South River transparency task force seeks public opinions

SOUTH RIVER – Striving to strengthen the bridge of borough openness among residents, the Transparency and Open Government Task Force is seeking public comments.

The task force is the Green Team subcommittee that was established on Oct. 24, according to Councilwoman Sandra Adelino. She is  the Borough Council’s liaison to the Green Team.

“To accomplish its fact-finding, the task force is seeking comments from the public about their experiences accessing information or dealing with public entities,” Adelino said in a statement.

The task force’s purpose is to examine the municipal and school governments’ internal and website efforts at making public information available and engaging citizens, according to Adelino.

“During 2018, the Green Team began reviewing municipal public information and access to that information as part of its Sustainable Jersey actions,” she said. “Those actions cover public information and engagement more specifically, developing a municipal communications strategy, improving public engagement in municipal government, improving public engagement in planning and zoning, implementing online municipal public service systems, and digitizing public information.”

Adelino said creating a panel to review these issues is not unusual among Green Teams.

“South River’s Green Team is taking a different approach by learning about the workings of the law and interactions of public officials with residents, examining best practices of other municipalities, and inviting public comment into the process,” she said. “The Green Team acknowledges members had experienced some difficulty of their own obtaining government information from their own town, in both official and private citizen instances. Members have heard complaints from the community about difficulties as well. The task force’s work is not to assign blame, but to identify challenges and present solutions.”

Adelino said during the past year a wide range of initiatives were undertaken by the council to improve public information and interaction, which included the municipal website, the Do-It suite of online and app-based interfaces with the public, outreach on social media and the Monthly Buzz insert in utility bills.

“On the school district side of things, the school board has improved its website in recent years, uses social media to promote school events, and has started placing meeting recordings online,” Adelino said. “The Green Team is asking, ‘Are we as a town doing enough or should we do more? What are we getting right and what are we getting wrong?'”

The members of the task force are Mark Barry, who chairs the Green Team; Miguel Ribau, Angela Cadenas, Orly Tamayo, Ruell Brown, Bella Silva and Irina DaSilva, who are all borough residents; and Rochelle Kipnis, a former reporter.

The task force is tentatively scheduled to meet at 12:45 p.m. Dec. 14 in the municipal building, 48 Washington St. If those times change, an update will be posted on the Green Team Facebook page and blog, according to Adelino.

“The Green Team is aware of public criticism and accolades of local government and the school district on public information access,” Adelino said. “The task force wants to be sure it includes as much comment as possible so it does not operate in a vacuum.”

Once all of the residents’ comments have been reviewed by the task force, Adelino said if there are critical comments, the task force will identify ways to improve. There may be additional training or office infrastructure changes that need to be made.

“Next steps include looking at benchmark towns like Princeton and West Orange [that are] municipalities recognized as doing things better with public information and engaging citizenry. How does our town compare?” Adelino said. “The task force will also gain knowledge from public officials in other towns that do it better. There may be challenges we in South River are unaware of that are not unique to other towns.”

Adelino said input will be solicited from open government groups such as the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government. The task force is also learning about the Open Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act and proposed updates to those laws pending in the Legislature.

Residents may email comments to southrivergreenteam@gmail.com. Residents should state whether their comments are related to borough government or the South River School District. Those who wish their comments to remain anonymous can visit an online form that requires no personal information at bit.ly/SRTOG.

For more information about the Transparency and Open Government Taskforce, visit www.southrivergreenteam.blogspot.com or its Facebook page.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.