IN OUR OPINION: Let the public back in township Technical Review Committee meetings

sunshineAnyone who’s ever planned a wedding knows it’s risky to invite people and hope they don’t come. There is always a chance they will.

For years, the township’s Technical Review Committee (TRC) has been inviting the public to attend its monthly 10 a.m. Wednesday meeting by publishing meeting dates and agendas on the municipal website. Apparently, they too were just hoping that no one would come.

After The Robbinsville Sun attended a Feb. 26 TRC meeting about a proposal to build a gas station and Wawa on Robbinsville-Allentown Road, and then made inquiries after a March 26 TRC meeting about the Gordon-Simpson project was cancelled (according to the township website), then inexplicably held anyway, the Planning Board attorney advised the township engineer TRC meetings aren’t really open to the public or press after all. The Sun was told it could not cover future Technical Review Committee meetings.

What is the Technical Review Committee and why should we care? The TRC, which includes the township engineer, the attorneys for the planning or zoning boards and other professional staff, is the advisory body that reviews developers’ proposals before applications are made to the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Adjustment. A TRC meeting is an opportunity for developers to receive frank advice from township officials on what changes are needed to make their plans acceptable to the land use boards that will eventually be voting on them.

In his April 1 legal opinion, Planning Board Attorney Jerry Dasti wrote the public does not have the right to attend a TRC meeting because the TRC in not a public body.  “Therefore, TRC meetings do not come within the definition of a ‘Meeting’ as defined by the New Jersey Open Public Meeting Act,” he said.

If the TRC isn’t really a public body, why does the Township Code require TRC members to elect a secretary and chairperson every year, and “fix a regular meeting schedule that shall be posted in the Municipal Building.” If the TRC isn’t a public body, why does it record its meetings and why does the Township Code require the TRC secretary to prepare and provide the minutes of TRC meetings to the township Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment members?

And if TRC meetings are only internal work meetings for staff, as township officials now claim, why have they been posting meeting notices and agendas on the municipal website for years?

“In my opinion members of the public attending the TRC meetings would be counterproductive since there is a substantial give and take between the applicant and the township representatives concerning the proposed application,” Dasti wrote in his letter. “That give and take would be thwarted if uninterested members of the public were in attendance.”

Which begs the question: How do citizens silently observing a meeting whose format allows no public comment manage to thwart the give and take of the proceedings by their mere presence?



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