Is Evesham Mayor Randy Brown acting like a jerk? That's just one of many questions left to linger at the South Jersey town's recent public meetings.
Brown has acquired a degree of infamy by declaring that he and the rest of the Township Council would no longer answer residents' questions during meetings, as The Inquirer's Jan Hefler reported last week. While members of the public are still allowed to speak, any response or acknowledgment by officials has been deemed optional since January. "It's a public comment period, not public question-and-answer," Brown explained to the Star-Ledger. But if the mayor will excuse the term, his policy raises plenty of questions.
The impetus was a contentious meeting in December during which Brown took strenuous exception to a couple of curious constituents. The mayor, who is also a kicking coach for the Baltimore Ravens, repeatedly raised his voice to a bellow fit for a stadium. One questioner concluded that he was "acting like a jerk."
Since putting an end to such dialogue, the mayor and other council members have maintained that they take plenty of questions from residents they run into at the supermarket, youth sports matchups, and the like. Brown has contrasted such acceptable private petitions with what he considers the incessant needling of a small cadre of political opponents trying to turn his meetings into "the Spanish Inquisition." Ignoring attempts to torture him into discussing tax abatements and library repairs - two of the seemingly legitimate issues raised recently - will, Brown asserts, make the meetings more "efficient."
Of course, most democracies would be more efficient without public rancor over politics and policy. They just wouldn't be democracies.
Granted, local government meetings can become platforms for gadflies with whom constant colloquy is counterproductive. Many councils and boards allot a portion of their meetings to public comments and respond later instead of engaging in a back-and-forth. Some of Evesham's council members took that reasonable tack in recent meetings, addressing the public's questions in due course.
But conspicuously disregarding public comments altogether, as Brown has vowed to do, smacks of antidemocratic arrogance. It's that much more troubling that The Inquirer found other towns in the region to be taking similar steps.