By Tim O’Meilia
“David’s Rules of Order” — Manalapan Mayor David Cheifetz’s five informal suggestions for civility and decorum during town commission meetings — lasted four months.
Now commissioners and residents have three pages of “public participation guidelines” to follow during public meetings, including the centerpiece of Cheifetz’s original rules — a five-minute limit for speakers, unless the mayor grants an exemption.
And no giving your minutes to someone else so he or she can talk longer.
“What we’re trying to do is bring a little order to the process,” Cheifetz said.
Commissioners approved the new rules of decorum 3-2 at the July 23 meeting with Commissioners Howard Roder and John Murphy opposed.
A state law effective Oct. 1 requires public bodies to have a participation policy to ensure audience members have a chance to speak on agenda topics or to bring up their own concerns.
Town Attorney Trela White said she drew from Cheifetz’s ideas and other sources in crafting the resolution, “but I would not characterize it as the Cheifetz resolution,” she said, as some have called it.
Roder wanted to postpone discussing the guidelines until next month so residents would have a better chance to examine it. “I would like more discussion from the public, more participation,” he said.
The policy requires speakers to address the commission as a whole and not individually and forbids speakers from trying to question or debate issues with the commissioners.
Resident Kersen De Jong, who often speaks at meetings, objected to the time limit and the prohibition against engaging in dialogue or asking questions of commissioners.
“We have very few people attending these meetings. To seek a way to limit those few who do attend is sending the wrong message,” De Jong said.
Several other residents also objected to the new policy. Resident Mary Ann Kunkle suggested the policy was aimed at Roder and De Jong. “Why can’t we just work together? We have two people who have a different way of looking at things and they should be able to do it,” she said.
Other no-no’s include shouting from the audience, cell phone use and reading documents verbatim for the purpose of putting them on the record. The documents simply may be submitted to the clerk for inclusion in the record.
Several times in recent months, Cheifetz and Roder clashed over Roder’s attempts to read items into the meeting minutes.
The policy originally called for a three-minute speaking limit but complaints by residents resulted in the longer allowance. Commissioners also decided to experiment with allowing public comment on non-agenda items at the start of the meetings instead of at the conclusion.
“I don’t see the need for this resolution,” Murphy said. “Why do we need the extra paperwork?”
Commissioners and residents promptly broke the new rules in discussions over whether to hold evening meetings and whether to mail agendas to town residents. Meetings will remain at 9:30 a.m. and residents will be given the chance to get agendas by U.S. mail or email.
In other business, Cheifetz scolded Roder and De Jong in a strongly worded statement because they “repeatedly asked for the resignations of Town Manager (Linda) Stumpf, Police Chief (Carmen) Mattox and police officer (Keith) Shepherd.”
He said they have filed complaints with various agencies to no avail. Cheifetz said they have made more than 100 public records requests, cost the town $24,262 in professional fees to respond to their allegations and “created an atmosphere of conflict that reflects poorly on our town.”
He urged them to settle their differences privately. “We’re all trying to do our civic duty by serving our community … let’s try to do it constructively, not destructively,” he said.
Roder has accused Stumpf of incompetence and Mattox and Shepherd of lying. De Jong has filed a complaint with the U.S. Attorney’s Office charging that the police force racially profiles motorists driving in town.
After Cheifetz’s remarks, Roder said, “None of my statements has ever been refuted.”
In his own statement later, De Jong disputed the mayor’s tally of public record requests and said the town’s spending money seeking investigations by other outside agencies of his racial profiling claims was the town’s choice. “I take offense at Mayor Cheifetz’ statement blaming me for causing the town to spend and waste staff time regarding my desire as a new U.S. citizen to participate in our democratic process.” De Jong said public safety and racial profiling are significant issues.