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 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."
On March 12, 2012, I filed an Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) lawsuit against the Englewood Cliffs (Bergen County) Board of Education. The lawsuit is on-line here. After I filed a motion for summary judgment (my brief is on-line here), the Board indicated that it wanted to settle the case.
On June 22, 2012, I entered into a settlement agreement under which the school board agreed to improve its Open Public Meetings Act compliance and reimburse me $250 for my filing fees and miscellaneous costs. The Consent Judgment, which specifies the terms of compliance, is on-line here.
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
The Borough of Englewood Cliffs (Bergen County) wishes for me to pay up to $339.79 for the audio recording of a December 8, 2010 Borough Council meeting. The Borough posits that the meeting was recorded on audio tape and that since the Borough now uses CD technology, it needs to use a private vendor, at $135 per hour, to duplicate the 2.5 hour meeting recording.
My OPRA request, the Borough's response and my reply to that response are on-line here.
Is it at least an appearance of impropriety for a Township administrator to have his home's roof replaced by the same contractor who was awarded a construction contract by the Township? My letter to Fairfield Township (Cumberland County) Mayor Michael Sharp and the Township Committee, which is referenced in the article below, is on-line at http://ogtf.lpcnj.org/2012/2012130Yr//Fairfield.pdf
Letter raises possible accusations of 'impropriety' against former Fairfield Township administrator Joe Veight
Published: Tuesday, May 08, 2012
By Jason Laday/The News of Cumberland
FAIRFIELD TWP. — A statewide watchdog group on Tuesday released a letter to the township committee regarding what it describes as possible impropriety on part of former Fairfield administrator and clerk Joe Veight.
Written by John Paff, of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, the letter states that Veight had contracted a local firm for repairs at his Upper Deerfield home a month before that same company was awarded a $14,052 contract with the township.
After receiving my notice of an intended lawsuit, the Downe Township (Cumberland County) Committee passed a May 7, 2012 resolution promising to make draft copies of both its public meeting minutes and the nonexempt portions of its nonpublic (closed or executive) meeting minutes publicly available "the sooner to occur of thirty (30) days after a meeting or prior to the next scheduled meeting, whichever occurs first." My threatened lawsuit, Committee resolution and cover letters are on-line here.
Downe Township is a rural township of about 1,700 inhabitants that borders the Delaware Bay. Some towns, due to their small size, claim that they don't have the staff or resources to keep their minutes up to date. The fact that Downe is able to promise to make both its open and closed minutes publicly available prior to the next meeting challenges the "we're too small" excuse.
I have threatened to sue the Clinton Township (Hunterdon County) Board of Education for violating the Open Public Meetings Act in a way that is new to me - by passing a verbal, closed session motion/resolution during a public meeting that differs substantially from the version of the motion/resolution that is recorded in the meeting's minutes.
By comparing the audio of the Board's meetings with the written minutes, I have found several examples where the Board passed a simple motion, in the nature of "I move that we go into executive session," but then recorded a much more verbose version of the motion in the meeting minutes. One of the main purposes of N.J.S.A. 10:4-13, which requires that public body pass a resolution in public before going into executive or closed session, is to inform the members of the public in attendance of nature of the matters that the body is going to privately discuss. For a public body to simply say that it's going into executive session and then include the details of what topics were privately discussed in the meeting's minutes--which won't be publicly available until weeks later--works against that purpose.
For the first time in my experience, the Atlantic County Prosecutor has taken a position on an Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) issue. In a March 27, 2012 letter, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Diane M. Ruberton advised that the Absecon Board of Education would have violated the OPMA if it had voted "through an exchange of e-mails to amend the budget to appropriate money for an increase in high school tuition." But, Ruberton opined that since "no vote was ever taken and the matter was scheduled to be addressed at a public meeting, . . . no violation of the Open Public Meeting Act ever actually occurred." Ruberton's letter is on-line here and the complainant's letter to the prosecutor's office is on-line here.
On Friday, April 20, 2012, at 9 a.m., Essex County Superior Court Judge Rachel N. Davidson will conduct an Order to Show Cause hearing in the case of John Paff v. Community Educational Centers, Inc., Docket No. ESX-L-1658-12. This case presents an issue of first impression in New Jersey--whether taxpayers lose their right to access government records when the government "contracts out" a traditional governmental function--in this case correctional services--to a private entity.