Seeking the “naked truth” from Long Hill Board os Ed

With attorney Walter Luers representing him, John sued the Long Hill (Morris County) school board so that he could either confirm or dispute unverified statements on the Internet that a former, male member of the Long Hill Board of Education told a female member of the school district's administration that "If you take your clothes off, you can have anything you want in [administrative contract] negotiations."

After having received a heavily redacted copy of the Board's
nonpublic (i.e. closed or executive session) minutes from April 23, 2007 in response to an earlier records request, he found an on-line article that claimed that "reliable sources" had reported that a former Board of Education member had allegedly made the above-described comment that ultimately resulted in the member's resignation from the Board and the female administrator filing a grievance and taking an extended medical leave

On August 4, 2007,JohnI submitted another records request to the board for a more narrowly redacted version of the April 23, 2007 closed minutes and other documents that would enable him to determine whether the information within the Internet article is true or false.  John’s view is that if the information is true, the public should know about it in case the former board member decides to again run for public office without being held publicly accountable for his conduct.  If, however, the information on the web site proved false, it ought to be publicly exposed as such.

Here is what an Editorial in the Morristown Daily Record for Monday, December 17, 2007 had to say about this case:

For the record: Open access advocate never avoids a fight

John Paff, as we have said before, is a pain in the neck for many government officials. That's why we like him. Paff has made it his hobby to make sure towns follow the law when it comes to the release of public documents. And he is not shy about going to court to make that happen.

Earlier this year, Paff was instrumental toward getting the borough of Mount Arlington to change the way it publicizes closed sessions. The law states that public bodies entering into closed session must generally say what they plan to talk about. Many do not do that, but with Paff's urging, things can be changed.

Paff is now in state Superior Court, Morristown, vying with the Long Hill Township Board of Education over access to closed minutes of a meeting last April. He is interested in an apparent sexual harassment complaint filed by a district employee.

On Friday, Judge B. Theodore Bozonelis agreed to review the minutes, but he did say he was inclined to think that a letter from an attorney outlining alleged sexual harassment did not have to be made public. Whatever the judge rules in this case is less important than the fact Paff is willing to challenge public bodies and take them to court if warranted.

Our only regret is that there aren't more people with Paff's zeal. As we never tire of stating: Government records belong to the public, not to those who happen to be temporarily serving in government.

An article by Leslie Kwoh in the Star-Ledger for Friday, December 21, 2007 confirmed the rumor that John had been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to confirm through public records requests and litigation. In a court hearing, Paff argued unsuccessfully that the school board should make the complaint public. Superior Court Judge Theodore Bozonelis ruled, however, that any harassment complaint or letter filed by a public employee with a public employer is exempt under the law. Kwoh reported that Assistant Superintendent Karen Wetherell filed the complaint on March 1, claiming she was sexually harassed by board member Scott Heller, the negotiations committee chairman. Then Superintendent Arthur DiBenedetto who was also the board's affirmative action compliance officer, took up and investigated the official complaint. After conducting interviews with Wetherell and Heller, DiBenedetto recommended that the board ask Heller to resign immediately., The board rejected his recommendation and DiBenedetto subsequently resigned himself, saying he was appalled by the remark and the board's indifference to it.

John Paff’s view was: “it is glaringly obvious to me that this event is exactly the type of thing that the voting public needs to know in order to make informed choices at the polls.  It is equally obvious to me that there is something seriously wrong with a system of laws that permits a the school board's efforts to suppress this event to possibly prevail over a citizen's civil lawsuit seeking disclosure.”