njslom conference 2014photo: Senators Sweeney and Kean and former Governor Florio chat before legislative leaders panel.  (NJSLOM facebook)

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities held it 99th annual conference at the Atlantic City Convention Center from November 18-20, 2014.  The conference brings together citizens, elected and appointed municipal officials, and municipal professional service organizations to share information.  

 

"The Conference is an invaluable learning experience which yields benefits throughout the year. Delegates have the opportunity to learn and ask questions at more than 100 panels, clinics, workshops, and other sessions conducted by the League and the 21 associations of technical and professional employees allied with it. Commercial, government and association exhibits display the latest products and services for municipal government. Typically, more than 17,000 delegates, participants and guests attended, and for years this has been the largest municipal gathering in the country," according to the League website.

Highlands resident, Carolyn Broullon (pronounced 'brew-yawn'), a declared candidate for Highlands Council next November, attended several sessions of the conference.  "I thought this would be a good way to educate myself on municipal happenings in other towns.", Ms. Broullon said.   The Herald asked Ms. Broullon to share her notes on the conference and her "take-aways for the implications to Highlands"  

-  editor

 

NJSLOM CONFERENCE NOTES AND IMPLICATIONS TO HIGHLANDS

by Carolyn Broullon

Attending this conference was at once informative as well as eye-opening as to how the different municipalities conduct business and interact with their citizens. As one of many private citizens who attended, I was able to see a glimpse of the process from a viewpoint residents rarely see. Following are my notes from the sessions I attended. Some session presentations and handouts can be found on the NJLM website at: http://www.njslom.org/99thconf/conf-presentations.html

Tuesday – 11/18/14 – Walked the Exhibit Hall

I met with many vendors from municipal equipment to alternative energy back-up systems for emergencies.

Wednesday – 11/19/14 – Facebook & Twitter Setting up your Municipal Social Media Step by Step and Social Media Etiquette

FB & Twitter can be used as effective tools for crisis management as well as citizen engagement. Some guidelines when setting up municipal accounts include:

  • using a town email address NOT a personal one;
  • always name sources to media when speaking for the town;
  • post at least 1-2 times per day;
  • decide if you want an interactive [two-way] engagement or if you just want to post information;
  • keep messages short and to the point.
  • If not an interactive platform, provide a way for residents to send questions that will be reviewed by town officials.

Other highlights for having an official town presence on social media discussed: provide community OEM action plan for disasters and keep residents informed; educate community how to protect their possessions and how to use their own resources to prepare for disaster as well as recovery. Beyond disaster information, social media can help residents and municipal governments interact in a more immediate and effective manner.

The panel consisted of the Mayor of Clinton Town, NJLM Web & Internet advisory, Director of Communication for Cherry Hill, Director of Community Development for West Windsor and Deputy Mayor of Chatham Township.

My take-away - implications for Highlands:

1. Who will be the “official” poster to the FB page? The speakers were from larger towns that have offices such as “Department of Communications” and “Director of Community Development” other towns mentioned having their “Business Administrator” or “Director of IT” manage their FB page[s]. We have none of these positions in Highlands.
2. Will our town ask John Schneider to take over the management of his existing, “non-official” HIGHLANDS New Jersey page and make that the Official FB page of Highlands? As of 11/29/14, that page has a reach of 2003 members.
3. There was a thoughtful discussion of 1st Amendment rights during the session where the full text of that amendment was shown on the attorney’s first slide. Highlighted in red was the phrase: ABRIDGING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Many residents here are still debating the legality of subjecting committee members and volunteers to the language of 14-220 passed on 10/22/14. The attorney’s full presentation is here:http://www.njslom.org/99thconf/conf-presentations/2014troubleshooting%20Potential%20Legal%20Issues-Tara.pdf

Wednesday – 11/19/14 – Electricity 101 Understanding the Power Grid

Speakers from the NJ Board of Public Utilities and the Mayor of Robbinsville discussed how municipalities can better communicate with utilities during storm events as well as how we can effectively prepare for storms.

  • Having the BPU know who is in charge locally can provide smoother transitions when we lose services. Contact information for the point person, whether OEM or the Administrator should always be up-to-date.
  • Social media was mentioned as the best way to get the municipal message out to a great many people. Reverse 911 calls no longer reach as many as it used to due to people having packages with FIOS or cable companies – these services do not work when we lose power.
  • Other topics were natural gas or solar back-up systems for essential services. Solar grid-tied systems installed and owned by the municipality were also mentioned as a way to generate income.

My take-away - implications for Highlands:

1. With so much of our infrastructure either broken of out-of-date, can we leverage grants or existing cash to plan a command center that is out of harm’s way and self-sufficient from the grid.
2. Can we work with BPU to set up a “test-town” where they can help the investment of off the grid infrastructure for emergencies?

Wednesday – 11/19/14 – Crisis Management-Will You Be Ready?

This was a great session for what to do when the unexpected happens. Steps were outlined to have a plan of action setup in advance of man-made or natural disasters on how to protect residents. Issues discussed were how elected officials and emergency management personnel get the tools to needed to deal with events including: preparedness planning, dissemination of information, continuity of operations, sharing intelligence, and using resources from country, state and federal. Speakers ranged from the Mayor of Hope to 2 officers of Homeland Security, to FEMA and the Red Cross.
This session referenced the Stafford Act multiple times. The act was passed by congress in 1988 to foster continued and orderly assistance from the federal government to state and local governments to relieve hardship and damage that result from disasters.

Vital issues we should consider BEFORE an event happens:

  • Does the municipality have an evacuation & transportation plan for affected residents? How large of an area?
  • How will you cordon off the area?
  • Does your community have a pre-selected command post?
  • Does evacuated area have Megan’s law registrants?
  • What is a resident will not leave a pet behind?
  • Who is responsible if evacuated homes are burglarized?
  • Who decides of schools should be closed?
  • How are you communicating with your residents?
  • Do you know if hazardous materials are being transported through your town?

Rules for dealing with the media were outlined as follows:

  • Most area residents will decide their perception on how the event is being handled through the news media.
  • Give regular, scheduled media updates throughout the event.
  • Use social media to get your message out [this was stressed repeatedly].
  • Residents want to see a familiar face so chose your point person well. Remember your area of expertise, if it’s not your area; introduce the expert that can answer questions.
  • Know what your message is.

My take-away - implications for Highlands:

1. Highlands should release a detailed “what to do in case of emergency plan” for residents.
2. Residents should know where the command center is even if we are still in the FEMA trailers. HES? HHRS? New Firehouse?

Wednesday – 11/19/14 – Government Energy Aggregation: Saving Your Residents Money

An interesting review of how community savings programs can buy power as a group such as Highlands currently does for sewer services. The theory in practice looks at the delivery vs power generation portion of your electric bill. This would allow the municipality to purchase electricity [power generation] on the behalf of residents with so many in one group electric rates would be lower. The delivery would still be handled by JCP&L and all equipment would remain the same. On the panel were the Mayor of Montgomery, NJLM Public Utility Counsel, BPU, DCA, Sustainable NJ, and Energy Market Exchange.

The process is to find an energy aggregation consultant, have them write up a RFP for an Energy Supply contact [no outlay of money,] they are paid as a percentage of power generation fee. There is a FREE Local Government Energy Audit to see if this would be a good route for Highlands. It was noted that seniors would be most resistant to change, so it’s best to win over the biggest resistance by holding preliminary public meetings at senior centers. If it’s decided to move forward, it’s important to note that consumers are in the program as an opt-out basis [you are in the program unless you chose not to be] where all businesses are the reverse and they are not included unless they opt-in.

There are currently 36 municipalities involved in GEA.

My take-away - implications for Highlands:

1. Highlands should look into the free energy audit to see if this is a good fit for us.
2. If we do proceed and use NJ based power generation and/or renewables, Sustainable NJ offers points for CRM

Thursday – 11/20/14 – League Joint Session with the NJPO: A New Round for COAH

Admittedly, I ducked out of this session early to go to the Municipal Failures and Administrative Disconnects that started at 10am. The Mayor of East Windsor presided along with an attorney, professional Planner and the president of Community Investment strategies. An update was provided on the status of COAH’s proposed regulations, focused on the issues of interest to municipalities and how local officials can plan for affordable housing. The biggest change going forward, in my opinion, was this following round 3 proposed change: Proposed new N.J.A.C. 5:99-1.1 emphasizes that the core focus of the Mt. Laurel doctrine is that zoning available land is the preferred means of meeting a municipality’s affordable housing obligation, allowing alternate means where available land is insufficient. To ensure that the sites selected for affordable housing are realistic from an economic perspective, the rules require an economic feasibility study. The rules also establish a minimum affordable housing set-aside of 10 percent subject to appropriate adjustments.

My take-away for implications to Highlands:

1. As part of the Master Plan, Highlands should change zoning as appropriate to meet the needs of affordable housing.

Thursday – 11/20/14 – Superstorm Sandy – Municipal Failures and Administrative Disconnects

This session was ear-marked for Building Officials. The Business Administrator/Construction Official of Hazlet, Electrical/Building official of Rumson and Code/Zoning Official of Scotch Plains Township delivered an amazing presentation of the aftermath of the storm and how they dealt with code nightmares. This one session gave me the most information as to how to learn from issues that arose from Sandy and how it changed our live as well as how we should look at emergency events in the future.

One statement reiterated many times:

Municipalities need to have back-up power for emergency events.

Electronic back up to town servers need to be cloud based to access information when we have no power. There should always be paper back-up when electronic devices are not able to be used. Other items of necessity: hand held radios, blue tooth printers, paper street maps, staples, staple guns duct tape, caution tape – sounds silly but most municipalities didn’t have these rudimentary supplies.

In cases of town-wide evacuation, code officials need to use buddy system in case they run into looters, or other unsavory persons.

An official town Facebook and/or Twitter account is instrumental in getting word to citizens. A frequently updated website can alleviate town official’s workloads and residents anxiety during an event. This presence can help to organize volunteers, manage different emergency responders and provide vital information that can be dispatched quickly.

Other issues discussed were: fitness for duty not enforced;

  • OEM has a direct line to DCA and must use it;
  • most municipalities do not have plans nor provide direction in cases of emergency;
  • municipalities do not provide basic personal protection equipment for inspector safety. There are free classes for safety training and ways to get equipment provided from the county and state are discussed.

Note: the scanner was broken for this session so it is not noted in the attendance record above. We had to sign-in the old fashioned way, on paper.

My take-away - implications for Highlands:

1. Highlands needs an official social media presence.
2. We need backup code officials in town to mitigate response when our lead officials do not live in Highlands i.e. Construction Official, Flood Plain, Code Enforcement.
3. Before disaster strikes, we need a plan.

Thursday – 11/20/14 – Resiliency Part 2-CHP/Fuel Cells

This may be a plan for Highlands beyond 2020 if we utilize hydro power of the Shrewsbury River. This session’s primary focus was on how municipalities can sustain storm damage through on-site power generation. The Energy Plant Manager of Princeton University discussed how the power generation used through the school provided much needed resources for Combined Heat & Power [CHP]. Other speakers included the Mayor of Toms River, PBU and the Camden County Municipal Utilities Advisor.

Princeton University generated their own power and was able to sustain their students as well as provide an evacuation center for neighboring communities. Other micro grid environments discussed were solar turbines and natural gas. Micro grid solutions can power small electronics to help keep residents informed of changes.

My take-away for implications to Highlands:

1. Highlands needs to look to an off-the-grid solution to power outages.

 

 

The 100th annual conference will be held November 17-19, 2015 at the Atlantic City Convention Center.