Monday, May 17, 2010

School board president claims that timely release of meeting agendas may "confuse" citizens and lead to "negativity."

On April 17, 2010, the Express-Times published the following article regarding a Warren County school board's refusal to publicize its meeting agendas until ten minutes before the start of the meeting. This school board's position underscores the need for Senate No.l351, introduced by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Assembly Bill No. 2322. an identical bill introduced by Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (D-37).

S-1351/A-2322 will, among other things, require public bodies to publicize a meeting's agenda at least three business days prior to the meeting and prohibit matters not on the published agenda from being discussed or acted upon unless the prerequisites for holding an emergency meeting have been met. S-1351/A-2322 is available here.

Please take the time to forward this article to your Senate and General Assembly representative with a request that they cosponsor S-1351/A-2322. Contact information for your representatives is here.
Warren County Technical School Board's policy not to release agendas before meetings is legal, but limits participation

Saturday, April 17, 2010

By STEPHEN J. NOVAK
The Express-Times

FRANKLIN TWP. A woman stood up at the meeting Wednesday to ask the Warren County Technical School Board if there was to be any discussion about rumored cuts to the arts program.

Board President Bradley Bartow said the woman would have to check the agendas for upcoming meetings, because none was currently planned. When she asked when the next agenda would be available, Bartow told her "10 minutes before the (next) meeting."

"There was nothing in that agenda tonight that talked about the elimination of any position," Bartow said following the meeting. "Could there be one there next week? Absolutely, but it will be on the agenda then. That's when we talk about it.

"To give them a week ahead or three days ahead to -- suppose we make a change at the last minute -- that's just not productive."

Technically, the board is doing nothing wrong by withholding meeting discussion topics. New Jersey's Open Public Meetings Law does not require an agenda be released prior to a regularly scheduled meeting.

However, some are displeased with the board's reluctance to release meeting information, particularly in a time when staff and programs are on the chopping block as budgets are trimmed.

"When you announce your agenda in advance, it gives people an opportunity to research the issues and come to the meeting prepared with cogent comments and questions," said John Paff, who chairs the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project.

"The way they're doing it ... transforms the citizens from participants to observers," he said.

School officials say it has always been board policy not to publicly release agendas until the start of a meeting, but it only began to be enforced recently. Requests from The Express-Times for last Wednesday's meeting plan were denied.

Bartow defended the board's policy following Wednesday's meeting, saying that many times, like that night, the agendas aren't fully formed until just before the meeting. It could be confusing to residents if something was listed as a discussion item and later removed from the schedule.

He also said that policy will continue to stand to avoid "negativity."

"Unfortunately, past history here is things have been taken out of context and used against us and wound up in court where we had to defend our position," Bartow said. "We're not going to do that anymore."

Many of the parents and students at the Wednesday meeting were there to ask the board to spare the school's child study team -- a special education assistance program the board voted to outsource the month before.

"If agendas were available, people ... would have seen that this was coming up for discussion," said Warren Tech PTA President Carol Jacob. "It was done in such a sneaky way, that they didn't approach anybody. If anybody had known anything about this three months ago, we would have been out fighting it when it first popped into their heads."

The lack of advance information is frustrating to district staff, too.

"It just makes it hard to comment on issues that might affect our membership when we don't know what's going to be discussed until a minute before the meeting," said teachers association President Ed Yarusinski. "I think it's wrong that an agenda isn't provided to the public in advance of the meeting."

Legally, the board is not required to release any meeting information in advance, said Tom Cafferty, an attorney who represents the New Jersey Press Association. As long as an agenda is incomplete, it is not considered a public document.

A bill pending in the state Senate, S-1351, would have public bodies post agendas in newspapers and online three business days before a meeting. The bill was introduced in February and referred to a subcommittee.

Getting information out before a meeting could also help improve the image of a board, Paff said, especially as it makes unpopular cuts.

"I don't think they recognize the damage they do to their own credibility" by not releasing a meeting plan, he said. "Then they wonder why nobody trusts them ... or assumes the worst."

Reporter Stephen J. Novak can be reached at 610-258-7171, ext. 3542, or snovak@express-times.com.

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