January 11, 2017. Today, Dante DiPirro, an environmental and animal lawyer, asked the NJ Appellate Division at oral argument to rule that the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife had failed to timely provide annual reports to the public for the past 17 years. On behalf of a coalition of grassroots groups who sued, he further asked the Court to compel the Division to complete each annual report by the statutory deadline of November 30th, and simultaneously post the report on the internet and provide copies to the New Jersey State Library for permanent public access and use, as required by Title 52.
In 1895, the Legislature enacted legislation in Title 23 that requires the Division (then Commissioners) to report to the Legislature annually, “at the annual meeting thereof,” on all of its operations for the fiscal year. Simultaneously, the Legislature enacted legislation in Title 52 that imposes a duty on all commissions that are required to present annuals report to the Governor or Legislature to present a copy of the report to the Governor on or before November 30th , and establishes a penalty for a failure to timely complete and present (officer responsible forfeits half of his or her salary from November 30th until the report is presented). Title 52 also mandates that all commissions provide public access by: (1)posting a copy of the annual report on the internet, and (2)filing one electronic copy and at least one hard copy with the New Jersey State Library “for permanent public access and use.”
For the past 17 years, the Division has failed to issue timely annual reports and make them available to the public by November 30th (for the fiscal year ending June 30th):
- For ten years in a row – from Fiscal Year 2000 through FY 2009 – the Division failed to even create an annual report.
- In 2010, when the Division missed the November 30th deadline, and Appellant was compelled to file a law suit. In response to the suit, the Division completed and posted a FY2010 annual report on the web. The posting, although 31.7 months late, allowed the suit to be settled.
- In FYs 2011 – 2014, despite the Division’s acknowledgement in the settlement that it had an annual reporting obligation, the Division failed to timely issue and make available annual reports to the public (i.e. FY2011 report was posted on the web 19.6 months late, FY2012 report posted 7.4 months late, FY2013 report posted 10.8 months late, and FY2014 report posted 6.4 months late).
- In 2014, Appellants were compelled to file this lawsuit.
- In 2015, while this lawsuit was still pending, the Division failed to issue and post the FY2015 annual report by the November 30th deadline, and Appellants amended the Notice of Appeal to add that failure.
- In 2016, while this suit was awaiting oral argument, the Division failed to file and post the FY2016 annual report by the November 30th
The Division’s repeated and on-going failure to complete and make annual reports available to the public by the November 30th deadline not only violates the NJ statutes, but causes real and significant harm to the public in terms of government transparency, participatory democracy, and the protection of wildlife which is a public resource. Without timely annual reports, the public cannot know what the Division is doing and planning and where its tax dollars are being spent, cannot meaningfully participate in wildlife policy decision-making, and cannot advocate for humane treatment of wildlife.
Before and throughout this lawsuit, the Division has adamantly refused to acknowledge that it has any deadline to complete an annual report or make it available to the public. It contends as a legal matter that it can get to it when it gets to it. The Division’s position violates the express requirements and Legislative intent of Titles 23 and 52, which require that all agencies timely issue annual reports and make them available to the public on the web and in the NJ State Library for “permanent public access and use.”