Off-site meetings

The Downtown Newark Partnership meets at the Newark Arts Alliance last summer. The DNP is no longer part of the city, but city council is trying to prevent other government bodies from holding meetings inside businesses.

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.

(9) comments

albertporach

Several years ago the city held a public meeting at the Newark Country Club. It was to feed the local politicians and etc. I attended the meeting which was a dinner meeting and I was interested is seeing how they ate-not so much as to hear what they discussed. All public meeting must be in city property. The Traffic Committee Meeting location is ridiculous try to get to meeting.

Sherlock

They should at least have to meet where parking is free. Are there that many walking meetings, I would think that would pose more issues with accessibility for people attending. They can use pictures and plans to talk about proposals if necessary, like planning commission or council does.

bobcmdoc

I agree with Wallace's proposal. It was voted down, however, because "members argued that meeting downtown is more convenient and allows members to visit development sites during the meeting." But the alternate sites proposed--NHS, GHS, and others--do not allow members to visit development sites during the meeting since none are under, or planned to be under, development.

Doug Just Doug

City government needs to be as open and transparent as reasonably possible. Holding official meetings in restaurants during normal business hours among customers not attending the meeting isn't conducive to "open and transparent." Meetings in more isolated settings within a restaurant (special-use rooms, conference rooms, upstairs at Deer Park, etc.) would likely be OK, if the location was well-publicized and well-marked (perhaps with a sign) and it was clear that the public was under no pressure to purchase anything from the host restaurant. There are also "appearance of conflict-of-interest" issues that could attach, depending upon the nature of the meeting. Overall, it seems it would be much better to simply hold regular government meetings on government property, understanding that there may be exceptional occasions when it makes sense to hold them elsewhere.

Isaiah T

Meetings of public officials are supposed to be open to the public, advertised in advance by a specific number of days, with full minutes taken and approved. I believe that holds whenever more than three public officials are in an official meeting or discussing a government topic. I'm not inferring any inappropriate intent but rules are rules and glib answers given by committee members are inappropriate. Once again, here's an issue that has been on the books for more than a year and a solution is still not forthcoming. Does anyone on council read the minutes? Is there a list of open issues to which they are supposed to reply in a timely fashion with timelines?

fang

This seems silly. Maybe it isn't a new law, but better communication that is needed. A group certainly should have the right to meet wherever they see fit (and keeping in mind to allow space for others to attend, as well as making it clear where they are meeting).

SashaRawlings

---A group certainly should have the right to meet wherever they see fit---- Not when they throw "common sense and logic" out the window !!

CitizenOfNewark

Jenn Wallace likes to be the center of attention.

SashaRawlings

---Jen Wallace 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.---- One would think that that would BE COMMON SENSE......but then again, just look around at the nonsense being discussed in meetings and voted on.......ban straws....ban plastic bags....build bicycle bridges.....build multiple hotels on Main St......protect squirrels from abuse....

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