Records reveal effort to silence public on Atlantic City needle exchange closure
Protestors rally in support of keeping an Atlantic City needle exchange program open on Aug. 11. (Courtesy of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition)
When the Atlantic City Council voted in July to stop permitting a local needle exchange to operate, the governing body performed a disservice to its own community, one struggling with opioid addiction and HIV infections.
The governing body’s rejection of a center that has proven critical to battling the opioid crisis has been well documented by needle exchange supporters. But the council also treated the public poorly by limiting their ability to comment on its actions at the July 21 meeting.
At best, the council did not give the public a proper chance to weigh in. At worst, it actively blocked critical voices from speaking out.
How do we know this? A Zoom chat log produced after a public-records request shows residents were pleading to be heard even as the council’s president, George Tibbitt, declared their chance to chime in was over.
At a traditional public meeting in the Before Times, a council member prematurely ending a public hearing would result in boos from the crowd. In the pandemic era, those waiting to speak were relegated to objecting in a Zoom chatroom that was unseen by the public and easily ignored by the council.
“THAT IS NOT ALL,” said Jenna Mellor, the director of New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition. “Several people have their hands raised.”
“Hey there are people who have their hands raised,” wrote Louis Di Paolo, communications director for New Jersey Policy Perspective.
“What happened to the people with their hands raised who were kicked off the call repeatedly?” said Caitlin O’Neill.
To be fair, not everyone was prevented from speaking. The public comment cut-off came nearly four hours into the meeting and about 90 minutes into the hearing on the needle exchange program.
But 90 minutes was clearly not enough for the public to speak out on this vital issue. It’s not clear whether Tibbitt could see that the chatroom was filled with members of the public asking to speak, but a city official had been responding to chats earlier in the evening, so someone working for Atlantic City could see them. Tibbitt did not respond to a request for comment.
I’ve covered countless public meetings where the public’s comments have stretched for hours. And, yes, often members of the public can be mean-spirited, uninformed, or “Parks and Recreation”-level bizarre. But that did not appear to be the case in Atlantic City on July 21, when people with a legitimate stake in the health and well-being of the city’s residents were blocked from speaking.
It must be terribly exhausting for elected officials to hear from the people they represent, but that’s the job they signed up for. And just because they have the ability to host meetings remotely and mute their potential critics doesn’t make the act any less wrong.
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Terrence T. McDonald