Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Tale of a Commissioners Meeting....

It can be a bit intimidating attending your first Commissioners Meeting.  I swear the first one I attended, my knees were knocking as I entered the room.  I was there by myself and didn’t know anyone in the room.  I quickly ducked in and took the first seat I could find.  It felt like everyone in the room turned around and looked at me, even though I know this was only my imagination and nary a person moved when I entered.  I missed some parts of the meeting as I was getting situated and drinking in the details of the room.  As I mentioned in a previous blog posting, it was when a woman turned around and asked ME what was happening, did I realize that I wasn’t the only one that didn’t have a clue as to how this process worked.  In light of that and the fact that there is a relatively big issue at hand, I wanted to lay the details of the Commissioners meeting out on the table so that perhaps others will read through it, realize it is not as intimidating as one may imagine, and feel comfortable enough to join the meeting on Monday night.  Now I’m not an expert, but this is based on my observations, personal experience, and some research.
The Commissioners meet in the Commissioners Meeting Room.  If you have never been in it, this is the large room located towards the back of the Ross Township Municipal building near the Tax Office.  If you enter through the Police Department area, it is at the top of the steps.  If you enter from the Community Center, it is on the right hand side in the back, near the restrooms.  The efficient and friendly desk attendants can point you in the right direction if you simply ask.  You don’t need to sign in or show your Township ID….it is your RIGHT to be at the meeting.
The room is quite formal and almost has the feel of a courtroom to it.  At the front of the room is the table where the Commissioners sit in their comfortable high backed leather chairs.  In the middle of the room is a podium from where people can speak and where you can pick up a copy of the meeting agenda.  In addition, there is a sign-up sheet located on the podium on which you can jot your name down if you wish to speak during one of the times when public comments are allowed.  You don’t have to sign up to speak but it is nice to sign up in order to allow some organization of those who wish to speak and to make sure your name is spelled the correct way in the minutes.  The rest of the room is filled with row upon row of regular chairs.  You can sit in anyone of these chairs…well except for the high backed comfortable leather chairs at the front.
The Commissioners sit at the table and each is identified by a name plate.  If you are sitting in the back of the room the name plates can be hard to read, so you may spend part of the meeting trying to figure out who is who.  Also sitting at the table are the Township Solicitor and Township Manager as well as any other Township official involved in the meeting that night.  There is a sound system with microphones in front of each person at the table and a microphone at the podium, but it is a rather fickle system that seems to work well for some and poorly for others (some are too loud even without the help of the sound system).
There is a table in the back of the room with snacks on it so help yourself……after all, it’s your tax dollars that are supplying the coffee and popcorn!
The first part of the meeting is the Committee Meeting.  They will discuss various items that you will find listed on the agenda. This is mostly a fact finding/heated debate session.  There is no voting that will occur during this part of the meeting.  Items that are discussed in Committee are NOT supposed to be voted on at all that night but are to be set up for voting at a subsequent meeting.  At the conclusion of the Committee Meeting, there will be a brief break and then the voting meeting will start.
The voting meeting is supposed to open with the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence.  The first part of the meeting allows for public comment from the floor (that is the regular seating section for us audience members) regarding items on the agenda.  It is at this time when you can get up and speak your piece if you have an issue with an agenda item or if you are supporting an agenda item and would like to say “nice job”.   Maybe you just have a question on an agenda item or are seeking clarification.  However, if your comment pertains to the Public Hearing that will occur later in the meeting, it’s best to hold your comment until then.  Whatever the case, this is one of the chances you get to be heard. 
At the conclusion of the public comments, the meeting moves on to Petitions and Complaints.  In order to participate in this section, you would need to email the Township Manager, Wayne Jones, by 4:00 PM the Friday before the meeting with the topic you would like to address.  It is in this section that you can bring something to the attention of the board, whether it is something you wish to promote or a criticism that you would like to go on record with.
After Petitions and Complaints, they launch into the business at hand.  They start making motions, passing votes, and attempting to follow Robert’s Rules of Order for a meeting.  They adopt resolutions, introduce Ordinances, and most importantly, hold Public Hearings.  The Public Hearing is when they will bring up Ordinance Number 2303 and seek to re-establish their salaries.  They will open the hearing and ask for those that have comments in support of the Ordinance to come forward and speak.  After everyone that is in support of the Ordinance has had their opportunity, they will then ask for those who oppose the Ordinance to come forward and have their say.  After everyone has had their chance to speak, they will close the hearing and start to debate the pros and cons of the ordinance.  Depending on the Ordinance, this can be a short debate or a very long and drawn out debate (it’s a good time to make sure you have some popcorn to munch on).  Eventually, one of the Commissioners will call for action and the Board of Commissioners will vote to either adopt the Ordinance or will vote to table it for further discussion (possibly sending it into Ordinance limbo).
After the public hearing and subsequent voting, the Board will move on with other business.  They will vote to approve the minutes from prior meetings, vote to pay the bills, and then move on to the reports of the various departments.  The Planning Commission, the Recreation Committee, the Public Works department, the Public Safety – Police Department, and the Public Safety – Fire, Fire Police, and EMS Committee will provide reports, if there are any, and various discussions will be held and motions passed relevant to the department.  Once those are finished up, the Township Manager will provide his report and again there will be discussions and various actions taken.
When the Township Managers report is concluded, it is time for comments from the Commissioners.  A Commissioner may thank another person for their hard work on something, inform the room of a certain meeting they would like to call attention to (Crime Watch meeting, Historical Society meeting), or they may bring up an issue that a constituent has come to them with.  They can also voice their disapproval with something and get that on the record.  Mostly, it is a time in the meeting that the Commissioners can speak about what is on their minds.
When the Commissioner’s comment section is concluded, the floor is once again opened up for comments from the Citizens. This will be the last time to get your voice heard at this particular meeting and this time it is not limited to just the items on the agenda.  Say your piece now or hold it another 2 weeks for another meeting.
At this time, Commissioners may adjourn into an Executive Session.  While this may seem like a “top secret” meeting, it is simply a private meeting, allowed by the Sunshine Law, in order to discuss sensitive matters such as personnel issues or collective bargaining.  Commissioners may return after the Executive Session and conclude the meeting.  If they plan on returning, the Commissioners will announce whether they plan on taking any action in order to let people know if they should stick around.  If there is no Executive Session or Commissioners do not plan on taking any action in the session, then a motion is made and the meeting is adjourned.
When the meeting is laid out in black and white like this, it doesn’t seem very intimidating.  Once you know what to expect, you can comfortably follow along instead of worrying about stepping out of place or out of bounds.  In addition, when you know what to expect, you aren’t worrying about disrupting the flow of things and can focus on the information.  Remember, there are a number of opportunities to speak at the meeting. You can be added to the agenda and have your own section in the Petitions or Complaints section, or you can take advantage of the public comment sections that occur at the beginning and end of the meeting.  If there is a Public Hearing, that gives you another opportunity to use your voice and speak on the matter at hand.
I wanted to add this post to the blog because when you understand how the process works, you are more likely to get involved.  I went in to my first meeting having an initial idea of how things would play out since I served on a board years ago (granted, it was for a charity and we met mostly at bars and restaurants) and was surprised that the “formal” process wasn’t much different from the one I participated in. 
I guess what I am trying to say is that while the overall appearance of a Commissioners meeting may be intimidating and overwhelming, it is really quite simple and easy to follow. Perhaps it is like many other things in government and politics in that it is designed that way to discourage the average citizen from getting involved.  Hopefully, this post has removed some of the smoke and mirrors of the process and perhaps encouraged more to get involved.

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