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Rutgers board broke open-meeting laws

The N.J. high court said public notice of a 2008 policy session was inadequate.

NEWARK, N.J. - Rutgers University's board of governors violated some state open-meeting laws at a special session in 2008 to discuss athletic department policies and conduct, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a case brought by a Rutgers graduate.

In a 5-0 decision with one justice not participating, the court agreed with some claims and disagreed with others made by Francis McGovern Jr., a lawyer who graduated from Rutgers in 1987 and who has been a regular attendee at the meetings.

The September 2008 meeting was called to review athletic department policies after a series of newspaper articles. Among the topics were a contract between the department and a sports marketing company, and negotiations to award naming rights to the football stadium.

The justices agreed with McGovern that Rutgers' public notice of the meeting violated state law because it failed to specify items on the agenda, giving instead a general description that board members would discuss "matters falling within contract negotiation and attorney-client privilege."

"The board had an obligation to include as part of the notice of the meeting of Sept. 10 the agenda of that meeting to the extent it was known," the court wrote.

The court also concluded that a discussion of university policies and regulations should have been conducted during the public portion of the meeting rather than during a closed session. The university had argued that those matters were indirectly related to the marketing contract and stadium naming rights, which the court agreed were correctly discussed in the closed session.

Allowing the university's argument would "eviscerate" the Open Public Meetings Act, the justices wrote, and "runs counter to our mandate to construe the statute in such a manner as to maximize public participation."

McGovern said Wednesday he was pleased that the ruling required Rutgers to be more specific in its public notices of meetings.

"How would a member of the press or the public know what was going on if there was a just a vanilla description?" he asked. "The court said if they know the agenda prior to the meeting, they have to tell you."

The public notice "was basically meaningless," according to American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey legal director Ed Barocas, who filed an amicus brief in the case. "It used terms that were so broad and vague that it effectively kept the public in the dark."

The court rejected McGovern's claim that the structure of the meeting - a public session followed by a closed session, then a resumption of the public session - violated open meeting laws.

In an e-mailed statement, Rutgers spokesman Greg Trevor wrote: "Rutgers University is pleased that the Supreme Court of New Jersey recognizes that public bodies can structure their meetings in the most effective and efficient manner." The university did not comment on the other aspects of the court's ruling.