Should West Windsor Council impose time limits on comments by its own members?
That topic — prompted by Councilman Charles Morgan’s critical response just minutes after Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh delivered his State of the Township address in March — was the subject of a discussion by council at its meeting on May 3.
Proposals ranged from requiring council members to hold their responses to the State of the Township until the following meeting, to imposing a time limit on all council comments at every meeting.
In the long run, council made no decision at all. Rather, Council President George Borek told his fellow council members to continue circulating ideas.
Calling it “reactionary censorship,” Morgan said imposing any limitations would go against the township’s long-revered philosophy of free speech.
Referencing public comments, including those by Morgan, that were critical of the mayor both before and after his State of the Township speech, council members originally said they wanted to move the annual address to its own special session.
The mayor delivered his 20-minute speech following public comment. Then, after he was finished, Morgan gave what appeared to be a rebuttal to Hsueh, accusing the mayor of portraying township business in an optimistic manner, with which he disagreed.
Speaking at the May 3 meeting, Councilwoman Linda Geevers proposed implementing a five-minute limit on all council comments to eliminate grandstanding. “We’re just trying to be somewhat efficient in our meetings.”
Morgan countered that “censorship is inconsistent with free speech in our community. We need balance, and there are always two sides to every story. We need to have flexibility around what people can say. We encourage speech, when even it’s uncomfortable or something we don’t want to hear.”
In terms of a time limit, Morgan said the council continuously breaks the rules it has imposed on itself already — the Roberts Rules of Order. Also, council members occasionally allow back-and-forth discussions between residents and members of council or township professionals, which is not permitted in the council’s procedural guidelines. Council also engages in lengthy discussions when an issue is deemed important.
“Sometimes it requires moving outside the rules to get things done,” he said, referencing those occasions. Similarly, if a council member wants to express an opinion, he or she should be given the opportunity, he said. He said the proposal was “reactionary censorship” because Geevers “didn’t like what I said.”
“It was just going on a little too long,” Geevers responded.
Morgan maintained he spoke for a shorter period of time than the mayor did. “If the mayor’s going to speak for an hour, a council person shouldn’t be given only three to five minutes.”
Councilwoman Diane Ciccone, on the other hand, said the time limit and the mayor’s address should be handled separately. Rather, the council meeting during which the mayor delivers his annual address should remain as is, since the mayor is an invited guest, and that is the purpose for the meeting. But, “if council wants to respond, we can hold another meeting to respond.”
She proposed the idea of having a “Township Council address,” in which the council members designate one member to issue a response. “We certainly can develop our own opportunity to do that.”
In terms of implementing a time limit on council comments during a meeting, a separate issue, she thought the idea was a good one. However, there can be exceptions. “If it’s a productive, forward moving dialogue,” it could be allowed.
Councilman Kamal Khanna said he was in favor of imposing a time limit because it would “make our meetings more efficient.”
Borek proposed holding the mayor’s State of the Township address at a separate meeting, perhaps at 6 p.m., before the start of the regular meeting. However, Township Attorney Michael Herbert said state statute requires the address to be given once a year during a regular council meeting.