New Jersey State Firemen’s Association is a “Public Agency” for Open Public Records Act Purposes

Paff v. New Jersey State Firemen’s Ass’n, 431 N.J. Super. 278 (App. Div. 2013).  John Paff is a frequent litigant under the Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 et seq. (“OPRA”).  He is also a life member of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association.  Invoking OPRA, Paff sought access to pension records of the Association’s executive committee members, and bills for legal services that the Association received in March 2011.  The Association provided some of the requested documents because Paff was a member, but declined to provide individual pension records.  The Association asserted that it was not a “public agency” and therefore had no OPRA obligations.  Paff sued, and the Law Division agreed with the Association.  On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed, applying the de novo standard of review and the principle that OPRA is to be construed to maximize public access to records.  Judge Ostrer wrote the panel’s opinion.

The question of what constitutes a “public agency” under OPRA was addressed by the Supreme Court in three key cases, The Times of Trenton Publishing Corp. v. Lafayette Yard Community Dev. Corp., 183 N.J. 519 (2005), Fair Share Housing Center, Inc. v. New Jersey League of Municipalities, 207 N.J. 489 (2011), discussed here, and Sussex Commons Assocs., LLC v. Rutgers, the State University, 210 N.J. 531 (2012), discussed here.  Drawing on those cases, Judge Ostrer observed that OPRA “does not expressly require that an entity perform a traditional governmental function to qualify as a public agency.” 

Several factors contributed to the panel’s conclusion that the Association is a “public agency” for OPRA purposes.  First, the Association “owes its existence to state law, which authorized its creation, granted it powers, including powers over local associations, and barred the creation of a competing state association.  N.J.S.A. 43:17-41.”  Second, “[t]he Association is the direct recipient of substantial revenues generated from specific taxes on insurance premiums.  It is delegated authority to assure those funds are spent in accord with statutory strictures.”  Nearly $25 million in tax revenue was distributed to the Association in 2010 alone. 

Third, an Attorney General’s Formal Opinion found that a volunteer fire company that had received substantial financial support from a municipality was an “agency” or “authority” of the municipality for purposes of the Destruction of Public Records Law, N.J.S.A. 47:3-15 et seq.,  whose definition of “public records” “closely mirrors that of OPRA’s definition of ‘government records.'”  The fact that the Legislature did not respond to the Formal Opinion suggested that the Formal Opinion accurately reflected legislative intent.  Fourth, the Association serves various governmental functions, such as providing welfare benefits to paid and volunteer firefighters.  Finally, Judge Ostrer noted that the Association itself had argued in a prior case, though in a different context, that it was a public body.  For those and other reasons, the panel concluded that the Association is a public agency whose records are subject to inspection under OPRA.