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Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders v. Union County Park Commission

Decided: December 7, 1962.

UNION COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS, A BODY POLITIC OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE UNION COUNTY PARK COMMISSION, A BODY POLITIC OF THE COUNTY OF UNION, DEFENDANT



Feller, J.s.c.

Feller

This is an action for a declaratory judgment wherein the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders (hereinafter called board of freeholders) seeks to determine its right to $150,000 held by the Union County Park Commission (hereinafter called park commission) as a result of the sale of park lands held by the park commission. Plaintiff now moves for summary judgment.

A review of the pleadings and the oral arguments indicates that the plaintiff and defendant are in agreement as to the following facts: In February 1962 the park commission sold certain lands held by it to the Board of Education of the Borough of Roselle Park for $150,000. These lands were originally acquired by the park commission at various times with funds requisitioned from the board of freeholders pursuant to R.S. 40:37-129. The total amount paid by the park commission for the original acquisition of these lands was $35,719. The board of freeholders, in turn, acquired the money through the sale of bonds of the County of Union. The park commission has retained the said sum of $150,000 and proposes to apply these funds for the purchase of additional park lands. Thus there is no genuine issue of fact involved.

It is the contention of the board of freeholders that the proceeds from the sale may be used to purchase other park lands only with the approval of the board or should be turned over to it for the purpose of reducing the existing bonded indebtedness of the county. The park commission contends that it has the right to retain the proceeds for the purposes of acquiring additional park property in the future.

Among the defenses raised by the park commission to this action are: (1) there is no justiciable controversy; (2) plaintiff has failed to state a cause of action; (3) plaintiff is not a proper party to bring this action; and (4) there is a genuine issue of fact which warrants a denial of a motion for a summary judgment. However, with reference to (4) this court has determined supra that there is no genuine issue of fact.

I.

The question is whether the Union County Board of Freeholders has an interest sufficient to support this action for a declaratory judgment. The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act is designed "to settle and afford relief from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights, status and other legal relations." N.J.S. 2A:16-51. A person (including a public corporation) "whose rights, status or other legal relations are affected by a statute * * * may have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the * * * statute * * * and obtain a declaration of rights, status or other legal relations thereunder." N.J.S. 2A:16-53. This enumeration, N.J.S. 2A:16-53 provides, does not exhaust the broad authority in the act "to declare rights, status and other legal relations." In essence, the plaintiff must have an interest in the subject matter in order to maintain a declaratory judgment action. Bergen County v. Port of New York Authority , 32 N.J. 303, 307 (1960).

It is conceded that a plaintiff must have an interest in the subject matter in order to maintain an action for a declaratory judgment, Bergen County v. Port of New York Authority, supra , and that a justiciable controversy between adverse parties must exist, Trustees of Rutgers College in N.J. v. Richman , 41 N.J. Super. 259 (Ch. Div. 1956). If these elements exist, then the plaintiff has stated a cause of action. Rosenberg v. D. Kaltman & Co. , 28 N.J. Super. 459, 463 (Ch. Div. 1953).

Under the statutes of New Jersey a board of freeholders of a county is vested with the power to manage, control and govern the property, finances and affairs of its county, except where by law any such powers or duties are imposed upon or vested in another board, committee or department of the county. R.S. 40:20-1. It is the contention of the park commission that a portion of these powers has been vested "in another board, committee or department," and pursuant to R.S. 40:37-96 to 40:37-174 the power to retain the proceeds of the sale of the lands in question has been vested in it. The board of freeholders is entitled to challenge the asserted authority of the park commission, its agent, Parks v. Union County Park Commission , 7 N.J. Super. 5 (App. Div. 1950), since such power, if it arises through the statutes governing the park commission, could not only upset the financial structure of the county but would also divest the board of freeholders of a portion of its express powers conferred by statute to manage, control and govern the finances of the county. These factors establish the requisite interest on the part of the plaintiff.

The relationship of the plaintiff and defendant here, as well as the assertion by the park commission of rights which may interfere with the powers of the board of freeholders, distinguishes this case from Bergen County v. Port of New York Authority, supra , which is relied upon by the defendant to deny plaintiff's requisite interest. In the Bergen County case, the Port of New York Authority was neither the agent of Bergen County nor were the rights of the county being allegedly interfered with. Not only is the interest of the board of freeholders existent here but there has been a definite assertion of legal rights on the one side and a positive denial thereof on the other as to rights arising out of R.S. 40:20-1 and R.S. 40:37-96 et seq. This presents a "justiciable controversy" between adverse parties, justifying maintenance of an action for a declaratory judgment. The declaratory judgment remedy should not be denied lightly, and where the complaint discloses a justiciable controversy within

the statute, normally it ought to be entertained. Condenser Service & Engineering Co. v. American Mutual Liability Insurance Co. , 45 N.J. Super. 31 (App. Div. 1957). The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act statute being a remedial statute, it should be liberally construed. Rosenberg v. D. Kaltman Co., supra. There is no question but that we have an adversary proceeding ripe for determination. New Jersey Turnpike Authority v. Parsons , 3 N.J. 235, 240 (1949). A declaratory judgment will settle the present controversy and provide a guide for both plaintiff and defendant in the future.

II.

As stated above, the park commission, upon selling lands held by it, now holds $150,000 and contends that it is entitled to have control over it and to use the same for the purchase of other park lands. R.S. 40:20-1 states as follows:

"The property, finances and affairs of every county shall be managed, controlled and governed by a board elected therein, to be known as 'the board of chosen freeholders of the county of . . . (specifying name of county', except where by law any such powers or duties are imposed upon or vested in another board, committee or department of the county."

Under this provision, the management, control and government of the finances of the county are imposed upon and vested in the board of freeholders unless by law such powers are imposed upon or vested in another board, committee or department of the county. Therefore, for the park commission to retain the sum of $150,000 and use the same to purchase other park lands, this power must be vested by law in said commission.

It is clear that the control and management of the public parks has been vested in the park commission pursuant to R.S. 40:37-96 et seq. It is also clear that this control and management of the parks is for the benefit of the county. Essex County Park Commission v. West Orange , 75 ...


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