Don’t tangle with the civic-minded, well-educated citizens of Piscataway, especially if you are an elected representative of Piscataway. Especially don’t try to evade transparency when Staci Berger comes to meetings. She knows OPRA & OPMA, and she has questions for you. Now that this has happened (watch below), Staci & Piscataway residents invite you to a TAPE IN at Piscataway’s next meeting Jan. 2. Promoted by Rosi.
Democracy dies in darkness, goes the Washington Post motto. It appears to be on life support here in Middlesex County, where the Piscataway Township Council deliberates under a cloak of rules that violate the law.
On December 19, my neighbors and I attended a Piscataway Township Council meeting to raise concerns about the Township’s plan to build a nearly 24/7 warehouse center with 78 tractor trailer bays at the entrance to our neighborhood. We had planned to Facebook Live the meeting, as we had done with the previous Planning Board meeting. (That one was a doozy: the developer’s attorney is none other than Piscataway’s State Senator, and chair of the Senate Environmental Committee Bob Smith. The developer, the Penford Group, will put the bays facing the neighborhood where they will bring diesel fumes, light and noise right into folks’ backyards. Penford got approval for that; it is good to hire the right people, evidently. But I digress).
Instead of being allowed to stream the proceedings of the December 19 Township Council meeting to Facebook, I was told by Council President Chanelle McCullum that I was not allowed to take any videotape or I would be “escorted out or the situation could escalate.” I was instructed to turn off my phone and prove I had done so to a police officer. The officer stood at the end of the row in which I was sitting and watched me for the two hours I was there.
It turns out, though, that I am not very adept with my phone. I had left it on, in my purse, the whole time.
Here’s a clip from my exchange with the Council, all of whom are Democrats, and the bevy of attorneys who support them. Those of us at the meeting learned that the Council has an ordinance that its members believe “reasonably restricts” the use of videotape. The ordinance is from 2006, and like most of the Council, it has not changed with the times. My own ward councilman, Steve Cahn, told me I should go to court if I didn’t like their rules. [continues below]
I pointed the attorneys and Council members to the 2007 NJ Supreme Court Case, Tarus v. Pine Hill, which affirmed the common law right to videotape. The Court noted that a municipality is not required to adopt any guidelines regarding videotaping, and that any restrictions must be as narrow as possible, and deal with obstruction of the meeting itself. One can’t set up tripods that obstruct views, disrupt the meeting, etc.). Piscataway Council’s reasonable restrictions? A resident needs to call before 4PM the Friday prior to the meeting to advise the Council of their intent to videotape. The Supreme Court’s decision is pretty clearly written, and even a non-lawyer like me could see that their 2006 ordinance is out of compliance, out of date and wholly undemocratic.
I worked on the creation of the Open Public Records Act in 2001, and issues related to the Open Public Meetings Act, and I was shocked by the Council’s lack of knowledge about the rules. But I am even more dismayed by their total disregard for the rights of the people they were elected to represent. The Trump Administration represents the biggest threat to our democratic rights and liberties in generations. A Council made up entirely of Democrats should be on the front lines of transparency, openness and community engagement, and not hiding behind a decade old rule. The Council is responsible for being up to date on the law, for certain. Moreover, they should be seeking out opportunities to fight for our rights instead of attacking those liberties.
People are, understandably, upset that our Council is violating our rights. While we are certainly exploring our legal options, we will be starting the New Year by holding a TAPE-IN demonstration at the Council’s Reorganization Meeting. We invite resisters and people who love the freedom that democracy promises to join us, cell phone in hand, on January 2, 6pm, at the Municipal Building, 455 Hoes Lane, Piscataway. We will all videotape and broadcast the proceedings in protest of the Council’s illegal restrictions. Together, we can shine light into darkness and keep democracy alive.