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Council of New Jersey State College Locals, NJSFT, AFT/AFL-CIO, Local 2364 v. Trenton State College Bd. of Trustees

April 18, 1995

COUNCIL OF NEW JERSEY STATE COLLEGE LOCALS, NJSFT, AFT/AFL-CIO, LOCAL 2364, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TRENTON STATE COLLEGE BOARD OF TRUSTEES, DEFENDANT.



Carchman, A.j.s.c.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carchman

Civil Action

CARCHMAN, A.J.S.C.

A dispute arose between the Board of Trustees of Trenton State College (the Board or defendant) and two vice-presidents regarding the Board's mandatory housing policy for these vice-presidents. The issues involved had received extensive public notoriety. To resolve the dispute, the Board adopted a resolution at a closed meeting authorizing certain payments to the vice-presidents. A general notice of the closed session was published with no mention made of consideration of a resolution of the housing dispute. No further mention of any action by the Board was made public until inquiry by a representative of plaintiff, the Council of New Jersey State College Locals, NJSFT, AFT/AFL-CIO, Local 2364 of the AFT (plaintiff). Plaintiff filed a complaint challenging the Board's action and alleging various violations of the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-6 to -21 (the Sunshine Law or the Act). Some months later, the Board sent notice of an open meeting to all concerned parties and, at this meeting, the Board announced and ratified the terms of the settlement.

Defendant moved for summary judgment. This court finds that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the matter is appropriately resolved on this motion. This court holds that the general notice given by the Board of its closed session to approve the settlement did not comply with the act; however, the later ratification of the Boards action at a duly-noticed open meeting remedied the prior defective notice.

A.

Despite the fact that the mandatory housing issue was a matter of keen public interest at Trenton State College, the Board, in publishing its open meeting notice of its December 2, 1993, closed session, made no mention of the issue. At the open meeting, it adopted a resolution announcing that it would hold a closed session on February 17, 1994, to consider personnel matters, labor relations, any pending litigation, and any other matters specifically exempted by the Open Public Meetings Act. It is anticipated that decisions made in closed session will be made public at future meetings.

The minutes from defendant's next two meetings fail to reveal any resolution of the dispute, any terms of a settlement or any suggestion that the matter was even discussed. Nonetheless, suspecting that the college had, in fact, recently awarded extraordinary payments to two vice-presidents, on April 5, 1994, a representative of plaintiff wrote a letter of inquiry to the president of Trenton State College. The president's April 13, 1994 response confirmed that the two vice-presidents had been paid a total of $30,000 ($10,000 to one and $20,000 to the other) pursuant to a January 1994 settlement regarding a change in the college's policy on mandatory housing for vice-presidents. On June 7, 1994, plaintiff filed this action seeking to invalidate defendant's actions.

On December 6, 1994, the Executive Assistant to the President and Secretary to the Board sent notice of a December 15, 1994, public meeting of the Board to general circulation newspapers, a radio station, two campus newspapers, four unions (including the AFT) and eighteen other interested organizations and individuals. This notice invited members of the public to register and speak on agenda and non-agenda items. Attached to the notice was a preliminary agenda for the December 15, 1994 meeting. Section VIII (New Business), subsection A (Report of the Executive Committee), subparagraph 3 of that agenda identified for Discussion a "Resolution concerning the settlement to address personal financial loss related to changes in the mandatory housing program."

At the December 15, 1994 meeting, in open session, the Board introduced and passed a resolution which approved a settlement apparently identical to the one to which plaintiff had previously objected.

Defendant urges on this motion that plaintiff's claims concerning the compensation to the two vice-presidents be dismissed as moot since any prior improper action was cured by by the Board at its December 15, 1994 meeting.

While plaintiff does not challenge the ratification per se, it asserts that the original notice is fatal to defendant's action. Plaintiff claims that the December 2, 1993 resolution announcing the Board's closed session violates N.J.S.A. 10:4-13 and invalidates the purported remedial action taken by the Board on December 15, 1994. To decide this issue, the court must consider whether the notice was so deficient so as to preclude the December 15, 1994 remedial action.

B.

N.J.S.A. 10:4-13 requires all public bodies seeking to move into closed session to "first adopt a resolution, at a meeting to which the public shall be admitted: a. Stating the general nature of the subject ...


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