Resident Wants Summit Common Council to Admit Wrongdoing in Sunshine Law Violation Debate

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SUMMIT, NJ – The resident who has been taking the Summit Common Council to task for a series of e-mail that the city solicitor has said were a violation of the Sunshine Law said he will continue to bring more of the e-mail before the council until the members involved admit they made a mistake.

Guy Haselmann first approached the council on Oct. 19 with 440 pages of documentation he received after filing a request under the Open Public Records Act. Haselmann said the documents are largely e-mail correspondence between four members of the council in June, in the two weeks leading up to the June 21 council meeting in which the ongoing parking issue was introduced as an ordinance. The item had been on the agenda as a discussion item, but Council President Dave Bomgaars introduced it as an ordinance and called for a vote, despite the fact that Council members Stephen Murphy, Mike Vernotico and Mayor Jordan Glatt said they had not gotten information on the ordinance. About 30 residents also at the meeting voiced their concerns and asked the council to wait on the vote until after the summer. The measure did not get enough votes to pass.

The issue revolves around a series of e-mail sent between several members of the council in the days just prior to the June 21 meeting. Portuondo and Madden discussed with Rity McNany, manager of the city’s parking agency, the details of the proposed parking ordinance that Portuondo intended to introduce at the meeting. The e-mail exchange had previously included Council members Tom Getzendanner, Ellen Dickson and Bomgaars. Dickson has publicly said she did not respond to the e-mail and can’t control who sends her messages.

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The crux of all the messages was the introduction of the ordinance. Glatt, Vernotico and Murphy were ostensibly left out of the exchange as the other council members knew they would not support the paid-parking ordinance. When it became apparent in the exchange that there were five council members who would support the measure, it was introduced at the meeting as an ordinance. However, Dickson voted against it, so the measure failed.

When Haselmann brought the matter forward during the Oct. 19 meeting and accused the council of conducting business outside of a scheduled council meeting, Bomgaars said the strictures of OPRA and how the council acts are not easy things to comprehend, “especially for an outsider who files an OPRA request and goes through 400 pages.” He said there is nothing wrong with one, two or three council people talking among themselves.

“That’s how you do business,” he said. “We try to operate as best we can in full disclosure. Yes, we do send e-mail among one, two or three of us. We do have coffee together. We have committee meetings. You keep talking about five council members. There is nothing wrong with having five. There’s nothing wrong with having a majority of five. That’s how you do business.”

After a review of the documentation, however, City Solicitor Barry Osmun said that in his opinion, the e-mail exchange did constitute a violation of the Sunshine Act, formally called the Open Public Meetings Act. The law was enacted in 1976 to ensure that the business of government takes place at a public meeting before the eyes and ears of the citizens.

"E-mails did not exist in 1976 when OPMA was enacted," Osmun said in the memo, sent to the council on Oct. 26. "However, based on language referring to meetings by 'means of telecommunications equipment,' the statute would apply to e-mail."

Just after the memo was released, Dickson told The Alternative Press that she did not respond to the e-mail she received from Getzendanner, therefore it should not be construed as an e-mail discussion.

“I want to make it clear that I was a recipient of this email to which I did NOT respond,” Dickson said. “I had no control over it. I also voted with (Council Member Mike) Vernotico and (Council Member Stephen) Murphy against the ordinance, which was defeated.”

Murphy said the memo validates everything they had already suspected about council business being discussed via e-mail.

“We were under the belief that a violation had occurred because of a lack of transparency,” he said. “We believed they were basically cutting this deal behind the scenes. And it was validated by Barry’s memo.”

Haselmann said he only brought one e-mail to light at the Oct. 19 council meeting for the sake of simplicity, but he intends to continue to attend the meetings and bring forward more e-mail until the council members involved admit they were wrong to do business away from the public eye.

During the Summit Candidates’ Forum on Saturday, the question was raised as to whether the candidates feel the Sunshine Law was violated, and Vernotico and Dickson, both running for mayor, addressed the matter.

“If you have to discuss the nuances of the law, you’re not following the law,” Vernotico said. “I can find no reason to conduct business outside the public venue.”

Dickson again stressed that she was included in the e-mail exchange that’s been at the center of the controversy, but didn’t respond to it.

“There was no deliberation involved,” she said. “To have any kind of violation, you have to have deliberation. What about things you post on Facebook? What about texting? There hasn’t been any legal writing on any of these issues. I do think we need a refresher course on this from a lawyer who understands this part of the law. I don’t think there was any major violation, but I think we have to get clear on what’s going on.”

The council will hold its regular meeting tonight at 7:30 p.m. at city hall.

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