Monday, May 16, 2016

NJ Senate Committee to hear "New Jersey Open Data Initiative" on May 23rd.

On May 23, 2016, 1 p.m. the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee will hear and take testimony on Senate Bill No. 727, a measure that would require State departments to cause their "data sets" to be uploaded to an "easily navigable Internet website."  The bill is sponsored by South Jersey Democrats Nilsa Cruz-Perez and Jeff Van Drew.

The hearing, which will be held in Committee Room 7 on the second floor of the State House Annex in Trenton, is open to the public and those who attend may present the Committee with oral testimony.  As an alternative, anyone can submit written testimony via fax to 609-777-2998 or e-mail to OLSAideSSG@njleg.org.

Those who wish to attend are cautioned to first call the Committee's office at 609-847-3890 to make sure that S-727 is still on the agenda and to verify that the hearing hasn't been moved or postponed.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Gloucester County Fire District ordered to comply with Meetings Act.

In a May 6, 2016 Order, Assignment Judge Georgia M. Curio issued an injunction requiring the Harrison Township (Gloucester County) Fire District to "strictly adhere to [the Open Public Meetings Act] in all respects including, but not limited to, the keeping of minutes."

During oral argument on April 21, 2016, Curio noted that the Fire District's failure to keep closed meeting minutes on five separate occasions over a three year period violated the Meetings Act and constituted a pattern of noncompliance that warranted injunctive relief.  Curio stated that the Fire District would be "hard-pressed" to deny its actions are willful or knowing if it violates the Meetings Act again.

The case is captioned Donald Baldwin v. Harrison Township Fire District, et al, Docket No. GLO-L-1713-15 and Baldwin was represented by the Law Office of Walter M. Luers.


Sunday, May 8, 2016

The state won't enforce the law, so I've got to go town to town.

For years, I have been trying to get state level enforcement of a provision in the Local Public Contracts Law that requires local governments to publish in the local newspaper the dollar amounts of the profession services contracts that it awards without competitive bidding.  Such notification is clearly required by state statute but many local governments simply ignore the requirement.

In early 2015, I was heartened by the Department of Community Affairs' initial decision to adopt a rule, in response to the New Jersey Libertarian Party's (NJLP) Petition for Rulemaking, that would enforce the dollar amount disclosure requirement. Unfortunately, the Division let the rule proposal expire.  The NJLP still holds on to hope and has filed another, similar Petition for Rulemaking on March 16, 2016.

Since the available evidence suggests that there is reluctance at the state level to impose accountability requirements on local officials, I have taken to enforcing the dollar amount disclosure requirement on a town by town basis.  This is, of course, highly inefficient and time consuming, but I don't see any other option given New Jersey's past treatment of this issue.

The first municipality in which I have attempted local enforcement is the small Borough of Peapack and Gladstone in Somerset County.  The Borough wasn't publishing the dollar amounts of its no-bid professional services contracts and wasn't publishing the no-bid contracts it was awarding to its municipal prosecutor and public defender at all. (The Borough genuinely believed that publication of the prosecutor's and defender's contracts wasn't necessary because it was part of a joint municipal court.)

I have secured from that Borough an April 29, 2016 letter in which the Borough agreed, going forward, to fully comply with the dollar amount disclosure statute.  One down and probably another couple hundred to go.

Cape May challenged on charging OPRA requestors to copy records to be scanned and e-mailed.

On April 4, 2016, Clinton attorney Walter M. Luers filed a Denial of Access complaint with the Government Records Council (GRC) on behalf of a local on-line newspaper reporter who was told that she needed to pay "$1.80 for copying fees" before Cape May City Clerk Louise Cummiskey would scan twenty-six pages of public records into an electronic file and e-mail it to her.

The reporter, Lisa Tilton of Galloway Township News, had filed a February 24, 2016 Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request in which she sought a "[c]opy of Legal Bills, including Purchase Order, Invoice and detail billing in Scheeler vs. City of Cape May. Timeframe August 1, 2015 to current."  In her response, Cummiskey imposed a $1.80 copying charge and told Tilton that "[t]here are 26 documents @ $.05." (Note: Even if the copying fee is justified, it would come to $1.30, not $1.80.)  In justification of the fee, Cummiskey stated:
As I previously stated, we are ready to send you the requested records upon receipt of payment. As the records you requested are not maintained electronically, we have to pull those individual records from storage, copy, and then scan them to send them to you electronically. Therefore, we are permitted to charge you a $0.05 copying fee per page. I direct your attention to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5. The fact that you have requested these copies electronically does not negate the copying fee.
Again, we are ready to send you these documents upon receipt of payment. I am NOT refusing your request. I am asking that you send me the required payment before I electronically send you the documents.
Luers said that he and Tilton "simply do not understand" why Cummiskey "is insisting that she needs to make copies of the invoices before scanning them"  and that the invoices "should be scanned as they are, not copied first."  He noted that OPRA allows records custodians to charge requestors only their actual, necessary costs of producing records and that the burden is on the custodian to justify those costs.  In addition to the records, Luers is also seeking an order requiring the City of Cape May to pay his attorney fees for bringing the action.

The GRC will render a decision in about a year to eighteen months.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Trenton admits that it violated Attorney General's Internal Affairs reporting requirements.

In her April 29, 2016 response to the Government Records Council (GRC), Assistant City Attorney Lori E. Caughman admitted that the Trenton Police Department failed to prepare two types of mandatory public reports that summarize complaints received and adjudicated by the department's Internal Affairs Unit.

Caughman's filing was in response to my Denial of Access Complaint which was filed on March 31, 2016 by attorney CJ Griffin of Hackensack.  The complaint shows that on October 21, 2015, I had requested several types of reports that the Attorney General's Internal Affairs Guidelines require police departments to prepare and make available to the public.  Among the reports I requested  were the reports required by "Requirement 10" on p 44 of the Guidelines:
Each agency must release reports to the public summarizing the allegations received and the investigations concluded for that period. In addition, the agency shall periodically release a brief synopsis of all complaints where a fine or suspension of 10 days or more was assessed to an agency member.
In her December 10, 2015 response to my request for the six most recent versions of each of these required reports (for a total of twelve reports), Trenton Police Detective Alexis Durlacher released only one Internal Affairs Summary Report covering the first half of 2012.  I received no answer to my December 21, 2015 fax to Diadina Allen of the City Clerk's office asking why the eleven missing reports were not provided.  It was only after I filed my GRC action did the City admit that those eleven reports do not exist.

The New Jersey Libertarian Party's Police Accountability Project has filed an Internal Affairs complaint "against the employee(s), whose identities are presently unknown, who are responsible for preparing and releasing" these reports.