As reported by NJ.com, a State Superior Court Judge has ruled that four (4) volunteer fire companies in Lakewood are government agencies subject to the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”). Specifically, the Judge ruled that four (4) volunteer fire companies in Lakewood must produce rosters, check registries, e-mails, meeting minutes and resolutions, and other documents, under OPRA because they meet the definition of a public agency.
The companies alleged they did not have to turn over the documents, requested last year by Mat Stern, because each was not a government agency or instrumentality, and therefore not covered by the requirements of the OPRA. They noted the companies formed in the late 1800s, before the governing fire district.
But State Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso ruled that the companies violated the law by refusing to provide the documents, noting the fire companies were performing a government function and relied heavily on taxpayer money and property. Grasso wrote in his decision that the fire district governing the companies uses tax revenue to pay for uniforms and workers’ compensation insurance, members’ pensions, as well as utility, repair and maintenance for the firehouses and fire trucks. He also found the titles to the firehouses and all of the fire vehicles were held by the Board of Fire Commissioners, which itself has a policy that all companies within the district must comply with state public records and public meeting requirements.
“Although the fire companies were created in the late nineteenth century prior to the creation of the fire district, the creation test alone is not dispositive here, particularly in light of the Legislative goals of OPRA, “to maximize public knowledge about public affairs in order to ensure an informed citizenry and to minimize the evils inherent in a secluded process,” the judge wrote.
Finally, Judge Grasso rejected contentions by the fire companies that the effort and expense to comply with public record requests would cause them to cease operations, or that disclosure of financial information would lead to more competition for scarce charity dollars.