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Judge: Spotswood Board of Education Violated Transparency Law

Open Public Meetings Act Violation Costs Taxpayers Thousands
County Courthouse
Judge Lisa Vignuolo ruled in favor of the NJ Foundation for Open Government on Jan. 7 Charlie Kratovil

SPOTSWOOD, NJ—The Spotswood Board of Education has been found in violation of transparency regulations in the state's Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), according to a January 7 ruling.

Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Lisa M. Vignuolo ruled that the Board did not sufficiently disclose the details of closed-door meetings and violated the law in five different ways.

The Board failed to properly document their closed meetings, or advertise the meetings to newspapers in advance, or inform the public about discussions held in private according to the court order.

Vita Marino, the Spotswood Board of Education Business Administrator, defended the meeting minutes that were ruled by the Superior Court to be “not reasonably comprehensive.”

“The minutes we had been keeping were consistent with what had been maintained by prior custodians for many years,” Marino said.

The case was filed by the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) on August 8, 2016.

NJFOG also brought claims under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), and settled with the Board in October 2016. The Board agreed to cover $2,500 in legal costs.

John Paff, Treasurer of NJFOG, explained that the lawsuit was filed to resist government corruption in the local community.

“This is a very common problem,” Paff said. “It's a reflexive reaction by government to move towards secrecy. A lot of them operate like a family business.”

NJFOG first informed the Board they weren't complaint with OPMA on January 29, 2014.

David Rubn, the Board's attorney, promised to improve just weeks later on February 19. He said the Board would “take steps to assure that a resolution is adopted prior to each closed session” with detail that is “consistent with prevailing case law.”

But two years later, the Spotswood Board had still not made any improvements.

On July 7, 2016, NJFOG requested records of the "executive session" meeting minutes. The only response they received was a link to the Board's website, which had no trace of the requested records.

The non-profit transparency group then made a move to sue the Board on August 8.

Judge Vignuolo ruled that the Spotswood Board of Education violated OPMA, and directed the Board to pay $90 to NJFOG's counsel for related costs.

But the Judge did not grant an injunction, which would order the body to carry out specific acts. The Board seemed to interpret this as a sign of approval from the Superior Court.

“We are pleased that the Court agreed with our position and denied NJFOG's requested relief as to this aspect of the case,” Marino said.

Paff argued that the Board is twisting the facts to make the ruling appear less incriminating.

“That is a distortion. I don't see how they can characterize that as a win,” Paff said. “They lost the case. They
violated the law.”

The Spotswood Board of Education was represented by Patrick F. Carrigg of Lawrenceville, and NJFOG was represented by Anthony H. Ogozalek, Jr. of Cinnaminson.

The lawsuit reportedly cost NJFOG thousands of dollars, but there is currently no law in place to reimburse a plaintiff for charges successfully brought against a government body.

This hurdle makes it difficult to hold the public's representatives accountable, but NJFOG has repeatedly brought cases to Court at their own expense.

“We're doing it because we have the resources,” Paff said. “Most governments don't fully comply with OPMA because they're able to get away with it. It is not reasonable to expect citizens to challenge something at their own expense.”

Paff pointed to S1045/A2699, a pair of bills that are currently pending in the state legislature.

If made into law, the change would require defendants to pay the legal fees of plaintiffs who bring successful cases against government bodies under OPMA.

The bills were introduced on February 8, 2016, but have been stuck in committees without any hearings since.