November 1, 2022
According to the Trenton Police Superior Officers’ Association, on Wednesday, October 26, Jason Woodhead, President of the Trenton Police Superior Officers Association, was granted a motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit against Trenton City Council President Kathy McBride, City Council, and the City of Trenton. The Court found that Council President Kathy McBride has established a pattern of holding city council meetings in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).
Council President McBride unilaterally adopted a rule restricting the subject matter of speech during the public comment portion of conference session meetings, limiting the discussion to issues that have only first been vetted by the council president and listed on her agenda for the meeting. McBride has consistently applied this rule during the past three years of her four-year term as council president, in defiance of the will of the sitting Council and in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). The OPMA ensures that members of the public have the right to speak at every meeting of the governing body on any governmental issue “that a member of the public feels may be of concern to the residents of the municipality.” In 2019, Council rejected an attempt to implement this unlawful rule into the Rules of Procedure at first reading after the law department cautioned against implementing practices that would result in non-compliance with the OPMA. However, McBride soon began enforcing it anyway, coinciding with a change to the phrasing of the “Public Comment” portion of subsequent conference meeting agendas to “Public Comment (Docket items only).” McBride enforced this rule during a 2019 conference session meeting in which the Council refused to permit Mayor Gusciora’s Administration from putting forward a presentation outlining the terms of a highly publicized development proposal of the long-vacant Roebling Block 2 site from the company Princetel. As a result, the CEO of Princetel and other members of the public were denied the opportunity to speak and or express their concerns on the issue during the conference meeting. Ultimately no proposal was ever brought before Council, and the site remains undeveloped.
McBride opened public comment during the council meeting held on October 19, 2021, and the Superior Officers’ Association (SOA) was recognized to speak. McBride interrupted and prevented the union from discussing a time-sensitive and emergent issue concerning an impending shutdown of the Trenton Police emergency radio system. Before the public comment portion of the meeting, McBride denied several attempts to include the radio issue on the docket made by representatives of Mayor Reed Gusciora’s Administration and Councilman Joe Harrison.
A lawsuit was filed in Superior Court to intervene on the issue that McBride refused to bring before the governing body. The SOA became a party to that suit to protect the public safety interests of its membership, given McBride’s refusal to allow the SOA to express those concerns and memorialize them onto the public record. As a result, the Court facilitated temporary measures that ensured that police radio service would continue uninterrupted, allowing an eventual transition onto a new system.
As McBride held subsequent meetings in violation of the OPMA and before the Police Radio lawsuit was resolved, SOA President Woodhead filed a separate lawsuit over the OPMA violations. During oral argument and in response to interrogatories, counsel for the Defendants admitted that McBride prevented the SOA from speaking about the radio issue and acknowledged that the OPMA applies to council meetings.
Arguing in support of their cross-motion for summary judgment, Counsel for McBride attempted to downplay the violation as a one-off, attributing the limitations imposed on the SOA’s public comment to the length of the meeting itself. Their argument then equates the Governing Body’s refusal to adopt the rule restricting public comment and the remedial action of removal of the phrase “docket items only” from subsequent conference meeting agendas with compliance with the OPMA.
Those arguments fell flat during oral argument when SOA attorney Arthur Murray of Stuart Alterman and Associates presented audiovisual evidence prepared by Woodhead depicting Council President McBride’s acting in persistent defiance of the OPMA. During the conference session meeting on October 18, 2022, just three days prior to the hearing before the Court, McBride opened public comments repeating the warning “pertaining to the docket” in defiance of the OPMA invalidating the arguments her Counsel was arguing to the Court on her behalf.
The Court denied the City’s cross-motion and issued a decision in favor of Woodhead and the SOA. The judge ruled that the facts not in dispute demonstrate to the Court that a pattern of violations occurred to the extent that an injunction was necessary to curb future violations and that “there is an established pattern of Defendants violating the OPMA. Additionally, the matter is not moot because the threat of continued violations is real.”
The injunctive relief granted by the Court will declare Council President McBride’s rule limiting the subject matter of speech during the public comment portion of Council meetings to be null and void. An Order will also restrain Council from invoking any procedural rule that limits public discussion to docket items only” at any public meeting. Additionally, should future violations occur, an application to enforce litigant’s rights under the current docket number would be the appropriate remedy versus having to file a new cause of action under the OPMA and further clog the Court’s docket.”
Representatives for the SOA are considering addressing the Trenton City Council regarding this issue as a matter of public concern at tonight’s conference session meeting to ensure that both the Council and the public are aware of this decision and its implications moving forward.