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.
January 31, 2014
Hon. Patrick Scaglione, Director, and members of the
Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders
Dear Director Scaglione and Board members:
In response to my Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, I obtained the minutes of five of the Board's recent nonpublic (executive or closed) meetings. For your ready reference, I have placed those minutes on-line here.
Several of the matter discussed do not appears to fall within any of the N.J.S.A. 10:4-12(b) exceptions. As you are aware, the Open Public Meetings Act requires all Board discussions to be held in public unless one or more of the N.J.S.A. 10:4-12(b) exceptions, construed strictly against closure, apply. Following is a list of some of the topics that I believe could have been discussed with the public in attendance.
Donna Faulkenberry, President and members of the
Spotswood Board of Education
105 Summerhill Road
Spotswood, NJ 08884
Dear President Faulkenberry:
While I appreciate the fact that the Board posts its nonpublic (i.e. closed or executive session) minutes on its web site (most public bodies do not), I think that the minutes themselves fall far short of the "reasonably comprehensible" standard required by N.J.S.A. 10:4-14. As an example, please see the Board's April 23, 2013 nonpublic meeting minutes here.
First, they are not even labeled "Minutes" but rather as a "Resolution for Executive Session."
Second, they contain some boilerplate language followed by the only substantive portion which reads, in its entirety, "The Board discussed a contractual matter." Do you think that the "reasonably comprehensible" language in N.J.S.A. 10:4-14 requires, at a minimum, the identities of the parties to the contract under discussion?
Judge O'Connor significantly revises her "generator" decision
Judge O'Connor called both attorneys in Paff v. Warren County Prosecutor's Office today and held a Case Management Conference via telephone at 4 p.m. today (Monday, December 23, 2013). The judge's purpose in calling the conference was to modify her previous order so that the identities of the official(s) who misused the county-owned generators would also be redacted from the documents that will provided in the case.
O'Connor's December 18, 2013 order stated that the Prosecutor's office "shall redact from the documents the names of any person who provided a statement to [the Prosecutor's office], as well as his or her position of employment, birth date, home and cellular telephone numbers, home address, and any personal identifier."
Mayor Carl Groon, and members of the
Wildwood Crest Borough Commission
Dear Mayor Groon and Commissioners:
In response to a recent Open Public Records Act request, I received redacted minutes from the Board's November 18, 2013 nonpublic (i.e. executive or closed session). I have placed these minutes on-line here.
I invite your attention to the sentence within the minutes that states that "[d]iscussion was also had regarding the hiring of a special investigator." As you know, this special investigator was hired to investigate a police internal affairs matter. The rumors circulating throughout the Borough are that the investigation relates to a police employee who has earned the rank of lieutenant or higher. Regardless of the truth of these rumors, this is a matter of great public interest and it's very important that there is sufficient information available so that Borough voters and taxpayers, at least at some point in the future, can understand the nature of the investigation and draw their own conclusions as to whether the Borough's elected and appointed officials acted reasonably.
John Paff was interviewed on Channel 9's "Chasing New Jersey" news program regarding the lack of transparency at the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey. This aired last night.
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.