Times of Trenton v. Lafayette Yard CDC was a case before the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2005 concerning the applicability of open records laws to non-profits. In this case, the Court unanimously ruled that Lafayette Yard CDC, a private non-profit, was subject to the provisions of the New Jersey Open Public Records Act because it issued city-backed bonds and the majority of its board was appointed by the city council of Trenton. The litigation arose because the board of Lafayette Yard CDC kicked a reporter for the Trenton newspaper out of a meeting on the grounds that, as a private non-profit, they were not subject to open records or open meetings laws.
This case established a number of important precedents:
- The definitions of public agency and public body within the open records and open meetings acts respectively need to be considered separately, though the case alluded to their high degree of compatibility and correlation.
- This case established that high degrees of control of a private corporation by a public body can be construed as the public body permitting the creation of the private corporation which would qualify that private corporation as a public agency subject to the OPRA.
- Lafayette Yard CDC was incorporated as a private non-profit on June 8, 1998. Its articles of incorporation indicate that it was founded for the sole purpose of assisting the city of Trenton with the development of a 3 acre site known as Lafayette Yard. Based on its status with the IRS, the corporation was permitted to issue bonds on behalf of the municipality under which it served and upon dissolution, all of its resources would return to that municipality. In addition, the city of Trenton held the right to appoint and remove the vast majority of members of the corporation's board. Finally, the corporate board is not permitted to change its bylaws without approval of the mayor of Trenton.
- On July 1, 1999, the city approved the sale of the property to Lafayette Yard CDC with the agreement that the corporation would develop the land to include a hotel, parking area and conference center. Shortly after, the city adopted a proposal which approved the corporations fiscal plan. This approval required the city to acknowledge that the corporation was performing a public function in the public interests and was allowed to issue bonds in order to better fund the project at hand.
- On April 1, 2000, a resolution went into effect that announced that the city backed the bonds issued by the corporation and pledged their full repayment in the event that profits from the construction projects failed to cover the costs.
- In March 2002, reporters for The Times of Trenton Publishing Corporation were repeatedly denied access to meetings and denied access to minutes of meetings of the corporation. The corporation alleged that because it was a private corporation, it was not subject to the New Jersey Open Public Records Act and New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act.
- On October 9, 2002, the Times filed suit in court seeking to compel the corporation to permit public access to its meetings and minutes.
- The trial judge dismissed the case on February 3, 2003, ruling in favor of Lafayette Yard CDC.
- The Times appealed the decision and the Court of Appeals reversed the decision and ruled in favor of the times.
- The corporation appealed the final decision.
Ruling of the court
The trial court ruled in favor of the corporation, determining that it was not a public body subject to the New Jersey sunshine laws. Based on this decision, the court dismissed the case.
The Court of Appeals however, overturned the decision of the trial court. It determined that because it served a public function and that it had received public funds through the discounted purchase of the property, it was in fact a public body subject to the state laws.
The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the trial court, instead affirming the decision of the Court of Appeals and deciding that the corporation was a public body subject to the law. The court first cited the New Jersey Constitution, which includes the redevelopment of "blighted areas" as one of the core governmental functions of public bodies within the state. The court went on to determine that because the corporation performs this function with the financial backing of the city, it is in fact a public body subject to the open meetings laws. The court decided not to address the issue of public funding through the sale of property at below market value as it had already made a determination in this case. The Court went on to reject the corporation's contention that it was created by the public, instead pointing to the stark degree of control held by the city and the fact that the corporation could not have been created without its permission. Based on its public function and this degree of control, the Court determined that the corporation was in fact a public body and subject to both of the laws.