Evesham officials can’t meet via e-mail, text message

Posted: November 10, 2011

Three months after the Burlington County prosecutor found that Evesham officials violated the Sunshine Law by discussing official business via their smartphones, the Township Council has adopted an ordinance restricting members' use of e-mail and text messaging.

Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi said the mayor and council members deprived the public of an opportunity to hear dialogue and debate at an open meeting by discussing a controversial helipad project in March in an e-mail exchange.

He declined to prosecute them or fine them $100 each, as allowed under the state's Open Public Meetings Act, saying he believed the all-Republican council simply made a mistake. But he strongly recommended that the governing body develop guidelines for the use of electronic messages.

Last week, the council voted unanimously to ban discussion of township business via e-mail, text messages, and communications such as Facebook postings if it involved a majority of its members.

Rolling e-mail, in which officials forward messages and banter back and forth, also was prohibited.

Stung by the prosecutor's finding, Mayor Randy Brown took it a step further. After the ruling in August, he said he shut down his township e-mail account and no longer used e-mail or text messages to communicate with residents or council colleagues.

"I'm not going to risk taxpayers' money to have to defend against an e-mail inquiry again," he said.

The prosecutor's investigation was launched at the urging of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project after a Courier-Post reporter uncovered the e-mail during a records search.

Bernardi "felt we did something wrong, and I'll agree with him publicly," Brown said. "I agreed with his interpretation, but it is so gray."

Brown said the Sunshine Law would have to be changed before he would feel comfortable e-mailing other officials again.

"The law stinks; the law has nothing in it that deals with today's technology," he said. The law should define what constitutes official business and clearly state what is off-limits for electronic communication, he said.

Now, Brown said, he responds to residents' complaints only by calling them, which he said sometimes catches people by surprise. When a resident tries to reach the mayor, the town clerk calls Brown, who then calls the resident. "So now I'm on the phone all the time," he said.

Bernardi, whom Gov. Christie nominated Thursday for reappointment, did not address e-mail between officials and constituents.

Township Manager Thomas Czerniecki said other members of the five-person council were still accepting e-mail from the public and one another. But as a precaution, their smartphones have been modified so they cannot hit the "Reply All" button, which could allow them to engage the majority in an e-mail discussion.

"We are not allowed to make a decision by e-mail," he said.

The mayor and council got in trouble after they discussed, via smartphones, a proposal by Conner Strong & Buckelew, a politically influential insurance firm, to install a helipad off Route 73 in Marlton. The company's executive chairman is South Jersey Democratic leader George E. Norcross 3d.

Residents had jammed meetings to protest the plan, and the planning board recommended a buffer to keep down the noise of the helicopters and a ban on "helicopter taxi service" at the site.

Brown called the proposed ban "silly," and several council members disagreed on whether to go along with the planning board's recommendations. A month after the e-mail exchange, the project was approved, but without the ban.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at http://philly.com/burlcobuzz.

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