Advocate takes issue with school board minutes

Open government activist John Paff finds that Spotswood’s executive session minutes fall short of OPMA requirement. -NJFOG

Sentinel |
Feb. 13, 2014
Staff Writer
(full article here and re-posted below)

SPOTSWOOD — A letter from an open-government advocate has prompted the Spotswood Board of Education attorney to review the board’s compliance with New Jersey law.

“With little districts, sometimes there are big problems,” said John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project.

Paff has been monitoring local governing bodies and school boards in New Jersey for compliance with the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).

According to Paff, the Spotswood board’s executive-session minutes fall short of the law’s requirements in three areas: They are mislabeled as a “Resolution for Executive Session”; they contain boilerplate language that is not reasonably comprehensible; and they do not disclose the time and place of the closed meetings or the members present.

“While I appreciate the fact that the board posts its nonpublic [closed or executive session] minutes on its website, I think that the minutes themselves fall far short of the ‘reasonably comprehensible’ standard required by [law],” Paff wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to Board of Education President Donna Faulkenberry.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Rocco said the board’s attorney, David Rubin, is reviewing the letter and the board’s executive session minutes.

“We’re forwarding Mr. Paff’s letter to our attorney for review. If Mr. Paff has recommendations for improving things, we’re certainly willing to look at that. We’re going to make sure we’re in compliance, and we appreciate his notice,” he said.

Rubin, who had just returned from a vacation Feb. 10, said he was not at liberty to discuss the review, but that the Board of Education would take whatever action is deemed appropriate and in accordance with the law.

Paff said the minutes obscured the board’s accountability to residents and taxpayers.

“The Open Public Meetings Act is a tool that is designed to let people monitor local government, and when these rules aren’t being followed, it provides an environment where corruption can occur,” Paff said.

“I’m not saying that what [the Spotswood school board] is doing is corrupt, but when you don’t have proper means to test what they are doing, corruption can occur without public detection.”

While the Spotswood district is not one of the state’s larger school systems, Paff said it should still be expected to meet OPMA standards.

“Why not Spotswood? It’s not as if they’re not a school district. It’s not as if they don’t have taxing authority. I bet the residents wouldn’t say they’re only being taxed a little. We pick big ones and small ones — they’re all required to obey the law,” he said.

But it is about more than just the law, Paff added.

“There are two ways to find out what government does. One is that the government tells you what it does, and the other is that you find out for yourself through records. The government will send out press releases for all the good things it does, and it will try to suppress the info for all the bad things.”

Paff said he hopes the members of the Board of Education agree that there is a need for more meaningful minutes.

If the school board does not respond to his concerns, Paff said the matter could end up in court.

“If they don’t do the minutes correctly, I’ll file a lawsuit against them in Superior Court, and this letter will be an exhibit. Hopefully, we don’t have to come to that,” Paff said.