Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Township in Cumberland County "unable to locate" some closed meeting minutes; will approve years of other closed meeting minutes at June 7th meeting.


Update: The agenda of the June 7, 2017 Township Committee meeting shows that approval was sought for  "Closed Session Minutes From July 3, 2002 Through April 19, 2017."
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The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) requires public bodies to make the minutes of their meetings, both public and non-public (i.e. closed or executive), "promptly available to the public."  Recent correspondence with one South Jersey township reveals that minutes from closed meetings held five years ago are still not available for public inspection and that minutes from closed meetings held in the 1980's and 1990's have apparently been lost forever.

A May 16, 2017 Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to Deerfield Township in Cumberland County sought "the minutes of the three (3) most recently held [closed] Deerfield Township Committee meetings for which minutes are available in either full or redacted form."  The request went on to explain that if "the three most recent closed meetings for which minutes are available in whole or part took place ten years ago in April, May and June of 2007, then those would be the minutes that are responsive to this request."

In her May 18, 2017 response, Clerk/Administrator Karen Seifrit wrote that "due to the current unavailability of closed/executive session minutes, there will be a delay in filling your request" and that the closed minutes "need to be approved at the Township’s June 7th meeting."

On the same day that I received her response, I (in my role as Executive Director of Libertarians for Transparent Government (LFTG), which submitted the OPRA request) wrote back to Seifrit.  I wrote that I was astonished at her response because it suggested that the Township considers its closed session minutes from decades ago to still be wholly exempt from public inspection.  (Seifrit's May 18th response and my reply of the same date are on-line here.)

In order to clarify matters, LFTG submitted another OPRA request seeking minutes of two closed sessions that the Township's on-line public meeting minutes show as having been held on March 7, 2012 and June 20, 2012.  The request also sought the minutes of every closed session held in 1983 and 1996.

On May 22, 2017, Seifrit responded to the second OPRA request.  She wrote that the minutes for the March 7, 2012 and June 20, 2012 closed meetings will be approved at the June 7, 2017 meeting and that will disclose them by June 9, 2017.  As to the minutes of the 1983 and 1996 closed meetings, Seifrit wrote that she had "searched for those records and have been unable to locate same."

Seifrit's response presents two problems.  First, most members of the presently comprised Township Committee were not in office when the two 2012 meetings took place. Thus, a majority of the members who will be asked on June 7, 2017 to vote to approve the March 7, 2012 and June 20, 2012 closed meeting minutes were not present at either of those meeting. (Presently serving on the Committee are Frank Spatola, Jr. Mayor and Committee members Abigail Perlstein O'Brien, Rudy Danna, Jr., Bruce Murphy, II and John Stanzione.  According to the minutes of the public meeting held on June 20, 2012, the mayor was then named Laurella and the Committee members present were named Lauermann, Spatola, Stanzione, Montgomery.  Thus, only two members who served on the Committee in 2012 still serve on the Committee in 2017 (i.e. Spatola and Stanzione)). 

Second, New Jersey requires a municipality's meeting minutes to be retained permanently.  (See item no. 0508-0000 of the Municipal Agencies General Records Retention Schedule.)  Accordingly, Deerfield is under a duty to retain all its Township Committee meeting minutes, including those from 1983 and 1996, and a citizen who asks Seifrit for minutes should not be told that she is unable to locate them.

Deerfield's noncompliance with the OPMA is especially disappointing because I personally attended the December 4, 2013 Committee meeting and addressed the Committee during the public comment period about the importance of OPMA compliance.

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