NJFOG wins judgments against Trenton school board

This is a good article about the issues in the NJFOG v. Trenton School Board case, which highlights the systemic issues with regard to Open Public Meetings Act compliance statewide.  –NJFOG

N.J. open records group wins judgments against Trenton school board

By Kevin Shea
June 30, 2015
(Full article here and posted below)

TRENTON – An open government advocacy group that sued the Trenton Board of Education for violating the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) won key pieces of the lawsuit Tuesday with a judge issuing two injunctions and one declaration against the board, the organization said.

The orders by Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson, sitting in Trenton, instruct the city’s school board to change the way they enter executive session at meetings and keep better notes of what they discuss.

The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG), which filed the suit, said the decisions amount to a victory for the nonprofit organization, which hopes to use the case in an effort for broader change for open government and more enforcement statewide.

In the orders, Jacobson writes that the Trenton board be required to enter in every resolution to enter executive session a statement of the general nature of the matter to be discussed, as already required by the OPMA. And, the judge wrote, “The board must provide the subject matter of the discussion and not simply repeat the language of the statute.”

The board said after they were sued in January that it had already changed the way it notifies the public of executive sessions.

Jacobson wrote that if the board continues to follow its own change, from December 2014, they will be in compliance with the OPMA.

The order also states that the board needs to keep “reasonably comprehensible” minutes of meetings, consistent with the OPMA.

“Especially minutes of matters occurring during executive session, which shall explain on their face and without referencing other meeting minutes or agendas what took place and what action was taken,” the order states.

John Paff, treasurer of NJFOG, said the board can’t just say they are going into executive order and cite the OPMA statute itself as a reason, or reference another agenda item simply by number. The board needs to be clear and detailed, he said.

Paff said Trenton’s school board was not targeted specifically, but the organization wanted to highlight the systemic issues regarding open public meetings across the state.

“There’s so little compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act,” Paff said. “It’s not as if Trenton is an isolated example. We’re not picking on them.”

Paff said citizens who sue public agencies have a hard time recouping attorney’s fees when they win similar cases, and NJFOG is left with little recourse to fight for open meetings beyond filing lawsuits to point out the deficiencies.

NJFOG was successful in a similar lawsuit filed last year against the Island Heights Board of Education in Ocean County.

The organization cannot sue every single school board and town, but it’s trying to highlight the issues of open government.

Ideally, the group would like to see the Trenton school board adopt meaningful change from the suit and for agencies like prosecutor’s offices and the state attorney general’s office to enforce open public meeting and record laws.

Paff said the state legislature also should add to the teeth needed for enforcement.

In this suit, Jacobson also denied the school board’s cross-motion for summary judgment.

The order says the two parties have tentatively settled their Open Public Records Act part of the suit, pending final approval at the board’s July meeting.

A Trenton school board spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment.


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