The heated exchange between a proud mayor with a football career and an elderly resident who wanted to question town policies sorely needed a referee that bitter December night.
For four tense minutes, Evesham Township Mayor Randy Brown drowned out Kenneth Mills, 81, after Mills asked about a tax abatement on a property and attempted to tell Brown to calm down. In a booming voice, Brown, the kicking coach for the Baltimore Ravens, told Mills that he had been overwhelmingly reelected in November and that "65 percent of the people who came out love what I do." He barely addressed the tax abatement.
"You're acting like a jerk," Mills said as he sat down, sounding exasperated.
The following month, Brown made it clear that future council meetings would be different. Residents would not be permitted to question council members during public meetings, he said. Instead, they could "make comments only."
The policy set off a firestorm in the town, at 46,000 citizens the largest in Burlington County, and sparked concern from government watchdog groups.
"Local governments and state and national governments ought to be to be working hard to stay in touch with voters and citizens. One way is to make themselves available to listen to questions and to answer them. . . . They ought to do more of this rather than less," said Dale Eisman, a spokesman for Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that lobbies for transparency in government.
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, said local elected officials must allow the public time to ask questions, but they also have the right to "just sit there" and not respond.
"The check and balance is when they go to get reelected," Paff said. "When citizens take the time to come out and ask questions, and you ignore them, the citizens can exercise their opinion at the polls. We're supposed to elect people who treat us as human beings, not just serfs."
In an interview, Brown dismissed the concerns, saying public comments in Evesham come "only from five or six" political opponents who are "trying to stoke me into an argument" at a public meeting. Brown, a Republican who has been mayor for eight years and who announced last fall that he was considering a run for governor in 2017, said the majority of residents ask him questions when they see him at the athletic field, since he coaches youth sports. Or, they stop him at the local supermarket, or they e-mail or call him, he said.
The residents who speak at the meetings usually "try to turn it into the Spanish Inquisition," Brown said. Solicitor John Gillespie recently looked into the issue, he said, and advised the council that it has the discretion to respond or to just accept comments and avoid dialogue, Brown said.
Gillespie did not return calls for comment.
At a Feb. 17 meeting, Brown barely made eye contact with residents who came to the lectern to speak on topics including a leak in the public library ceiling. He said nothing to them, and a few times got up and started a conversation with a councilman two seats away. The video of the meeting, filmed by a resident, is posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKlEXqCUYLo.
The other members of the exclusively Republican council also remain mostly silent, like Brown, after public comments are made.
"It appears some of the same residents approached the mayor in a manner which would be antagonistic rather than looking for an answer to a specific question, and that is what started this whole brouhaha," Councilman Robert DiEnna said.
Mills, who is also a Republican and active in the local GOP club, said the residents who speak up just want to know what is going on in the town. "I believe in fairness. . . . We're a democracy, not a dictatorship," said Mills, who frequently attends council meetings.
Mills said that Brown argued with him and another resident at the Dec. 16 meeting without any provocation. The other resident had questioned why Brown abstained on several votes and Brown would not provide an answer. Then, Brown "chastised her and just went off," and changed the subject, Mills said. "He was rude."
Phil Warner, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for town council in November, said he also is upset at how residents are being treated at meetings.
"This really is irresponsible. If you don't want to respond at public meetings, you probably shouldn't be up there," he said. "It's against the spirit of local government."
Residents in some other Burlington County towns also say their ability to get answers at meetings is eroding.
In Westampton, which has an all-Democratic township committee, a few residents who regularly attend meetings say Mayor Carolyn Chang has told them that she will not answer questions and will only entertain "public comment."
"If this becomes a trend, we're all in trouble," said Gil Scott-Gehin, a Republican who said he has attended nearly every meeting during the last three years. "We're the public; we pay taxes and hire these people spend our taxes wisely and provide proper services. How do we know they're doing a good job unless we can get answers to questions on issues we don't understand or that need clarity?"
Scott-Gehin, a Republican, has run unsuccessfully for town council twice. Politics is not his motivation, he said, just his interest in his town and its government.
Chang said that she always tries to answer if she can, but some questions do not have answers.
"If a question is posed in a way to grandstand, or embarrass, I have a right as a human being to say, thank you for your comments. Most of the time they are comments, not questions. . . . I'm not going to engage in an argument," she said.
Scott-Gehin said that the town's previous mayor, Sidney Camp, was more forthcoming, and that when he attends meetings of the Burlington County Freeholder Board, his questions are always taken.
While the freeholders have had a policy of allowing residents to speak freely and ask questions, they adopted rules in January that include restrictions on public comments. Comments are limited to a total of 30 minutes and five minutes per speaker.
Freeholder Joanne Schwartz said that she and Aimee Belgard, both Democrats, suggested removing that rule from the package, saying the residents should not have their right to be heard at meetings curtailed. But freeholders voted 3-2, along party lines, to keep all the rules intact.
None of the three Republican freeholders returned a request for comment. Board spokesman Eric Arpert said the rule is more than 20 years old and has never been enforced.
"We have never cut people off," Arpert said. "When people go on for a while, and if they're repeating themselves, we let them know they've made their point. . . . I've remembered a number of times where it goes back and forth and becomes a dialogue, sometimes cordial, other times contentious. Then we just have to say, 'Look, we're just not going to agree, but we hear you.' "
At the Feb. 17 meeting in Evesham, Brown did not thank residents for their comments or acknowledge that he heard what they said. Instead, when Mills sat down, he said: "Anybody else? Go ahead. I'm rolling." When no one else stood up he said, "Good. Seeing there's none, public comment is now closed."