LINDEN, NJ — At the Linden City Council meeting on Jan. 21, council members voted to reduce the length of council meetings’ public comments portion from five to three minutes. In addition, members of the public will no longer be permitted to speak on resolutions prior to the vote or on ordinances for introduction.
According to council members, these revisions are meant to shorten the length of council meetings and to address concerns that the public comments section has become a showcase for aggressive behavior detrimental to Linden’s reputation.
In a Jan. 23 press release from the city attorney, Mayor Derek Armstead said, “These meetings have turned into a platform by certain members of council who coordinate with certain members of the public for grandstanding, mockery, personal attacks and often times fail to address city business.”
During the council meeting, Armstead said “the people deserve better” and that eventually “this governing body will have an opportunity to assess how we are going to have these meetings again.” Future protocol will be determined, said Armstead, by ”the behavior of this governing body and the behavior of the people who come to the microphone.
“If you have a legitimate question, it’s fine,” said Armstead. “This is not a circus, this is a business meeting. And it’s a shame that we have to resort to changing the rules and regulations and statutes.”
Councilwoman Lisa Orman apologized for the length of council meetings, noting that people have complained to her about being unable to sit through meetings because they are too long.
In an interview, Ormon said that the reduced time granted to public comments will encourage people to “stick to business.
“Public comments have gotten to the point where they’re not really focusing on critical issues, but they’re focusing on personal attacks,” said Orman. “My feelings are, take those three minutes, stay focused on issues, and things will be OK.”
The revised guidelines also restrict council members to two minutes per resolution, whereas before they had unlimited time. The guidelines also forbid the council from commenting on the first reading of an ordinance but permit it on the second.
During the meeting, Council President Michele Yamakaitis said that the new guidelines will affect both council members and members of the public, and are in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act. Public comments will still be televised.
Some public officials, including Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby and Councilman John Francis Roman, opposed the revised guidelines.
“I find it interesting that the new members of the council supported this, especially when residents are trying to give them, as well as the rest of us, their feedback or input when we vote,” said Cosby, who voted no on the resolution. “It doesn’t hurt anyone to listen to someone’s point. After we vote, it’s too late to change their mind.”
Cosby said that council members need to “develop a little bit of self-control.”
“If each member of council did not rebut comments from each other, it would not be a show,” she said.
At the meeting, Roman voiced his strong disagreement with anyone who voted in favor of the resolution.
“Any language saying the public needs to be disciplined is hogwash,” he said. “The citizens of Linden need to keep us, the governing body, in line, because we work for them and we’re spending their money.”
People critical of the revised guidelines worried that they were being silenced. Anthony Mislan, a Linden resident, said that council meetings “go long” not because of the public comments section, but because of “the infighting and the arguing.
“What’s going to happen next?” Mislan asked. “Are we going to go to two minutes or one minute? And eventually, we’re just not going to be able to have any type of public speaking at all?”
Mislan agreed that “certain people go out of their way to make a spectacle,” but said the same is true of “a lot of people who are on the dais right now.”