After two months of refusing to answer questions from residents during the public portion of Evesham Township Council meetings, Mayor Randy Brown broke his silence Tuesday night.
Brown and the four other members of the all-Republican council interacted with residents by answering questions, sharing concerns, and offering explanations.
"I see tonight things have changed, and I compliment the council for that," said Kenneth Mills, an 81-year-old resident who frequently attends meetings and who had complained about the mayor's recent policy of not responding to questions. Mills said he would abandon his plan to again ask Brown and the council to reconsider the policy, calling his prepared remarks "moot."
Nearly 60 people - more than usual - attended the meeting, and Mills said he believed the crowd might have played a role in the reversal. He said he hoped the goodwill would continue.
Brown had argued with Mills and another resident at a December meeting and had become increasingly agitated, as can be heard in an recording of the meeting. After that, he asked the town solicitor to clarify the difference between public comments and "public question and answer." He decided that council members would not engage in debate with residents but would only listen to comments and then answer questions during time for council remarks at the end of the meeting, if they wanted to.
The rest of the council for the most part complied, but some residents were outraged and government-watchdog groups expressed concerns about shutting the public out.
Brown answered questions Tuesday night about a $1.5 million artificial-turf field the township will buy through a bond ordinance and about how he makes appointments to the senior citizen advisory committee, among other topics.
"We want to continue to attract people to the town," he said, explaining his support for the athletic field. Brown, a kicking coach for the Baltimore Ravens, also said there was no truth to claims the field could cause health problems, as some residents had suggested.
He kept his emotions in check and toned down his comments, except when he told one resident, "That's my answer whether you like it or not."
At one point, when a redevelopment plan was being voted upon, Brown recused himself because he owned one of the commercial properties that was acquired by developers a few months ago and might get a tax abatement.
Residents wanted to ask about that, but Solicitor John Gillespie said the public-comment period on that issue was closed. Residents complained they had misunderstood and asked for the right to be heard, but Gillespie said rules should be followed.
After people complained, the council passed a resolution to allow additional public comment.