August 31, 2014
For immediate release
Judge rules Island Heights school board violated public meetings law
For the second time this year, the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) prevailed in its lawsuit seeking increased transparency from the Island Heights Board of Education (Ocean County, NJ).
Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso, in an August 26, 2014 decision, ruled that the Island Heights school board violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) in two ways. First, he found that the resolutions passed by the board prior to excluding the public from its meetings (i.e., before going into closed or executive session) were too vague to give the public any meaningful information regarding the topics the board was going to privately discuss. Second, he ruled that the board violated the OPMA by discussing matters in closed session that ought to have been discussed with the public present.
In an earlier decision handed down on April 25th, Judge Grasso found that the Island Heights school board had violated the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) when it justified heavy redactions to its closed session minutes by stating that the blacked-out matter dealt with “legal, student or personnel issues.” Judge Grasso ruled that “this blanket statement [violated OPRA because it] does not allow members of the public to know or discern with any reasonable clarity what the Board discussed in the nonpublic meetings or what actions the Board took.” This ruling resulted in the Board later disclosing a much more narrowly redacted version of those minutes.
NJFOG’s Affirmative Litigation Committee, which headed up the effort against the Island Height school board, is seeking to use litigation to compel stricter compliance with OPRA and OPMA. The Committee is particularly interested in enforcing OPMA because, unlike OPRA, citizens who win Meetings Act lawsuits cannot recover their legal costs from the public body they sued. Since OPMA enforcement actions are cost prohibitive for citizens to bring, NJFOG has found rampant OPMA noncompliance throughout New Jersey. Through this and similar lawsuits, NJFOG’s Affirmative Litigation Committee seeks to remedy this problem.