WAYNE, NJ – Wednesday night’s Wayne Town Council meeting had a conspicuous absence with Fifth Ward Councilwoman Fran Ritter choosing not to participate in a meeting that she called reckless. See story
Her argument was that in a time of social distancing and encouraged curfew, Wayne residents would not want to come out to a public town council meeting, therefore the meeting should be canceled, until arrangements could be made to include safe participation.
Ritter's other argument was about setting an example. “There’s no nobility in showing up for a meeting during a global pandemic,” she said the next day. “That is not an example to set for our citizens or our children.”
Three of the Wayne Council Members participated in the meeting via teleconference: Sixth Ward Councilman Jon Ettman, Second Ward Councilman Al Sadowski and Councilwoman-At-Large Jill Sasso all called in to be a part of the meeting.
Present at the meeting were Acting Council President Franco Mazzei, First Ward Councilman Rich Jasterzbski, Councilman-At-Large Joe Schweighardt and Councilman-At-Large David Varano.
Mayor Chris Vergano and Township Attorney Matt Giacobbe were also present along with Township Clerk Paul Margiotta and Deputy Clerk Jaqueline Barnhill.
One member of the public was in the audience along with the Director of the Health Department, MaryAnn Orapello and the Director of the Office of Emergency Management, Captain Dan Daly of the Wayne Police Department.
Although Ritter was given a call-in number to participate, she chose not to. “To participate by phone, is giving this council credibility that it is okay to have meetings that don’t meaningfully and properly facilitate public participation in a global pandemic,” she said in an interview the next day.
When Ettman spoke during Council comments, he said: “I was very torn about having this meeting going forward at all, given the fact that most of the public would not be attending the meeting and its very important, in my view, that our meetings are open to the public, and the public has an opportunity to speak and participate in our meetings. But, in considering the crisis that we are dealing with and considering that the town must conduct its business, I felt it was important to move forward.”
Mazzei commented: “No part of this process is optimal. The situation is very fluid and the Administration and the Clerk’s office, especially with regard to this meeting, have tried to adapt as best as possible. But these are very trying times with nothing we could’ve expected or imagined. And, no one of us here have the right to cancel a meeting or call a meeting.”
Mazzei then turned to Township Attorney Matt Giacobbe, "Counsel, correct me if I’m wrong, but when we have more than five of the elected body willing to participate in the meeting, the meeting will go forward?”
Giacobbe answered: “That is correct.” He then added, "It is imperative that governing bodies; schools, municipalities and counties remain operational. The bills you are providing for and voting on tonight are paying for the police officers, buying the emergency equipment for our first responders. It’s imperative that Government goes forward to get us through these trying times.”
Town Clerk Margiotta told TAPinto Wayne that the agenda of the meeting had been pared down to limit the number of people in the room. “We canceled several portions of the meeting including proclamations to the Girl Scouts and the honoring of Michelle Kight, one of our EMTs that had a CPR save while off duty.” See Story
“The goal was to try to keep it simple and to the non-controversial matters like introducing the budget,” said Ettman the next day. “You don’t want to get behind on that. You want to introduce that timely so the process can take hold, accordingly.”
“What we are doing now is trying only to conduct essential business; nothing that’s controversial,” said Mazzei. “We are paying bills, we’re paying payroll, we’re paying health benefits, we’re buying equipment that’s necessary, we’re fixing roads that are necessary. Just essential government business that will keep us operational while we weather this storm.”
Ritter took a hard stance in not participating. “If you’re going to have a public meeting, be genuine about facilitating public participation,” she said. “If towns like Lavalette and Hawthorne can figure it out, why can’t we?”
Sasso during her comments asked that the public be patient with the Wayne Government. “These are unprecedented times,” she said. “We would like to thank the public and ask for your patience as we work through this evolving situation. There is a tough balance between continuing town business and public safety. Please bear with us as we work through these activities.”
Ettman echoed Sasso’s comments, saying, “These are unchartered waters that we are navigating, and we are doing the best that we can.”
The Town Council meeting scheduled for April 1 has been canceled, so the next public meeting will be held on April 15. The hope is that the crisis will be over by then, but the secondary hope is that the Township will have created a way to allow the public to participate fully.
“As we move forward, we want to implement the technology so that we can have a completely remote meeting that would allow the public to participate the way they normally would,” said Ettman.