Thursday, December 23, 2010

Paff v. South Bound Brook: Video of Court hearing on-line

Readers may recall that a motion for summary judgment in my open public records lawsuit against South Bound Brook Borough was heard on Friday, December 17, 2010, at 9 a.m. before Judge Ciccone at the Somerset County Courthouse in Somerville.

The video of the ten-minute hearing is on-line here. I was represented by Walter Luers, Esq. of Oxford and the Borough's lawyer was Francesco Taddeo of Somerville.

By way of background, my suit seeks disclosure of records of a police investigation involving the "Mayor's wife's family." More background information is available here and all the case documents, up to and including Judge Ciccone's December 17, 2010 Order are on-line here.

At the December 17, 2010 hearing, Judge Ciccone ordered South Bound Brook to provide her, under seal, with all of the suppressed records so that she can privately review them and determine which, if any, should be disclosed to me. (This is called an "in camera" review.)

Christie: Proposed OPRA exemption rules have force of law

In 2008, the Government Records Council (GRC) ruled that OPRA exemptions proposed by state agencies as far back as 2002--but never enacted--indefinitely constituted a lawful basis for denying OPRA requests. On June 4, 2010, the Appellate Division reversed the GRC's decision and set a November 5, 2010 deadline for agencies to enact rules exempting certain classes of records from public disclosure under OPRA. My The June 5, 2010 blog posting regarding the ruling is on-line here.

Since the Appellate Division's ruling, five state departments--Law and Public Safety, Corrections, Military and Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection, and Community Affairs--have proposed new rules exempting certain records from OPRA. In early November, Governor Chris Christie issued Executive Order 2010-47 which gave the force of law to the exemptions set forth in the proposed regulations. Christie determined that the proposed rules "cannot be finalized prior to the deadline of November 5, 2010 established by the court [and that] it is in the public interest that these exemptions do not lose their force and effect during the pendency of the rulemaking process."

Executive Order 2010-47, along with the five agencies' proposed rules, is on-line here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Public Comment Portion at Reorganization Meetings

Every January, most municipalities hold their "reorganization meetings." Today, I looked at the minutes of several municipal governing bodies to learn whether or not they set aside a portion of their 2010 reorganization meetings for citizen comments. Interestingly, I found that a significant minority (approximately 20%) of the small sample of bodies I checked did NOT have a public portion set aside even though one is required by law.

I urge readers to see if their municipal governing bodies set aside a portion of their 2010 Reorganization Meeting for citizen comment. Most municipalities have Internet sites and list them here. And, many of those that have Internet sites post their agendas and minutes on-line.

If you find that your governing body did not provide a public comment period at its 2010 reorganization meeting, you should contact the municipal clerk to make sure that the public will be allowed to comment at the 2011 reorganization meeting. Following is my e-mail to the Clerk of Readington Township (Hunterdon County) which cites the applicable law and may otherwise be helpful.

December 2, 2010

Vita Mekovetz, Clerk
Readington Township
509 Route 23
Whitehouse Station, NJ 08889

Dear Ms. Mekovetz:

In our telephone conversation today, December 2, 2010, I noted that the agenda and minutes of the Township Council's January 4, 2010 Reorganization Meeting indicate that no portion of that meeting was set aside for public comment. (The agenda and minutes, respectively, are on-line at http://www.readingtontwp.org/TC-agendas/2010/TC_agenda_01-04-10.pdf and http://www.readingtontwp.org/TC-agendas/2010/TC_minutes_01-04-10.pdf .)

During our conversation, you confirmed that the 2010 Reorganization Meeting did not have a portion set aside for public comment but assured me that such a portion will be set aside for the 2011 Reorganization Meeting.

As we discussed, N.J.S.A. 10:4-12 requires that "a municipal governing body . . . shall be required to set aside a portion of EVERY meeting . . ., the length of the portion to be determined by the municipal governing body . . . for public comment on any governmental . . . issue that a member of the public feels may be of concern to the residents of the municipality . . ." (I have emphasized the word "every.") In sum, the public is allowed to speak at every Township Council meeting, regardless of whether it is labeled a "regular," "special," "workshop," "reorganization" or other type of meeting.

As I'm sure you're aware, a municipality's reorganization meeting is often well attended by the public and sometimes has senators, assembly representatives and other high-ranking public officials in attendance. Given these often large and influential audiences, we believe that is especially important for the public to be heard.

Thank you very much for your cooperation in this matter.

Sincerely,

John Paff, Chair
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Open Government Advocacy Project
P.O. Box 5424
Somerset, New Jersey 08875-5424