UPDATE (8/20/2015) – The summary judgment hearing scheduled for 08/21/15 has been CANCELLED. Judge Hely will decide the matter on the papers submitted.
UPDATE (8/22/2015) – See bottom of this post for the list of case documents to date.
UPDATE (9/9/2015) – The trial court ruled in NJFOG’s favor on OPRA counts. However, although the Summit Housing Authority has not prepared minutes for its closed sessions for several years in clear violation of the law, the trial court judge, in an unusual move, chose not to rule on OPMA.
NJFOG Press Release
July 27, 2015
For immediate release
On August 21, Union County Superior Court Judge James Hely is scheduled to hear argument in a case against the Summit Housing Authority for non-compliance with New Jersey’s open public meetings law. The matter is currently set for 9 a.m. in Elizabeth.
The case, which alleges multiple violations of the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), was filed by the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) earlier this year. It’s the latest of several “affirmative litigation” lawsuits brought by the public advocacy group to draw attention to such violations and encourage greater voluntary compliance with the law by public agencies statewide. NJFOG previously won similar suits against the Boards of Education in Trenton and Island Heights.
“OPRA and OPMA have been around a long time, so they are no secret to public agencies, who nonetheless too often break these laws,” said NJFOG president Walter Luers. “NJFOG hopes that publicizing the favorable court decisions in the cases we do bring will serve as a wake-up call for other public agencies.”
New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act took effect in 2002, while the Open Public Meetings Act has been in place for decades.
In its case against the Summit Housing Authority, NJFOG filed a motion for summary judgment on the Meetings Act counts, which include the agency’s failure to keep minutes for its non-public board meetings (executive or closed sessions) and its use of overly vague closed session resolutions and motions.
“There is little question that the agency violated the Meetings Act because it has already admitted that it doesn’t keep minutes for closed meetings,” said NJFOG treasurer John Paff, who is co-plaintiff in the suit.
Public bodies are required by law to keep minutes of their non-public meetings and must promptly provide the non-exempt portions of those minutes to the public.
Judge Hely ruled on July 13 that the Authority failed to properly reply to the OPRA request for the minutes by attempting to limit its search to the tenure of its current executive director, during whose term minutes were not produced for closed sessions, the agency claims. Minutes are known to exist for closed sessions held prior to that time but were not provided in response to the records request.
The reasons given by the Housing Authority for entering executive session also fall short of the legal requirement. In one instance, the Authority simply told the public that it was going into executive session without telling the public why.
“The Meetings Act requires public bodies to inform the public of the specific topics that are going to be privately discussed,” Paff said.
It does not suffice to cite only the general categories allowed by law, a common practice by governmental agencies.
Here are all the case documents so far with the most recent listed first (as of 8/22/2015):
NJFOG is the only non-profit organization in the state dedicated solely to improving New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and working to educate the public about these laws and increase governmental compliance.
Press releases are for media use without restriction. Other NJFOG content may be re-published in whole or part with credit to NJFOG. Thank you.