University Board of Governors violates state law
The University's Board of Governors committed multiple violations to state law when they discussed public matters during a private session at a 2008 meeting concerning the athletic department, according to a Friday state appellate court ruling.
Under the Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the "Sunshine Law," decision-making public bodies are required to open their meetings to the general public except when the public interest or individual rights are jeopardized.
But in a unanimous three-panel decision, the court determined that the current sequence of the board's meetings undermined the law's purpose of enabling citizens to hold governing bodies accountable for their decisions.
"The board's regular practice of scheduling an open session, followed by a closed session of indeterminate duration, followed by another open session has the capacity to deter the very public participation the act is designed to promote," according to the case brief.
The University is reviewing the decision's details and considering all options, said Greg Trevor, senior director of University Media Relations.
University alumnus Francis McGovern, who brought the issue to court, regularly attended Board of Governors meetings since July 2006 and found that holding closed sessions for an indefinite amount of time before holding open sessions discouraged public attendance.
"[During the closed session] people can't hang out, people don't want to hang out and a lot of people don't even know what's going on. So they leave or they don't come back," said McGovern, an attorney practicing in North Brunswick.
McGovern said the meeting practices even prevented him from attending meetings as of late since it is difficult to take a day off from work.
"[The board] should really just have their open session and then if they want to discuss topics allowed in closed session, just go to closed session," McGovern said. "And I'm hoping that's what change happens."
Other than criticizing meeting procedures, the court also found the Board of Governors failed to provide the public with accurate information on the topics that would be discussed during their closed portion at a Sept. 10, 2008 meeting in Winants Hall on the College Avenue Campus.
"Merely stating, as the board did in its notice, that it would meet in closed session ‘to discuss matters falling within contract negotiation and attorney-client privilege' gave the public no idea of the topics to be discussed," according to the brief.
The court also ruled that the board violated the law during the same meeting when University President Richard L. McCormick and then board chairman M. William Howard Jr., discussed issues over University policy in private.
Jonathan Nycz, Board of Governors' student representative, believes the board conducts too much business behind doors that should be discussed in public.
"The only people that know what's going on are members of the Board of Governors, which I feel goes against the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act," said Nycz, a School of Engineering senior.
New Jersey Foundation for Open Government President Ronald Miskoff said the ruling plays a significant role in further defining the law.
"It indicates that the trend is turning in favor of the public among the New Jersey judiciary, which has opened up a lot of its own record just in the last year, and reducing the cost of copy records is continuing on its march to indicate that the public has a right to have access to these meetings," said Miskoff, also a University journalism and media studies professor.
At the moment, activists and legislators like Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-37, are working to add a "fee shift provision" to the Open Public Meetings Act.
If the court sides with a private citizen seeking legal action to obtain a document, the provision will require the public entity on the opposing side to pay the citizen's legal fees.
"The Rutgers alumnus who took Rutgers to court still has to pay his own legal fees," Miskoff said. "You can imagine there are very few attempts to enforce the law under the Open Public Meetings Act."
As a rower during his college career, McGovern first began attending meetings when he learned the University cut certain varsity teams, including the crew team, from the program.
Although he was unable to help reinstate those programs, McGovern learned more about the Board of Governors, government transparency and the importance of public participation in University affairs.
"Whether it's a tax payer, student, parent or an alum, they should have the ability to state their position of various University issues because the public … winds up footing the bill for all these things in the long run," McGovern said.