TC votes 3-2 on first reading to shorten public comment time

The West Orange Township Council discusses changing the public comment period at its Feb. 9 meeting.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council passed an ordinance to change the public comment speaking time from five minutes per person to three minutes per person on first reading at its Feb. 9 meeting, in an attempt to shorten the lengthy council meetings. The ordinance passed with a vote of 3-2; Councilman Bill Rutherford and Councilwoman Tammy Williams voted no. It will be on the agenda for second reading at the council’s Feb. 23 meeting. An amendment that would have limited the total public comment period to an hour was unanimously removed from the ordinance.

During the meeting’s public comment period many opposed the change, saying that such a move would silence residents. Council President Cindy Matute-Brown said that is not the case, as the council will begin holding workshop meetings at which the members will not take action but instead discuss council topics; the public will be able to comment at these meetings. The first workshop meeting is scheduled for March 1.

“We’re adding an additional workshop to discuss these very issues that the council members need more time to address,” Matute-Brown said at the meeting. “The administration has been supportive of joining us in that workshop; that workshop does include a public component. I’m looking at a very big picture. I’m asking my council colleagues, I am asking our administration to add another meeting, two meetings, however many meetings we need to have to discuss a very busy year that we have ahead of us and ask for public participation at that time and then again when we have the council meetings.”

The public will still be able to speak for five minutes during public hearings for ordinances on second reading, as Councilwoman Michelle Casalino pointed out at the meeting.

“On ordinances, residents get five minutes,” she said, also mentioning that the West Orange Board of Education public comment period is three minutes long. “If you really have something that you have an issue with, you can get eight minutes in public comment.”

While the ordinance allows for three minutes per speaker during public comment, the council president can allow up to one extra minute if they feel it is warranted. For extra time beyond that, the council would have to vote in a two-thirds majority to allow for more time. Assistant Township Attorney Ken Kayser said at the meeting the reason the vote would be necessary is to prevent a filibuster of a council meeting.

“There are mechanisms to protect the public,” Williams said at the meeting. “We’re not trying to silence the public, we’re just trying to structure our meetings so they are efficient and effective. When you know you have three minutes to get your point across, you come to the table prepared to speak whatever comments you have within that timetable.”

Rutherford said he does not want to make changes to the public comment structure, but is in favor of the workshop meetings. He suggested limiting the council members’ speaking time at meetings as well, especially during liaison announcements. His suggestion to submit announcements to the council president in written form to be read and save time was in disagreement with the other members of the council. Matute-Brown said another option would be to include members of the boards to which council members are liaisons in public comment, to save the council members time in their own reports.

Both Rutherford and Williams said there are other ways the public and council members can communicate, including through email and by phone.

“What we’re trying to do is economize the meetings such that they are not five-, six-hour meetings,” Williams said. “If it means that we need to have work sessions so we can condense that actual meeting time when decisions are being made, then I support that. What we need to do is find a way to be efficient and effective within a three plus or minus time frame.

We’re not saying to silence the public, we’re just asking that, within this meeting time frame, it is limited to X amount of time.”