OPINION: The Moorestown, NJ Board of Education is violating NJ’s Open Public Meetings Act.

ABOVE: From Citizens’ Media TV’s Footage of the Moorestown Board of Education livestream on September 25, 2018

A letter to the editor by Russ Smith of Moorestown, NJ

Editor’s note: background

Below is an email that I received (Jeff Epstein, Editor-in-Chief of CMTV, and the person who filmed this event), which was also sent to every Board of Education and Town Council member in the town of Moorestown, New Jersey. It is in response to what the Board President and Solicitor told me at a livestream I recorded at a BOE meeting earlier this year: That relaying comments from our livestream viewers during the public comment session would no longer be allowed. To be specific, this was said before the lifestream began that night (as I was setting up my equipment).

This is the only public body that has required this, out of the (very roughly) twenty that we have done livestreams for over the past two years.

The following is from the description of our Moorestown Board of Education livestream on September 25, 2018. (Note “last month” is incorrect. The comment was copied from a meeting from a few months ago, when the requested was originally made.)

NOTE: The Board President and solicitor told me that NO “proxy” comments or questions will be accepted. They stated that this is because there is no way to know if anyone is misrepresenting he selves, and also that public comment is intended for people to directly submit their statements in person, not “pass along” as we did last month. It was also stated that there was a concern of what to do if there were so many comments that it didn’t fit into the five minutes (allotted to me as an individual)? The president stated that the board felt “caught off guard” when I submitted comment in viewers’ names last month.

Finally, please note that we were not told that we were not allowed to make public comments, rather that we were not allowed to relay comments from our viewers — Moorestown constituents.

The email

From: Russ Smith
Date: October 10, 2018 at 08:48:21 EDT
To: [All Board of Education and Town Council members, in Moorestown, NJ], citizensmediatv@gmail.com
Subject: Public Comments Requirements - School Board

TO: Moorestown Board of Education
(Please send this to all members)

Email body

Hi,

I am Russ Smith, a property owner on Meadow Drive. As you may know Moorestown has authorized a lawsuit against the residents back here by a developer who wants to put up a 4-story rental building with 75 units 125 ft from my home. Moorestown authorized this project in spite of a deed restriction that required a half acre per home. Several citizens have challenged the zoning and Planning Board approval. As a result the Planning Board is now counter-suing the residents for the Planning Board legal fees.

During this process Moorestown told residents they weren’t actually being sued in an attempt to get people to default on the lawsuit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YR1d_S0zO00). When that didn’t work they told us we should not fight the lawsuit because it “good for Moorestown.” When that didn’t work they accused us of racism and “trying to keep poor people out.” It seems rather strange to me that Moorestown Republicans would be pursuing a Communist agenda so there must be some other reasons for these actions. As a result of all this I am investigating all the various Boards and Commissions and their various members. I note the law firm for the School Board also represented the developer before the Planning Board trying to put up a 4-story building 125 ft. from my home.

During a recent School Board meeting I saw a report from the Citizen’s Media TV. They indicated they were approached prior to the School Board meeting and told they would not be permitted to give public comments! This appears to me to be a violation of the rights of the commenters and my rights to hear what the commenters has to say. This is also a clear violation of the Open Public Meetings Act and the actions of the School Board clearly negate any official actions taken at the meeting and exposes the School Board to monetary claims which I plan to pursue.

As I understand it 3 reasons were provided to deny the public comments:

  1. The first reason was that the commenter planned to make comments on behalf of other people by reading questions from the video feed. While the School Board members can consider the veracity of the comments the School Board has absolutely no authority to deny the person from making the comments. If I want to go to a School Board meeting and say the man on the moon told me the earth was made out of cheese then the School Board has to listen to the comment even if they don’t think it is true or even if they can’t verify the statement.
  2. The next reason was that the School Board claimed that the purpose of public comments was to have people attend the meetings and make comments themselves in person. There is clearly no basis for this claims and it is ridiculous. As a retired federal employee with 27 years of service I can state that it is routine to accept public comments from commenters who are remote, send comments via email, etc. In this case the meeting was held in spite of severe weather and flash flood warnings. People who heeded this warning were shut of from making comments or asking questions.
  3. The third reason provided was that there was a concern the comments would exceed the 5-minute allotted time. In just about every public meeting I have attended I have seen pontificaters who would give lengthy comments. If they exceed the allotted time then the Board simply stops their comment. The Board has no authority to prevent commenters from speaking because there is a potential they may talk too long. Again, this is ridiculous.

In order to resolve these issues I request the Board:

  • Void all official actions at their previous meeting.
  • Contact Citizens Media TV and indicate the Board will permit them to comment in the future and provide them twice the allotted time for comments at the next meeting, and
  • Develop a new Rules of Order that addresses the rules for public comments and attach this to all future meeting agendas.

Thank You

Russ Smith


Editor’s note: The opinions in this letter are the author’s only.

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