Judge: Island Heights school board violated law

The following is press coverage of NJFOG’s Island Heights case.  NJFOG treasurer John Paff is quoted.  -NJFOG

Asbury Park Press
September 2, 2014
by Kathleen Hopkins
(full article here and re-posted below)

ISLAND HEIGHTS – The Island Heights Board of Education broke the law last year by holding meetings behind closed doors on 24 topics that should have been considered in public, including tuition, curriculum and dates for band concerts, Ocean County’s assignment judge has ruled.

Superior Court Judge Vincent J. Grasso issued the ruling on Aug. 26 in a case brought against the school board by the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government. The nonprofit organization says the court decision should serve as a warning to public bodies throughout the county and state that may be violating New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, sometimes called the Sunshine Law.

“We’re trying to get global compliancy,” said John Paff, treasurer of the organization. “These are the types of violations that hurt democracy.”

Grasso, in a written ruling, said the school board violated the Open Public Meetings Act by discussing in private topics like textbooks, meeting dates, tuition rates and solar panels. Other topics also discussed privately that should have been brought up in public included curriculum, textbooks, changes to the school calendar, dates for the school band concert, meeting dates and building repairs. In all, the court cited 24 examples of discussions that were improperly held behind closed doors.

School Board President Karl Ciak, reached by telephone, said he hadn’t seen the court’s ruling, but he provided some explanations for holding some of the discussions in private. Discussion on tuition, for instance, would have centered on a particular student, while repairs entailed talk about contracts, he explained.

“We were following the guidelines as far as we knew,” Ciak said. “If we find out they are different, we will adjust to them.”

Ciak said that as a cost-cutting measure several years ago, the board gave up the practice of having its attorney present for advice at all of its meetings.

“This is a one-school, school district,” he said. “We have 119 kids. This is not high-finance wheeling and dealing intended to hide from the public.”

Grasso, in fact, found the board’s violations were not willful, but rather technical due to oversight. He noted that while the Open Public Meetings Act allows for actions by a public body to be voided if the body does not conform with the law, the judge did not take that step and instead ordered the board to conform with the law going forward.

“The decision of Judge Grasso speaks for itself, and certainly, my clients intend to comply with the judge’s decision,” said Adam S. Weiss, an Edison attorney who defended the school board in the case.

The foundation filed the lawsuit against the school board in March, after the board’s secretary gave Paff heavily redacted meeting minutes from the board’s 2013 private sessions in response to his request for the minutes under the state’s Open Public Records Act.

Grasso in April ordered the school board to furnish him with unredacted minutes for his review while allowing the foundation to seek a judgment in its favor. The judge, after reviewing the unredacted minutes, concluded the board violated the Open Public Meetings Act by improperly discussing matters that should have been discussed in public, and also by adopting resolutions authorizing the closed sessions that lacked the specifics of the topics that were to be discussed.

“Here, the board’s resolutions state that the Board would discuss ‘confidential student information, personnel matters, contracts and litigation,’ ” Grasso wrote in his decision. “The court finds that these resolutions leave the public to guess at which of these issues the Board would discuss because they give three different possibilities.”

Paff said his organization plans to use Grasso’s decision in the Island Heights case to put other public bodies on notice that they must comply with the law.

“It’s one little decision in one little town, and we’ll see what we will be able to accomplish with that,” Paff said. “There’s plenty of noncompliance in the state of New Jersey.”