League of Municipalities working to muzzle public

League of Municipalities working to muzzle public
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 03/29/06
BY MARTIN O'SHEA

Sometimes the tail can wag the dog, and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities proves it.

Unknown to most New Jersey residents, the league describes itself on its Web site as "a voluntary association created to help communities do a better job of self-government through pooling information resources and brain power." The league also states that it "is authorized by state statute and since 1915 has been serving local officials throughout the Garden State. . . . Over 560 mayors and 13,000 elected and appointed officials of member municipalities are entitled to all of the services and privileges of the league."

Despite the rosy picture of public service painted by the league, in reality it is a self-appointed shadow government that functions in relative anonymity behind local governments elected by the citizens. Regardless of what it claims, the league's employees, who never face an electorate, tell elected members of local governments what is best for their constituents.

The league, for instance, periodically distributes advisories to mayors that spell out positions that are then frequently adopted by local communities. The advisories never consider an issue from the standpoint of the taxpayers or voters who go to the polls to elect their mayors, council members, boards of education and numerous other public entities in the state.

It could be said the league often enough opposes measures that might be beneficial for the citizenry in order to solidify its own position with its clients: the dues-paying local governments of the state. Thus, the league's position on issues can be colored by its own self interests.

The league recently issued an advisory that expressed what it called "concerns" about a bill in the Legislature intended as a long-overdue overhaul of the Open Public Meetings Act. Bottom line: The league has taken a stance against legislation designed to make government more accessible to the public.

In a two-page letter, the league wrote, "We are very concerned . . . with many of the proposals in S-1219," which is sponsored in the Senate by Robert Martin, R-Morris, and Ellen Karcher, D-Monmouth. The league's letter makes no mention of a companion bill, A-2762, introduced in the Assembly by Upendra Chivukula, D-Somerset.

In a hatchet job disguised as a letter, the league turned thumbs down on five points in the proposed legislation in a missive signed by Executive Director William G. Dressel Jr., who doesn't represent any voters in any electoral district.

One of the league's "concerns" reveals its philosophy and bias. The Open Public Meetings Act mandates that only governing bodies must set aside portions of meetings for the public to speak. If passed, the revision would mandate that meetings of all public bodies include time for public comment.

In his letter to the mayors, Dressel wrote that S-1219/A-2762 "will make public meetings overly long." Who decides what is "overly long" for a public meeting? Since when did we put a time limit on democracy? Does democracy expire at midnight like Cinderella's coach? According to Dressel, the hierarchy of the League of Municipalities thinks so, and wants the state's local governments to think that way, too.

Dressel also pointed out in the letter that the bill would allow the public to speak about "any governmental issue that the member of the public feels may be of concern." He then wrote, "This takes away discretion and control over municipal meetings from the municipality."

Control? The proposed law is designed to positively impact meetings during which the business of the public is discussed. As expressed by Dressel, the league believes that municipalities


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