This editorial concerns disclosure of a fire company’s revenues, including those from independent sources. Courts have exclusively held that volunteer fire companies are “public agencies” under OPRA, thus their revenues should be part of required financial reporting that allows towns to better appropriate tax dollars. -NJFOG
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Jan. 28, 2016
NJ Herald Editorial
The residents of Stillwater have a responsibility to support their volunteer fire departments.
At the same time, the volunteer fire departments have a responsibility to be accountable to the public they serve, including complying with a directive to submit outside financial audits.
The Stillwater Area Volunteer Fire Department and the Stillwater Emergency Rescue Squad have submitted the required audits. The Swartswood Volunteer Fire Department has not.
Last week, reportedly in an attempt to encourage compliance, the Stillwater Township Committee introduced an ordinance that could effectively disband the Swartswood department if an outside audit is not conducted and submitted.
On Monday, representatives of the Township Committee, the Swartswood Volunteer Fire Department and their legal counsel met to resolve the impasse.
Comments provided Wednesday from both sides indicate that progress was made and a report would be forthcoming at the committee’s regular meeting next week.
Swartswood is different from the Stillwater Area Fire Department in that it owns its building and property. Furthermore, the Swartswood squad has a revenue stream from a cell tower that has been erected on its property. That is likely the source of concern, if not suspicion from some.
Richard Stein, attorney for Stillwater Township, said state statute requires an accounting of monies provided by the township to the department.
Because the cell tower revenue does not come from the township, it might be inferred that that income would not necessarily have to be reported to the township.
However, a couple of lower court decisions have determined that volunteer fire departments are subject to the same Open Public Records Act as other public bodies, and hence that income would be public information.
Logically, it would make sense for the township to be aware of a steady source of revenue being received by the Swartswood department, which would help it determine the best use of taxpayer monies.
Regardless of whether Swartswood can be compelled to report its outside income, in the interest of transparency and accountability to those it serves and those who support it, the department would be prudent to divulge that information.
And, according to Committeeman George Scott, one of the township representatives involved in Monday’s meeting, the Swartswood department is willing and in fact did disclose the amount of that revenue stream. Scott declined to provide the figure, saying he had not yet reported it to other committee members, and also that he preferred that the department itself make the figures public.
Though the matter is not yet settled, George Daggett, attorney for the Swartswood department, said an agreement is “imminent,” though he would not offer a timeframe.
Scott said other things are involved in the discussion beyond the audit. “A couple of issues still need to be ironed out.”
But he, too, was optimistic that a resolution was on the horizon with the department.
Both Daggett and Scott acknowledged miscommunication was part of the problem leading up to the dispute.
Miscommunication or lack of communication should never have gotten to the level of threatening to close a volunteer fire department.
The issues need to be addressed and for all concerned, the information made public.
Article online here and re-posted above.
OPRA’s applicability to volunteer fire companies
Three cases that shed light on whether volunteer fire companies are subject to the New Jersey Open Public Records Act.
NJ Open Government Notes
by John Paff
Jan. 21, 2016
Appellate Court: Volunteer Fire Company is subject to OPRA
An Appellate Court issued an unpublished opinion on March 15, 2016 that a volunteer fire company in a fire district is a government agency subject to OPRA.
NJ Open Government Notes
by John Paff
March 15, 2016
Gloucester County Fire District ordered to comply with Meetings Act.
Gloucester County Judge Georgia M. Curio issued an injunction on May 6, 2016 requiring the Harrison Township Fire District to comply with the OPMA, including the requirement to keep meeting minutes.
NJ Open Government Notes
by John Paff
May 9, 2016
Judge orders N.J. fire district to keep better records
by Matt Gray
May 12, 2016
Courts have exclusively held that volunteer fire companies are “public agencies” under OPRA because, by statute, they perform a governmental function and are subject to the supervision and control of their municipality or, if they are located in a fire district, they are subject to the supervision and control of their fire district. Applicable statutes are N.J.S.A. 40A:14-68 and N.J.S.A. 40A:14-70.1, the former dealing with fire companies in municipalities and the latter dealing with fire companies in fire districts.
40A:14-68 Contracts with volunteer fire companies; member holding public office.
a. In any municipality not having a paid or part-paid fire department and force, the governing body, by ordinance, may contract with a volunteer fire company or companies in such municipality, for purposes of extinguishing fires, upon such terms and conditions as shall be deemed proper. The members of any such company shall be under the supervision and control of said municipality and in performing fire duty shall be deemed to be exercising a governmental function; however, the appointment or election of the chief of the volunteer fire company shall remain the prerogative of the membership of the fire company as set forth in the company’s certificate of incorporation or bylaws.
b. A member of a volunteer fire company established pursuant to subsection a. of this section shall not be precluded from holding elected public office on the governing body of the municipal government where the fire company operates, provided that the volunteer recuse himself from any vote involving or concerning the volunteer fire company.
40A:14-70.1. Establishment of a volunteer fire company within a fire district; contract with volunteer fire company outside fire district
a. Any persons desiring to form a volunteer fire company to be located within or otherwise servicing the area encompassing a fire district or other type of volunteer organization which has as its objective the prevention of fires or regulation of fire hazards to life and property therein shall first present to the board of fire commissioners a written application for the organization of such company. Such application shall be in the form of a duly verified petition signed by them stating the kind of company which they desire to organize, the name or title thereof, the number and names of the proposed members thereof, and their places of residence. The board of fire commissioners, after considering such application and approving the members of the proposed company, may by resolution grant the petition and constitute such applicants a volunteer fire company of the district.
b. The board of fire commissioners of a fire district not having a paid or part-paid fire department and force may contract with a volunteer fire company or companies for the purpose of extinguishing fires, upon those terms and conditions as shall be deemed proper. The members of the company shall be under the supervision and control of the board of fire commissioners and in performing fire duty shall be deemed to be exercising a governmental function; however, the appointment or election of the chief of the volunteer fire company shall remain the prerogative of the membership of the fire company as set forth in the company’s certificate of incorporation or bylaws.
Amended 1989, c.285, s.2.