Five months after a judge ruled West Deptford’s entire township committee violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) in failing to disclose the terms of the initial version of the Eagle Point settlement with Sunoco, the committee’s three Republicans will be back in court Friday to defend themselves against another alleged OPMA violation.
The suit, filed by Gary Kuehnapfel, who was also the plaintiff in the Sunoco settlement suit, targets the majority of the committee—Mayor Ray Chintall, Deputy Mayor Sean Kilpatrick and committeeman Sam Cianfarini—for alleged closed-door dealings ahead of the township government’s reorganization in January, where the Republicans allegedly interviewed prospective township professionals and decided on a new insurance broker—secret meetings that the suit claims violated state law.
But the Republicans, who declined to comment on the suit ahead of the judge’s decision, indicate in their legal response they had no choice but to consider some of the professional appointments ahead of the reorganization meeting, due to what they claim was a “looming disaster” with the township’s insurance.
The Traveler’s letter
The Dec. 23, 2011, letter to what was then the township’s insurance carrier—a letter put out on official township letterhead and signed by all three Republicans—referenced various policy numbers and advised the insurance company there would be a switch in brokers, from Democrat-appointed Martin Company to Anderson Jackson Metts, effective the day Chintall and Cianfarini were to be sworn in at the beginning of 2012, which would take place about two weeks after the date of the letter.
According to township solicitor Anthony Ogozalek’s legal brief in response to the lawsuit, the letter didn’t come out of a closed-door meeting, but was drafted after the Republicans claim they found out the township’s insurance broker at the time, the Martin Company, was refusing to issue copies of the township’s 2011 policy, as they had requested, and was also refusing to provide 2012 insurance cards for township-owned vehicles.
The letter, Ogozalek wrote, was a measure to keep Traveler's abreast of the situation and avoid any potential problems with continuing the township's insurance coverage.
But trying to claim there was a crisis, when local governments change control without issue on a regular basis, weakens that argument, West Deptford Democratic Party chair Gerald White said.
“There’s no need to break the law to ensure the coverage is bound over,” he said.
The language in the December letter to Traveler’s—a statement of intent to switch brokers—is what Kuehnapfel’s Democratically connected attorney, John Trimble Jr., cited as evidence a final call had been made behind closed doors.
“The defendants may not have formally voted or appointed, but an official decision was made prior to January 5, 2012,” he wrote in his response to Ogozalek’s brief.
The Republicans’ failure to file a copy of the letter to Traveler's, which was revealed in an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) filing was also included as part of the suit, with Trimble arguing if nothing else, the official signature from Kilpatrick made it a public document and subject to OPRA.
A subsequent Dec. 28 meeting that involved interviews of candidates for township engineers, including Ed Steck, who gave a statement when the suit was initially filed in June, should have been exempt under OPMA, Ogozalek wrote.
That meeting—attended by Ogozalek, the three Republicans and Brandon Umba, who’s referenced as a political adviser, though Chintall said earlier Umba wasn’t serving in a formal capacity—wasn’t covered under OPMA, Ogozalek wrote, because Chintall and Cianfarini had yet to be sworn in as members of West Deptford’s township committee, and thus didn’t have the power to take any official action prior to the township’s reorganization meeting in January and had, in fact, been barred from taking part in closed sessions at several township committee meetings near the end of 2011.
“The key word in the statute is ‘empowered,’” Ogozalek wrote.
He then went on to argue the meeting should be considered under OPMA’s exception for political caucuses, writing the meetings were “clearly political in nature.”
“The interviews held on December 28th were for the purpose of determining how the professional appointments made on January 5, 2012, would politically impact the Republican Party of West Deptford,” Ogozalek argued in the brief.
That sentiment was echoed in both Chintall and Cianfarini’s nearly identical certifications included with Ogozalek’s brief—a sentiment White ripped.
“In sworn legal statements from Republican West Deptford township committee members, they admitted to being worried about the impact of new professional appointments on the Republican Party of West Deptford,” he said. “Not the town, not the residents, not the taxpayers, but their own political party.”
In his response, Trimble argued to be considered political caucuses, things have to be done carefully to avoid making final decisions, focusing only on politics.
“The defendants are attempting to use the statute as a shield and blatantly disregard the entire basis and intent behind the Open Public Meetings Act,” he wrote.
Kuehnapfel’s second suit of the year comes after his win against the committee in the Sunoco settlement, the initial version of which was voided by the court after Superior Court Judge Eugene McCaffrey Jr. ruled the committee did, in fact, violate OPMA by failing to disclose the settlement’s terms.
As a part-time employee at Gloucester County College, state records show Kuehnapfel—who is also listed as running a computer services company—makes $12,252 per year, but he has still managed to arrange for Trimble’s services and gotten the cooperation of Democratically appointed professionals, despite Democratic Party officials disavowing any connection with him.
While he issued a handful of statements via his attorney in the Sunoco suit, Kuehnapfel has stayed in the background otherwise, not appearing at the court action that saw the Sunoco settlement overturned and not issuing any statements with the current OPMA suit.
Arguments in the suit are scheduled for Friday afternoon in front of McCaffrey.