Monday, May 15, 2017

Court to rule on whether Cumberland SPCA is subject to OPRA.

Update 05/18/17:  The CCSPCA's answer and opposing certification and brief are on-line here and most of the exhibits to the brief are on-line here.
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On Thursday, June 1, 2017, Superior Court Judge Anne McDonnell will hear argument on whether the Cumberland County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) is subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and, if so, whether the SPCA improperly denied access to veterinary services invoices it submitted to the City of Millville.

The Cumberland SPCA chapter is under contract with the City of Millville, as well as other area municipal governments, to provide animal shelter and control services.  Part of the SPCA's agreement with Millville requires the City to reimburse the SPCA for veterinary services.  In response to a February 22, 2017 OPRA request submitted by Libertarians For Transparent Government (LFTG), Millville provided several pages of invoices that the SPCA had submitted.  Some of those invoices contained redactions (see, e.g. pp 15, 16 and 23 of Millville's 127-page response) which the City said "were made by the CCSPCA, not the City Clerk's Department."  The City also said that the redactions were "part of what triggered the investigation."  (I understand from speaking with sources that the investigation involved whether or not the SPCA passed on to the City discounts it had received from veterinarians.  I have no information regarding whether or not the allegations underlying this investigation were well founded nor do I have the results of any investigation.) 

LTFG then filed a second OPRA request with the Cumberland SPCA seeking unredacted versions of the invoices.  In response, SPCA lawyer Rocco Tedesco stated that he "want[ed] to make it clear that the Cumberland County SPCA/Vineland Animal Shelter does not consider itself subject to the Open Public Records Act."  Tedesco's response denied LFTG access to the unredacted invoices because the redacted portions of the invoices contained charges assessed to municipalities other than Millville and were, apparently in Tedesco's view, not relevant to LFTG's request. 

On April 21, 2017, LFTG filed suit against the SPCA.  The lawsuit claims that the SPCA and its county chapters are subject to OPRA because they were formed by the legislature and perform a number of traditional government functions, such as law enforcement.  The suit also argues that the Tedesco's refusal to disclose the invoices' redactions violated OPRA because nothing in OPRA permits a government agency to deny access to records that it believes aren't relevant to a request.

LFTG is being represented by CJ Griffin of Hackensack.  Griffin had previously won a similar suit against the Monmouth County SPCA chapter.

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