A North Bergen attorney who has represented political opponents of Mayor Nicholas Sacco complained at a town meeting last month that the agendas provided to the public before the meetings lack many details of what will be voted on.
Although attorney Mario Blanch claimed that North Bergen is not complying with the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, a statewide media lawyer said last week that the town is, in fact, complying with the law. But the town’s agendas are much less detailed than in some neighboring towns.
Also dubbed the “Sunshine” law, the Open Public Meetings Act requires town boards to give the public advanced notice of any of their meetings, so the public can attend. The act also requires that public bodies make available an agenda – to the extent that it is known – of the meeting at least 48 hours before it takes place. According to the law, “A 48-hour written notice must also be given for any regular, special, adjourned, or unscheduled meeting giving the time, date, location, and as complete an agenda as known at time of notice.”
“We’re working on putting these things on the website.” – Mayor Nicholas Sacco
“Our procedures are fully in accord with the Sunshine law,” said Herb Klitzner, town attorney, at the time. “Regularly scheduled meetings require no specific agenda.”
Thomas Cafferty, an attorney for the New Jersey Press Association, concurred when reached last week. He stated that regularly scheduled meetings do not require a specific agenda.
“If the meeting is [a] regularly scheduled meeting, there is no requirement,” said Cafferty.
Blanch represented the “Citizens for Change” mayor/commissioner ticket in their unsuccessful election bid against Sacco’s team in the municipal elections last May. He also represents the North Bergen Concerned Citizens Group, and represents former town employee Lydia Coleman, who filed a state ethics complaint against Sacco in December.
Also at last month’s meeting, frequent meeting attendee and former school board candidate Herb Shaw made a similar complaint about information given to the public. Shaw charged that the public had no knowledge of a certain ordinance before it was adopted.
“It’s supposed to be an open public [record],” said Shaw at the meeting.
“We’re working on putting these things on the website,” Mayor Nicholas Sacco said in response. “It’s going to take a couple of months.”
North Bergen’s agenda, provided to the public before meetings, lists no specific ordinances, resolutions, or amounts that will be paid out. It includes only generic terms. For the Jan. 24 Board of Commissioners’ meeting, the agenda posted in advance was the following list, verbatim: “Disbursements, Payment of claims, Resolutions, Appointments, Reports, Ordinances, Introductions, Adoptions.” It was signed by the town clerk.
Other cities such as Hoboken and Jersey City list the specific ordinances and resolutions that the council expects to vote on, both on the city’s website and at meetings.
The township of Secaucus often lists the funds for each expected contract on the agenda given out at meetings.
Cafferty stated that only special meetings, or meetings for which there has been less than 48 hours notice, require more specific information to be made available to the public.
But Cafferty mentioned that recent legislation sponsored by State Sen. Loretta Weinberg would require governments to provide the public with more information about agenda items.
The bill, S-1451, if adopted, would also require agendas to include each individual item to be discussed or acted upon within 48 hours of each town meeting.
The Township of North Bergen’s recently revamped website, www.northbergen.org, typically posts times and dates for upcoming township meetings. However, other information for the meeting is not accessible on the website.
In neighboring Guttenberg – which uses the same web developer – a copy of the agenda, complete with ordinances and resolutions, is posted after each council meeting. The website does not typically provide agendas prior to meetings.
Weehawken has not recently posted upcoming agendas, ordinances, or any information about future town meetings.
Hoboken and Jersey City fall at the other end of the spectrum, providing upcoming resolutions, ordinances, and agendas for past and future town meetings, including both council and planning board hearings. Hoboken includes the past five years of detailed agendas on the website and even allows individuals to watch live council meetings over the internet.
Although providing municipal information over the internet may be a sign of the current times, it is not a requirement for towns to do so, Cafferty said.
After a meeting is held, the public does have the legal right to request the specifics of what was voted on, including ordinances, resolutions, and specific payments.
Weinberg’s legislation, if passed, will require public bodies – if they have a website – to provide electronic access to minutes, agendas, resolutions, and ordinances before each meeting.
Will file lawsuit
Blanch said Wednesday that he disagrees with Cafferty that the law does not require regularly scheduled meetings to provide more specific agendas.
“They [North Bergen] are taking a very narrow interpretation [of the statute],” said Blanch.
Blanch said he plans to file a lawsuit regarding the issue, possibly next week.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at email@example.com.