LOWER TOWNSHIP — Township Council violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, or Sunshine Law, by using emails to conduct township business, Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said in a letter to the governing body.
In his letter to Township Council, Taylor scolded the council for using emails in December to communicate about the hiring of Township Manager Mike Voll. He said the hiring process should have been done in the public purview.
“As a result of the violation, the public did not have any notice and was deprived of an opportunity to comment on the proposed qualifications or deadline for submission of resumes,” Taylor wrote.
Taylor’s letter was dated June 9. A copy of it was given to The Press of Atlantic City on Monday by township resident Joseph Winters.
Winters, a Florida Avenue resident who asks questions at every Township Council meeting and often files Open Public Records Requests to keep tabs on the governing body, filed a complaint with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office on Dec. 28 alleging a violation of the Sunshine Law.
“I would like this practice of conducting township business and voting on important township matters via email, phone or texting, and therefore bypassing a public meeting, discussion and vote, be investigated by your department,” Winters wrote.
Winters said Tuesday that be believes his OPRA requests and complaint to Taylor have helped because “they know people are watching them now.” Winters said he is entitled to see any new council policy drafts.
“I believe we’re entitled to open government. Things go on that should not go on,” Winters said.
This is not the first time emails have been an issue here. Mayor Mike Beck, the lone independent on the five-member council that includes four Republicans, complained last year that emails were being used to conduct business, in some cases without his knowledge.
In one case, a proposed ordinance was sent by email. In another, there was email communication among council members about upcoming appointments. In both cases, the public had no knowledge of what was going on.
In his letter, Taylor warned council that any future violations could result in penalties. He instructed Township Solicitor Mike Donohue to draft appropriate guidelines on the use of emails.
Donohue had previously advised council members not to transmit emails to several members of council because that could constitute a quorum and violate the law.
When the first email controversy arose here in February 2010, former Township Solicitor Tony Monzo told council members to send emails to Township Clerk Claudia Kammer and have her distribute them to council members. That way, council members would not communicate directly with each other using emails. Even though emails are public information, if the public doesn’t know they exist, then the public won’t know to request copies. Monzo suggested that the clerk summarize emails at a public meeting, though this was never done.
Taylor was disturbed at how long the problem has gone on.
“This violation is even more disturbing because some council members have been previously advised to avoid using emails to discuss township business and communicate decisions among a majority of council,” Taylor wrote.
There is no evidence, however, that the problem has continued in 2011. A new council took office in January but the only new member is Councilman Erik Simonsen.
Winters asked council to adopt a policy that no electronic devices be used to conduct any township business. He also wants council to “apologize to the taxpayers for violating the law.”
Neither request was met at Monday night’s meeting. Donohue said the township would respond directly to Taylor, though he also noted that electronic devices help save trees.
“Many municipalities are moving to laptops and iPads so they don’t have to print an agenda,” Donohue said.
Winters, a retiree, said a large segment of the public is not “up to date” on electronic devices. He noted many older people don’t even have computers.
“I read newspapers,” Winters said. “If you do away with newspapers and go to all this electronic stuff, then the world will become trash because nobody will know what is going on.”
Taylor told council public business, with certain exemptions, must be conducted before the public. He said the hiring of a new township manager was clearly public business, but the hiring process was done by emails at the direction of Deputy Mayor Kevin Lare.
“This was a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. Any discussion or vote on qualifications for the township manager position should have been done in public for potential public or media input,” Taylor wrote.
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