Tabernacle’s April 24, 2020 Meeting, Different Medium Same Result

Democratic governments, for the most part, are required to conduct the public’s business in a public meeting. Citizens, for the most part, have the right to be there and participate. That fundamental exercise of our democratic republic was tested on April 27, 2020 when the Tabernacle Township committee held its first electronic meeting on the platform “Go To Webinar.”

Over the years, I have used various platforms such as live streaming meetings on You Tube, conference calling by telephone and conference calling by computer audio. I can’t say that I remember ever encountering problems with any of the multiple platforms I’ve used. I wish I could say the same for the township’s maiden electronic voyage.

For starters, “Go To Webinar” requires people to register if they want to attend. A registration requirement is the opposite of a public meeting. Public meetings, by definition, are open to all members of the public without the government’s prior approval and without the government taking the names of the attendees. The Open Public Meetings Act does not require citizens to register. Other common electronic platforms don’t require citizens to register. But Tabernacle chose “Go To Webinar,” which offers no other options. My husband and I registered for the April 27, meeting.

The registration requirement was only one problem. Use of the platform was another. On the day of the April 27 meeting, meeting organizer, Elaine Kennedy, emailed a reminder notice at 6:28PM, about 60 minutes prior to the meeting. Here’s the notice (http://thetabernaclejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/4.27.20-Tab-Twp-Meeting-Notice.pdf). It has a few directions to connect by computer audio or by telephone. We decided to use the telephone option because there’s rarely any lag with the telephone connection whereas there can be audio lag with the computer audio.

We followed the directions, which allowed us to hear the meeting but not be heard. So we were unable to participate. When Mayor Brown opened up public comment on agenda items she asked attendees to raise their hand. However, if a citizen calls in by telephone, obviously, there’s no button function that allows the committee to see that they’ve raised their hand.

After the meeting, Mayor Brown and I exchanged various emails about the problem and the inadequate instructions. She emphasized that the township ran a practice session before the actual meeting and insisted that the system was working. Perhaps for some people, but not for others.

My husband and I weren’t the only ones who couldn’t participate. Resident Kathy Burger, Medford Township’s municipal clerk and township manager, was also unable to connect by computer audio or by telephone. Recently, she told me that there were also others who were excluded.

As the meeting went forward, and she could only hear it, she contacted Tabernacle Township Attorney Peter Lange to tell him that she and others were trying to participate but couldn’t. Partway through the meeting, Mr. Lange told the committee that people could not participate. Mayor Brown emphasized that they were taking their best shot under new circumstances.

Your best shot doesn’t excuse bad aim. The township had a month to work the electronic meeting out. It had already canceled two public meetings (March 23 and April 6) before it convened the April 27 electronic meeting.

You would think that our elected officials and staff had more than enough time to get the instructions for the April meeting right. Let’s hope that the Tuesday, May 26, 2020 electronic meeting is properly handled by the mayor, committee and staff. The 2020 budget hearing will be held at the Tuesday’s meeting.

For citizens with a computer connection, the recording of the April 27, meeting has been uploaded on Tabernacle’s official website. It can be accessed on the “Agenda/Bill List/Minutes” page.

A final question is: What if a person doesn’t use a computer? How would they participate? How would they register and how would they receive the township’s emailed meeting notice reminder? What steps did the township take to ensure that these people could participate in the public meeting?

Because my husband and I couldn’t make public comments at the April meeting, I’m providing them below in this TTJ POST.

Public Comment on Agenda Items by Fran Brooks. This comment concerns the “Approval of Bills” that is usually listed on the meeting agenda.

At the March 9, 2020 township meeting, I asked the township committee why it wasn’t approving bills at workshop meetings. According to Tabernacle’s Certified Finance Officer Rodney Haines, the only bills that:

…should come at a workshop would be any type of special items that would be necessary to be paid…So the bills would normally be addressed at a regular business meeting.

Mr. Haines’s statement makes no sense. First, after speaking with a number of people who address municipal finance issues, I confirmed that there’s no statute or regulation that prevents a township committee from approving bills at a workshop meeting.

Second, this committee has approved bills at workshop meetings for years. Even when Mr. Haines became Tabernacle’s CFO in 2019, the township committee continued to approve bills at workshop meetings. They did this numerous times. Neither CFO Haines nor the prior CFO ever told the township committee that it should only approve special bills at workshop meetings.

So why weren’t bills approved at the March 9 workshop meeting? Was there a change in township policy? It’s never been discussed at a public meeting.

Public Comment No. 2 by Fran Brooks. These comments concern the 2020 Budget and the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Legal Billings.

Comment 1. At the March 9, 2020 meeting, the committee, led by CFO Rodney Haines discussed the schedule and various components of the proposed 2020 Budget. One of his comments was the proposal for a three percent salary increase for all township staff. A blanket raise without any consideration of performance is shocking in this day and age. It’s especially shocking when, this past year, an employee of the construction office was fined $1,000 by Superior Court Judge Bookbinder for withholding public documents. The documents were piled up on her desk and on the office floor in plain view of her boss. They couldn’t be produced because they hadn’t been filed.

Failure to file public documents, and failure to supervise the person who’s responsible for filing the documents, is poor performance. It shouldn’t be rewarded, again, through a blanket raise. Yet this employee was rewarded the first time when the township committee voted to make Tabernacle residents pay her $1,000 fine.

At the April 27, meeting, Mayor Brown asked CFO Rodney Haines if, due to unemployment caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the township could reasonably expect to receive all of the tax payments. Mr. Haines responded that he thought it would.

Mayor Brown accepted this without further questions. I would like to know why Mr. Haines expects that all Tabernacle residents will be able to pay their taxes. Unemployment is at historically high levels. Wouldn’t it be prudent to limit spending, forgo salary increases, stop spending money on public works equipment and not raise taxes two cents? Of course it would.

But this committee never has had any self control when it comes to the township budget. This is what the committee plans to do. Raise taxes two cents, pack budget line items to create as much surplus as possible, give a three percent salary increase to staff, buy more public works equipment and continue to bond us to the hilt.

Comment 2. Regarding OPRA, the committee continues to waste taxpayer money. I submitted an OPRA request January 5, 2020 for conventional records that Township Clerk Barber had routinely given me in past years. This time, I received a five-page letter signed by Ms. Barber, along with the documents.

Because the documents had been provided, just as they had been in previous years, there was no reason for the five-page letter.

At the March 9, meeting, I asked who wrote the five-page letter. Mayor Brown said that Clerk Barber wrote the letter.

Special Counsel Burns, who the township hired to handle OPRA requests, later submitted an invoice that references my request. In total, he charged $693 for his work. I know legalese when I read it; and I’ve read enough of Clerk Barber’s letters to know that she didn’t write this letter. I can’t understand why Mayor Brown would carry on this pretense.

This was an extraordinary waste of taxpayer money. But this committee doesn’t care. Our elected officials are just tax and spend elected officials.

In a previous meeting, Mayor Brown said that William Burns’s legal invoices would comply with the comptroller’s legal billing best practices. That means that they would show the amount of time spent on each service provided and it would show the specific charges for each service provided. There are other requirements too, such as identifying the specific individuals he conferred with. Often, this information is omitted to hide what’s being done.

It was surprising that Tabernacle said Mr. Burns would comply with the comptroller’s best practices because it allows Mr. Lange to flout them all the time. Surprise, surprise! Mr. Burns’s first invoice doesn’t comply with the comptroller’s best practices either.

The purpose of the best practices is to insure that townships and their taxpayers know what they are paying for. It’s ironic that at budget time, we again see that Tabernacle has no interest in making sure that residents are getting what they are paying for. That shows how far committee members will go to keep the public from knowing what’s going on.

Public Comment No. 2 by Stuart Brooks. Editorial Note: Mr. Brooks’s public comment concerned fire services in Tabernacle. His comments would have been limited to three minutes had he been able to participate in the April 27, 2020 electronic meeting. However, TTJ has taken the liberty to publish a fuller version of these comments.

Whatever happened to the urgency from Mayor Kim Brown and Committeemen Sammy Moore and Joe Barton to revise the contract with the Tabernacle Fire Company #1? Back on September 9, 2019, over nine months ago, they were straining the leash to send TFC#1 a 90-day termination notice to force renegotiation of the existing contract. Kim Brown:

The thing is, if we go this route [issuing a notice of termination] it happens right away. I take this seriousl[ly]; to move it forward. I don’t think we should be stumbling over anything. We should get it done; get it right. I feel we’ve wasted too much time.

Sammy Moore: “My feeling was that with the 90 days, I don’t want to end up being six years like it was with the TRS.”

Mr. Moore’s comparison with the TRS is exaggerated and off the mark. The TRS hadn’t ever been under contract with Tabernacle. In contrast, the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company had always been under contract just as the TFC#1 is currently under contract with Tabernacle Township.

So, what is it in the current TFC#1 contract that Ms. Brown, Mr. Moore and Mr. Barton needed to change so quickly? That wasn’t clear to Committeemen Yates and Lee or the public when the group of three first raised the termination notice. It was obvious that Mr. Yates and Lee had been excluded from their termination discussions (see September 22, 2019 TTJ POST).

Mr. Yates asked if there were any problems with the Fire Company.

Committeeman Moore, the committee’s liaison to the Fire Company and TRS, explained the problem.

We’ve set up a lot of training … and it’s basically a flop. To go into specific details…it’s long winded.” Then he added: I just think the contract has to be looked at because there’s nothing in it that says extrication. We have it in the squad [contract] that [the TRS] is the lead.

Extrication.

If there was a problem with the Fire Company’s extrication training, the easiest and most direct way to address it would have been to bring it to the fire chief, Andy Cunard. That would also have been the right thing to do. The TFC#1 is a trusted provider of fire services. Many of its members have decades of experience as volunteers for Tabernacle.

If fact, no one from the township had discussed extrication training with the Chief. The Chief didn’t know that Ms. Brown, Mr. Moore and Mr. Barton had problems with extrication training until he heard about it after the September 9 meeting.

Barton, Moore and Brown were a majority of the five-person committee. They had the votes to force the termination notice. But, as the discussion continued, their ham-handed backroom deal to squeeze TFC#1 was exposed for what it was and the political cost of forcing a vote was too high. The termination plan was shelved.

Mr. Moore and Ms. Brown were then installed as a subcommittee to meet with the fire company and work out the training problems and contract modification.

At various times over the following months, Chief Cunard appeared at public meetings to speak about the issue. He said that no one from the township had discussed the training issues with him in advance of September 9. He described the extensive training that the fire company provides to its members. He invited the subcommittee to meet with him and discuss it. As the meetings moved into 2020, he commented that the subcommittee hadn’t yet conducted any negotiations. He questioned if the committee wanted to replace TFC#1.

We are now nine months past the moment when Barton, Moore and Brown were so fired up about extrication training that they wanted to issue the termination notice. Back on September 9, 2019, they expected 90 days was enough time to modify the contract. That was when Mayor Brown said “I take this seriously…..We should get it done; get it right. I feel we’ve wasted too much time.”

Why hasn’t the committee been able to “get it done”? Why hasn’t the subcommittee even reported back? Covid-19 doesn’t explain why we’re more than nine months down the road without any visible progress.

Mayor Brown says she won’t comment on the so-called negotiations. The committee has gone into Closed Session to discuss the so-called contract negotiations. But Fire Chief Cunard says there haven’t been any contract negotiations.

It seems clear that Mayor Brown is calling the shots. The committee’s scheduled February 24, Closed Session discussion of the so-called contract negotiations was canceled because she couldn’t attend. Committeeman Moore could have handled it. He’s the other member of the contract subcommittee and the committee’s liaison to the fire company because of his expertise. He had a career in the State fire service. He’s the person who the committee turned to describe the “problems” with the fire company contract. Surely he could have handled this in Ms. Brown’s absence. But he didn’t. That’s why it looks like the fire company negotiations are in Mayor Brown’s portfolio.

Given Ms. Brown’s passionate loyalty to the TRS, and the committee’s partisanship towards the TRS, it’s not hard to imagine that this 90-day negotiation of extrication training terms could end up as a major realignment of emergency services that increases the role of the TRS in fire.

You don’t need to look too hard to see the committee’s love-fest with TRS. The lucrative insurance billing program and the township’s sweetheart contract with the TRS are the big items that define that relationship.

Tabernacle’s attitude towards fire services has been much less cozy since it dissolved the fire district. Now, six years later, it’s still easy to see why the committee’s favoritism towards the TRS makes cooperation between TFC#1 and TRS so difficult and sets the standard for TRS’s professionalism so low. All you have to do is look at how the TFC#1, the TRS and the township officials carry themselves.

On March 28, 2020, there was a fire at the Dunkin Donuts on Route 206. TFC#1 arrived first with two pieces of equipment and later brought a third. It was the primary fire company at the scene. Ultimately, the fire was extinguished with mutual aid from surrounding companies.

Both the TRS and the TFC#1 posted about the fire on their Facebook pages. The posts show the pettiness of the TRS and the endorsement, expressly and tacitly, by committee members and the township staff.

This is the TRS’s Facebook POST: http://thetabernaclejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/TRS-Rte-206-Fire-3.28.20-FB-POST.pdf

The POST doesn’t mention TFC#1 at all. It says only that the fire was controlled through mutual aid. A Tabernacle reader might wonder why their fire company didn’t bother to show up. After all, the fire station is only about a half mile away. The TRS’s meager account is petty, mean-spirited and unprofessional.

TRS leadership is fine with this POST. As of this date, it’s still posted. No one from Tabernacle’s administration or committee seems to have a problem with it either. None of them has said anything except Committeeman Sammy Moore. He commented “Outstanding Job Blue Crew.” (http://thetabernaclejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/TRS-Rte-206-Fire-3.28.20-FB-POST-S-Moore.pdf) Really, Committeeman Moore!?

This is the TFC#1’s POST of the same fire: http://thetabernaclejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/TFC1-Rte-206-Fire-3.28.20-.pdf

The TFC#1 shared credit with every participating emergency service agency, including the TRS. Neither Mr. Moore nor any other Tabernacle elected official or staff commented on the post or gave a shout out to the TFC#1 for successfully responding to this fire or selflessly acknowledging others.

It pains me to see the TRS, despite the talent and dedication of its members, acting so small and uncooperatively.

It’s equally painful to watch township committee members and staff sitting silently as the TRS publicly works against the “centralized…professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency services” that Tabernacle committed to provide. It’s astonishing to read Mr. Moore’s comment, “Outstanding Job Blue Crew”!

Is the TRS’s uncooperative, unprofessional attitude a part of the extrication training problem?

The Tuesday, May 26, 2020 township meeting will be held electronically at 7:30 PM.

Tabernacle’s most recent in-person meeting was held March 9, 2020.