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Thomas v. Bergen County Welfare Board

Decided: February 14, 1973.

VIRGINIA THOMAS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BERGEN COUNTY WELFARE BOARD, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



Labrecque, Kolovsky and Matthews. The opinion of the court was delivered by Labrecque, P.J.A.D.

Labrecque

Plaintiff Virginia Thomas appeals from the dismissal of her suit challenging the action of the Bergen County Welfare Board (the board) in abolishing the position of Deputy Director of Welfare of Bergen County, held by her.

The affidavits filed with the court indicate that plaintiff was first employed as a case worker in 1962. In 1966 she became a supervisor and after two years in that position was appointed training supervisor. In 1969 she was appointed to serve as Acting Deputy Director and, after taking a Civil

Service examination in which she placed first, was appointed Deputy Director.

On November 29, 1971 the board held a regularly scheduld meeting which was open to the public at which no action was taken with regard to the position of Deputy Director or any other issue now in question. At the conclusion of the meeting members of the public were asked to leave and a closed executive session was held. At this meeting the board adopted a resolution abolishing the position of Deputy Director of Welfare "due to reasons of economy."

Upon being notified that her position had been abolished plaintiff instituted the present suit challenging the board's action as violative of the New Jersey "Right to Know Law," N.J.S.A. 10:4-1 et seq. The moving papers took the form of a verified complaint seeking to set aside the resolution on that ground, and an order to show cause for temporary relief. On the return day of the order to show cause the trial judge, in an oral decision, dismissed the complaint sua sponte. The present appeal followed.

The board was vested with power to appoint a Director of Welfare, N.J.S.A. 44:1-24, and such other officers "as may be necessary," N.J.S.A. 44:1-26, including a Deputy Director, N.J.S.A. 44:4-41. The New Jersey "Right to Know Law," N.J.S.A. 10:4-1 et seq. , declares it to be the public policy of this State to insure the right of citizens to attend meetings of public bodies. As there defined, public bodies include any board organized under the laws of this State to perform a public governmental function by official action, i.e. , by vote. N.J.S.A. 10:4-2. With certain exceptions not here relevant the public is required to be admitted to any meeting of a public body at which official action is taken. N.J.S.A. 10:4-3 and 4. N.J.S.A. 10:4-5 provides that "Official action taken in violation of the requirements of this act shall be voidable in a proceeding in the Superior Court."

While we are here confronted with a dismissal of the action by the court sua sponte , it appears that neither side objected to this procedure, and since there is no real factual dispute, there would appear to be no bar to the settling of the substantive points raised.

We are here concerned only with the issue of whether the board validly abolished the position of Deputy Director of Welfare held by plaintiff at an executive session from which the public was excluded. The wisdom of the action taken or whether it was in fact prompted by a desire to achieve economy are no concern of ours at this time.

The Bergen County Welfare Board was established pursuant to N.J.S.A. 44:1-10 et seq. and clearly qualifies as a "public body" within the intendment of the "Right to Know Law." As such a body any "official action" taken by it was subject to the provisions of that statute. The vote to abolish the position of Deputy Director was such an official action. N.J.S.A. 10:4-2. It clearly appears that the vote was taken at an executive session from which the public was excluded. While N.J.S.A. 10:4-4 provides seven exceptions to the requirement of a public meeting, none apply to the present state of facts.

The statute makes an official action taken in violation of the "Right to Know Law" voidable in a proceeding in the Superior Court. In Wolf v. Zoning Bd. of Adjust., Park Ridge , 79 ...


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