The NJ Libertarian recently interviewed John Paff asking him why Libertarians should care about the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). John's name and activities are well known to the regular readers of the NJ Libertarian. John is serving as the Chair of the Open Government Advocacy Council of the NJ Libertarian Party.
John Paff Interview
Why should Libertarians care about OPRA
NJL: Why is the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) something that libertarians should be interested in?
John: Because it reveals what the government is doing. Prior to OPRA it was not really worth asking what government was doing. If they didn’t like the request they wouldn’t answer, because there was nothing that compelled them to answer. Now the one thing that OPRA does do is that it requires the government to respond, or else decline for a specific reason, within seven business days upon receipt of an OPRA request, and that covers all documents–even those embarrassing to the government. They can still deny you, but they have to give you a specific justification. So as long as you know what to ask for you will get ready responses from government agencies in this state. And if they fail to respond, there are provisions in the OPRA rules whereby you can force them to act.
NJL: When we get information out of the government, why is that helpful to advance the libertarian movement?
John: Because what it does is show what the government agencies actually do, as opposed to what they claim to do. Usually government agencies are doing a whole bunch of things, but they don’t tell you about all of them. They tell you about the things that are favorable.
NJL: What other kinds of things can we discover from let’s say the town council? What kind of things do we discover from the OPRA request that we do not get from a press release or read in the newspapers?
John: You might get information about disciplinary procedures or an elected official doing something sexually inappropriate or a schoolteacher doing inappropriate things with a student or a member the police department beating or using excessive force or being racially prejudiced toward certain defendants. These are the things that agencies would never report to youthey would traditionally discuss these things behind closed doors and go out of their way to hide them. You have to challenge these things. I don’t just ask for random records, I ask for records that i believe the government agencies would prefer not to reveal.
NJL: To what extent can we depend on the press to find out the facts in these cases, and why don’t they do it?
John: They don’t assign a lot of resources to local news. Members of the press admit candidly that they need citizens’ help to inform them because reporters can’t keep track. They change reporters constantly and that makes it difficult to establish continuity. Plus every reporter has a problem if they print something to discredit a politician or bureaucrat because then he won’t cooperate in the future. [Bissel example]
Also local reporters often cover several towns, so the tendency might be to get lazy and simply copy the rip and read from a government source and write that as a news story. The public advocate becomes a useful adjunct to the reporting industry because the advocates can get information out that no one else is paying attention to. I know this is important to the press. It is also important to libertarians because it brings out the horrendous and outrageous things that government agencies do. You try to show every time how the system crashes and that brings out a more fair picture of what these agencies do. That’s why it’s important. It’s not a goody two shoes civics lesson, it’s an exercise finding out what these people are actually doing with your money and their power.
NJL: I know how from my experience in working with attorney Walter Luers, I determined that Fish and Wildlife Division of the Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) had allowed the trapping and killing of six beavers that were living on my property. With that information I’m taking action to try and prevent further killings.
John: It is hard to stand up in public and say “this is wrong” when they won’t tell you what the “this” is that happened, and that’s why access to government information is vital. I think it would be most effective for libertarian candidates to submit OPRA requests for documents on things like how many complaints of prisoner abuse have arisen in the Sheriff’s Department. I do see an OPRA request as an educational function but it could be used in a particular instance for candidates running, because libertarian candidates can obtain specific objective information that the voters who can think about. They should be putting the closed session minutes on the Internet because the “good stuff” takes place in the closed sessions of meetings and this is the kind of information OPRA can expose. I can tell by the resistance I observe, and I think I have a pretty good sense so I can tell between a corrupt, very bad government and one that is just slightly forgetful and generally good guys.
NJL: If our readers are interested in pursuing OPRA, how can they get in touch with you?
John: Contact me here. My phone is 732-873-1251, and we have created a Wiki website that I like to deal with groups and would be pleased to present an “OPRA 101” class to activists. I would like the party leadership to arrange this.
NJL: You and the OPRA folks accomplish something every single month, and I’ve heard comments that our readers really look forward to reading about John Paff.
John: It’s not a debate between education or political activism. There’s more to political activism than just running in elections. A lot of what I do does get me in the paper. I’m sending you a nine page court decision that shows how screwed up the city of Plainfield is. They apparently persecuted a doctor so vigorously that they finally tried to have her removed from her position in Plainfield, because she worked part time and on-line for another town while she was on sick leave--and the reason she was on sick leave was because they were badgering her for years. (John supplied the court decision, and it had this conclusion from the judge: “Indeed, there is nothing about Dr. Warwas' work from home, not in Paterson, at a computer on her own vacation and sick time that violated any rule or regulation governing her employment. ... Based on the foregoing findings of fact and conclusions of law, I DECIDE this matter in favor of appellant and ORDER that the charges against her be DISMISSED and that appellant be reinstated to her position as Health Officer with full back pay, benefits, pension rights, and attorney's fees.”) Ironically,
Plainfield was prosecuting this physician because she was working! This story will eventually get into the papers, but it won’t mention the Libertarian Party or John Paff, because I really had nothing to do with the dispute itself.
I am in contact with elected officials for the minority parties, the people who are not in power in these particular towns. I try to teach them what to do to expose what the majority on the council is doing. As long as more people are raising the issues, their motives really don’t matter, because it gets more information out there for the public to learn. It changes the nature of the debate, because it demonstrates that it is the power of government that is inappropriate.