Township Settles Lawsuit with Resident
Lawsuit contends Open Space and Recreation Committee did not abide by Open Public Meetings Act
A lawsuit filed by a West Orange woman against the township alleging she was barred from a public meeting has been settled.
The American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, filed in April of last year, claimed Frances Holland, a 20-year resident of the township, was refused entry during a West Orange Open Space and Recreation Committee meeting in March 2010.
As part of the settlement, West Orange officials will issue Holland an apology letter, draft minutes for the March meeting and pay the ACLU $200 in court restitution fees.
The township council also adopted an ordinance in July that requires all committees, even those whose function are purely advisory, to adhere to the Open Public Meetings Act, said Kenneth Kayser, assistant attorney for the township. "Regardless of the lawsuit, all meetings should be open to the public," he said.
Bobby Conner, attorney with the open governance project at the ACLU of New Jersey, said they were "very pleased" with the settlement and were "glad" the suit was resolved this way. "West Orange is providing more protection to the public that the Open Public Meetings Act requires."
The suit stated that Holland, 71, attended the Open Space Committee meeting to discuss a proposed steep slope ordinance but was instructed by committee member Leonard Lepore to "sit in the hallway." Holland was told committee members would say "good-bye" on their way out, according to the lawsuit.
It also alleges another township resident, Linda Stiles, was spurned from the meeting and told by committee member William Sullivan, "This is exactly what we don't need here. (The tree ordinance) took 10 months and we don't have 10 months."
Holland said she filed an Open Public Records Act shortly after to request the meeting's minutes but was denied because "no records existed."
In the lawsuit, the committee's chairman Abraham Bunis said he was told four members of the committee would be absent, leaving insufficient members to create a quorum or minutes for the meeting.
Though the suit was settled out of court, it still left discord among the parties.
"We didn't agree to the settlement because we thought our position was wrong, we still think our position is correct," Holland said. "If you look at the terms of the statute, the committee does make recommendations to the governing body, they did publish notices of their meeting and make an impact on the final determination."
"We do have a different opinion on the legal issue, but we decided it was best to settle," Conner said.
Kayser maintained that contrary to what the lawsuit alleges, the Open Space Committee was not in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. He said the law "only deals with committees that have power to spend money or affect lives." He said the Open Space Committee, established in 2002, is purely advisory and consists of volunteer members.
In the apology letter, Lepore and Sullivan apologized to Holland and Stiles, on behalf of the committee. "Regardless of whether or not our actions violated the law, excluding you from the meeting was inappropriate," they wrote. They added that the committee was discussing a steep slope ordinance that night, a matter that was "certainly of a public nature and importance. We recognize and want to foster rather than discourage input from the public with respect to such matters."
The township council approved the settlement resolution during Tuesday night's meeting.
"It was ultimately in the best interests of both parties," Conner said. "It was a win-win."