Kean University must release its meeting minutes to the public promptly, including those of closed sessions, according to a June 21 state Supreme Court ruling.
The verdict overturned several aspects of an Appellate court’s decision in a four-year-old case brought by the Kean teachers union regarding votes during a September 2014 Kean Board of Trustees meeting over its decision not to renew the contracts of certain nontenured staff.
The Supreme Court said Kean was not at fault for failing to send a Rice notice — a formal notification that an individual’s employment will be discussed in a meeting by a public body — to professors who were not rehired.
The judgment somewhat vindicates the school, which has appealed the case several times since it was initially filed in 2014.
“The Supreme Court’s decision confirms that the board operates publicly and transparently on personnel matters, and in compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act, the Rice ruling and all applicable laws,” Vice President of University Relations Karen Smith said in a June 21 written statement.
The court said the gap between the September 2014 meeting and the release of the minutes the following February was “unreasonable” but, according to the statement from the university, measures already have been taken to remedy the delay.
“The board recognized early in this process the collective bargaining unit’s desire to have meeting minutes released in a more prompt manner,” Smith said in her statement. “The Kean Board of Trustees now produces and releases its public minutes on the very day of the board meeting.”
James Castiglione, a Kean physics professor who heads the Kean Federation of Teachers, is satisfied that the ruling will strengthen sunshine laws in place to hold public institutions accountable.
“More open transparency will always help serve the public,” Castiglione said in a July 9 telephone interview. “The ruling will help push public institutions to fulfill a broader service to the public in general by releasing minutes more promptly.”
In February 2017, the Appellate Division ruling determined that Valera Hascup, a former Kean nursing professor, was treated unfairly when the board voted to terminate her during a meeting without first sending her a Rice notice about her reappointment vote.
According to the case syllabus, Hascup received a letter from the Kean president prior to the meeting stating that she would not be nominated for reappointment. Since she was informed of this, and since the corresponding vote occurred in a public setting, the Supreme Court determined that the university was not at fault for failing to send her a Rice notice.
The ruling also ensures that public institutions will provide minutes of closed-session meetings upon request, with minimal redactions.
“The Supreme Court clearly recognized the need for this additional step of review and encourages the university and all public bodies to make sure that review and release are done in a reasonable period of time,” Smith said in her statement.
According to Castiglione, who also was a plaintiff in the case, obtaining minutes to closed-session meetings was consistently difficult in the past, and should be rectified following this ruling.
“Closed-session minutes aren’t released the day of the meeting, like for public sessions, but we are now guaranteed that we can have access to a copy of the minutes without heavy redactions,” Castiglione said.
He described the verdict as “splitting the baby,” or giving both sides what they want to an extent.
“It’s a success in getting Kean to conduct business openly,” Castiglione said. “But it’s disappointing that Kean chose to drag the case out over multiple appeals, in the process spending a lot of money that does not serve its students.”