Government

Open Government Advocates Face Obstacles in Hunterdon

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Flemington Borough Council needs Freeholders' permission to stream their meetings, while the Freeholders themselves resist requests to post audio of their meetings. Credits: Curtis Leeds
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Raritan Township Committeeman Craig O'Brien has pleaded for greater government transparency. Credits: Curtis Leeds / TAPinto Flemington file photo
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Raritan Township resident Barbara Sachau has for years been asking Hunterdon Freeholders to post audio of their meetings online, as some municipalities and school boards do now. Credits: Curtis Leeds / TAPinto Flemington file photo
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Closed-door Township Committee meetings are the only place committeepersons are 'free to let their hair down and say what they want to say,' according to Raritan Township attorney Jeffrey Lehrer. Credits: Curtis Leeds / TAPinto Flemington file photo
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FLEMINGTON, NJ – Of three recent efforts seeking to increase government transparency in Hunterdon, results so far are mixed.

In Flemington, Borough Council wants to return to the practice of live streaming its meetings, something that will require permission from the county Freeholders for access to their Wi-Fi network in the old Historic Courthouse, where Council has been meeting.

At the county’s request, Council approved a resolution seeking that access on Feb. 12. County Administrator Kevin Davis said once issues such as “feasibility and costs” are determined, the Freeholders will consider the request. That hasn’t happened yet and the matter isn’t on the Freeholders published agenda for its next meeting.

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Freeholders have resisted requests that it post audio of its meetings online to the county website for years. At their Feb. 20 meeting, Raritan Township resident Barbara Sachau repeated the request. None of the Freeholders responded.

Previously, Freeholder Director Matt Holt said he’d allow posting audio only if computer security experts can show him the audio would be secure from any manipulation after it is online.

In Raritan Township, Committeeman Craig O’Brien argued for increased transparency at its last Township Committee meeting, offering four proposals.

O’Brien proposed limiting last-minute additions to Township Committee agendas because the changes “do not allow the public time to be aware of the change” and attend the meeting to discuss it “or consider the implications.”

Deputy Mayor Karen Gilbert said the issue of adding items to the agenda is “not a new topic” and one that she’s worked on for more than a year, but the Committee agreed to O’Brien’s request to post its revised agendas online.

O’Brien said minutes of closed meetings “do not consistently provide a level of details for the public to understand the issue or what was debated.” He asked that a synopsis of issues be included in the minutes and that they be approved within 90 days of the meeting.

Currently, those minutes are often not released “for months, if not years,” he said. “By then, memories may have faded or committee members changed.”

Township attorney Jeffrey Lehrer said closed-door “executive session” meetings “are the only time that I know ... where the governing body is free to let their hair down and say what they want to say, in the spirit of trying to come up, in (a legal) closed session, with a resolution to some very tricky, sometime difficult problems.

“It’s the only time they have the ability to speak freely, and not hold their tongue,” he said of a Township Committee in executive session. “They can say what they want.”

Lehrer said that because everyone is free to speak freely, “it doesn’t mean that everything they say should be recorded” in more detailed minutes.

Gilbert said she opposed more prompt drafting of closed-session minutes because they could be “inadvertently, or even intentionally shared” before the need for confidentiality is passed.

“My fear is, you put that in writing, it’s really easy to print that out and hand it to somebody before it’s ready to be shared.” She cited an instance last year where a leaked township employee resignation letter was reported online.

O’Brien also complained that minutes from Township Committee open sessions are not “promptly available,” so he asked that each agenda packet include a report on any outstanding meeting minutes, an idea the Committee rejected.

Mayor Michael Mangin blamed a former municipal clerk for “not doing his job” and keeping meeting minutes current. “My opinion is that this committee is transparent,” he said.

“I appreciate your new-found interest in transparency,” Committeeman Lou Reiner told O’Brien. “I believe we are fully in compliance” with state open government rules.

At the same meeting, Township Committee agreed to form a Joint Infrastructure Planning Committee. It wouldn’t agree to O’Brien’s request that it be required to meet in public.

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