Ten minutes, or four hours? Hudson County council meetings vary greatly, could learn from each other

Ten minutes, or four hours?

Hudson County council meetings vary greatly, could learn from each other
09/21/2003  Hoboken Reporter  

Why is it that residents walk in and out of a Town Council meeting in West New York within 10 minutes; yet, in Hoboken, residents may wind up in the middle of three hours of heated debate?

The Reporter spent the past month sitting in on public meetings in Hoboken, Jersey City, North Bergen, Secaucus, Union City, and West New York. At some meetings, politicians did a good job of explaining the proposed town ordinances and fostering open discussion, while other meetings were quick and saw speedy votes.

The basics
Towns in Hudson County have either of two forms of elected government: a mayor and council, in which each council member is elected to represent an area of town, or a mayor and commission, where the commissioners collectively represent the entire community and choose a mayor from among themselves. Both types hold meetings twice per month with the exception of one in each of July and August.

The main purpose of the meetings is to discuss and vote on town ordinances. Ordinances are introduced at one meeting and voted on twice at a subsequent meeting. There is a public hearing before the second vote. The council also votes on resolutions, which do not need extra readings.

At the end of the meeting is a public comment section in which residents are allowed to address the council regarding any issue related to town business.

The long and short of it

One of the biggest differences from one meeting to another was the length. North Bergen and West New York clocked in at approximately 10 minutes. Jersey City's meeting went for a whopping four hours, and they have been known to go on for much longer.

A meeting in Hoboken, which is the same size geographically as West New York, lasted longer than two hours, as did a meeting in Union City.

What makes meetings last long is not always the amount of business on the agenda, but the amount of debate on it - and the time the officials take to explain the issues to the audience.

For instance, at a July meeting in Secaucus, an ordinance prohibiting the use of motorized scooters, skateboards, and rollerskates was introduced. A debate ensued among councilmen Robert Kickey and John Bueckner.

Kickey argued for the necessity of safety measures regarding where and when users may drive motorized scooters, while Bueckner said an age limit is also needed. The discussion continued for more than 10 minutes. Jersey City is considering a similar ordinance, and a dozen residents came to a meeting to find out when they'd be able to comment on the issue.

In Hoboken, the debate often becomes more heated. In a mile-square waterfront town that is split between active young professionals and proud old-timers, each group wants the government to represent its interests.

At Hoboken's July council meeting, budget issues and possible layoffs incited controversy, but sometimes the debate was simply over meeting protocol. After previously voting on a resolution regarding a waiver of interest on the Columbia Towers building's in-lieu-of-tax-payment, Councilman Anthony Soares attempted to reintroduce the resolution in new business by slightly changing the monetary amount attached to the resolution.

"You can't do that," said Councilman Christopher Campos, interrupting Soares mid-sentence. "That's not new business."

A shouting match between the councilmen developed and lasted 15 minutes before Soares was defeated in a 5-4 vote. Soares is presently with the council minority that has been critical of Mayor David Roberts, while Campos is with the pro-mayor majority.

Heated discussions also begin when residents address the council during the public comments section of the meeting. Many towns have enacted resolutions to allow residents to speak for no more than five minutes. Some towns allow leeway on the rule so the public can speak at length or multiple times.

"We don't stop people from speaking at the meetings," said Union City mayor Brian Stack. At a town meeting on July 15, residents were able to speak at length without any time restrictions. However, later at the same meeting, the council passed a resolution to enact a speaking time limit at future meetings. It can be used at the discretion of the council.

"We let people speak basically about anything and as many times as they want," Stack said. "It's how we get more involvement from the community."

Some towns hold firmly to the five-minute rule.

"Your five minutes are up," Mayor Dennis Elwell of Secaucus said to several different residents at his town's July 22 meeting. "But you are welcome to speak again after others have had their chance."

Holding residents to the five minutes has allowed Secaucus to keep their meetings to about an hour and a half.

Some really speedy meetings

While some of the towns mentioned above had a lot of public comment, other towns sped through their meetings. Is that because residents are too satisfied to show up and complain, or is it because they're not encouraged to get involved?

The mayor and commissioners in North Bergen and West New York barely left time for the few residents in attendance to even ask to speak.

"There wasn't much going on today," said Mayor Albio Sires of West New York after his town's July 16 meeting. Sires, a busy man, is also the speaker for the state Assembly.

In the span of the 10-minute meeting, the commission was able to pass 27 resolutions and introduce three ordinances. Matters up for vote included more than 12 resolutions authorizing the town clerk to advertise for bids for needed services, including auto repairs, electrical service, and emergency medical supplies, and a resolution establishing restricted parking in front of a residence on 57th Street.

In contrast, Union City voted on a similar number of resolutions and laws - 28 resolutions and the introduction of four ordinances - and that meeting was more than 10 times as long.

Union City Mayor Stack makes a point at his council meetings of taking the time to give a brief explanation of each resolution after the city clerk reads the title. The explanations last no more than 20 seconds, but give residents insight as to what is happening and what is being voted on by the commission.

This has added to the length of the meetings, but it also means that the ordinary person, even someone who has never been to a meeting before, is not left in the dark.

Jersey City, the third largest city in the state, had 73 resolutions on its agenda and often holds meetings that take up more than half of the workday. They did not offer further explanations on ordinances or resolutions, but noted that each is available upon request from the city clerk's office. Issues voted on at the July 16 meeting included approving the budget of the Journal Square Special Improvement District, and closing of Exchange Place for a cultural festival August 15 through August 17.

It should be noted that town councils hold a public caucus meeting to prepare for the regular meeting. These are held either right before the regular meeting or two days before. At that time, the council learns what will be on the agenda for the regular meeting, and can ask questions of the ordinances. The public can't comment at the caucus, but they can show up to understand more about what's going to be on the agenda.

Do they listen to citizens?

In Hoboken, residents take advantage of their political privileges and regularly pack the courtroom at Town Hall. Recently, more than 75 residents crowded into the room, and at least 30 people were forced to stand around the perimeter because all of the seating was taken.

In contrast, a mere seven residents were in attendance at West New York's meeting, and none of them took the opportunity to address the commission.

It is difficult to determine why some people choose to speak and question their leaders, taking an active role in their local government, while others remain silent.

One possibility is the fact that in a few towns, the time or place of a town meeting is frequently changed or moved. North Bergen rotates meeting times among 11 a.m., 5 p.m., and 7 p.m. Most towns consistently hold them at 7 p.m.

"The schedule rotates because the mayor is very busy," said Craig Schmalz, the public relations director for Mayor Nicholas Sacco of North Bergen. Sacco is also a state assemblyman and Board of Education administrator.

Union City rotates the venue of its meeting, moving around town, although Mayor Stack said that this is meant to promote community involvement. The meetings are all held at night.

"We inform everyone in the area that a commission meeting will be coming, so that they are aware," said Stack. "We seem to get more involvement from the community, which helps us become better elected officials."

Stack also said that many times, residents will follow the meetings around town, especially if the commission is discussing a hot topic.

Another contribution to lack of resident involvement may be the language barrier that exists between residents and members of the council or commission. Members of the council or commission tend to be white males whose primary language is English. Many of the towns in Hudson County tend to have large minority populations where Spanish is their first language.

But in some meetings, councilpeople seemed to be interrupted or distracted when residents did speak.

At one point at a meeting in Jersey City, Council President L. Harvey Smith walked out of the room for 10 minutes while a resident was addressing the council, and Councilman Bill Gaughan was talking quietly on his cell phone.

Smith noted that since the meetings are so long, sometimes one has to leave. "Well, for one, nature calls," Smith said. "And the other time I left was because a woman who I had given my coat to [because it was cold in the auditorium] wanted to speak to me about visiting the CCTV [closed circuit television system] facility. It was a tight space, and sometimes speaking interrupts the meeting. So we went outside."

For his part, Gaughan said, "If you expect someone to be that attentive in that long a session, I don't know. And if I have to take an important call, I'm going to take it. I amthe chief of staff for the county executive [a different position], you know. I sure wasn't making a date with my girlfriend. I've been there for 10 years and have sat through brutally long meetings that have lasted either all day or all night. I take my job very seriously. I didn't spend 10 years on this to not take it seriously."

Most still not televised

One thing that might do a better job of bringing meetings to the public would be to televise them on local cable channels. This is done in towns throughout the state, but not in Hoboken, North Bergen, West New York, Union City, Secaucus, or Weehawken. Some of Hudson's cable companies are even willing to provide equipment and free air time for public meetings, but cities have complained that they'd still have to pay a staff to tape them.

In Hoboken, when that city renewed its cable contract back in the mid-1990s, the televising of public hearings was discussed by the city, but as of eight years later, no meetings are televised.

To find out when the next City Council meeting will be held in your town, or to get copies of resolutions, call the city clerk's office in your local Town Hall.

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