August 29, 2006

Have the freeholders found religion?

Five months ago the Union County Watchdog Association asked the Union County prosecutor’s office to investigate the Union County freeholder board for routinely violating the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). I know what you’re thinking about the probability of anything coming out of that compliant; but consider that in the past the Prosecutor’s office has determined that the Elizabeth Board of Education, the towns of Roselle Park and Kenilworth and the Union County Improvement Authority had violated the OPMA.

The last update I received from the prosecutor’s office was four months ago. They informed me that they were waiting for the county to send them documentation. Apparently the prosecutor’s office has to wait patiently for the county to hand over their public records just like the public does. Oddly I find it comforting to know that the county has contempt for everyone, not just the average tax-payer off the street.

The Freeholder Board had been routinely violating N.J.S.A. 10:4-13. That statute requires a public body, before going into closed or executive session, to first adopt a resolution, at a meeting to which the public shall be admitted: a. Stating the general nature of the subject to be discussed; and b. Stating as precisely as possible, the time when and the circumstances under which the discussion conducted in closed session of the public body can be disclosed to the public.

Rather than pass the required resolution, the Chairman of the Board simply “calls for a motion” to go into executive session which is then approved unanimously. As a result, the public is deprived of any knowledge of the topics that the Freeholders are privately discussing or when those discussions will be made public.

A recent example of the consequences this has on public information is the law suit that’s been filed against Freeholder Rick Proctor. Scala v. County of Union. The suit alleges that the defendant, Denise Santiago, an official within the County, refused to hire plaintiff, an attractive 33-year old woman, because Santiago, who was having an extra-marital affair with Freeholder Rick Proctor, viewed plaintiff as a threat to her romantic relationship with Proctor. (See previous post: Dontcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?)

It was serendipitous that the minutes I chose at random to file the complaint with the Prosecutor’s office, as well as the States Government Records Council, happened to include the discussion of this case. The executive session minutes originally released to me simply stated:

9. Minutes redacted under Attorney-Client privileged communication in a matter involving on-going litigation. Minutes redacted under Attorney-Client privileged communication.

When the county responded to my complaint the minutes they gave the GRC stated instead:

9. Alyssa Scala v. The County of Union, v. Rick Proctor, v. Denise Santiago.

These minutes were dated February, 2005. Proctor was up for re-election that year. The county has managed to keep this from the public to date. This story is an exclusive of the County Watchers.

The Open Public Meetings Act N.J.S.A. 10:4-17 empowers the prosecutor’s office to enforce the act. Private citizens cannot enforce the provisions of the OPMA except through a civil action. The vast majority of citizens, unfortunately, do not- and cannot realistically be expected to have the time or resources to bring suit on their own. The Legislature, apparently contemplating this problem, vested county prosecutors office’s, with the power to impose the civil penalties.

While I’m disappointed that justice seems to be dragging its feet in this case, I am happy to report that recently the freeholders seemed to have found religion in that they have been adopting the required resolutions and keeping executive minutes somewhat up to the standards that is required by the law.

We’ll say Amen to that for now; but we’ll keep praying the prosecutor's office does their job and holds the county accountable for their past transgressions; or the sinners will surely fall from grace again. The minutes suggest they are already tethering on the brink.

The county doesn't post freeholder meeting minutes on their tax-payer funded website; but we do you can view them by clicking here.