June 11, 2016
The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) secured a court consent order on May 31 against the Little Egg Harbor Fire District #3 that requires the Board of Fire Commissioners to follow provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).
NJFOG filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) lawsuit against the Fire District in February after the District failed to respond to an OPRA request for closed session meeting minutes and resolutions authorizing the closed sessions. The OPRA request was made as part of NJFOG’s follow-up to assess OPRA and OPMA compliance by Ocean County agencies after the organization’s successful lawsuit in that county against the Island Heights Board of Education in 2014.
After filing its Records Act lawsuit, NJFOG discovered various Meetings Act violations by the Board and was successful in obtaining a consent order that also addressed Meetings Act compliance. The consent order provides a route for citizens to seek enforcement of the law if there is future non-compliance by the District with the terms of the order.
The consent order, signed by Ocean County Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford, A.J.S.C., requires the Board of Fire Commissioners to pass a resolution that describes each topic that will be privately discussed in closed session and to announce those descriptions to the public, including stating the specific litigation, contract and personnel matters to be discussed. The Board of Fire Commissioners is also required to keep reasonably comprehensible closed session minutes that shall include the beginning time, ending time, members present and location of each meeting.
The Fire District also agreed to pay NJFOG’s attorney fees in the amount of $1,700. NJFOG was represented by Anthony H. Ogozalek, Jr. of Voorhees.
The lawsuit is one of two filed by NJFOG this year to bring a public agency into compliance with OPRA and OPMA (the Sunshine Law) and to help strengthen these laws statewide.
In March, shortly after filing against the Little Egg Harbor Fire District, NJFOG filed litigation against another Ocean County agency, the Long Beach Island Board of Education, alleging both OPRA and OPMA violations. NJFOG also filed successful lawsuits against the Island Heights Board of Education in 2014 and against the Trenton Board of Education last year. The Little Egg Harbor case is the first time NJFOG has filed an OPRA-only complaint and obtained a court order that addresses both OPRA and OPMA compliance.
“Our goal is to put local governments on notice that they need to obey the laws designed to guarantee citizens’ access to public meetings and records. When multiple agencies are taken to court for similar violations, it should be a wake-up call that encourages good behavior by other public agencies,” said NJFOG president Walter Luers.
OPMA enforcement is lacking in the state because citizens who bring an OPMA lawsuit typically do so at their own expense. There is currently no provision in the Meetings Act that allows citizens to recover their attorney fees in successful cases, so few cases are brought. NJFOG is seeking to remedy that by bringing enforcement actions such as the ones noted above.
New Jersey bills S1045 and S1046 (S781 and S782 in the last legislative session) aim to reform and increase enforcement of the state’s open public meetings and records laws.
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.