The Bayonne City Council has voted down an ordinance that would have allowed public comment on ordinances after the first reading, regardless of any action taken by the council prior to second reading. The ordinance, proposed by City Council President and mayoral candidate Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski, was shot down after some debate by the council.
According to the ordinance: “The council may adjourn or reschedule a public hearing provided notice is given to the public after the ordinance introduction, and on second reading, cannot be adopted, rejected, modified, amended, carried, or tabled, or otherwise acted upon without affording the public an opportunity to speak and comment on the introduced ordinance.”
“This is a change that I proposed,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “It’s about public input and transparency. So the basic gist of the change is, from now on, before you can take any vote on an ordinance, there has to be a public comment. So if it gets on our agenda, the public has a right to speak on it… Before there can be an up vote, down vote, or postpone, there must be public comment allowed… I believe that’s fair to the residents, that’s why I proposed this change.”
The move would allow public comment not only on the first reading of ordinances, but also if the ordinance was carried or postponed to the next meeting. Third Ward City Councilman Gary La Pelusa, who is running against Ashe-Nadrowski with Mayor James Davis, called it “redundant.”
“While I’m not against people speaking about anything that they want on the agenda, there is a public speaking portion already at our meeting,” La Pelusa said. “So anybody could sign up to speak publicly about anything that’s desired already.”
Ashe-Nadrowski said the council does additional business after public comment, and that the ordinance would allow public comment on that.
“There’s resolutions after the public speaking part, and we just shut people down,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “We shouldn’t dismiss people just because they’re speaking.”
Council debates ‘redundancy’
City Councilman At-Large Juan Perez, who is also running with Davis, asked Coffey is there was a law or regulation on that, to which Coffey confirmed the law only dictates public comment be held for ordinances on second reading.
He said that this was made clear with the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a resident regarding the lack of public hearing when the ordinance for the original Caschem redevelopment plan failed during the December city council meeting, as it did not get a second on the motion for final passage.
“The statute requires that if there’s a second reading, a public hearing has to be held,” Coffey said. “The court ruled in favor of the city and the ruling was with prejudice, saying that if there is no motion to have a second reading then you don’t need to have the public hearing. This would essentially obviate that and say we’re going to self-regulate and impose a structure on ourself that the law doesn’t require.”
Coffey said the council can do it, but it removes the ability to adjourn an item without having a public comment.
First Ward City Councilman Neil Carroll, another member of Team Davis, said it was “further deregulating the meeting,” taking a hit at Ashe-Nadrowski’s handling of the meeting. There were times when the audience spoke over the council, prompting Ashe-Nadrowski as well as other officials to ask the audience to only speak at the podium. Ashe-Nadrowski countered it would “further allow public participation,” to which applause erupted.
“We just had three things adjourned, and the public didn’t get to talk on this,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “The public should have a say, even if we changed our minds.”
La Pelusa argued that even if it doesn’t pass, people can still make public comments about anything they want, and argued that the council doesn’t refuse anyone the chance to speak. He noted that public comment used to be at the end of the meeting under former Mayor Mark Smith’s administration but was moved toward the front of the meeting.
Residents voice their opinion
“It would seem beneficial for the city as a whole to have public input no matter what you guys are planning to vote on because you represent us,” resident Jason Gass said. City Clerk Madelene Medina noted that ordinances and resolutions were available in full at her office in City Hall.
“I do think that the public’s opinion is absolutely relevant, I think the public should have the opportunity to comment on every project here in the city,” said Second Ward City Council candidate Jacqueline Weimmer, who is running on a slate with Davis. “Why has that only become relevant now? Why hasn’t that mattered for the last seven years?”
“That’s just like bringing up the topic of domestic violence,” said community advocate Camille High. “Some us have lived here for, like myself, 31 years. Never, in the history of me living in Bayonne, would I have thought, that a resolution would be proposed that says we would be taking care of or suggesting that domestic violence is important. The power of the people, their voices were heard. This is why this resolution matters… The people’s voices need to be heard. If we’re representing the people, we need to hear what the people have to say. Whether it’s election season or not, we have to be ready, willing, and able to hear the people… It doesn’t matter how many years it took for us to talk about these things, we’re getting it done. So whether who’s here now or those to come, we have to be willing to hear the people and also do the work. So if we put you here, let’s do the work.”
“I firmly believe there should be a vote yes, it is totally different from public comment,” said former city employee Gail Godesky. “Remember gentlemen and madame president, we elected you. You were not appointed. You work for the people of the city of Bayonne. You need to hear our voices. And this transparency will allow us to give our opinion on what is happening in the city of Bayonne.”
Council votes no, 3-2
Carroll echoed La Pelusa that it was “redundant,” and added that the proposal “might make for a great political headline” but that people already get the chance to be heard. He added that he “doesn’t relish the idea of further deregulating” meetings.
La Pelusa reiterated that he felt the ordinance was “redundant” and the public would not be denied a chance to comment, even out of order from the agenda. Perez agreed, adding that it was “political.”
“While I’m disappointed that my colleagues don’t feel the need to provide the public with all opportunities to speak, there’s nothing wrong with saying something multiple times,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “Reiterating and empowering people to speak is always the right thing to do.”
The council voted down the ordinance 3 to 2, with Second Ward City Councilman Sal Gullace joining Ashe-Nadrowski in voting in favor of it and Carroll, La Pelusa, and Perez voting against it. The moment was the latest sparing between candidates ahead of the May 10 municipal election, which sees former Davis ally Ashe-Nadrowski challenge the incumbent mayor, as well as Dr. Mitchell Brown.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at email@example.com.