For immediate release
On March 2, 2016, the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) filed suit in Ocean County Superior Court claiming that the Long Beach Island Board of Education committed multiple violations of the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). The case, New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, Inc. v. Long Beach Island Board of Education, et al, Docket No. OCN-L-579-16, is currently scheduled to be heard by Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford on Friday, April 8, 2016 at 9 a.m. NJFOG is being represented by Anthony H. Ogozalek, Jr. of Voorhees.
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) meeting minutes. Additionally, the complaint accuses the Board of providing NJFOG with redacted versions of its meeting minutes when unredacted versions of those same minutes were on the Board’s website.
The lawsuit also alleges that the Board violated OPMA, also known as the Sunshine Law, 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.
The lawsuit, which comes shortly before the March 13 start of National Sunshine Week, is NJFOG’s latest effort to bring a local government body into compliance with OPRA and the Sunshine Law and to help strengthen these laws and increase governmental transparency statewide. NJFOG filed successful lawsuits against the Island Heights Board of Education in 2014 and against the Trenton Board of Education just last year. The current lawsuit against the Long Beach Island school board is bolstered by the favorable decision in the Island Heights case.
“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 on citizens’ behalf.
“We need stronger laws,” said Luers. “Better enforcement provisions, especially for the OPMA, may encourage more widespread compliance by public agencies,” he said. OPMA and OPRA amendments now before the Legislature – bills S1045 and S1046, respectively – could provide that reform.
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.