Tuesday, December 29, 2009

School Board decides to stop audio-taping its public meetings

I know of many public bodies that do not audiotape their public meetings.  However, I don't recall any that have historically audio-taped their meetings but then decided to stop.  According to the following news article, the Sparta Board of Education (Sussex County) has decided to do just that.

The stated reason for ceasing the audiotapes is to prevent those tapes from being available for "discovery in future litigation."

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

Sparta differs on recorded meetings

December 28, 2009
By SETH AUGENSTEIN and BRUCE SCRUTON

newsroom@njherald.com

SPARTA -- The local council and school board have different ideas on audio recordings of their meetings.

The Board of Education approved a new bylaw last week that could halt the taping of its meetings.

Also last week, the council directed its employees to research the possibility of posting its recordings on the township's Web site for anybody to download.

School board president Jennifer Dericks and school business administrator Warren Ceurvels said recording board meetings is not required by law, and the board is concerned having them would open them up to "discovery" in future litigation. The district recently paid attorney's fees from a successful Open Public Records Act suit filed against the schools by a local citizen.

Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, confirmed recordings are not required by law. In fact, no government agencies are required to record meetings under the terms of either the Open Public Meetings Act or Open Public Records Act. Minutes taken by the secretary of the governmental entity are the record of what transpires at a meeting. Accordingly, the voluntary decision to tape or not to tape varies from district to district across the state, he said.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition," Yaple said Monday.

Yaple said the association's sense is that most school boards across the state do not record their meetings, although many do, and some even go as far as videotaping and broadcasting board meetings on local public access stations.

Ceurvels said in 22 years working in eight school districts, Sparta is the only one he's encountered that tapes its meetings. There is no real need for it, legally or in terms of transparency, he said.

"There hasn't been a big outcry that we haven't been open to the public," he said.

The vote was 6-1 in favor of stopping the taping. The lone "no" vote was by vice president Kevin Pollison.

"My personal opinion is, as much information as possible is good," Pollison said afterward. "You can bring a recorder to the meeting, but not everyone has a recorder or can come to the meetings."

John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, said the school board's vote was "odd," given the ongoing push for open government in the state.

"The trend is to do opposite of what the school board is doing," Paff said. "How does that look? That sends exactly the wrong message."

Meanwhile, the Township Council directed Township Manager Henry Underhill to consider posting digital audio files on the township's Web site so they can be downloaded.

Councilman Brian Brady said he favored bringing information out to the public's disposal. However, Underhill warned him and the other councilmen that it could become another time-consuming duty.

"You're creating work for another employee," Underhill advised.

However, Brady, Mayor Scott Seelagy and the majority of the council directed Underhill to look into the issue.

Pollison, looking on from the audience, said he agreed.

"Personally, I'd like to do (on the school board) what the council has suggested," he said.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lumberton Township settles OPMA suit

I recently settled my civil suit against the Lumberton Township (Burlington County) Committee that demanded prompter public access to the nonexempt portions of its executive session minutes.  My lawsuit and the settlement agreement are on-line here and following is an article on the settlement that appeared in today's Burlington County Times.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey
------------------------------
Lumberton agrees to quick release meeting minutes

By: Mark Zimmaro
Burlington County Times

The Township Committee has agreed to make the minutes from its executive sessions available to the public in a more prompt manner.

A civil lawsuit filed in State Superior Court by John Paff, Chair of the NJ Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, accused the Lumberton Township Committee of withholding minutes from their meetings that occur behind closed doors.

According to the lawsuit, Paff filed an Open Public Records Act of New Jersey request on June 29, asking for the township’s most recent available executive session minutes. On July 8, Paff received an e-mailed response from the township clerk with minutes from April and May of 2007.

“It was unacceptable,” said Paff, who resides in Somerset County. “These things need to be available to the public more frequently than that. It’s important for people to know what’s going on.”

Paff then sued the township and the two sides agreed to a settlement in which the committee arranged to make those minutes available more quickly to the public at their request.

“We never had any complaints before this,” said Lumberton Mayor Michael Mansdoerfer. “Basically we set up a policy on how to handle the minutes from now on while adhering to this complaint.”

The Township Committee meets twice a month and enters executive session at the majority of its meetings.

Currently there is no set timetable in state law for municipalities to make minutes available. However, the committee passed a resolution prior to the settlement stating that minutes from all its meetings would be available for public inspection as soon as they can be made properly available after the conclusion of the meeting. The resolution was agreed to during the settlement as guidelines for the release of future minutes.

“They agreed to make those minutes from one meeting available for request the day before the next meeting,” Paff said. “It’s good. There was a need for some clarity. I don’t think (the committee) was trying to hide anything and they were very cooperative once it was on their radar screen.”

Mansdoerfer agreed that settlement will provide a more transparent government in Lumberton.

“We want to be open with the public,” the mayor said. “It’s a good thing. It needed to be cleaned up.”

Paff has filed similar complaints in 17 municipalities in Atlantic County with 16 reaching similar settlements. The other case was won by Paff in Superior Court.

BCT staff writer Mark Zimmaro can be reached at 609-871-8059 or at mzimmaro@phillyBurbs.com

December 02, 2009 05:38 PM