By ROBERT LINNEHAN
According to the Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi, several members of the Evesham Township Council did “unwittingly run afoul of the prohibitions contained in the OPMA (open public meetings act),” earlier this year. Evesham Council members — including Mayor Randy Brown — sent several emails to each other in March discussing a planning board proposal facing the township.
However, the prosecutor also ruled that the members would not be fined $100 for their actions. Bernardi said the incident would better serve as an educational point and warning for municipal leaders throughout the state.
“While I conclude that township officials inadvertently convened a ‘meeting’ for purposes of the OPMA, I find insufficient evidence of any specific intent to violate the statute warranting the pursuit of sanctions by this Office,” Bernardi wrote in his decision.
The members of council came under investigation when the Burlington County Prosecutors Office received a formal complaint from John Paff, who inquired as to whether or not e-mails violated the open public meetings act.
Upon receiving his complaint, prosecutor office representative Joel Bewley said the office began the review, which started on June 28.
The complaint alleged that members of council discussed a possible planning board ordinance that would allow Conner, Strong and Buckelew to build a helipad near Route 73. The complaint alleged that members of council sent several e-mails to each other discussing the ordinance and several facets of the proposed helipad.
Mayor Randy Brown went on record and said the council will input the suggestions made by the prosecutor’s office and actually go further and be ahead of the curve when it comes to the Open Public Meetings Act.
However, he urged the state to update the OPMA, which was created in 1976.
“The legislature has to redraw the 1976 open public meetings act legislation to now include the technology of the 21st century,” Brown also said. “It needs to be redone so legislators have clearer definitions of what open public violations are.”
Bernardi wrote in his decision that the council is now “on notice” and should refrain from these actions in the future.
The New Jersey Sunshine Law prohibits decision-making governing bodies from conducting business without doing so in a public meeting. The law makes certain exceptions in cases needed to “protect the privacy of individuals, the safety of the public or the effectiveness of government in such areas as negotiations or investigations.”
According to the law, a first time violator can be fined $100.