Open Government Advocacy Project
The Open Government Advocacy Project is a committee of the NJ Libertarian Party. Its goal is to ensure transparency and accountability at all levels of government. Articles posted here are a subset of the work of the committee. For more information visit the Open Government Advocacy Project blog.
If you would like to demand accountability and ensure that your local governing body or school board adheres to the Open Public Records Act we can help you request information from them. Contact John Paff, the project chair here.
I attended a meeting of the Bridgeton Board of Education (Cumberland County) on August 10, 2010 to address two concerns: a) executive session minutes that are not "reasonably comprehensible" and b) meeting agendas not being given to the public until the beginning of the meeting.
I arrived for the 6 p.m. meeting at 5:45 p.m. and found the building to be locked. I rang the bell and knocked on the door and in a few minutes a man came and pushed a latch to let me in, but he didn't unlock the doors for any other members of the public who might later arrive. This gave me an initial indication that openness and transparency were not among the Board's strong suits.
An open letter to Brigantine from open public records advocate John Paff — in which Paff criticizes the city for denying almost all of a recent Open Public Records Act request — was discussed by the Brigantine City Council on Wednesday in executive session, city attorney Tim Maguire said.
Paff — a state Libertarian Party official from Somerset County who sued 17 municipalities in 2008 over public records — in July sought information about a city investigation into former Police Chief Jim Frugoli conducted in March by the law firm of Archer and Greiner.
In response to an appellate court ruling, a number of towns in New Jersey have lowered fees for copying open public records. Others are waiting for Gov. Chris Christie to weigh in on the matter.
The Appellate Division of Superior Court ruled in February that beginning July 1 public entities could only charge the actual costs of making copies, including paper and toner.
John Paff, chairman of the Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, called the change a “major victory.” The public records activist has filed countless requests that have brought about investigations of schools and municipalities and stirred up controversy on behalf of open government.
A worthwhile exercise for citizen activists is to request their municipality's, school board's or other agency's legal services bills. These records permit citizens to know a) how much money the agency is spending on lawyers and b) a general idea of what the money is being spent on.
As an illustration, I submitted an OPRA request for invoices for legal services provided to the Plainfield (Union County) Board of Education for a three month period. I have placed those invoices, which span nearly forty pages, on the Internet here.
Here are some things that a citizen can learn from the invoices:
- That the Plainfield Board of Education paid a single law firm approximately $77,500 during a three month period in 2010. (Annualized, this calculates to approximately $310,000 per year).
In a 25-page opinion issued on July 13, 2010, Union County Superior Court Judge Kathryn A. Brock ruled that while I am not entitled to a police surveillance video under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), I am entitled to it under the common law right of access.
Previously we reported on the antics of former police officer Gennaro Mirabella. Last year he was arrested for vandalizing vending machines and breaking into the Garwood municipal hall while on duty. We reported on his charges getting dropped "in the interests of justice."
Now he has been arrested for shoplifting deodorant from a Frenchtown, NJ IGA.
We are currently waiting for a decision in Paff versus the Borough of Garwood concerning their denial in allowing us to have a copy of the videotape of Genaro Mirabella breaking into the municipal hall.
Today, June 11, 2010, Judge Kathryn Brock heard more argument in my OPRA and common law access case against the Borough of Garwood. At issue, readers may recall, is a DVD of former Garwood Police Officer Gennaro J. Mirabella, while in uniform, entering the locked office of Garwood's Chief Financial Officer and opening her desk drawers.
First, Judge Brock decided that Mirabella, since he has not contacted the court with a request to be heard, is not interested in the case and thereby has conceded that he has no claim that his privacy would be violated by release of the DVD.
Sometimes I receive questions that I believe may be of general interest. Here is one such question and my answer to it.
I have a question for you on OPRA and executive session minutes. My municipal council regularly meets in executive session. But, when I submit an OPRA request for those executive session minutes, my request is denied because the municipal clerk hasn't yet written up the executive session minutes even though several months have passed since the executive meeting was held. The clerk tells me that this doesn't violate OPRA because she's not required to give me records that don't exist. What can I do about this?
As previously announced, my Attorney Rick Gutman and I appeared before the Hon. Kathryn A. Brock at the Union County Courthouse on Friday, April 30th, to argue entitlement to a surveillance video that reportedly showed former Garwood Police Officer (and brother of a Union County Freeholder) Gennaro J. Mirabella entering the locked office of Garwood's Chief Financial Officer and opening her desk drawers. The hearing lasted nearly three hours.
We lost on our Open Public Records Act claim because Judge Brock held that the tape is exempt a) as a "criminal investigative record" and b) because disclosure may improperly reveal security measures and surveillance techniques.
As a result of a March 19, 2010 request from the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project (OGAP), the City of Clifton has assigned official "cliftonnj.org" e-mail addresses to Mayor and City Council members. Previously, the Mayor and Council were using their personal e-mail (e.g. Yahoo or Gmail) addresses for City business.
School board president claims that timely release of meeting agendas may "confuse" citizens and lead to "negativity"
On April 17, 2010, the Express-Times published an article on Warren County school board's refusal to publicize its meeting agendas until ten minutes before the start of the meeting. I am quoted in the article as a representative of the New Jersey Libertarian Party.
"When you announce your agenda in advance, it gives people an opportunity to research the issues and come to the meeting prepared with cogent comments and questions," said John Paff, who chairs the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project.
By DEREK HARPER Staff Writer, Press of Atlantic City
Municipalities and schools will no longer be able to charge more for copies of public records than what it costs to copy them, a state appeals court recently ruled.
Open-records advocates applauded the decision.
“You couldn’t possibly say the cost comes out to 75 cents a page” said John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project. “As a libertarian, I know government is inefficient, but I would hope that New Jersey governments can produce a photocopy at least within 10 times the cost of a private vendor.”
I recently settled my civil suit against the Lumberton Township (Burlington County) Committee that demanded prompter public access to the nonexempt portions of its executive session minutes. My lawsuit and the settlement agreement are on-line here. The following is an article on the settlement that appeared in today's Burlington County Times.
Lumberton agrees to quick release meeting minutes
By: Mark Zimmaro
Burlington County Times
The Township Committee has agreed to make the minutes from its executive sessions available to the public in a more prompt manner.
A civil lawsuit filed in State Superior Court by John Paff, Chair of the NJ Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, accused the Lumberton Township Committee of withholding minutes from their meetings that occur behind closed doors.
On September 13, 2009 I posted concerning the City of Margate's (Atlantic County) policy of requiring its officers and employees who use e-mail for municipal business to use their "margate-nj.com" e-mail addresses and not their personal e-mail addresses (e.g. Yahoo.com, Gmail.com, Verizon.net, etc.). That posting is on my blog
Today, I learned that the Township of Andover (Sussex County) has drafted--but not yet implemented--a more comprehensive policy designed to a) ensure that all official e-mails are preserved on the Township's server and b) prevent e-mail conversation from becoming "meetings" as defined by the Sen. Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act. That draft policy is on-line here.
While it's not perfect, Andover's draft policy is the best I've seen so far. Readers may want to forward it to their own municipalities and school boards and suggest that they adopt something similar.