Mayor Carl Groon, and members of the
Wildwood Crest Borough Commission
Dear Mayor Groon and Commissioners:
In response to a recent Open Public Records Act request, I received redacted minutes from the Board's November 18, 2013 nonpublic (i.e. executive or closed session). I have placed these minutes on-line here.
I invite your attention to the sentence within the minutes that states that "[d]iscussion was also had regarding the hiring of a special investigator." As you know, this special investigator was hired to investigate a police internal affairs matter. The rumors circulating throughout the Borough are that the investigation relates to a police employee who has earned the rank of lieutenant or higher. Regardless of the truth of these rumors, this is a matter of great public interest and it's very important that there is sufficient information available so that Borough voters and taxpayers, at least at some point in the future, can understand the nature of the investigation and draw their own conclusions as to whether the Borough's elected and appointed officials acted reasonably.
N.J.S.A. 10:4-14 requires meeting minutes to be “reasonably comprehensible.” Do you think that this terse statement about an investigation in the minutes, without more, reasonably captures the sense of the discussion that took place during the closed meeting?
The purpose of closed meeting minutes is not merely to inform the public of what occurred during the private session, but also to create a record for the Board members themselves. Do you think that a Board member who is newly elected in, say, 2015 could be able, by referring solely to the November 18, 2013 closed session minutes, to figure out exactly the context of the Board's discussion about the special investigator? Don't you think that this new Board member would ask himself or herself "Who was being investigated?" and "What are the circumstances surrounding the investigation?"
Better practice would be to have Clerk Holzmer record more verbose minutes and then redact them, as necessary, before publicly disclosing them. For example, instead of stating what Clerk Holzmer wrote in the November 18, 2013 minutes, the minute entry might hypothetically read
Mayor Groon informed the Board that the Cape May County Prosecutor had declined to do an investigation of Police Captain John Doe for misusing police property and requested that the Borough do its own investigation. Mayor Groon said that despite the result in West Wildwood's lawsuit with employee William Null in 2008, he recommended that Fallon Associates be retained to conduct the investigation.
Of course, the Borough could probably redact "Captain John Doe" and perhaps other details from the minutes before releasing them to the public but at least the information would exist and would possibly, some day, be disclosable to the public. And, as stated above, the Commissioners would be able to comprehend the minutes without having to reference outside material.
Recording more verbose minutes is not only good policy, but—at least regarding personnel matters-- is required by law. In 1991, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that “minutes are intended to recite and disclose any official decision or action taken by a public body, and necessarily must contain sufficient facts and information to permit the public to understand and appraise the reasonableness of the public body’s determination.” South Jersey Publishing Co., Inc. v. New Jersey Expressway Auth., 124 N.J. 478, 493 (1991).
Please discuss the issues raised in this letter at your next meeting and let me know what, if any, changes the Board is willing to make to the manner in which it records minutes of its closed sessions.
Thank you very much for your attention to this matter. I look forward to hearing from you.
John Paff, Chairman
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Open Government Advocacy Project