Did The Library Board Violate The Sunshine Law?

Did The Library Board Violate The Sunshine Law? thumbnail
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Published: August 23, 2016 @ 6:00 PM EDT

“There was a quorum and it was an actual meeting.”

This was a statement made by Jeff Regan during the public comment portion of the August 18th Mayor & Council meeting in response to Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey as part of the discussion regarding the Kneeling Solider Memorial donation. Beyond the headline-grabbing controversy of that donation (link), there is – if not directly refuted at some point through official channels – a serious violation of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) by certain members of the Library Board of Trustees.

OPMA, which is also referred to as the he Sunshine Law (link), was enacted in 1975 and established to ensure both the rights of the public with regard to public government meetings and transparency in government.

A precursor to Mr. Regan’s statement was a comment by Councilwoman Storey discussing how the Kneeling Soldier Memorial ended up in front of the library. During her back-and-forth with Mr. Regan, the councilwoman related a sequence of events where her husband, Greg Storey, approached Mayor Carl Hokanson and asked how did the memorial, which has a cross-shaped symbol, end up in front of the public library. Councilwoman Storey relayed the discussion, “My husband . . . called the mayor and the mayor said, ‘This was approved by the Board of Trustees of the library. Don’t talk to me,’ and I heard him say that, ‘Don’t talk to me, talk to them.'”

She went on to say that, as the liaison to the Library Board, she reviewed all the minutes to confirm that there was no approval by the Board. She also contacted Patricia Butler, the Library Board President, who stated that she herself was not aware of any approval.

The councilwoman then stated that she called Mr. Regan in an official capacity as the Vice President of the Library Board of Trustees. She recounted, “I called you and what you told me – and you can correct me if I’m not remembering this correctly – was that you did not recall it being discussed but that you were shown a picture of it at a Democratic Committee meeting and that . . . . you were not offended by it. You also mentioned the fact that there were other members of the Board of Trustees there but you were not sure whether it was a quorum. And at that time I said to you it can’t be a meeting if it is not announced as a meeting because if there is a meeting that is not announced you are liable to litigation. It’s part of the Sunshine Law, the Open Public Meetings Act . . . If you want to call that a threat of litigation, I thought it was more informative. You cannot have a meeting that way.”

The councilwoman continued to about her reasons for objecting to the memorial. Mr. Regan respectfully asked if he could continue. It was then that he stated, “There was a quorum and it was an actual meeting. I went and I made sure by looking to the secretary who took the minutes and researched. There was never anybody [who] brought it up . . . so I want to make it perfectly clear that this idea was never brought up, and it wasn’t. Also, your timeline between when I was shown this picture and the library meeting . . . there [was a] significant amount of time that had passed.”

The councilwoman commented, “Well, you didn’t specify what meeting you were shown it at.”

The comment from the councilwoman is not only relevant but pivotal since, in his vague comments about there being a quorum and a meeting, it is unclear if Mr. Regan was specifically speaking about the Library Board meeting or the Roselle Park Democratic Committee meeting or both. One reason is because five out of the seven civilian members of the Library Board of Trustees are also members of either the Roselle Park Democratic Committee or the Roselle Park Democratic Club. Those Library Board Trustees are Patricia Butler, Maxine Padulsky, Kimberly Powers, Jeff Regan, and Rashmi Sheth. There is no information available as to whether all those members were at the aforementioned RPDC meeting. The Library Board consists of nine (9) members so five would constitute a quorum.

The section of the Sunshine Law that is potentially impacted refers to the public notice of an unscheduled meeting. If there was discussion by the Library Board and a decision made without the public being able to attend, that is an OPMA violation. The only exemption from a public notice would be an emergency meeting but that would require a vote of seven in order to be called to order. Also, it could only be held if substantial harm to the public interest would result from a delay. Approval of the donation did not constitute an emergency as it could have been addressed at the next scheduled Library Board meeting or a special meeting.

Councilman Storey’s allegation that Mayor Hokanson stated there was official Library Board approval has not been refuted by the mayor. If correct, there is no public record of such meeting and it needs to be formally addressed.

Additionally, the mayor contacted the Borough’s labor attorney, Frank Capece, on behalf of taxpayers, to cite Councilwoman Storey for abuse of power. In the related memo, where he referred to his donation as ‘Soldier Kneeling At Cross’, the mayor mentioned threats of litigation against Board members. The memo also stated that the image was donated without any direction by the mayor as to its use but it has been reported that the Department of Public Works (DPW) installed the memorial at the direction of Mayor Hokanson.

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If the mayor was referring to the councilwoman’s OPMA violation statement, then he – along with Jeff Regan’s public statement – give credence to her allegation that an illegal meeting took place. If the threat made by the councilwoman is baseless because there never was such an impromptu meeting, then Mayor Hokanson never received approval from the Library Board.

Either way, something official will need to be prepared by Mr. Regan and/or the Library Board to refute or corroborate Councilwoman Storey’s statement about approval for the donation.

Jeff Regan was reached out to comment on or clarify his statement but he did not respond to those requests.