CASE SUMMARY: NJFOG v. Long Beach Island Board of Education

Case Name:  NJFOG v. Long Beach Island Board of Education
Docket Number:  OCN-L-579-16
County / Vicinage:  Ocean
Filing Date:  March 2, 2016
Presiding Judge:   Lynch Ford, Marlene
Status:  Closed

 

Overview:

The complaint alleges multiple violations of the OPMA and OPRA.

The complaint cites the Board for violating OPRA by ignoring portions of NJFOG’s records request and by making improper redactions to the Board’s closed (i.e. non-public or executive session) meeting minutes. Additionally, the complaint states that the Board provided NJFOG with redacted versions of its meeting minutes when unredacted versions of those same minutes were on the Board’s website.

The complaint cites the Board for violating OPMA by failing to keep minutes of some of its closed meetings, failing to keep minutes that are sufficiently detailed, discussing topics in closed session which ought to have been discussed in public, not holding a public comment period during certain public meetings, and not properly advertising its meetings.

On November 4, 2016, Ocean County Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford approved a Consent Order that resolved all but one count of NJFOG’s lawsuit against the Long Beach Island Board of Education. Specifically, the Board is now required to a) properly label its minutes to distinguish between public and nonpublic meetings, b) strictly avoid discussing a topic in private unless that topic qualifies under the law for private discussion, c) notify the public of the topics the Board will discuss during closed sessions with “as much detail as possible about each matter being discussed,” d) provide a public comment period at every public meeting, e) give proper public notice of each of its meetings and f) pay NJFOG $3,042.37 for its costs and attorney fees.

The only remaining question in this case is whether the Board’s closed meeting minutes contain enough detail to satisfy the Open Public Meetings Act’s “reasonably comprehensible” standard.  A typical set of the board’s closed session minutes can be viewed HERE (October 20, 2015 meeting).  NJFOG filed a Motion for Summary Judgment with regard to this issue in February 2017.

Following a hearing held on March 31, 2017, Judge Marlene Lynch Ford denied NJFOG’s motion.  We argued that merely saying, for example, that “nepotism” was an “additional item discussed” was not reasonably comprehensible because that one-word description gave the public no context as to the nature of the board’s private conversation. Judge Ford noted that some of the minute entries (many of which were redacted) were detailed and that others were not but opined that the entries, on average, were sufficiently comprehensible to meet the statutory standard.

NJFOG disagrees with Ford’s analysis because we don’t think that averaging the comprehensibility of items within meeting minutes is appropriate. Suppose that two items were discussed at a meeting: Personnel and Litigation. Suppose further that the closed minutes contained a half-page detailed recitation of the board’s discussion about the litigation but contained only a single line, “A personnel issue was discussed,” concerning the personnel matter. According to Ford’s logic, the bare minutes of the personnel discussion could become “comprehensible” when averaged in with the admittedly comprehensive minutes concerning the litigation matter.  A better approach, in NJFOG’s view, would be for the court to judge the minutes of each closed session discussion item independently.  We feel that the failure of some sections of the minutes to be reasonably comprehensible is reason to have upheld NJFOG’s claim. Further, we believe that selective disclosure of this type falls short of what the drafters of the OPMA intended.

The case outcome supports the need for OPMA reform that better defines requirements.

 

Case Documents:

Complaint, Brief, sample Order to Show Cause (unsigned), sample Form of Order (unsigned)
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B62zIy-MpCRoVTBtLTVlMXk1cHM/view?usp=sharing

November 4, 2016 Consent Order
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B66zM58TlOVKcUJqbFZrQ0lXYkk/view?usp=sharing

Motion for Summary Judgment
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B62zIy-MpCRoc0tNWS1wUFlPbVE/view?usp=sharing

Long Beach Island BOE closed minutes – meeting of 2015-10-20
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B62zIy-MpCRoOUQ5TnQwR19TR00/view?usp=sharing

NJFOG v LBI BOE – Defendant’s Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B62zIy-MpCRoRmQxWTNETEg1M0E/view?usp=sharing

NJFOG v LBI BOE – NJFOG’s Reply to Opposition
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B62zIy-MpCRoYi11amptTmhRSkE/view?usp=sharing

2017-03-31 NJFOG v LBI BOE – Order Denying Summary Judgment
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B62zIy-MpCRoYmJMZENVTDBjTTg/view?usp=sharing

 

Press Release(s):

Lawsuit against Long Beach Island BOE claims Records and Meetings Act violations
http://njfog.org/2016/03/14/lawsuit-long-beach-island-boe-claims-records-meetings-act-violations/

 

Related Posts:

Lawsuit Accuses LBI School District Of Sunshine Law Violations
http://micromediapubs.com/lawsuit-accuses-lbi-school-district-sunshine-law-violations/

Lawsuit: LBI board lacks transparency
http://www.app.com/story/news/investigations/watchdog/education/2016/03/29/lawsuit-lbi-board-lacks-transparency/82382768/

Lawsuit Claims LBI Board of Education Meetings Violate Sunshine Law
http://thesandpaper.villagesoup.com/p/lawsuit-claims-lbi-board-of-education-meetings-violate-sunshine-law/1501473

LBI school agrees to follow law, pay legal bills
http://www.app.com/story/news/investigations/watchdog/education/2016/11/15/lbi-school-agrees-follow-law-pay-legal-bills/93884788/

LBI School Board to Follow OPRA, OPMA as Per Lawsuit Settlement
http://thesandpaper.villagesoup.com/p/lbi-school-board-to-follow-opra-opma-as-per-lawsuit-settlement/1597384

LBI School Board Settles Sunshine Law Case
http://micromediapubs.com/lbi-school-board-settles-sunshine-law-case/

NJ Foundation for Open Government Denied Remaining Motion Filed Against LBI School Board
April 19, 2017
http://thesandpaper.villagesoup.com/p/nj-foundation-for-open-government-denied-remaining-motion-filed-against-lbi-school-board/1643876