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.
On November 13, 2017, the New Jersey Local Finance Board (LFB) issued Notices of Violation to Ridgewood Village's (Bergen County) former Mayor and Manager for authorizing and appearing in a video that advocated only one side of a referendum question that was pending before Village voters.
The Notices of Violation, issued against former Mayor Paul Arohnson and former Village Manager Roberta Sonenfeld, both arose out of a June 21, 2016 referendum question which sought $11,500,000 in bonds or notes to finance the cost of constructing a new parking deck. Under New Jersey law, government officials may use public resources to educate--but not to persuade--voters on public issues.
NJLP Board Member, Dorit Goikhman, interviews John Paff.
While "personnel records" of public employees are mostly exempt under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 makes certain types of personnel information expressly available to the public. Specifically, a public employee's "name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor, and the amount and type of any pension received shall be a government record" and must be disclosed to the public.
As one can see, one of the items within the public domain is an employee's "payroll record." But, what exactly is a payroll record and what information must it contain?
On August 3, 2017, Libertarians for Transparent Government (LFTG) filed a lawsuit against the Wall Township Board of Education challenging its refusal to disclose an invoice from Jostens, the high school's yearbook vendor.
Township in Cumberland County "unable to locate" some closed meeting minutes; will approve years of other closed meeting minutes at June 7th meeting
The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) requires public bodies to make the minutes of their meetings, both public and non-public (i.e. closed or executive), "promptly available to the public." Recent correspondence with one South Jersey township reveals that minutes from closed meetings held five years ago are still not available for public inspection and that minutes from closed meetings held in the 1980's and 1990's have apparently been lost forever.
A May 16, 2017 Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to Deerfield Township in Cumberland County sought "the minutes of the three (3) most recently held [closed] Deerfield Township Committee meetings for which minutes are available in either full or redacted form." The request went on to explain that if "the three most recent closed meetings for which minutes are available in whole or part took place ten years ago in April, May and June of 2007, then those would be the minutes that are responsive to this request."
Burlington Judge Rebuffs PBA, Orders Disclosure of Redacted Log of Internal Affairs Complaints Against County Corrections Officers
In an August 31, 2016 ruling, Burlington County Assignment Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder denied Burlington County's and the New Jersey Police Benevolent Association's (PBA) bid to reverse his previous decision calling for disclosure of a redacted list of Internal Affairs complaints against corrections officers at the Burlington County Correctional and Detention Facility.
In his ruling in John Paff v. Burlington County, et al., Docket No. BUR-L-36-15, Bookbinder wrote that disclosure of the list, with the names of the officers redacted, will help me to "research the frequency and nature of complaints brought against Burlington County Corrections Officers" without jeopardizing "the privacy interests and potential safety concerns of the officers named on the list."
Stafford Township confidentially paid out $34,000 to settle man's lawsuit claiming that mayor misused Stafford Police to perpetrate a personal vendetta against him
On June 13, 2016, the Township of Stafford (Ocean County) agreed to pay $34,000 to a man who claimed that Mayor John Spodofora used "the Stafford Police as his personal agents" to retaliate against him for publicly criticizing Spodofora for "stolen valor" (i.e. exaggeration of military service).
In his lawsuit, Earl Galloway, a retired Navy Master Chief, said that after he created a spoof Facebook page called "Spodophony" which contained "accurate information to correct [Spodofora's] exaggerations and fabrications" regarding his service in the Vietnam conflict, Spodofora filed an identify theft charge against him, attempted to block Galloway's membership into the Stafford GOP club and publicly accused him of "hacking into [Spodofora's] child's computer and stealing files."
Lawyer to blogger: "Immediately cease and desist in your publication" of my client's confidential settlement agreement with a public agency
On July 12, 2016, I published "Sparta school board confidentially paid $50,000 to settle former custodian's wrongful termination lawsuit." I distributed a link to the article to area media (which resulted in Eric Obernauer of the New Jersey Herald publishing "Sparta school board settles suit with former custodian" on July 14, 2016) as well as to the lawsuit plaintiff's attorney.
Today, I received the following e-mail from the attorney who represented the former school custodian in the wrongful termination lawsuit:
On April 4, 2016, Clinton attorney Walter M. Luers filed a Denial of Access complaint with the Government Records Council (GRC) on behalf of a local on-line newspaper reporter who was told that she needed to pay "$1.80 for copying fees" before Cape May City Clerk Louise Cummiskey would scan twenty-six pages of public records into an electronic file and e-mail it to her.
For years, I have been trying to get state level enforcement of a provision in the Local Public Contracts Law that requires local governments to publish in the local newspaper the dollar amounts of the profession services contracts that it awards without competitive bidding. Such notification is clearly required by state statute but many local governments simply ignore the requirement.
In early 2015, I was heartened by the Department of Community Affairs' initial decision to adopt a rule, in response to the New Jersey Libertarian Party's (NJLP) Petition for Rulemaking, that would enforce the dollar amount disclosure requirement. Unfortunately, the Division let the rule proposal expire. The NJLP still holds on to hope and has filed another, similar Petition for Rulemaking on March 16, 2016.
In her April 29, 2016 response to the Government Records Council (GRC), Assistant City Attorney Lori E. Caughman admitted that the Trenton Police Department failed to prepare two types of mandatory public reports that summarize complaints received and adjudicated by the department's Internal Affairs Unit.
Caughman's filing was in response to my Denial of Access Complaint which was filed on March 31, 2016 by attorney CJ Griffin of Hackensack. The complaint shows that on October 21, 2015, I had requested several types of reports that the Attorney General's Internal Affairs Guidelines require police departments to prepare and make available to the public. Among the reports I requested were the reports required by "Requirement 10" on p 44 of the Guidelines:
Each agency must release reports to the public summarizing the allegations received and the investigations concluded for that period. In addition, the agency shall periodically release a brief synopsis of all complaints where a fine or suspension of 10 days or more was assessed to an agency member.
On April 14, 2016, Libertarians for Transparent Government, a NJ nonprofit corporation, filed a lawsuit in Passaic County Superior Court challenging the City of Passaic's refusal to provide any minutes of City Council nonpublic (closed or executive) meetings held in 2015 as well as the minutes from Planning Board public meetings held as early as February 19, 2014 and Zoning Board public meetings held as early as January 17, 2015.
The basis for the City's denial of the public meeting minutes is that they "have not been approved." The basis for denial of the Council's closed meeting minutes is that they must "remain exempt from production under such time as there is no longer a need for confidentiality" and that "the City Council has not adopted a Resolution authorizing the release" of those closed minutes.
In its brief, penned by Hackensack attorney CJ Griffin, the Libertarian organization argues that minutes of closed meetings must be promptly produced in redacted form and that unapproved public meeting minutes can simply be stamped "draft" and publicly released.
Assignment Judge Thomas F. Brogan will likely schedule a hearing on this matter in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, the Bergen County NAACP will host a public forum to discuss proposed legislation that seeks to prevent public access to all police camera recordings and 911 calls. The forum, which is open to all, will begin at 7 p.m. at the Teaneck High School Media Center at 100 Elizabeth Avenue.
At issue is Senate Bill 788, sponsored by Senator Paul A. Sarlo (D-Bergen/Passaic), which would amend the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) so that "law enforcement camera recordings" and "9-1-1 audio recordings or transcripts" could not be disclosed to the public. Specifically, S788 would add the following two exceptions to OPRA:
- law enforcement camera recordings, except for use by any person authorized by law to have access to the recordings or for use by any government agency, including any court or law enforcement agency, for purposes of the administration of justice;
- 9-1-1 audio recordings or transcripts of a 9-1-1 call;
On Friday, March 4, 2016 at 9 a.m. Hudson County Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Turula will hear my Open Public Records Act (OPRA) case against the City of Bayonne. See, Paff v. City of Bayonne et al, Docket No. HUD-L-5203-15. This is the lawsuit discussed in Jonathan Lin's January 27, 2016 Jersey Journal article and I am being represented by CJ Griffin of Hackensack.
I maintain a blog called NJ Civil Settlements which, as its name implies, reports on settlements of lawsuits against government agencies and officials. Learning whether, when and how these lawsuits have concluded is sometimes difficult, especially since many of the settlement agreements contain confidentiality clauses that prevent the parties from revealing the amount of settlement or even the existence of a settlement agreement.