Thursday, May 1, 2014

Volunteer Fire Departments within Fire Districts are OPRA "public agencies."

In an Order distributed today, May 1, 2014, the Government Records Council (GRC) ruled that a volunteer fire department in Franklin Township (Somerset County), which is within a Fire District, is a "public agency" that must respond to Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests.

In Robert A. Verry v. Franklin Fire District No. 1, GRC Complaint No. 2013-196 (on-line here), the GRC held:
Notwithstanding that [Millstone Valley Fire Department] was likely created by the volunteer membership, is clear that member companies within a fire district exercise a government duty and are under the supervision and control of the district, which is clearly a “public agency." In essence, although the creation of a volunteer fire company is reserved only for the membership, said company organizing within a fire district is expressly required to apply to the district. As the Court noted in [Paff v. New Jersey State Firemen’s Ass’n], the relationship between the Association and its existence are owed to state law, as is the relationship between the creation and function of a volunteer fire company within a fire district. Thus, in applying the Court’s decision in Firemen’s Ass’n, to the facts of this complaint, the GRC is satisfied that [Millstone Valley Fire Department] is a “public agency” for purposes of OPRA.

Therefore, because [Millstone Valley Fire Department] is a member of the [Franklin Fire District] per N.J.S.A. 40A:14-70.1 and thus serves a governmental function under the supervision and control of the [Franklin Fire District], it is a public agency for purposes of OPRA.
This is the first decision of its kind that I am aware of in New Jersey.

Verry's attorney in the matter is John A. Bermingham, Jr., Esq. and the Fire District was represented by Dominic DiYanni .  The Fire District has 45 days within which to appeal the ruling.

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