MLUB Keeps Public Comment Portion In Their Meeting

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Published: August 18, 2015 @ 6:00 PM EDT

The Municipal Land Use Board (MLUB) approved to keep its public portion in their meeting, giving a time limit of two minutes for each speaker. This comment portion is separate from the public hearing portion of a MLUB meeting that allows residents to reply, ask, or comment on a specific application being heard before the Board. The comment portion in question was the one provided at the beginning of meetings where anyone can approach the dais and speak on any general land use topic.

A letter was read into the record via a proxy through Rashad Qersdyn* that pointed out aspects of the public comment portion that have been beneficial to the MLUB which had nothing to do with any specific application hearing as well as the fact that other planning boards do have separate public comment portions. Afterward, resident Jacob Magiera approached the microphone and asked, “What prompted this thought of doing away with this particular open part of the meeting?”

Chairman Harms replied, “Me.”

Mr. Magiera asked why and was told by the Chair, “I just feel there’s no need for it. I don’t think there was a need for it. It’s my opinion and I’m bringing it to the board.”

“And the people’s opinion [is] they feel it is important,” responded Mr. Magiera, adding, “One person cannot override the masses of the people. Thank you.”

Eugene Meola, who is the First Ward Councilman, speaking as a resident, remarked, “I just would like for you to reconsider it and maybe not make it so official. Maybe once every four meetings. Once, twice a year, but not to take it away. Don’t remove people’s rights. Just increase them, [do] not decrease them. If it’s that much of a hardship then don’t do the job. It’s tough sitting up there. Believe me, I know.”

Mr. Harms, taking issue with the comment, stated, “I’m not going to respond to somebody telling me if I can’t handle the job, then don’t do it. That’s insulting and I take that personally. Thank you for your comments.”

Mr. Meola clarified his point by stating he was not directing his comment at just one person but the Board as a whole, and concluded with, “Reconsider. Don’t vote ‘yes’ on such a thing. The public deserves more avenues, not less. Thank you.”

Roselle Park resident Kimberly Powers was next to the microphone and began with, “This is the first time I heard about there not being a public portion for the Land Use Board.”

MLUB Attorney Mohamed Jalloh interjected a point, “I just would like to clarify. The conversation or proposal . . . hasn’t been decided by this Board. This Board may very well decide against it or may very well decide something very different. That’s yet to be determined. What’s just a proposal to remove from the bylaws is the public portion, the stand-alone public portion which isn’t connected to any of the applications. Typically, a planning board exists to hear applications of residents, store owners, etc. to make changes to the code – the zoning ordinance and that public portion is still intact. That public portion isn’t even up for discussion. I don’t think there’s anything that we can do to that.”

Mr. Jalloh admitted that he had not done a complete research on other municipalities but was willing to take the statement read by Rashad Qersdyn regarding other municipalities having planning boards that allowed a separate public comment portion. He concluded, “Again, this is a decision for the board to make but I just wanted to clarify for the record.”

“Thank you,” continued Ms. Powers, “So in other words, when you guys are discussing the Sullivan property  there would still be an opportunity for people to come up but it’s more of a case that you want to remove it if you guys are talking in general about a certain thing that really doesn’t have to do with the public.”

“It wasn’t even to remove it,” said Mr. Harms, “It was for consideration is what it was.”

“If something does come up, if someone has a pool,” remarked Ms. Powers, “People could still talk about pools.”

“Absolutely,” was the response from the dais.

MLUB member Al Nitche added,”We’re a planning board, not a forum for public opinion or commentary.”

“…a lot of people just have a  general question and a general question deserves a general answer. That’s why the public portion is in effect.” – Carl Pluchino

Resident Carl Pluchino, who himself was a former member of the MLUB approached to speak on the matter, saying, “You guys go through a lot of pressure up there and I know that you all try to do what’s best for the town. But when you’re sitting up there a lot of people just have a  general question and a general question deserves a general answer. That’s why the public portion is in effect. [For someone to say] Look, I have a concern, I want to ask you this, and I think to take it away isolates the people’s opinion of expressing themselves to you because now you’re just restricting them solely to the application and not to a general concern that they may have. I think you all do a wonderful job. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of sitting with all of you up there but the fact of the matter is, when I did code enforcement I used to tell people [who said] well what’s wrong with my store? Well, why don’t you come across the street and look at your store and compare it to the other stores . . . Maybe you should come out and look at the dais and say well if you take that away, what’s wrong with it? You’ve isolated yourselves and that’s what I think people will be upset about the most. You guys are a board you can decide what you want to do but that’s how personally I feel. We’re here for the public. We should hear what the public has to say, and it’s just a plain and simple thing. I appreciate you giving me the time here and have a great night. I’m sure you’ll make the decision that’s best for the town.”

A moment of discussion between the Chair and the MLUB attorney was followed by Mr. Harms opening up discussion to the Board. The Chair started the discussion, “We’ve heard from some people in the audience. I also got several calls from residents stating their concerns of removing it. Listened to [them], understood what they were saying, kind of agreed to a point with them. But again, I said I would bring it to the Board to find out what they would like to do and those suggestions were – matter of fact all of the suggestions were – that we give it a time limit on how long somebody’s up there.”

Mr. Harms recounted how some questions were of value and benefit to the Board while others had to do with issues that had nothing to do with the MLUB. He continued, “I guess that is where I might have been going and I’ll take full responsibility for bringing it up, not thinking that it would be taking anybody’s ability to speak away. This board here has never done that and never will.
So with that said, is there any discussion and suggestions?”

Mr. Nitche spoke up, “Just to continue what I said before. We are a land use, planning board. If it’s germane to that, it belongs here. If it’s not germane, then it doesn’t belong here. Some of the comments we get from the general public don’t’ really fit into what we do.”

Board member Jay Robaina added, “They are best suited for a forum in front of mayor and council.”

John Kennedy, one of the newest members to the MLUB remarked, “My opinion is if we think we want to go with a time limit, I think that allows for someone to state a concern which we could hear in a short time but we’re not going to be here to debate. We sit, we listen, we give you those few minutes, we hear your concerns and then we have it as a takeaway. Not to just go back and forth. I would be in favor of a time limit.”

Longtime Board member John Stephen stated, “I think the public portion is very important because people have concerns they just want to come and express their feelings and thoughts about a project. It’s very important. But again, like [Mr. Kennedy] said, a time limit is very important and we can just work according to that.”

As Mr. Harms began to sum up the discussion in preparation for a vote, Mr. Nitche and Mr. Stephen proposed that perhaps the matter could be tabled for discussion. Mr. Harms considered it a good idea but asked what more information would be needed, if any, to reach a decision at the current meeting. The Chair stated, “I would go along with if we had, as we said, a short time for somebody to come forward to give their comment on something that may be coming down or stop a rumor if you want to call it [that], for something going on but not debating back and forth. That would be all right.”

The time came for a vote and the Chair proposed a motion to have a two-minute time limit on the public portion. When asking the MLUB attorney for clarification, Mr. Jalloh replied, “My opinion is that the public comment is just that – a public comment portion. You all retain the right to answer the questions or take the commentary as is. If it is not germane or within the scope of what’s done here you don’t have to answer. I don’t think it requires additional language.”

With that, Mr. Harm made a motion to have the public portion remain in the bylaws with a two minutes time limit added to it. Mr. Robaina seconded the motion and a unanimous vote approved the changes in the bylaws.

Although the public comment portion remains during the MLUB meeting, the time limit is less than the time limit allowed at Mayor & Council meetings (seven minutes) and Board Of Education meetings (three minutes). By way of analysis, both the proxy read by Rashad Qersdyn – which took two minutes and forty-nine seconds – and Ms. Powers’ questions – which took two minutes and thirty-three seconds – would never had been able to finish their comments.

The next MLUB meeting is set for September 21, 2015. At that meeting, the application hearing for Sullivan property is scheduled to continue.

*Note: The letter read into the record was written by myself as a resident. I was unable to attend the meeting due to a previous unavoidable conflict with another commitment.