By Chris Rotolo |
LITTLE SILVER – Monday evening Mayor Robert Neff sat in front of his laptop in a vacant municipal courtroom, fully engaged in an official Q&A session with residents from his town.
It was a town hall forum, by way of Facebook Live. Throughout the session the mayor posed various topics of conversation and deftly fielded pressing questions from some constituents of his town, population about 6,000.
It’s not something many other local politicians have attempted.
“I don’t think I had butterflies in my stomach about doing this live, but I was a little nervous because I wasn’t sure how many residents would take part,” Neff said. “I was nervous that their questions might stop and we’d have to cut it short. But they kept coming and we actually went over time by a few minutes.”
The mayor received 16 questions throughout the 33-minute session, which peaked at 41 concurrent online viewers. But since it aired, users have viewed the archived recording more than 1,000 times. The conversation continues, with viewers posting additional follow-up questions and the administration responding with answers.
Inspired by similar sessions conducted by Brick Township Mayor John Ducey, Neff saw these Facebook Live sessions as a potential method to reach residents where they are – online.
Neff credited Councilwoman Corinne Thygeson for her hours of research on this new method of audience connection, as well as the time she spent with him planning for potential topics that could arise.
“This was really Corinne’s initiative. If you have a council member who has an interest, and takes the lead to coordinate it all, you can pull off a very successful production like we just had. I can’t thank her enough for the hours she put in.”
They also tried to anticipate the technical difficulties.
His MacBook, decorated with tropical pineapple stickers, was carefully placed atop a stack of books and manuals to align the laptop’s camera with his face so he could sit up straight. He did two or three dry runs and found glitches every time.
“When you run into issues people like to say, ‘Just have your aide do it or call your IT department to handle that or don’t you have a public relations person?’ All those things are me!” said Neff, an attorney who once worked as a newspaper reporter.
Neff took questions on a wide range of topics, from sidewalk maintenance and garbage pickup, to the liquor license that was passed by a referendum vote two years ago.
He explained the liquor license was recently auctioned off and purchased for $300,000 by a company called Brickwall at Little Silver, a group comprised of local residents and those who own and operate The Brickwall Tavern & Dining Room in Asbury Park, who will soon be proposing a similar establishment for the borough that would be located adjacent to the NJ Transit train station parking lot. It was revealed in the broadcast that the Planning Board is still awaiting an application for site plan approval for that bar and restaurant.
Neff also touched upon the town’s controversial cell tower and said the Borough Council is not attempting to break the 25-year lease agreement between Little Silver and Verizon. In hopes of quelling public concerns about potentially harmful radio waves emitted from the tower, the mayor was adamant that the structure has been tested and is well within federal guidelines.
One of the final questions posed to Neff was about the municipality’s stance on marijuana and if the borough had an ordinance in place banning cannabis sales in its 2.7-square-mile town. The mayor made a distinction between the use of medical marijuana, as opposed to the sale of recreational products, stating, “The selling of marijuana within town shops isn’t something Little Silver would be excited about. And neither would our law enforcement officials.”
Neff went on to explain that the borough does not currently have an ordinance in place banning its sale primarily because the substance is still illegal in New Jersey. However, he does anticipate that such a proposal to ban these types of shops will come before the council in the near future.
When he was finished, Neff said the session was fun, and he got great feedback.
But whether the method will gain popularity among other Two River-area leaders remains to be seen. Middletown Mayor Stephanie Murray isn’t completely ruling it out.
“Considering that over 80 percent of the U.S. population has a social networking profile, it makes sense for governments to adapt and communicate that way,” Murray said. “We’re not currently using Facebook Live to interact with our residents, but we are communicating across a number of social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.”
Murray also spoke to the importance of accessibility, specifically in-person meetings, saying, “I truly enjoy meeting with residents at my open office hours and I don’t plan on replacing those face-to-face interactions with technological ones.”
Neff’s Facebook session can be viewed on the Borough of Little Silver Facebook page.
This article was first published in the March 15-22, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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