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NJ Open Government Notes

Volunteer Fire Departments within Fire Districts are OPRA “public agencies.”

In an Order distributed today, May 1, 2014, the Government Records Council (GRC) ruled that a volunteer fire department in Franklin Township (Somerset County), which is within a Fire District, is a “public agency” that must respond to Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests.

In Robert A. Verry v. Franklin Fire District No. 1, GRC Complaint No. 2013-196 (on-line here), the GRC held:

Notwithstanding that [Millstone Valley Fire Department] was likely created by the volunteer membership, is clear that member companies within a fire district exercise a government duty and are under the supervision and control of the district, which is clearly a “public agency.” In essence, although the creation of a volunteer fire company is reserved only for the membership, said company organizing within a fire district is expressly required to apply to the district. As the Court noted in [Paff v. New Jersey State Firemen’s Ass’n], the relationship between the Association and its existence are owed to state law, as is the relationship between the creation and function of a volunteer fire company within a fire district. Thus, in applying the Court’s decision in Firemen’s Ass’n, to the facts of this complaint, the GRC is satisfied that [Millstone Valley Fire Department] is a “public agency” for purposes of OPRA.

Therefore, because [Millstone Valley Fire Department] is a member of the [Franklin Fire District] per N.J.S.A. 40A:14-70.1 and thus serves a governmental function under the supervision and control of the [Franklin Fire District], it is a public agency for purposes of OPRA.

This is the first decision of its kind that I am aware of in New Jersey.

Verry’s attorney in the matter is John A. Bermingham, Jr., Esq. and the Fire District was represented by Dominic DiYanni .  The Fire District has 45 days within which to appeal the ruling.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to paff@pobox.com