A GUIDE TO THE NEW JERSEY OPEN PUBLIC MEETINGS ACT
WHAT IS THE OPEN PUBLIC MEETINGS LAW?
The Open Public Meetings Law, which is commonly referred to as the “Sunshine Law”, was enacted in 1975. It establishes the right of all citizens to have adequate advance notice of all public meetings and the right to attend meetings at which any business affecting the public is discussed or acted upon. – N.J.S.A. 10:4-6 to 10:4-2
IS THE OPEN PUBLIC MEETINGS LAW THE SAME THING AS THE RIGHT-TOKNOW
No. The Open Public Meetings Law refers to public meetings. The Right-to-Know Law refers to public records. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to 47:1A-4
TO WHOM DOES THE OPEN PUBLIC MEETING LAW APPLY?
The law applies to any public body of the state, county, or municipal level of government that has legal authority to vote on public matters or to spend public funds.
TO WHOM DOES THE LAW NOT APPLY?
The law specifically exempts the Judiciary, grand and petit juries, parole boards, the State Commission of Investigations, The Apportionment Committee and any political party committee. In addition, the Law exempts informal or purely advisory bodies and meetings of a
public official with subordinates.
ARE ALL GATHERINGS OF PUBLIC BODIES SUBJECT TO THE PROVISIONS
OF THE OPEN PUBLIC MEETINGS LAW?
No. In order to be covered by the provisions of the Law, a meeting (whether attended in person or conducted by means of communications equipment) must be:
(1) open to all the public body’s members, (2) attended by an effective majority of the members of that public body, and (3) the members present must intend to discuss or act upon public business. For example, political caucus meetings and change encounters of members of public bodies, or gatherings attended by or open to all members of three or more similar public bodies are not covered by the Law.
However, the Open Public Meetings Law specifically prohibits any person or public body from failing to invite a portion of its members in order to avoid the requirements of the Law.
WHAT MUST A PUBLIC BODY DO TO SATISFY THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE
OPEN PUBLIC MEETINGS LAW?
The Law requires public bodies to provide the public with: (a) adequate advance notice of all its meetings, (b) the right to attend its meetings, and (c) reasonable comprehensive minutes of all its meetings. In each of these areas, the Law sets forth specific requirements:
A. ADEQUATE NOTICE
The Law requires the public bodies provide the public with adequate advance notice of all its meetings. This can be accomplished by either:
(1) an “Annual Notice” or (2) a “48-hour notice.” The “Annual Notice” containing the time, date, and, to the extent known,
the location of each meeting, must be provided within seven days of the annual organization or reorganization meeting of the public body. If there is no organization or reorganization meeting, “Annual Notice” must be provided by January 10th.
A “48-Hour Notice” is required when a public body wishes to convene a meeting which has not been listed on the annual notice or regularly scheduled meetings. The Law mandates the public body to provide a written notice at least 48 hours prior to the convening of the meeting.
The “48-Hour Notice” must contain the time, date, location and, to the extent known, the agenda of the meeting.
Both the “Annual Notice” and the “48-Hour Notice” must be (1) prominently posted in at least one public place reserved for such announcements, (2) transmitted to two newspapers in time for publication 48-hours in advance of the meeting, (3) filed with appropriate Municipal or County Clerk or the Secretary of State if the public body has statewide authority, and (4) mailed to any person upon request.
The Law requires that public bodies permit all members of the public to attend their meetings. However, the right to attend meetings does not entitle members of the public to participate in the meetings. The public body may exclude the public only from portions of a meeting
known as the “executive” or “closed session.” Prior to excluding the public, the public body must first adopt a resolution at a meeting which is open to the public indicating generally what matters will be discussed in closed session and when these discussions will be disclosed to the
public. The following items are permitted to be discussed in closed session.
1. Any matter considered confidential by federal law, state statue,
or court rule;
2. Any matter in which the release of information would impair the receipt of federal funds;
3. Any material which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of individual privacy if disclosed;
4. Any collective bargaining agreements or other discussion of the terms and conditions of a collective bargaining agreement,
including negotiations leading up to such an agreement.
5. Any matter involving the purchase, lease or acquisition of real property with public funds, the setting of banking rates or investment of public funds where disclosure of such matter could adversely affect the public interest.
6. Any tactics and techniques used in protecting the safety and property of the public and investigations of violations or possible violations of the law.
7. Any pending or anticipated litigation or contract negotiations in which the public body is or may become a party, and any matter falling within the attorney-client privilege, to the extent that confidentiality is required to preserve the attorney-client relationship.
8. Personnel matters related to the employment, appointment or termination of current or prospective employees, unless all individuals who could be adversely affected request, in writing, that the matter be discussed at a public meeting.
9. Any deliberations of a public body occurring after a public hearing that may result in the imposition of a fine upon an individual or the suspension or the loss of license or permit belonging to an individual. The New Jersey courts have recognized the potential for misuse of the closed session exceptions by public bodies and have, therefore, strictly construed these exceptions in an effort to further the legislative intent of providing open public meetings in most instances.
The Law requires the public body to keep reasonably comprehensible minutes of all its meetings, showing the time and place, the members present, the subjects considered, the actions taken, the votes of each member and any other information required by law to be recorded by
minutes. These minutes are to be made promptly available to the public. In addition, the Law requires that a statement be entered into the minutes at the outset of each meeting indicating (1) that adequate notice has been provided (specifying the time, date, and manner in which the notice was provided), or (2) that adequate notice was not provided and an explanation for the failure of public body to provide adequate notice.