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Woodbury Daily Times Co. v. Gloucester County Sewerage Authority

Decided: June 15, 1977.

WOODBURY DAILY TIMES CO., INC., T/A GLOUCESTER COUNTY TIMES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
GLOUCESTER COUNTY SEWERAGE AUTHORITY, JACK C. SHEPPARD, FRANCIS A. WITT, GEORGE BROWN, WILLIAM MARTINELLI AND CHARLES FASOLA, DEFENDANTS



Lowengrub, J.s.c.

Lowengrub

Plaintiff filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs alleging that on May 2, 1977 the individual defendants, acting as an effective majority of the Gloucester County Sewerage Authority (Authority), met with officials of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (D.E.P.) to discuss specific public business of the Authority, without complying with the notice provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-9. It was further alleged that the Authority failed to comply with the requirements of N.J.S.A. 10:4-10 at the Authority meeting held on May 3, 1977 in that no public announcement was made as to lack of adequate notice. Lastly, plaintiff alleges that defendants failed to comply with N.J.S.A. 10:4-14 in that no minutes of the May 2, 1977 meeting were made available to either plaintiff or the general public. Plaintiff seeks a judgment restraining defendants from violating the statute and requiring that they prepare and promptly file comprehensive minutes of the May 2, 1977 meeting.

Defendants deny the allegations of the complaint and allege compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act.

Before a determination may be made as to whether there was compliance with the notice provisions of the act the threshold question to be answered is whether the meeting on May 2, 1977 at the office of D.E.P., attended by officials of that agency and three of the five members of the Authority to discuss the terms of an administrative order issued on April 13, 1977 by D.E.P. to the agency, was the type of meeting contemplated by the Legislature to be within the purview of the provisions of the act.

The legislative findings and declaration of the public policy of this State regarding the Open Public Meetings Act are set forth in N.J.S.A. 10:4-7 as follows:

The Legislature finds and declares that the right of the public to be present at all meetings of public bodies, and to witness in full detail all phases of the deliberation, policy formulation, and decision making of public bodies, is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process; that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society, and hereby declares it to be the public policy of this State to insure the right of its citizens to have adequate advance notice of the right to attend all meetings of public bodies at which any business affecting the public is discussed or acted upon in any way except only in those circumstances where otherwise the public interest would be clearly endangered or the personal privacy or guaranteed rights of individuals would be clearly in danger of unwarranted invasion.

It is evident then that the Legislature's mandate is limited to meetings of "public bodies" and not to every meeting held by individuals who are governmental officials. The type of "public body" contemplated by the act is one "organized by law and collectively empowered as a multimember voting body to spend public funds or affect persons' rights." N.J.S.A. 10:4-7. "[T]herefore, informal or purely advisory bodies with no effective authority are not covered;" further, "to be covered by the provisions of this act a meeting must be open to all the public body's members, and the members present must intend to discuss or act on the public body's business." N.J.S.A. 10:4-7.

The definition of "public body" as used in the act is set forth in N.J.S.A. 10:4-8(a):

"Public body" means a commission, authority, board, council, committee or any other group of two or more persons organized under the laws of this State, and collectively empowered as a voting body to perform a public governmental function affecting the rights, duties, obligations, privileges, benefits, or other legal relations of any person, or collectively authorized to spend public funds including the Legislature, but does not mean or include the judicial branch of the government, any grand or petit jury, any parole board or any agency or body acting in a parole capacity, the State Commission of Investigation or any political party committee organized under Title 19 of the Revised Statutes.

It is evident that it is the declared public policy of the State that meetings of governmental officials constituted as a public body must be held in open meetings assembled at which the public has the right to be present. The members of the public must be invited to be present to hear not only the final vote but they shall also be permitted to be present to hear the discussions of their officials and the verbalizations of their thought processes. See Scott v. Bloomfield , 94 N.J. Super. 592 (Law Div.), aff'd 98 N.J. Super. 321 (App. Div.), app. dism. 52 N.J. 473 (1967).

The public, however, may be excluded from meetings of public bodies as delineated in N.J.S.A. 10:4-12. Suffice it to say, none of the topics of discussion therein enumerated are alleged to have been discussed at the May 2, 1977 meeting. Therefore, no ...


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