A January closed-session meeting of the that led to the settlement of Sunoco’s dispute over property tax appeals at likely violated the state Open Public Meetings Act, according to former Mayor Len Daws and several open government advocates.
It was at that meeting Sunoco and township officials met directly, behind closed doors in executive session, to discuss the particulars of the case and the potential settlement, which Daws, who said that kind of meeting had never happened during his tenure on the township committee, contends goes outside the bounds of the purpose of a closed session.
“As soon as you involve involve the litigant, you nullify the intent of the closed session,” Daws said. “That's when they stepped over the line.”
Minutes from that meeting, though redacted, show three Sunoco representatives, including two direct employees of the corporation, had discussions with the township committee during the closed session.
Attorney Jeff Gordon, of Archer & Greiner, and two employees from Sunoco’s tax divison—Rich Booker, director of tax controversy and state tax planning and Robert Dietz, vice-president of tax—were involved in the closed-session portion of the meeting, which, according to the minutes, involved both an overview of each side’s position and a back-and-forth question-and-answer session.
Walter Luers, an attorney with the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, agreed with Daws about the committee pushing the boundaries of a closed session by bringing in Sunoco officials.
“This is a blatant, open and obvious violation of the Open Public Meetings Act,” Luers told Daws in an email.
Likewise, John Paff, chair of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, said the violation was obvious.
“If they had representatives from Sunoco in the room, that was wrong,” he said.
Mayor Ray Chintall said the township committee believed they were acting in good faith, and never heard any concerns over bringing in Sunoco’s people heading into that January meeting.
“If there was any concern, the attorneys should’ve raised it,” he said. “You’ve got rely on your professionals.”
West Deptford solicitor Anthony Ogozalek told Daws in a public session the fact that the matter is ongoing litigation made the closed-session dealings OK, despite Daws’ contention otherwise.
“We do not see the law that way,” Ogozalek said. “We believe it was done correctly.”
Daws, for his part, said he has no interest in pursuing the matter into the court system, which he said would be costly, time-consuming and unproductive, but said the public has a right to know what happened in that closed session, including the details of the settlement, beyond just the dollar figure.
That would give residents the chance to raise specific concerns ahead of the settlement’s finalization, rather than have the details come out at the end of the process.
“At that point, there's not much the public can do to weigh in,” Daws said.
While the dollar figure came out when , Chintall said no further details will be shared, citing the need for confidentiality in what is still technically ongoing litigation.
There still remain a few hurdles—including the approval by the state’s Local Finance Board, which won’t hear the matter until April at the earliest, based on its calendar, and a final bond vote to fund the repayment of property taxes—before the settlement can be declared final.