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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The city’s five-member City Council will meet just twice per month for most of 2015, and three times in December.
Years earlier, the Council downsized from four meetings per month, over the objections of residents.
The meetings are usually on Wednesdays and items to be voted on at each meeting are listed on the agenda, which is typically posted to the city website by the Friday before the meeting.
Members of the public are permitted to ask questions and give comments on laws being passed by the council at the appropriate time on the agenda.
Towards the end of the meetings, the public is invited to ask questions or give comments on any topic or topics they desire.
You might want to get there early to make sure you can get a seat in the room, which is sometimes overcrowded and spills out into the hallway.
According to NewBrunswickPress.com’s Maxwell Barna, the City Council unveiled plans to refurbish the room they meet in almost four years ago, but nothing came of them.
The plans would have provided better access for the disabled, a new dais that could accomodate ten officials, a new sound system, retractable screen behind the council table, audio-visual desk for Power-Point presentations, new goose-neck microphones, and technology for videotaping meetings, according to the article.
The other obstacle is time: If you want to be heard from, you will have to be quick.
For the first time in several years, the Council began enforcing a controversial 5-minute time limit on remarks from the public in March 2013, and the exact particulars of the rule has varied from meeting to meeting.
The meetings are run by the Council President, who will be selected by the members full Council on January 7.
For the past two years Rebecca Escobar, the only bilingual member of the Council, has served as President.
None of the Council’s members are up for re-election this year. In 2016, three members will face the choice of running for another four-year term or stepping aside.
The job pays $9,000 per year, as well as an extra $500 for the Council’s President.
In recent years, the Council has put a lot of thought into ways to improve its relationship with the public.
Most notably, in November 2012, after more than a decade of complaints, the Council finally turned the table they sit at to face the public more directly.
That change came on the heels of the addition of a microphone for the public to speak from, earlier that year.
Previously, only the Council President would face the public, while the other members faced one another, guarded from the public by one or more administration members.
But there is still great tension between the Council and the public, and meetings occasionally devolve into shouting. The five-minute rule and other decisions by the Council to cut short public comment have been viewed by some as attempts to avoid tough questions and limit discussion and debate.
In one case, the City Council denied many members of the public the right to speak on a controversial water privatization agreement. And, twice, Council President Escobar ended the meeting early after verbal disputes between Council members and an activist.
The meetings are still not televised, despite an endorsement of the practice from the city’s Cable TV Advisory Committee.
However, videos have been available online since late 2011 and city officials confirmed they have invested in new technology that would allow for the recordings of the meetings to be broadcast on cable television.
But, you really need to be there to get the full experience, and, even then, it can still be hard to follow the action.
The meetings always begin with the “agenda session,” where the Council President reads the agenda out loud, before the pledge of allegiance and a moment of silence kick off the “regular meeting.”
Mayor James Cahill, who has led the city’s government for 24 years, typically does not attend the meetings, but some key members of his administration do.
Most of the questions from the public end up being referred to officials in the administration, including a police captain who typically stands in for Police Director Anthony Caputo, who also does not attend the meetings.
Oftentimes, officials refer residents to other government agencies such as the Middlesex County Freeholders or the state government, Rutgers University, or the city’s Traffic Commission.
Sometimes, though, issues or incidents raised at the City Council can end up making a big impact.
The meetings are held on the top floor of City Hall, located at 78 Bayard Street in downtown. Parking is provided free to anyone attending the meeting in the lot behind City Hall.
Here is the City Council’s official list of meeting dates for 2015:
- January 7 @ 6:30PM
- January 21 @ 6:30PM
- February 4 @ 6:30PM
- February 18 @ 6:30PM
- March 4 @ 6:30PM
- March 18 @ 6:30PM
- April 1 @ 6:30PM
- April 15 @ 6:30PM
- May 6 @ 6:30PM
- May 20 @ 6:30PM
- June 3 @ 6:30PM
- June 17 @ 5:30PM
- July 1 @ 5:30PM
- July 15 @ 5:30PM
- August 5 @ 5:30PM
- August 19 @ 5:30PM
- September 2 @ 6:30PM
- September 16 @ 6:30PM
- October 7 @ 6:30PM
- October 21 @ 6:30PM
- November 4 @ 6:30PM
- November 18 @ 6:30PM
- December 2 @ 6:30PM
- December 16 @ 6:30PM
- December 30 @ 5:30PM
Editor’s Note: The late Charles Renda took the final photograph in this article.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.