By Cathy Wilson
Our May 3rd Special Township Committee Meeting pulled the curtain back on a widely-shared frustration in our community: Morris Township has a lot of strengths, but valuing (and practicing) open, proactive communication with the public is not one of them.
This meeting was called to take official action on items related to our Affordable Housing Settlement.
This settlement has wide-ranging ramifications for our community, but most people know nothing about it. That’s because the Township has done nothing to help the public understand what’s going on, and therein lies the source of sparks that flew that night.
Mat Nunn made some comments at this meeting and later in his response to an article about it in the MorristownGreen.com that I’d like to address here.
Mat is correct that I do support the Affordable Housing Settlement the Township reached last November. What he doesn’t know is that I have been expressing concerns for weeks about the way the Township is handling this settlement’s implementation.
My view (which I have shared repeatedly with Mayor Mancuso and others) is that we should be doing everything possible to help the public understand this settlement and its related ramifications – which include, among other things, the Mt. Kemble Redevelopment Plan, various zoning changes, a summary of the affordable housing obligations we agreed to, and how we plan to meet them.
Specifically, I’ve been advocating that we hold one or more public meetings to explain the Affordable Housing Settlement; also that we develop and share a simplified “Cliff Notes” summary as well as a “Q & A Facts Sheet.”
These actions would go a long way in bringing our Affordable Housing Settlement out of the shadows and into the sunlight.
Instead, our approach is the opposite. It’s tight-lipped and legalistic. Here’s how we’ve handled communication with the public on issues related to the Affordable Housing Settlement:
- Tell people to read the Settlement – which no one can understand because the language is impossibly cryptic even for those who have the patience to read it.
- Say nothing about the Mt. Kemble Plan or proposed zoning changes until they’re formally introduced at the Special Meeting on May 3rd.
- Make it hard for people to know the May 3rd meeting is even happening.
Bury the legal notice on the website where no one can find it unless they specifically know to look for it.
- Publish the agenda two days in advance (even though the date and content were set weeks earlier).
- Publish key ordinances at the last possible second – the day before they’re formally introduced.
- Omit key information from them – like the map showing the locations of new proposed zones.
- Make it difficult (if not impossible) to locate relevant documents on the Township’s website.
- Do not tell anyone that additional information — such as visual renderings of the Mt. Kemble site – are available to look at IF you know to ask for them and IF you have time to make an in-person visit to the office.
- Give the public a few days to scramble to get informed.
- Hold a public hearing 13 days after May 3rd – immediately before the final vote is taken.
- Pass the Mt. Kemble Plan and related ordinances before anyone realizes what’s happened.
I’m not good with this approach. I’ve been sounding the alarm on it for weeks. Sure, this is all legal, but it’s not good practice. Our residents deserve better.
Case in point: The Mt. Kemble Redevelopment Plan is important and needed. But ramming it through in less than two weeks with no meaningful input from anyone – including the Planning Board, the public, or Morristown – is not a good idea.
Mat’s accusation that I somehow colluded with the mayor of Morristown to oppose this plan is utterly false. I did not know Tim Dougherty was at the May 3rd meeting (I was on the phone and couldn’t see anyone).
Nor did I know he was coming. But I’m glad he did. The need for communication with Morristown on this issue could not be more obvious.
How can the Township propose a plan that literally touches the Morristown border (zero setback) and references parking availability on the Morristown side with NO consultation with them? This defies common sense.
What’s happening here is that the Township is rushing to do whatever it takes to check off every legal box that’s required to meet the Compliance Hearing deadline of June 15th.
In the rush to meet this deadline, no one seems to care if the public understands what’s going on – or participates in the process – or even knows enough to pay attention in the first place.
Mr. Sisler said it all when, in reference to the process we’re using to push the Mt. Kemble project forward, he shouted at the audience: “YOU asked US to do this for you.” The audience didn’t see it that way. Nor do I.
A huge irony, in my view, is that the Affordable Housing Settlement (the root driver of everything that’s happening right now) IS worthy of public support.
In the total context of the affordable housing challenges every municipality in New Jersey is facing (a complex and confusing set of circumstances and demands), I believe the Township has done an admirable job negotiating the best terms possible for our community.
But it’s dropped the ball in bringing the public on board with what’s happening – and why.
Regardless of what happens going forward, the need remains to educate the public on our Affordable Housing Settlement. In my view, that’s what we should have been doing since January. If our outreach had been better from the start, many of the problems we’re experiencing now could have been avoided.
For me, our May 3rd Special Meeting was a case study in the Township’s failure to see the benefits of communication that’s open and proactive – or even just timely.
This is a longstanding tradition that’s holding us back. It’s led to a number of ingrained communication habits that are not good practice and are ripe for change.
Our community would be well served if those of us on the Township Committee could work together to move in that direction.
Cathy Wilson was elected to the Morris Township Committee last November. She also chairs the Township Democratic organization. A public hearing on the Mt. Kemble redevelopment plan is scheduled for the Township Committee’s monthly meeting, on Wednesday, May 16, 2018, at 7 pm at the municipal building at 50 Woodland Ave.
The opinions expressed above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.