February 26, 2008

Questioning County Government

You might well be reading an article on the Open Space Trust Fund, or at least glancing past a headline with the words ‘Slush Fund’ punned, had I gotten the freeholders’ perspective. This fund takes money from Union County taxpayers so the freeholders can dole it back to favored municipalities or for pet projects. To get balance for the article I went to a recent freeholder meeting and wanted to know what the board members considered to be the major accomplishments of this fund.

Comment time came and I posed my question succinctly with a good four and a half minutes allocated for their answers. I did not get any. Freeholder Chairman Estrada informed me that this was my time. I could speak for up to five minutes as long as I didn’t curse or insult the freeholders or wasn’t Tina Renna. This seemed pointless to me as I could just as easily have gone outside and chatted with the odd passerby outside the UC Administration building to greater effect.

Was this normal? Are we not supposed to question county government? I had to know so I asked, though not at any county meeting, of course. If they do not answer questions then going up there and saying the words: “do you ask questions?” ran the risk of reenacting a Beckett play without the dialogue and we might all still have been there if they didn’t happen to have a time limit. Instead, I went to 21 county websites and posed the question. Here is how a sampling of counties in New Jersey handle comment time.

Most open their meetings to the public first on only agenda items scheduled for that meeting and then on any topic. Some counties (Mercer, Warren. Burlington and Cumberland) begin their meetings with public comments. This allows the public who usually show up on time to give their input and skip whatever ceremonies or routine matters fill out the program if they wish. Contrast that to a recent Union County meeting I attended where, to discuss personnel matters, the freeholders went into executive session for well over an hour as the press (one guy from the Westfield Leader) and three civilians chatted amongst ourselves waiting for public comment time. What could the freeholders have been thinking? This was the equivalent of putting prisoners together to give them time to plan their next caper.

Of those counties that answered, a majority had a time limit on speakers. Only Cumberland, Warren, and Mercer had no time limit. Most common was 5 minutes but Monmouth and Gloucester indicated it was flexible and in Morris County “rarely enforced.” In Hunterdon the ‘new Director of the Board does not feel there should be a limit” though past Board Directors “have set a limit of 5 minutes per person.” Passaic has “a 3 minute limit that is strictly enforced. Questions may be asked and they are addressed at the end of the public portion. There are no questions from the public and answers from the Freeholder while the person is at the podium.”

Most county websites responding answered that questions were allowed at public meetings and presumably would be answered. Perhaps the 9 counties who did not respond by email, or phone like Bergen did, also do not respond to questions at their meetings. We may never know.

And what about Union County? They answered in their uniquely terse manner: “Questions are allowed, time limit is 5 minutes.”

Maybe Chairman Estrada didn’t get the memo at the time I took to the podium. Maybe they changed their policy after some soul-searching. Maybe whoever responded for the county somehow avoids being a seat-filler at freeholder meetings and only knows what official and not actual policy is. We might never know and I just don’t feel like asking.