If you’ve got anything to say to the Bayonne City Council, you’ll have to do it in person, and you better talk fast. The council has introduced new rules concerning public comment.
Now, public comment is limited to five minutes per resident. Additionally, residents can only comment at in-person meetings. The changes were announced at the July 20 regular meeting of the council, with no prior notice.
New sheriff, new rules
City Council President Gary La Pelusa noted the new policies at the top of the meeting were decided unanimously by the council. This was the first official meeting of the new City Council since they were sworn in on July 1.
La Pelusa said these changes were made in an effort to “better organize the city council meetings.” He later added that this was aimed to help create a “kinder, gentler” council moving into the future.
Now, a digital timer reminiscent of youth basketball games sit on the dais. La Pelusa controls it with a remote control.
“This council thought it best to limit public comment to five minutes,” La Pelusa said. “We now have a clock for timing for five minutes to make sure everybody gets their five minutes.”
In addition to limiting public comment to five minutes, virtual public commenting will no longer be an option. If members of the public wanted to make a comment at the meeting, they would have to attend in-person.
“In order to do our government business efficiently, we decided to keep livestreaming, but to eliminate virtual comment, which has been done throughout the county,” La Pelusa said.
The Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment will also adopt the new rules, La Pelusa said. He also noted the council would not be responding to questions during public comment as it had done in the past.
“When one of the agenda items comes up, we will answer that question,” La Pelusa said. “Otherwise, you can wait until the end of the meeting and ask us questions. But not during the meeting.”
Putting new rules to the test
In a city already experiencing some growing pains with certain residents, the new policy changes by the council did not come without critique from members of the public. Former city employee and outspoken resident Gail Godesky who frequently speaks during the public comment portion of council meetings took issue with the changes, which were seen as a departure from rules under the previous council.
“Now that COVID-19 is on the rise again, the administration decided to have in-person meetings only, and during a heat wave to boot. You’re making it more difficult for the public to speak, ask questions, and learn what’s going on in the city. By doing this, it seems like you don’t want to hear from the public. Coming out in this heat is unhealthy, not just for the citizens coming to the meeting, but yourself. We need to start thinking outside the box and allow people to participate.”
At that moment, La Pelusa advised Godesky she had 30 seconds left, a new courtesy that is part of the changes La Pelusa extended to every speaker. Godesky, who had spoken about a number of topics in addition to the changes, then said she would finish her comment later.
The next resident on the list presented a new obstacle to the council regarding their new rules. John Yaddow approached the podium to speak, but when he got there, he yielded his time to Godesky.
At first the council was not having it. La Pelusa was adamant that Godesky not speak longer.
“Sorry, we don’t do that,” La Pelusa said. “Everybody got five minutes.”
However, the audience at the meeting grew rowdy, shouting “Robert’s Rules.” This is a reference to “Robert’s Rules of Order” penned by U.S. Army officer Henry Martyn Robert in 1876 intended as a manual of parliamentary procedure.
“Five minutes, that’s it,” La Pelusa said, standing his ground.
Public persists past comment limit
The members of the audience were steadfast that Godesky continue to speak, stating that she was in her right in accordance with “Robert’s Rules.” She persisted despite cross-talk with La Pelusa and he eventually allowed Godesky to talk, but noted he was only allowing it this one time for the five minutes yielded to her by Yaddow.
“Please consider reopening virtual meetings,” Godesky continued. “That being said, I think it would be prudent of the administration to reconsider all meetings to be online for different reasons and accommodate those that cannot be present for one reason or another.”
Godesky’s comments and questions went unanswered by the council in accordance with the new rules. Another resident, Melanie Flora, also exceeded her five minute limit during the meeting, another test for the new policy. However, she kept speaking too and seemingly got away with it.
“I have two sentences left,” Flora told La Pelusa when he noted her time was up. “I didn’t come out here for five minutes, you threw this on us unexpectedly. That’s not right.”
Some in the audiences echoed Flora, that the changes were not announced prior to the meeting. “We discussed it at the meeting,” La Pelusa said in response, referencing either the caucus meeting or pre-agenda meeting held by the city council before the regular meeting.
“It’s an effort to make sure each person is heard in time,” First Ward City Councilman Neil Carroll chimed in.
Flora’s microphone was then cut to prevent her from speaking further, although she too persisted. Her comments were regarding issues with the speaker system and parking at the mosque in Bayonne on East 24th Street, that were later echoed by another resident.
Flora’s concerns were also not specifically addressed at the meeting per the new policy. But Second Ward City Councilwoman Jacqueline Weimmer said she would reach out to Flora and was working on the issue after speaking with other residents on the matter.
Council sees new policies as success
In response to other resident inquiries about rising crime during the public portion, La Pelusa had Deputy Police Chief Joseph Scerbo and Public Safety Director presented on crime and hiring new police officers and firefighters. On top of that, City Planner Suzanne Mack discussed the 34th Street pedestrian bridge over Route 440.
At the end of the meeting, Carroll reflected on what he perceived as successful meeting with the new rules. He tallied how many people spoke with the new rules.
“In the public speaking section, after the institution of the much-maligned five minute rule, nine people were heard from,” Carroll said. “Three city experts were heard from, and gave comprehensive answers. We were able to maintain order. So I think going forward this is a very good idea.”
Carroll said the meeting was more orderly while still allowing public input, and was shorter than meetings past. He added it was all due to the implementation of the new rules.
“Those individuals that had comments made did not have to sit through four hours of the meeting to get their question answered or getting answers at the zero hour,” Carroll said. “They were able to speak in turn, in an orderly fashion, then go back to their homes to be with their families before the three hours or three days later.”
The Bayonne City Council under City Council President La Pelusa will definitely be different from that under former City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski, especially when it comes to public comment. However, La Pelusa expects residents will come to accept the new rules in time.
“This was a unanimous decision by the whole council in order to organize the meetings better and to get government work done,” La Pelusa said. “There was a lot of extra curricular things going on here and that’s the reason why we implemented some of those changes. I think it’ll go smoother, the further we go on.”
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.