A judge’s decision is still weeks away on whether secret meetings of the three Republican members of West Deptford’s township committee violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), after extensive arguments by the attorneys involved in the case Friday.
Superior Court Judge Eugene McCaffrey Jr. gave plaintiff’s attorney John Trimble Jr. and West Deptford solicitor Anthony Ogozalek Jr. two weeks to file supplemental briefs in the case, citing a need to see case law and further analysis.
“The primary issue…the one I want some additional authority on, has to do with the application of the Sunshine Law to those that are not yet sworn in but elected,” McCaffrey said.
That came after about an hour and a half of arguments, both in the judge’s chambers and in open court, which mostly focused on Trimble’s argument a December meeting—which Ogozalek admitted took place—by then-elect members Ray Chintall and Sam Cianfarini and sworn member Sean Kilpatrick violated OPMA because they did the township’s business behind closed doors.
A 1991 unpublished court decision out of Atlantic County, Messick v. Brigantine, which Trimble cited in his argument was objected to by Ogozalek, since Trimble didn’t provide a copy of the entire decision—and in fact, Trimble said he hadn’t been able to obtain a full copy, and was citing what had been published in the 2012 edition of the New Jersey Local Government Deskbook.
With that route blocked, Trimble argued in general terms the meeting, where the Republicans at least interviewed candidates for township engineer, had violated the spirit of OPMA.
“You can’t do on Friday something that would be illegal on Monday,” Trimble said. “The intent of the Sunshine Law is to get the secrecy out of government.”
But McCaffrey then questioned the mechanism for transitioning between control from one political party to another, given the need to have certain professionals—the solicitor, especially—in place ahead of reorganization.
“How do they make that decision?” McCaffrey said.
Trimble suggested several alternatives, including putting off professional appointments beyond the reorganization meeting, but acknowledged there should be some practical course to accomplish that—though he indicated it should still be done in public.
Though the judge said it’s relatively common practice for what he termed “insurgent groups”—new majorities coming into power—to undertake those kinds of discussions ahead of being sworn into power, Trimble said the Republicans’ secret meeting was no less a violation because of that.
“That doesn’t make it right,” he said.
Given the meeting resulted in no legally binding appointments, McCaffrey also questioned how it would’ve violated the law.
“The ultimate decision…occurred on reorganization,” he said. “That’s a distinction that bears underscoring.”
But despite the fact the meetings may not have been legally binding, Trimble said what mattered was the violation of the spirit of OPMA.
“The business of the government was done in secrecy,” he said.
After spending more than a half-hour grilling Trimble, Ogozalek launched a brief defense of the Republicans, centering his argument on the fact that Chintall and Cianfarini had only been elected and had not yet formally joined the committee.
“They were unsworn—that’s the meat of the argument,” Ogozalek said.
Beyond that, Ogozalek argued, as he had in his brief, that the secret meeting was about how picking various professionals would affect the Republican Party, referencing the fact that they wouldn’t have rehired former solicitor Michael Angelini, given he’d donated thousands to their opponents’ campaign.
“They were going to appoint people they trusted…who were going to support them in their conservative ideals,” Ogozalek said.
The other issue of a letter on township letterhead issued by the three Republicans prior to the reorganization didn’t by itself represent an OPMA violation, McCaffrey said, though he did call it inappropriate.
“That was ill-advised,” the judge said. “That’s quite a different issue.”
While Ogozalek declined to comment afterward, saying the judge’s words spoke for themselves, Trimble rehashed some of his argument, decrying what he called a move toward more secrecy in government.
“There’s no question what they did…violated the intent of the Sunshine Law,” Trimble said.
None of the three Republicans were in attendance, though Democratic committeewoman Denice DiCarlo watched the proceedings from the back of the room, and said she was “appalled” by Ogozalek’s political justification for the secret December meeting.
“In my mind, this is wrong—it’s not open, it’s not transparent,” she said. “He may be defending the township in this scenario, but that doesn’t represent me.”