The Board of Education in Brick Township will introduce a formal policy to crack down on the amount of time residents can speak at meetings, but it will go beyond the traditional five-minute limits utilized by many public bodies in New Jersey.
The policy, which will be the subject of a vote Thursday night, states that the presiding officer of a board meeting – either the board president or vice president – may “interrupt, warn, and/or terminate a participant’s statement, question, or inquiry when it is too lengthy.” The policy also allows the presiding officer to interrupt or warn a resident who is speaking if their comments or questions are deemed to be “biased, abusive, obscene, or … defamatory.”
Since the beginning of the year, the school board has discussed limiting public participation at meetings and already cut the number of opportunities for residents to speak from five per meeting to two. Under previous boards, residents were invited to comment or ask questions before the board voted on various sections of the agenda – operations, curriculum and instruction, personnel, policies – plus a general comment portion toward the end of the meeting. Last month, the board limited comment to twice – once before the board takes up its entire agenda for the night and once at the end of the meeting. The new meeting doubles down on the limitations, restricting the first public comment session to a total of 45 minutes and the second to a total of 30 minutes except in cases where a majority of board members vote to extend it or the personal desire of the presiding officer.
All comments will be limited to five minutes per person.
New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act mandates just one public comment portion per meeting and allows boards of education to establish time limits, however reducing public participation often draws the ire of both residents and open government advocates. Limitations vary wildly across the state. In 2015, The Press of Atlantic City conducted a wide-ranging investigation of public comment policies within its coverage area.
At Brick Township council meetings, comments are also limited to five minutes, however the public is allows to participate before each section of the meeting agenda is voted on, followed by a general comment section near the end of the meeting. Though a countdown clock ticks down from five minutes when each speaker comes to the microphone, council presidents for the last decade have frequently allowed lengthier discussions and permit residents to speak more than once (after everyone else has completed their comments).
Board President Stephanie Wohlrab did not respond to a request for comment on the policy and why it is being implemented.
The policy requires two votes before it is codified. Thursday night’s vote is an introduction only.
Read the Proposed Policy: