I recently submitted an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for two months worth of Upper Freehold Township Committee meeting minutes as both an effort to learn what is going on in my town and to test my town's adherence to the OPRA law. As a result of my request and findings I wrote a letter to the Township pointing out deficiencies and recommending changes to their process. I've uploaded copies of my correspondence and the responses to http://njlp.org/uploads/UFTOPRARequest.pdf.
I found the township to be deficient in three main areas.
Tardy and Incomplete Responses To OPRA Request
On February 17, 2012 I filed the OPRA request for meeting minutes for four sets of minutes from December 2011 and January 2012. After over two weeks I didn't hear anything back, I followed up with a March 1 email, and a phone call on March 5. I received my first response on March 21 indicating that I would receive the minutes after they were approved.
On April 10, 2012 I received a letter and audio CD containing the recordings of the January 19, February 12, February 16, March 1, and March 15 meetings.
The OPRA laws require a response within 7 days of the initial request. The first response to my request came four weeks after I submitted it. To date my initial request has not been fulfilled.
Timely Release of Meeting Minutes
It has been over five months since the township's December 1 meeting, yet I have seen no evidence that meeting minutes are available to the public yet.
In 2009, in Paff v. Keyport, Judge Lawson set a limit of 30 days for minutes to be made available to the public. See http://ogtf.lpcnj.org/2009/2009172pj/KeyportSuit.pdf.
The excuse that meeting minutes not be released until they are approved is not justified. They can be released in an unapproved state with the term 'DRAFT' stamped on the top. This is in accordance with the OPRA Study Guide for NJ Municipal Clerks, Paragraph VI – I. See http://njlp.org/uploads/OPRAStudyGuide.pdf.
Vague Reasons for Going Into Executive Session
The recordings I received contain either no or a vague resolution as to why they the council is going into executive session. The vague resolutions give the public no real sense of the rationale for going into executive session. I understand that the Council needs to go into executive session, but they should inform the public, as precisely as possible the topics that are being privately discussed.
For example, suppose that a municipality is being sued by a Mr. Jones who was injured after he slipped and fell on what he claims to be negligently maintained municipal property. Since the lawsuit is already a public record, there is no public purpose served by vaguely describing a private discussion of it as "pending litigation." Rather, the resolution should at the very least describe the private discussion as "Discussion of slip and fall negligence suit, Jones v. Anytown, Docket No. XYZ-L-012345-11." This way, the public has a very good sense of what the Council's private discussion is about while the ability of the Council to develop its lawsuit strategy is not undermined.
In January 2007, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Alexander P. Waugh issued a written decision where he agreed with other court decisions that “closed session resolutions should contain as much information as is consistent with full public knowledge without doing any harm to the public interest.”
Similarly in February 2011, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of NJ in McGovern v. Rutgers held that a body must do more than “list the exceptions that would allow it to proceed in closed session.” They held that the resolution to go into executive session “should contain as much information as is consistent with full public knowledge without doing any harm to the public interest.” See http://njlp.org/uploads/McGovern-v-Rutgers.pdf.
A possible model resolution was sent to the township. A similar model resolution was agreed upon in a consent agreement of John Paff v. Englewood Cliffs Board of Education, Docket No. BER-L-2148-12 and in discussions with the Upper Freehold Board of Education (see http://www.lpcnj.org/OGTF/UFRBOE.pdf) While it is not necessary to use this exact resolution it illustrates the extent of detail that should be included in a resolution to go into executive session.