Is it appropriate to hold government meetings at noisy restaurants or other businesses?
That’s the question city council wrestled with Monday night, prompted by a proposal from Councilwoman Jen Wallace to address concerns that meetings held at Panera Bread and elsewhere are difficult for residents to locate and, at times, make it difficult to hear what’s going on.
Wallace first broached the subject more than a year ago after being contacted by constituents who had trouble finding a meeting being held at a downtown restaurant.
“My concern is about residents being able to view the meetings,” Wallace explained during a previous discussion last year. “If you walk into Panera and there’s four or five members from a subcommittee meeting and you don’t know who those individuals are, you can’t even find the meeting unless you’re a bold enough person to go up to every table and say, ‘Is this the Downtown Newark Partnership subcommittee on parking?’ That is too high a barrier, in my opinion, for our residents.”
On Monday, she asked her colleagues on council to pass a law stating that all meetings of boards, commissions, committees, subcommittees and task forces must be held at city hall or another city-owned building. The only exception would be if council authorizes an alternative location and the city solicitor determines that the location would satisfy the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.
City Solicitor Paul Bilodeau said that the state’s FOIA law does not prohibit off-site meetings but warned that a meeting that is hard for residents to locate or hear could run afoul of the law. He recommended that if the city wished to continue holding meetings at restaurants that they be held in a reserved room or at least in a quiet area with signage directing residents.
“In my view, public meetings need to be held in a location where the public can easily ascertain which individuals are conducting the meeting and at a location where the public is able to hear what is being said without background noise from other restaurant patrons or employees,” Bilodeau wrote in a memo to council.
Most of the off-site meetings were held by the Downtown Newark Partnership, which has been disbanded and replaced with a nonprofit outside of council’s purview. However, the DNP’s Design Committee, which holds nearly all of its meetings at various downtown businesses, is now a standalone government committee.
Wallace’s proposal drew heat from members of the Design Committee, which evaluates development proposals for adherence to design standards. The members argued that meeting downtown is more convenient and allows members to visit development sites during the meeting.
“We’re very careful about making sure we follow FOIA,” committee chairman Joe Charma said. “Were not some clandestine society that’s trying to take over the city.”
Committee member Howard Smith said that anyone who has trouble finding the meetings at Panera or elsewhere must not be trying very hard.
“I don’t think this is a problem. I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” Smith said. “We’re putting a lot of bureaucracy over a non-problem.”
Ultimately, council voted down Wallace’s proposal with the intention of bringing forth a new, compromise version of the law, which will allow off-site meetings but restrict them to a list of approved sites that are conducive to public meetings. The list hasn’t been determined, but suggestions mentioned Monday included the George Wilson Center, Newark High School and Downes Elementary School.
Meeting behind locked doors
The proposed new law, however, does not address the city’s Traffic Committee meetings, which are typically held behind two sets of locked doors at the police station.
The meetings – where a committee of police officers, city officials and residents discuss traffic issues and make recommendations for signage and other road safety changes – are usually held in the police chief’s conference room on the second floor of the police station, which is otherwise off-limits to the public for security reasons.
The traffic meetings are open to the public, but in order to gain access, a resident must first wait in line at the records window and ask an employee to unlock the elevator. After taking the elevator to the second floor, the resident must wait for a receptionist to notice him or her and unlock a second set of doors leading to the meeting room.
The meeting agendas do not provide instructions for gaining access.