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Brick School Board May Consider Limits to Public Comment

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Countdown timer. (Credit: Microframe Corp.)
Countdown timer. (Credit: Microframe Corp.)

Brick school board members are considering adding limitations to comments from members of the public at its meetings in 2019.

Board President Stephanie Wohlrab said a representative from the New Jersey School Boards Association will be on hand for the next two board meetings and members may discuss enacting a limitation on how long residents can address the board. Wohlrab said she has already discussed the matter with Superintendent Gerard Dalton.

“We’re going to be looking at that with the board prior to our executive session,” Wohlrab said.

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The discussion was spurred by a comment – ironically, during the public comment portion of Thursday night’s meeting – from former board member John Lamela, who characterized some residents’ public comments as an “ad-nauseum” “filibuster.”

“People in the public have spoken to me about the length of these meetings and how we allow people to filibuster is wrong and its’ hurting our attendance,” said Lamela.’

Generally speaking, school board meetings are lightly attended in Brick, usually by about a dozen regular attendees, plus a smattering of staff members. Times of meetings vary wildly depending on the length of discussion and whether the board undertakes ceremonial activities before beginning the business portion of the meeting.

“When you have people walk out before their kids get an award or say thanks to a teacher or administrator because somebody is filibustering – ad nauseum at times – it’s frustrating,” Lamela said.

One resident, Nan Coll, took issue with Lamela’s comments, and the potential time limit, at Thursday night’s meeting.

“Who decides what a filibuster is?” she asked. “You don’t have a right to decide someone is filibustering and shut them up, like you probably want to do to me right now.”

If the board decides to limit public comment, it would not be the first time it has been done. The board in 2010, then run by board president Kim V. Terebush, enacted a five minute time limit and faced criticism from residents – especially over a giant animation of a clock projected onto a screen that rapidly counted down the time remaining. It rapidly flashed red toward the end of the designated time period. The time limits were scrapped when a new board run by then-president Sharon Cantillo was elected.

Brick Township’s municipal government has a five minute-long time limit built into its administrative code for use at meetings of the township council. There is a digital clock on the wall of the council chamber that “dings” when the five minute countdown has ended, though council members routinely continue discussions with residents even after time has expired, or allow them to return to the lectern later in the meeting once additional residents have spoken.

Though the opportunity for public comment at meetings of school boards is guaranteed by New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, reasonable time limits are also allowed under the law.