NJ Courts Uphold the Use of Video Conferencing Software for Public Meetings
Apr 18, 2022 | Written by: Share|
In two recent cases, New Jersey courts have validated municipalities’ use of video conferencing software to conduct remote meetings in compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act (“OPMA”). (Woodcliff Lake Citizens Against Overdevelopment, Inc. v. Borough of Woodcliff Lake (D.N.J., March 24, 2022) and Concerned Citizens of Englewood Cliffs v. Borough of Englewood Cliffs (App. Div., March 11, 2022).
In Woodcliff Lake, the governing body convened a public meeting via Zoom and discussed a settlement agreement pertaining to litigation under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). The meeting reached its maximum capacity of 100 participants and any overflow of audience members were able to view the meeting on a cable television station. For those viewing the meeting on TV, a phone number was provided for public comment. Members of the public were also able to comment via email in advance of the meeting. All meeting materials, including the site plan that was the subject of the proposed settlement agreement, were available to the public in advance of the meeting on the municipal website. The plaintiff alleged that “audio issues” and the "constantly busy" telephone line prevented members of the public from participating in the meeting and, as such, the meetings were held in violation of OPRMA. However, the court found that, although the plaintiff “demonstrates certain imperfections or ‘defects’ with the settlement approval process[;] [n]one, however, rises to the level of an OPMA violation or a constitutional deprivation of life, liberty, or property…”
In Englewood Cliffs, the governing body scheduled a public meeting via Zoom to discuss certain affordable housing litigation. When the number of participants exceeded the 100-participant capacity, the meeting was briefly adjourned in order to increase the capacity to 500 participants. The meeting lasted for 12 hours with no more than 334 participants being present at one time. The governing body ultimately voted to approve a settlement of the affordable housing litigation. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging that the failure to provide sufficient participant capacity at the beginning of the meeting violated OPMA. The trial court held that the brief time that the meeting participants exceeded the capacity limit did not rise to the level of an OPMA violation. The Appellate Division agreed and upheld the decision.
These two cases demonstrate that minor or temporary defects in an electronic remote meeting do not constitute violations of OPMA. These cases should also assure public bodies that technical glitches or mistakes, if properly remedied, will not void actions taken at meetings held remotely via electronic means.