After months of public discontent on the matter, the Plainfield City Council finally met in person yesterday evening for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This reorganization meeting took place exactly 19 months since indoor gathering limits were lifted in the state of New Jersey on June 4th of 2021.
Attending last night’s meeting at Plainfield Municipal Court was a weird mix of obscure COVID measures. You had a temperature check on the way in, then the contact tracing sign-up sheet, and – perhaps most significantly – 3 to 4 feet of spacing between every seat, limiting maximum capacity to only 56 members of the public. The public wasn’t aware of this, and at least a dozen would be attendees were turned away or were forced to wait outside. There is no online participation option that residents have grown accustomed to over the past 3 years. If you couldn’t get in the door, you couldn’t participate in the meeting.
Does this sound like yet another tactic to help the Plainfield City Council evade the wrath of angry residents in the flesh? I think so.
So does former Councilwoman Ashley Davis, who called the move a “stunt”, and a “joke that’s no longer funny.”
“To limit in person seating to just 56 and not have a way to participate virtually is preposterous,” said Davis. “The comments have even been turned off on the YouTube link, so the people don’t have a way to participate.”
The fact that the limited capacity is supposedly a COVID measure is the most insulting part. It’s blatantly anti-science. Over the last few years, study after study has proven that masks work better than indoor distancing. A room full of maskless people, including council members, sitting a few feet from each other is less safe than a more crowded room where everyone has on a mask. On top of that, most attendees, including almost all members of the governing body – none of whom sported a mask – were greeting, hugging, or taking pictures with guests before, during, and after the session. And rightfully so. It’s been 289 days since the city lifted a mask mandate on businesses in Plainfield last March.
But again, this isn’t about COVID, and we shouldn’t discuss it as if it is. This policy is about keeping the public out of the room. And as residents can no longer attend meetings via Zoom, they are actually more locked out than ever. Before the pandemic, large numbers of people could gather to address the council in person. During the pandemic, there was no limit on how many people could attend and participate via Zoom, even if the virtual experience limited the public’s impact. But now there is a 56-person cap, and people not present in the room, including residents stuck outside in line at municipal court, are unable to call in and make public comments.
According to Plainfield Corporation Counsel David Minchello, City Council members will be able to attend meetings remotely if they aren’t feeling well. The same courtesy, of course, is not being extended to the public. Meanwhile, both the Plainfield Board of Education and the Union County Board of Commissioners allow for hybrid participation. But when it comes to the Plainfield City Council, the people actually have less of a voice than before the pandemic.
“If this council is truly about transparency and public participation,” said Ashley Davis on Wednesday evening, “they will amend the resolution to include a virtual option, not just for meeting viewing but for meeting participation.”
“We talked about hybrid in terms of the [council] members, but what about the public?” Councilman Richard Wyatt asked Council President Charles McRae. “We’ve seen hundreds of people log in. We’ve seen other organizations do this successfully, so why not have the hybrid option?” McRae called Wyatt’s question “out of order” and refused to engage in a discussion.
Even if the City Council wants to keep up the charade about COVID prevention, a hybrid option would be better on that front, too. Don’t feel well? Stay home and don’t expose anyone else. Worried about contracting the virus when cases are elevated? No need to come in person. Hybrid meetings give more options to all of us, not just city council members.
As with anything, the only way the council will change this terrible policy is if you make enough noise to force them. While the trio of Richard Wyatt, Sean McKenna, and Terri Briggs-Jones have expressed support for a hybrid meeting option, the rest have not – and the council needs four votes to enact any measure.
Here are the counselors standing in the way of hybrid meetings: