There has been a great deal of controversy over the Berkeley Heights Township Council's decision to enable 4 committees - Communications, Downtown Beautification, Veterans Memorial Park and Peppertown Park - to block residents from participating or even attending their meetings, as well as not to publish any information about their meetings or actions. Speaking on behalf of many other residents including the Berkeley Heights Democratic Committee, I made the following remarks at the February 7th Council meeting when this decision was approved. During my remarks I shared a 4-point plan that keeps the meetings open to the public while protecting the privacy of our volunteers - something the Mayor & Council can and should approve:
...Our volunteers are what make Berkeley Heights one of the best towns in New Jersey. None of us can, or should, tolerate actions that harass or intimidate them; in today’s world of pervasive social media access, it is natural for private citizens to be upset and afraid when they find themselves being filmed and posted on social media without their consent. We can, and should, take action to prevent this.
However, this ordinance goes well beyond resolving the stated concerns of volunteers who have spoken out so far. As written, it would allow these committees to not only block the public from recording the meetings but from even being allowed to attend them; moreover, these committees are free not to publish any information about their meetings and their decisions, even when these decisions directly affect our quality of life and the actions you take. This is very different from all other township committees such as the Planning Board, Board of Adjustment, and Board of Health, whose members are also appointed by the Mayor.
Since membership is limited, there is no way for would-be volunteers to get involved in this part of local government. Few if any New Jersey towns enable official committees like these to operate in this manner, and the many residents I have spoken with are upset at what they see as a blow to open government.
The truth is that we do not have to choose between this ordinance and protecting our volunteers from being filmed without their consent. Even if these committees are outside of the Open Public Meetings Act, you have the ability to set rules and procedures for how these committees must operate. The Berkeley Heights Democratic Committee, together with other residents, has proposed that all township committees not covered under OPMA should be managed under the following guidelines:
- All committee meetings would be made open to the public, with a previously announced schedule and set meeting locations.
- All committees would keep full, accurate minutes of their meetings, to be made available to the public as soon as possible.
- Members of the public would be given the opportunity to speak at the meeting, at an appropriate time and length, without disturbing it.
All of these things are done by all other township committees and boards.
- However, and in order to protect the privacy of our volunteers, members of the public would be prohibited from streaming, filming or recording the meetings without the consent of everyone in attendance, committee members and private citizens alike. Those who refuse to follow the rules can and should be made to leave the meeting, just as you can have a resident leave a Council meeting if they refuse to follow the rules. The committees would be free to record their meetings if they so choose.
These guidelines would fully resolve the understandable concerns expressed by committee volunteers, while ensuring that all residents retain the right to fully participate, and be heard, on every level of Berkeley Heights government. I respectfully ask you, Mr. Mayor and members of the Council, to table and revise this ordinance in order to include these guidelines. Doing this tonight is the right act to take – right for our volunteers, those who do and those who wish to join them; right for transparency in local government; and right for our town.
Thank you for your time.
Note: While I am a member of the Berkeley Heights Democratic Committee, this statement is not from the Democratic Committee nor any other organization.