MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — At a sparsely attended meeting Monday, March 16, Township Committee unanimously approved a resolution allowing future meetings to take place via telephone or remote conferencing, a move aimed at keeping local government operating in the face of a global pandemic.
“If the current condition should worsen or go on for a long time, we need to find practical if not perfect alternatives to continuing to move government forward and to keeping the public involved in ways that don’t involve all of us getting together,” said Mayor Tim Donohue at the meeting. “There are not a lot of good answers right now or a lot of good choices.”
In a short period, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has spread around the world, leading to severe disruptions to daily life and the economy.
Middle Township schools are closed and all recreation programs have been canceled. Cape May County has closed all library branches, including the main branch in Cape May Court House, and Middle Township Municipal Court is canceled for the next two weeks.
Before the start of Monday’s meeting, Donohue said he sincerely hopes these steps are an overreaction and that they will be looked back on as unnecessary. But he said people and governments have a responsibility to do what is possible in the face of an unprecedented global threat.
The township has also limited visits to Township Hall. Township departments are fully staffed, Donohue said, but facilities are not open to the public unless there is a specific need to speak with someone face to face.
Plans call for the installation of a drop box outside of Township Hall where residents can drop off tax payments or other items. Officials have asked all other business with the township be done over the phone or via email.
Before the meeting, the township sent an email to residents and those who have asked to receive an agenda, stating that while the meeting is open to the public by law, residents should consider sending any questions or comments electronically.
“We’re doing our best to deal with this on a day-to-day basis,” said Donohue. He praised employees for their efforts and for their courage in dealing with the situation.
One regular meeting attender was not deterred. Stanley Doniger attends almost every committee meeting, with Monday being no exception. He questioned the impact of the resolution allowing remote attendance at township meetings.
“How does the public participate when you do it by Skype or by phone?” he said.
Township Clerk and Administrator Kimberly Krauss said he would be given instructions on how to participate if a remote meeting program were used.
“Not that I would understand it,” he said.
“It’s an important question. We will strive as hard as we can to have public meetings in this room for the people who want to be here asking questions,” Donohue said. “We have important Planning Board meetings, Zoning Board meetings, the reexamination of the master plan; all of those need public input. Speaking for myself I’d rather postpone meetings than take them to the internet. But we don’t know how long the situation is going to last.”
He said the township needs to continue to function through the crisis.
Donohue said the township government usually wants to see as much public participation in the meetings as possible, but for now would rather people stay home. He said officials limited the agenda to essential business for the recent meeting.
Two special presentations on the original agenda were delayed, including an employee of the month award for Jen Teasenfitz and a recognition of the retirement of EMT Scott Klecz. Donohue said the committee did not want to encourage anyone to come out if it were not vital.
Family members and friends often attend meetings at which presentations are planned. Krauss said both presentations will be made at a future meeting.