July 01, 2007

UCWA files suit in superior court against county OPRA fee


June 29, 2007
Contact Tina Renna, President
Phone: 908-709-0530
Union County Watchdog Association

Richard Brightman, esq.
Phone: 908-709-1900

The Union County Watchdog (UCWA) announced today that it has filed a law suit in Superior Court which challenges the county’s charging an $8.00 an hour fee when the Association placed an Open Public Records (OPRA) request for back up documentation supporting certain county expenditures.

The documents in question, 25 vouchers, represent employee reimbursements and travel expenses totaling $12,085.74. Included in the list is $1,112.78 to the County Manager, $519.78 to the Sheriff, and $210.31 to the County Prosecutor as well as 11 vouchers totaling $3,857.02 for “refreshments” including $1,773.75 for Gourmet Dining c/o Kean, and a cake for a nutrition meeting, costing $42, also requested was a voucher for $1,200 representing the cost of indoor plants.

The UCWA is a 501c3 non profit organization which strives to promote transparency in county government as well as educate the public of its operation by posting on the Watchdog website www.unioncountywatchdog.org meeting minutes of the freeholder board as well as commissions and authorities, resolutions and other documents of public interest including the check register and hand check register which can be viewed and downloaded free of charge. In early 2006 the UCWA paid the county almost $300, secured thru public donations, to convert the county’s check register data base into a format which could be transmitted electronically, via the internet, to the public. Since that time the UCWA has been requesting the register and posting it on their website, as well as reviewing vouchers on a monthly basis. The UCWA than places OPRA requests for any vouchers that they believe deserve a closer look as well as public disclosure and pays the normal service charge for any hard copies which they request.

“Since we started reviewing the check registers and vouchers not a month has gone by that we haven’t found some questionable spending item” stated UCWA spokesperson and President Tina Renna. “Last month for the first time we reported our latest questionable finding to all elected municipal officials in Union County; a $930 bill for a catered departmental staff meeting which was held on December 22, 2006, and was not processed until two full months after the meeting had occurred.” Renna went on to report that immediately after that disclosure the county informed the UCWA that an $8.00 an hour service fee would be imposed to fulfill the latest voucher request and that it would take approximately 7 hrs for an employee to retrieve the 25 vouchers requested, thus the UCWA could anticipate a bill of $56 to view the requested public information.

The Union County Watchdog Association regrets that it has become necessary to take legal action to secure for the general public the ability to view or obtain whatever public documents that they are entitled to by law. These types of financial roadblocks are intended for the sole purpose of discouraging tax-burdened residents from demanding accountability from a county government that is clearly out of control and unconnected to the people.

Complaint can be viewed HERE.

Statement from District 21 Legislative Office regarding UCWA's Concerns about
County Public Records Fees

We believe all levels of government should be committed to transparency in spending so that taxpayers can truly understand how their tax dollars are being used. That is why we are very concerned about recent reports from the Union County Watchdog Association that the County of Union might be hampering access to expense vouchers incurred by county employees by charging a newly instituted service fee to provide such records. Under Title 47 (Public Records), immediate access is ordinarily granted to budgets, bills, vouchers, contracts, including collective negotiations agreements and individual employment contracts, and public employee salary and overtime information. We encourage the Watchdog organization to challenge the legitimacy of this fee for service practice by bringing a complaint before the Government Records Council. Equally important, we ask that the county work cooperatively with the citizens it serves in a spirit of greater accountability and accessibility.

Senator Thomas H. Kean, Jr.
Assemblyman Eric Munoz, M.D.
Assemblyman Jon Bramnick
Dear Tina,

I applaud your efforts to expose wasteful spending and abuse on the part of Union County government.

A few years back I attended a Southside Johnny concert in Echo Lake Park and frankly I was shocked at the self-indulgence on and off stage of some connected to county government. Are these events really for taxpayers, or are they opportunities for some over-aged groupies on the public dime to rub wine glasses on stage with rock acts? Like many others I love Southside Johnny, but should the public foot the bill for elements of a private VIP event for elected officials and their friends? Were campaign contributors VIP's too? Perhaps the VIP guest list should be released as part of the public record.

As for the newly instituted $8.00 per hour service fee to obtain what should be freely accessible public documents: please send me an address to mail a $1000 contribution to your organization to cover these and future "service" fees, and do not hesitate to contact me when and if you need additional funds for this purpose. There is one condition: please pass on all evidence of obstruction and/or abuse to the U.S. Attorney's office. Enough is enough.

Sal Caruana
Westfield Town Councilman
P.S. You have my permission to circulate this e-mail as you see fit.