BARNEGAT, NJ – Barnegat officials were slapped with a lawsuit yesterday filed by Charles Cunliffe, a Democratic nominee for Township Committee. Cunliffe alleges local government authorities deprived him of his right to make public comments during their committee meetings.

Cunliffe’s complaint, filed in Ocean County Superior Court, claims township officials violated both the Open Public Meetings Act and New Jersey Civil Rights Act.  The allegations pertain specifically to how the governing body has handled meetings when the COVID-19 outbreak forced them to exclude in-person public attendance.

Before the pandemic, the Barnegat Township Committee both live-streamed and provided cable access to its meetings. While the format worked to view meetings, it did not afford two-way communication. Residents who wanted to express their views needed to show up in person.

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Township officials elected to continue with the same meeting access rather than turning to a virtual platform like Zoom. Residents offering commentary were advised to do so in writing prior to the meeting.

“In March, the DCA (Department of Community Affairs), issued guidelines regarding NJ Public Meetings during the pandemic,” said Cunliffe. “All towns were to provide the public with the opportunity to attend virtual public meetings.  For the fourth public meeting in a row, the Barnegat Township Committee has not provided that opportunity to the residents.”

At the May township committee meeting, Cunliffe emailed a public comment that was read aloud by  Michele Rivers, Township Clerk.  Cunliffe cited the state guidelines on how local officials were to provide the public with access to meetings. He pointed out that the township planning board was in compliance – and accused the governing body of restricting the public’s ability to comment in real-time.

Barnegat Mayor John Novak said he relied on legal counsel in determining how public comments would be handled at meetings.  Township Attorney Christopher Dasti, Esquire, stands by the opinion he stated at the May meeting.

“"Everything the Township Committee has done regarding livestreaming and requesting public comments ahead of time, ahead of time, is completely appropriate," Dasti advised at that time. "This is completely in conformance with the Open Meetings Act."

Dasti said he will aggressively defend the lawsuit on behalf of officials, and that the township prides itself on transparency.

Other residents have expressed their frustrations that they are not able to respond to the committee actions as they happen real-time. Barnegat Mayor John Novak dismissed a public comment submitted by George Fedorczyk at the July meeting as related to the political season.

Barnegat officials say they anticipate returning to in-person meetings in September. They plan to follow the room capacity and other guidelines set by executive order at that time.

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