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.
by Linda Baum / edited by Walter Luers, esq.
New Jersey Foundation For Open Government
New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA), effective in July 2002, is one of the best tools the public has to obtain information about what government is doing.
OPRA requests must be in writing. While many governmental entities have a specific form for this purpose, you are not required to use it. In fact, legally you can send an email request, with the description of the records you are seeking in the body of the email itself. Importantly, the email must clearly state “OPRA request” in the email. Also, you should include your name, address, phone number and email address so the records custodian may contact you. (There is no legal requirement to identify yourself when making an OPRA request – the OPRA law allows you to submit a request anonymously.)
09/07/13 Update: The case has been scheduled for a hearing before Hon. Mary C. Jacobson, A.J.S.C. in Trenton on Wednesday, October 30, 2013 at 11 a.m. The signed Order to Show Cause is on-line here.
When you see a police car protecting a construction site on a public roadway, the taxpayers are probably not paying that officer's salary. Instead, the construction or utility company pays the police agency for the officer's salary and for use of the police car and the agency in turn pays the salary over to the officer. This is known as "extra-duty" and can be a lucrative source of income for local police officers.
I requested to know the amount of "extra-duty" pay a particular Ewing Township (Mercer County) police officer received during 2012, but the Township denied my request. The Township's position is that "payment for voluntary, off-duty work paid by a third party does not involve the expenditure of public funds" and is not a public record.
Following is my July 15, 2013 letter to the asking it to a) adopt my more precise and informative form of closed session resolution and b) to stop discussing general policy matters in closed session. Unfortunately, violations such as these are common among local governments.
I encourage readers to submit Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests to their own town councils and/or school boards. Simply request "the resolutions, as required by N.J.S.A. 10:4-13, authorizing the three most recent closed or executive sessions held by [name of governing body]." If you receive resolutions that, like Winslow's, describe the closed session topics broadly and vaguely, you may want to modify the form of resolution I sent to Winslow for your town and/or school board and encourage them to adopt it.
A judge has ordered that a report on a Egg Harbor Township police officer found asleep at the wheel at a light in Northfield be made public.
John Paff, Chair of the NJ Libertarian Party Open Government Advocacy Project, tried to obtain the report in 2011 however Northfield refused to release the report. He filed suit to have the report released.
In a twenty-three page opinion issued on June 25, 2013, Atlantic County Superior Court Assignment Judge Julio L. Mendez ruled that the public is allowed to see a report written by Egg Harbor Township Police Sergeant Michael Hughes soon after Northfield Police found an off-duty Egg Harbor Township officer named Jeffrey Lancaster asleep behind the wheel of his personal vehicle during the early morning hours of February 27, 2011. Judge Mendez's opinion and order are on-line here and background on the lawsuit is on-line here.
Judge Mendez found that since there was no internal affairs investigation pending at the time Hughes wrote his report, it was not subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) exception that restricts access to records that "pertain to an investigation in progress." Judge Mendez, noting that police officers serve "in a position of trust" found that disclosure of the report "will only fortify the trust and credibility afforded to the Egg Harbor Township police department by its citizenry."
The court did allow certain "legitimately confidential information" to be redacted from Hughes' report and denied access to Lancaster's preliminary and final disciplinary records that arose from the incident.
Today, June 21, 2013, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court affirmed a lower court's dismissal of Michael Taffaro's false arrest lawsuit against the Borough of Ridgefield and Borough Mayor Anthony A. Suarez. The court's opinion is on-line here.
According to the opinion, Taffaro, who claimed to have been put on Suarez's persona non grata list after having publicly criticized him during his mayoral campaign, had been convicted of fourth degree contempt,had been convicted of fourth degree contempt, a conviction that was later reversed by the New Jersey Supreme Court. But, before the Supreme Court's reversal of the conviction, Taffaro had submitted an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request form to the Borough Clerk that contained the standard language regarding the requestor's conviction status. On the form, Taffaro certified that he had not been convicted, even though the Supreme Court had yet to reverse his conviction.
In a decision handed down today, June 13, 2013, a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, ruled that the New Jersey State Firemen's Association (NJSFA) "is a public agency under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA)."
I am the plaintiff in the case. I have served since 1992 as a volunteer firefighter and am a life member of the NJSFA. I submitted an OPRA request to the NJSFA in September 2011 which was denied because the NJSFA asserted that it was not subject to OPRA. With Richard Gutman of Montclair as my attorney, I filed suit challenging the denial and my suit was dismissed on February 17, 2012 by Union County Superior Court Judge Regina Caufield. I appealed and the Appellate Division, in a published decision, reversed the dismissal and remanded for further proceedings. Caufield's decision is on-line here and the Appellate Division's is on-line here.
Published in 1992, the Department of State's "Guidelines on the Open Public Meetings Law" still contains relevant information that can be used to persuade and educate public bodies. For example, page 15 confirms that public meeting minutes must be disclosed when they are prepared, not withheld until after they are approved by the public body.
By statute (N.J.S.A. 2B:25-4 and 2B:24-3), every New Jersey municipal court must have at least one municipal prosecutor and at least one municipal public defender. Since these positions are common to almost every municipality in the state, one would think that question of whether the holders of these offices are "local government officers" who are required by the New Jersey Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL) to file an annual "Financial Disclosure Statement" has long ago been settled. Unfortunately, there is still confusion regarding the prosecutors' and public defenders' filing requirements, which is distressing since the LGEL became effective on May 21, 1991--over twenty years ago. Simply put, I don't think that it's unreasonable to expect most towns to be on the same page as to what the law requires after that law has been in existence for over twenty years.
Today, October 4, 2012, the Appellate Division ruled that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is not subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). In its ten-page opinion, available here, the court found that since the Authority was created jointly by both New York and New Jersey, it is not subject to the statutory law of only one state. This decision, of course, is not good for open government.
The Asbury Park Press has recently released a report showing that "New Jersey has paid millions in sexual harassment cases, but little has been done to change the culture in some agencies." In the report the project was mentioned and John Paff was quoted.
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, lamented what he sees as a lack of transparency in government sexual harassment cases.
“My main problem is there doesn’t appear to be any ramifications in many cases,” with employees being disciplined, he said.
Did the Township Committees in Lawrence and Commercial designate their attorney as "Property Administrator" for the sole purpose of circumventing the State Legislature's attempt to "limit abuse" of the pension system?
By way of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, I received an Aug. 23, 2010, letter from Division of Pensions and Benefits to the attorney who then served (and still serves) as solicitor for both Lawrence and Commercial townships.
I've placed the letter online here.
'Memory holes' in Warren County Community College lawsuit, expert says.
Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, said he understood some records need to be suppressed but was "very uncomfortable" that a lawsuit involving a public entity was seemingly erased.
On July 25, 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on an Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) case that may have significant, long-term implications and may identify aspects of the OPMA that may need to be clarified by the New Jersey Legislature.
In McGovern v. Rutgers, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed to reverse the Appellate Division's February 18, 2011 ruling on the case. Both the Supreme Court and Appellate Division decisions are on-line here.
The highlights of the Supreme Court's ruling are:
The Appellate Division found that it violates the OPMA for a public body to open a public meeting, then immediately go into closed session for an indeterminate period, and then return to public session. The Appellate Division found that members of the public who arrive at the meeting when they believe the closed session might end "run of the risk of important business being conducted" prior to their arrival. This, according to the Appellate Division, "deter[s] the very public participation that Act is designed to promote."