By John Burton
HIGHLANDS – Can you say what you need to say in 2 minutes?
Mayor Frank Nolan believes a 2-minute limit on public comments at Borough Council meetings is appropriate.
There are some, including a newly elected council member, who say otherwise and are looking to have the time limit repealed, or at least amended.
The council voted, 4-0, on June 18 to limit individual comments at council meetings to 2 minutes. The reason, Nolan said, was “we had some people coming in with literally multiple lists of things, monopolizing the time.”
As the borough has struggled to rebuild from Super Storm Sandy’s devastation in late 2012, members of the public brought individual concerns to council meetings, which often ran beyond 11 p.m. Nolan said many who had signed up to speak but were on the latter part of the list appeared to give up and leave before they had their chance.
“Given everything that is going on in Highlands, they really shouldn’t have to sit there for three hours while somebody else goes through a 52-page list,” he said. And, he added, 52 pages was not an exaggeration.
Nolan said there are other forums for people to have individual issues addressed such as dealing directly with officials or during town hall meetings he has conducted since Sandy.
Resident Melissa Petersen, however, describes the council’s action as “retribution” against some residents who have been frustrated by post-Sandy rebuilding efforts. She sees it as an attempt to “squash” dissent.
“People have been asking questions. ‘Where are we? What is happening? Why is it happening? What as citizens can we do to help move things along’?” Petersen said. “And not a whole lot has happened” in local rebuilding efforts, she charged.
“I understand they don’t want one person asking a ton of questions for 15 minutes, they don’t want filibustering. I get it,” she said. But 2 minutes, she believes, is too short and an unnecessary limitation given the borough’s population (less than 4,000, post-Sandy) and the relatively small number of people who attend council meetings.
Claudette D’Arrigo agrees. “When I have a question to ask, 2 minutes certainly isn’t adequate.”
D’Arrigo said she’s been attending most council meetings for the past five years and believes the time-limit is because some on the council “do not like to be challenged.”
Councilman Douglas Card, who was elected in June during the borough’s first nonpartisan election, is also against the time rule and views the measure as politically motivated.
“This is a slap in the face of the community,” he said. “[Council members] don’t want to hear what the people have to say.”
Card, who was not a council member when the restriction was adopted, accepts that some limitation might be needed and will seek to have the resolution amended at the Aug. 20 meeting.
“Two minutes isn’t enough,” he said.
Petersen has posted a petition on change.org seeking to increase the time limit for public comment to 4 minutes. She said she has collected more than 80 signatures.
But the mayor sees it differently. He said he has had “only one or two people question [the time limit] … other than that, the general public has not even said a word.
“Right now, I think it’s working,” Nolan said.
A number of surrounding communities – Holmdel, Oceanport, Atlantic Highlands, Rumson, and Red Bank – have no time restriction. Others do, including Middletown, which limits speakers to 5 minutes, a practice in place for more than two decades, according to township administrator Anthony Mercantante.
Speakers in Sea Bright and Fair Haven have a 3-minute limit during the public portion of meetings.
“It’s generally not meant to restrict input,” Fair Haven administrator Theresa Casagrande said.
The measure, she explained, is “more for an orderly flow, to allow everyone to speak if a topic happens to be controversial.” It also allows for the people’s business to be conducted during a meeting with a reasonable length.
Walter Luers, a lawyer and president of New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, believes “limitations are always a tricky issue” and could leave the door open for legal challenges.
The foundation, a Clifton-based, nonpartisan alliance of open government groups, would not support a 2- or 3-minute limitation believing it is too short, Luers said. Five minutes would be a reasonable amount of time, if a limit must be set, he said.
Once established, such limitations must be for all speakers, Luers stressed. Governing bodies shouldn’t have the discretion to waive the rule, he said, explaining why town officials putting a limit on angry homeowners while forgoing limits on Girl Scouts or volunteer fire company presentations would be wrong. “That’s litigation waiting to happen,” Luers said.
Legislation is pending that may render the discussion moot, should it get out of committee and eventually become law. Assembly bill A 2900, sponsored by Bergen County Democrats Gordon M. Johnson and Joseph Lagana, is intended to “increase transparency of public bodies and public meetings,” according to Johnson’s legislative office. The measure contains a provision that would require a minimum of 3-minutes per person for those who wish to speak at public meetings.
The bill is currently in the Assembly’s State and Local Government Committee.