Open Government Advocacy Project
The Open Government Advocacy Project is a committee of the NJ Libertarian Party. Its goal is to ensure transparency and accountability at all levels of government. Articles posted here are a subset of the work of the committee. For more information visit the Open Government Advocacy Project blog.
If you would like to demand accountability and ensure that your local governing body or school board adheres to the Open Public Records Act we can help you request information from them. Contact John Paff, the project chair here.
On June 2, 2009, the Open Government Advocacy Project filed a complaint with the Hasbrouck Heights (Bergen County) Ethical Standards Board alleging that twenty-six Borough officials failed to file the Financial Disclosure Statements that were due on April 30, 2008.
I recently was informed that the Ethical Standards Board will meet on August 10, 2009 to "determine the penalty that shall be imposed upon those who were charged with respect to violation of the 2008 Financial Disclosure Statement." The meeting, which will start at 8 p.m. and be held at Borough Hall, 320 Boulevard, is open to the public.
The officials could each be fined between $100 and $500.
The complaint and notice of the meeting are on-line at http://ogtf.lpcnj.org/2009208PC//HHEthComplaint.pdf
John Paff, Chair
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Open Government Advocacy Project
The North Plainfield Citizens for Community Rights (NPCCR) has submitted a petition to the North Plainfield Borough Council that will force a "Sunshine" referendum to the ballot. The referendum, if approved by the voters, will require the Borough government to be much more open and transparent. A copy of the petition is on-line a here.
The NPCCR was able to do this because North Plainfield has a form of government chartered under the Optional Municipal Charter Law of 1950 (OMCL), also known as the Faulkner Act. All such forms of government allow citizens to bypass their elected officials and put binding laws on the ballot for voter approval.
More information on the OMCL and an unverified list of municipalities that have Faulkner charters are, respectively, at the following links:
Readers living in a Faulkner municipality should consider petitioning for a referendum similar to North Plainfield's. Those living in a non-Faulkner municipality should consider petitioning for adoption of a Faulkner charter (see N.J.S.A. 40:69A-1 et seq.)
Somerset, New Jersey
The Sen. Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act (N.J.S.A. 10:4-14) requires public bodies to make their meeting minutes "promptly available." But, what does this mean?
Here are the cases that I know about that shed some light on this question.
Following is the text of a letter I sent to the Government Records Council today following up on my earlier requests for a rule change allowing records requestors to submit requests on either the agency's specific request form or the GRC's model request form. The letter, with attachments, is on-line HERE.
In a March 25, 2009 letter, the High Bridge (Hunterdon County) Board of Education agreed that its committees (e.g. Policy Committee, Personnel Committee, etc.) will now take minutes of their meetings. This change was made in response to a March 6, 2009 request from the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. The request and the response are available HERE.
Readers may wish to submit an OPRA request for the minutes of their local school boards' committee meetings. If they find that the committees do not take minutes of their meetings (i.e. if the OPRA request is answered "there are no responsive records") they may wish to send the correspondence at the above link to the board members and ask that they consider adopting the High Bridge Board's procedure.
In a published decision released today (March 17, 2009), the Appellate Division held that the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) did not permit Monmouth County to withhold from the public an agreement that the county entered into to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. The Appellate Division also ruled that the Asbury Park Press and I, who had filed separate OPRA lawsuits seeking access to the settlement agreement, were entitled to recover our attorney fees from the county. I was represented by attorney Walter Luers at both the trial court and the appellate levels.
The decision is on-line at NJ Judiciary website.
ANDOVER TWP. -- Andover Township is expected to be the latest municipality to make its government records more financially accessible to the public.
The Township Committee unanimously introduced an ordinance Monday night significantly lowering costs of all paper documents and audio recordings of meetings.
Paper copies will cost 7 cents per page, and CD audio recordings of meetings will cost 40 cents each, if the ordinance is approved.
Andover Township also added another layer of transparency to its meetings, by explaining the individual topics of their executive session to the public Monday evening. A general rundown of those privileged topics, which often involve personnel issues or litigation, is a goal of many open government advocates such as O'Shea and John Paff, who chairs the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project.
The NJ Libertarian Party Open Government task force has been uncovering unadvertised settlements between government entities. The following recently appeared in the Hunterdon County Democrat.
$245K paid to settle police brutality suits
by Veronica Slaght / Hunterdon County DemocratWednesday January 14, 2009, 12:29 PM
READINGTON TWP. -- Two police brutality lawsuits were settled for a total of $245,000, according to agreements recently unearthed by open public records advocate John Paff.
Mr. Paff is a Somerset resident who runs the state Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. He has also pressed the High Bridge and Franklin Township school boards for more openness. Mr. Paff said he came across the Readington documents during a routine investigation into civil cases involving a government agency, which he posts on his blog: njcivilsettlements.blogspot.com. Mr. Paff said he thought people might be interested in the payouts because that's information municipalities don't like to advertise.
EDISON — Public discussion on a controversial ordinance that, if passed, would amend various rules of procedure in Township Council meetings is set for tonight's Jan. 14 meeting. Aimed at increasing the efficiency at which township business is conducted, it has been heavily critiqued by some residents as restricting free speech.
The ordinance, introduced on Dec. 22, contains many provisions that would either change how meetings are conducted or clarify current practices. One part, for example, lays out the specific procedure for how a special meeting can be called and who can call one. Similarly, the ordinance explicitly lays out the process by which the budget is examined, discussed and adopted.
See full story. Includes mention of the NJ Libertarian Party Open Government Taskforce's role in shaping the ordinance.
In an unpublished trial court decision released today, Bergen County Superior Court Assignment Judge Peter E. Doyne denied Paramus Borough's lawsuit seeking a declaration that the Borough Attorney must review all non-routine OPRA requests submitted to the Borough Clerk.
The decision is available HERE..
Somerset, New Jersey
At a special meeting to be held on January 14, 2009, at 7 p.m. the Rutherford Mayor and Council will discuss amendments to the Council's bylaws.
In its January 12, 2009 letter, the Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project offered some comments and suggestions regarding Rutherford's bylaws. That letter, along with a copy of the present bylaws, is on-line HERE.
John Paff, Chair
Open Government Advocacy Project
New Jersey Libertarian Party
Rules in Central Jersey towns vary widely as Edison weighs limit on public-meeting comments
EDISON —As the debate over curbing public comment at Township Council meetings continues, a survey of neighboring municipalities shows that most do not limit public comment at their meetings.
The portion of the proposed ordinance that has ignited public ire in Edison seeks to limit individuals to speaking just once on each of the categories of business on the meeting's agenda, with a limit of four minutes each time.
See full article. Includes comments of the NJ Libertarian Party Open Government Taskforce.
Paterson pays $10,000 to settle vaguely worded police abuse case. On May 28, 2008, the City of Paterson paid $10,000 to a local man who had sued the City and Paterson Police officers John Plelan and Frank Motta in August 2007 for an alleged police "assault" occurring on October 6, 2005.
In his cryptically worded civil lawsuit, Alex Lopez claimed that the officers, along with other unnamed officers, "committed an assault and battery upon" him and "committed acts which constituted false imprisonment." No further details are provided in the lawsuit. Lopez was represented in his lawsuit by Alan Roth, Esq. of Bendit Weinstock, P.C. of West Orange.
Although Thomas Wachendorf's and Christopher Strobel's brutality lawsuits against the Readington Township police have received a fair amount of publicity (see, e.g. the January 4, 2007 Star Ledger article, which is set forth at the foot of this posting), the amount of their settlements with Readington have not been publicly disclosed until now.
In a settlement reached January 23, 2007, Thomas J. Wachendorf settled his case against the Readington Township and officers Christopher DeWire and Scott Crater for $45,000. This figure has not previously been released probably because both Wachendorf and the Township agreed that "the terms and conditions of [their] settlement and the claims upon it was based shall remain confidential in so far as permitted by law." This confidentiality agreement cannot, however, defeat a citizen's right to gain access to it by way of an Open Public Records Act request.