Thou shalt not speak!

Hudson County Commissioners move to limit public comment

The Hudson County Board of Commissioners met in public last year but have now moved all meetings to a virtual format.
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The Hudson County Board of Commissioners met in public last year but have now moved all meetings to a virtual format.

Those who wish to address the Hudson County Board of Commissioners on non-agenda items could see their time cut if the board adopts a recently-introduced ordinance on second reading.

The ordinance would limit all public comments on non-agenda items to three minutes per person and put a two-hour time limit on the public portion, which could be extended at the discretion of the chair.

That means a maximum of 40 people could speak for three minutes each at future meetings.

Currently, there is no cap on the time allotted to the public portion, typically held at the end of board meetings. Public speakers are allotted five minutes each to speak.

This comes only days after the board approved a measure to close its chambers and move all meetings to a virtual format, citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and security concerns after the Jan. 6 deadly insurrection on Capitol Hill.

This follows several lengthy meetings in which people from across the region opposed the board’s decision to renew the county’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house detainees at the Hudson County Correctional Center.

The November meeting in which the board moved to renew the contract lasted almost 13 hours, roughly nine hours of which consisted of public speakers urging the board to end the contract.

Last month a board meeting came to an abrupt end after several commissioners left. During the public portion, activists continued to criticize the board for renewing the contract. The commissioners’ exit caused the meeting to end due to a failure to meet quorum.

Dusting off an old bylaw

While not part of the ordinance, another policy pertaining to public comment on non-agenda items could have a “chilling effect,” according to Commissioner Bill O’Dea.

During the Jan. 14 meeting, the board’s attorney Ed Florio informed the commissioners of a bylaw that had never been enforced.

This bylaw, which Florio estimated was established in 1972, requires all speakers on non-agenda items to register in writing to speak 24 hours before the board meeting.

The board will now start enforcing the rule. Those who wish to speak must email the board clerk at asantos@hcnj.us and provide their names, phone numbers, and subjects they wish to speak on.

Jersey City resident Marc Devens questioned how the bylaw would work: While the caucus agenda is published the Friday before the Tuesday caucus meeting, that agenda is often amended before the full board meeting on Thursday. It is not published on the board’s website until Tuesday night or Wednesday.

That means residents who wish to speak on an agenda item that was removed would now have to sign up for public comment the same day as the final agenda is published.

O’Dea said he understood the requirement to sign up to speak, noting that the Jersey City Council requires people sign up before its meetings begin. But he said he felt that speakers should not need to provide the subject matter they wish to discuss, noting that when combined with the ordinance to implement a two-hour cap on the public portion, “it could have a chilling effect on how speakers are listed and how many speakers on a particular topic are permitted to speak.”

Public opposition

During the Jan. 14 virtual meeting, public speakers criticized the introductory ordinance, stating it was an attempt by the commissioners to shirk their duties to listen to the public.

“If the public felt like they were being listened to, you wouldn’t need to continue limiting their ability to speak,” said Devens.

“I get a feeling that you want to duck us,” said Jersey City resident Gary Spingarn, noting it was his right to be entered into the public record.

“If I want to tell you how much I hate your policy, sans me cursing and yelling at you… it is my indisputable right, regardless of how many people want to echo my statements,” he said.

“No one wants to stay on these meetings until 1 a.m., 2 a.m., or 3 a.m., but what other courses of action are there for us?” said Jersey City resident Amy Torres. “I don’t know what else you want from your constituents other than for us to shut up and leave you alone.”

Other public speakers said the ordinance would limit democratic participation.

“Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen that democracy is very literally under attack in this country, “ said Weehawken resident Caitlin Sherman, citing the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “I think it’s deeply unfortunate and troubling and disturbing that you, our elected officials, our representatives on this body think that further limiting democratic participation is the correct move to take at this time.”

Elizabeth resident Kason Little said the commissioners should consider resigning.

“I think it’s a continued disservice to the public and a complete failure on how this government chooses to operate,” Little said. “You should resign if you don’t want to actually listen to what the people want to say.”

Defending the measure

The ordinance, sponsored by Chair Anthony Vainieri and Commissioner Albert Cifelli, was introduced with an 8-1 vote with O’Dea voting against the measure.

“There is no gate going down with a lock,” said Vainieri of the two-hour time limit. “If it needs to be extended during a certain meeting, I will have that opportunity to make that discretion to extend it further, or the freeholders can ask the chair … I have no problem at all extending the time limit for something of substance. I have no problem extending if someone is speaking for more than three minutes that is not cursing at us or screaming at us or talking about the same thing over and over and over and over … I’m not going to take this like a dictatorship. I will be fair … but if it’s the same topic over and over and over and over again, I’m not going to tolerate it.”

“We are not trying to limit things we don’t like to hear as some speakers have said,“ Cifelli said. “These meetings are our meetings, and we have the right to control the decorum and the protocol of our meetings subject to the right to allow reasonable comment.”

He added, “If we have 100 speakers who want to speak on that, 99 of them essentially want to say the same thing. I get it. I understand their ire … but does that mean we have to listen to all 100? I don’t think that’s what the law requires.”

Commissioner Caridad Rodriguez echoed their statements.

“You’re not being dismissed, it’s just that we’ve already heard it,” she said. “It’s not minimizing the importance, it’s just that we’ve heard it, we know it, it’s not being ignored.”

O’Dea, the lone dissenting vote, disagreed.

“If 100 people seem so passionate about an issue and they want to come and speak about it, and that means we have to sit here for four hours and listen to them, then that’s what we should do,” said O’Dea, noting that just because it was in the board’s power to be able to limit the public portion, doesn’t mean it should be done.

Despite his ‘no’ vote, he said he appreciated the need to not allow meetings to “get out of control.”

The shrinking public voice

Over the past several years, public comment times at the county and local levels have decreased.

In 2018, the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders, now board of commissioners, approved an ordinance shrinking an individual’s time to speak during public portion from 15 minutes to five.

In Jersey City, the council moved in February of last year to reduce the amount of time the public could speak on ordinances on second reading, to three minutes apiece. Comments during the public portion on non-agenda items was limited to three minutes per person.

Before this, members of the public were allowed five minutes to address the council during the public-comment portion and given unlimited time during ordinances on second reading.

Due to the pandemic, the Hoboken City Council moved to limit a speaker’s time, citing the virtual nature of its meetings.

in August, it adopted a resolution limiting public speakers’ statements to five minutes total on both agenda and non-agenda items.

Previously, during in-person meetings members of the public who wished to speak on a second reading ordinance were allotted five minutes as well as five minutes during the public portion on any non-agenda item.

If a speaker wanted to discuss an item on the consent agenda, they were given five minutes to do so unless he or she wanted to speak on more than one item in which case they could speak for seven minutes total.

According to the resolution, this is only for virtually held council meetings. When meetings are in person again, time limits will revert back to the pre-pandemic limits.

For updates on this and other stories check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.