For immediate release
June 22, 2017
On June 21, 2017, Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary C. Jacobson ordered the Lawrence Township Board of Education to better inform the public of the topics it discusses during closed-door meetings and to put more detail into the minutes of those meetings.
Jacobson issued her order in response to a public interest lawsuit filed against the Lawrence school board by the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG), a non-profit that seeks to ensure that New Jersey government agencies are compliant with the state’s Open Public Records and Meetings statutes (OPRA and OPMA).
Jacobson ruled on two specific issues: a) whether the Board’s closed meeting resolutions were specific enough and b) whether the Board’s closed meeting minutes were detailed enough.
Prior to excluding the public from a meeting — i.e., going into closed or executive session — the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) requires a public body to pass a resolution that informs the public of the topics that it will privately discuss. NJFOG’s lawsuit pointed out that each of the Lawrence school board’s resolutions identically stated that “personnel, negotiations, H.I.B. and legal matters” would be privately discussed. The group argued that this general, boilerplate description did not give the public any real sense of what the board would actually be discussing behind closed doors.
Judge Jacobson agreed and ordered the Board, going forward, to pass resolutions that “contain as much available information as is consistent with full public knowledge without doing harm to the public interest.” Under this standard, the board, for example, would need to inform the public that it was going to privately discuss the lawsuit captioned “John Doe v. Lawrence Public Schools, Docket No. MER-L-1234-16” rather than simply telling the public that it was going to privately discuss “legal matters.”
NJFOG also argued that the school board’s closed session minutes were not “reasonably comprehensible” as required by the OPMA. Most of the Board’s closed minutes contain a statement of the format “[Person A] discussed/reported on/updated the board on [topic B]” without proving any detail or context regarding the actual topics that were discussed or reported upon. For example, the board’s June 8, 2016 minutes vaguely state that Superintendent Crystal M. Edwards, among other things, “reported on [a] residency case.” Judge Jacobson agreed with NJFOG’s position and ordered the board, going forward, to “ensure that executive session meeting minutes contain sufficient facts and information to describe what took place at the meeting and what final action was taken in order to permit the public to understand and appraise the reasonableness of the public body’s determination.”
Judge Jacobson’s June 21, 2017 order and other case documents can be found in NJFOG’s case summary.