Pinelands Regional Board President Asserts Law for Public Comment Decorum

Strict Three-Minute Time Limit Will Be Followed
By RICK MELLERUP | May 08, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Little Egg Harbor Township, NJ — Let’s call it – and he gave his permission to do so – the Charlie Roth Rule.

At the April 30 meeting of the Pinelands Regional Board of Education, Board President Susan Ernst laid down new rules concerning the public comment portions of the district’s board meetings.

“In a moment we are going to move on to our residents’ forum,” said Ernst. “However, I have something that I am going to read that I would like you all to listen to, carefully. Included in our agenda are two residents’ forums. These forums are your time to voice your opinions and your concerns to the board of education.

“Because of frequent residents’ forums I have had to do some research. I used Robert’s Rules of Order, I used New Jersey School Boards Association, and, of course, I used our policy.

“According to our legal counsel and New Jersey School Boards, your comments and concerns generally go through the chair. That’s me. It is not – I repeat, it is not – a forum to debate issues, or enter into a question and answer period, or a cross examination of this board or any board members.

(Pinelands has two residents’ forums, one early in the meeting addressing agenda items only; and one toward the end of a board meeting. in which a resident may address any issue.)

“In addition, it is my responsibility to maintain a certain level of public decorum. In my three years as president we have been through some difficult times together, which have resulted in meetings where respect and decorum have been questionable. Looking at the past, but more importantly, looking at the most recent decorum of residents’ forum, I am making changes moving forward. I have informed the board of my changes. These changes are covered under policies 0162, 0164 and 0167 and are totally within my rights as the president of this board. In addition they are part of Robert’s Rules of Order. They are also part of the law.

“Residents’ forum will be limited to 20 minutes for each session, 30 minutes if there is a very large crowd. A person may speak for three minutes. The speaker must address me. The speaker may voice his or her opinions – respectfully. Questions may be asked, but under no circumstances will there be any attempt to answer those questions until the speaker has been seated – it is not debate time. There will be no debate.

“If a question cannot be answered immediately, you’ll be asked to leave your email address; the appropriate respondent will reply as soon as he or she is able. If you do not wish to leave your email address, there is a question and answer form on the school district’s website – it has been there for quite some time now; I would suggest you utilize it. The superintendent does read these questions at our meetings and gives the answer – so please, send in your questions. There is an additional venue which is open to you, Sit With The Supe, which is held twice a month, I believe. Once a month? In addition, our superintendent has willingly given out her cell phone number, her personal cell phone number, to board members, residents, teachers, etc. Call her.

“No one will be permitted to speak a second time unless no one else wishes to speak, and if time remains.

“Under the rules of proper decorum I will gavel any person who does not demonstrate respect and proper public decorum, and I will ask you to be seated.

“Lastly, please be clear that there are certain items that, no matter what you want to know, will never be discussed. The most common are privacy issues – employee, students and discipline – litigation or anticipated litigation, attorney-client privilege, negotiations with bargaining and non-bargaining units, security issues and, lastly, evaluative aspects of a staff member’s employment.”

Ernst actually didn’t state any new rules. The only existing policy that possibly conflicts with the board president’s statement is found under District Policy 0167, which says, “In the event it appears the public comment portion of the meeting may exceed 30 minutes, the presiding officer may limit each statement made by a participant to 3 minutes duration.” Ernst is now limiting residents’ forums to 20 minutes. However, there are two residents’ forums per meeting.

Still, the three-minute rule is a departure from the rules that have been posted on meeting agendas, even including the April 30 board meeting. It had simply stated that “Board Policy #0167 encourages community participation in every meeting. However the Board requests that the public respect a reasonable time limit when commenting on any topic.”

The “Charlie Roth Rule” had an immediate effect at the April 30 meeting. When Ernst finished speaking and the public was allowed to approach the microphone, the first speaker was a Pinelands social studies teacher, Cindy Juniewicz, who had prepared a letter opposing the RIFs (Reduction in Force, a.k.a. layoffs) the board would be voting on that evening. Juniewicz especially opposed the cut from full-time to part-time of a media specialist – today’s high-tech version of a librarian – whom she had found an invaluable member of the Pinelands staff in the past.

Juniewicz had written her letter before the new strict three-minute rule had been announced. “I’ll try to get this in three minutes; I’ll do the very best I can,” she said as she started to speak.

Ernst urged Juniewicz to wrap up her comments after three minutes when she was about halfway through her letter. About 30 seconds later the teacher was cut off.

“I’m disappointed,” said Juniewicz as she took her seat. When a woman who was waiting in line for the microphone told her to “take my three minutes,” Ernst said, “You can’t do that, sorry.” The woman still went on to finish reading Juniewicz’s letter.

The first public comment period lasted approximately 17 minutes, which meant Juniewicz could have been accommodated.

So, why can Ernst’s statement be called the Charlie Roth Rule? Note that Ernst said she had drafted her statement, in part, because of the “most recent decorum on residents’ forum,” stressed that all comments and questions must be addressed to her, said questions would be answered only after a resident had returned to his or her seat, and “evaluative aspects of a staff member’s employment” cannot be discussed.

Roth, a Tuckerton resident, had crossed all four of those lines at the board’s meeting of April 10. He had asked questions, received answers while at the podium, and then asked follow-up questions. He had addressed questions to other members of the board besides Ernst. He asked district Business Administrator Nick Brown – and, after being told to direct his questions to the board president, asked Ernst – if Brown was a certified public accountant and if he had a master’s degree. As for decorum, Roth interrupted the board’s attorney as she was answering his questions, to the point where Ernst stepped in and told him to sit down.

As Ernst said, he had asked his questions, had said he was done with his questions and now he was getting his answers. But what does a resident do if a question isn’t answered sufficiently if residents can’t ask follow-ups?

One thing is to set up a meeting with PRSD Superintendent Melissa McCooley and Brown, which Roth has done – they’ll be meeting on Thursday.

Still, some questions, especially about large items such as the budget, are too complicated to be answered in just three minutes and understood without follow-ups. And if the answers are long as well as the questions, can 20 minutes be enough for a residents’ forum? And what exactly constitutes Ernst’s definition of a “very large crowd”?

Those are questions that, sooner or later, will have to be answered.

— Rick Mellerup

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