(credit: Walter Luers)
We wanted to share with you the successful results of an Open Public Meetings Act lawsuit that was filed by a person in Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey. The name of the lawsuit is Crippen v. Spring Lake Heights Borough Council, and the docket number is MON-L-3347-14.
(In case you’re not familiar with litigation, the first three letters of the docket number refers to the County in which the case was filed. Here, it was Monmouth County. The second letter refers to the part of the Court in which the case was filed – the Law Division. The four digit number means that the case was the three thousand three hundred and forty seventh case filed in 2014).
While not quite at the top of the list of important things, first we mention that Ms. Crippen represented herself (quite successfully, too, as you’ll see). Representing yourself in Court is a daunting task, and many do it poorly. We applaud Ms. Crippen for making the effort.
Second, the order strongly suggests that there was a problem with the “level of completeness and comprehensibility” of prior meeting minutes and with how long it took Spring Lake Heights to provide copies of those minutes to the public. Specifically, the order requires Spring Lake Heights to provide in the future copies of all meeting minutes (both open and closed session) to the public within 30 days after the meeting or prior to the next scheduled meeting, “whichever occurs first.” So, if Spring Lakes Heights has a meeting every two weeks, the minutes must be made available in two weeks. This is important because, first, many public bodies meet more frequently than once per month and, second, almost all public bodies take longer than 30 days to approve closed session minutes. This alone is quite an achievement.
Third, the order requires Spring Lake Heights to make available to the public all meeting minutes from prior meetings. They have until October 31, 2015 to do so. This suggests that Spring Lake Heights had a serious problem with making its minutes available to the public.
Fourth, the order requires that all “meeting minutes” to be disclosed have the “level of completeness and comprehensibility set forth in the meeting minutes of March 26, 2012.” Those minutes are here. Note that the minutes for executive session and open session are all part of one document. (The minutes, which were downloaded as shown from the Borough’s website on 6-26-2015, are missing pages 2-3 of 5 but are still useful for the purpose of this example.)
Fifth, and this is probably the most important, is that Ms. Crippen’s agreement is in the form of a consent judgment. This means that, if the Judge signs the judgment (and it is our understanding that she will), then the agreement is the same as a court order. If, in the future, Spring Lake Heights violates the consent judgment, then Ms. Crippen can file a motion with the Court to enforce the order. This means that, instead of filing a new lawsuit to enforce the OPMA, if Ms. Crippen thinks Spring Lake Heights has violated one of the terms of the order, she can file a motion to enforce the order, which is much easier and cheaper than filing a new OPMA lawsuit. In addition, if she were to win such a motion, the Court, in addition to ordering compliance, can also sanction the Defendant for non-compliance. This appears to be an important win for Ms. Crippen and the residents of Spring Lake Heights.
Finally, we observe that the Defendant is paying Ms. Crippen’s costs, as permitted by Court rules.
None of this is to say that Spring Lake Heights has admitted any wrongdoing; and they do not do so in the consent judgment. While we might conclude from the consent judgment that Spring Lake Heights violated the OPMA, it’s also possible that Spring Lake Heights decided it was more efficient and a better outcome for taxpayers to enter into the consent judgment and avoid additional litigation that, even if they had won, would have cost the Borough thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Regular followers of open government issues will recall that earlier this week, S781, the OPMA amendment that did not have enough votes to get out of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, would have required the public agency to pay attorneys’ fees in cases like Ms. Crippen’s. Until S781 becomes law, Ms. Crippen and those like her will either have to argue their cases pro se or hire attorneys to argue the cases, without any prospect of recovery of attorneys’ fees if they prevail.
We thank NJFOG Board Member and Treasurer John Paff for sharing this information with us.