Thursday, February 23, 2017

Bridgeton appears to misuse closed sessions to keep its Council squabbles behind closed doors.

The minutes of the Bridgeton (Cumberland County) City Council's eight most recent nonpublic meetings are on-line here.  These minutes are for the meetings, known as executive or closed sessions, where the City Council went behind closed doors to discuss one or more of the nine topics that the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) allows to be discussed without the public being present.  One of those nine exceptions, known as the "personnel exception," allows the City Council to privately discuss the hiring, firing, performance, compensation, and discipline of public employees.  According to a 1991 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, closed-door meetings are necessary to ensure the Council's "free and uninhibited discussion" regarding personnel matters.

The minutes of the Council's September 6, 2016 closed meeting, however, show that only one "personnel" matter was discussed.  The minutes recite: "Councilman Spence inquired about the meaning of a remark made by Councilman Surrency at last Work Session.  Councilman Surrency responded that there was no meaning."  This discussion, which on its face does not involve the hiring, firing or discipline of specific a public employee, does not appear to qualify for a closed-door meeting under the OPMA's personnel exception.  Rather, it appears to be a skirmish between two Council members regarding a remark made during a previous public meeting. 

Similarly, the August 16, 2016 closed minutes disclose that Councilman Zapolski distributed documents "that refuted claims made by Councilman Surrency" during a previous meeting.  Again, this appears to be more of a scuffle between two Council members than a confidential discussion regarding a specific public employee.

The chief goal of the OPMA is to ensure that citizens get to witness all phases of governmental decision-making except when an overriding need for confidentiality authorizes a closed-door meeting.  The exceptions to open public meetings are specific and limited and the courts have ruled that those exceptions must be strictly construed against closure of meetings to the public.  While it is understandable that the City Council may want to avoid putting its internal strife on public display, its decision to close the August 16 and September 6 meetings to the public does not appear to be justified under the law.

Also suspect--but for a different reason--is the Council's December 20, 2016 closed meeting for which the substantive part of the minutes states, in its entirety:  "There was a discussion regarding municipal court matters."  This discussion, which was alleged to be a "contract" matter, may or may not have qualified for private discussion.  It is impossible to tell because the minutes themselves are not "reasonably comprehensible" as required by the OPMA's N.J.S.A. 10:4-14.

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