Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns, III has found that the Clinton Township school board violated two sections of the Sunshine Law “on three separate occasions” in February and March of 2012. On July 11, Kearns delivered a letter detailing his findings to the board’s attorney, Vito Gagliardi.
The prosecutor found that the board improperly went into “executive” or “closed” session, withheld information from the public about topics it was discussing, and then published meeting minutes that pretend the board passed resolutions disclosing the information when no such resolutions were made or passed.
A separate, independent investigation of school board records reveals that the board of education committed the same violations in routine fashion at meeting after meeting, year after year since at least 2009, under the eyes of certified business adminstrators who then reported — in official board minutes — resolutions that were never made.
Minutes hide violations in faked resolutions
The prosector concludes that:
“The Board violated OPMA [the Open Public Meetings Act] by
(1) going into closed/executive session without stating the general nature of the subject to be discussed and stating when the information discussed in the closed session can be expected to be disclosed to the public; and
(2) failing to keep reasonably comprehensible minutes of actions taken because the minutes with respect to each of these meetings say that a resolution was passed at the meeting going into closed session and that the reasons for going into closed session were set forth, when in fact they were not.”
But the prosecutor warns the board of education that his findings suggest there may be bigger problems:
“Three instances have been brought to our attention. This Office is concerned that the minutes [of public meetings] demonstrate a pattern as to how the Board regularly conducts itself.”
Tampering with public records
The prosecutor also warns the board that “there is potential exposure” of another nature:
“And if the Board knowingly included false information in the minutes, that could constitute a violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:28-7 [a charge of “Tampering with public records of information.”]
Dincuff violates public’s right to know
The violations pertain to the public’s right to know what the board is saying and doing during its meetings, and especially during “closed sessions” or “executive sessions,” when the board discusses matters outside the view of the public.
Kearns specifically cites the failure of school board president Jim Dincuff to disclose information as required by law:
“In all three meetings, the chair [Dincuff] announces that the board will be going into executive session, and makes a motion, gets a first and second, and then the motion is approved. No mention is made of the general nature of the subject to be discussed. Nor is there any mention of the time when and the circumstances under which the discussion conducted in closed session can be disclosed to the public. The failure to state these items violates N.J.S.A. 10:4-13.”
Fictitious minutes misrepresent meetings
The prosecutor says he compared official recordings of board meetings to the board’s written minutes from February 27, March 26, and March 29, 2012 — and found they did not match.
The second violation, of N.J.S.A. 10:4-14, was that the board published official meeting minutes that misrepresent what actually was said at the meeting. Anyone reading the minutes would conclude that the the law was followed when it was not. The prosecutor writes:
“It is particularly troubling that this pattern of non-disclosure at the public meetings is followed by minutes that wrongly state that the disclosures were made.”
“The drafter knew” required disclosures were not made
At the time the meetings reviewed by the prosecutor took place and the official minutes were produced, the board secretary responsible for keeping minutes was the school district’s business administrator, Anthony Del Sordi. Did Del Sordi know he was writing up minutes that “included false information?”
The prosecutor concludes Del Sordi knew:
“The language used in the minutes suggests that the drafter knew of the disclosure requirements of Section 13 [N.J.S.A. 10:4-13] and felt it was important to include them in the minutes. The problem is that these entries do not reflect what actually happened at the February 27, March 26, and March 29 meetings… These entries create the impression that all items… were discussed during the public portion of the meeting. A review of the audio recordings for each of these meetings proves that they were not.”
But Del Sordi did not act alone. Board president Dincuff failed to disclose information to the public as required by the Sunshine Law, and then he voted to officially approve minutes (written by Del Sordi) that report Dincuff disclosed the information:
“…the chair [Dincuff] announced a motion to go into executive session, and mentioned only the expected length of the meeting and that no action would be taken upon return. But at all three meetings neither the subject matter or the expected date that the topics would no longer be confidential are mentioned [as required by N.J.S.A. 10:4-13].”
“N.J.S.A. 10:4-14 requires in part that a public body shall keep reasonably comprehensible minutes showing the subjects considered and the actions taken. The minutes violate this section because they reflect that public disclosures were made… when in fact these disclosures were not made.”
School board website reveals false records: 2009, 2010, 2011
An ongoing investigation of the Clinton Township school board’s meetings conducted by ExMayor.com reveals the prosecutor’s concern is well-founded. It wasn’t just Del Sordi that “knew of the disclosure requirements” and recorded resolutions that were never made. The prior business administrator and board secretary, Patricia Leonhardt, had already been doing the same thing.
Official meeting minutes published on the school district’s website have long been harboring fabricated records of what was said and done by the board about its executive sessions. Official recordings of board meetings conducted in 2009, 2010, and 2011 — throughout the term of board president Jim Dincuff — reveal that coresponding meeting minutes produced by board secretaries Patricia Leonhardt and Anthony Del Sordi are false.
Throughout those years, the board repeatedly withheld information from the public that it was legally required to disclose about its “closed session” meetings.
Records show that in meeting after meeting, year after year, the board violated the same sections of the OPMA that the prosecutor cited in his findings for three meetings in 2012.
Official records of resolutions that were never made
Read the minutes from the September 21, 2009 school board meeting, and pay attention to the EXECUTIVE SESSION “resolution” that never happened — but was “voted on” and “approved” by a majority of the board.
Then listen to the actual recording of that part of the meeting. Can you find the resolution that’s reported “word for word” in the minutes?
Read the minutes from the August 30, 2010 school board meeting, then listen to the recording of the motion to go to executive session — in which the written resolution was never made. (The errant Dincuff almost fails entirely to make even his insufficient resolution — until he is reminded):
Read the minutes from the July 25, 2011 school board meeting, then listen to the recording of the motion to go to executive session. In the audio, board secretary Leonhardt adds a statement that action will not be taken upon return — but omits the required resolution language that she will later report in the official minutes. Leonhardt was being paid over $125,000 for her expertise:
Penalties against board members possible
The prosecutor emphasizes that his office may not be done with the Clinton Township school board:
“The County Prosecutor or the Attorney General may choose to bring an action for imposition of penalties for violations of the Sunshine Law against board members who participated in the unauthorized action.”
While board president Jim Dincuff was making wild accusations against two of his own board members for “ethics violations” that he was never able to prove, it turns out the county prosecutor was investigating Dincuff and the rest of his board.
On May 1, ExMayor.com filed the complaint that resulted in the prosecutor’s findings of violations. Also at that time, open public meetings advocate John Paff handed the school board a draft lawsuit alleging OMPA violations. Paff threatened to file his suit if the board did not mend its ways.
In the interim, board member Marc Freda twice requested that the board pass a resolution renouncing Dincuff’s unsupported accusations against Freda and board member Michelle Sullivan — but the board refused, choosing instead to let the false accusations linger.
The foul smell of illegal executive sessions
What lingers in the air now is a foul smell — suggestions of further violations that have not yet been exposed.
The board routinely violated laws intended to protect the public’s right to know. The prosecutor found that the drafter of the faked minutes knew the law and broke it anyway. Has Dincuff been diverting public attention away from illegal activities in executive session, by keeping the legal focus on his “ethics” witch hunt?
This all suggests that anything might be going on in executive session — legally, or illegally.
- What does the public really know when the school board president skirts around disclosure laws when he makes motions over a period of several years, and when his business administrators routinely produce fictitious minutes that pretend the law is being followed — when it’s not?
- What really happened in executive session when the recent budget was rejected by citizens who attended the public hearings? And how did that “error” about the due date of the budget actually happen?
- Why did Dincuff and Leonhardt withhold critical tax-relief information from the mayor and town council — and then spend $247,310 that Dincuff promised would be returned to taxpayers last summer?
- Why did the school board hand out 37% and 40% raises and huge salaries to business administrators — without any public discussion — and why did two of those business administrators cover up violations of the Sunshine Law in official meeting minutes?
Attend a school board meeting, demand answers
What is really going on in those executive sessions? Why did Dincuff and his administrators break the law and violate your right to know? How did they get away with it for so many years?
Why don’t you show up and ask — or demand to know?
Stay tuned. ExMayor.com isn’t done investigating the public records.