Dear TAPinto Editor,
Essex County officials are closing out public participation from its monthly meeting of the Open Space and Recreation Trust Fund. The meeting, scheduled for tomorrow July 16th at 3PM, appears on the County website without a Zoom link and published agenda. Pre-Covid these meetings allowed for public input but only after the votes were counted. This is where the high fives were given for a $600,000 price tag in design fees for the outdoor amphitheater and $406,000 for the train platform at the Turtle Back Zoo, as well as $760,000 for improvements at Branch Brook Park.
The recommendations of this board go directly to the County Commission meetings (previously called Freeholders). Clearance from this board guarantees a yes vote from all nine Commissioners.
In a letter responding to a citizen inquiry about accessing the Open Space Zoom meeting, Essex County Parks Department Josh Zaitz wrote that as an “advisory” board, the Fund is not subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, nor do they have the “technological capability,” to hold such meetings. Yet, somehow the Essex County Environmental Commission (ECEC) a committee with the identical status provides for community participation and a Zoom link. When questioned, an official from the ECEC said, “The Open Space Committee has different rules than the Environmental Commission.” Why would county advisory committees previously all open to all residents suddenly have “different rules?"
The public should take note of this coronavirus excuse to silence debate and discussion. Even if technically this meeting is not required by Sunshine Laws, the appearance of backroom politicking contradicts the transparency needed for a democracy. Essex County leaders fail to pass the smell test for responsible and accessible government.
Chair, Coalition to Save South Mountain Reservation