New Jersey’s Supreme Court has struck a decisive blow for the transparency of government spending, ruling that lobbying groups created by government agencies cannot hide behind their “private” corporate status to conceal their records.
The Aug. 23 ruling strengthens the case for journalists and citizen watchdogs everywhere to seek greater public accountability for the powerful special-interest lobbies that represent school boards, cities, counties and other units of government.
In a 6-0 decision, the court held that the New Jersey State League of Municipalities is a “public agency” even though it is privately incorporated, and therefore must grant the public access to its documents under the Open Public Records Act. The League is a membership organization representing 566 city and town governments in New Jersey, with 13,000 individual mayors and other local-government officials as members.
Key to the ruling is that, under New Jersey law, an organization can still be subject to the open-records act even if it does not perform core governmental functions such as picking up garbage. It’s enough that the organization was created by one or more government agencies as their “instrumentality,” in the language of OPRA.
The court took a purposefully broad view of the reach of OPRA, stating: “Those who enacted OPRA understood that knowledge is power in a democracy, and that without access to information contained in records maintained by public agencies citizens cannot monitor the operation of our government or hold public officials accountable for their actions.”
There were, in fact, numerous indicators that the League was a mere extension of the government agencies that comprise its membership, including:
- The League represents itself, in the state legislature and in the courts, as the official voice of New Jersey city governments.
- Employees of the League are eligible for the state employees’ pension plan.
- The League gets 16 percent of its budget directly from taxpayer funds through dues charged to member cities.
- Every member of the League’s governing board is an elected or appointed city official.
These are factors that may prove persuasive in future cases, not just in New Jersey but in any state with an analogous public-records act. Most states recognize, either by statute or by judicial interpretation, that an otherwise-private organization can be a “public” body for disclosure purposes if its governance, functions and funding are sufficiently “governmental.”
While the case involves an association of cities, it should apply equally to an entity like the New Jersey School Boards Association, which describes itself as a “federation” of local boards of education.
The New Jersey ruling is the latest step toward transparency of these quasi-governmental lobbying groups that exert enormous influence over state and national policymaking, largely at taxpayer expense.
In Iowa, a scandal over secretive pay raises for executives at the Iowa Association of School Boards prompted Iowa legislators to patch a loophole in state law and require the IASB to make its records and meetings public just as the Association’s member school boards must. Similarly, Tennessee ‘s open-meetings law expressly includes the meetings of collaboratives, such as the Tennessee School Boards Association, that are “established for the benefit of local government officials.”