Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Do meeting minutes need to contain a synopsis of public comments?

I sometimes receive questions that I think may be of general interest.

QUESTION:


Usually several people address my Township Council during the portion of its meetings set aside for public comment. Yet, nothing of what these people say is captured in the minutes. While I don't expect a verbatim report of the comments, I would expect something to the effect of "Mrs. Jones commented on the proposed raise of ..." or "Mrs. Jones inquired about ....". The minutes do not even capture the fact that Mrs. Jones spoke at the public session. Is this lawful?
ANSWER:

N.J.S.A. 10:4-14 require public bodies to keep "reasonably comprehensible minutes" of its meetings. Unfortunately, there is no published case law addressing the question of whether recording the identities of public speakers and substance of what they said is within the definition of "reasonably comprehensible."

The only New Jersey case that I know of where this question was addressed is O'Shea v. West Milford Township Council, et al, (Passaic County, Docket No. L-2229-04, Passero, A.J.S.C.). Copies of the relevant case documents are available on-line here.

The second page of Judge Passero's order requires the sued public body to include within its meeting minutes "the person's name, address and a summary of the comments made." On pages 15 and 16 of the transcript (page 10 and 11 of the PDF file), Judge Passero explains why this information is important. "A summarization [in the minutes of what members of the public said is important] because it alerts the public as to the issues framed, or, for example, a board said, we had no notice of this. We had no knowledge of this. Here are the minutes where somebody said, I want to point out this, this, this. It also goes to notice. So make [the minutes] a little more comprehensible and you say [sic] stay out of court."

So, according to Judge Passero's reasoning, including a summary of what each member of the public said prevents the public body from later claiming that it had no knowledge of the issue. For example, if a member of the public, at the June 2, 2010 meeting, publicly complains of stop sign obscured by vegetation, and on September 4, 2010, there is a fatal accident caused by a motorist not being able see the obscured stop sign, it is important that the minutes of the June 2, 2010 meeting reflect that the body was on notice of but failed to correct the problem.

Judge Passero's ruling is an unpublished, trial court decision and is not binding precedent. However, it might persuade other courts to rule similarly. I suggest bringing the ruling to the attention of your public body and ask them whether they will act in accordance with Judge Passero's ruling even if they are not bound by it.

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