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.
New OPRA lawsuit: Chatham Township keeps police officer's claim and two settlement agreements secret
I am accustomed to public bodies claiming that their executive session minutes are confidential. It is not so typical, however, for the public body's reasons for wanting to keep its executive minutes secret to also be kept secret. Not knowing a public body's reason for keeping a document secret makes it very difficult to challenge its claim of confidentiality.
On May 13, 2014, Passaic County Superior Court Judge Ralph L. DeLuccia told the Clifton Board of Education to provide him with some additional information so that he could decide whether or not certain portions of the Board's June 19, 2013 executive session meeting minutes should or should not be disclosed to the public. So, the attorney for the school board, Donald K. Okner, wrote up a certification dated May 20, 2014 and sent it to the court without sending a copy to my lawyer. Judge DeLuccia, based on the lawyer's secret certification, decided that the executive session minutes need to be kept secret.
On August 22, 2014 at 9 a.m., Judge Thomas F. Brogan will hear my motion, filed by Clinton lawyer Walter M. Luers, seeking to unseal the May 20, 2014 certification that convinced Judge DeLuccia to keep portions of the June 19, 2013 executive session minutes confidential.
On Wednesday, October 8, 2014 at 3 p.m., the Hon. Mary C. Jacobson, A.J.S.C. will hear argument in my Open Public Records Act (OPRA) case against the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. My order to show cause, civil complaint, exhibits and brief, filed by Walter M. Luers, Esq. of Clinton, are are on-line here.
My lawsuit challenges the MVC's denial of my request for "all OPRA requests submitted to the MVC between 05/05/14 and 05/12/14." The MVC oddly denied my request on the basis that disclosure would give "an advantage to competitors" and because "there is an interest of third parties in protecting the confidentiality of their requests for access to public documents"
On Wednesday, August 27, 2014 at 9 a.m., the Hon. Travis L . Francis, A.J.S.C. will hear argument in my Open Public Records Act (OPRA) case against the City of Perth Amboy (Middlesex County). My civil complaint, exhibits and brief, filed by Walter M. Luers, Esq. of Clinton, are are on-line here.
I am seeking records regarding a lawsuit that a Perth Amboy teacher filed against the school district for mishandling her report that she was sexually assaulted in her classroom by another teacher. That lawsuit, which settled for $199,000, is discussed on my blog here.
A Township CFO resigns to take a county job. Then the Township contracts with a firm that is at least partially owned by its former CFO to provide "day-by-day financial consulting services." Then, the Township stonewalls the media's attempt to find out how much the consulting company is going to be paid under the newly minted contract. Only in New Jersey.
Following is my OPRA request to the Township to figure out how much tax money the former CFO's consulting firm is going to receive.
Update: I received a voicemail on June 23, 2014 from a Wildwood Crest official telling me that he doesn't "have a Brady letter [and] never had one." The Prosecutor's May 5, 2014 denial of my OPRA request does not say that separate Brady letters exist for each of the three officials referenced in my OPRA request and named in my civil complaint. The denial suggests that at least one Brady letter exists concerning at least one of these three officials. Thus, it is entirely possible that the caller is being truthful in stating that a Brady letter pertaining to him never issued.
On June 13, 2014, attorney Richard Gutman of Montclair filed a lawsuit on my behalf seeking "Brady letters" from the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office. My Complaint and Certification in John Paff v. Cape May County Prosecutor's Office, Docket No. CPM-L-265-14 are on-line here.
"Brady letters" are named after the United States Supreme Court's 1963 decision in the case of Brady v. Maryland. That decision, among other things, requires law enforcement officials to notify criminal defendants and their lawyers whenever they receive information that a police officer involved in the defendants' cases has been untruthful.
On June 10, 2014, Montclair Attorney Richard M. Gutman filed a lawsuit on my behalf challenging the Ocean County Prosecutor's denial of my Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for a video that allegedly depicts a police officer intentionally siccing his police dog on a 57-year-old woman. The lawsuit and brief, captioned Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor, Docket No. OCN-L-1645-14, is on-line here.
I requested the video after reading about Tuckerton Police Corporal Justin Cherry being charged with second-degree official misconduct and third-degree aggravated assault after he "allegedly allowed a K-9 to attack and bite a woman following a traffic stop earlier this year." The dog attack allegedly occurred on January 29, 2014 and was filmed by a security video camera on the outside of the Barnegat municipal building. An April 21, 2014 Star Ledger article on the alleged attack is on-line here.
Should people who write to a judge to request leniency for a criminal defendant have their identities shielded from public view?
June 5, 2014
Ann Rizzi, ACDM
Middlesex County Courthouse
56 Paterson Street, PO Box 964
New Brunswick, New Jersey 08903
Dear Ms. Rizzi:
I am writing to you at the suggestion of Ombudsman Luis Hernandez, who is copied on this e-mail.
I had previously made a records request to the Middlesex County Criminal Records Division seeking letters of support and requests for leniency regarding Anthony Morales, who was convicted of and sentenced to three years in prison for having a sexual relationship with a female student. See a January 7, 2014 nj.com article on-line here.
In an Order distributed today, May 1, 2014, the Government Records Council (GRC) ruled that a volunteer fire department in Franklin Township (Somerset County), which is within a Fire District, is a "public agency" that must respond to Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests.
In Robert A. Verry v. Franklin Fire District No. 1, GRC Complaint No. 2013-196 (on-line here), the GRC held:
Notwithstanding that [Millstone Valley Fire Department] was likely created by the volunteer membership, is clear that member companies within a fire district exercise a government duty and are under the supervision and control of the district, which is clearly a "public agency." In essence, although the creation of a volunteer fire company is reserved only for the membership, said company organizing within a fire district is expressly required to apply to the district. As the Court noted in [Paff v. New Jersey State Firemen's Ass'n], the relationship between the Association and its existence are owed to state law, as is the relationship between the creation and function of a volunteer fire company within a fire district. Thus, in applying the Court's decision in Firemen's Ass'n, to the facts of this complaint, the GRC is satisfied that [Millstone Valley Fire Department] is a "public agency" for purposes of OPRA.
Therefore, because [Millstone Valley Fire Department] is a member of the [Franklin Fire District] per N.J.S.A. 40A:14-70.1 and thus serves a governmental function under the supervision and control of the [Franklin Fire District], it is a public agency for purposes of OPRA.
This is the first decision of its kind that I am aware of in New Jersey.
Verry's attorney in the matter is John A. Bermingham, Jr., Esq. and the Fire District was represented by Dominic DiYanni . The Fire District has 45 days within which to appeal the ruling.
Wayne D. Pelura, Committeeman
Township of Carneys Point
Dear Committeeman Pelura:
I note from your 2013 Financial Disclosure Statement (on-line here) that you listed no source of income for either you or your wife Patricia. Given that your home on Johnson Avenue is assessed at $290,800 and has taxes levied against in in the amount of $7,287.45 (property detail sheet on-line here), it seems very unlikely that neither you nor your wife have a source of income greater than $2,000.
The entire point of the Financial Disclosure Statement filing is to help citizens learn whether public officials have conflicts of interest. Suppose for example, the Township Committee was considering whether to award a contract to a company that employed your wife Patricia. Clearly, it would be violation of the Local Government Ethics Law (LGEL) for you to vote on or participate in the discussion regarding that contract. Yet, absent your wife's employer being listed as a source of income on your Financial Disclosure Form, a member of the public (unless he or she knew or was familiar with you and your family) would likely not be aware that you would be conflicted from voting on that contract. Thus, when public officials decline or refuse to identify the sources of income for them and their family members, they are frustrating citizens' ability to detect violations of the LGEL.
On April 2, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Susan M. Scarola recommended acceptance of a settlement of an Open Public Record Act (OPRA) case filed with the Government Records Council. Judge Scarola's recommendation and the Settlement Agreement in the case of George F. Burdick, Jr. v. Township of Franklin (Hunterdon County) are on-line here.
According to the agreement, Franklin Township Clerk Ursula Stryker agreed to "personally pay a fine of $1,000 to the Government Records Council" within 60 days of Scarola's order. The agreement recites that the Township acknowledged that it was able to comply with an Interim Order of the GRC, but attributed its failure to do so to "the intentional acts of at least one of its professionals which directly affected [Stryker's] ability to comply with the Interim Order." The agreement also recites that the Township "has already made adjustments to its Open Public Records protocol to ensure continual compliance with the GRC's ruling" and that the Township "wishes to resolve this matter without having to expend additional counsel fees for one or more days of hearings."
On January 27, 2014, the Town Council of Hammonton, an Atlantic County community with a 2010 population 14,791, resolved to appoint a separate deputy records custodian for each of ten principal departments in the municipality. The same resolution also appointed nine "Alternate Records Custodians"--one for each of the ten departments except for the Recreation Department.
According to Resolution 023-2014, which is on-line here, "the Open Public Records Act does not preclude the Municipality from developing reasonable and practical measures for responding to OPRA requests which may include the designation of deputy custodians for particular types of records."
On July 12, 2011, Glenn A. Grant, Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) issued Directive #03-11 which states in its preamble that:
An open and transparent court system is an integral part of our democratic government. The public has a right of access not only to our courts, but also to court records. Public access to court records allows citizens to understand the system and to judge its effectiveness.
This lofty goal, however, does not actually play out in practice.
On September 6, 2013, New Jersey enacted L.2013, Chapter 158 which established a conditional discharge program for municipal courts that allows first time offenders to avoid prosecution for a large variety of disorderly and petty disorderly offenses if they enter into a supervisory program. The new law, which became effective on January 4, 2014, requires applicants to pay $75 into a "non-lapsing fund to be known as the 'Municipal Court Diversion Fund,' which shall be administered by the Administrative Office of the Courts."
Name: John Paff
Hometown: Franklin Township, Somerset County
Family: Wife Diane, children Alex, 16, and Katie, 12
Best known as: New Jersey's busiest open-government activist
How he got started: "I guess I've always been interested in how things work, how the system works." But it's not just how things work. A lifelong New Jerseyan -- he grew up in Cumberland County and moved to the Middlesex/Somerset area when he went to college at Rutgers University -- he wants to make sure that state government works as well as possible.
Paff started working with the Forfeiture Endangers American Rights, a group looking to reform federal and state asset forfeiture laws, in 1992, and then moved to trying to improve attorney ethics before landing on open government issues. He now chairs the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project and is a member of the board of directors of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.
In his February 7, 2014 letter, Somerset County Counsel William T. Cooper III defended the Somerset County Freeholder Board's decisions to conduct seven matters in nonpublic (i.e. closed or executive) session instead of publicly. Cooper's letter is on-line here and the minutes of the executive meeting in question are on-line here. (My letter of complaint about the executive session discussions is on-line here.)
With all due respect to Mr. Cooper, I believe that his position is flawed.
As just one example, the minutes of the January 14, 2014 closed meeting state:
Mike Amorosa addressed concerns and complaints received about employees utilizing e-cigarettes indoors. The Board endorsed the inclusion of e-cigarettes to the policy.