UNION COUNTY, NJ — A superior court judge recently ruled that Kean University taking 94 business days to hand over board of trustee executive session minutes to the Kean Federation of Teachers Union was a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act.
In addition, the judge ruled the school should be sanctioned for repeated violations. As a result, the university was ordered from here on to provide copies of executive session minutes within 45 days. In the past, the court had only suggested the 45-day timeframe.
The order was in part based on a prior ruling from 2014 when a superior court judge told Kean University to make executive session minutes “available promptly” to the public, which the court said the university “ignored.”
This resulted in the court levying stronger injunctions against Kean as a result.
According to the ruling, the issue first surfaced when KFT President James Castiglione made a request on Dec. 18, 2014, for copies of the Sept. 15 and Dec. 6, 2014, Kean Board of Trustees executive session meeting minutes.
Executive sessions are held behind closed doors with the minutes of what transpired usually approved at the next regular meeting and released to the public, as required by the OPMA.
Because the board only meets five times a year, the Sept. 15, 2014, two-page executive session minutes were approved at the Dec. 6 meeting. However, according to court documents, Kean’s executive director of the board, Audrey Kelly, was not aware of Castiglione’s OPRA request until the middle of January when she returned from vacation. The university was also closed from Dec. 24, 2014, through Jan. 1, 2015.
The board then redacted, or blacked out sections of the executive session minutes, subsequently releasing them to Castiglione on Feb. 2, 2015, 94 business days or 124 calendar days after the Sept. 15, 2014 board meeting.
The court ruling explained the board approved the executive session minutes from the Dec. 6, 2014, meeting at the March 2, 2015, meeting and then redacted and released the minutes March 4, 2015, 58-business days, or 88 calendar days, after its Dec. 6, 2014, meeting.
Castiglione maintained in court documents that Kean violated the Open Public Meetings Act by failing to make the executive session minutes “promptly available to the public,” ignoring the court’s recommendation of a 45-day limit in its Sept, 18, 2014 legal opinion.
Castiglione also claimed Kean violated the OPRA law by failing to respond to his request within seven days, as required by New Jersey statute.
Kean, on the other hand, responded to this accusation saying the release was “reasonably prompt” under the circumstances and they could not comply with the court’s 45-day suggestion because they could not expedite the approval of the minutes while still complying with OPMA requirements.
According to the New Jersey OPMA law, each public body “shall keep reasonably comprehensible minutes of all its meetings showing the time and place, members present, subjects considered, actions taken, all voting and any other information required by law.”
These minutes, though, do not stipulate a timeframe, but merely indicate meeting minutes should be “promptly available.”
The purpose of the OPMA law, however, the court said, was intended to enable those attending meetings to know what occurred at prior meetings, inform those who might be “aggrieved by actions of the public body,” and enable the public to take appropriate and timely steps to appeal or otherwise respond.
The ruling pointed out a court must arrive at a standard for “prompt availability” in light of the particular facts while weighing relevant information. But, they also noted that a board’s obligation also is “to adapt to the standard and to plan its employees’ assignment accordingly so minutes are released in a timely manner.”
As a result, Kean was found guilty on several levels, but not sanctioned on all violations.
“The court finds the ‘promptly available’ requirement of OPRA was not met,” the ruling noted, adding the board of trustees at Kean met regularly on the same schedule over the past several years.
The court further pointed out that executive session minutes from these meetings usually consisted of just two-pages, which indicated the matters discussed were not lengthy or required extensive redactions.
“Moreover, the subject matter of the minutes would be important to the faculty, student body, as well as the public, with respect to the actions taken by the board of trustees,” the court ruling noted.
The court also pointed out the OPMA law states a custodian of these records, in this case Audrey Kelly, “shall grant” access to a government record or deny a request for access as soon as possible but not later than seven business days after receiving a request, providing the record is available.
The court also addressed the fact that this was the second round of violations following the court’s June 17, 2014, and Sept. 18, 2014, opinions rendered on a similar charge by the KFT, and found that the more recent violation was “willful and deliberate.”
The KFT also requested that the court attach penalties to any judgement “to provide meaning to these rights and avoid constant return to court with a defiant public body.”