Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Citing statute as reason for redaction ruled insufficient

In a May 24, 2011 decision, the Government Records Council (GRC) held that that it is improper for a records custodian to simply cite a statute as its reason for suppressing or redacting a document. The GRC stated that "simply citing to a specific provision of a law would force a requestor to search out the law and identify those provisions that may apply. It is often possible that members of the New Jersey citizenry would have no knowledge of where to find a particular statute or be able to single out the exemption within the statute that authorizes a redaction." The case is Paff v. Teaneck Township, GRC Complaint No. 2010-09 and is available on-line here.

At issue was the Teaneck Township Council's October 28, 2008 executive session minutes. In response to my OPRA request, the Township provided me with the minutes with large blocks of text redacted. As an example, a large block of redacted text appeared after the heading "Compliance with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices." The only reason that the custodian gave for the redaction was "N.J.S.A. 10:4-12b7." (That page from the minutes is at page 33 of the PDF at the above link.)

The GRC said that "the Custodian should have included an explanation of each legal citation similar to how the Custodian set forth same in the document index submitted as part of the [Statement of Information] SOI." In its SOI, the Custodian gave the following reason for redacting the portion of the minutes dealing with Uniform Traffic Control Devices manual compliance: "Potential litigation and liability regarding installation of certain traffic control devises [sic] and attorney-client communications in connection therewith."

Comprehensive e-mail policy adopted

On May 23, 2011, the Franklin Township (Somerset County) Fire District No. 1 Board of Commissioners passed a comprehensive e-mail usage policy that might serve as a model for public bodies across New Jersey. The policy, which is on-line here, provides each elected and other Board official with a District e-mail account and requires officials to use that account for official business. Officials who receive official e-mails on their personal e-mail accounts are required to "immediately copy the e-mail together with all attachments to their official District e-mail address [and notify the sender] that all future correspondence and e-mails pertaining to [official business] must be sent to their official District e-mail address."

The policy also prohibits officials from using e-mail to "correspond back and forth with a majority of the Board of Commissioners . . . unless such e-mail is strictly informational in purpose." It also prohibits officials from attempting to "permanently delete any information or e-mails that are send to the District e-mail account."

Interested citizens may wish to forward the above link to their elected public bodies and request them to adopt a similar e-mail policy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Citizen speakers prohibited by school board from duplicating others' comments

The public comment portion of a Mount Laurel Board of Education meeting (the date of the meeting is not known) is on YouTube here.

The comments are from students and parents praising and supporting certain teachers. By sliding the timer to 6:15, viewers will witness the board's determination that since the speakers are all making similar comments, future speakers will be ejected from the meeting unless the topics of their comments are "different" than what the board has already heard.

N.J.S.A. 10:4-12 requires school boards to provide a public portion during which citizens may speak about "any governmental or school district issue that a member of the public feels may be of concern to the residents of the municipality or school district." The same statute, however, allows school boards to "regulate the active participation of the public at any meeting."

I question whether the statute's grant of power to "regulate" public comment is broad enough to permit the board to censor comments that it perceives to be merely duplicative of prior comments.

I note that recently, a woman received an $8,000 settlement after the mayor of Cedar Grove Township denied her the right to speak. My blog on that case is here.