For immediate release
September 1, 2016
An initial hearing will be held on September 28 in New Brunswick before Middlesex County Assignment Judge Travis L. Francis for a lawsuit alleging that the Spotswood Board of Education has violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
The complaint (docket no. MID-L-4615-16) was filed jointly this August by non-profit organization the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) and Heather Grieco, who is a member of the organization.
The case is the first lawsuit brought by NJFOG in Middlesex County as part of its statewide affirmative litigation initiative to increase OPMA and OPRA compliance by public agencies. Meetings Act compliance, in particular, is sorely lacking in the state. A favorable ruling in the case would help to strengthen enforcement throughout Middlesex County.
The suit follows a July 7 OPRA request by Grieco for the minutes of the Spotswood School Board’s eight most recent nonpublic meetings (executive or closed sessions), the resolutions that authorized them, and fifty-seven sets of minutes for public meetings (open session) held in the last few years.
Public bodies in the state are required to keep minutes of their official proceedings, both those open and closed to the public, and must have a written resolution setting forth the specific valid reasons for entering closed session.
The meeting minutes that were provided in response to Grieco’s request fall well short of the “reasonably comprehensible” standard required by the Meetings Act, NJFOG claims.
The lawsuit points out that most of the closed door meetings held from August 2015 through this April lasted thirty minutes to an hour or more, while the minutes for those sessions state only that "the Board discussed legal issues" or "the Board discussed goals" or "the Board discussed personnel issues" or that the Board accepted the Superintendent's recommendations without stating what they are.
There is no mention of the parties to any contract or legal matter, specifics that should be disclosed in the executive session resolution, according to NJFOG. “Without that information, a member of the public wanting to know more about a specific matter wouldn’t know what records to request,” said attorney Walter Luers, who serves as NJFOG vice president.
Further, the minutes don’t list the time and place of the meeting or the members present, as the Meetings Act requires.
NJFOG also alleges that the Board either did not advertise its meetings in two newspapers or failed to accurately convey in the minutes the manner in which notice was given. Both are OPMA requirements.
“Their minutes are some of the worst I’ve seen,” said John Paff, who is NJFOG treasurer as well as chairman of the organization’s Affirmative Litigation Committee.
More than two years ago, in January 2014, Paff himself contacted the Spotswood School Board regarding some of these same inadequacies, and the Board’s attorney assured him that the Board would endeavor to be compliant with the law.
In response to Grieco’s July 7 OPRA request for the meeting minutes, the School Board’s Business Administrator directed her to the Board’s website.
All of the requested nonpublic meeting resolutions and minutes – or, rather, what the Board is calling minutes – were there, but they offer almost no information at all, as already mentioned.
Missing, however, were two thirds of the public session minutes that Grieco requested. All but one were subsequently posted to the site on August 1; the remaining set was not yet provided as of the date the complaint was filed.
“While records custodians sometimes respond to an OPRA request by directing someone with internet access to a website to retrieve a record, the record needs to be there,” said NJFOG president John Schmidt.
The Open Public Records Act says that a “government record shall be readily accessible”, not eventually accessible, NJFOG argues.
“OPRA requires not only that records be provided, but that they be provided promptly,” Paff said.
The September 28 hearing is scheduled for 10:30 AM and will focus on the OPRA portion of the case.
NJFOG has brought successful lawsuits against several other public agencies, including the Little Egg Harbor Fire District #3 earlier this year and the Island Heights Board of Education in 2014. Both are in Ocean County. Additionally, NJFOG won a case against the Trenton Board of Education in Mercer County in 2015.
NJFOG is represented by attorney Anthony H. Ogozalek, Jr. of Cinnaminson.
The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) is the only non-profit organization in the state dedicated solely to improving public access to governmental records and meetings. We work to educate the public about the Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act as well as increase governmental compliance, transparency, and accountability.