College trustees lose open-meetings battle (they illegally closed a meeting) but win the war (nobody gets punished)

The good news for public access to government meetings: A New Jersey court says Rutgers University trustees failed to give proper advance notice of a closed-door “executive session,” and discussed matters in that session that should’ve been deliberated in the open.

The bad news: Nothing can be done about it.

A disgruntled attendee sued after Rutgers’ Board of Governors held a four-hour closed session in September 2008 preceding the board’s regularly scheduled business meeting.

The published notice of the meeting said only that the board would be going into executive session to discuss contract negotiations and other attorney-client matters. But in fact, minutes of the closed session reveal that the trustees discussed quite a bit more, including (according to the court) “an overview of the University president’s policy recommendations that the administration was considering.”

In a 5-0 ruling issued Wednesday, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the trustees broke the law in two respects: (1) by issuing an incomplete meeting notice that failed to adequately describe the subjects they knew would be covered in the executive session, and (2) by talking during the closed session about matters of university policy that went beyond confidential attorney-client discussion.

The “win” is a somewhat hollow one for public accountability.

Under New Jersey law (as in most state open-meetings acts), the “penalty” for illegally closing a meeting is that any decisions made behind closed doors are void and must be reconsidered in public. Because no final decisions were made during the Rutgers meeting, there was nothing for the court to void.

In extreme cases, where a pattern of noncompliance is shown or the wrongdoing is proven to be intentional, state law allows for additional remedies including fines. But the court found no such evidence in this case.

The case is McGovern v. Rutgers Board of Governors.