Friday, February 17, 2012

Public records found lacking - The Record

Public records found lacking

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS – For the first time in more than a year, the Borough Council has taken
 the routine step of approving meeting minutes — something that normally is done every month
and is mandated by state law.
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, submitted a public records request last month asking for minutes for the three most recently held
 closed-door meetings and public session meetings for which minutes are available.
The borough was unable to fulfill the request in the required seven business days, because the
 minutes had not been completed.
Paff said that when he made the request he had no idea the borough wasn't maintaining written
"The point of approving the minutes is to make sure they accurately reflect what happened at the meeting," Paff said. "They wait, and then the people voting on them weren't even there. This is incompetence. This is negligence, and it's not fair to the public."
Mayor Joseph Parisi said borough staffers are working to transcribe minutes for all of last year's meetings and stay current with recent meetings.
"We're doing what I'm calling burning both ends of the candle, the old and the new and meeting
in the middle as soon as possible," Parisi said.
The state's Open Public Records Act requires that: "Each public body shall keep reasonably comprehensible minutes of all its meetings showing the time and place, the members present,
 the subjects considered, the actions taken, the vote of each member, and any other information
required to be shown in the minutes by law, which shall be promptly available to the public."
When the mayor and council members questioned the missing minutes last year, Borough Administrator/Clerk Susan Spohn said she was too short-staffed to produce them.
Spohn was without an administrative assistant for a few months, and Republicans, who then
 controlled the council, eliminated the deputy clerk position. Parisi and Democrats, who now
 control five of six council seats, reinstated the deputy clerk job at the beginning of the year.
Spohn said she now has three people working on typing the minutes.
All of the meetings are recorded, and the public can request copies of those tapes, Parisi said.
But Paff said people shouldn't have to listen to a six-hour tape to find out what happened.
He said the minutes are like a table of contents for a meeting.
Paff requested the minutes after reading an article in The Record about Republican
 Councilwoman Carrol McMorrow alleging that the Open Public Meetings Act was violated
 at two council meetings.
McMorrow said Parisi failed to open for public comment at the reorganization meeting in
January, something Borough Attorney Carter Corriston has said was a violation of the law.
Parisi has apologized and said it was an oversight that would not happen again.
In addition to requesting meeting minutes, Paff has started a blog, "What's happening in
 Englewood Cliffs Borough?" at He did so, he said, because
he said the borough's website is lacking information that should be available to the public.
He plans to post documents he receives through his requests and hopes the site will generate
"I'm hoping that the 'political resistance' will start using the blog to get their points out about the shortcomings of the borough," Paff said.
The borough does not put its agendas, meeting minutes or budgets online.
State law requires municipalities to post the three most recent budgets online.
Councilman Ed Aversa, who is head of the mayor's new communications committee, said he
is meeting with vendors and working to address the website. He said his goal is to have a "properly working website" by June.

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