The League of California Cities' sister organization in New Jersey has been brought under that state's public records law, reports Michael Symons for New Jersey Press Media, as the result of a unanimous state Supreme Court decision issued last week. Justice Barry T. Albin, writing for the court, said that the New Jersey League of Municipalities meets the definition of a public agency for purposes of the state's Open Public Records Act since "it is an 'instrumentality . .. created by . . . political subdivisions.' As a public agency, the League must make available government documents as required by OPRA." The comparable provision in the California Public Records Act defines a "local agency" whose records are presumed public as including "a county; city, whether general law or chartered; city and county; school district; municipal corporation; district; political subdivision; or any board, commission or agency thereof . . ."As reported by Symons,
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities was authorized by the Legislature nearly a century ago and its employees have been eligible for public pensions since a 1955 opinion from the New Jersey attorney general declaring it "a public agency or organization," the Supreme Court noted in its ruling.
A Superior Court judge and appellate panel, as well as the state Government Records Council, had all sided with the league after it refused to comply with an Open Public Records Act request filed by the Fair Share Housing Center after the league opposed proposed affordable housing rules in 2008. The Supreme Court reversed those rulings Tuesday.
"We have no authority, or reason, to erect artificial judicial hurdles for a citizen to gain access to a government record, particularly in light of OPRA's mandate that 'any limitations . . . shall be construed in favor of the public's right of access,' " said the court's decision, written by Associate Justice Barry Albin.
"Any document kept on file or received in the course of the official business of an 'agency' of a political subdivision is a government document. The league is such an 'agency' and therefore the term 'government record' applies to it," the ruling says. "To conclude otherwise would require us to reach an absurd result. It cannot be that the league meets the definition of 'public agency' or 'agency,' but is not the 'agency' referred to in the definition of 'government record.' "
League staff attorney Matthew Weng called the ruling disappointing though he said it wouldn't have much impact on the association. He said the documents Fair Share Housing Center sought had already been provided, except for some the league says are protected by attorney-client privilege.
Weng said he doesn't anticipate a wave of OPRA requests, saying the league's salaries, budgets and policy positions are posted on its website and that it complies with state lobbying disclosure rules even though it is exempt.
"We are such a transparent organization that I don't think we'll have a flood of people trying to figure out exactly what we're doing here," Weng said. "We're very open, so in the end, I don't think there's a whole lot of information that's hidden that people are going to want to get at."
Fair Share Housing Center attorney Kevin Walsh saw the ruling differently and said he looks forward to the league opening its records and books.
"Today's decision requires the League of Municipalities, at long last, to operate in the sunshine," Walsh said. "The court rejected the league's contention that every one of New Jersey's mayors can join together to do business, lobby the Legislature, and spend taxpayer funds out of the public eye."
The League of Municipalities is a nonprofit association that represents New Jersey's 566 boroughs, cities, towns, townships and villages, and its members include more than 13,000 elected and appointed officials. A total of 16 percent of its funding comes from taxpayer money in the form of membership fees from each municipality.
The ruling could have an impact on other associations, Weng said.
While the New Jersey School Boards Association has complied with OPRA since the law took effect in 2002, because its membership is compulsory, the New Jersey Association of Counties and organizations advocating for groups of municipal employees such as clerks, planning officials, prosecutors and tax assessors may be affected, he said.
"There's literally dozens of other organizations that are going to have to take a long, hard look at this," Weng said. ". . . I imagine at some point, there's got to be a line where OPRA no longer applies, but the determination of that is going to be up to the Supreme Court."