EDITORIAL: Put openness on government’s agenda

Interpreting the term “agenda” in the the outdated OPMA, the Appellate Division ruled on Aug. 18 in Opderbeck v. Midland Park Board of Education that the board does not need to provide supplementary documents with its meeting agendas. However, the Court called for modernization of the outdated law to coincide with today’s simplified means of communication. -NJFOG

August 28, 2015

Sometimes, court battles are waged over how the sparring parties define certain words. That’s the case in New Jersey’s courts over how best to define the word “agenda” when it comes to the Open Public Meetings Act.

Reversing a lower court decision, a state appeals court ruled last week that when a school district posts an agenda to its website in advance of a public meeting, the Open Public Meetings Act does not require the district to post copies of appendices, attachments, reports or other supplemental documents that are referenced in that agenda.

The Appellate Division refused to expand the definition of “agenda,” saying it lacked the authority to read terms into a statute where the statutory intent was clear. Relying upon the principle of “separation of powers,” the court, while stating that such a requirement appealed to common sense, deferred to the Legislature to amend the law to issue that requirement.

The Legislature should do so without delay. It should amend the language in the Open Public Meetings Act to require that related agenda documents be provided. Lawmakers should act at the first opportunity to correct this continued obfuscation, which forces people to jump through hoops to get information that is already public.

Sens. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, and Chris Connors, R-Ocean, should take up this cause from their membership in the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee and finally get the language change accomplished.

Other than a strictly narrow reading of the law, there is no good reason to exclude appendices and supplemental documents from the definition of “agenda.” They are generally provided to school board members in advance of the meeting. A couple of keystrokes is all it would take to make them available on its website so that people who want to examine them before a Board of Education may do so.

The court case stems from 2013 when Midland Park parents planned to attend a school board meeting seeking details about their children’s upcoming band activities. The agenda, which had been posted to the district website in advance of the meeting, included several band-related items, and referenced several band-activity documents that were not posted to the website.

When the parents sought copies of the attachments, the board secretary advised that the district was not obligated to post attachments to the website and that a public records request was the appropriate means for obtaining copies of the attachments.

The board secretary apparently saw her job as something less than promoting open and transparent government. This obstructionist action forced the parents to file suit in Superior Court, which agreed with them. The district appealed and the Appellate Division overturned the lower court.

State lawmakers were remiss in clarifying the word “agenda” when they amended the Open Public Meetings Act in 2002. They should rectify that oversight now.