Following is my July 15, 2013 letter to the Winslow Township (Camden County) Board of Education asking it to a) adopt my more precise and informative form of closed session resolution and b) to stop discussing general policy matters in closed session. Unfortunately, violations such as these are common among local governments.
I encourage readers to submit Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests to their own town councils and/or school boards. Simply request “the resolutions, as required by N.J.S.A. 10:4-13, authorizing the three most recent closed or executive sessions held by [name of governing body].” If you receive resolutions that, like Winslow’s, describe the closed session topics broadly and vaguely, you may want to modify the form of resolution I sent to Winslow for your town and/or school board and encourage them to adopt it.
July 15, 2013
Patricia Davis, President and Members of the
Winslow Township Board of Education
40 Cooper Folly Rd
Atco, NJ 08804
Dear President Davis and Board Members
I serve as chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project. I invite the Board’s attention to areas of noncompliance with the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and request that the Board discuss these issues at its July 24, 2013 meeting.
The Board’s nonpublic (i.e. closed or executive) meeting resolutions and minutes from three meetings in late 2011 are on-line here. The resolutions are not precise enough to comply with N.J.S.A. 10:4-13 and the minutes reflect that matters were discussed privately that should have been discussed publicly.
As for the resolutions, they describe the matters to be discussed in private session very generally, using terms such as “student hearings,” “personnel matters,” and “legal matters.” (The minutes from a more recent meeting, held on June 12, 2013 (on-line here) indicate that the same general terms are currently used.) The resolutions “should contain as much information as is consistent with full public knowledge without doing any harm to the public interest.” See, McGovern v. Rutgers, 418 N.J.Super. 458, 470 (App. Div. 2011) reversed on other grounds 211 N.J. 94 (2012). For example, why could not the Board have publicly disclosed, in its November 9, 2011 resolution, that a “property dispute between the Winslow Township Board of Education and the Township of Winslow” was going to be discussed instead of telling the public that merely “legal matters” would be discussed? I have uploaded here and here Word and PDF versions of form of closed session resolution that I ask the Board to use going forward.
As for the minutes, most of the items under “Board Policy Matters” should have been discussed in public. For example, the “policy regarding the structure of Board Committees and the number of members required to be present to conduct a meeting” which was privately discussed on November 9, 2011 does not appear to meet any of the exceptions enumerated in N.J.S.A. 10:4-12(b). These exceptions must be strictly construed against excluding the public from a meeting. Hartz Mountain Industries, Inc. v. New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, 369 N.J.Super. 175, 186 (App. Div. 2004), certification denied 182 N.J. 147 (2004).
Would you please contact me, or have Solicitor Long contact me, regarding these issues after your July 24, 2013 meeting?
Very truly yours,
/s/ John Paff
cc. Howard C. Long, Jr., Board Solicitor