BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Tuesday night Township Council members listened to residents' comments on an ordinance that changes the way committees of the council operate. Residents found themselves on opposite sides of the issue. In the end, the ordinance was introduced and there will be a public hearing and final adoption on Tuesday, Feb. 7, at the council's next meeting.

The council, which has a three-minute limit per speaker, listened for more than an hour, with Mayor Robert Woodruff finally pulling the plug on comments after some people had spoken as many as three times.   

The ordinance involves four committees: Communications, Downtown Beautification, Memorial Park Renewal and Peppertown Park Renewal committees. It changes Chapter 2.93, .2.94, 2.95 and 2.97  of "Title 2, entitled 'Administration and Personnel' of The Code of the Township of Berkeley Heights to amend and update terms of various Township Committees."

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Among the changes is eliminating the requirement that the committee "hold regular monthly meetings at the same time and day of each month," and eliminating the clause "shall be open to the public."  Instead, non-public meetings can be held at the convenience of members, "unless a specific meeting is opened to the public at the sole discretion of the Committee."  Since the meetings are closed to the public and the committee may make its own rules about the operation of the meeting, the ordinance effectively prevents live streaming or recording of the meetings. 

Committee members are approved by the council and there is a council member on each one. Each committee files minutes of its meetings, but would no longer be required to file an annual report, nor would it have to file an annual proposed budget.  All but the Communications Committee would be permitted to solicit funds and apply for grants. Any money received would go to the Township and, as is currently the case, all expenditures by the committee would need to be approved by the Township Council.

Objections to the changes came from Dr. Thomas Foregger, former Libertarian Candidate for Council Tom Maciejewski, resident Dmitriy Agafonov, and a few others. The main objection related to the lack of transparency when it comes to what is happening in the committee.

Foregger questioned the ability of the Downtown Beautification Committee to write reports and offer comments on  various aspects of applications before the Zoning Board of Adjustment and Planning Board, as well as contributing to the establishment of design standards for developments in the downtown area. "The public cannot see what they are doing," he said.

Maciejewski wanted to know "who is paying for legal fees" and other fees incurred when the Downtown Beautification Committee consults with a planner or lawyer. He also objected to the prohibition of recording meetings because it prevented residents from contributing or even knowing about upcoming plans.

Agafonov asked why an audio recording could not be done, especially during "brainstorming" sessions. He pointed out that there are many experts in town who could contribute ideas, if they knew what was being discussed, rather than after a project had been set in stone.

Another resident urged for live streaming so residents could see what the committees were doing, and set meetings so they would know when and where to go to offer their own thoughts on projects.

Township Attorney Joseph Sordillo assured residents that "case law" supports the changes in the ordinance which applies to sub-committees, as opposed to zoning or planning boards or other groups. He also said the committee could determine whether there could be any type of recording of its meeting and when to open meetings to the public.

A number of supporters of the ordinance said volunteer committee members are uncomfortable with having their images and words posted on social media and YouTube. 

Councilman Peter Bavoso said, "We will lose our volunteers. We want to make our volunteers to feel comfortable brainstorming."

Zoning Board member Bruce Mustacchi asked if there is any difference between "a different group of residents getting together in a living room, having an idea and bringing it here?"

Sordillo said, "No."

Former Board of Education member John Sincaglia said of the objections to the ordinance, "I think what I hear is a phony issue. I support" the ordinance.

A final word by Sordillo cemented the issue, "Under the Township Council (form of government), we cannot have subcommittees of the council," which would be subject to all provisions of the Sunshine Law.

Mayor Robert Woodruff closed discussion and the ordinance was introduced.