MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Planning Board had a brief meeting on November 23, and much of the discussion centered on a resolution the board was considering based on the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. The resolution would govern procedures for remote meetings held due to emergencies including but not limited to COVID-19. The board, like most municipal government bodies, has been meeting virtually since the World Health Organization declared the COVID outbreak to be a pandemic back in March 2020.
Board attorney Arthur Neiss explained the need for the resolution. He said that land-use attorneys crafted the blueprint for the resolution to make clear how remote meetings should be held and that it was important for such a resolution to be incorporated into land-use board meetings. He said it provides the basics for protocols for meetings held on Zoom. Neiss said that several governing bodies have adopted such a resolution. He also told Anthony Ianuale that there is nothing in the resolution specific to what the Montclair Planning Board does that may not be in the state protocol, only that it is applicable to the Planning Board and that is a declaration of protocol in recognition of the fact that it is a separate entity from the township’s governing body, the mayor’s office and the council. Mayor Sean Spiller said that the council has not adopted a measure governing protocol for its own remote meetings.
Board member Daniel Gilmer asked if this would limit any activity that the board has engaged in during previous meetings, such as muting participants when different people are trying to speak. Neiss said he did not think so, adding that the Planning Board has gone quite far in allowing people to speak, and he quickly pointed out that there are provisions in the resolution for dealing with disorderly participants. He also noted that the Montclair Planning Board has had no such incident since its meetings went virtual. Citing what he called “Zoom bombs” – instances in which participants of Zoom-based meetings at other planning boards have been obstreperous and uncontrollable – Neiss said that Montclair has engaged in proper protocols that have prevented such a thing from happening, and he praised Planning Director Janice Talley for being a skillful moderator of the remote Planning Board meetings the Montclair Planning Board has had.
Gilmer, keeping in mind that the pandemic will end sooner or later, expressed reservations that the state might rescind the current public health emergency before the township is comfortable with resuming in-person meetings. Neiss said that it is the right of municipal bodies to determine how they can meet, noting that many of them meet in person now with all of the necessary health guidelines. Board Chairman John Wynn added that the board has the flexibility and the right to determine when it will meet in person again, and that any decision on how to meet would be on “a reasonable basis.” Any decisions on when to meet remotely or in person would be based on appropriate conditions, such as whether the pandemic has eased enough or is close enough to an end to resume in-person meetings even if the state says it is safe.
Board member Carmel Loughman said that the resolution does not address technical difficulties in remote meetings, such as disconnections and electronic feedback. Chairman Wynn said that they would be dealt with as they happen, not unlike a power outage affecting an in-person meeting. He explained that it would be impossible to outline all of the possible problems. Loughman suggested that there should be a provision in the resolution that makes it impossible to hold a meeting if there are too many technical difficulties. Ianuale noted that the state has minimal technological requirements, adding that the resolution already accounts for that issue, and that the township simply has to meet those requirements. Loughman also said that a universal time limit on comments from the public should be applied. Even though Chairman Wynn has the authority to govern how long one has to speak, he had no objection to such language being included in the resolution.
The board also agreed to language specifying that public comments be directed to the moderator for filtering through to the board. Vice Chair Keith Brodock said that this was important to avoid distractions generated by multiple comments coming in, particularly if a chat-room format is used.
Once issues with the remote-meeting protocol resolution were settled, the board seemed ready to adopt it, but they chose to postpone the passage of the resolution so that Neiss can incorporate the various suggestions into a more carefully written draft. The resolution, with revisions, is expected to be voted on at the board’s December 7 meeting.
In other business, the board considered the resolution for the proposed apartment project for the commercial building at 423 Bloomfield Avenue, where the Studio 042 print shop is located. Applicant Scott Kennedy, who owns the business and the building, and his wife Pilar informed the board that they will not proceed with the planned improvements approved for their property because they concluded that the conditions were too arduous – but they still wanted the resolution for the application memorialized. The approval would be good for two years, though the Kennedys could apply for an extension. The Planning Board does not have to approve an extension. The board went ahead and memorialized the application with Mayor Spiller voting no and with Vice Chair Brodock and Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager abstaining.
The board also approved its meeting calendar for 2021. Planning Board meetings will be held on the second and fourth Mondays of the month except in May and October, when they will be held on the first and third Mondays, and December, when they will be held on the first two Mondays of that month – December 6 and December 13. The only change from Director Talley’s draft was moving up the final meeting of the year from December 20 to December 13.