‘Comments’ from public lead council to debate TV broadcasts

RAHWAY – Governing body members took a firm stance recently by rejecting an ordinance that would have cut off broadcasted council meetings right before the public comment session.

The measure was introduced last month after a member of the public made harsh personal comments about Mayor Samson Steinman during the public comments portion of a council meeting. In the end, the proposed ordinance failed 8-to-0 with one abstention, giving rise to a debate on the issue.

“I don’t agree with this because I think everyone has the right to be seen and heard. This is the United States of America,” said Second Ward Councilman Michael Cox.

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Wenson-Maier agreed with Cox.
“I feel very strongly that people have the right to speak and be heard,” the councilwoman said, adding she was “in very strong disagreement with this ordinance.”

The proposed amendment to an existing ordinance would have ended both the audio and video taping of residents stepping to the microphone to express their sentiments on various issues. Initially there was some confusion over how to proceed with voting on the measure.

Third Ward Councilman Robert Bresenhan suggested the proposed ordinance be tabled, pointing out he did not believe the public should be “shut down.” He also felt a 15-second tape delay might eliminate the problem.

At-Large Councilman James Baker had a different take on things, explaining that because the public would still be heard by the governing body, it was not as big of an issue as some might believe.

“With the arguments I’ve heard so far I’m not sure people’s rights are being violated,” he added.
Sixth Ward Councilman Raymond Giacobbe Jr. tended to agree with that sentiment.

Giacobbe said he looked into this particular amendment to an existing ordinance and found residents comments would still be recorded, just not heard on cable broadcasts and re-broadcasts.
“It’s not that we are not telling them they won’t be heard,” he explained.
But Wenson-Maier did not agree.

“We made a decision to tape these meetings and publicize them,” she said, later adding that the entire meeting is a public meeting, including resident’s comments.
Fourth Ward Councilman and council president David Brown tried to mediate the controversial issue prior to residents having their say on the matter.

“Being the council president I insist people come and respect each other,” he said, adding “there is no one coming here to be harassed. Council doesn’t do it to you and you shouldn’t so it to us.”

When resident Scott Caffee of West Scott Avenue stepped to the podium he seemed to indicate that he knew exactly why this ordinance was drafted and it had everything to do with his actions during past council meeting public comment sessions.
“You’re talking to me,” he said, adding that he felt residents had the right to speak and be heard, by everyone.

“We fought for this and people die for this right,” Caffee said, but mentioned later during the regular period of time allotted for public comments that he believed the proposed ordinance that did not pass had to do with older council members “who don’t want their dirty laundry aired.”

Another resident took a more neutral stance, noting “something will be lost” if residents voices are not able to be heard.
Bresenhan also noted in comments he made during the discussion by council members that it was important that the governing body hear about “the things we can fix and the things we are doing wrong.”