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 would like to commend the Borough of Hightstown (Mercer County) on the transparent manner in which it recently filled a vacant seat on its municipal council.
One member of the Borough Council, a Republican, resigned. According to the Municipal Vacancy Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:16-1, et seq., the local Republican Committee submitted the names of three nominees to the Borough Council. The Council was then obliged to select one of those nominees to serve the remainder of the vacated term.
On September 24, 2010, I wrote to the Neptune Township Housing Authority complaining that the Authority's Board of Commissioners is not in compliance with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the Senator Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). Among the issues complained of: a) the Authority charging an excessive amount for copies of public records, b) the Authority's failure to respond to a request for executive session minutes and c) the Authority's failure to adequately inform the public of the topics that will discussed during non-public (i.e., "executive" or "closed") session. My letter and attachments are on-line here.
Sometimes I get questions from readers that I think may be of general interest. Here is one such question and my response to it.
The county in which I reside owns and operates a miniature golf course. The Freeholder Director claims that the course is making money and doing well, but I'm not so sure. When I attempted to OPRA the golf course's income and expense records from the County, I am told that the records I seek do not exist, that the county is under no responsibility to create records for me or that my request is too broad. Since I don't know the records that the county keeps and how it arranges them, it is difficult if not impossible for me to request them. What do I do?
An editorial was written in support of our efforts in Bloomfield. It is regrettable that this situation ended up costing the taxpayers. More information is on my blog.
Editorial: 'Bottomless well' of money to suppress documents
Well, that wasn't so hard was it? Actually it was.
The township has finally relented and settled out of court with an open public records advocate who sued to have letters and e-mails released between a detective from the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, Councilwoman Patricia Spychala, and Spychala's attorney, Ed Kologi, and Township Attorney Brian Aloia.
That only took months of badgering, critical newspaper articles and a lawsuit. Close to $5,000 later, John Paff, chairman of the Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, who sued the town, got his answer. And that was? Nothing we already didn't know.
READINGTON TWP. — Although a search of a vehicle that yielded a backpack full of cash that smelled like marijuana was ruled invalid, the money was never returned to the vehicle’s occupants.
In June the appellate division of the state Superior Court ruled the search was invalid but many readers — including John Paff, who is chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project — were curious as to what happened to the smelly money.
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.