East Brunswick council approves resolution establishing rules at virtual meetings

EAST BRUNSWICK – The Township Council approved a resolution regarding emergency remote meetings protocols, procedures and requirements for public participation.

Emergency Remote Meeting Protocol for Local Public Bodies is to ensure that local public bodies can continue to conduct official business in an open and transparent manner whenever a declared emergency exists that prohibits physical attendance by members of the public, according to the council.

“The world has been operating remotely for our types of meetings for six months. There have been a series of executive orders, guidance, guidelines issued by various entities in the state and finally, the state has come around issuing a long list of everything they would like us to do when we’re having virtual meetings. They’re now requiring councils and towns to adopt a resolution confirming that we agree to abide by the rules which we have to abide by because they’re telling us we have to,” Township Attorney Michael Baker said.

State law permits a local public body to hold a remote public meeting to conduct public business during a declared emergency if the emergency reasonably prevents a local public body from safely conducting public business at a physical location with members of the public present, according to the council.

The council approved establishing the standards and procedures for emergency remote meetings the resolution on Oct. 12 during the council meeting via video conference.

If during a declared emergency the township holds a physical meeting in a location meant to mitigate risk, capacity restrictions are required to reduce the number of individuals who can be present in a meeting, the council will either hold the public meeting at another location with adequate capacity for the reasonably expected attendance by the public or; hold the public meeting as both in-person and a remote public meeting, according to the resolution.

A public meeting held in person will not prohibit members of the public from attending in person, according to the council.

Baker confirmed that if the township holds a meeting, the public has a right to be there. He said the township is being directed that if it holds a meeting where a quorum of the council is present and they are conducting it in-person, even if everybody else is remote, officials have to allow the public in. The township also has to allow for remote viewing participation during the pandemic emergency.

“You will also have to abide by various requirements in terms of how many people you can have in a room. If we can’t accommodate the average number of people that come to our council meetings then we’ll have to move to a larger venue,” Baker said. “We cannot have a public meeting and exclude anyone who wants to come into the meeting. So, it will be from a practical standpoint. … We’re going to be meeting virtually for a very long time.”

Baker said if the township goes back to in-person meetings, officials will have issues with complying with appropriate access for the public, which the township would want, but doing it in a safe manner and abiding by these guidelines will be not easy.

With most township meetings previously taking place in the municipal courtroom, Business Administrator Joseph Criscuolo said the township has to allow for the proper social distancing, and it has already measured out the municipal courtroom.

“Even with the front row there as we prepared for court with social distancing we can only fit 29, and we’d have to eliminate the front row in order for proper social distancing between council members and staff,” Criscuolo said. “So that brings that number down to 23, and the state’s recommendation was somewhere in the neighborhood of 50. So Baker is absolutely right.”

If the township holds a remote meeting to conduct public business they will use electronic communication technology routinely used in business settings that can be accessed by the public at no cost and with participant capacity consistent with the reasonable expectations of the public body for the type of public meeting being held, and will, at minimum, not be limited to fewer than 50 public participants, according to the council.

When the township holds a remote public meeting they will allow members of the public to make a public comment by audio and/or by video if the meeting is being held over both, according to the council.

Any presentation or documents that would otherwise be viewed or made available to members of the public physically attending a local public meeting will be made visible on a video broadcast of the remote public meeting or made available on the website of the township, according to the council.

If a member of the public becomes disruptive during a remote public meeting, including during any period for public comment, the mayor, or his designee, or in their absence the council president, will mute or direct appropriate staff to mute or continue muting the disruptive member of the public and that continued disruption may result in their being prevented from speaking during the remote public meeting or removed from the remote meeting, according to the resolution.

Disruptive conduct at a public or remote public meeting includes sustained inappropriate behaviors such as, but not necessarily limited, to shouting, interruption and use of profanity, according to the council.

For more information, visit www.www.eastbrunswick.org/129/Agendas-Minutes.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.