(Editor’s Note: The following was sent via e-mail this morning to Vincent DeFilippo, Health Officer for the City of Orange, NJ, from which the Township of Belleville contracts public health services. According to Mayor Michael Melham, Mr. DeFilippo made the recommendation that town meetings be held remotely due to Covid-19, which I confirmed with Mr. DeFilippo in an e-mail I sent him last week. Mayor Melham and Belleville Schools superintendent Dr. Richard Tomko were copied on the following e-mail. I advised all parties that the e-mail would appear as a Belleville Watch post shortly after the e-mail was sent.
Dear Mr. DeFilippo,
I e-mailed you last week to confirm that you had indeed advised Belleville mayor Michael Melham that township public meetings should be conducted remotely, even if such meetings were conducted in a larger venue like the high school auditorium, and to confirm that you were aware that the Board of Education trustees were conducting in-person public meetings.
You did indeed answer my questions, stating that you gave the recommendation to make town public meetings remote because of the high number of Covid-19 cases and the positive rate of infection — even if held in a larger venue — and that you were aware that the BOE was holding meetings in-person and that they were following health and contact tracing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. I thank you again for replying.
After e-mailing you, I e-mailed Belleville Schools superintendent Dr. Richard Tomko to ask how he arrived at the decision to have BOE meetings in-person. He stated in no uncertain terms that so long as Belleville’s public schools remain open, BOE meetings will be conducted in person. He further stated that he refers to information from the Office of Emergency Management and seeks direction from local and state health officials when advising the Board. I assume that you, as the health official for City of Orange, from which Belleville contracts health services, would be one of the officials whom Dr. Tomko consults in these matters.
At last evening’s Town Council meeting, (January 26th) in response to a resident’s question as to why Town Council meetings remain remote while the BOE has in-person meetings, Mayor Melham emphatically said that he would like the meetings to be in-person again, and said he’d sent correspondence to you recently asking guidance on same. Mayor Melham offered similar sentiments in previous meetings, but not as emphatically as he did last evening. Due to this, I wanted to reach out to you again about this issue. Further, I’ve taken the initiative of copying Mayor Melham and Dr. Tomko on this correspondence.
As editor of Belleville Watch, I lock horns with many Belleville officials, and Mayor Melham is certainly no exception. I don’t carry water for the mayor or anyone else, but if he sincerely wants in-person township meetings again, I’d be remiss as a community advocate and civic activist not to point that out.
In-person meetings are a powerful vehicle for community participation in local government, and it stands to reason Belleville residents — following the same or similar protocols the Board of Education has put into practice — can safely attend Town Council meetings and those of various municipal boards.
Two In-Person Council Meetings in October: Safe Attendance
Belleville had two in-person Town Council meetings in October 2020. held in the Belleville High School auditorium. This was just before the full effect of Covid-19’s second wave hit New Jersey. There were standard safety protocols, with police officers present to ensure social distancing. People were asked to check in with a police officer at the door and temperatures were taken. Residents sat far apart and everyone wore masks.
Township public meetings are sparsely attended, an unfortunate truth even before Covid-19. The largest crowd in years attended the October 27th, 2020 Town Council meeting, and by “largest” I mean maybe 20-30 people — in a large auditorium, that’s well below the 25% occupancy limit ordered by Governor Murphy. Additionally, in accordance with Department of Community Affairs guidelines, the Town Council accepted written public comments via e-mail or mail to be read at those meetings.
Reconsideration Is In Order
In light of all this, perhaps you should reconsider your recommendations. I have full confidence that Dr. Tomko would ensure the high school auditorium would be fully cleaned, sanitized and made available for the Town Council to use for its meetings. If the same safety protocols the BOE follows were put into place for Town Council meetings, there seems to be no reason why in-person town meetings — be they Town Council, Planning Board, Zoning Board, or the myriad municipal boards in Belleville — cannot take place.
With the Township following DCA guidelines, those who are at high-risk for infection, under quarantine or those simply uncomfortable with attending a public event could e-mail or mail in their comments, to be read during the meeting. Combining DCA guidelines with CDC guidance on social distancing, sanitation and contact tracing would allow all residents to choose how they participate.
Belleville is a small town, with residents who want to be able to physically attend a public meeting and address their elected officials face-to-face. Remote meetings via Zoom may facilitate some public participation, but there are residents who aren’t tech-savvy and therefore miss out on meetings.
Covid-19 is a dreadful virus, to say the least. Reasonable people understand that you, as a health officer, have a professional responsibility to safeguard public health and advise municipal officials accordingly. Your department is contracted to do so for the Township of Belleville.. However, seeing that one public body in Belleville is successfully conducting in-person meetings while another, apparently upon your guidance, remains remote, seems inconsistent..
Please reconsider your recommendations, so the Township can advertise (or re-advertise) future public meetings as being in-person and held at the Belleville High School auditorium or other large venue. Undoubtedly you have concerns, but I am confident that with proper safety measures, in-person public meetings can be held once again.
Frank F. Fleischman III (FF3)
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