BARNEGAT. NJ - Prior to the pandemic, Barnegat Township Committee meetings averaged at least an hour or more when it came to the length of the meeting. However, with restrictions in place since the coronavirus, the last two open meetings of the Township Committee haven't exceeded forty minutes. Meanwhile, the format concerning the Public Session Comment portion of the meeting has come under fire. At today's meeting, Barnegat Mayor John Novak clarified his intentions on a recent letter to the editor.
Novak addressed the letter to the editor he wrote to TAPintoBarnegat/Waretown, comparing deaths of servicemen and women, as well as abortion numbers to COVID-19 mortalities, His letter discussed what he saw as the loss of liberties during trying times. Although Novak signed the letter as the Barnegat mayor, he offered clarification.
"I want to make sure that it is known to all that the opinions I expressed in that letter were mine, and mine alone," said Novak. "They are not the official position of Barnegat Township, and they may or may not express the individual positions of any member of the committee."
Meanwhile, Novak said he received feedback from over 150 people, who thanked them and applauded him for having the courage to write the letter. Novak expressed his concerns about the protection of the constitution and individual liberties, even in trying times.
During the Public Comments portion of the meeting, Barnegat Municipal Clerk Michele Rivers read emails she received from local residents. This included one from Charles Cunliffe, who identified himself as a Barnegat resident. The commentary was shared with this publication and published as a letter to the editor.
Cunliffe suggested that the committee's virtual meeting format did not comply with the guidelines offered by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) during the coronavirus crisis. Cunliffe referenced the Planning Board's decision to use a virtual platform that allowed for real time commentary during its meeting. He wanted to know when the governing body intended to do the same to allow for questions and comments during the pandemic.
Barnegat Mayor John Novak addressed Cunliffe's assertions after the Barnegat resident's were read, saying that the committee relied on the advice of legal counsel on determining how public comments would be handled. The agenda states that commentary must be emailed to the municipal clerk by 8 am on the day of the meeting.
Township Attorney Christopher Dasti, Esq. referenced the amendments to the Open Public Meetings Act regarding guidance for virtual meetings.
"Everything the Township Committee has done regarding livestreaming and requesting public comments ahead of time, ahead of time, is completely appropriate," Dasti advised. "This is completely in conformance with the Open Meetings Act."
Dasti went on to say that land use boards are a different "animal" because testimony is taken and there are cross examinations. The township attorney opined that there was more of an advanced reason why the meetings need to be livestreamed on pending applications. Dasti also shared his experience with other meetings conducted by Zoom that were hijacked by anonymous individuals, which included the display of pornographic images.
"Barnegat Township has gone out its way to be transparent," shared Novak. "..As far as Mr. Cunliffe, I would like to think his comments are a legitimate concern for the betterment of government and abiding by the laws."
Novak continued by directing his comments directly to Cunliffe. "If you do believe in transparency, which I believe you might, would it not be transparent to disclose in your letter that you are a declared Democratic candidate for township committee?"
Cunlifee disagrees on multiple counts. In the first place, he pointed out that the DCA guideline recommend that "local units consider multiple means of accepting public comment." He found the email request within the guidelines, but suggested it didn't allow for public commentary during the meeting itself. Cunliffe also responded to Novak's admonishment.
"I feel it was not proper for Mr Novak to use his title when he submitted his letter to the editor. " said Cunliffe. "If I ask a question at a meeting I am doing so as a resident of Barnegat..not a candidate....not as a Democrat...just a resident. ..we did not even have the primary yet."
In researching the issue, no election laws appear to address the issue of whether candidates are obligated to disclose they are running for office when speaking at committee meetings.
Bill Neyenhouse, another resident also contacted the township committee to offer public commentary. He said he was confused that the ordinances and resolutions were not available for review. Neyenhouse further questioned the meeting format.
"I left a message on the clerk's office phone yesterday afternoon requesting a copy of Ordinance 2020-7, which I have not received," wrote Neyenhouse. "I cannot comment on something not available for review."
After complimenting the clerk's office on their diligence, Novak acknowledged issues with the township's email. The committee voted to table the matter until the materials were available. From all appearances, the technical difficulties have been resolved as a special meeting is scheduled for May 8th. The draft agenda contains two ordinances that weren't voted on today.
Meanwhile, the public commentary remains the same. Anyone who wishes to subject a comment should submit a comment to email@example.com before 8 am on Friday, May 8th.