Note: This page covers information specific to New Jersey. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level in New Jersey. The law entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes. For more detailed information about New Jersey open meetings law, please consult the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government's Open Public Meetings Act Summary and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: New Jersey.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act applies to public bodies. The law defines a "public body" as "a commission, authority, board, council, committee or any group of two or more persons organized under the laws of this State and collectively empowered as a voting body to perform a public governmental function . . . or collectively authorized to spend public funds." N.J. Stat. § 10:4-8(a) (scroll down).
Public bodies can be part of state, county, or municipal government, and they share two salient features. First, they involve two or more persons acting jointly. The Open Public Meetings Act therefore does not apply to government officials who act in an individual capacity, like the governor or a mayor, when they meet with their subordinates. But the law might apply to these officials if they sit on a board, commission, or other multi-member body that makes decisions on public business. Second, to be covered by the Open Public Meetings Act, a body must vote on public matters or spend public funds. The law thus does not cover purely advisory boards or committees. It also does not cover any private group or body not created by a New Jersey statute, ordinance, or regulation, or federal government bodies.
The Open Public Meetings Act specifically exempts from coverage the judiciary, grand and petit juries, parole boards, the State Commission of Investigations, the Apportionment Committee, and any political party committee. Therefore, the meetings of these groups need not be open to the public.
Consult the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: New Jersey for more information about what public bodies are covered.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute an "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). To be a "meeting" for purposes of the Open Public Meetings Act, a gathering must be: (1) open to all the public body’s members; (2) attended by a majority of the members of that public body; and (3) the members present must intend to discuss or act upon public business. "Public business" includes "all matters which relate in any way, directly or indirectly, to the performance of the public body's functions or the conduct of its business." N.J. Stat. § 10:4-8(c) (scroll down). Therefore, the term "meeting" applies to information-gathering and fact-finding sessions in addition to meetings where formal action is taken or discussed, so long as a majority of the public body's members are present. It does not apply to chance social or ceremonial gatherings.
Governmental bodies may hold meetings by by written, telephonic, electronic, wireless, or other virtual means. However, an electronic meeting is still subject to the notice requirements and must be held at a designated place and time. While the law is not certain on this point, it appears that email communications between members of a governmental body may constitute a meeting.
What Are Your Rights?
The Open Public Meetings Act gives all members of the public the right to attend the meetings of public bodies, with exceptions for closed sessions discussed below. New Jersey law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend. See N.J. Stat. § 10:4-12(a).
The right to attend a public meeting does not necessarily include a right to comment or participate. Most public bodies in New Jersey may decide for themselves whether to allow public participation and may impose rules limiting or regulating participation. The governing bodies of municipal government, however, must set aside a portion of every meeting, the length of which is determined by the municipal body, for public comment on any governmental issue that a member of the public "feels may be of concern to the residents of the municipality." N.J. Stat. § 10:4-12(a).
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, New Jersey law requires public bodies to give advance notice of their meetings. The Open Public Meetings Act requires that a public body create a schedule of its regular meetings for the year at the "annual reorganization" meetings or, if no reorganization meeting is held, by January 10 of each year. This schedule or "annual notice" must contain the time, place, and location of the public body's regularly scheduled meetings. See N.J. Stat. § 10:4-18.
Public bodies may also hold "special" meetings, which are meetings not on the regular schedule. For these meetings, they must provide notice at least forty-eight hours before the meeting. The notice must contain the time, date, location and the agenda of the meeting (to the extent known). N.J. Stat. § 10:4-8.
Both the annual notice and the special meeting notice must be (1) prominently posted in at least one public place reserved for such announcements; (2) transmitted to two newspapers designated as "official newspapers" of the public body; (3) filed with appropriate municipal or county clerk, or with the Secretary of State if the public body has statewide authority; and (4) mailed to "any person" who requests notice in writing and pays in advance a reasonable fee to cover the cost of providing notice. If you file a request for notice, you need to renew your request annually to ensure that you continue to receive notice.
Public bodies may also post notice of their meetings on the Internet, but this is in addition to the other notice requirements.
Special notice rules apply for emergency meetings. See the Open Government Guide: New Jersey for details
Minutes and Recordings
The Open Public Meetings Act requires public bodies to keep "reasonably comprehensible" minutes of their meetings and to make them available to the public for inspection and copying. The law requires public bodies to enter a statement into the minutes at the beginning of each meeting indicating that adequate notice was given and specifying how it was provided, or indicating that adequate notice was not provided and explaining the reason.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see New Jersey Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all meetings of governmental bodies must be open to the public. If a governmental body wants to hold a closed or "executive" session, it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under the Open Public Meetings Act, a public body may hold a closed session when it is dealing with one of nine subject-area exemptions found in N.J.S.A. 10:4-12(b). The nine exemptions are for meetings where a public body will discuss:
- any matter made confidential by federal or state law;
- any matter for which the release of information would impair a right to receive funds from the U.S. government;
- any material the disclosure of which constitutes an unwarranted invasion of individual privacy;
- any collective bargaining agreement, or the terms and conditions which are proposed for inclusion in any collective bargaining agreement;
- any matter involving the purchase, lease or acquisition of real property with public funds, the setting of banking rates or investment of public funds, where it could adversely affect the public interest if discussion of such matters were disclosed;
- any tactics and techniques utilized in protecting the safety and property of the public, provided that their disclosure could impair such protection and any investigations of violations or possible violations of the law;
- any pending or anticipated litigation or contract negotiation where the public body is a party or may become a party;
- any matter involving the employment, appointment, termination of employment, terms and conditions of employment, evaluation of the performance of, promotion or disciplining of any specific prospective public officer or employee or current public officer or employee employed or appointed by the public body; and
- any deliberations of a public body occurring after a public hearing that may result in the imposition of a specific civil penalty upon the responding party or the suspension or loss of a license or permit belonging to the responding party as a result of an act or omission for which the responding party bears responsibility.
These exemptions make it permissible for a public body to close a portion of a meeting; they do not require it to do so. To close a session, a public body must identify the exemption justifying closure and adopt a resolution at an open meeting for which public notice has been given.
Public bodies must keep minutes of their closed sessions, and these minutes are not open to the public. A public body must promptly make them available,however, once the necessity for maintaining confidentiality has passed.
For more information on the exemptions to the open meetings requirement, see the Open Government Guide: New Jersey.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
Under the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act, any person may file a lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court for violations of the open-meetings requirements. If you succeed in a lawsuit, you can obtain a court order requiring that a meeting or meetings be made open to the public in the future, or requiring that an agency make public the minutes of an improperly closed meeting. You can also obtain a court order invalidating the actions of a public body taken in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, but to do so you must file a lawsuit within within 45 days after the action you are challenging became public. The state may also pursue criminal penalties against members of a public body who violate the Open Public Meetings Act.
In the event that you are denied access to a meeting or class of meetings, you probably want to pursue an informal resolution before filing a lawsuit, which ordinarily is a costly and slow solution. You should contact the public body in question and inform it that you believe your rights have been violated and that you are willing to bring a legal action. You should submit your complaint in writing whenever possible. If the public body continues to deny your request for access, you should consider filing a lawsuit. There may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation.