Talking to your elected officials should be easy. Because email is easy, it seems obvious that all committee members should be available through their official email address.
But for reasons that were long unexplained, that’s not the way it works in Tabernacle.
After months of asking committee members about the township’s email policy, ferreting out the hidden email addresses and sending an email to each committee member, they finally focused on explaining what the email policy was. Even then, however, their responses were not forthcoming, and were guarded or incomplete.
I will give partial credit to Deputy Mayor Barton for having an idea and discussing it in public. After months of ducking the issue when he was mayor, he finally asked Administrator Cramer to look into establishing one official email address to serve the whole committee. He envisioned that residents will be able to send email to that address. Committee members will read them if they want to and respond as they see fit. Whether this is a good idea or not remains to be seen.
There’s no reason why it should’ve taken so long to address the official email issue. Here’s what any of them could have said when residents first raised the issue in 2019:
Thank you for your comments that all committee members should have an email address so that residents can contact them. We agree that it’s important for residents to be able to communicate with their elected officials.
The way we handle it now, every committee member has an official email address, which is used for official business. Our practice has been to let each committee member decide if they want to post their official email address on the township website. Some committee members choose to post their email address. Others don’t. We don’t ask why.
We’ve done it this way for a long time. It’s not an official policy because we haven’t formally discussed it or adopted it. But maybe we should discuss it so that we can make Tabernacle better together.
Committee members hemmed and hawed and gave weasel answers about why they didn’t respond earlier in a straight-up way.
No committee member would acknowledge that they didn’t address this issue when it was raised multiple times at prior public meetings. This is especially true of Mayor Brown and Deputy Mayor Barton who, as mayor and prior mayor, controlled the responses to public comments.
Also, neither Mayor Brown nor Deputy Mayor Barton saw a reason to respond to the email that was sent to them at their official email addresses. They were asked:
…why are you the only elected officials who have an email address on the township committee page? Please reply to this question by email. Thank you.
Mr. Barton misstated the question to explain his non-response. “You asked me [through your email] why other committee members didn’t have emails. I can’t speak for them so I didn’t see a need to reply.”
Let’s be sharper about this. The question asks why some addresses are posted but others are not. The answer is to explain the township’s policy. Mr. Baton’s failure to respond doesn’t address the question.
Mayor Brown didn’t reply to the email or to earlier public comment either. She tried to deflect her non-responsiveness by saying: “It’s not a policy, it’s a preference.”
Let’s not mince words. No matter what Mayor Brown calls it, the preference/policy should have been explained when residents asked about it. It’s not privileged or complicated. It’s low hanging fruit.
It would have been easy for Mayor Brown and Deputy Mayor Barton to reply to the email something like this:
Our practice has been to let each committee member decide if they want to post their official email address on the township website. We choose to post our email addresses. Others don’t.
Committeeman Moore said:
It’s my choice [to post my official email address]. I do not have an email. I have not had an email since probably last spring.
That’s not true. Committeeman Moore has had an official email address since he took office in January 2019. It’s not a secret. It’s public record. Here it is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
He’s the only committee member who has chosen not to list his official email address on the township committee’s webpage. He didn’t explain why. It’s hard to think of any good reason. After all, he was elected to represent every Tabernacle resident. And he’s paid $5,000 annually to represent them.
February 10, 2020, Non-Workshop Workshop Meeting
Under our form of government, all five committee members have equal powers. The small exception to this rule is that the mayor is given the power to preside over meetings and the deputy mayor has the authority to stand in when the mayor is absent. In Tabernacle, the mayor also sets the agenda.
Kim Brown, as mayor, now sets the agenda. It was surprising that she kept the “Workshop Meeting” format for the February 10, 2020 township meeting when there was no work to do. The agenda is actually blank at item “IV. COMMITTEE WORKSHOP.”
In fact, Committeewoman McGinnis brought a handout of policies and initiatives that she wanted to discuss with the committee at the workshop meeting. But Mayor Brown wouldn’t allow it. She said:
Let’s leave this one for a future agenda…this way the public also gets to see your ideas and when they come to the next workshop they can offer some [comments?]. They can see a head of time. They could offer it [comment?] to us….
That’s not what has happened. Although Mayor Brown said that all of Committeewoman McGinnis’s items would be held until the next workshop meeting, in fact, Resolution 2020-52, which is one of Committeewoman McGinnis’s suggestions, is now listed on the February 24 regular meeting agenda.
In addition, even though Mayor Brown said the public would have the opportunity to see Ms. McGinnis’s ideas “ahead of time” so they could offer comment, the actual resolution (Res. 2020-52) isn’t posted with the February 24 agenda on the township website. Advance posting of resolutions is customary. This promotes informed public comment and transparency. There was ample time to post the resolution with the agenda because Ms. McGinnis included a draft resolution in her February 10 handout. Mayor Brown didn’t do what she said she would do and shortchanged the public.
I want to get back to the non-workshop workshop. Because there was no workshop at the February 10 meeting, the appropriate format should have been the regular meeting format. Why wasn’t this a regular meeting?
It could be that Mayor Brown wanted to reduce the opportunity for public comment. At regular meetings, she has committed to have two opportunities for public comment. At this workshop meeting there was only one public comment period. It was held at the beginning of the meeting before the committee discussed anything. Because of the placement of public comment, residents couldn’t comment on any of the committee’s discussion.
In past workshop meetings, such as those held when Mayor Barton presided, there usually were two public comment periods. The first occurred at the beginning of the meeting and was limited to agenda items only. The second occurred at the end after committee reports and allowed comments on any subject. By allowing comment after reports, citizens could comment on anything that occurred at the meeting.
Even at the workshop meetings where there was only one public comment period, public comment always followed committee reports. Again, the reason for this is to enable public comment on the business that the committee discussed at the meeting.
Notwithstanding what she told the Pine Barrens Tribune, it’s clear from the way she’s presiding over the meetings that Mayor Brown doesn’t want to hear from all members of the public. Given the criticism that she brought on herself by ignoring easy questions about the township’s email policy (and the placement of public comment), it’s understandable that she’s wants to limit public comment.
Instead of addressing criticism by stifling public comment, better to address it in an open and straightforward way. If Mayor Brown can’t preside at meetings in an open and straightforward way, then, after 19 years, it’s time for her resign from township committee.
The next township meeting will be held February 24, 2020 at 7:30 PM at town hall.