NJFOG vs. Island Heights Board of Education

The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) is alleging that the Island Heights Board of Education and its custodian of records, Lillian Brendel, violated the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).

A hearing to address the OPRA issues is set for April 16th at 1:45 p.m. before Ocean County Superior Court Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso.  Matters dealing with the OPMA will be dealt with at a later date.  John Paff, treasurer of the organization is an additional plaintiff.  The full complaint and order to show cause is available at:  http://ogtf.lpcnj.org/2014/2014086PY/NJFOGvIHBOE.pdf

NJFOG is a state-wide organization which advocates for transparency in government, educates residents about their right to information under the law and files court actions to force compliance.

“Violations of OPMA , the foundational  law for citizens to keep watch on their governments, occur on a daily basis and the suit is designed to force compliance by this governmental body and to send a signal to other violators that compliance is necessary and violations will be met with citizen action,” Paff, an open government activist, said.

Anthony H. Ogozalek, Jr., Esq., a partner in the Gibbsboro firm of Beckman Roth Ogozalek & Perez is the attorney of record for the Plaintiffs.

On April 22, 2012, acting Under OPRA, NJFOG and Paff filed a request for the “Minutes of the February 8, 2012, closed session of the Island Heights Board of Education and the resolution that authorized that session.   According to the law the Board had 7 business days to comply.  The Board responded on May 9th with information that was deemed inadequate.

Subsequent correspondence including requests for minutes and resolutions for closed sessions continued until March of 2014, when the suit was filed.

The suit alleges that

  1. Responses were not timely, which according to the law constitutes a denial;

  2. Responses were redacted with insufficient explanation for the redactions;

  3. Brendel has not satisfied her burden of proving that Paff is not entitled to have disclosed to him at least some of the information redacted from the Island Heights Board of Education’s 2013 and 2014 nonpublic meeting minutes.

  4. The public interest in disclosure of the redacted information exceeds the government’s interest in keeping that information confidential;

  5. Resolutions for the Island Heights BOE to go into closed session are not in compliance with OPMA;

  6. In its closed sessions, the Island Heights Board of Education engaged in discussion of improper meeting topics which should have been discussed in public sessions.  These improper discussions occurred at 14 closed sessions from February 8, 2012 through February 12, 2014.  At each of these 14 sessions, the suit says the BOE violated OPMA statutes by discussing and resolving matters which should have been conducted in public session.

NJFOG and Paff are seeking the specific information requested plus an order from Judge Grasso which forces the Island Heights BOE to comply in spirit and with the letter of the Open Public Records and Open Public Meetings Acts.

“NJFOG reviewed the practices of a number of governmental bodies in various communities in New Jersey and decided that the violations we allege committed by Island Heights Board of Education are representative of violations committed often by government.  We hope this suit will spur reforms,” Paff said.

 “We focus on Municipal Governments and Boards of Education where some of the worst abuses of withholding information from the public occur,” said Walter Luers, an attorney who is President of NJFOG.  “Government, in our view, functions best in the bright light of day and we try to help citizens shine that light on their governments,” Luers said.   The Foundation has previously filed suit under OPRA against New Jersey’s Government Records Council (“GRC”) for access to the records of the very administrative agency responsible for enforcing OPRA; that lawsuit was settled with an agreement by the GRC to produce the records and pay NJFOG’s counsel fees.  In 2013, the Supreme Court granted NJFOG’s motion to be recognized as amicus curiae in the Plaintiff’s Petition for Certification in Paff v. Borough of Garwood.