The GRC’s Time Problem

We have always recommended that clients challenge their OPRA denials in Superior Court. Why? Primarily because the process is significantly faster.  An action filed in Superior Court will generally be resolved within 2-4 months in most cases, unless there is an appeal. This expedited process is vital to transparency, especially for reporters who need the records to report news to the public in a timely fashion.

In contrast, we have filed 4 denial of access complaints in the GRC and the process was unbearably long.  One case took 25 months, another 22 months,  and a third took 13 months. The fourth matter is still pending 24 months later, although the GRC did issue an interim decision 19 months into the case. We do not know when a final decision will be issued. OPRA mandates that the GRC handle cases “as expeditiously as possible,” but the GRC does not seem to be living up to that mandate.

Joe Hernandez of WHYY wrote a story about the GRC’s extreme slowness called,  “Appealing a Public Records Request Denial in N.J.? Don’t Hold Your Breath.” Hernandez notes:

The GRC was supposed to be the faster, easier alternative to filing a lawsuit in state court. But a review of the council’s internal tracking system shows it has a backlog dating back to 2014, tying up some cases without a resolution for years.

The story explains that the GRC suffered considerable budget cuts and staffing shortages under the Christie Administration.  Whatever the cause for the GRC delay, we hope that this problem is remedied as too many citizens go to the GRC to file a simple complaint and end up not getting access to the records they sought for years.

 

 

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Lawsuit Seeks Newark’s AmazonHQ2 Proposal

On February 20, 2018, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin filed an OPRA lawsuit against the City of Newark on behalf of long-time client Steven Wronko.  The lawsuit seeks access to a copy of Newark’s AmazonHQ2 proposal.

For our prior press release about the suit and a copy of the complaint, click here.

On March 26, 2018, Newark moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint. In support of its motion, Newark submitted a certification by Aisha Glover, Executive Director of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (“NCEDC”), which simply stated that a) Newark is bound by a non-disclosure agreement and b) Newark would be at a competitive disadvantage if it released its proposal.   Newark’s motion brief and Glover’s certification (with the non-disclosure agreements) can be found here and here.

On April 3, 2018, Plaintiff opposed the motion to dismiss. Plaintiff’s brief can be found here and his argument is summarized as follows:

  • The non-disclosure agreement a) only applies to information that Amazon has disclosed to Newark and b) expressly states that agencies may comply with their public records laws
  • Newark has not offered any evidence regarding type of content within its proposal and why releasing that type of information would put it at a competitive disadvantage. Our courts have repeatedly held that an agency cannot overcome OPRA’s presumption of access by simply making a conclusory statement that a record is exempt or that harm will occur if a record is released.
  • Many of the details that Newark says it cannot release without putting it at a competitive disadvantage have already been released by Newark itself.  For example:
    • Newark states that the proposed site locations for Amazon HQ2 are secret, yet in December it took a group of reporters on a bus tour of those locations and even provided renderings directly from its proposal!  To see those renderings and read about the tour, check out these stories and slideshows by Real Estate NJ, ROI-NJ, and NJ.com.
    • On the tour, Newark discussed specific details of what it included in its proposal, such as touting its fiber optic infrastructure and internet speed.
    • Newark states that its incentives are top secret, but the Legislature’s $5 billion incentive package and Newark’s commitment to $2 billion in additional incentives has already been disclosed to the public.
  • Newark has not proven that its proposal cannot be released in redacted form to protect any remaining non-public information while permitting the public to see the bulk of the proposal. OPRA requires records to be redacted so that non-exempt information is released. Many of the finalist cities have taken this approach and have released their proposals with redaction to non-public information. Some finalist cities, such as Boston and Washington D.C., have even gone so far as to create entire websites as part of their pitch, which contain their proposals.  Newark, however, denied complete access to its proposal, even though it has disclosed much of the information within it to the press already.

Hearing:
The Honorable Jeffrey B. Beacham, J.S.C., will hear oral argument on Friday, April 20, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. at the Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark, NJ.

 

 

An Appellate Division Win

Today, PSWH secured an appellate victory for two long-term firm clients, Richard Rivera and Collene Wronko.

The case involved OPRA requests for records from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) which related to an incident where police officers shot and killed a man outside his home in Old Bridge. Both Mr. Rivera and Ms. Wronko sought access to the 9-1-1 call of the incident, as well as other police records, such as CAD reports and Standard Operating Procedures. Their requests were denied.

After lawsuits were filed, MCPO eventually released a redacted version of the 9-1-1 call. The judge upheld those redactions, ruling that those portions of the call raised serious privacy concerns. The judge also ordered MCPO to release CAD reports and Standard Operating Procedures, but permitted redactions to any exempt material. Despite the fact that both Ms. Wronko and Mr. Rivera got exactly the relief they were seeking in their lawsuits (lawfully redacted records), MCPO insisted that they were not entitled to full reimbursement of their fees.  Judge Francis disagreed and found that both requestors were fully prevailing parties and awarded approximately $22,000 in fees and costs.

MCPO appealed, again arguing that the requestors were only “partially” prevailing parties since they received only redacted records. The Appellate Division affirmed Judge Francis’ decision, describing MCPO’s arguments as “factually inaccurate and lack[ing] merit.”

The MCPO lost two other appeals involving media companies who had requested the same 9-1-1 call, bringing the total cost for denying access to the 9-1-1 call to over $130,000.  Because MCPO lost its appeals, the requestors will be entitled to additional fees for the appellate work.

A copy of the decision may be found here.

Media Coverage:

Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office to Pay $20k in OPRA Case,” MyCentralNewJersey.com (Mar. 20, 2018).

Middlesex Prosecutor Again Loses on OPRA Fees Issue,” N.J. Law Journal (Mar. 20, 2018).

A Sunshine Week Win on Payroll Records

Today, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden secured a victory for our client, Jennifer Coombs, in an OPRA case against the Borough of Westwood.

Ms. Coombs had requested payroll records from Westwood for all employees working for the Borough in 2017.  Westwood responded to Ms. Coombs’ request by providing a payroll report, but redacting the names of numerous employees from it. Westwood stated that the redacted names were of minor employees who worked in the summer recreation program and that they were entitled to privacy.  After Ms. Coombs objected, Westwood released a new version of the report, but included only initials instead of names for all employees under the age of 18.  Ms. Coombs filed suit and Westwood opposed, insisting that OPRA’s privacy provision permitted non-disclosure of the names.

Today, the Honorable Bonnie J. Mizdol, A.J.S.C., ruled in Ms. Coombs’ favor. The judge noted that N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 provides that notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, a government employee’s “name, title, position, salary, payroll record” and other enumerated information is accessible under OPRA. Thus, the judge ordered disclosure of the payroll records without redactions to the names of the minor employees, ruling that OPRA’s privacy provision was not applicable and that government employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy over their name and salary information.

“The language of the statute could not be any clearer,” said PSWH Partner CJ Griffin, who represented Ms. Coombs. “While most personnel records are exempt from access, the Legislature has declared that the public is always entitled to basic information about government employees, including their names and salaries. To rule that the identities of certain categories of employees could remain secret would permit unchecked nepotism or corruption to occur.”

Westwood has until March 20, 2018 to produce the payroll records. Judge Mizdol also ruled that Ms. Coombs’ is entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees for prevailing in the suit.

Click here for a copy of the decision.

For questions or comments, please contact CJ Griffin at 201-270-4930 or cgriffin@pashmanstein.com

AG Issues New Police Shooting Video Directive

Last week, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal issued Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2018-1, which provides instructions to law enforcement agencies in this State regarding public access to dash camera and body camera footage of police-involved shootings.  We find that there are both pros and cons to this new directive.

Pros:
On one hand, we are very happy to see that the new Attorney General clearly understands that transparency advances public trust in law enforcement. The overall spirit of this directive is positive and it recognizes that law enforcement do not need permanent confidentiality over their records–the directive requires disclosure of police shooting videos within 20 days, in most cases. The presumption of access is important and we hope that agencies will follow the directive and will not seek constant extensions of time to release these videos.

Cons:
On the other hand, the new directive does not give the public any more access than already existed pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst. If anything, the new directive may make access to police shooting videos slower, as the Lyndhurst decision held that access must be granted “within a few days” and the new directive sets a timeline of 20 days.  We fear that  requestors will now need to wait for 20 days after an incident to file an OPRA request, then wait an additional 7 business days to gain access to the video. This is much slower than what we have experienced the past several months since the Lyndhurst decision was issued.

We are also disappointed that the directive only applies to videos which depict the use of deadly force or where other force results in “serious bodily injury.”  We think that the spirit of the Lyndhurst decision makes it clear that most police videos should be released relatively soon after an incident occurs, but the new directive applies Lyndhurst very narrowly and the public will still struggle to gain access to police video which shows other types of misconduct or more minimal uses of force.  For example, we think that if a police officer uses a racial slur toward a suspect while arresting them, the public should be able to see the video.  The new directive, however, would not require disclosure unless the suspect was seriously injured.  This is problematic.

News Coverage:
PSWH Partner CJ Griffin was quoted in NJ Advance Media’s article on the new directive.

 

For assistance with OPRA matters, please contact CJ Griffin at 201-488-8200 or cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Appellate Division Rules Agencies Cannot Hide Behind Technology

Last week, the Appellate Division issued a published decision that is very important to transparency.  While the court’s analysis of its standard of review over GRC decisions will excite appellate attorneys, it is the more substantive portion of the court’s decision that grabbed our attention.

The case is Conley v. N.J. Dep’t of Corrections, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. Jan. 12, 2018), and it involves an OPRA request that was filed by Kevin Conley, an inmate at the New Jersey State Prison.

Mr. Conley’s OPRA request sought “monthly remedy statistical reports” that were required to be produced by N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.8(a)(4) and other federal laws. He had requested these reports in the past and they were always produced, but this time the DOC responded by saying that it had adopted a new computerized database in January 2014 and the requested monthly reports “are no longer generated or available.”

Mr. Conley objected, noting that he had always gotten the reports before and that the DOC was mandated by law to produce these monthly reports. The DOC continued to deny the request, insisting that it no longer generates the reports and that it was not obligated to “create a record.”

Mr. Conley filed a complaint on his own in the Government Records Council (tip: we advise going to court instead!) and lost. The GRC accepted the DOC Custodian’s certification that it did not possess the monthly reports and ruled that it did not violate OPRA.

The Appellate Division reversed the GRC. It noted that the DOC was mandated by federal and State regulations to make the monthly reports. It held that were it to accept the DOC’s argument that the report was no longer available based on the manner by which DOC chose to store this public data, it would render “the public policy of transparency and openness the Legislature codified in [OPRA] unacceptably vulnerable to bureaucratic manipulation.”

Importantly, the Court held that “[t]echnological advancements in data storage should enhance, not diminish, the public’s right to access ‘government records’ under OPRA . . . . A government agency cannot erect technological barriers to deny access to government records.”

What does this mean for OPRA requestors?  This case builds upon the Supreme Court’s recent holding in Paff v. Galloway, which held that electronically stored information is a government record that must be produced. Where an agency is obligated by law to produce a certain type of report or a specific document each month (or year) and it fails to do so because it has moved to an electronic database, it cannot avoid its obligations under OPRA. It would need to pull data from its database to produce the report/document to the requestor.

For assistance with OPRA matters, please contact CJ Griffin at 201-488-8200 or cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Griffin to Give OPRA Training in River Edge

PSWH Partner CJ Griffin will be giving an OPRA training on Tuesday, January 23, 2017 at 6:30pm at the River Edge Public Library, 685 Elm ave, River Edge, NJ.

This event is free and open to the public.  Come learn about the nuts and bolts of filing an OPRA request!

This event is sponsored by Indivisible NJ 5th District, Glen Rock People Power, Ridgewood JOLT, Glen Rock after the March, Women for Progress, and Ramsey Pins!

OPRA Training in Clifton, NJ

On December 12, 2017, CJ Griffin will speak at the Clifton ASAP (Advocating Solutions and Progress) Group in Clifton, NJ.

Griffin will give a presentation on the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and answer questions from the public. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.

When: December 12, 2017 at 7pm
Where:  Allwood Public Library, 44 Lyall Road, Clifton, NJ
Who: Clifton ASAP Group

All may attend. Cost is free.

How to Monitor Police Agencies: Part 3

In this third part of our series about using OPRA to monitor police agencies, we will discuss how to ensure that individual officers meet the qualifications for their duty assignments and are properly trained.

Generally, personnel records are exempt from access under OPRA. However, we previously blogged about the personnel records exemption and explained that there are three exceptions. The third exception provides that the following records are accessible:

data contained in information which disclose conformity with specific experiential, educational or medical qualifications required for government employment or for receipt of a public pension, but not including any detailed medical or psychological information, shall be a government record.

[N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.]

This means that you are able to obtain any records which prove that an employee meets the requirements of the job.

For police officers, this means that you can obtain training certificates for courses that they are required to take in order to take in order to be police officers. Among the required courses that every police officer in New Jersey must complete include:

  • basic police academy training
  • annual firearms requalification training
  • use of force training
  • vehicular pursuit training
  • domestic violence training
  • cultural diversity training
  • bias intimidation crimes training

Other courses may be necessary in order for a police officer to be promoted or to hold a specific duty assignment. Some of these courses include:

  • Breathalyzer training courses and recertification for those who operate breathalyzers
  • 911 dispatcher and call-taker training and recertification for those who work in 911 call centers
  • K-9 training for those who work with canine partners

Any of these records can be requested and will help the public ensure that officers are properly trained and qualified for the positions that they hold.

Sample OPRA requests:
“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek the Officer Jones’ use of force training certificates for years 2015-2017.”
“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek the annual firearms recertification certificates for all of the police officers in your police department for the year 2017.”

How to Monitor Police Agencies: Part 2

We recently blogged about how you can use OPRA to gain access to records which shine light on the use of force by police officers. This blog discusses other types of police records that will help you monitor your local police department.

Internal Affairs Annual Summary Reports:

The Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policy requires law enforcement agencies to release an annual summary report to the public which “summarizes the types of [internal affairs] complaints received and the dispositions of those complaints.” This report, usually in the form of a chart, will help you monitor the types of complaints that are being lodged against officers.

Sample OPRA request:

“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek your police department’s Internal Affairs Annual Summary Report for 2016.”

Internal Affairs Public Synopsis of Disciplinary Action:

Requirement 10 of the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policy also requires law enforcement agencies to periodically disclose to the public “a brief synopsis of all complaints where a fine or suspension of ten days or more was assessed to an agency member.” While the report will not identify the officer by name, it should briefly outline the nature of the transgression and the fine or sentence that was imposed. This permits the public to see details of more serious internal affairs allegations that were sustained and will highlight an agency’s most egregious problems.

Sample OPRA request:

“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek your agency’s Public Synopsis of Disciplinary Actions for years 2014 to 2017. This report is required pursuant to Requirement 10 of the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Police.”

Vehicle Pursuit Reports:

Vehicle pursuits not only put the suspect and police officers at risk, but also other people who happen to be in their way. Every year there are reports where innocent bystanders are injured or killed when a vehicle slams into theirs during the course of a police pursuit.

There are two reports which will help you monitor vehicle pursuits. First, pursuant to the Attorney General’s Police Vehicular Pursuit Policy an officer must complete a “Police Pursuit Incident Report” for every pursuit. If you read about a pursuit in the newspaper, you can request this report to find out more details about who was involved in the incident.

Second, the Attorney General’s policy requires every municipal police agency to submit an annual agency “Vehicular Pursuit Summary Report” to the county prosecutor, which will detail the total number of pursuits and other useful information. You can compare these reports to other towns or look to see if any particular officer engages in pursuits more frequently.

A sample of both reports can be found here:

Sample OPRA request:

“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek a copy of the Police Pursuit Incident Report for the vehicle chase that occurred last night near Exit 151 on the Garden State Parkway and the police department’s Vehicular Pursuit Summary Report for 2016.”