Jackson Planning Board must do a better job to include the public

This Your Turn guest column has been written for the benefit of Jackson residents and a copy of it has been forwarded to Robert Hudak, the chairman of the Jackson Planning Board.

At the Jan. 25 meeting of the Planning Board, an application for two warehouses off Route 537 near the Interstate 195 interchange drew intense interest from residents, environmental groups and activists.

More than a dozen people opposing the project waited their turn to comment. They sat through more than four hours of testimony before the board determined at 10:50 p.m. that it was too late to continue. No opportunities for public comment were provided. Now, the hearing and the public’s chance to be heard will be delayed for another 10 weeks.

Before the meeting was concluded, it was noted there were 63 people on Zoom. Many more may have grown tired of waiting and signed off.

Given the level of opposition to this project, the board’s failure to invite public comment was outrageous. Opponents deserve to be heard – and not 10 weeks from now.

The coronavirus pandemic and the board’s decision to hold meetings remotely has made it even more difficult for the public to be heard. The board should do everything it can to provide opportunities to overcome the limits of remote meetings.

Unlike many other Zoom meetings I have sat in on, the people on the call on Jan. 25 could not be seen or identified. What we witnessed instead was a wide-angle shot of the Jackson municipal meeting room that filled about half of the screen; the other half was filled by a board member who was attending remotely.

We could only see the backs of the people who were testifying and we saw only a small percentage of the exhibits that were displayed on a screen for the board. None of the board members identified themselves before speaking.

One of the opponents to the application had hoped to present concerns about the hearing process itself prior to the start of testimony.

Among other things, she wanted to ask the members of the Planning Board to allow all of the participants to be seen on Zoom and to archive the Zoom meeting so it could be viewed by residents at their convenience.  She “raised her hand” on Zoom, but was told to lower it. Repeated attempts to be recognized failed.

The board’s failure to provide ample opportunities to comment feeds into the public’s distrust of government and rightly so.

There are several things we would like the Planning Board to do to facilitate public comment at all hearings on applications:

• Don’t make members of the public sit through hours of testimony before being allowed to comment. Take comments at the start of the hearing so their concerns can be addressed by the applicants while they are testifying.

Also, allow for public questioning at the conclusion of each witness’s testimony, as is done in other towns. And allow sufficient time at the end of the meetings – perhaps cutting off testimony at 10 p.m. or 10:15 p.m. – to provide additional opportunities for members of the public to comment or ask questions.

• All meetings, Zoom and in-person, should be recorded and posted online along with the meeting minutes.

• Enable the comment feature on Zoom and respond to any questions during or after testimony has been provided.

• Prior to the start of witness testimony on an application, the board should respond to any written questions that have been submitted prior to the meeting.

• The board should accept written questions from the public at any time during the application process and require that staff professionals or the applicant provide written responses.

In the weeks and months ahead, the Planning Board will be hearing from several applicants whose plans threaten to further diminish the quality of life in Jackson, including Jackson Parke South and Jackson Woods Southeast. Those with concerns must be given every opportunity to be heard.

As an aside, at the Jan. 25 meeting, only one of the dozen or so board members and associated staff members wore a mask. They were sitting 6 feet apart, but that is not enough in an enclosed space. Everyone is the municipal meeting room should be wearing a mask. The board should help set a positive example for the public.

We are asking the Planning Board chairman to please respond to each of the five requests for making it easier for everyone’s voice to be heard.

This Your Turn guest column was written by Randy Bergmann of Jackson; Doug O’Malley, Environment New Jersey; Jeff Tittel, Sierra Club of New Jersey; Britta Forsberg, Save Barnegat Bay; Janet Tauro, Clean Water Action; and Marc Covitz, Crosswicks-Doctors Creek Watershed Association.