in 2016. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

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:

Borough Council Meeting Protocol
1. Borough of Red Bank Municipal Code – Chapter 85; Article 1: Explains the general organization of the Borough Council and provides some specific information about the role of the Mayor and Council. This section of the code is attached to this policy for reference.
2. Roberts Rules of Order: The Red Bank Borough Council meetings shall be generally conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order. The following is intended to supplement these rules.
3. Public Questions & Comments/Hearing Conduct: The Mayor and Council have directed that input from the public during Questions & Comments periods shall be set at five (5) minutes per speaker. Total time allocated for all speakers during any one Public Questions & Comments period will be no more than one (1) hour in aggregate.
A. Addressing the Council: Speakers are to come forward to the microphone, state their name and address and direct questions/comments directly to the Council. All questions/comments should be directed to the Mayor, who may answer or refer the question to whomever on the dais he feels is best informed to answer the question. The Mayor, or whomever is in possession of the question, will answer to the best of their knowledge and ability. The speaker, within the allotted five (5) minutes may ask follow-up questions to gain better understanding and clarity on the answer.
The Mayor, or whomever holds the questions, will make every effort to answer the speakers question at the time of asking, if possible, before moving to the next speaker. If unable to answer the speakers question immediately, the Mayor, or holder of the question will provide an answer at the next Council meeting.
B. Speaker Interaction: Speakers will maintain proper decorum and language when addressing the Council. Speakers who fail to maintain proper decorum and language will forfeit their remaining allotted speaking time and, at the discretion of the Mayor, be removed from the Council proceedings. Mere disagreement on an answer does not constitute, in and of itself, improper decorum.
C. Council Interactions: Council members wishing to ask a question of the speaker (either a public participant or member of the dais) may request to do so through the Mayor.
4. Appearances: Requests for appearances shall be made to the Borough Administrator of Municipal Clerk. Presenters are expected to limit presentations to a ten (10) minute period unless otherwise authorized.

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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