Monday, July 5, 2010

Stratford Borough improperly delaying access to executive session minutes

On July 6, 2010, the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project sent the following letter to Stratford Borough (Camden County) Mayor John Gentless and the Borough Council.

Hopefully, the Council will discuss this issue at its July 8, 2010 meeting and adopt a policy that will ensure that citizens get prompt access to Borough Council executive meeting minutes.

John Paff, Chair
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Open Government Advocacy Project

Dear Mayor Gentless and Council Members:

I write, both individually and as Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, to appeal a decision by the Stratford Borough Solicitor to deny me access to even redacted versions of the minutes of the Borough Council's executive meetigs held on November 5, 2009; February 4, 2010; February 16, 2010; March 4, 2010 and March 15, 2010.

By way of background, I made a records request for those executive sessions minutes on June 15, 2010. On June 24, 2010, I received the following e-mail from Borough Clerk John Keenan:

The Borough Solicitor and myself have reviewed the draft of the executive sessions you have requested, which are November 5, 2009; February 4, 2010; February 16, 2010; March 4, 2010 and March 15, 2010, and the draft for these sessions are not ready for the Governing Body to approve at this time.

Based on NJSA 47:1A-1.1 the definition of a "government record" does not include inter-agency or intro-agency advisory, consultative, or deliberative material.

Until the Governing Body approves the executive session minutes, the draft is not considered a record.

N.J.S.A. 10:4-14 requires the non-exempt portions of the Borough's closed minutes to be made "promptly available to the public." I believe that denying a request made in June 2010 for minutes of a meeting that occurred in November 2009 is not “promptly available” as required by the statute.

Moreover, since the purpose of approving minutes is to ensure that they accurately reflect what occurred during the meeting, wouldn’t it be best to have presented the November 5, 2009 minutes for approval a the very next meeting while what occurred at the meeting was still fresh in the Council members’ minds? And, waiting until 2010 to approve minutes from 2009 is undesirable because it allows for the possibility of a newly elected council person being asked to approve minutes for a meeting at which occurred before his or her election to office.

A few years ago, I sued the Borough of Lawnside for similar Open Public Meetings Act violations. On April 13, 2007, Camden County Assignment Judge Francis J. Orlando signed an order which declared that Lawnside Borough had "violated [my rights under the Open Public Meetings Act, Open Public Records Act and common law by denying [me] access to the minutes and notes of [Lawnside's] nonpublic meetings for more than six months." Judge Orlando also ordered Lawnside to "make minutes of its nonpublic meetings available to the public no later than sixty (60) days after the date of each nonpublic meeting." A copy of Judge Orlando's Order is [available on-line here].

Stratford has denied me access to minutes of an executive session held on November 5, 2009--more than nine months ago. Since Judge Orlando has already ruled that Lawnside violated the law by denying access to minutes to meetings held six months in the past, it stands to reason that he would also find Stratford in violation if were to bring suit.

I have no desire to bring suit against Stratford. Rather, I prefer that towns simply comply with what the law requires. Would Stratford be willing to adopt a policy that would, going forward, a) require executive session meeting minutes to be presented for Council approval at the next regular meeting and b) require that minutes of executive meetings, redacted as necessary, be publicly available by no later than sixty days after the meeting? This is the same time period that Judge Orlando imposed upon Lawnside.

I would appreciate it if you would discuss this issue at the Council's July 8, 2010 Agenda Meeting and let me know your thoughts. I would also appreciate it if you would reconsider my request for the minutes, redacted as necessary, the Council's November 5, 2009; February 4, 2010; February 16, 2010; March 4, 2010 and March 15, 2010 executive meetings.

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,


John Paff

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