There has been a new legal twist in the Leonia Fire Department story we reported on last week. Recall that after a prospective member allegedly inappropriately touched a firefighter’s three year old in the fire station, the borough ordered the station closed to non-emergency activities. The borough then suspended the entire department from responding, citing liability concerns.
Following that order, the department’s attorney, Paul Kaufman, filed a public records request with the Borough that included the minutes of the meetings of the borough’s “Fire Committee”. It was the fire committee who voted to suspend the department and close the firehouse. Kaufman’s public records request has apparently revealed that minutes of the fire committee meetings were not kept.
The keeping of minutes at public hearings is more than a minor technicality. State open meetings laws mandate that minutes be maintained and the failure to comply can carry some pretty serious consequences, including criminal charges. Of even more concern in the Leonia case is that in New Jersey a court can declare any action taken at a meeting held in violation of the open meetings law to be null and void.
According to NorthJersey.com, Kaufman alleges the borough violated it own laws, and violated the due process rights of firefighters by not affording them a hearing. Borough officials insist they were within their rights to close the station and suspend operations. The department was reinstated last Thursday, although the firehouse remains off-limits except for emergency response and equipment maintenance.