The New Jersey State League of Municipalities (“League”) was formed in 1915 pursuant to a law that authorized its creation. It is a non-profit, unincorporated association that represents all 566 of the State’s municipalities. Its board includes several elected municipal officials. More than 13,000 elected and appointed municipal officials are League members and its employees are members of the Public Employees’ Retirement System. The League’s budget is partially financed through public funds. One of the League’s main objectives is to lobby for legislation that benefits municipalities and to pursue litigation that furthers the interests of municipalities. In Fair Share Housing Center, Inc. v. New Jersey State League of Municipalities, ___ N.J. ___ (2011), the Supreme Court held that the League was a “public agency” within the meaning of the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”) and, therefore, had to make available government documents pursuant to OPRA’s provisions.
In 2008, the Council on Affordable Housing (“COAH”) issued proposed regulations concerning the obligation of municipalities to provide affordable housing. The League filed comments opposing the proposed regulations. Shortly thereafter, Fair Share Housing Center, Inc. (“Fair Share”) asked the League’s Executive Director, pursuant to OPRA, to provide certain documents relating to its opposition to the regulations. The Executive Director declined the request, asserting that the League was “not covered by” OPRA.
Fair Share then filed a verified complaint in lieu of prerogative writs, claiming that the League violated OPRA and the common law right of access when it refused to provide the requested documents. Fair Share asked the trial court to declare that the League was a “public agency” under OPRA and order the League to provide the requested documents to the court to review in camera. Fair Share supplemented its filing with an order to show cause that sought the same relief. The League asserted that it was not a “public agency” and, therefore, that its records were not “government records” subject to disclosure under OPRA. During the pendency of the case before the trial court, the Government Records Council issued an advisory opinion, at the request of the League, that the League was not a “public agency” under OPRA.
The trial court dismissed Fair Share’s complaint, ruling that the League was not a “public agency” under OPRA, primarily because it did not carry out any traditional government functions. The Appellate Division affirmed but the Supreme Court reversed.
The Court began its analysis by reviewing the Legislature’s intent in enacting OPRA and the law’s objectives. After highlighting the Legislature’s desire to allow the public access to government records, the Court turned to specific terms included in OPRA and explained that it had to read the disputed words and phrases in context and afford them their generally accepted meaning. Stressing that the case turned on the meaning of “public agency” in OPRA, the Court noted that the phrase (as well as “agency”) was broadly defined in the law as “any of the principal departments in the Executive Branch of State Government, and any division, board, bureau, office, commission or other instrumentality within or created by such department; the Legislature of the State and any office, board, bureau or commission within or created by the Legislative Branch; and any independent State authority, commission, instrumentality or agency. The terms also mean any political subdivision of the State or combination of political subdivisions, and any division, board, bureau, office, commission or other instrumentality within or created by a political subdivision of the State or combination of political subdivisions, and any independent authority, commission, instrumentality or agency created by a political subdivision or combination of political subdivisions.”
Summarizing that statutory definition, the Court explained that under OPRA a “public agency” included an “instrumentality … created by a … combination of political subdivisions.” The Court concluded that the “plain language places the League squarely within the term ‘public agency.’” The Court went on to elaborate how and why the League satisfied the plain language of OPRA and disagreed with the reasoning of the lower courts that the League could not be a “public agency” because it did not perform a traditional governmental task. In that regard, the Court rejected the caselaw relied upon by the League as inapposite.
Having concluded that the League was a “public agency,” the Court also rejected the League’s contention that its records were not “government records” under OPRA. The Court reasoned that “any document kept on file or received in the course of the official business of an ‘agency’ of a political subdivision is a political document. The League is such an ‘agency’ and therefore the term ‘government record’ applies to it.”
In conclusion, the Court held that the League “is a ‘public agency’ under OPRA and must provide access to ‘government record[s]’ that are not subject to a [statutory] exemption.” Accordingly, the Court reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for additional proceedings.