TOMS RIVER-Toms River Mayor Maurice B. Hill and his administration sought to delay a request made on April 1st for a copy of the past twelve official meeting minute documents on file with the township.
These documents are public documents, approved by Toms River Township council and consist of 12 pdf documents on record. The documents were requested by Shore News Network which is conducting its own investigative report into the town’s executive meeting session activities.
Those activities came under scrutiny by Mayor Hill and his town council after they suspect somebody in town hall is leaking documents to the press. Those meeting minutes are public record once approved by the township council.
“We received your OPRA request for executive session minutes via an email to Don Guardian,” the township said in a response to the request. “Your request will be processed and released through this online system. Since that e-mail was sent to us one 4/1, we would normally have until 4/13 to fulfill this request. However, we are requesting an extension of time for this request.”
Councilman Daniel Rodrick balked at the town’s delay.
“It’s my understanding that we’re still paying everyone and everyone is supposed to be able to conduct their work from home. The documents that are being requested in this circumstance are all produced in a digital format and should take no more than a few seconds to issue,” Rodrick said.
Rodrick said that the town should consider complying with the request to preserve transparency and to prevent the possibility for the public to create an impression that the town is trying to conceal the documents to hide the facts from the people of the township.
“In the interest of public transparency, we should comply with this request in the timeframe dictated by statute. You wouldn’t want to give the public the impression that the administration is hiding the discussions it’s led behind closed doors,” Rodrick said.
Under the law, the council’s executive session is authorized to protect sensitive information such as employee related topics, legal proceedings, contract discussions, land sales and acquisition and other financially or personally sensitive topics. A detailed agenda for discussion topics must be provided to the public prior to those meetings and all discussions during those meetings must pertain to the topics listed on the agenda.
Even if contract matters were discussed, once a contract is executed by the township, those discussions are no longer protected according to the State of New Jersey’s Sunshine Laws. It is not dictated by law that those executive sessions are required or that any of those matters have to be discussed behind closed doors.
“Public bodies must keep minutes of their closed sessions, and these minutes are not open to the public. A public body must promptly make them available, however, once the necessity for maintaining confidentiality has passed,” the law states.
The township has hired attorney Howard Mankoff at the rate of nearly $300 per hour to investigate the leaks of those executive sessions. It may turn out that the items and information leaked may not even be considered privileged discussion allowable under the Sunshine Law.
According to the Digital Media Law Project, “The general rule is that all meetings of governmental bodies must be open to the public. If a governmental body wants to hold a closed or “executive” session, it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under the Open Public Meetings Act, a public body may hold a closed session when it is dealing with one of nine subject-area exemptions found in N.J.S.A. 10:4-12(b).”