Blog for Highland Park

Welcome to the Blog for Highland Park, a weblog chronicling events in Highland Park, NJ from an alternative perspective to the often one-sided slant of the official borough newsletter.

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Location: Highland Park, New Jersey, United States

I am a freelance writer and community activist who has worked on many progressive and Democratic political campaigns over the last 25 plus years and a lifelong resident of Highland Park, NJ. I have a BA in Journalism from Rutgers University, an MA in Middle East Studies from Harvard University, and an MEd in English Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. An enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I have just completed Swinburne University Astronomy Online's Graduate Certificate of Science in astronomy and am pursuing a Masters of Science in astronomy at Swinburne. I am also an actress with experience in theatre and film and have written a full length play. I am currently working full time on a book "The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story."

Friday, December 07, 2007

So Much for Openness and Transparency

Does this sound legal? Main Street Highland Park, which is funded through a tax on commercial property and business owners as well as $35,000 from the Borough of Highland Park, claims it is not subject to the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). Below, in a quote from The Highland Park Mirror, Borough Attorney Diane Dabulas and Main Street Director Graham Copeland claim Main Street is not subject to the Open Public Records Act or to the Open Public Meetings Act:

"Acting on advice from borough attorney Diane Nabulas (sic, the real name is Dabulas), Main Street Highland Park now asserts that their meetings are private affairs, to be announced only at the board's discretion. The open meetings law 'applies specifically to public bodies,' director Graham Copeland wrote to The Mirror. 'It does not apply to private nonprofit corporations (such as) Main Street Highland Park.'

Main Street's budget of $225,000 is approved yearly by the borough council, in a municipal action that includes a 30-day comment period. The money is raised in part from residents' property taxes, and mostly from a 'business improvement assessment' on Raritan and Woodbridge Avenue commercial buildings. Main Street staff report its actual spending back to its board and borough council once a year, during the next budget submission.

MSHP went unchallenged in 2005 when it declared its invoices and purchasing policies as private information, exempt from the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA). While reserving the right to operate in secret, the downtown improvement group has generally welcomed public attendance and provided board minutes on request."

For several months in 2002, Main Street's board refused to make their meeting dates public and criticized me for printing those dates anyway in my non-partisan, unofficial Highland Park email newsletter. Eventually, they relented and even posted meeting dates on their web site.

This year, when I asked for a copy of the Main Street budget in time for their hearing before the Borough Council, I was given the wrong sheet, which Main Street representatives claimed was a worksheet that should never have been publicly distributed. Meanwhile, the actual budget document was never made public before the public hearing. I pointed out that under these conditions, the council should have postponed approval of the Main Street budget until it was made available to the public in advance of the meeting as required by law. The council ignored this request, emphasizing the need to approve the budget as soon as possible so Main Street can get on with its work.

For a mayor and council that claim to be paragons of open government and transparency, this type of action is reprehensible. Main Street is funded by taxpayer dollars, both through the borough budget and through an average assessment of $1,000-$2,000 a year paid by property and business owners. This makes Main Street a public body, subject to the same laws as mayors and councils, including OPMA and OPRA. It is interesting to consider what the Government Records Council or the state Office of the Public Advocate might have to say on this matter.

Operating in secret for the sake of efficiency is the way dictatorships work. It has no place in a democracy and no place in Highland Park. If borough officials condone this policy by Main Street, then all their repetitions of words like "open government" and "transparency" are nothing more than shallow, empty rhetoric.