On March 20, 2020 Gov. Phil Murphy took action on several bills aimed to help New Jersey municipalities address the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. He also issued several Executive Orders impacting public entities. Below is a brief summary:
Mail-in Ballots (A-3095/S-1982): The legislation addresses concerns from county clerks regarding sufficient time to prepare mail-in ballots in response to voter requests expected for the 2020 primary election scheduled for June 2, 2020. County clerks will now have an additional week to prepare the mailing of paper ballots for 2020 primary election to voters request a mail-in ballot and who do not reside overseas. The bill also requires the ballot position draw to be conducted one day early if the statutory date for the draw falls on a holiday.
Schools Meals (A-3840/S-2281): The legislation provides direction to school districts for the provision of school meals to students whose schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It mandates that districts implement a program to provide school meals to all district students who are eligible for the free and reduced price school lunch and school breakfast programs. Under the program, the school district must collaborate with county and municipal government officials to identify one or more school meal distribution sites that are walkable and easily accessible to students in the district. School districts are also required to identify students for whom a school meal distribution site is not within walking distance and distribute the school meals to the student’s residence or to the student’s bus stop provided that the student or the student’s parent or guardian is present at the bus stop for the distribution. Food distributed to the student’s residence may include up to a total of three school days’ worth of food per delivery. If a school district is unable to provide school meals via school meal distribution sites or through distributions at the student’s residence, it must establish a food voucher system under which funds are provided to students to enable them to access nutritious food at food retail stores. A-3840 provides that the State will bear any costs not reimbursed by the federal government which school districts incur in effectuating its provisions.
OPRA Requests (A-3849/S-2302): The legislation modifies the deadline by which a public agency is required to respond to request for government record under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) during a period of emergency. Under current law, a custodian of a government record for a public agency is required to grant access to a government record or deny a request for access to a government record as soon as possible, but not later than seven business days after receiving the request, provided that the record is currently available and not in storage or archived. Failure to respond within seven business days is deemed a denial of the request. A-3849 provides that during a state of emergency, public health emergency, or state of local disaster emergency, a custodian of a government record for a public agency will be required only to make a “reasonable effort” to respond to a request for a government record within seven business days, or as soon as possible thereafter, as the circumstances permit.
Public Meetings (A-3850/S-2294): The legislation allows public bodies to conduct meetings by electronic means during periods of emergency. A-3850 explicitly authorizes a public body to conduct a public meeting through remote means. Businesses must develop a way for the public to hear or view the public meeting and to provide public comment. by means of communication or other electronic equipment during a state of emergency, public health emergency, or state of local disaster emergency. It also allows a public body to provide notice of meetings electronically through the internet during that time, but requires that public bodies who exercise this option limit, to the extent practicable, the public business conducted at that meeting to matters necessary for the continuing operation of government. Boards are advised to avoid closed or executive sessions, unless the topic of concern is urgent or directly affects the health, safety, or welfare of residents. Separate lines should be created for executive session.
Municipal Budgets (A-3851/S-2295): The legislation authorizes the extension of deadlines for adoption of county and municipal budgets under certain circumstances. Under current law, the Director of the Division of Local Government Services in the Department of Community Affairs, may, with the approval of the Local Finance Board, extend deadlines for any local fiscal year, beyond the dates required under the Local Budget Law. A-3851 provides that whenever a Public Health Emergency or a State of Emergency, or both, has been declared by the Governor and is in effect, the Director may extend the statutory dates for the introduction and approval, and adoption, of county and municipal budgets without the approval of the Local Finance Board.
The Governor’s Executive Order 105 (March 16, 2020) changes the date of upcoming New Jersey elections and orders voting by mail-in-ballot.
The Order specifically requires the following:
- Candidates filing petitions for the March 30th deadline may hand deliver or submit petitions electronically. Signatures for Petitions can be collected through an on-line form created by the Secretary of State.
- School board elections scheduled for April 21, 2020 shall also be postponed until May 12, 2020, to be held concurrently with the municipal elections currently scheduled for that date.
- Any elections scheduled for a date between March 19 and May 12, 2020, shall be postponed until May 12, 2020 and be conducted solely via vote-by-mail ballots which will automatically be sent to all registered voters without the need for an application to receive a vote-by-mail ballot.
The Governor’s Executive Order 107 (March 21, 2020) strongly encourages Boards to conduct all public meetings subject to the Open Public Meetings Act remotely and without providing a physical meeting place.
The Governor’s Executive Order 108 (March 21, 2020) invalidates any county or municipal restriction imposed in response to COVID-19 that in any way will or might conflict with any of the provisions of Executive Order No. 107 (2020), or which will or might in any way interfere with or impede its achievement, or the achievement of Administrative Orders issued as authorized by the Governor’s other Executive Orders.
The Scarinci Hollenbeck Covid-19 Crisis Management Group is closely monitoring the outbreak and its potential impact on our clients, including local governments. In these uncertain times, our dedicated attorneys are here to help navigate the numerous legal and regulatory issues that may arise in the weeks and months ahead.