Mayor Brown’s leadership shows the same controlling style as when she was mayor in 2015. The remaining committee members are largely silent and defer to the mayor, even though in our form of government the title of mayor is merely honorary. Here’s the latest examples of how our committee is spending its time.
Tabernacle Elected Officials’ Email Addresses
Why doesn’t Tabernacle list the official email addresses of all of its committee members? Shouldn’t residents be able to contact each of their elected officials through the township website?
At multiple township meetings in late 2019, there were public comments that all committee members should have an official email address on the township website. At that time, neither Committeeman Yates nor Committeeman Moore had a listed email address. No committee member responded to the comments. Neither did Mayor Barton or Administrator Cramer.
At the January 27, 2020 committee meeting, the same comment was made. At that time, Committee members McGinnis, Moore and Sunbury didn’t have their elected officials email address listed on the township committee webpage. Again, no committee member responded to the public comment. Mayor Brown, who is handling all responses to public comments, didn’t reply. Neither did Administrator Cramer.
The placement of all official email addresses on the committee’s webpage is low hanging fruit on the tree of doing what’s right for the community. It’s just common sense and good government to list them all.
Committee members should be thrilled to publicize their official email addresses. It fits exactly with the goals that the committee said it believed when it adopted Resolution 2019-119 at the November 25, township meeting. In its opening statement the resolution says:
The Township of Tabernacle believes in and supports open transparent government, and that citizens and residents have the right to be informed about the workings of government in order to best participate in a democracy…; [emphasis added]
That resolution was unanimously passed. Ms. Brown, Mr. Barton and Mr. Moore, whose terms extended into 2020 voted for it.
I would think that Mayor Brown would also be thrilled to publicize all of the official email addresses based her comments to The Pine Barrens Tribune (January 3, 2020). The Tribune reported that Mayor Brown is ”opening the door to new ideas from residents.” It said that she’s made it…
…her mission to remain approachable to residents and hear their thoughts and suggestions. And, I welcome people to speak to me, and they do! They don’t have any problems talking to me and it’s just a matter of doing what’s right for the community.
Mayor Brown is partially right. I don’t have any problems speaking to her. But I have problems getting a response.
Because only Mayor Brown and Deputy Mayor Barton had their official email addresses listed on the committee’s webpage, and because no one would explain why Committee Members Moore, McGinnis and Sunbury didn’t, I sent them all an email.
I asked Mayor Brown and Deputy Mayor Barton why they are the only ones who had their official email addresses listed on the committee’s webpage. They haven’t responded.
As for the other three, I found Mr. Sunbury’s address in the Emergency Management webpage; I figured out Ms. McGinness’s address from the township’s address format; I found Mr. Moore’s official address from the township email log. But why should a resident have to go through these extra steps? Listing Mr. Sunbury’s email address only on the Emergency Management webpage, and requiring residents to reverse engineer the email addresses for Ms. McGinnis and Mr. Moore, are purposeless complications.
In my emails, I told them that every committee member should have their official address listed on the committee’s webpage. I didn’t get a reply from Ms. McGinness or Mr. Moore. But Mr. Sunbury sent me what looks like a canned response.
Dear Tabernacle Resident,
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and concerns regarding our township and how we can make it better together. Please understand that any response, if and when appropriate, will be made publicly at one of our regularly scheduled Tabernacle Township Committee meetings or by the appropriate Tabernacle Township department. Any questions and/or concerns regarding administrative issues such as township services, parks, roads, etc… should be addresses at Tabernacle Town Hall or by calling (609)268-1220. Any questions regarding permits, zoning or constructions should be addressed by our Construction Office (Annex Building) at (609) 268-1665.
Robert “Bob” Sunbury, Jr.
Tabernacle Township Committee
Township of Tabernacle
163 Carranza Road
Tabernacle, NJ 08088
Because the website is an administrative service, I took Mr. Sunbury’s advice and emailed Administrator Cramer.
To Fran and Stuart Brooks:
Thank you for bring this issue to my attention. Adjustments to the website will be made shortly in accordance with each Township Committee member’s request.
Douglas A. Cramer CPWM, CRP
Township Administrator, Director of Public Works
Township of Tabernacle
163 Carranza Road
Tabernacle, NJ 08088
Tel. 609 268-1220 ext. 115 Fax. 609-268-7430”
When were committee members given the option of listing their official email addresses on the township website? It’s never been discussed publicly. If the policy actually existed before my emails, why didn’t Mayor Brown, former Mayor Barton, or anyone else mention it when it was raised multiple times at public meetings? Like so many of the committee’s decisions, this policy looks like it’s being made on the fly and in the back room.
The policy of giving each committee member the option to list their official email address on the township committee webpage is a bad idea. This is a short list of why a partial listing is a bad idea.
Township residents pay for Tabernacle’s web services and the capability to contact all township staff and all elected officials.
Township residents pay each elected official a $5,000 annual salary. Part of their job is to listen to citizens and residents. [Note: Mayor Brown doesn’t take a salary. She ceased taking a salary after it was revealed that she was double-dipping on her health benefits.]
Under our form of government, all five committee members have the same powers. The only ‘extra’ power of the mayor is to chair public meetings. The only ‘extra’ power of the deputy mayor is to fill in when the mayor is absent. Other than that, the positions of mayor and deputy mayor are merely honorary. There’s no functional reason why some committee email addresses are more important than others.
The ability of residents to contact all of their elected officials easily and effectively is basic to democracy, just as the committee espoused in Resolution 2019-119:
…that citizens and residents have the right to be informed about the workings of government in order to best participate in a democracy….[emphasis added]
Because there’s no good reason to list some but not all elected officials’ email addresses, it’s not surprising that eighty percent of all townships in Burlington County that have an official website post the email addresses of all committee members on their official website.
Tabernacle is one of only two townships in Burlington County that partially lists the email addresses of elected officials. Woodland is the other.
Interestingly, four townships in Burlington County don’t list any of the email addresses of their elected officials (Bass River, Chesterfield, Florence and Southampton Townships). (It’s noteworthy that Mayor Brown’s father, Jim Young, is mayor of Southampton Township.)
Really, it’s just common sense and good government that all township committee members’ email addresses should be listed on the township committee webpage.
Mayor Brown, who the Pine Barrens Tribune described as “the 21-term politician,” has enough experience to know that Tabernacle should list all email addresses. All other committee members should know this also. Fortunately, Committee Members McGinnis and Sunbury eventually figured this out.
But Committeeman Moore still hasn’t.
I look forward to hearing the explanations from all committee members as to why this simple policy was so difficult for them to implement. Why isn’t it township policy to require all email addresses? Why didn’t Mayor Barton and the other committee members address this email issue in 2019 when it was brought to the committee’s attention? Why didn’t Mayor Brown address it at the January 27, 2020 meeting?
If, as Mayor Brown said in the Pine Barrens Tribune article, “…it’s just a matter of doing what’s right for the community,” then why do I have to go to such lengths to get the committee to respond?
Public Comment At Committee Meetings
Township Reorganization occurs at the first meeting of the year, and, by law, within the first seven days of January. It’s the meeting where new committee members are sworn in and the mayor and deputy mayor are appointed. It’s also the meeting where the committee adopts numerous resolutions that establish procedures, by-laws and the manner by which the public business will be conducted, among other things.
Tabernacle held its Reorganization Meeting January 2, 2020. One of the resolutions our committee adopted was Resolution 2020-22, “Adopting Committee By-Laws Establishing Order of Business for the Township of Tabernacle.” This resolution establishes how public meeting agenda items are ordered and how meetings will be conducted. This resolution is the same one that the committee has adopted since, at least, 2009.
None of these resolutions from 2009 through 2020 contain a provision that establishes public comment at the beginning of the meeting for agenda items only. This is a useful provision because it allows the public to provide input to the committee before it considers any agenda item.
Even though this public comment on agenda items hasn’t been memorialized in any annual resolution, the committee, to its credit, has provided it every year. Each agenda for almost every meeting lists an item titled: “PUBLIC COMMENT (agenda items only, except first reading ordinance-public hearing scheduled.)” This public comment is almost always item III. It almost always follows the Call To Order and the Roll Call.
Because the committee actually provides the first public comment period, it should have updated its annual resolution to formally establish it. After all, the purpose of the resolution is to memorialize the rules for the meeting.
Last year, when the committee again omitted the first public comment period from its resolution, I asked Mayor Barton if it would be reinstated. He said it was an oversight and it would be reinstated. And it was.
This year the resolution again omitted the public comment on agenda items. I contacted Clerk Barber about the omission, pointing out that it was omitted in 2019 due to an oversight, but reinstated. I thought this would happen again in 2020. This is what I wrote.
Dear Ms. Barber,
At the January 2, 2020 Reorganization meeting, the township committee adopted Resolution 2020-22 “Establishing order of Business for the Township of Tabernacle.” As I read it, the Resolution does not provide for “public comment” on agenda items only. Has the Township Committee eliminated the opportunity for public comment on agenda items or is this an oversight?
I raise the possibility of oversight because, at the 2019 Reorganization meeting, the township committee adopted Resolution 2019-16, which also did not list “public comment” on agenda items only. When this was pointed out to the committee, Mayor Barton said it was an oversight and the committee reinstated the long-standing practice of receiving public comment on agenda items.
Would you please forward this email to Committeewoman McGinnis and Committeemen Moore and Sunbury because their email addresses are not yet listed on the township website.
Thank you for any information you can provide.
Clerk Barber never responded to my email.
I then forwarded the email to Mayor Brown who didn’t respond by email either.
At the January 27, meeting, I raised the issue a third time. Mayor Brown responded during her committee report.
…it wasn’t an oversight on the original order of business. That [the Resolution?] is a framework. The framework can be moved around. And that is exactly what we did. It was a reorganization meeting. We did not have public comment on agenda items because as you know there were a lot of agenda items that were uniformly the same as they were every single year….
Mayor Brown has confused a simple governmental practice.
The resolution is a framework but it’s not so loose that it allows the committee to do whatever it wants. The resolution has to state what the rules are and the committee has to stay within the rules. Those rules stay in effect for the balance of the year or until the committee changes them through a new resolution. If the committee wants the authority to move agenda items around, the resolution must grant that authority. It does.
The committee’s authority to move agenda items around is different from its authority to establish public comment. If the committee wants to have public comment on agenda items (as it’s done since at least 2009), the resolution should memorialize it. It doesn’t. That’s the problem.
Mayor Brown’s explanation for why the first public comment isn’t contained in the Resolution-which I don’t understand-speaks for itself. The simple solution is to update the annual resolution now. Then it will be correct when it’s dusted off for adoption in future years.
Another issue regarding the committee’s public comment practice on agenda items is its prevention of public comment on ordinances introduced at first reading. This limitation on public comments has no purpose, reflects bad leadership and is contrary to good government.
The restriction treats the first reading as a mere formality. Committee members rarely discuss the ordinance at first reading. After preventing public comment at first reading, our committee has often found itself having to make substantive changes at second reading. That requires the additional expense of re-publication and the delay of another hearing.
Public comment should be taken at the first reading of ordinances. There should be more discussion of the ordinances by the committee, too. First reading is an opportunity to consider new information, which might shape the ordinance appropriately.
To his credit, former Mayor Stephen Lee allowed public comment on any agenda item, including ordinances listed for first reading. Former Mayor Joseph Barton discontinued that practice. Mayor Brown isn’t allowing it either. Mayor Brown was asked what the rationale is for limiting public comment at first reading ordinances. She never responded. I’d like to know.
Another public comment issue is the placement of the second public comment period. The second public comment period allows the public to raise issues or questions on any topic whether they are agenda items or not. Normal practice has been to hear the second public comment after Committee Reports. That allows the public to address issues that the committee thought were important to report on.
Mayor Brown’s practice this year, and when she was last mayor in 2015, is to place the second public comment before Committee Reports. At the January 27, 2020 meeting, comments were raised on this practice. It was pointed out that Committee Reports often raise substantive issues such as when the committee tacitly approved the township’s road improvement program, which the engineer reported on.
Mayor Brown’s explanation for placing public comments before the reports makes no sense:
…the reason we put [second] public comment before Reports is so exactly what I’m doing right now. I can answer your questions after you ask them. We don’t want to have a going back and forth. You put your questions out there, we’re going to answer them as we go along. We take notes. I take notes of every single thing you said, and I’m answering your questions. And that’s the purpose why we moved it to before committee reports. If there was something such as a road project that would be listed as an agenda item. That would be something you could question you could question and talk about in your [first] public comment about agenda items.
I appreciate that Mayor Brown takes notes on the public’s comments so she can address them. But her note-taking has nothing to do with the placement of the second public comment before the Reports. In fact, it would be easier for her note-taking if she or other committee members and professionals would respond to the public directly after they made comments. That’s when the comments are fresh in everyone’s minds.
Instead, Mayor Brown has scheduled her responses to public comments after the reports of Engineer Guzzi, Emergency Management Coordinator Sunbury, Administrator Cramer, Solicitor Lange, Committeeman Sunbury, Committeewoman McGinnis, Committeeman Moore, Deputy Mayor Barton and Mayor Brown. It’s no wonder that Mayor Brown’s replies don’t address all of the public comments. After all of those reports, she’s forgotten them!
The better practice is to place the second public comment after the Reports so that the public can address any issue that is important enough to be reported on. The committee can then address the public comments after they are made. There’s no good reason why the reports should be carved out and exempted from timely public comment. It’s not surprising that Mayor Brown was unable to provide a logical reason for this carve out.
Mayor Brown’s policy in 2020 is the same one she followed when she was last mayor in 2015. These are the comments I made back then on her policy:
Mayor Brown’s official policy is to allow the public to speak before Committee Reports. Later, if the Committee or staff has the information to answer, they will. If they don’t have the information, they say that they will reply at the next meeting. In practice, the questions go unanswered for months, if they are answered at all. Often, when they answer the question, it’s a partial answer or its an answer that’s so vague that it’s meaningless.
Another part of this problem is that the committee members allow the mayor to control the response to public comment. For example, Committee members McGinnis, Sunbury and Moore could have answered why their email addresses weren’t listed on the committee’s webpage. But they didn’t. They let Mayor Brown ignore the comment. Why did they follow her lead of silence and not respond? Mayor Brown has no more power than any of the other committee members. She just wants them to think she does.
The mayor’s treatment of public comment during “Workshop” meetings is even more restrictive. The next meeting on February 10 is a “Workshop” meeting. As usual, item III, is public comment. But there are no substantive items on the agenda. Item IV is “Committee Workshop,” but nothing is listed within this item. How is the public to comment?
Is the subject of the workshop unknown? Doesn’t the committee know what they will be discussing? Will this be like an open mike where any committee member can stand up and introduce a subject? Have the subjects/policies already been decided in the back room? Will the committee be taking actions on these undisclosed subjects without the opportunity for any public comment on them?
Unlike the regular meeting, where only the Reports are carved out from public comment, this workshop meeting agenda carves out everything except the “Call to Order-Flag Salute-Open Public Meetings Act Statement” and the Roll Call.
Again, if the mayor and committee are going to talk of their strong beliefs in open government and transparency, they should adopt policies that implement them.
The next township meeting is February 10, 2020 at 7:30PM at town hall.