Thursday, January 21, 2016

OPRA's applicability to volunteer fire companies.

I am aware of three cases that shed light on whether volunteer fire companies are subject to the New Jersey Open Public Records Act.

Mat Stern v. Lakewood Volunteer Fire Department, et al, Docket No. OCN-L-2160-14.

In a February 6, 2015 written opinion, former Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso ruled that four volunteer fire companies in Lakewood Township that operated under the Lakewood Fire District "are instrumentalities within the Fire District and, therefore, are public agencies subject to OPRA."  In a later opinion, Grasso ruled that the fire companies were liable to pay Stern's lawyer $6,580 in counsel fees and costs.  The fire companies appealed Grasso's ruling and Stern cross-appealed from Grasso's decision to substantially reduce the amount of attorney fees requested.  The Appellate Division docket number is A-005085-14T2, briefs have been filed for both sides and a decision by the Appellate Division will probably be issued sometime during 2016.

UPDATE 12/08/16: The Appellate Division, in an unpublished decision, upheld Judge Grasso's ruling.

In the Matter of Petition of the Tabernacle Fire Company #1, Inc., Docket No. BUR-L-1398-15.

In an October 28, 2015 order, Burlington County Assignment Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder ruled that "Tabernacle Fire Company #1 is a public agency within the meaning of the Open Public Records Act."  Bookbinder's order was based upon an October 8, 2015 "tentative" opinion in which he found that "the Fire Company is the instrumentality through which the Township of Tabernacle performs the traditional government function of fire fighting."  The fire company has not appealed from Bookbinder's ruling and the time for filing an appeal has expired.

Robert A. Verry v. Franklin Fire District 1 (Somerset), Government Records Council Complaint No. 2013-196.

In its April 29, 2014 Interim Order, the Government Records Council (GRC) found that "because Millstone Valley Fire Department is a member of the Franklin Fire District No. 1 (Somerset County) . . . and thus serves a governmental function under the supervision and control of the Franklin Fire District No. 1, it is a public agency for purposes of OPRA."

The Fire District has appealed from that ruling, briefs were filed by all parties and a three-judge Appellate Division panel heard oral argument on January 4, 2016. In a March 15, 2016, unpublished opinion, the panel affirmed the GRC's ruling and on June 6, 2016 the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

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