Using John Lennon’s Power to the People as a lead in song, the premier of the Union County Citizen’s Forum will air on Cranford’s TV 35 beginning on Wednesday, December 2nd at 11am and 7pm, repeating on Thursday through Saturday at 1am and Sunday at 1pm.
The show, hosted by Cranford resident Tina Renna, will be a monthly review of freeholder meetings with the objective to shine a light on Union County government, particularly their public meetings and the information that is presented at them and the information that is absent from them as well.
Renna has been a frequent letter writer to local newspapers and has been a blogger on the County Watchers since 2005. She is a founder and current president of the Union County Watchdog Association. The non-profit 501(c)3 organizaiton has been obtaining freeholder meeting recordings through the Open Public Records Act and posting them to the internet since January 2007.
Regular meetings of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders are taped and local cable stations can air them if they wish. However, the items on the agenda are not read out loud, therefore if you are watching these meetings at home all you will witness are the freeholders voting, usually unanimously without any comment, on the items on the agenda.
Freeholders have agenda meetings where they are supposed to ask questions of the department heads and receive more information to formulate their decisions on how they will vote at the following meeting, which is referred to as the Regular meeting. Agenda meetings are not taped. Citizens have to attend these meetings to witness any information that might be offered between the department heads and the freeholders. Not many questions are asked at these meetings and the business portion can last less than ten minutes.
Citizens aren’t allowed to ask questions or make comments at agenda meetings. During regular meetings citizens have 5 minutes, which is strictly enforced, to comment on agenda items and ask questions which the freeholders may or may not answer. “Freeholders now spend over one and a quarter million dollars a day with millions of dollars being allocated at any given meeting, 5-minutes usually doesn’t even begin to cover what needs to be addressed” stated host Tina Renna.
The idea for a citizen’s forum came this summer after the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union took action in Union County threatening the freeholders with a First Amendment lawsuit if they didn’t apologize to the public for squelching free speech during a recent meeting.
The county apologized and Renna admits that although the main culprit in the incident didn’t apologize personally (instead Freeholder Daniel Sullivan thanked his mother for coming out in support of him that evening), freeholder meetings have gotten a little less antagonistic because of the ACLU’s attention, but information is still sparse and the germ of an idea for citizens to have their own forum was planted and became the next initiative for Renna to bring information to the public.
“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been personally attacked, made to stop speaking, and even removed from freeholder meetings” Tina recalls. “The ACLU incident was the last straw. Trying to participate in county government, which takes approximately one quarter of our property tax bills, I had to play their game, on their field, with their referees, ball and rules – which only citizens are held to. All to attend meetings, which are required by law to be public, and receive only a modicum of information. Oftentimes I would have to follow-up these meetings with requesting and then culling through public records.”
In October, Renna began video recording her thoughts after attending agenda meetings and reading the items on the agenda, she then uploaded the recording to the internet. She was then joined by fellow citizens, John Bury of Kenilworth and Bruce Paterson of Garwood. The three meet at a diner after attending Regular meetings and give their opinion and commentary on the items on the agenda and county government in general this recording is then uploaded to the internet as well.
Viewers have cast their votes for where they prefer to get their information about county government meetings. At the time of this writing the latest Citizen’s Forum was posted on 11/15 got 1,911 hits. The latest official meeting of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders was posted on 11/7 and got only 57 hits.
The Union County Citizen’s Forum produced for TV 35 will be void of opinion and commentary. Instead it will be a review of the business conducted at freeholder meetings for the previous month. Resolutions pertaining to the expenditure of tax dollars will be read out loud and further information, as it exists in public records, will be given if necessary and available.
The show is being launched in conjunction with a new website www.unioncountycitizensforum.com. The site includes recordings of all the citizen shows, the schedule of TV 35 shows and tools for viewers to do their own research including meeting minutes, resolution lists, ordinances and the county check registry.
Tina Renna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Praise for the Citizen’s Forum:
Tina I think this was a great idea. I really enjoyed watching and learning about whats going on in Union County. I only wish we could get a petition going to move these meetings out of Elizabeth. If I recall, the meetings were held in Union and they moved them to Elizabeth because there wasn’t enough room for all the people attending those meetings. I viewed some of the meetings in Elizabeth and really they could of held them in a barber shop for the amount of people attending today. The real reason they moved them to Elizabeth was to avoid having to answer to all the people who use to attend. Any chance of starting a petition to move the meetings elsewhere, with better parking and a lower crime rate?
Anyway, please keep up the great work all of you are doing. Perhaps someday the people of Union County will wake up. I wish you were a freeholder! Thanks again, Bill
That was a great show. It was just right. It didn’t have special effects and it didn’t have pontification. It was beautiful!….Charlie
Bravo! Thank you! …..Patti
Tina, Bruce, John…..I very much enjoyed your second “Union County Citizen’s Forum”…..you are doing a wonderful job and should be very proud of what you’ve accomplished……I also think that taking the “high road” and refraining from using ridicule, intimidation and disrespectful comments only serve to lend more credibility to you and your organization…..those who practice such language/tactics only accentuate their ignorance and poor breeding…I know it is difficult to resist the temptation, but don’t sink to their level……we’re all watching…..you are showing others how mature, intelligent adults should conduct themselves when discussing matters of mutual concern–whether or not they agree or disagree on the issues…..
Tina Renna is the President of the Union County Watchdog Association. She can be reached at email@example.com