Tag Archives: transparency

It’s Sunshine Week!

Sunshine Week, which runs from March 15 to March 21, 2020, is an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information. There are many ways that you can get involved–from filing OPRA requests, to writing a letter to the editor, to attending a public meeting. On this blog, we will write several times this week about transparency topics and success we have had recently shedding light on New Jersey government!

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To contact us about this blog post or discuss an OPRA denial, email cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or visit the “contact us” tab above.

Access Begins With A Valid OPRA Request

Each month, we receive dozens of inquiries from people who are upset that their OPRA requests were denied. The most frequent basis for denial is that the request is invalid as written. Although there are records custodians who will happily work with the requestor to fulfill a less-than-perfect request, other custodians will quickly deny any request that does not strictly comply with OPRA’s requirements.  A valid OPRA request is thus the critical first step to obtaining public records and it is important to draft a request that follows some basic guidelines.

Guideline 1:  Do not ask questions in an OPRA request. Although people usually file OPRA requests because they have questions about some public issue, an agency has no obligation to answer those questions. An agency’s only obligation under OPRA is to produce non-exempt public records. Although elected public officials may answer questions via email or at a public meeting, an OPRA request must stick to requesting documents.

Guideline 2: Provide a reasonable timeframe. Public agencies are permitted to impose special service charges where a request requires an “extraordinary” amount of time to fulfill. Requestors must be mindful of how many documents will be responsive to the request and keep the timeframe relatively narrow.

Guideline 3: Seek identifiable records. A valid OPRA request seeks identifiable documents. A request that seeks “any and all records relating to the town’s animal control services” is overbroad because it leaves the custodian not knowing what the requestor wants. Instead, requestors must identify specific, such as “I seek the following records relating to the town’s animal control services: shared services agreements for 2018, the health inspection report for the animal shelter for 2018, and all settlement agreements involving the animal shelter for 2018-2019.”

Tip: There are several ways to learn about what types of records might exist:

  1. Look for statutes, regulations and ordinances on the topic. Many government operations must comply with specific provisions of law. Animal control, for example, is highly-regulated and there are state statutes and regulations that require animal shelters to maintain certain paperwork. Looking at the statutes and regulations will help identify some records that might exist.
  2. Look at records retention schedules. All agencies must comply with the State’s records retention laws. Although the records retention schedules do not list every record that must be maintained, they provide some information regarding the types of documents an agency might possess.
  3. Request agency policies. An agency’s written policies, standard operating procedures, or operating handbooks might provide information regarding the types of written reports employees are required to generate or the types of records the agency must keep.
  4. Ask the agency. Believe it or not, many government employees will happily help a requestor identify what record exists if they know what type of information the requestor is seeking.

Guideline 4State the preferred format and method of delivery. A request should indicate if the requestor wants the records to be sent to them via email for free or if they want to receive hard copies, which cost 5 cents per page. The request should indicate the preferred format, such as an Excel file or a PDF. Stating these preferences up front in the OPRA request avoids confusion.

Following these general guidelines will help requestors overcome the first hurdle and send the records custodian on the hunt for responsive government records.

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 For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

 

NJ Supreme Court grants certification in OPRA case regarding identity of State Trooper who engaged in “racially offensive” behavior

The New Jersey Supreme Court has granted an OPRA requestor’s Petition for Certification and agreed to hear an appeal in Libertarians for Transparent Government v. New Jersey State Police.

The question the Court certified is:

“Does section ten of the Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, require disclosure of the name of a state trooper listed in the Office of Professional Standard’s annual report to the Legislature as having been terminated for misconduct?”

For background, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 states that personnel records are generally exempt under OPRA, but provides three exceptions to the exemption. At issue in this case is the first exception, which states that:

an individual’s name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor, and the amount and type of any pension received shall be a government record”

Each year, the Office of Professional Standards of the New Jersey State Police issues a public report detailing major discipline that is imposed upon State Troopers.  The 2015 report disclosed the following:

Member pled guilty to acting in an unofficial capacity to the discredit of the Division while off-duty by having questionable associations, engaging in racially offensive behavior and publicly discussing police patrol procedures. The member was required to forfeit all accrued time and separate from employment with the Division.

Upon reviewing that report, the requestor filed an OPRA request asking for the Trooper’s name, title, date of separation and the reason therefor, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10. The State Police denied the request, arguing that it was exempt pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 and the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policies & Procedures.

Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin sued on behalf of the requestor and argued that “date of separation and the reason therefor” meant that the public is entitled to know the real reason a particular employee separated from employment. In this case, the State Police gave the reason, but would not provide the name or date of separation, frustrating the statute’s purpose. Clearly, the public has a significant interest in knowing the identity of a Trooper who engaged in “racially offensive behavior.” Moreover, the the phrase “required to . . . separate from employment” makes it unclear whether the Trooper was fired or whether he or she was permitted to retire in good standing and move on to another law enforcement position.

Griffin argued that disclosure of the Trooper’s name was required pursuant to the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in South Jersey Publishing Co. v. New Jersey Expressway Authority, 124 N.J. 478 (1991), a unanimous opinion written by retired Supreme Court Justice Gary S. Stein. In that case, it was widely rumored that the agency’s executive director was under scrutiny for misusing government credit cards.  The agency met in executive session and discussed its investigation into the matter, then worked out an agreement by which the executive director would “resign in good standing” and receive payment of his salary and fringe benefits for nearly a year after his “resignation.” OPRA did not exist at the time, but Executive Order No. 11 (EO 11) contained language essentially identical to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 and required disclosure of an employee’s “date of separation from government service and the reason therefor.”  Applying that provision of EO 11, the Court found it was insufficient for the agency to simply tell the public that there was a “resignation” or “voluntary separation,” but rather that it must disclose “the results of the [agency’s] investigation.”  The Court recognized that disclosure of such information was necessary so that the public could intelligently make an evaluation of whether the agency acted reasonably in permitting the executive director to resign in good standing with several months of salary and benefits.

Unfortunately, in this case, the trial court and Appellate Division both affirmed the State Police’s denial of access. Neither court addressed the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in South Jersey Publishing. The Supreme Court will now hear the requestor’s appeal.

The successful Petition for Certification can be found here. Amicus curiae briefs are due on December 26, 2019.

Third Circuit Issues Important OPRA Decision on Legal Fees

According to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-6, a records requestor who prevails in any proceeding shall be entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees. We have written about OPRA’s fee-shifting provision before, noting that without the fee-shift most requestors would not have the funds to challenge denials of access. As a result, the state would be far less transparent.

On August 14, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued an important published opinion relating to OPRA’s mandatory fee-shifting provision.

The case, titled Golden v. New Jersey Institute for Technology, involved OPRA requests filed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel Golden, who was seeking records from NJIT to use as research for his book, “Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities.” Many of the responsive records in NJIT’s files originated from the FBI and were purportedly subject to prohibitions on public dissemination.

The records custodian reached out to the FBI to determine how to respond to the request and the FBI directed NJIT to withhold most of the records “[i]n no uncertain terms.” NJIT thus denied the OPRA requests by claiming the records were exempt.  Golden sued.

After the lawsuit was filed and removed to federal court, the FBI reviewed the previously withheld records and NJIT produced thousands of pages of documents that it had formerly deemed to be exempt. Golden moved for attorney’s fees, arguing that he was a prevailing party because his lawsuit was the “catalyst” for NJIT’s release of records that were not exempt. The District Court denied the fee motion and was “persuaded by NJIT’s position that it had acted reasonably in following the FBI’s direction.”

The Third Circuit disagreed and all but stated, “If a public agency permits a third party–even if it’s the FBI–to dictate its OPRA response, then that public agency will be on the hook for attorneys’ fees if it turns out that the denial of access was unlawful.” The court made it clear that it is the custodian who has the obligation “to parse the requested records, decide whether exemptions appl[y], and withhold documents pursuant to those exemptions” and that obligation cannot be outsourced to a third party outside the agency.

Importantly, the Third Circuit flatly rejected the argument that OPRA’s fee-shifting provision contains any “reasonableness” requirement. State courts have reached the same conclusion based on the plain language of OPRA, but public agencies still make this argument to trial courts.

This decision is important because there are often times where issues of first impression are litigated and the agency was operating under good faith when it denied a request, but nonetheless was wrong as a matter of law. In such situations, the OPRA requestor is still entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees. Indeed, OPRA contains a mandatory fee-shifting provision so that requestors can find competent counsel to litigate those types of cases.

Judge rules North Arlington improperly imposed service charge for Facebook records

Last week, Bergen County Assignment Judge Bonnie J. Mizdol issued an opinion finding that the Borough of North Arlington unlawfully imposed a special service charge upon a records requestor who sought records from the Borough’s Facebook pages.

The OPRA request at issue in Wronko v. North Arlington sought the list of individuals who had been banned from the Borough’s Facebook page, as well as a list of any words that had been censored and the list of page administrators. In response, the Borough insisted it needed to use an outside IT consultant to capture the screenshots necessary to fulfill the request, which would cost $200 for 2 hours of time.

OPRA permits a special service charge only in limited circumstances. Specifically, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(d) provides that:

If a request is for a record: . . . requiring a substantial amount of manipulation or programming of information technology, the agency may charge, in addition to the actual cost of duplication, a special charge that shall be reasonable and shall be based on the cost for any extensive use of information technology, or for the labor cost of personnel providing the service, that is actually incurred by the agency or attributable to the agency for the programming, clerical, and supervisory assistance required, or both.

Otherwise, “electronic records and non-printed materials shall be provided free of charge.” N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(b)(1).

After hearing expert testimony from both parties, Judge Mizdol concluded “that production of the requested documents does not require a substantial amount of manipulation of information technology.”  The court found that capturing screenshots of the Facebook pages that contained the list of banned users and censored words “did not require any expertise in the field of information technology” and that any person with a “basic level of computer skills” would be able to fulfill the request by utilizing Facebook’s “Help” pages or a “simple Google search for ‘how to take a screenshot.'”

Importantly, the Court noted that it is imperative that agencies be able to fulfill modern day OPRA requests:

OPRA requests increasingly involve information technology in this digital age. Those hired to serve as an OPRA Records Custodian, thus, must have the requisite skills to reply to requests for government records located on such digital platforms. If a custodian does not have such skills, the municipality has the ability to rely on information technology experts or hire third party help. However, shifting costs related to same [to the requestor] requires the presence of a substantial amount of manipulation on information technology.

Unfortunately, the imposition of special service charges seems to be on the uptick. Many requestors may simply walk away from a request if the agency seeks to impose a significant fee, but it is possible to challenge the fees in court. In this case, Judge Mizdol ordered the agency to release the records without any fee and to pay the requestor’s legal fees.

 

Vendor Activity Reports: A Helpful Tool for Tracking Spending

Many people want to know how they can monitor an agency’s spending and determine how much an agency is paying a certain vendor (such as a law firm, plumber, construction company, or insurance company) or even who the agency’s vendors are. A “Vendor Activity Report” (or “Vendor History Report”) is a very helpful tool for learning this information.

A Vendor Activity/History Report details all payments made to every individual or company that was entered into the agency’s accounting software in order to receive a payment. If a bill is paid, then there is a corresponding “vendor” entry in the accounting software.  The Vendor Activity/History Report will list all of the vendors and the total amount of money they were paid during the requested time frame. Once you obtain the report and see something that interests you, then you can you can request the corresponding payment vouchers and bills/invoices for that vendor to further investigate the spending. Requestors have used the Vendor Activity/History Report to identify large reimbursements to the agency’s employees, for example.

Here are a couple examples of Vendor Activity Reports from NJ towns that we found on the Internet, so you can see what they look like and how helpful they can be:

Egg Harbor Township’s Vendor Activity Report, located here, lists all vendors for the designated time frame (2015). This type of report is helpful because you can see the total payments made to every single vendor contained in the agency’s accounting software during a specified time period. If you do not know anything about an agency’s finances or which vendors they use, you can ask for the full vendor activity report and learn who the vendors are and how much they were paid. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all vendors by vendor name for payments made January 1, 2018 to present date.”

Eagleswood Township’s Vendor Activity Reports, located here on this OPRA Machine request,  provide a breakdown of all payments to an identified vendor during the specified time frame. This type of report is helpful when you know about a vendor already and just want to see how much they were paid during a specific time period. In these reports, the requestor sought the activity report for three specific vendors (newspapers). The reports show all of the payments made to those vendors. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all payments made to [Insert Name of Vendor/Company] for January 1, 2018 to present date.”

If you have any questions about this topic, please feel free to contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com

You Only Have 45 Days to Sue for an OPRA Violation

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about OPRA is that there is a very, very short statute of limitations period. This means that if you receive a denial, you need to act very quickly or you may lose your rights to gain access to the record you seek.

What do you do if you receive a denial from an agency or if the agency unlawfully redacts information from government records?

The best course of action is to immediately speak to an attorney, who can work with you to gain access to the records. This frequently requires a lawsuit filed in Superior Court.  Again, the most important thing to remember is that your action must be filed within the statute of limitations, which is only 45 calendar days. The process for filing in Superior Court is as follows:

  • You will sign a retainer agreement with an attorney, who will likely agree to represent you on a fee-shifting basis (meaning, there will be no charge to you–the agency will pay the fees if and when you prevail)
  • A Verified Complaint and Order to Show Cause is filed. These will be drafted by the requestor’s attorney, though the requestor must sign the complaint to verify it is accurate.
  • The judge will review and sign the order, which sets for a briefing schedule and a hearing date.
  • The pleadings are then served upon the public agency and they will submit an opposition brief. Sometimes, an agency may opt to release the records and settle the attorney fee amount rather than proceed with the litigation.
  • The requestor’s attorney has an opportunity to file a reply brief.
  • A hearing is held, wherein the judge will hear arguments from both sides. For simple cases, the judge will usually enter a ruling that day. More complex cases may require a little more time for an opinion to issue. The requestor need not be present for the hearing.
  • If the requestor is declared a prevailing party, the court will order the agency to pay the requestor’s attorney fees.

Again, the most important thing to remember is that there is a very short timeline for filing the initial Verified Complaint – 45 days from the date your request was denied.

For more information about this blog post and challenging a denial of access, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Supreme Court Rules Dash Cams Pertaining to Criminal Investigations Are Not Subject to OPRA

This week, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a split decision (4-3) in Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and once again ruled that dash camera videos that pertain to criminal investigations are not subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

While the decision is a serious disappointment to transparency advocates, it does not actually change the status quo. Last year, in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the dash cam video of a police-involved deadly shooting was not subject to OPRA because there was no Attorney General (AG) guideline or other law (statute, regulation, etc.) that required it to be made or maintained.[1]

The Court made it clear in Lyndhurst, however, that dash camera videos of police shootings should generally be released under the common law right of access within a few days of an incident. The AG subsequently issued a directive requiring their release within 20 days.

In Lyndhurst, the Court specifically said that it was not answering the question presented by Paff (which was pending on the Court’s docket): whether a directive by a local chief of police could satisfy the “required by law” standard, just as an AG directive does. Thus, the Paff case became a new opportunity for transparency advocates to convince the Court that dash camera videos are accessible under OPRA.

Unfortunately, the Court rejected that argument and thus the law remains the same: dash camera videos are only available under the common law right of access. But, it was a very close decision (4-3). Justice Albin wrote a biting dissent, which Justice LaVecchia and Justice Timpone joined, concluding that “[i]n the wake of today’s majority opinion, the operations of our government will be less transparent and our citizenry less informed, which may lead to greater misunderstanding and more distrust between the public and the police.”

We think Justice Albin’s assessment is right and we hope that the Legislature or the Attorney General will accept his invitation for action:

In accordance with Lyndhurst, the Attorney General or the Legislature can undo the damage caused by today’s decision. The Attorney General can adopt a statewide policy that addresses whether and how police video recordings are made and maintained, as he did with Use of Force Reports.

The public — particularly marginalized communities — will have greater trust in the police when law enforcement activities are transparent.

The public pays for the dash cameras. Why can’t we see the videos?

What Videos are Still Available?

  • Dash Cam Videos Relating to Crimes: These are probably not available under OPRA in most circumstances, but generally should be available under the common law per Lyndhurst.
  • Dash Cam Videos of Police Using Deadly Force: Same. Also, AG Directive 2018-1 requires disclosure under the common law within 20 days if the video depicts a deadly shooting or an incident where police use force that results in “serious bodily injury.”
  • Dash Cam Videos of a DWI: A DWI is not a crime, so these should generally be available under OPRA.
  • Dash Cam Videos of Traffic Stops: These should generally be available, unless the traffic stop turns criminal.
  • Body Camera Videos: We think these should be subject to OPRA because an AG Guideline requires them to be maintained. At the same time, the AG Guideline attempts to exempt body cam videos relating to criminal investigations. We have this issue pending on appeal.
  • Security Camera Videos: The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that security camera videos are not subject to OPRA, but access should be granted under the common law where a person states a sufficient interest in the video.

PSWH partner CJ Griffin submitted a brief on behalf of several amicus curiae and participated in the nearly three-hour oral argument. Griffin has litigated dozens of police records cases, including Lyndhurst.  Contact CJ at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com


[1] A criminal investigatory record is a record that is 1) held by a law enforcement agency; 2) pertain to any criminal investigation and 3) are “not required by law to be made, maintained, or kept on file.”

Amazon suit continues to get coverage

The New York Times has published an article about the serious lack of transparency regarding the proposals that cities have submitted bids to Amazon for their HQ2 Headquarters. Despite the fact that the taxpayers of the winning city will be on the hook for billions of dollars in incentives, too many cities are still keeping the public in the dark about what Amazon is being offered.

The article references our lawsuit, which secured access to the City of Newark’s bid, which we published.

Update: Court Orders Disclosure of Facebook “Blocked Users” Lists

We previously wrote about an OPRA lawsuit we filed on behalf of citizen seeking a list of users that various public officials from Glen Rock have blocked from their official Facebook accounts. Today we are happy to report that the suit was successful.

In Larkin v. Glen Rock, the Honorable Bonnie J. Mizdol, A.J.S.C., ruled that the lists of blocked users from each of the Facebook pages in questions were “government records” that are subject to access under OPRA. In her 23-page opinion, the judge noted that there is no “one-size-fit-all” approach to determine whether a particular Facebook account falls within OPRA’s scope. Rather, she applied a “fact-sensitive review” of the Facebook pages at issue to conclude that they were indeed subject to OPRA.  Among other things, the judge noted that:

  • The mayor and each council member’s Facebook pages “clearly identified them as elected members of the Glen Rock governing body”
  • Each page was “separate and distinct from their personal, friends and family Facebook pages”
  • Each page was used for “discussing matters directly pending before the Mayor and Council,” including topics such as “ordinances, resolutions, budgets, and committees on which the Mayor or council member serves.”
  • The posts on each page “shared ideas, answered questions and interacted with constituents and the public at large about the Borough’s official business”
  • The Borough’s website had linked to the Facebook pages
  • The officials encouraged the public to “like” the pages in order to get information about the Borough’s business

The court also rejected Glen Rock’s argument that those who were blocked by the public officials had a right to privacy.