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.
School board president claims that timely release of meeting agendas may "confuse" citizens and lead to "negativity"
On April 17, 2010, the Express-Times published an article on Warren County school board's refusal to publicize its meeting agendas until ten minutes before the start of the meeting. I am quoted in the article as a representative of the New Jersey Libertarian Party.
"When you announce your agenda in advance, it gives people an opportunity to research the issues and come to the meeting prepared with cogent comments and questions," said John Paff, who chairs the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project.
By DEREK HARPER Staff Writer, Press of Atlantic City
Municipalities and schools will no longer be able to charge more for copies of public records than what it costs to copy them, a state appeals court recently ruled.
Open-records advocates applauded the decision.
“You couldn’t possibly say the cost comes out to 75 cents a page” said John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project. “As a libertarian, I know government is inefficient, but I would hope that New Jersey governments can produce a photocopy at least within 10 times the cost of a private vendor.”
I recently settled my civil suit against the Lumberton Township (Burlington County) Committee that demanded prompter public access to the nonexempt portions of its executive session minutes. My lawsuit and the settlement agreement are on-line here. The following is an article on the settlement that appeared in today's Burlington County Times.
Lumberton agrees to quick release meeting minutes
By: Mark Zimmaro
Burlington County Times
The Township Committee has agreed to make the minutes from its executive sessions available to the public in a more prompt manner.
A civil lawsuit filed in State Superior Court by John Paff, Chair of the NJ Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, accused the Lumberton Township Committee of withholding minutes from their meetings that occur behind closed doors.
On September 13, 2009 I posted concerning the City of Margate's (Atlantic County) policy of requiring its officers and employees who use e-mail for municipal business to use their "margate-nj.com" e-mail addresses and not their personal e-mail addresses (e.g. Yahoo.com, Gmail.com, Verizon.net, etc.). That posting is on my blog
Today, I learned that the Township of Andover (Sussex County) has drafted--but not yet implemented--a more comprehensive policy designed to a) ensure that all official e-mails are preserved on the Township's server and b) prevent e-mail conversation from becoming "meetings" as defined by the Sen. Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act. That draft policy is on-line here.
While it's not perfect, Andover's draft policy is the best I've seen so far. Readers may want to forward it to their own municipalities and school boards and suggest that they adopt something similar.
The Courier Post recently picked up on an issue uncovered by the NJ Libertarian Party Open Government Taskforce.
LAWNSIDE — The borough and a local police officer have settled a discrimination suit for $350,000, court papers show.
Carmen Chapman, who became Lawnside's first female police officer in 2002, alleged in her federal suit that she was harassed by a superior and that she faced "irrational and arbitrary" discipline. Chapman also contended she was treated differently than other officers, notably after sustaining a disabling knee injury.
Carmen's complaint and the settlement were posted online by the Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project.
John Paff, a representative of the project, said the settlement requires both Chapman and the borough to refrain from disclosing the agreement's terms.
I posted the following today on a few blogs. It's a bit unsettling because it my research reveals that, in addition to the police abuse matter, two Atlantic City officers, while on duty, gave an underage female a strong painkiller (Tramadol) and then went into a nightclub with her where she drank alcohol.
While the Press of Atlantic City reported that the officers were suspended without pay because of the incident, there is no indication that any criminal charges were filed against the officers. It would appear that giving a non-prescribed drug to an twenty-year old violates the criminal code.
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.