WAYNE, NJ – At last week’s Town Council meeting, a revised ordinance was proposed, then tabled before it went to a vote. The ordinance was proposed by Fifth Ward Councilwoman Fran Ritter and its purpose was to add a second public comment portion to the Council Agenda.
Currently, at these meetings, the public comments portion allows residents five minutes to address the council. No cross-dialog is allowed between residents and their elected officials at this time. After the public speaks, the council and mayor are given an opportunity to speak, then the meeting is adjourned.
The proposed ordinance would give the public another opportunity to respond to the comments made by the Council and Administration.
If you would like to read the current ordinance you can find it here
If you would like to read Ritter's proposed ordinance, you can find it here.
This was a large piece of the Democrat platform during the last election cycle: Providing for a way for residents to respond or rebut comments made by their elected officials during the public forum.
“What residents find most objectionable about the current practice is that members of this Council have used this time, not to address residents’ concerns, but to close the meeting with political rhetoric and personal attacks sometimes on residents. This has served to divide the Wayne community rather than unite it.” Ritter said. “This has not been a good look for the Council, and I have been doing everything I can since being sworn into my Council seat in January to unite members of this Council in an effort to effectuate greater transparency, accountability and respect for our constituents by amending this ordinance.”
At the very end of the January 1 Council reorganization meeting (Ritter’s first meeting as a Council member), she stopped the motion to end the public portion and asked that the motion be tabled to allow for another round of public comments. It went to a vote and narrowly passed with Councilwoman-At-Large Jill Sasso, Sixth Ward Councilman Jonathan Ettman, Councilmen-At-Large David Varano and Second Ward Councilman Al Sadowski voting along with Ritter in the majority.
Now Ritter was moving to make this change permanent and felt she had the backing to make it happen.
“I met individually with a number of Council members and ultimately met in a closed-door session with the township attorney and the Council; even the Mayor was present,” said Ritter. “We discussed several compromises to my original proposal. The feedback I received from my council colleagues, however, was that they would be more accepting of the added public reply only if Council would continue to have the last word before closing the meeting. I wasn’t completely satisfied with these negotiated changes, but in the spirit of cooperation with my fellow Council members, I felt that as long as the public at least got to reply to Council remarks, then that would serve as a benefit to the community.”
Last week, when the proposal came to the floor, Ritter introduced it, explaining the changes it proposed. “I submit that this proposed amendment will help to provide a more meaningful dialog with Wayne residents and its governing body.”
Discussion followed and Sasso spoke first. It was not what Ritter expected to hear.
After talking about the importance of addressing the ability for the public to have a meaningful discussion, Sasso said: “To that end, I think there are more things that we have to think through, in terms of how we do that.” Sasso mentioned that she was gone the week prior and hadn’t participated in the discussion of this ordinance. “There might be a few things I think we overlooked and might reconsider,” she said before stating she would not support the current ordinance.
Varano also talked about supporting transparency and dialog before stating several caveats and finally saying: “This could stand to benefit from more discussion.” He then recommended that a sub-committee be formed to work on the proposed ordinance.
“I don’t want the public to think that the Council is not available to residents,” said Sadowski, explaining that all of the members were available via email and their cell phones. He then echoed Sasso’s and Varano’s support for giving the public an opportunity to speak publicly, but then gave a motion to table the vote on the ordinance and to create a sub-committee as Varano had suggested.
“I’m in favor of doing something, but I want to do something that is supported by more council people,” Sadowski said.
Ritter seconded Sadowski’s motion and it passed.
Ritter thought the Council’s objections were at odds with the concessions she made to reflect her prior discussions with Council members. “I’m cautiously optimistic that this ordinance will live to see another day, provided that the Council President convenes a sub-committee to work out a meaningful compromise.”
“I made considerable efforts to speak with each of the council members who I felt were favorable toward this,” said Ritter. “I was encouraged by their January 1 vote to work on this objective together and We met individually and then we met in a closed session with the whole body and our attorney. The product of all that was this proposed ordinance and the response, publicly at the last meeting was ‘it was not good enough.’ ‘Not Now. ‘Not at this time.’”
“Among the issues I find troubling with this is that the biggest land use decisions that this town has faced in over a generation are happening now,” said Ritter with passion. “It’s going to affect this generation and multiple generations of Wayne residents going forward, and the public has a right to have a full public dialog with its governing body on these issues that will have material effects on their families and their property values.”
“Now is not the time to shut down on the public in the public forum on issues that deserve to see the light of day,” she said.
TAPinto reached out to Council members Varano, Sasso, Sadowski and Council President Joe Scuralli, as well as the Mayor. Varano never responded. Scuralli is recovering from a health issue and couldn’t speak. The Mayor scheduled a time to talk, but the call never happened.
Sadowski said he supported Ritter’s ordinance. “What are we afraid of?” he asked rhetorically.
Sasso said she also supported the notion but had been away during the closed-door session and wanted to speak with Ritter and the rest of the council over some of the details before making a decision.
Next week the Town Council will meet again, and this is likely to be a topic during the night.