Somerset man frustrated over 2006 Hoboken meeting. Three agencies decline to investigate after he writes letters

Somerset man frustrated over 2006 Hoboken meeting

Three agencies decline to investigate after he writes letters

04/26/2008 Hoboken Reporter 

CLOSED QUARTERS? According to John Paff, an invitation-only meeting called by Mayor David Roberts in 2006 to discuss the school district was in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. But there was no governmental body willing to follow through on Paff’s allegation.  
In an area known for its corrupt politicians and - lately - lawsuits over access to public records, governmental openness is very important to taxpayers.

But not all of them have time or money to fight for it.

This is especially true if it's happening in a different town than their own.

John Paff, a political watchdog from Somerset County, has been fighting for two years to get answers about a meeting that took place in Hoboken in 2006.

Paff, who is also the chairman of New Jersey's Libertarian Party, says he has been investigating governmental openness in New Jersey for five years, and has focused on Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) violations for the last three years.

OPMA is one of several state "Sunshine Laws" created to promote greater transparency in government, similar to the federal Government in the Sunshine Act.

OPMA insures that citizens get proper notice about a government meeting, and can attend meetings that affect their lives.

There is also a similar state law called the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), which pertains to public records rather than public meetings.

Invitation-only school meeting

In 2006, Paff read an article in the Hoboken Reporter about an invitation-only meeting arranged by Mayor David Roberts in February of 2006 in which many city and school officials discussed the state of the Hoboken schools.

At the time, then-city attorney Joseph Sherman told the newspaper that the meeting was legal because it was a social gathering.

But Paff believed that the meeting violated OPMA regulations.

At the meeting, Roberts unveiled a plan that included having the state's former commissioner of education come into the district as a consultant.

The meeting was attended, according to the article, by about 40 community leaders.

Roberts said in the article that almost all of the City Council and the Board of Education were there and that the press had not been invited so as not to politicize the event.

However, often, when a majority of a government board is discussing government business in the same room, it has to be an open meeting.

"Hudson County is a hard case. The public needs to see behind the curtain." - John Paff

According to OPMA, a meeting must be open if it is held "with the intent ... to discuss or act as a unit upon the specific public business of that body."

Last week, Roberts said, "That night, there may have been 50 people there; I don't recollect who, but certainly it wasn't a secret meeting."

He added, "No action was being taken."

Paff tried to lodge a complaint about the meeting, but he says he has been unable to find a governing body willing to take action.

Who is in charge?

"Most laws, the government enforces," Paff said. But when it is the governing body at fault, he noted, the enforcement is lacking.

While there are government bodies in charge of investigating OPMA violations, there is no agency charged with first detecting them. So it's up to citizens to be aware.

Paff promptly took his argument to the state Office of the Attorney General on Feb. 20, 2006. He sent a letter with a copy of the Reporter story that covered the invitation-only event.

Paff pointed out that OPMA excludes partisan caucus meetings and chance encounters from the law, but it doesn't exclude social gatherings.

The Attorney General's office recommended Paff try the county level first, so he brought his objection to the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office in a letter dated May 10, 2006.

Hudson County Assisstant Prosecutor Mary Ellen Gaffney responded on May 23, 2006 stating that her office would not be undertaking a criminal investigation into the matter.

"Some towns are easier to deal with than others," Paff said. "Hudson County is generally a hard case. The public needs to see behind the curtain."

Next step

Paff relayed the county's non-investigation to the Attorney General's office, who sent the case back to the county again, this time to be investigated.

On April 18, 2007, Paff received a letter again from the Hudson County Prosecutor's office stating that, after review and evaluation, they were declining to prosecute.

Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio said in an interview last week, "As a rule, we're not going to get involved in that."

He said that unless the violation is a repeated act, his office would not be involved in an investigation into OPMA offenses because they are not criminal.

"This is more appropriate for an administrative investigation, not a criminal investigation," DeFazio said.

But he said that if Paff's attempts prevent future meeting violations, he has "performed a service."

Trying again

After getting nowhere on the state and county level, Paff tried to lobby to an administrative body, the state Department of Education, about the matter.

Director Robert J. Cicchino of the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance replied to Paff on March 12, 2008.

Cicchino said that he would not review the case because the meeting "was the subject of a complaint submitted to both the New Jersey Attorney General and the Hudson County Prosecutor, [and] both agencies declined to initiate an investigation."

Taking them to court

Litigation is a last resort for these cases, because it requires even more time, not to mention much more money.

In Paff's case, he said he probably will not file a lawsuit. "Sometimes it's just not worth it," he said.

Hoboken's 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason, who is a rumored contender for mayor next year, has filed several lawsuits against the city in conjunction with alleged OPRA and OPMA violations.

"I admire what she's doing," said Paff. "She's asking good questions."

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