Newark — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey's Open Governance Project today announced the filing of a lawsuit challenging the actions of the West Orange Open Space and Recreation Committee, which excluded members of the public from its March meeting. The ACLU-NJ today filed notice with the court that the complaint had been served on West Orange and the committee.
"The Open Spaces Committee plays a substantive role in shaping open space projects in West Orange, but the committee sought to keep the public in the dark," said ACLU-NJ Open Governance Attorney Bobby Conner. "West Orange residents showed up to the public meeting and the doors were literally shut in front of them."
The plaintiff, Frances Chasan Holland, had hoped to attend the Open Space Committee's March 8 meeting, seeing it advertised in the local paper and town newsletter. But when Holland arrived, the committee members in attendance falsely told her that they lacked the requisite quorum for a public meeting. In violation of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), they shut the doors and went into closed session, reportedly drafting an ordinance regarding the development of steep slopes.
"A township official who serves on the committee told me to wait in the hall, and said they would all wave to me on the way out," Holland said. "They then held their meeting behind closed doors, away from the community members their decisions affect."
When Holland requested information about the meeting, West Orange claimed that the committee lacked influence over the rights of residents and OPMA didn't apply. However, as a voting body the committee holds significant sway over residents' rights. It identifies, prioritizes and recommends properties for West Orange to acquire for open space projects, which qualifies it as public under OPMA. Further, the West Orange municipal code mandates the Open Space Committee follow OPMA.
"The committee chooses which land should be considered for development, and that gives it a tremendous amount of power," said Conner. "The public has a right to know the basis for decisions that determine the future of their town."
The case, captioned Holland v. Township of West Orange, was filed Wednesday, April 21, 2010, in Superior Court in Essex County. The ACLU-NJ also filed complaints regarding the matter with the New Jersey Attorney General and the Essex County Prosecutor, which are still pending.