BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Going forward, members of the public will have exactly three minutes to speak during each public hearing at a meeting of the Township Council. There are also specific rules on behavior that will be enforced.
Tuesday, Feb. 21, Mayor Robert Woodruff, using prepared remarks, let residents know that there is a process supported by legal precedents, that governs the behavior and participation of members of the public during public meetings.
The need to enlist the Police Chief to restore order in the Feb. 7 meeting of the council during a public hearing and an earlier two-hour discussion on an unrelated matter led the mayor to act within his authority to clarify rules relating to public input on issues, in particular time limits, conduct and decorum during council meetings.
The public hearing was on an ordinance to reorganize the rules for advisory committees.
The unrelated matter involved an offer by the Berkeley Heights YMCA to manage the Berkeley Heights Community Pool, eventually replace it, and build a large, new YMCA facility adjacent to the pool. Many residents spoke more than once and the three-minute time limit for public comment that was in place was generally ignored.
The mayor referred to N.J.S.A. 10:4-12, which states "Nothing in this act shall be construed to limit the discretion of a public body to permit, prohibit, or regulate the active participation of the public at any meeting, except that a municipal governing body. . .shall be required to set aside a portion of every meeting of the municipal governing body. . ., the length of the portion to be determined by the municipal governing . . ., for public comment on any governmental. . .that a member of the public feels may be of concern to the residents of the municipality. . . .”
Attending a public meeting "does not necessarily include a right to comment or participate," the Mayor read. The public body may decide for itself, "whether to allow public participation" and can impose limits or regulations on that participation, he said. The exception is the governing body, which must allow public participation, but the township may enforce "time limits, limit each person to one chance to speak per public hearing on a particular item" and require that comments be made to the people on the dais, not to the people in the audience, he said.
Council member Craig Pastore will be the time keeper and "strictly enforce the three minute" limit, the mayor said. He will hold up a yellow card when there are 30 seconds remaining and "when the buzzer goes off, that's it. You sit down," said Woodruff.
In addition, if a member of the public is "unruly or uncivil," the Mayor can tell the person to leave the meeting and, if the person doesn't comply, can ask a police officer to escort them from the meeting.
Speakers are to direct all their comments and question to the people on the dais and there will be "no turning around and speaking to the audience," he said. Courtesy should be extended to the person speaking.
"I trust that perhaps the meeting two weeks ago was an aberration," said Woodruff, but it if wasn't and "anyone breeches this they will be asked to stop. If they don't stop, they will be asked to leave and if they don't (leave), I will ask the police to escort" them from the meeting.
Editor's Note: The article was edited to include the information that the governing body of a municipality must permit public participation at it's public meetings but that it can be limited.