Public-Meeting Laws Were Not Violated in West Deptford, Judge Rules
Resident Gary Kuehnapfel claimed three West Deptford GOP committeemen broke open meeting laws, but a judge ruled otherwise. The mayor called Kuehnapfel's lawsuit politically motivated.
West Deptford officials—including two who hadn't taken office yet—did not violate state laws by holding a private meeting discussing town business, a judge ruled this week.
Superior Court Judge Eugene McCaffery Jr. ruled against West Deptford resident Gary Kuehnapfel's lawsuit that a Dec. 28, 2011, meeting violated the Open Public Meeting Act (OPMA) and the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
The meeting included Deputy Mayor Sean Kilpatrick and Raymond Chintall and Samuel Cianfarini, then committeemen-elect, as well as township attorney Anthony Ogozalek and Brandon Umba, a West Deptford Republican Party member.
Kuehnapfel filed his complaint on June 28, 2012, alleging that the Republican township committee members had conducted secret meetings, in which they interviewed prospective township professionals and decided on a new insurance broker. With Kilpatrick, Chintall and Cianfarini present, Kuehnapfel argued, the gathering violated the spirit of OPMA, which says that meetings with a majority of officials must be open to the public.
But, McCaffery ruled Feb. 27, Chintall and Cianfarini were not yet public officials at the 2011 meeting. They would not be sworn into office until a week later. OPMA doesn't specifically address the status of officials elected, but not yet sworn into office, and it's not the court's place to put words in the Legislature's mouth, McCaffery said. (Click on the PDF, above, for the full 11-page decision.)
“I believe I speak for both Deputy Mayor Sean Kilpatrick and Committeeman Samuel Cianfarini when I thank Judge McCaffery for setting the record straight,” Chintall said in a statement released by the West Deptford GOP.
Kuehnapfel also alleged that West Deptford's failure to produce a Dec. 23, 2011, letter to Traveler’s Insurance, informing them of the switch in insurance brokers on April 17, 2012, was a violation of OPRA. The letter, which was sent out on township letterhead, was only signed by Kilpatrick, Chintall and Cianfarini.
McCaffery denied the claim and ruled that the letter to Traveler’s Insurance was not government record. The decision goes on to say that Kilpatrick did in fact respond to the plaintiff's request by forwarding more than 30 pages of document, including emails from Nov. 8, 2011, to Jan. 5, 2012. However, as no copy of the Dec. 23, 2011, letter had been made or given to the township clerk, McCaffery ruled that the letter was not government record and did not violate OPRA.
Kuehnapfel was the plaintiff in the Sunoco settlement lawsuit, and Chintall said his complaints were politically motivated.
“In his published finding, Judge McCaffery denied Mr. Kuehnapfel’s complaint that a violation occurred, proving the lawsuit was a frivolous attempt on the part of the Democratic Party to smear the good work our new GOP majority is taking to correct the devastating policies created by that party over the past two decades,” Chintall said.
The failed suit by Kuehnapfel was his second filed against the township committee in 2012. In April 2012, McCaffery ruled in favor of Kuehnapfel, stating that the entire township committee had violated OPMA by failing to disclose the terms of a $15 million settlement between the township and Sunoco in regard to the tax appeal suit. As a result, the township committee was forced to scrap the settlement.
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