A Burlington County town whose officials lost a large batch of meeting minutes - twice in six years - has agreed under a court-approved settlement to implement stringent safeguards to make sure it doesn't happen again and will begin posting its executive session minutes online, a rare occurrence on municipal websites.
Under the recent settlement, Lumberton Township also will pay the $1,610 legal bill of John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, after he sued on the grounds the public was being denied access to township committee records in violation of state transparency laws.
In 2009, when Paff first asked to see the minutes of the committee's executive meetings - sessions held in private to discuss litigation, personnel, and other confidential matters - the clerk told him the minutes kept prior to 2003 were missing. State law requires they be maintained and then released to the public when confidential issues are resolved. After Paff filed a legal complaint that year, a judge issued a consent order requiring township officials to keep these minutes in a permanent binder and to make them readily available to the public once sensitive matters were redacted.
Paff routinely makes public records requests in New Jersey to test government transparency.
Recently, Paff discovered the executive session minutes from 2011, 2012, and 2013 were missing and were never bound, in violation of the 2009 order. Under the new settlement, approved last week by Superior Court Judge Marc M. Baldwin, Lumberton will now keep two binders - one in the clerk's office and one in the administrator's office - and will start posting its executive minutes online after committee approval.
Posting these records is "something that most towns don't do," said Paff, who has been a government transparency watchdog for two decades. "Hopefully, other towns will adopt Lumberton's new policy and post their executive minutes - redacted as necessary - online. Since the most important and interesting business happens in executive session, those are the minutes that the public most needs to see."
Mayor Lew Jackson did not respond to calls for comment. Township solicitor George M. Morris could not be reached.
Last month, after Paff filed his lawsuit, the mayor issued a statement saying the township was working to restore some of the missing minutes and to bring "our record-keeping into the 21st century by use of scanning and electronic storage with the appropriate backup and safety systems in place." He said that some records would also be "more accessible via the Internet."
The all-Republican five-member committee also voted in August to suspend Township Clerk Stephanie Yurko for 60 days without pay due to her lapse in record-keeping. Yurko had told the committee that she kept the executive session minutes on a thumb or zip drive and that the drive had been damaged.
The new settlement also requires the committee to approve executive session minutes for release to the public within two months except when there are "extraordinary circumstances." The solicitor also must prepare "an index that explains each redaction in enough detail" to give the public the opportunity to review it and determine whether those matters should be kept confidential. Also, all approved executive session minutes, starting from Jan. 1, 2015, will be posted on the town's official website. The goal is to have all of this year's records posted by April 2016.
If the new settlement is breached, the township will be responsible for attorney's fees and could face court-imposed sanctions due to "the action or inaction of the clerk or solicitor," according to the four-page consent agreement.
Paff said that he did not seek monetary damages but sought assurances that the records would be properly secured in the future in the interest of public accountability.
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