Sunday, August 30, 2009

Montclair Council agrees to open meeting

The following article appeared in the Montclair Times. It reports on a letter that I had sent to the Montclair Township Mayor and Council regarding an Open Public Meetings Act violation. My letter is on-line here.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

Council chided over closed-door meeting

(by Terrence T. McDonald - August 27, 2009)

After receiving a letter from an open government advocate who questioned the Township Council’s decision to hold a meeting behind closed doors on Aug. 4, the Township Council last week invited the public to meetings regarding the search for a new municipal manager.

The closed-door meeting was attended by at least one member of the public: a representative of the New Jersey Municipal Managers Association, who advised the council on how to begin their search for Township Manager Joseph M. Hartnett’s replacement. Hartnett will retire at the end of the year.

Though some council members insisted "personnel issues" discussed at the Aug. 4 closed-door meeting allowed them to bar the public from attending, John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, said the council is misinterpreting the law.

In an Aug. 18 letter addressed to the mayor and council, Paff states the council’s reliance on personnel reasons to close the meeting to the public is "wholly misplaced," adding that the meeting "ought to have been held in public."

After receiving the Aug. 18 letter, the council opened the doors to the public on a meeting that night with two employment recruiters seeking to find Hartnett’s successor.

The following night, the council held another meeting with a third recruiter and kept the doors open for that meeting as well.

Mayor Jerry Fried said he has a hard time understanding the issue with the Aug. 4 closed-door meeting. Public bodies need to discuss some issues – such as matters involving contracts and personnel – without the public’s involvement.

"You have to be able to talk about all those things in private," Fried said.

The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), signed into law in 1975, requires governmental bodies to invite the public to all meetings, with nine exemptions. One exemption allows elected officials to bar the public from discussions of "any specific prospective public officer or employee or current public officer or employee."

If the council discusses a position, not a specific employee, then the public should be invited, Paff told The Times.

"The reason we have public meetings is so people can … judge if they’re making reasonable decisions, if they’re making decisions in favor of the many and not of the few," Paff said. "We want to see how they make those decisions."

Before the Aug. 18 meeting started, Fried consulted with Assistant Township Attorney Joseph D’Angelo on whether the council should exclude the public from that night’s meeting. D’Angelo told him that the council could shut the doors and say they were discussing "anticipated contractual negotiations."

"If you don’t want to [do that], you can always have it in open," D’Angelo told Fried.

Paff told The Times that D’Angelo’s comment "illustrates how loosely public officials define the Open Public Meetings Act." OPMA tries to maximize the public’s ability to judge their public officials, while public officials often attempt to minimize the public’s involvement, according to Paff.

"That’s not the way this law was supposed to work. All the meetings are supposed to be public, every meeting … the public has a paramount right to know," he said.

Contact Terrence T. McDonald at mcdonald@montclairtimes.com.

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