MIDDLE TOWNSHIP - Hitting "reply all" on an email could be a violation of the state's Sunshine Law for some New Jersey elected officials.
Township Committee on Monday adopted rules governing the use of email communication to help officials avoid potential violations of New Jersey's Open Public Meetings Act regarding correspondence. Among the new rules: don't solicit responses from other elected officials and don't hit "reply to all."
The new policy also applies to the planning and zoning boards and the environmental commission.
Leading up to the vote, the committee debated the pitfalls of communicating in the digital age where elected officials get copied on the same records, emails and correspondence.
In private use, email chains are an efficient way to arrive at consensus about everything from crafting a business plan to organizing a weekend camping trip.
But in government, this back-and-forth digital dialogue would constitute a violation of the state's Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law.
"It's obvious I can't meet in a room with and talk with the other two. It's also obvious I can't talk to all the others by phone," Mayor Dan Lockwood said. "But if someone replies to an email saying I'd like to handle it this way, we're clearly making decisions without input from the public."
The Lower Township Council in January took similar action to set policy about email communication to ensure public transparency in government affairs.
At the urging of a resident, the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office investigated and concluded the Lower Township Council was making public decisions through private emails in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act.
Lower Township crafted a policy setting rules of conduct for township officials to discourage private decision-making.
The rules recommend council members not reply to a majority of its 5-member governing body. And in cases where emails are sent to all five members, they should not solicit a response.
These pitfalls are especially tricky in municipalities such as Middle Township, which is governed by just three Township Committee members. Technically, that means no two committee members can confer about township business in person, by phone, by text or by email or social network without violating the law.
"There are just three of us here," Committeeman Timothy Donohue said. "We have to be careful how we communicate, by email, text or phone, or any communications where we're discussing township business or coming to some consensus."
The committee's resolution recommends that committee members refrain from deliberating in emails distributed to one another and should reply to individuals rather than everyone included in an email chain.
The administrator and department heads may distribute information to all elected officials without violating the law, according to the resolution.
Donohue said the answer is to direct comments to the township clerk or administrator.
Middle Township has talked for years about expanding its governing body from three to five members in keeping with Dennis and Upper townships. Having so few elected officials means the governing body can't create subcommittees to handle special projects, Lockwood said.
"You can't have a subcommittee of one," he said. "It's an incredibly frustrating and cumbersome way to run a government. I don't know the Sunshine Laws were designed to penalize governing bodies of three."
Unlike Lower Township, Middle Township has not faced any criticism over its former email practices. But Lockwood said the new rules should help the committee steer clear of any controversy over its emails.
"Common sense prevails. I don't think I'm violating the Sunshine Act if I ask a fellow committee member what time the Halloween Parade should start," he said. "But if I ask him what he thinks about doing with a department, then yes. It's very easy to construe any conversation as a violation of the Sunshine Law."
Township officials are still permitted to conduct political caucuses in private - an important distinction in a township where one party - Democrats - relinquished control to another - Republicans - last year for the first time in more than 80 years.
Lockwood said New Jersey needs more education about the rules governing the Open Public Meetings Act.
"The education of local elected officials has to be brought up to speed," he said. "I don't think one ‘reply all' would violate the law but multiple discussions might. I think there's latitude there."
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