Planet Princeton

Is Princeton Closed Session Notice Specific Enough? NJ Expert Says No

sunshine lawResidents interested in issues discussed by the governing body behind closed doors would have, for the most part, no idea what the Princeton Council is discussing  tonight in closed session based on the posted agenda.

The closed session will take place at 6 p.m. at the municipal building at 400 Witherspoon Street an hour before the public session. The agenda lists general subject areas including general litigation status update, open space and potential acquisitions, and a personnel update. The only specific item listed is “affordable housing declaratory judgement action status.”

But under New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, commonly known as the Sunshine Law, public bodies must list what they will discuss in closed session to the extent known, and the agenda must be specific. It is not enough to list litigation or personnel as general subjects.

Walter Luers, the top lawyer in the state for Open Government issues and the head of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, looked at the Princeton Council agenda for tonight, Sept. 28, and said Princeton’s resolution falls short.

“Resolutions entering closed session must be specific. This is not a mere formality. Specific resolutions indicate to interested members of the public that issues important to them are being discussed,” Luers said. “Princeton’s resolutions must be more specific; `General Litigation Status Update’ is not sufficiently specific. The cases to be discussed must be identified. The same with personnel and open space, unless being more specific would harm the public interest, which itself is unlikely except in the area of prospective purchases of real property.”

Several agendas in recent weeks have listed general topics instead of specific items.Planet Princeton has written about the closed session agenda issue in the consolidated Princeton previously.

In 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed that it is the duty of public bodies to list specific closed session agenda items.

The court ruled that the Rutgers University Board of Governors violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by failing to inform the public of issues it planned to discuss in a closed session at a meeting, and said the board also violated the act by improperly discussing public matters about the athletics program in closed session.

The court’s decision made it clear that government bodies must provide the public with an agenda that describes issues to be discussed to the extent known, rather than merely making generic references about what might be discussed.

At issue was a September 2008 meeting of the Rutgers Board of Governors. As required by law, the board placed advance notice of the Sept. 10, 2008 meeting in newspapers. The notice stated the board would convene immediately in executive session to discuss contract negotiations and attorney-client matters, but the notice did not offer any other details. There was no mention of the Rutgers athletic department, a controversial stadium project, or naming rights for the stadium, even though the board knew these items would come up for discussion.

The court took issue with Rutgers’ actions, noting, “clearly that by the time this notice was prepared and published, more was known about the extent of the proposed agenda than what was conveyed by the generic references to ‘contract negotiation and attorney-client privilege’…The Board had an obligation to include as part of the notice of the meeting of September 10 the agenda of that meeting to the extent it was known.”

The court also rejected the board’s contention that its discussion of policies and guidelines could be done behind closed doors because it “indirectly relates” to subjects that could properly be the subject of a closed meeting. The court said such an ability would“eviscerate the (Sunshine Law) and runs counter to our mandate to construe the statue in such a manner as to maximize public participation.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • FreshAir

    This is great journalism. You’re comment about that is spot on, QA.

  • Question authority

    I just want to thank Planet Princeton for looking into this and bringing it to our attention. It’s an example of the press serving its highest purpose.

    My impression is that this way of doing business, trying to keep topics out of the public eye to avoid controversy, is a holdover from the old township. The old borough seemed to have a messier, more open, process.

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