On Aug. 18, New Jersey’s second-highest court reversed a lower court ruling to the contrary and held that when a school district posts an agenda to the district website in advance of a public meeting, the state’s Open Public Meetings Act does not require the district to post copies of appendices, attachments, reports or other supplemental documents that are referenced in that agenda.
The Appellate Division holding arose from the case of Opderbeck v. Midland Park Board of Education; a case in which NJSBA filed an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief at the request of the Midland Park board.
In May 2013, Midland Park parents planned to attend a school board meeting seeking details about their children’s upcoming band activities. The agenda, which had been posted to the district website in advance of the meeting, included several band-related items, and referenced several band-activity documents which were not posted to the website. When the parents sought copies of the attachments, the board secretary advised that the district was not obligated to post attachments to the website and that a public records request was the appropriate means by which to obtain copies of the attachments.
Earlier Ruling Required Posting
Dissatisfied with that response, the parents ultimately filed an action in Superior Court that sought to require the district to post to the website all documents referenced in the agenda. The court held that since the attachments were available and were provided to board members in advance of the meeting, all documents referenced in the agenda must be posted in conjunction with the agenda.
The district appealed to the Appellate Division, New Jersey’s second highest court. In seeking to have the Superior Court order overturned, the district argued that the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) attached no special meaning to the term “agenda,” therefore the common dictionary definition applied. The district urged the court not to expand the clear and plain definition of agenda to include referenced documents.
In its amicus brief, NJSBA pointed out that when the Legislature amended OPMA in 2002, to allow public entities to post notice of meetings to websites, the Legislature surely had occasion to contemplate expanding the definition of the term “agenda” to include attachments and other documents referenced in the agenda. However, the Legislature declined to add such a requirement to the statute.
In opposition to the district’s motion, the parents asserted that public participation would benefit by the inclusion of referenced documents. Additionally, because the attachments were already available and provided to board members, the district need only scan those additional attachments in order to link those to the agenda notice. They also noted that such a requirement would be a commonsense application of a law that predated the Internet.
The Appellate Division agreed with the parent that, in the 1970’s, the sponsor of OPMA probably would have included such a requirement had the Internet existed at that time. However, the Appellate Division agreed with Midland Park that the meaning of the term “agenda” as stated in the law was clear, and refused to expand that definition. The court determined that it lacked authority to read terms into a statute where the statutory intent was clear. Relying upon the principle of“separation of powers,” the court, while stating that such a requirement appealed to common sense, deferred to the Legislature to amend the law to issue that requirement.
Because the court’s decision invites the Legislature to revisit the statute, school districts should stay tuned to School Board Notes for further developments.