The Record: Accountability

There are many non-profits that handle governmental functions, and NJ courts have already established the application of OPRA in certain circumstances. Here, a county-affiliated non-profit refuses to respond to OPRA requests. The non-profit’s history of missing IRS filings, which provide information about revenue and expenses, makes the availability of records through OPRA more important. – NJFOG

September 24, 2015
The Record
(editorial here and re-posted below)

THE PASSAIC County freeholders put together a non-profit group in 2008 to raise money to support the county park system. While these arrangements are not uncommon, any organization involved with a public endeavor must be open about its dealings.

That may not be the case with the Friends of Passaic County Parks.

One problem surfaced in 2012, when the group lost its tax-exempt status apparently because it failed to file financial disclosure information with the IRS. More recently, it has refused to release its financial records under the state’s Open Public Records Act.

The excuse is that the group is a “private” corporation and not subject to state disclosure laws. The county supports that argument by referring to a recent court ruling that exempted Choose New Jersey, a non-profit created by the state to attract businesses, from OPRA requirements.

The explanation misses the point. Whether legally required or not, county government always should opt for transparency, not secrecy. Moreover, Choose New Jersey’s goal is bringing private investment to the state, not enhancing a public park system.

Questions about the Friends of Passaic County Parks have been raised by the Republicans running for freeholder in this November’s election. The OPRA request the county rejected was filed by a Republican consultant. All the freeholders are Democrats. Election-year politics certainly are involved here, but that doesn’t obscure the need for openness.

Park systems are some of the most visible initiatives undertaken by government. A system that offers the public varied recreational opportunities enhances a county’s quality of life and its property tax base. Governments commonly fund park systems through general taxation, and in some cases through a special tax assessment for open space and recreation.

Supporting the parks through a non-profit group can be seen as a creative option for government, especially in light of the state’s 2 percent cap on annual tax increases.

But nothing the group does should be concealed. A spokesman for the county was only able to point The Record to a 2013 press release that listed about $68,000 in grants, with the largest — $39,000 — coming from Blue Cross Blue Shield. Money has been spent on such things as buying playground equipment and hosting a county fair on Garret Mountain Reservation.

There is absolutely no reason for the county to refuse to make public an updated accounting of the money raised and spent by Friends of Passaic County Parks.