LAKEWOOD – The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey has affirmed an Ocean County trial court’s ruling that found Lakewood’s volunteer fire companies must comply with the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA) in an unpublished opinion released Thursday.
After resisting compliance with the law since 2014, an appellate panel ruled this week that volunteer fire companies within the Lakewood Fire District must respond to requests for public information made in accordance with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 et seq.
Thursday’s opinion by the Appellate Division affirmed a previous trial court ruling that found the volunteer fire companies in question were “instrumentalities within the Fire District and therefore, public agencies subject to OPRA,” according to the opinion, a contention that attorneys for the fire companies argued against in pleadings.
According to the opinion, the subject of the OPRA litigation began in 2014 when citizen Mat Stern filed several OPRA requests for records maintained by the volunteer fire companies, and from July 28th to September 2nd of that year he received letters from the companies indicating that his requests were denied.
Stern’s OPRA requests followed a June 9th, 2014 meeting of Lakewood’s fire commissioners, the officials who oversee and govern the fire district’s operations. The commissioners approved a resolution on that date which stipulated that all of the fire companies under the board’s control would be required to comply with both the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), which guarantees the right of citizens to request public records, as well as the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), which requires advance notice of meetings that will be open to the public, among other things.
In their appeal, the fire companies argued, among other things, that the trial court misapplied OPRA’s “creation and control” test when the trial judge determined that the volunteer fire companies were, in fact, a public entity subject to compliance with the transparency law.
“Although the Fire Companies argue they are independent and do not take orders from the Fire District, they conceded during oral argument before the trial court that they are under the control of the Board,” the two-judge appellate panel found. The panel further ruled that the remaining arguments raised on appeal by the fire companies, such as a lack of resources available to respond to OPRA requests, did not warrant discussion in a written opinion pursuant to New Jersey court rules.
While the fire companies in question consist of volunteers, the Lakewood Fire District supports their operation by purchasing fire equipment and protective gear by way of property tax dollars collected for the fire district’s use pursuant to state law. The fire district also exercises control over membership criteria and policies. The opinion further stated that the firehouses used by the volunteer companies are even owned by the fire district, and not the companies themselves.
As an unpublished opinion, this ruling does not constitute precedent and is binding only upon the parties in the case and its use outside of that is limited pursuant to New Jersey court rules.