Sunshine Law monitor ordered for Gloucester County freeholder meetings

Posted: August 19, 2010

Effective Sept. 1, a retired state Superior Court judge will monitor meetings of the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders to ensure that it does not improperly conduct public business behind closed doors.

John A. Sweeney will attend as many of the group's meetings as he feels necessary for six months, under an order issued Wednesday by Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando Jr., the assignment judge in Camden County.

Orlando took the rare step of appointing a monitor to make sure the county government complies with the Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law.

The board had been accused of violating the act more than 50 times in recent years.

Mark Cimino, a lawyer who requested the monitor, said the step was "the first time in New Jersey that a monitor has been imposed on a public body in a Sunshine Law case."

Cimino, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of David Burnett of Clayton, said the freeholders had illegally created positions, paid bonuses, and approved legal settlements during closed sessions instead of in public.

Lawyer Howard Cohen, who represented the county, declined to comment. County officials have said that the law was constantly changing and that they had tried to balance privacy concerns against transparency.

The freeholders will pay Sweeney $300 an hour, plus expenses, to attend meetings at his discretion, Orlando said. Sweeney, a judge from 1992 to 2008, also will review minutes and will be "provided with unredacted minutes of closed-session meetings."

According to the order, Sweeney may ask Orlando for authorization to attend any nonpublic session to see that nothing outside of the meeting's stated topic is discussed.

He must promptly report any violations of the meetings act to the court. An interim report is due Nov. 1, to be followed by a final one in March.

Burnett, a former director of the county Republican Executive Committee, has said that he took legal action against the all-Democratic freeholder board because he felt it took too many actions in private, excluding the public from government.

Sweeney, a Democratic assemblyman and legal counsel to Gov. James J. Florio before he was appointed to the bench, is not related to Stephen Sweeney, the freeholder director and president of the state Senate.


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler

at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.

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