Somerset, New Jersey
Advocate sues township, seeking release of documents
Thursday, June 24, 2010
BY JEFF FRANKEL
A New Jersey open public records advocate is suing the township, accusing it of withholding unrestricted documents from the public.
John Paff, chairman of the Libertarian Party Open Government Advocacy Project, filed suit with the State Superior Court in Newark June 11, alleging Bloomfield violated the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) when it did not release to him an e-mail from the Essex County Prosecutor's Office to Councilwoman Patricia Spychala.
This is among the same documents Bloomfield Life has been trying for several months to obtain without success, as the township asserts they are protected under attorney-client privilege.
"Our position is it's a government record and no apparent exemption applies to it," said Paff, reached by phone. "It's not supposed to be broadly applied. The whole point of OPRA is to construe it in favor of public access. The public has the right to know if their (government is) acting reasonably and responsibility."
OPRA records must be turned over to anyone requesting them — and in no more than seven business days. Some documents are even subject to immediate access: e.g. budgets, bills, vouchers, contracts and public employee salary and overtime information. But not all documents are public record (there are 24 exemptions), according to the state, including "any record within the attorney-client privilege."
The township received the complaint yet as policy does not comment on pending litigation, said Township Administrator Fred Carr.
According to the complaint, on April 28 Paff requested a copy of a Nov. 5, 2009 e-mail between Detective John Campo and Spychala. On May 10, Municipal Clerk Louise Palagano denied Paff access to the e-mail, stating, "(in) reviewing recent information provided by the GRC (Government Records Council) as guidance, as well as the specific facts of this record, I am denying the above item due to…attorney-client privilege."
The GRC, describing itself as "the facilitator of open government in New Jersey," is a government agency charged with making government records easily accessible to the public.
The two-count lawsuit alleges Bloomfield denied access to OPRA documents and the common law. Paff is asking for a declaration that the township violated the Open Public Records Act and that he be granted access to the requested e-mail. It also seeks attorney's fees and other relief as the court deems just.
A hearing is scheduled for Friday, July 23 at 10 a.m. before Judge James S. Rothschild.
Paff, a Somerset resident, is an open government advocate who regularly initiates lawsuits against New Jersey governing bodies, often with much success, to gain access to public records. He says he is "pushing the envelope" to ensure the state clarifies its stance on certain issues.
"People in Bloomfield are paying a bit of taxes to support this apparatus called Bloomfield Township," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's my town or your town…I ask for records all over the state. I do it to vindicate the public's right to know."
He said government, especially on the local level, tends to be secretive by nature.
"If not everyday, it's every other day," he said. "Municipal government and school boards just have a propensity to keep records secret. If there is any question in mind, they favor in mind of secrecy."