NEW JERSEY — The student newspaper at Montclair StateUniversity in Montclair, N.J., is taking the student government to court overalleged open meetings violations. Student Government Association officialsmaintain the state’s open meetings act does not apply to them.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed the lawsuit onbehalf of the Montclarion student newspaper on March 20 in Essex CountySuperior Court. The suit alleges the SGA improperly went into a closed sessionduring a February meeting and then failed to provide minutes from that closedsession.
The disagreement centers around whether the SGA fits the definition of a”public body” in the state’s Open Public Meetings Act and OpenPublic Records Act. University counsel has said that SGA’s status as anindependent corporation means it is not subject to those laws. The lawsuitclaims SGA meets the “public body” requirements because it isauthorized to spend public money and performs a “governmental functionaffecting the rights, obligations, privileges, benefits or legal relations ofany other person.”
“It’s important that the students know that they should be ableto hold the SGA accountable, because the SGA’s decisions affect theirrights,” said Ed Barocas, legal director for the ACLU of New Jersey.
In a prepared statement, SGA President Ron Chicken said the group isreviewing the lawsuit with legal counsel. He said the SGA has the right to gointo closed executive sessions and has only done so a limited number oftimes.
“In such sessions, there are never secret votes or policies passed.Any vote taken in an executive session is always included in the open meetingminutes, as standard procedure, and revealed to the public,” Chicken said.”The only thing kept confidential in an executive session isdiscussion.”
The conflict started at a Feb. 4 student government meeting during adiscussion about whether SGA should revoke the charter of a Latin-Americanstudent group for violations of the finance policies. MontclarionEditor-in-Chief Bobby Melok, who was there taking photos, said it was a largemeeting with alumni and faculty attending to speak on behalf of the group.
The SGA officials suddenly retreated to an hourlong closed session withoutany explanation, Melok said. At the end of the meeting he asked for minutes fromthat session and Chicken told him to write a letter. Melok requested minutes ina letter to Chicken and a public records request to the university. Like all theMontclarion‘s previous records requests for SGA information, therequest was denied.
University counsel Valerie L. Van Baaren wrote to Melok on March 6 that theSGA is not a “public body” as defined by state law, and its meetingminutes are neither a “government record” as defined by law norcovered under citizens’ common law right to public documents.
“Since the SGA is an independent corporation that is not subject toeither OPRA or OPMA, as Custodian of Government Records I am unable to providethe documents you requested,” she wrote.
SGA officials should not be allowed to make decisions behind closed doorswhen they determine how much money a student group receives and even whether aclub can exist, Melok said.
“The students should have a right to know what the decision-makingprocess is and what goes on with their money,” he said.
The Montclarion is intimately familiar with the SGA’s powerover distributing money to student groups. In January 2008, the SGA froze the
Montclarion‘s funding after editors refused to hand overcorrespondence with an attorney they had asked to investigate possible SGAviolations of the open meetings law. The threat of a lawsuit led the universitypresident to declare the Montclarion independent from the SGA as of June2008. The newspaper now operates as a nonprofit corporation and receives fundingdirectly from the university.
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