On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County.
Approved for Publication May 13, 1997. As Corrected June 30, 1997.
Before Judges Petrella, Wallace and Kimmelman. *fn1 The opinion of the court was delivered by Petrella, P.j.a.d.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Petrella
The opinion of the court was delivered by
The North Jersey District Water Supply Commission (Commission) appeals from the grant of a summary judgment in favor of Kuehne Chemical Co., Inc. (Kuehne) which ordered it to permit public inspection and copying of bids submitted to it after the public opening of those bids, and prior to the formal award of the contract. The Commission contends that the bids were neither statutory nor common law public records and that the issue was not justiciable as moot. Although the Judge entered the order requested, Kuehne cross-appeals the Judge's dismissal of counts one and two of its complaint as moot.
On this appeal, the Commission argues that Kuehne is not entitled to inspect and copy the bids under either the Right-to-Know Law or the common law. Alternatively, it argues that even assuming entitlement to inspect and copy the bid documents, the issue is now moot because Kuehne was given the opportunity to do so after all bids were rejected. Finally, the Commission argues that the Judge's award of $135 in taxed costs and $500 in attorneys' fees was not authorized by statute.
We conclude that the bids qualify as both statutory and common law public records, especially in light of the public policy considerations underlying public bidding, and affirm. In doing so, we decline to foreclose relief on procedural grounds where the issues involve questions of public policy and are likely to recur.
The facts of the case are uncomplicated and need only be briefly stated. On September 27, 1995, the Commission opened bids from vendors seeking to supply liquid chlorine. Kuehne's competitor, Allied Universal Corp. (Allied), submitted the lowest bid. Kuehne was the second lowest bidder of the four bids received. A day after the bids were opened, Kuehne requested an inspection of the other bidders' documents. The Commission took the position that the bids were not public documents and would not be made available. The Commission also indicated that it was denying the request for inspection on grounds of general administrative inconvenience, its long-standing policy of denying access, the danger of sabotage or pilferage, and the possibility of frivolous challenges to contract awards. After Kuehne's efforts to inspect the bid documents were rejected, it instituted suit.
Subsequently, the Commission determined that Allied's bid did not comply with bid requirements, and as a result all bids were rejected and the contract was rebid. *fn2 The Commission informed Kuehne of its action and then permitted it to review the rejected bids.
New Jersey has a tradition of "openness and hostility to secrecy in government." North Jersey Newspapers Co. v. Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders, 127 N.J. 9, 16, 601 A.2d 693 (1992). Our public policy favors "access to sufficient information to enable the public to understand and evaluate the reasonableness of the public body's action." South Jersey Publishing Co., Inc. v. New Jersey Expressway Authority, 124 N.J. 478, 494-495, 591 A.2d 921 (1991).
Here, Kuehne sought inspection of bids after they all had been submitted and opened, but prior to the awarding of the corresponding public contract. The Right-to-Know Law embodies a public policy that, except for certain exceptions made in the public interest (none of which apply here), citizens should have ready access to public records for examination. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1. Public records are deemed to be:
all records which are required by law to be made, maintained or kept on file by any board, body, agency, department, commission or official of the State or any political subdivision thereof or by any public board, body, commission or authority created pursuant to law by the State or any of its political ...