by Terry Rogers
On Tuesday, November 12, Milford City Council held a workshop to discuss the possibility of live streaming meetings held at City Hall as well as options to allow the public additional options for interaction with Council. Over the next few weeks, Council will review options for live streaming to determine what may work for Milford.
“At our retreat, we talked about a 30, 60, 90 day review of this,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “We wanted to take 30 days to review its feasibility, 60 days to determine what needed to be done to make it happy with implementation within 90 days. Other municipalities offer live streaming of meetings and I think it would greatly benefit the public to be able to view our meetings online.”
City Manager Eric Norenberg explained that there were many options available that would allow meetings to be live streamed. He stated that there were systems ranged from just one camera to those that were extremely technological. He also pointed out that the more technological the system, the higher the price. City Solicitor David Rutt suggested that staff discuss the process with the IT Department in Sussex County as they currently offer live streaming of their meetings.
Councilman Dan Marabello explained that he would like to see more options for the public to comment at meetings. He felt that people need to feel they have a voice and reminded Council that when he was Mayor, there was a portion of the meeting dedicated to comment.
“We did have public comment at one time,” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson explained. “At one time, it was open and we had people naming names, asking us about things we had no information about. The person whose name was mentioned was then angry because they were discussed and were not aware someone was going to be talking about them because it was not on the agenda. So the next meeting they would come in and voice their own concerns. Meetings were lasting until 10:30 or 11 at night and we were not accomplishing anything. I think we then switched it to it had to be something on the agenda.”
Councilman Michael Boyle pointed out that if someone said something that was inappropriate, they could be stopped. When asked who would control it, he said that he felt the Mayor should take control. He also suggested that it be explained prior to the public comment segment that Council could listen to the public’s concern, but could not respond or answer questions, that they would only note the constituent’s concerns in order to address the issue in the future. He felt those who spoke could be told that their concerns may appear on a future agenda.
“FOIA does not require you to have public comment,” Solicitor Rutt said. “However, if you do have public comment, you must follow some rules. You can have a sign in sheet and allow comment at the start of the meeting. Other municipalities allow comment on each agenda item. But whatever you do, you must be consistent and you must have rules.” Norenberg explained that the City had updated its public comment policy in 2017 to allow the public to comment on ordinances and resolutions that appeared on the agenda but Council made the decision not to allow comment on every agenda item.
Councilwoman Lisa Peel pointed out the school board currently has a policy where the public can speak at the beginning of the meeting on any topic they wish to bring to the board’s attention.
“The public is allowed to comment but the board cannot respond,” Councilwoman Peel said. “In my opinion, that makes people even more frustrated because they often want an answer when they address us. We may not be able to do that. That’s why I think implementing Town Hall meetings might be a better option.”
Town Hall meetings could be held in each ward with one or two Town Hall meetings held with the entire Council, Solicitor Rutt explained. There are requirements under FOIA such as minutes must be taken or there must be a recording that is available to the public.
“Public comment would work at official meetings only on agenda items,” Councilman Jason James said. “The Town Hall meetings would allow the public to specifically address Council. If there are no Town Hall meetings, there needs to be public comment. I just don’t see how hearing the public speak and us not being able to comment would be all that productive.” Councilman Peel agreed saying that there could be 15 issues with Council taking notes but nothing could be addressed.
Solicitor Rutt reminded Council that if they decided to have open public comment, they would need to set pretty rigid rules. Speakers should be limited to no more than three to five minutes and you could also limit how long the public comment section could last. In many municipalities, the limit is 15 minutes for all speakers. In addition, if the meeting is recorded and there will be no written minutes, each person who speaks would have to identify themselves prior to talking so the recording had documentation of who was speaking.
“If we gave everyone an outlet at a Town Hall meeting, that resolves this issue,” Councilman Culotta said. “Any issues brought up at the Town Hall could be added to a future agenda for us to address.” Councilwoman Wilson and Councilman James stated that several constituents in Ward 4 had asked them to hold Town Hall meetings. When asked if the meetings had to be held at City Hall, Solicitor Rutt explained that they did not, that they could be held at the fire hall, a church, the senior center or anywhere large enough for a group of citizens. Councilman James explained that a Town Hall meeting would have been beneficial prior to the decision on sidewalks and would be helpful for discussions about the new police station.
Councilman James asked City Clerk Terri Hudson and Solicitor Rutt to put together guidelines regarding the rules for Town Hall meetings under FOIA in order for Council to decide if they wanted to implement those types of meetings and when they could begin scheduling them.
“We work for the citizens and we should accommodate them as much as possible,” Councilman James said.