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Monday, July 15, 2024

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Public Comment Change Sparks Debate

By Vince Conti

CORRECTION: This story should’ve stated that two letters were not read during the Aug. 18 Cape May City Council meeting.
CAPE MAY – The dissension that has, at times, paralyzed Cape May City Council was, once again, in full view. This time, the issue was an abrupt change in rules for public comment at virtual council meetings.
The “important notice” of the change came one day before the meeting, at which a citizen-initiated ordinance for a new firehouse was scheduled for public comment.
The timing of the change caused at least one Council member, Zack Mullock, to accuse Mayor Clarence Lear of trying to suppress public comments that favored the ordinance.
Six letters, submitted to the clerk, concerning the ordinance, were not read at the public hearing due to the rule change.
Lear argued that the change was made because the five minutes allotted for public comment at meetings was too difficult to enforce with written comments. Mullock and Councilwoman Stacy Sheehan argued that limits could have been placed on written correspondence short of banning it as a means of public comment.
The issue behind the debate, and so many others that have roiled the council meetings for months, is the need for new facilities for the city’s fire and police departments. Everyone agrees on the need, but an agreement can’t be reached on the means.
Two groups coalesced around the issue. One supports a 30,000 square foot combined public safety building on the site of the current firehouse and adjacent land.
A citizen initiative for a $15 million bond ordinance to fund the combined building was certified by City Clerk Erin Burke July 8. The vote by the divided council occurred July 21. The ordinance was defeated. This action allows the ordinance to go on the ballot as a referendum, in November.
The second group of citizens favors the construction of a new firehouse immediately. They argue that a new police facility will follow, as other city bond issues are retired.
A second committee of petitioners submitted a $5 million citizen-initiated bond ordinance July 16, which was certified by Burke Aug. 6. Defeat followed at the Aug. 18 council meeting, sending the $5 million bond ordinance to the voters, as a second referendum, in November. It was the public hearing for the second bond issue at which the rules for public comment were changed.
Throughout the debates, the council votes were consistent, and there have been dozens of them. Lear, Deputy Mayor Patricia Hendricks, and Councilman Shaine Meier have always cast votes in favor of the $15 million combined building. Mullock and Sheehan have consistently opposed that strategy, calling for a new firehouse now, priced at $5 million, and a new police facility later. Since a bond ordinance takes four votes for adoption, the standstill has gone on for months.
Since Mullock accused Lear of changing the rules on public comment just before the public hearing on the second citizen bond ordinance, a look back at the public hearing for the first citizen bond ordinance provides some measure of comparison.
At that hearing July 21, phone-in and written comments were allowed and both means of communication were used by the public. One written comment by a Police Benevolent Association representative was over five minutes long and read in its entirety.
By the time of the scheduled public hearing for the second citizen bond issue, the change in rules left six submitted letters unread.
There was debate over how the change took place. Burke said that she posted the agenda, with instructions, Aug. 14. How the public would have been informed of the change was if interested members noticed that email submissions were removed as an option from the instructions. The language concerning written submissions was removed without changing the sentence prior, which alluded to “options” in the plural, even though only one option remained.
Since COVID-19 forced the governing body to conduct virtual sessions, the alternative existed, listed clearly in the instructions, for submission of written comment. To note the change Aug. 14, one had to note the omission of that option. There was no explicit statement of the change at that time.
At 10:40 a.m. Aug. 17, a post was placed on the city’s Facebook page that stated that the council would no longer accept written statements during public comment. This was the affirmative statement that Mullock frequently referenced as one day’s notice.
At no time during the Aug. 18 meeting did either side in the debate ask for comment from the city solicitor on the change in rules or the timing and communication of the change to the public. Everyone seems to be resigned to the fact that this will be an issue settled by the public, in November.
How definitively the issue of one approach or the other will be resolved is not as clear as one might expect.
The two citizen initiatives resulted in overlapping referendums. If one passes and the other does not, a path forward may be clear. If both pass, things can get dicey.
An attorney for the second committee of petitioners wrote the council that the law is unambiguous. That letter states that the referendum that achieves the highest vote total wins.
City Solicitor Frank Corrado has frequently said that the law may not be that simple. The council heard from Corrado Aug. 18, in closed session, on the legal issues involved if both referendums pass. What advice he provided to council members was not shared during public comment.
Whether the November election represents a certain point of resolution of the issue is still unclear.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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