Socially-distanced, masked residents at the last in-person meeting the Town Council held on October 27th, 2020.
By FF3, Lead Editor

Two public meetings were held last week. One — the Belleville Board of Education on Monday, January 25th — permitted residents to attend. Since bringing back in-person meetings in late September 2020, the BOE put in place strict safeguards for safety: temperature checks, sign-ins for contact tracing and designated seating to ensure social distancing. In addition to the in-person attendance, the meeting was livestreamed and comments sent in via mail or e-mail were read.

Another meeting — that of the Belleville Town Council– was held the next evening, via Zoom. Public comments by e-mail and mail were read, and the floor was opened to comments from residents who joined the meeting by computer or phone. The Council had two in-person meetings in October 2020, but once the second wave of Covid-19 hit NJ, the Council discontinued those meetings.

Since the end of March and up until the in-person meetings in October, the Town Council had livestreamed their meetings, with e-mailed or mailed questions and comments from the public read aloud into the record. The infamous so-called “clean-up ordinance” authorizing elected officials to enroll in township healthcare plans was made official at the livestreamed June 10th Town Council meetings.

The November 10th meeting was canceled the day before, due to the high school being closed for a “deep cleaning.” Beginning with the November 24th meeting and up to the present, Town Council meetings have been hosted via Zoom.

From April to approximately July, zoning and planning boards did not meet at all, but were held via Zoom once the boards began meeting again. Not a few new developments have been heard and approved by the planning board between July and now.

Mayor Michael Melham has stated the move back to remote was made on advice of Belleville’s health officer. The mayor has also stated publicly — most recently at the January 26th meeting — that he would like to have in-person meetings again, but on advice of Belleville’s health officer, the meetings were to remain remote.

E-Mails To The Health Officer and Dr. Tomko

Because of the baffling discrepancy between the BOE’s holding in-person meetings and the Town Council holding remote ones, I decided to reach out to Vincent DeFilippo, who is the City of Orange’s health officer. Belleville contracts with the City of Orange for public health matters.

I e-mailed Mr. DeFilippo initially on January 19th, to confirm that he did indeed advise the Township of Belleville to hold meetings remotely, to ask if, in his professional opinion, in-person meetings could be conducted if moved to a larger venue, and if he was aware that the Board of Education was conducting in-person meetings at the high school auditorium.

Mr. DeFilippo responded the next day, stating his advice to have town meetings continue to be remote is based on the continued existence of the pandemic and the high rate of positive cases. He stated he was aware BOE meetings were being held in person, but added that the board is “following strict CDC guidelines and contract tracing guidelines.” I followed up with a reply asking Mr. DeFilippo why, if the BOE is successfully holding in-person meetings with strict safety guidelines, why is the township continuing to conduct them remotely. I have yet to receive a reply.

The following day, I e-mailed Belleville schools superintendent Richard Tomko, asking him how he decided it is safe to hold in-person BOE meetings. He replied that as long as public schools remain open, board meetings would be in person. He added that he consults “the data provided by OEM and any possible direction from local and state health officials to advise the Board accordingly.”

If Dr. Tomko consults “local and state health officials” as to whether or not to hold in-person meetings, it stands to reason Mr. DeFilippo would be among those officials. I asked about that in a reply to Dr. Tomko, but have not received a reply.

Second E-mail To DeFilippo and Melham’s Response

Following the January 26th Town Council meeting, in which Mayor Melham most recently stated he’d like to have in-person meetings again, I sent another e-mail to Mr. DeFilippo and copied both Melham and Tomko. I posted that letter on Belleville Watch as an open letter.

Less than an hour later after sending the e-mail and publishing the post, I received an e-mail from Melham, who seemed displeased with me and my e-mail to Mr. DeFilippo.

Mayor Melham’s reply to Belleville Watch, concerning the e-mail I sent to City of Orange Health Official Vincent DeFilippo, on which I copied both Melham and Belleville Schools Superintendent Richard Tomko.

Melham’s reaction seemed odd. He’d stated he’d like to have meetings in-person again, so I e-mailed the health officer who advises the town to ask if, in light of the successful in-person Town Council meetings in October (held at the high school auditorium) and the continued success of in-person Board of Education meetings, he would consider changing his advice.

Knowing it’s been done and is being done successfully with enhanced safety and cleaning measures, the Town Council needs to reinstate in-person public meetings. Anything less is further evidence of “Better Belleville’s” empty rhetoric.

What the State Has To Say About Public Meetings

The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) — particularly its Division of Local Government Services — oversees many municipal government functions. In September 2020, DCA released a Local Finance Notice newsletter. That publication contains directives for conducting public meetings during a public emergency, such as the public health emergency Governor Murphy declared for Covid-19. One of the directives reads, in part:

If a local public body is holding an in-person meeting in a location where, pursuant to State and/or Federal guidelines meant to mitigate the risk of contagious infection, the declared emergency necessitates capacity restrictions reducing the number of individuals that can be present in the meeting room to an amount below that reasonably expected for the public meeting by the governing body, the local public body must either hold the in-person meeting at another location with adequate socially-distanced capacity for the reasonably expected public attendance, or hold the public meeting both in-person and as a remote public meeting pursuant to N.J.A.C. 5:39-1.1 through 1.7. This requirement seeks to ensure adequate public access. Under other circumstances, nothing prevents a local public body from holding a remote public meeting in conjunction with an in-person meeting as a means of increasing public access and participation (all emphasis mine — FF3.)

Intrigued, and seeking clarity on this, I contacted the Department of Community Affairs by e-mail. I received back an e-mail from Tammori Petty, communications director for DCA.

Ms. Petty, in her e-mail reply, stated, “In-person public meetings where the local public body meets in one location and that members of the public may physically attend is preferred so that everyone, including those without remote access, may participate. Even during a declared emergency, public meetings held exclusively by remote means are meant to be held under limited circumstances when the declared emergency prevents a public meeting from safely being held in a physical location.” (all emphasis mine — FF3.) 

Further, with regard to who makes the decision to hold in-person meetings, Ms. Petty stated, “The decision to hold an in-person meeting or virtual meeting is the governing bodyโ€™s decisionThe Health Officer may make recommendations, but the decision is ultimately up to the governing body.” (Again, emphasis mine.)

It is up to the mayor and town council to decide to have in-person meetings again. Considering the council members rarely challenge Melham on anything, this should be pretty easy.

No Reason Why Public Meetings Cannot Be Simultaneously Held In-Person And Remotely

Two Town Council meetings were held in-person with public attendance in October, and the Board of Education has been holding in-person meetings consistently since late September. Those meetings featured social distancing, enhanced safety measures and contact tracing. The mayor himself announced at last Tuesday’s meeting that Belleville is in the yellow (moderate) category related to Covid-19 cases.

So, why aren’t in-person public meetings being held? The health officer is just doing his job by advising the town on public health matters, and the State of New Jersey has made itself clear on how public meetings should be held.

In the end, the Town Council itself makes the decision. The Council did approve a meeting schedule late last year that only went a few months out, with the mayor claiming they did so anticipating that in-person meetings would return sometime in 2021. However, there’s no reason why the township can’t re-advertise as soon as possible all future meetings as being in-public and held at the high school auditorium. Although public attendance at both town meetings and BOE meetings is often sparse, that’s no reason not to offer in-person attendance.

If the mayor is sincere in saying he wants in-person meetings again, it is within his power to do so, although seemingly with the consent of the town council. Since council members rarely challenge Melham on anything, in-person meetings — with livestreaming and reading of emailed/mailed public questions and comments for those who are self-quarantined or simply aren’t comfortable attending a public meeting — are something that can be quickly revived.

A “Better Belleville” worthy of its name would offer the most opportunities for residents to participate in public meetings. Anything less than that is more empty rhetoric — something which Belleville has endured for far too long.