Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Comparing municipal attorneys' billings in multiple towns

Many attorneys represent more than one government agency. As an experiment, I selected two townships in Cumberland County that are represented by the same lawyer and OPRAed the legal invoices from both. I then compared them side by side and looked for instances in which attorney billed both townships for more hours than seemed reasonable for a single day.

What I found was that the law firm, which I believe employs one attorney, charged the townships a total of $2,175 for 14.5 hours spent attending two court hearings on March 30, 2011. The details are in my letter to both Mayors, which is on-line here.

Clearly, there may be, and probably is, a logical explanation for these billings, but I believe that questioning them is reasonable. If your local agency's attorney works for multiple towns, you may wish to try an experiment similar to mine. I believe that citizens questioning attorney bills will cause government attorneys to be very careful in their billing practices.

Monday, November 28, 2011

OPRA suit filed against State Firemen's Association

On November 22, 2011, Montclair attorney Richard Gutman filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) lawsuit on my behalf against the New Jersey State Firemen's Association (NJSFA). The civil complaint, as well as an order to show cause and brief in Paff v. New Jersey State Firemen's Association, Docket No. UNN-L-4371-11, are on-line here.

Although it received over $24 million in tax dollars during 2010 and distributed over $11 million of that amount to its 538 local firemen's relief associations, most members of the public know little or nothing about the NJSFA. The NJSFA receives a percentage of taxes New Jersey levies against out-of-state insurance companies. With that money, it provides for the care of indigent, injured and deceased firefighters. The NJSFA and its local relief associations serve over 76,000 career and volunteer firefighters.

On September 26, 2011, I filed an OPRA request with the NJSFA. Among other records, I asked for documents revealing how much, if any, past members of the NJSFA's Executive Committee were receiving in pension benefits. In its response to my OPRA request, the NJSFA stated that it "has never considered itself bound by the [Open Public Records] Act." Accordingly, my request for the pension records was denied.

Mr. Gutman and I disagree with the NJSFA's position and believe that it is an OPRA "public agency" because it was created by the New Jersey Legislature or by municipal fire departments back in the 1800's. Either way, we believe that it's a "public agency" under OPRA because, as stated in N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, it was "created by the Legislative Branch" or it was "created by a . . . combination of political subdivisions [of the State]."

The matter has been set down for a hearing on January 6, 2012 at 9 a.m. before Union County Superior Court Judge Regina Caulfield at 2 Broad Street, Elizabeth. The hearing is open to the public, but interested citizens should call the court at 908-659-4810 the day before the hearing to make sure that it hasn't been postponed.

John Paff, Chairman
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Open Government Advocacy Project

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Paff v. Runnemede school board: Motion hearing December 16th

Update: The September 25, 2012 Consent Judgment that resolved the Open Public Meetings Act component of the lawsuit is on-line here and the correspondence referred to in paragraph 3 of the Consent Judgment is here. Also on-line are Judge Kelley's Order of December 16, 2011, his Order of May 30, 2012, the closed session minutes that were ultimately release, and the Board's letter to Judge Kelley regarding the minutes.
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Readers may recall that attorney Walter M. Luers and I filed a lawsuit in June against the Runnemede (Camden County) Board of Education in an attempt to learn exactly why the board gave former Business Administrator Kelly Brazelton a leave of absence from September 23, 2010 through April 15, 2011 while paying her a $99,465 annual salary. According to media reports at the time, the arrangement was made in order to stave off a lawsuit that Brazelton had apparently threatened to file. Brazelton has since been hired as assistant business administrator in the Deptford (Gloucester County) School District. The lawsuit is on-line here and the school board's and Brazelton's answer to the suit is on-line here.

Walter and I recently moved for summary judgment on the first count of our lawsuit. Summary judgment can be entered by a court when there are no serious factual disputes and that all that is needed is for a judge to apply the law to the undisputed facts of the case. The motion will be heard in Camden County Superior Court on Friday, December 16, 2011. Our motion, certification and brief are on-line here.

Specifically, we are asking the court to order the board to provide a "privilege log" which explains and justifies each redaction it made to the minutes of its nonpublic (i.e. closed or executive) meetings held during the period when Brazelton's leave of absence was being considered. Unfortunately, the board redacted its minutes but gave only vague reasons for those redactions. We are also asking the court to order the board to file unredacted versions of its nonpublic meeting minutes with the court so that a judge can look at them privately (i.e. conduct an in camera review) to determine whether the redactions are proper.

Members of public are welcome to attend the December 16, 2011 hearing on our motion. It will be held at the Camden County Courthouse, probably at 9 a.m before Assignment Judge Francis J. Orlando, Jr. Those who are interested in attending should check the court's website a day or so before the hearing to ensure that it hasn't been postponed or cancelled. Refer to Paff v. Runnemede Board of Education, Camden County, Docket No. L-2865-11.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

OPMA Lawsuit against Camden City school board

A new lawsuit was filed yesterday in Camden County Superior Court that seeks answers to the following questions:

1. How promptly must a public body publicly disclose the nonexempt portions of its nonpublic (i.e. "closed or executive") meeting minutes?

2. Can a public body validly claim that it must first "approve" its nonpublic meeting minutes prior to publicly disclosing even redacted versions of them?

3. Must a public body pass a separate, free-standing resolution in order to authorize a nonpublic session (as required by N.J.S.A. 10:4-13) or is it sufficient for it to pass a motion, which is recorded in the regular meeting minutes?

4. In its N.J.S.A. 10:4-13 motions or resolutions, how specifically must a public body describe the topics it plans to discuss during its nonpublic meetings?

5. In its N.J.S.A. 10:4-13 motions or resolutions, how precisely must a public body state the time when and the circumstances under which the discussion conducted in nonpublic session can be disclosed to the public?

The lawsuit is the joint effort of Camden resident Jose Delgado and me. We're seeking a court order that will bring some clarity to these questions. We plan on bringing the suit's result to the attention of every public body in Camden County. This, we hope, will help establish a legal standard that all those bodies will follow.

Click links for the civil lawsuit and brief.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Did Northfield Police give break to drunk-driving cop?

Update:  Judge Julio L. Mendez issued his ruling in the case, on-line here.
Update:  Judge Julio L. Mendez, after receiving the in camera documents from Egg Harbor, has scheduled oral argument for Thursday, October 18th at 1:30 p.m. at the Atlantic County Civil Courthouse in Atlantic City.  Motion paperwork is on-line here.

On September 29, 2011, Clinton attorney Walter M. Luers filed a lawsuit on my behalf against two Atlantic County municipalities and their police officials seeking disclosure of records pertaining to a curious traffic stop during the early morning hours of February 17, 2011. A copy of that lawsuit is on-line here and a November 10, 2011 Press of Atlantic City article about it is on-line here.

Records I requested reveal that at 2:04 a.m., Northfield City Police observed a black Mercedes sitting at a traffic light while the light went through multiple rotations. Police initially reported that they had difficulty waking the driver and getting him to "open up" the car's door. There were also recorded conversations indicating that the driver was "A.O.B." (which, in police-speak, means "alcohol on breath.")

Later, after Northfield Police determined that the driver was Jeffrey Lancaster, an off-duty Egg Harbor Township police officer, they apparently tried to sanitize their radio communications by saying that Lancaster was "definitely sound asleep" but "no A.O.B." and attributed Defendant Lancaster falling sound asleep behind the wheel at two o'clock in the morning to "moonlighting." Even though Defendant Lancaster was purportedly not drunk, Northfield Police inexplicably asked for Egg Harbor Police Sergeant Michael Hughes to report to the scene to "give [Lancaster] a ride home."

My subsequent records request caused Egg Harbor Township police to admit that they investigated the incident and disciplined Lancaster for violating "several departmental rules and regulations." Yet, the police refused to provide me with access to any of the investigation's records or a report that Sergeant Hughes filed regarding the incident.