N.J. League of Municipalities, Fair Share Housing Center records access case goes to Supreme Court

A dispute over whether the N.J. League of Municipalities is subject to the state’s Open Public Records Act is headed for arguments before the state’s highest court.

The N.J. Supreme Court will hear arguments May 4 in a dispute between the League and the Fair Share Housing Center in a case that dates to 2008.

The League had won in the lower court, and the Housing Center had appealed.

The Housing Center sees it this way: The League is funded by taxpayers and its membership is made up of elected officials. Thus, it is subject to the state’s Open Public Records Act.

The Fair Share Housing Center argues that the League is the largest lobbying organization in the state, that it is a combination of “political subdivisions,” or municipalities, and therefore should be considered a “public agency” subject to OPRA.

“The League is funded through taxpayer funds, it is made up of elected officials, and serves local governments,” said Kevin Walsh of the Fair Share Housing Center, a non-profit organization that advocates on affordable housing issues. “The league should be required to provide documents when people request them.”

Fair Share Housing Center officials said a 2008 request for documents about the League’s opposition to various Council on Affordable Housing rules was denied.

In prior documents with the Appellate Division, which ruled in favor of the League of Municipalities, lawyers for Fair Share Housing Center wrote: “The League …  has a team of lobbyists paid with taxpayers’ funds who lobby for all 566 New Jersey municipalities. The scope of the League’s lobbying efforts certainly require as much transparency as a single lobbyist employed by a single municipality. The League should not be permitted to lobby on issues like property taxes and affordable housing in secrecy when a single municipality’s lobbying efforts on the same issues would be subject to the transparency provided by OPRA.”

The League of Municipalities, however, disagrees with that assertion, saying that it is merely an informational group and does not mandate anything. Bill Kearns, general counsel for the League, pointed out that the municipalities are not required to be members of the League.

“It exercises no governmental power at all,” Kearns said. “It’s (OPRA) about transparency in government. It (the League) doesn’t pave the streets. It doesn’t pass an ordinance.”

Kearns made the argument that if elected officials served on the board of trustees of a corporation, the minutes of those meetings would not be subject to OPRA.

Walsh of the Housing Center said that their organization believes state law already allows citizens and groups to seek documents from groups representing governing bodies, such as the League or the New Jersey School Boards Association.

N.J. League of Municipalities, Fair Share Housing Center records access case goes to Supreme Court