The afternoon NJMMA panel session at the 2021 NJLM Conference in Atlantic City discussed recent events in regards to COVID-19. Panelists provided important factors to consider for planning and operating a municipality before, during and after a global pandemic.

This panel discussion was moderated by Ray M. Codey, Administrator of Madison Borough and featured Gregory J. Bonin, Administrator of Branchburg Township, Matthew Giacobbe Esq., Trustee, NJILGA, Cleary Giacobbe Alfieri Jacobs, LLC, Michael F. Rogers, Administrator of Summit City, Robert H. Conley Mayor of Madison Borough and Thaddeus J. Kobylarz, Mayor of Chatham Borough.

During the ongoing pandemic, local governments were required to make drastic changes to keep up with a constantly evolving “new normal.” Municipalities were required to change the way they operate and prioritize new ways of offering services to citizens.

The session started off based on the pre pandemic world and panelists were able to explain how they transitioned and adjusted to the first COVID-19 cases that started to pop up in towns throughout New Jersey. Municipalities faced all sorts of challenges—one of the greatest being something you might not expect: communication. Specifically, a lack of communication and coordination.

“If you didn't have a full time communications officer you were probably in trouble,” said Mike Rogers. “Municipalities were struggling with taking information in and disseminating information to the public in a timely manner.”

Another challenge that strained municipalities was the uncertainty of the pandemic, and a serious lack of experience or preparation for dealing with such uncertainty. All panelists present were able to confirm that during the COVID-19 pandemic, vulnerable communities were affected more so than any other group. They found that municipalities need to actively listen to the needs of community members in these neighborhoods and collaborate to enact services and programs that work like food delivery services and programs for kids.

As the pandemic recedes, it’s vital for municipalities to take stock of what they learned and start putting these lessons into practice immediately. In the post pandemic portion of this session, panelists discussed expectations within their towns such as mask and vaccination mandates and continuing practices like outdoor dining and working from home.

Matthew Giacobbe advised that any borough managers struggling with topics like vaccination mandates in the workplace and labor unions reach out to their lawyers. A myriad of vaccine mandate non-compliance issues have made their way into the courts and local government lawyers will have a good idea of what can and can’t be said in terms of mandates.

A few takeaway points were made at the end of the session. They were to listen to your community, and to plan for program sustainability. Doing so will go a long way in the short-term, helping with further vaccinations and economic recovery measures. And in the long-term, these practices can make local government more efficient and effective.