Friday, August 13, 2010

Several OPMA issues with the Bridgeton Board of Education

I attended a meeting of the Bridgeton Board of Education (Cumberland County) on August 10, 2010 to address two concerns: a) executive session minutes that are not "reasonably comprehensible" and b) meeting agendas not being given to the public until the beginning of the meeting.

I arrived for the 6 p.m. meeting at 5:45 p.m. and found the building to be locked. I rang the bell and knocked on the door and in a few minutes a man came and pushed a latch to let me in, but he didn't unlock the doors for any other members of the public who might later arrive. This gave me an initial indication that openness and transparency were not among the Board's strong suits.

When I walked into the meeting room, I encountered the smell of food. I looked to my left and saw several people sitting in an adjoining room eating and conversing. I took a seat in the public area and waited. While waiting, someone from inside the adjoining room closed the door. After a few minutes, the Board members and some administrators emerged from the adjoining room and took their places on the dais. Since it was about six o'clock, someone unlocked the exterior door to allow other members of the public to enter.

The meeting was then formally called to order. At that time, the president asked for a short delay while one of the staff members duplicated the meeting agenda for the four members of the public (including me) who were present. We were each given copies of the meeting agenda and were invited to sign a list if we wished to address the Board. I signed up as did one other citizen.

I was called first to speak and I distributed some exhibits to the Board members. Among the exhibits was the Board's July 14, 2009 Executive Session minutes (see here) which is typical of the Board's executive session minutes. I noted that the Board summed up a private meeting that lasted nearly one and a half hours with the following sentence that appeared in the minutes: "The Board discussed matters of personnel." I opined that this single, general sentence did not meet the Open Public Meetings Act requirement that meeting minutes be "reasonably comprehensible." (See N.J.S.A. 10:4-14).

I next noted that the 30-page agenda that I had just been given ought to have been provided to the public at least a day or two prior to the meeting. I explained that it is difficult, if not impossible, for members of the public to present cogent comments and questions to the Board regarding agenda items when they don't have access to the agenda until literally seconds before the public comment period begins.

While I was speaking, I observed that the Board members didn't look at me or appear to be paying any attention to what I was saying.

I finally raised the issue of the Board's pre-meeting in the adjoining room and expressed my opinion that this gathering was disallowed by the Open Public Meetings Act. I then thanked the Board for their attention and asked them if they had any questions or responses. None of the Board members looked at me or paid any attention to me. So, after waiting at the podium for a few seconds, I returned to my seat.

The next speaker was called, and she stated that she was an employee who received a letter that she did not understand. One of the administrators told her it was Rice Notice. She then asked why her union representative wasn't present and the Board Attorney, A. Paul Kienzle, Jr., brusquely told her that her union representative's presence or absence wasn't the Board's concern. Board President Edwards asked her "Is that all?" and the woman shrugged and returned to her seat. The Board then moved to go into executive session and told the four members of the public to leave the room.

The following day, I filed a complaint against the Board, concerning the pre-meeting meals, with the Cumberland County Prosecutor and the New Jersey Department of Education. That complaint is on-line here.

I have rarely witnessed more cavalier and imperious public officials than the members of the Bridgeton Board of Education. I look forward to working with them to improve their compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act.

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