Saturday, July 24, 2010

OPRAing a public body's legal services invoices

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:

1. 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).

2. The law firm gets paid a $5,000 monthly retainer in addition to $150 per hour for legal services performed.

3. An ELEC search shows that the law firm, Hunt, Hamlin and Ridley of Newark regularly contributes to Democratic campaigns, including Sharon M. Robinson-Briggs' 2009 Primary election campaign for Mayor of Plainfield.

4. The court and administrative cases that the Board is a party to. (Actually, the Board redacted the case names from the invoices, but I expect that the Board will disclose these case name after considering my July 26, 2010 letter, which is also available at the above link.) This allows citizens to OPRA the complaints filed in those cases (and the settlements or judgments that resolved those cases) in order to learn who is suing the agency and why.

5. If disciplinary action is being taken against employees. For example, the invoices reveal that "CSA" was apparently suspended with pay and had tenure charges filed against him her her earlier this year. (see pages 27 and 28 of the PDF at the above link).

6. Of possible violations of the law committed by the agency. For example, Dr. Gallon, on April 14, 2010, alleged that the Board violated the Open Public Meetings Act.

In sum, legal services invoices contain useful information for citizen activists who wish to monitor a public body and hold it accountable.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

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