CORRECTION: As we wrote this column calling for greater remote access to municipal and county governing body meetings, we overlooked the opportunity to point out the job that Stone Harbor has done in enacting the best practices we outline. For several years now Stone Harbor has provided remote access, remote participation and remote availability of resolutions and ordinances. It represents the kind of commitment to broad access that we advocate for all the county municipalities and the county government itself.
Local governments in Cape May County have for too long resisted the use of technology that would open up local government to broader participation by the public. Why should a small group of elected officials be able to continue practices that defy what should be obvious goals for greater transparency in government?
The concessions that some towns have made to remote access do not go far enough. The reluctance to do what could be done puts the lie to campaign promises and stated commitments to open government.
Let’s take a look at what should be done.
All governing bodies should allow video access to their meetings in real time. The videos should be posted to the municipal website at the end of the meeting to facilitate asynchronous access for those not free at the time of the actual meeting.
All agendas and copies of all resolutions and ordinances up for discussion or action at the meeting should be posted for electronic access. Resolutions not on the agenda should only be added at the meeting when they represent an important, time-dependent action. Resolutions not part of the initial package because they were added late should be posted the next day.
Public comment portions of the meeting should include those who are accessing the meeting remotely. The same rules that govern public comment at the meeting can hold. This applies both to public comment in the meeting and to public hearings on ordinances.
The people will retain control over the actions
of their government only as long as they work at it.
Presentation documents used to report issues to the governing body during the meeting should be available to the public. That either means the presentation is shown on the remote participant’s screen as it is being used in the meeting or the document, known since it was on the agenda, is included in the premeeting electronic package that includes agendas and resolutions. In all cases the presentations should be posted for asynchronous access.
Minutes of meetings, including closed session meetings whose reasons for secrecy have passed, should be easily available electronically and reasonably up to date. No municipality should be months behind in posting minutes to its website.
Added value would be earned by a municipality that extended the same principle to meetings of its planning and/or zoning boards with some changes to accommodate the formal legal aspects of such meetings. Video access in real time and asynchronous follow up would do no harm to rules governing such meetings.
Would all of this cost money? Of course, it would. We hear the excuse that staffing and technology expense make such actions prohibitive. Not so. When one thinks of the money that is spent by the governing bodies, remote access would be a small increment and it would be in the service of the transparency every elected office says he/she is in favor of. More and more we see tax dollars spent to surveil the public; this should be a two-way street.
Such access is important in any locally elected governing body, especially in a home rule state like New Jersey. It is even more important in Cape May County where so much is invested by second homeowners who have a legitimate interest in what happens even when they are not in residence.
This county benefits greatly from the investments made by second homeowners largely in the island communities. The county’s own analysis puts a cumulative true value of real estate at over $77 billion. The fact that nonresident property owners don’t have a vote does not mean they do not have a legitimate interest and right to participate in the meetings of local government.
Currently no municipality in the county observes all of the open access opportunities listed above.
Middle Township provides no remote access or remote participation. Cape May offers video access but no ability for participation for those not physically in attendance. Avalon has come a long way, but inexplicably still does not provide electronic access to resolutions up for action. Ocean City allows for a video record of its council meeting but only the day after the meeting has taken place. Sea Isle City, where the mayor is also the county commission director, uses no video technology to record its meetings either in real time or after the fact.
The list could go on.
Despite the development of technology that would facilitate open access to governing body meetings, despite the fact that an increasing number of taxpayers are not in residence year-round, despite the fact that meetings are often held during normal work hours making it a burden for those citizens with jobs, despite it all, resistance is still the order of the day.
In today’s technology-laden world, in a county with a large nonresident population of taxpayers, this is not acceptable. The way meetings are held is not to be dictated by what is easiest for elected officials.
The best start would be for the county’s Board of County Commissioners to adopt the principles outlined above and set an example for the municipalities.
The citizens and taxpayers of this county deserve better than they are getting in terms of local government transparency.
From the Bible: “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9