Personnel records are a category of government records that shine significant light on the workings of government (including misconduct and corruption), but unfortunately our Legislature made most personnel records off limits when it enacted OPRA. So, what records can you get?
Section 10 of OPRA makes personnel and pension records generally off limits, but it provides three exceptions. Today, we will discuss the first exception.
The first exception provides that: “an individual’s name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor, and the amount and type of any pension received shall be a government record.”
This means that basic requests for a paystubs, year-end payroll reports, lists of employees, etc., must be granted. But, this exception can actually provide very helpful information where an employee separates from government employment on suspicious grounds.
Too often, government employees engage in some sort of alleged wrongdoing, but work out an agreement with the governing body that they will simply resign on good terms rather than be terminated. The public is often left in the dark about the real reason why the person left, but the personnel record’s first exception can prove helpful.
The public is entitled to know an employee’s “date of separation and reason therefor,” which is language that was incorporated into OPRA from Executive Order No. 11 (1974). Our Supreme Court has interpreted this very phrase to mean something more than just telling the public that an employee “resigned.” Rather, “reason therefor” means the REAL reason the employee resigned – i.e., because several employees accused him of discrimination and misuse of government property and a resignation was agreed upon in exchanged for those employees not suing.
In South Jersey Publishing Co. Inc. v. New Jersey Expressway Authority, 124 N.J. 478 (1991), newspapers reported that an executive director of the N.J. Expressway Authority was under investigation for misuse of credit cards. The Authority held a closed session meeting with the executive director to discuss the results of the investigation and to work out an agreement for him to separate from employment. Ultimately, the Authority agreed that the executive director would be paid his full salary, pension, and health care through the end of the year and that the agreement would remain confidential. The newspapers sought access to the agreement and the closed session minutes, but the Authority denied access to both. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the agreement and closed session minutes were accessible, because the “date of separation and reason therefor” included the results of the investigation into misconduct. The Court rejected the notion that simply informing the public that the executive director had a “voluntary separation” was sufficient and held that “[w]ithout disclosure of the reasons for [the executive director’s] ‘voluntary separation’ from the Authority, the public cannot intelligently make [an evaluation into the reasonableness of the Authority’s agreement with the executive director.]”
Because the Legislature incorporated the “date of separation and reason therefor” directly from Executive Order No. 11, principles of statutory construction inform that the Legislature thus also intended to incorporate case law interpreting and applying Executive Order No. 11. Thus, South Jersey Publishing Co. is binding and applicable in an OPRA case.
If an employee or public official in your town “resigns” and it seems like something else was going on, we recommend filing an OPRA request seeking closed session minutes, memorandums of understanding or settlement agreements, and the employee’s “date of separation and reason therefor.”
For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.