Andover lawsuits will be public

Andover lawsuits will be public
February 24, 2010 NJHERALD

ANDOVER TOWNSHIP — A new local ordinance will keep legal payouts in the public eye — and put the township at the forefront of one facet of open government.

The “public reporting of civil judgments and settlements ordinance” — the first of its kind in New Jersey — was passed unanimously by the Township Committee Monday night.

The law requires officials to “make every effort to publicly announce the amount and terms” of lawsuit settlements and judgments against the township that result in public money being spent.

The ordinance was suggested by state open government activist Martin O’Shea, who passed away in December. O’Shea had suggested the model ordinance to Andover last summer, but the committee tabled it at the time, citing a lack of funds to advertise it in local newspapers.

But officials had said they were in favor of the ordinance even then —and completely supported it Monday night.

“He never stopped thinking of different ways to address government,” said Fred Semrau, township attorney, who interacted with O’Shea for years in Andover and West Milford, where the two had met.

O’Shea’s widow, Carol Ukens O’Shea, said her husband had thought of the ordinance as a model toward greater transparency.

“That was one he cared a lot about,” she said.

John Paff, the chairman of the Open Government Advocacy Project of the New Jersey Libertarian Party, worked often with O’Shea and helped to draft the ordinance. He said the law could become a new standard for some communities where public dollars are spent to dismiss lawsuits, often without public oversight. Andover is just the first to move on the ordinance, he said.

“It’s an accountability mechanism,” Paff said. “Once you can get one town to do (this), it’s a little easier for others.”

Only one  lawsuit was settled in the last three years in Andover. A former police officer and the township negotiated an $80,000 settlement in September 2009, which ended his suit against the police department and several sitting officials.

Settlement paperwork already is a public record, according to the courts. An appellate court decision involving a sexual harassment suit in Monmouth County unsealed settlement agreements involving public money last March. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the decision last month, according to Paff, who was its plaintiff.

However, the public may not know if litigation has been settled, or even whether there’s a lawsuit filed. The Andover ordinance puts the ongoing litigation before the public, officials say.

O’Shea’s legacy continues despite his death. He won a court appeal two weeks ago that lowered statewide copy costs for documents requested under the terms of the Open Public Records Act. OPRA became O’Shea’s defining role in his retirement after a long newspaper career, including time as an editor at The New York Times.

The law has been left with O’Shea’s indelible stamp. A bill in the Legislature sponsored by State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, proposes to refine the law with many of O’Shea’s suggestions — and rename it the “Martin O’Shea Open Public Records Act.”

Carol O’Shea said the suggested changes would be welcomed by her husband — although not necessarily by everyone else.

“Much to the regret of bureaucrats and politicians,” she said, chuckling. 

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