Religious leaders file suit claiming freeholders violated Sunshine Law when renewing ICE deal

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Seven religious leaders have filed a lawsuit alleging that the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders violated the Open Public Meeting Act, also known as the Sunshine Law, when they renewed the county’s muti-million deal with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

By John Heinis/Hudson County View

The suit, filed in Hudson County Superior Court, revolves around the fact that the freeholders approved another contract with ICE at their July 12th meeting, despite the fact that the item was initially listed on the agenda as tabled.

In a one-on-one interview with Freeholder Chairman Anthony Vainieri (D-8) earlier this month, he explained that after giving it second thought, the majority of the freeholder board was in agreement their was no reason to postpone the vote.

“Most of the freeholders were ready to vote on it, they didn’t really want to wait. So, a freeholder made a motion to carry it over, everybody went along with it,” Vainieri said on August 15th.

“But after that, we met next time and said ‘I don’t know what we’re waiting for, we’re ready to vote on this.’”

Jersey City Freeholders Bill O’Dea (D-2) and Joel Torres (D-4) voted no on the resolution, with Torres pushing to keep the item off the agenda, but to no avail.

During an appearance on Hudson County Review Live on Friday, O’Dea spoke at length about the controversial vote.

“It just has a bad optic. It was a daytime meeting in the summer. There were legitimate questions about the contract. A member of the board and I supported Joel [Torres], asked for a copy of the contract. Hours before the meeting, of the night before, they said, ‘well there is no contract, it’s the same old contract,'” O’Dea recalled.

“Which raised further issues in my mind because the old contract doesn’t require the 2011 standards, which includes additional recreation time, better medical care and a couple of other issues, which was all the more reason to carry the item for discussion.”

The seven religious leaders are represented by counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union, who panned the vote in question in a prepared statement.

“A process that intentionally misleads the public and shields government from public scrutiny is unlawful and undemocratic,” said Tess Borden, an ACLU staff attorney serving as co-counsel on the case.

In a conference call to discuss the lawsuit early this afternoon, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, both political adversaries of Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, voiced their support for the court case.

“This lawsuit is very simple: we live in a democracy. In a democracy, the public has a right to be heard. In this case, the public was deprived of that fundamental right,” Bhalla said.

“The freeholders had no right to deceive the public about the timing of this vote and it needs to be corrected. They knew very well what they were doing, they know it would be politically a very tough vote, they knew they were voting contrary to some of the stated moral beliefs and they tried to deceive the public on this,” Fulop added.

The lawsuit, along with accompanying exhibits, can be read here.

 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated with comments from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla And Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.