Brigantine Contracts Made Public Before Vote?

To the editor. From Anne Phillips. Four (4) public-sector contracts between the City of Brigantine and its government unions expired on Dec. 31, 2012. They are being re-negotiated and will be presented to City Council for a vote.

Once these negotiations are completed, the public should be able to review these proposed contracts online and comment on them at a City Council meeting before the vote is taken.

In Brigantine, as in other New Jersey municipalities, it has been the practice not to disclose the details of these contracts before voting. It’s time for a change.

As of Oct. 15, 2012, the date on which we last received the data on salaries for the City of Brigantine municipal employees, the total listed payroll is $11.4 million. This figure doesn’t include $2.5 million budgeted for group health payments, the amounts for hourly wages, and the salaries for the legal department, beach patrol captain, and seasonal employees.

These payments exceed 60 percent of the total amount to be raised by our property taxes for support of our municipal budget. The taxpayers have a legitimate interest in seeing these documents, which contain major contractual obligations affecting their property taxes, before a Council vote to adopt, which would bind them to pay for the length of the contracts.

We made the following statement to Council at its meeting on Feb. 6, 2013:

“Transparency is an important part of government’s responsibility to keep taxpayers informed. It enables the public to have the facts it is entitled to, and must have, in order to determine how effectively and prudently tax revenues are being spent. A governing body should want the public to be informed so it can fairly hold its elected officials accountable for the financial resources with which they are entrusted.

“Public-sector union contracts involve taxpayers’ dollars, and they are on the hook for all that is negotiated between the unions and the City administration during collective bargaining. To keep the taxpayers in the dark before Council votes is simply outrageous and a lack of that transparency which we believe is our common goal.

“In Brigantine’s past, as recently as 2010, when our local government considered, and then denied, public access to government records such as the municipal budget before Council adopted it, the legal argument, stated in writing by the then City solicitor, used to deny public access was that the budget presented to Council was a draft and therefore to quote N.J.S.A. 47, ‘an advisory, consultative and deliberative communication.’

The dictionary defines a draft as ‘a rough preliminary written version,’ a description that doesn’t seem to fit either the budget ready for introduction and not marked as a draft, or the contracts presented to Council for its vote as the completed products of the collective bargaining negotiations. The municipal budget is now available to the public upon its introduction by Council, and thus, before its adoption.

“The law does not specifically prohibit a government from making completed proposed contracts public and open to public comment, an action which does not constitute making the public a third party in the collective bargaining process. Why use strained interpretations of labor law to keep the public in the dark, and deny its legitimate interest in knowing what’s in these contracts which have such a large and direct effect on property taxes, before Council votes on them?

“We believe, based on N.J.S.A. 47, that it is the intent of the state legislature that government records shall be readily accessible to the people of this state, and that any limitations on the right of access shall be construed in favor of the public’s right of access.”

Anne H. Phillips

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