Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hightstown employs an open and transparent process

I would like to commend the Borough of Hightstown (Mercer County) on the transparent manner in which it recently filled a vacant seat on its municipal council.

One member of the Borough Council, a Republican, resigned. According to the Municipal Vacancy Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:16-1, et seq., the local Republican Committee submitted the names of three nominees to the Borough Council. The Council was then obliged to select one of those nominees to serve the remainder of the vacated term.

I have witnessed vacancies being filled by other public bodies, and the process is usually shrouded in secrecy. Typically, the nominees are interviewed during an executive session and the public is only allowed to witness a formal vote installing the successful nominee. (The leading case on the process of filling vacancies is enunciated in Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc. vs. Board of Education of Manville, 201 N.J. Super. 65 (Law Div. 1984), which is on-line here.

Hightstown, however, did it right.

First, after the Republican Committee submitted the names of the three nominees, their resumes were posted on the Borough’s website prior to the September 28, 2010 meeting at which the selection was made. Then, the entire selection process, including detailed interviews of the three candidates and the Council's deliberations, was held in public allowing citizens to witness the formulation and decision making process from start to finish.

The agenda of the September 28, 2010 meeting, the resolution to fill the vacancy and the three nominees' resumes are on-line here.

I commend Hightstown's mayor and council for the manner in which they handled this process. Readers should insist that their municipalities and school boards follow Hightstown's example the next time a vacancy needs to be filled.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Loss in Paff v. Chatham Borough

Morris County Assignment Judge B. Theodore Bozonelis ruled today that under the common law right of access the government's and police officer's privacy interests trumped the public's right to know the length of a suspension meted out against a police officer who left a loaded gun on a public sidewalk while intoxicated. Bozonelis also decided, despite his ruling, to take a private look at (i.e. conduct an in camera review of) the officer's suspension records.

The case is captioned Paff v. Borough of Chatham, Docket No. MRS-L-1860-10. I am represented by Richard Gutman, Esq. of Montclair and the case documents are on-line here.

The Daily Record printed an article on the hearing, which is reposted below:

Judge: Public has no right to know suspension Chatham, N.J., cop got for losing gun

By PEGGY WRIGHT • STAFF WRITER • October 2, 2010

A judge ruled Friday that the public is not entitled to know the length of a suspension that Chatham Borough officials gave a police officer who left a backpack containing a loaded gun on a Westfield sidewalk.

Superior Court Assignment Judge B. Theodore Bozonelis ruled against a lawsuit filed by Somerset resident and public records watchdog John Paff to compel the borough to disclose the length of a suspension given to Officer Roy George.

However, the judge, sitting in Morristown, said he would conduct a private, in-camera review of documents relating to the suspension and decide whether his ruling has full merit.

Paff, who was represented by attorney Richard Gutman, said he believes the entire disciplinary process, particularly when police are involved, should be open.

"In order to evaluate the honesty and genuineness of public officials, we have to be able to peek behind the curtain of what the wizard is doing," Paff said.

After a closed-door disciplinary hearing was conducted, the borough did disclose in April that George was demoted from sergeant to patrolman. This portion was revealed because Chatham has an ordinance that requires demotions to be passed by public resolutions.

The police chief said a suspension also was ordered. But the length and loss of pay it would cost Roy was never disclosed and Paff filed suit to find out.

George was off duty on Oct. 12, 2009, when he was found to be intoxicated and wandering a street in Westfield. The next day, Westfield police got a call from a resident who found a backpack with a loaded, .45-caliber handgun and credentials inside that belonged to George.

The judge had to weigh the public's interest in the suspension and the officer's right to privacy and found the privacy interest was more compelling. Bozonelis noted there is "progressive discipline" in New Jersey, meaning punishment increases for police officers based on department infractions, and the public could be made privy to more of Roy's past personnel record than envisioned if the gun-related suspension was released.

"There are other considerations which impact on the length of a suspension. It could be his prior record," the judge said. However, there are no indications that George has a prior disciplinary history in Chatham.

Borough labor counsel James Plosia Jr. argued that George's privacy interest outweighed the right-to-know, and that he signaled a desire for privacy by requesting that his disciplinary hearing be closed.

"George's right is not in any way diminished by what the borough did" in passing the demotion resolution, Plosia said.

Peggy Wright: 973-267-1142; pwright@gannett.com.