The school board for the Princeton Public Schools held a special closed session last week, but it is unclear what the session was about.
Residents interested in issues discussed by the board behind closed doors would have, for the most part, no idea what the board was discussing based on the posted agenda.
The agenda listed only the general topic for the meeting “pending litigation.” It is unclear from the notice whether the board was discussing the lawsuit against the Princeton Charter School. The Princeton Public Schools board and the Princeton Charter School board are suing each other over Sunshine Law notice violations that each board has committed.
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 a member of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said the school board’ resolution falls short.
“The Open Public Meetings Act or ‘Sunshine Law’ permits public bodies to exclude the public and enter closed session meetings, but only after they have passed a resolution or motion that specifically identifies the ‘general nature of the subject to be discussed’ and the time and circumstances when the discussion in closed session can be disclosed to the public,” Luers said.
“Here, the Board’s February 21, 2017 notice does neither. While public bodies need only describe the ‘general nature’ of the discussion, ‘pending litigation’ can mean almost anything,” Luers said. “The Open Public Meetings Act must be construed in favor of the public’s right to know, and here the public is not receiving enough information to be able to evaluate the public body’s need for a closed-session meeting. While it is within the limits of the law to discuss pending litigation in closed session, the board should identify the specific case being discussed by name so that the public can learn more about the case using other means.”
Planet Princeton reached out to the superintendent of schools and the board president on the notice issue on Feb. 22 and still has not received a response.
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.”