April 06, 2006

Public Info Officer Doesn't Like You Asking for Public Info

In an article published in the Cranford Chronicle this week - "Resident sues over access to records" - Union County Public Information Officer Sebastian D’Elia complains that I’ve placed 150 Open Public Records Act requests in the years 2003 to 2005 which amounted to 366 pieces of information.

The county doesn’t simply answer questions. If a citizen contacts the county for information they will direct you to place an OPRA request. Ask too many questions and they turn the tables and start complaining about you.

You would think it's their money and not the taxpayers'.

Without questioning D’Elia’s math or his job title, consider that in 2005 I placed 106 OPRA requests for meeting agendas and regular and executive meeting minutes.

Times that by three years and the number comes to 318 pieces of information.

If the county is over-burdened by these requests then there is a simple solution: they can post this basic public information on their own taxpayer-funded Web site as many local governments have been doing for years.

If county employees are spending time fulfilling my OPRA "demands" it’s because they waste their time and taxpayers' money on trying to keep information from me as evidenced in the 15 Government Records Council complaints I’ve had to file to date.

Taxpayers please rest assured that I’ve gotten not one public record for free from the county. I pay $0.75 per sheet of paper. A recent court ruling found this fee to be illegal. The judge ruled that Kinko’s charges $0.60 cents per copy and it was wrong for the government to charge $0.75.

The fee set by OPRA was ment to be "up to .75". The juge ruled OPRA fees have to be based on actual costs minus labor. According to this ruling, I have been overcharged all these years.

Besides monitoring county government by reading meeting minutes, the Union County Watchdog Association uses OPRA to monitor the following:

We request the employee list six times a year. Along with keeping track of raises and hirings, last year we found that Freeholder Louis Mingo was quietly placed on the payroll with a $65,000 job.

We also found that 542 employees have the same surname as elected Democrat officials.

We request the county check registry six times a year. There isn’t enough space here to quantify the information this has revealed regarding county spending practices.

This cost the taxpayers nothing. The UCWA paid $277.60 for a service charge the county applied in order to convert this data file into a format that they deemed could be released to the public.

During the course of the price negotiations for this fee, we learned that the county kept more than one set of books.

We request the employee vehicle assignments twice a year. Last year we found that the County Manager was driving a Chevy Suburban. Also on that list were three freeholders who are part-time employees, enjoying take home vehicles. After the Star-Ledger published a story about this abuse, the three freeholders turned their cars in.

A follow-up request for the vehicle list showed the County Manager turned his Suburban in for an even bigger gas guzzler, a Ford Durango.

Every month we request all documentation from the state regarding the county-run Juvenile Detention Center. Recently records have revealed that the county is still ignoring suicide hazards cited by the state. A lawsuit has been ongoing regarding a 17 year-old who hanged himself on an exposed sprinkler head that was cited by the state as a suicide hazard yet went unrepaired for 17 months prior to his death in 2003.

Bi-monthly we request bills pertaining to mailers the county sends to residents. These records revealed last year alone the county government spent approximately $367,000 on mailings and a commercial at election time.

We’ve just begun to monitor the autonomous Union County Improvement and Utilities Authorities by routinely requesting their regular and executive meeting minutes.

All of these records, and more, are made available on the Union County Watchdog Association’s website for free public access so anyone can monitor county government. www.UnionCountyWatchdog.org

D’Elia claims that I’ve filed frivolous OPRA Government Records Council complaints. However, the GRC did not find my complaints frivolous. They ruled that the county violated the OPRA five times, placed them on their matrix which is a list of frequent OPRA offenders three times and sent one complaint to the Office of Administrative Law.

D’Elia also claims that there was never an OPRA complaint filed against the county except by me. However, the GRC Web site lists a complaint filed in 2003 and just this past Friday an OPRA suit was heard in Union County Superior Court and Judge Kathern Broch ordered the county to release records from a police investigation stemming from a prisoner's painful death, in his jail cell, in 2005.

It’s a tedious task demanding county government be open and accountable to residents and I consider it a public service - not a nuisance as the county would like the public to believe.

My hope is that the public will come to realize that the county takes approximately a quarter of our property tax bill which is about as much as our town takes from us here in Cranford. Look around you. What do we get back from the county for those millions?

OPRA is a wonderful tool for citizens to hold their government accountable. It's not a perfect law, it deffinetly needs more teeth for custodians to obey it to the fullest. And OPRA may not stop politicians, but it certainly does expose them.