Monday, November 19, 2012

What to do if a public body disobeys a court order?

As regular readers know, I sue public bodies for violating the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA)  and sometimes obtain a court order, either by settlement or the judge's adjudication, requiring the public body, going forward, to take better minutes, produce its meeting minutes more promptly or otherwise improve its OPMA compliance.  But, what can a citizen-plaintiff do when a public body subject to such an order elects to disobey it? 

In February of 2008, I obtained a court order requiring the Lawnside Borough Council (Camden County), among other things, to record "reasonably comprehensive" executive session minutes that "contain an account and identification of matter discussed and action taken." I filed my suit because the Council's executive minutes were so terse and vague that they were useless.  Background and case documents on my suit are available here.

In December 2011, after learning that the Lawnside Council, despite the court order, was still recording vague and terse executive minutes, I wrote to the Borough Attorney, Morris Smith, and advised him that if the Council didn't make its minutes compliant with the court's 2008 order, I would take enforcement action against it.  Unfortunately, the Lawnside Council's May 30, 2012 and June 6, 2012 minutes were still noncompliant, so attorney Walter M. Luers, on by behalf, filed a "Motion to Enforce Litigants' Rights" against the Borough.  That motion and supporting documents are on-line here.

The court rule that provides for such motions, fortunately, permits the court to make Lawnside pay my costs and attorney fees for filing and prosecuting this motion.  While the award of costs and fees is within the court's discretion, I hope that the court does order the town to pay since that will encourage me and other OPMA plaintiffs to seek the court's assistance to ensure that the court's orders are followed.  If, however, the court declines to make the town pay my costs, that will burden successful OPMA plaintiffs with the costs of enforcement, thus allowing public bodies to more easily ignore court orders.

Unless Lawnside and I come to a mutually acceptable agreement, my motion will be heard in Camden on Friday, December 21, 2012.  The hearing, of course, is open to the public, but those who wish to attend are cautioned to telephone the court at 856- 379-2234 the day before the hearing to make sure that it hasn't been postponed or cancelled.  Refer to Paff v. Lawnside, Docket No. CAM-L-7027-06.

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