Sussex Borough hears proposal for code to increase transparency

NJFOG supports enacting a local law to strengthen open public meetings rules.  NJFOG trustee John Paff presented the proposal to the Sussex Borough Council on February 24, 2015.

New Jersey Herald
Feb. 25, 2015
by Greg Watry

SUSSEX BOROUGH — There’s a tension between government expediency and democracy, according to John Paff, the treasurer of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.

“Essentially democracy dies when you close doors,” Paff said at Tuesday night’s Sussex Borough Council special meeting.

Paff presented the council with an administrative code meant to deter machine politics, bring the council more in line with the Open Public Meetings Act and increase government transparency.

Passed in 1975, the Open Public Meetings Act has no enforcement mechanism, Paff said. The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, a nonprofit that is a member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, would like to see a governing body self-impose a code to adhere to regarding meetings and other governmental processes, and it may have found that in the Borough Council.

Currently the borough follows Robert’s Rules of Order and has no other administrative code dictating meeting notices, agendas, audio recordings and minutes, among other items.

“I may not be here next year,” said Mayor Jonathan Rose, whose terms ends in December. He noted that it is prudent for the council to get an administrative code in place that will be in place for councils to come and ensure the public’s welfare.

Under the presented administrative code, the council would be required to announce each of its meetings 48 hours in advance prominently on the borough’s website. Meeting agendas, along with copies of each draft resolution, draft ordinance, draft bill or contract, item of correspondence or other documents that may be discussed at the meeting must also be made publicly available on the borough’s website.

Paff informed the council that it’s common for municipalities to add items on the agenda up until the commencement of the meeting. A lot of towns play games with the agenda, he said. Such actions catch the public by surprise and make it difficult to follow government actions.

“Sometimes in some towns they’re all together,” he said. “It’s the council against the people.” A fixed agenda is a powerful tool for the public, he said.

Currently, Sussex Borough Council members can add or subtract items from the agenda at the start of municipal meetings. That would no longer be the case if the proposed administrative code were to be enacted. Paff acknowledged that it may demand more time for the council where agenda-setting meetings would have to be put in place.

Councilman Mario Poggi brought up the fact that not everyone has the Internet and some may find it difficult to gain access to information online.

Paff responded that in 2015 the Internet is ubiquitous in most households, but the municipal clerk should have some hard copies of the agenda available for public consumption.

The borough would continue to make available audio recordings of meetings on the borough’s website, which it started doing in December. The code outlines that audio must be posted two business days after a council meeting.

“I think the need for comprehensive minutes lessens as long as there’s audio,” Paff said.

“That’s how we saw it,” Rose responded. “What we sought to do was within 48 hours get the audio up.”

Much discussion was spent on the detail and releasing of meeting minutes. According to the code, a meeting’s minutes would be released no later than 48 hours prior to the next regularly scheduled meeting or within 14 days, whichever is the longer period.

Paff suggested that the minutes function as a sort of table of contents of the meeting with time stamps accompanying each item that direct the reader to the exact point where the topic is discussed in the audio recording.

Councilwoman Katherine Little saw a problem with minutes being stripped down to the bare bones.

“What are we going to have for future generations?” she asked. “I think we need more information on those minutes.”

As per the proposed code, nonpublic meeting minutes would be reviewed semiannually with the potential for recently suppressed items to be disclosed to the public.

Additionally, prior to going into the executive session the council would be required to pass a resolution disclosing to the public as much information as possible about each matter that will privately discussed.

In an example, Paff said if an executive session was called due to a settlement regarding litigation between the borough and another party, it would not be wrong to reveal such matters to the public. Why not disclose the terms of the settlement offer if both parties are aware of the numbers, he said.

The council discussed at length if the administrative code applied to the Borough Council would also be applied to the council’s committees.

Little commented that such a move would be restraining.

“It’s just going to be very restrictive on the committees,” she said. “We’re being strangled here.”

“I see a very positive side to this,” council President Linda Masson said. “The committee will meet regularly and the public will be aware” of its actions.

The council discussed creating a transparency committee, which “shall be committed to improving access to government information, including financial information, by making it available online, indeed redefining ‘public’ information as meaning ‘online,’” according to the presented code.

Rose said the presented code has to be drafted into legal language, but hopefully the borough would be able to adopt the code in about a month’s time.

“I’ve never been in a council where people actually talk about this,” Paff said. “You’re blazing new territory here.”

Greg Watry also can be contacted on Twitter: @GregWatryNJH or by phone: 973-383-1184.