Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A head-scratcher in Bridgeton

Update: The audio of the court hearing is here.
 Friday's court hearing on my Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) suit against the Bridgeton Board of Education was . . . let me just say that I've had more rewarding days.  The best way I can summarize Assignment Judge Georgia M. Curio's ruling is that "the Bridgeton Board did not violate the OPMA, but they'd better not do it again."

The background and documents regarding the case are on-line here.  To summarize, I attended a Bridgeton Board of Education meeting in August 2010 and, during the public comment period, complained about the manner in which the Board resolved to go into and recorded minutes of its nonpublic (closed or executive) meetings.  After a year elapsed, I obtained minutes and resolutions of three Board executive sessions held in June, July and August 2011 and, after noting that the Board had done nothing to improve its OPMA compliance, I filed my lawsuit. 

I believed then--and still believe now--that the OPMA violations were evident and substantial.  For example, the June 7, 2011 executive session resolution stated only that "personnel" issues were going to be discussed, but the minutes from that meeting show that among other topics "possible contract issues related to terminating the old phone system" were discussed.

In her oral ruling delivered from the bench, Judge Curio started out by rejecting the Board's arguments that a) it is improper for me to proceed by way of summary judgment and b) that my suit was filed after the 45-day statute of limitations had passed.  On the latter point, Judge Curio correctly ruled that since I was not seeking to void any Board action but, instead, sought an injunction against future OPMA violations, the 45-day limit imposed by N.J.S.A. 10:4-15 was not relevant.

Then the judge began to speak very slowly and measuredly.  She said that my demonstration of three sets of allegedly noncompliant executive meeting minutes and resolutions, coupled with my verbal presentation to the Board a year earlier regarding the same issues, "did not rise to the level contemplated by case law to equate to a pattern of behavior." 

She then ruled that the problems of which I complained were not violations of the OPMA and hinted that the Board, after my suit was filed, had taken steps to improve its compliance. "The Board has taken a look at its methodology and is willing to accept the proposition that it can do better" in complying with the OPMA, she said.  She ruled that "the point of litigation is to make things better" and that she didn't "want to interfere with the Board's self-critical analysis."  She told the Board that it ought to look at my lawsuit as "a shot across the bow" and that if I were to bring a similar suit in the future, I might "get a different result."

Then, over my protests, she found that I was not the "prevailing party" in the suit and, as such, the Board didn't have to reimburse me the $230 that I paid to bring the lawsuit.  She then complimented the Board and me on the quality of our written submissions and oral argument and said that it was an "interesting case." 

Even though I lost the case, I got a sense that Judge Curio really believed that OPMA had been violated, but wanted to give the Board an opportunity to correct the violations itself instead of putting them under court order.  I am presently ordering the audio of the hearing and if it is in (or can be easily converted to) digital format, I'll upload it to the Internet.  While I am not now sure exactly what to think of what happened, I'm not ruling out bringing another OPMA case before Judge Curio in the future. 

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