Under New Jersey law, your right to attend public meetings is protected. The Open Public Meetings Act, commonly referred to as the Sunshine Law, gives the public the right to be present at meetings of public bodies at all levels of government in the state. The public has the right to witness in full detail the deliberation, policy formulation, and decision-making of public bodies.
The law applies to any public body at the state, county, or municipal level of government. A “public body” is any commission, authority, board, council, committee, or group of two or more people organized under the laws of this state that s collectively empowered as a voting body and performs a public governmental function affecting the rights, duties, obligations, privileges, benefits, or other legal relations of any person, or is collectively authorized to spend public funds.
The law does not apply to the judiciary, juries, parole boards, the State Commission of Investigation, the Apportionment Commission, political party committees, or any purely advisory committees.
A public body’s meeting is subject to the law if the meeting is held with the intent to discuss or act upon public business, and is attended by a majority of the members of the public body, whether in person, by phone, or by other means of communication like email and texting.
☀️ Sunshine Law requirements
The Sunshine Law requires public bodies to provide the public with:
- Adequate advance notice of all meetings
- The right to attend its meetings
- Reasonably comprehensive minutes of all meetings
🎤💬 The right to speak at public meetings
New Jersey law requires municipal governing bodies and school boards to set aside a portion of every meeting for public comments.
If a public body provides a time for public comment, it may adopt written policies that require speakers to sign up in advance and that limit the time of each speaker. These policies must be put in writing and equally enforced.
When addressing the public body, the public body is not required to respond to questions.
📢👨👩👧👦 💥 Members of a public body cannot censor your speech during a public comment portion because the members do not agree with you or like what you are saying. The public body also cannot prohibit comments based on subject matter so long as the comments relate to any issue “that a member of the public feels may be of concern to the residents of the municipality or school district.”
💡Which meetings are open to the public?
The Sunshine Law requires that all meetings of public bodies are open to the public with a few exceptions. For those exceptions, the public body may exclude the public and discuss certain items in what is known as an executive or closed session.
The public body must first adopt a resolution in public, in a meeting that is open to the public, adopting a resolution to go into closed session. The resolution must list the topics that will be discussed in the closed session to the extent known (public bodies can’t just list general topics like “personnel” or “legal.” They must be more specific. They must also list the time when the information discussed in private will be disclosed to the public.
👀 How much advance notice is required?
Public bodies are required to provide the public with “adequate notice” of all their meetings. Adequate notice may be provided:
- On an annual basis or
- At least 48 hours prior to a meeting.
Public bodies providing annual notice must provide the time, date, and location (if known) of each meeting, within seven days of the annual organization or reorganization meeting of the public body. If there is no organization or reorganization meeting, such a notice must be provided by Jan. 10.
If a public body wishes to reschedule a meeting or convene a meeting not listed on the annual notice, it must provide 48 hours’ notice. The notice must contain the time, date, location, and, to the extent known, the agenda of the meeting.
All notices must be:
- Posted in at least one public place reserved for public announcements
- Published in two newspapers
- Filed with the appropriate municipal or county clerk or the Secretary of State if the public body has statewide authority
- Mailed to any person upon request
🚨What if an urgent matter arises?
A public body should provide adequate notice for all meetings but may convene without notice if all of the following criteria are met:
- Three-quarters of the members present vote in favor of conducting a meeting without notice
- The meeting is required to deal with urgent or important matters and a delay in providing adequate notice would likely result in substantial harm to the public interest
- The meeting is limited to only urgent and important matters
- Notice of the meeting is provided as soon as possible
- The need for such a meeting could not have been reasonably foreseen at a time when adequate notice could have been provided, or such need could have been foreseen and the public body subsequently provides reasons why adequate notice was not provided.
Public bodies are required to provide a statement in the meeting minutes detailing the urgent matters, the time, place, and manner in which notice was provided, and other information related to the criteria for the urgency.
✏️ What meeting minutes must be provided?
Public bodies must keep “reasonably comprehensible” minutes of all their meetings. At a minimum, the minutes must reflect the time and place, members present, subjects considered, actions taken, and the vote of each member.
The minutes must also include a statement indicating that adequate notice was provided for the meeting. The notice must specify the time, date, and manner in which the notice was provided. If adequate notice was not provided, the minutes must provide an explanation for the failure of the public body to provide adequate notice.
You have the right to obtain meeting minutes for both public and closed sessions.
🚪When can public bodies exclude the public from a meeting?
The Sunshine Law allows public bodies to exclude the public when discussing:
- Matters considered confidential by law or court rule
- Matters that would diminish the chances of receiving federal funds if released to the public
- Material which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of individual privacy
- Discussing collective bargaining agreements, including negotiations
- Matters involving real estate transactions with public funds, or the setting of banking rates, where disclosure of information could adversely affect the public interest
- Tactics and techniques used in protecting the safety and property of the public and investigations of violations or possible violations of the law
- Pending or anticipated litigation or contract negotiations involving the public body, and matters covered by the attorney-client privilege
- Personnel matters including the employment, appointment or termination of current or prospective employees (unless the employee in question requests that the matter be discussed in public)
- Deliberations that could result in a fine or the suspension or loss of a license or permit (but only after an initial public hearing on that subject)
🔍 What can I do if a public body violates the Sunshine Law?
You can file a lawsuit in Superior Court to void any action taken by a public body at a meeting that was held in violation of the Sunshine Law. The lawsuit must be filed within 45 calendar days after the public body’s action has been made public. You may also apply to the court for an injunction or other relief to ensure the public body complies with the Sunshine Law in the future.
You can also file a complaint with the county prosecutor or the New Jersey Attorney General. Complaints can result in fines for anyone who knowingly violates the law. Currently, the fine is $100 for the first offense and $100 to $500 for subsequent offenses.