On Friday, a day after we stumbled across and posted the $6,325 Economic Impact Study of Musicfest submitted by Rutgers, the county issued a press release announcing the cancellation of Musicfest which included the statement: A consensus was reached by the Freeholder Board (Thursday).
The freeholders held a public meeting that Thursday evening, however Musicfest was not discussed. So where did the freeholders reach this “consensus” and was it a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act?
In December 2008, the Union County Watchdog Association asked the Union County Prosecutor’s office to investigate whether the freeholders pre-meeting dinners were in violation of the OPMA.
No one, including the freeholders or the Prosecutor, dispute that the board routinely meets for dinner prior to the start of their agenda and regular meetings. There are 9 freeholders and bills show these meetings are generally catered for 25 – 35 people. One could reasonably assume that an effective majority of the members of the Board of Chosen Freeholders may be present along with key county employees and vendors. As a result, the public is deprived of any knowledge of the topics that the Freeholders are privately discussing during these dinner meetings. Further, if business is not being conducted during these dinner meetings why are the taxpayers forced to pay for the catering? In 2006 these meeting catering bills came to $10,510 for 27 freeholder meetings. That averages out to $389.29 per meeting, $43.25 per freeholder. These numbers don’t include desert.
Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow’s response:
“It is your position that at the times these meals are served and consumed the Freeholders are conducting a “meeting” of the “public body” as those terms are defined by the Open Public Meetings Act. As the public in not invited to attend the “dinner meeting,” it is your contention that the Freeholders are violating N.J.S.A. 4-13 which requires the passage of a resolution at a public meeting before the public body is permitted to discuss, in private, any of the matters enumerated in N.J.S.A. 10: 4-12b.
Your argument assumes that members of the public body who enter the room at the time food is served have gathered there with the intent to discuss or act as a unit upon the specific public business of the board of Chosen Freeholders. (3) However, it is my understanding that many of the Freeholders come directly from work and that the food is provided as courtesy to those who do not have time to eat before spending (1) several hours presiding at the Board’s regular meetings.
(2) There is nothing to suggest that discussions among those in attendance constitute a “meeting” within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 10:4-8 b. in that they reflect any intent by the attendees to “act as a unit upon the specific public business of that body.” During these meals, there is no action taken on any matters before the board and no votes cast regarding freeholder business.
While you may take issue with the cost of the meals provided at public expense, that is not a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. Accordingly, having determined that the provision of meals does not implicate the provisions of the Act, no action will be taken by this office.
(1) Freeholder regular meeting recordings show they generally last between 1 & 1.5 hours. I’ve attended and recorded agenda meetings that have lasted 10-20 minutes. Unless you are including the pre-meeting dinners.
(2) The prosecutor ignores that the law also states business can’t be DISCUSSED. They will be holding a public meeting directly after dinner, coffee and cake is served, they will step into the public room and up to the dais and act as a unit upon the specific public business on the agenda which on any given night would include the expenditure of millions of dollars and public health and safety issues. It is unreasonable for the Prosecutor to assume that all these people gathered for dinner, coffee & cake and didn’t discuss any county business. That’s not what I’ve been told by department heads. If the Prosecutor wanted to ensure the people’s business was being conducted according to the law, he could simply ask present and past department heads and freeholders if they’ve ever spoken about agenda items to a quorum of freeholders during these dinner meetings. He could then order the county to comply with the law. The entire investigation would take a few phone calls and 30 minutes tops, then freeholder meetings will last several hours, as council meetings generally do, because the people’s business will be discussed during meetings, not behind closed doors. The UCWA would still contend that freeholders who are paid $30,000 for their part-time positions should be paying for their own dinners, as council members do.