Uncovering OPMA Violations through OPRAmachine: announcing a groundbreaking new lawsuit in Lacey
We are excited to share the news of a groundbreaking lawsuit that has been filed, in which requests submitted through OPRAmachine have played a crucial role in uncovering violations of the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act ("OPMA"), the twin of OPRA that requires public bodies to be transparent with their public meetings. This case is particularly significant as it marks a case of first impression, meaning that New Jersey courts have not yet been confronted with such evidence of "serial meetings" before, primarily because they are difficult to prove.
Complaint before Ocean County Assignment Judge Hodgson
Regina Discenza, a former 2-term member of the Lacey Township Board of Education and an OPRAmachine user, holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminal Justice from John Jay College in Manhattan, New York. Over the course of her 2 terms on the board, Mrs. Discenza attained the highest levels of New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) Board Member Academy training and received both Master Board Member and Certified Board Leader awards.
She is joined by Gavin Rozzi, the founder of OPRAmachine, in filing the lawsuit as pro se parties. They allege that certain board members participated in serial meetings conducted via telephone discussions, violating the transparency requirements of OPMA.
They filed their Verified Complaint on March 22nd, 2023, and the Honorable Francis R. Hodgson, Jr., A.J.S.C. signed their Order to Show Cause on the following day.
A case of first impression
Legal scholars have noted that such a case has yet to be brought in New Jersey largely because of the difficulty of obtaining evidence proving that a pattern of decision making by phone calls, emails and text messages actually occured.
"Obviously, this issue has never been presented to the Courts in this fashion, probably because proof of such a meeting would be extremely hard to obtain," the late local government attorney Michael Pane wrote in a New Jersey Practice Series article on the Westlaw legal database. "Nevertheless it would seem from the intent of the Act that if there were testimony as to a pattern of decision-making by telephone, a Court might well find that a violation of the Act had occurred.”
As Bill Sherman noted in an article for the Pace University Law Review cited in the Plaintiff's legal briefs, "Open meeting statutes are universally interpreted to cover not only in-person, face-to-face meetings but also so-called “serial” meetings and meetings at which communication is done in writing or by telephone."
Here, the Plaintiffs ask a New Jersey court to apply OPMA to these "serial meetings." Such conduct is also exactly what the New Jersey School Boards Assocation warned about in ther guidance to board members on OPMA.
Board Members Admit to Holding Secret Discussions to Authorize Board Attorney's Investigations
Stunningly, the board members admitted to holding the "serial meetings" in Certifications before the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law in an 11th hour attempt to defend against related school ethics complaints previously filed by Rozzi and Discenza. The certifications showed that, by their own admission, 5 of 7 and 4 of 7 board members held the serial meetings to purportedly authorize the investigations of them, excluding the two board members not aligned with their faction and keeping them out of the loop of their authorization to use the Board Attorney against other board members and private citizens.
In a March 6th, 2023 Certification, Linda Downing, the current Lacey Board of Education President admitted to the following conduct during the 2019 school board campaign in attempt to deflect the school ethics charges against former board president Giordano for using board attorney Christopher Supsie to investigate his political opponents:
"However, in this matter, Mr. Giordano had individual discussions between myself, and other Board Members, Frank Palino, Nick Mirandi, and Harold "Skip" Peters, and discussed the disturbing behavior of Ms. Discenza. The five of us in separate conversations with Mr. Giordano recommended and agreed that he contact the School Board Attorney so the matter could be investigated and researched."
Her "distubring conduct"? A letter to the editor in the Southern Ocean Times calling out incumbent board members on their conflicts of interest, namely their "lifetime connection to employees" and inability to act objectively, as well has her assistance to the Rozzi Team's campaign.
A related certification was signed by the Defendants retroactively providing their assent to a related investigation against Rozzi, with former board member Nicholas Mirandi, Harold "Skip" Peters and Downing certifying as follows:
"In my role as Board Member as well as my capacity as an active and involved citizen of Lacey Township, I was aware of Complainant [Plaintiff Rozzi]'s status as a journalist embroiled in local political matters, specifically with respect to the Board and Lacey Township School District, as well as Complainant's penchant for disclosing information to the public and making OPRA requests in pursuit of his journalistic endeavors. During this time frame (I do not recall the exact date), I spoke with Respondent/Board President and I authorized him to engage the Board Attorney to perform research as to whether there were any School Ethics Commission Decisions which would have an impact upon whether a local reporter would be conflicted from being appointed by the Board to fill a vacancy of the Board.”
In their related school ethics matters, Rozzi and Discenza were dropped as the Complainants in 2020 and the School Ethics Commission appointed a Deputy Attorney General to prosecute their cases, which remain ongoing before Administrative Law Judges Elia Pelios and Carl Buck III. In an intial decision, Pelios ruled that Giordano's use of the board attorney to investigate Discenza did indeed violate state school ethics laws.
In the OPMA action, the Plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that OPMA has been violated and nullifcation of the Board's taxpayer-funded investigation into the political opponents of board members.
As the case progresses, we at OPRAmachine are proud to have played a role in facilitating access to the information necessary for this groundbreaking lawsuit. It serves as a testament to the importance of transparency and public access to government records in maintaining accountability and fighting against potential misconduct.
OPRAmachine, a platform dedicated to facilitating access to public records, has been an invaluable tool for Discenza and Rozzi in gathering evidence for their case. Through numerous OPRA requests, they were able to obtain documents such as email communications, board minutes, and certifications that provided essential insight into the alleged OPMA violations.
Stay tuned for updates on this first-of-its-kind case, and be sure to visit OPRAmachine.com to submit your own requests for public records. Together, we can continue to uphold the principles of open government and ensure that our public officials are held accountable for their actions.