Friday, April 15, 2011

OPRA/OPMA hearing in Camden this Wednesday

Update: 06/21/11: City loses bid to restrict citizens' rights under OPRA, ordered to pay legal fees

On June 10, 2011, Camden County Superior Court Judge Frederick J. Schuck rejected Gloucester City's (Camden County) attempt to "control and regulate" the public records requests filed by two local men. In an April 12, 2011 counterclaim filed in response to John Schmidt's and Michael Walters' Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Meetings Act suit, Gloucester City lawyer John B. Kearney argued that the men's filing of 154 OPRA requests during a three month period was a "campaign of harassment . . . motivated by a desire to dispute [sic] the normal efficient functioning of the municipal government and to harass the elected and appointed officials of the City."

After the men's lawyer, Walter M. Luers of Oxford, moved to dismiss the counterclaim on May 14, 2011, Kearney attempted to withdraw the City's counterclaim. In his June 3, 2011 letter to the Court, Kearney admitted that the "harassment count of the Counterclaim is not a cognizable cause of action in a civil court." Despite the letter, Judge Schuck dismissed the counterclaim and ordered the City to pay the legal fees the men incurred in moving for dismissal.

Judge Schuck's June 10, 2011 Order, the counterclaim and the City's attempt to withdraw the counterclaim are on-line here.

Update: On May 2, 2011, the Court issued an order resolving most of the issues in dispute. The order is on-line here. http://ogtf.lpcnj.org/201167Pm//GCOrder.pdf Among the matters resolved are:

1. Going forward, the school board's minutes must be "reasonably comprehensible" and identify the parties to all litigation and contractual negotiations discussed as well as the names of employees who were privately discussed. While the court agreed that in some cases, the names of the employees may be redacted from the minutes before they are made public, those names must be actually recorded in the minutes. This requirement was in response to the lawsuit's complaint that the school board would sum up hour long meetings in one word, such as "Retirement" or "Personnel."

2. Unless there is an emergency, the Gloucester City Council shall prepare its executive session and regular meeting minutes for approval at the next regularly scheduled meeting.

3. The City Council is prohibited, going forward, from discussing or acting on public business unless public notice requirements are obeyed.

4. The City Council will make an effort to approve its 2008 and 2009 executive session minutes and shall, on April 28, 2011, publicly disclose redacted versions of any such minutes that have not been approved.


At 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 13, 2011, Judge Frederick J. Schuck, sitting in Camden, will hear oral argument in a lawsuit alleging that the City of Gloucester City committed several violations the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the common law right of access to government records.

The lawsuit, Schmidt et al v. City of Gloucester City, et al, Docket No. CAM-L-1287-11 was filed on March 17, 2011 by Oxford, New Jersey attorney Walter M. Luers on behalf of Plaintiffs John P. Schmidt and Michael Walters, both of Gloucester City. In addition to the City, the lawsuit names the Gloucester City Board of Education, the City's Housing Authority as well as City Clerk Kathy Jentsch, Board of Education Business Administrator Margaret McDonnell and Housing Authority Records Custodian Sue McElhatton as defendants.

The lawsuit and other case documents are on-line here. (File is 7.1 Mb)

The complaint alleges a smorgasbord of OPRA and OPMA violations. The Plaintiffs claim that the Board of Education consistently goes into executive session without sufficiently identifying the topics to be discussed and recording minutes that are "uniformly uninformative." The City Council is accused of denying access to various meeting minutes, holding a secret, illegal meeting and failing to approve executive session minutes in a timely fashion. The Housing Authority is charged with refusing to release any of its 2010 executive session minutes, even in redacted form, and for overly-redacting its attorneys legal invoices.

One of the most serious allegations is that the Mayor, on January 1, 2011, invited all City Council members along with certain administrative officials to "a meting at the democrat club on Sunday at 1 p.m. for the sole purpose of finalizing committees for the upcoming year." Despite this being a meeting that ought to have been publicly advertised in accordance with the OPMA, the complaint alleged that "no public notice of that meeting was prepared or published [and] no minutes of the January 2, 2011 secret meeting have been kept."

Also of particular significance is the lawsuit's challenge to Board of Education minutes that sum up hour long meetings in one word, such as "Retirement" or "Personnel."

The media and public are invited to attend and observe Wednesday's hearing. It will be held at the Hall of Justice, 101 S. 5th Street, Camden. Those who wish to attend are advised to call Judge Schuck's chambers at 856-379-2380 or the Civil Division Manager's office at 856-379-2200 ext. 3070 the day prior to the hearing to verify that it hasn't been adjourned.

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