Category Archives: OPRA

The Citizens Campaign: Insider Tips For Accessing Public Records

Back on November 18th the Hyperlocal News Association along with the Citizens’s Campaign held a workshop on OPRA and the Sunshine Law, I couldn’t attend but a few people that I know did.

From all accounts, including the video of the workshop below, it was a lively and insightful event that engaged all that were in attendance and provided a wealth of information to those that believe in honest, open and transparent government while giving guidance to those who are interested in how to file OPRA requests with their local governing bodies or governmental entities.
Of particular interest to those who live in Middletown and have ever tried to get information from the Middletown Sewerage Authority (TOMSA), this workshop made it clear that TOMSA is in clear violation of the OPRA law.
People who have inquired about TOMSA policies for providing documents like the budget or bill lists, are told that they are only in paper form and that those in the TOMSA office don’t have the ability to scan them, so documents can’t be provided via email or CD.
If there are any documents that just happen to be in electronic form, only TOMSA Director Patrick Parkinson can approve a request to deliver it via email or on CD. Parkinson then, in violation of existing OPRA rules and fee schedules, determines how much to charge requesters for information requested.
As a case in point, when Sean Byrnes was a sitting Committeeman on the Middletown Township Committee, he was charged an outlandish fee of $75 for a copy of the TOMSA budget! How crazy is that?
The video below is long, it runs for an hour and 42 minutes and I hope that readers can sit through it because when the floor is opened up for a Q&A a lot of problems that people are having trouble with in other towns sounds eerily similar to those problems that people in Middletown come up against when requesting information.

As an FYI to go along with this, NJ State Senator Lorretta Weinberg is working to update the Sunshine and OPRA laws. Senate bill S. 1351 increases from 48 hrs to 3 days the advance notice requirement for agendas, and brings the OPRA law (passed in 1975) up to date with technology, among other changes.

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Filed under Hyperlocal News Association, Lorretta Weinberg, OPRA, Patrick Parkinson, sunshine laws, the Citizens Campaign, TOMSA, workshop meeting

Letting The Sunshine In; Two Recent Rulings That Middletown Should Heed

Two recent rulings on aspects of the sunshine law by judges last week are interesting because these rulings indirectly deals with Tony Fiore’s statement that Township officials discuss meeting agenda items before scheduled public meetings.




John Paff, if you have not heard of him, is a Libertarian that challanges towns in NJ to verify that they are following Open Public Meetings Act and fulfilling OPRA requests correctly. He has won many lawsuits forcing towns to comply with the law.

In two press releases issued last week Mr. Paff discusses the outcomes of each:

Burlco Prosecutor: Evesham official “unwittingly” violated Sunshine Act

In an August 4, 2011 letter to the attorney for the Eveham Township Council, Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi said that “Evesham Township officials did unwittingly run afoul of the prohibitions contained in the Open Public Meetings Act” by discussing public business by way of e-mail communications. Prosecutor Bernardi, however, declined to impose fines against the officials because that it was a not a “knowing” violation and that “educating public officials who may have mistakenly violated the provisions of the statute is far more effective than the imposition of nominal fines.”

The prosecutor’s letter, which is on-line here, http://ogtf.lpcnj.org/2011216TS//b10804BurlcoProsEvesham.pdf was sent in response to a complaint filed by the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project.

Bergen Judge orders officials to stop using personal e-mail accounts



In an August 4, 2011 decision, Bergen County Superior Assignment Court Judge Peter E. Doyne considered, among other issues, the question of public officials using private e-mails to discuss public business. Judge Doyne ultimately concluded that using personal e-mail accounts for public business “appears highly questionable” and “order[ed] counsel for [the municipality] to circulate a memorandum among all pertinent Borough employees directing they use only their public e-mail accounts, rather than private accounts, when conducting town business.”

This is the first such holding of which I’m aware and it may be useful in convincing other government officials to sent official e-mail communications solely through their governmental e-mail accounts. Judge Doyne’s decision is on-line here. http://ogtf.lpcnj.org/2011216T8//DoyneWoodcliffLake.pdf

Many thanks to Kevin M. O’Brien, who filed and prosecuted this lawsuit without the aid of an attorney.

Tony Fiore and others on the Township Committee should take heed in these two rulings and make sure that when there are communications between Township Committee members and others in the administration, that they use their official township email addresses to do so. In this way they ensure that a record of their conversations are accessible to the public
Private correspondences between officials to discuss Township business, knowingly or unknowingly is a violation of the sunshine law, but more importantly is a violation of the public’s trust.

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Filed under Bergen County, Burlington County, John Paff, Libertarian, Middletown Township Committee, open public meetings act, OPRA, sunshine laws

How Many Emails Did Middletown Receive When It Requested Resident Input Into Defeated School Budget? Not Close To 700 That Scharfenberger Stated

Well it seems that Middletown’s sorry excuse for a Mayor, Gerry Scharfenberger, has been caught yet again in a gross exaggeration of facts, which leads to the impression that the additional $500K over and above the previously agreed to $1.6M worth of budget cuts that the Board of Education presented to the Middeltown Township Committee back on May 3rd and May 6th was politically motivated.

This latest example comes from the many emails that were sent to the township’s website, after Sharfenberger came up with the brilliant idea to fore go an open public meeting to discuss further budget cuts that should be made to the Middletown school budget which was defeated on April 20th.
Scharfenberger stated at the May 17th Township Committee meeting and was quoted by all of the local newspapers that cover Middletown, that some 700 emails were sent to him via the suggestion portal that was set up on the township website for residents to voice their opinion on what items should or should not be cut from the school budget. Three days later a press release was posted on the township website stating that thanks to the residents for their input and that only 600 emails were gathered. Now after obtaining a copy of all those emails from the Township, I come to find out that the really number of emails sent in by residents was 501.
That’s a pretty big difference if you ask me, more so if you consider that many of the emails seem to be duplicates or have nothing whatsoever to do with suggestions on how to trim the defeated school budget, like spam and self indulgent compliments on defeating the budget. After looking through them, it really looks as if only 300 or so could be considered as legitimate.
Which leaves the question of exactly how many residents sent suggestions to the portal? Were only 50, 100 or 501 residents responsible for sending them all of those emails? We’ll never know for sure because only a small percentage of residents decided to sign their names to them, which was after all their prerogative, considering that the Township suggested that comments be left anonymously.
For anyone interested in reading all those emails themselves you can do so by clicking >>> Here

Note: For those that thought that their comments and suggestions would be kept confidential I am sorry to inform you otherwise, your comments are part of the public record for all to see whether you supported further school budget cuts or requested that the budget should stand as was at the time of the April 20th vote. Anyone could submit an OPRA request and receive the same information that I have.


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Filed under emails, Gerry Scharfenberger, Middeltown Board of Education, Middletown Township, Middletown Township Committee, OPRA, OPRA requests, school budgets

>Walsh back Emails being open through OPRA

>I recieved the following Press release from Democratic Candidate for Middletown Township Committee, Partica Walsh and thought I would pass it along.

PRESS RELEASE

For Immediate Publication

July 28, 2008

POC: Patricia A. Walsh
Democrat for Township Committee
Tel: (908) 601-1252
Email: awalsh386@aol.com

Walsh back Emails being open through OPRA

MIDDLETOWN TOWNSHIP (MONMOUTH COUNTY, NJ): Middletown Democrat for Township Committee
Patricia A. Walsh said she would lobby to make E-mails written from township-owned
computers accessible to the public through OPRA.

“I believe it is the public’s right to know what happens on the machines they buy,”
Walsh said. “A public servant should always be mindful that the taxpayers are the boss,
and it is to them they are accountable.”

Walsh said it is her intention to lobby to create a more transparent government in town
because it is what is right. “There can be excuses for not doing what is right, which
is what this Township Committee is giving the public, but that can never live up to being
as good as just doing the right thing.”

Walsh said she is seeking the Township Committee’s support in a program of backing up
all existing Emails, to ensure that any potentially unauthorized correspondences by
members of the administration are not destroyed.

Specifically, Walsh said she wants correspondences preserved where it involved
communications between department heads, attorneys, members of the governing body, and
historical information where it involves E-mail discussions about sensitive issues such
as COAH and the recent aborted tax assessment of Middletown.

In addition, Walsh said she wants to preserve all existing files on administration
desktops, to review these and ensure that unauthorized programs and actions have not been
taken by the administration in the performance of their duties in town.

“I do intend to clean house, with the help of the committee, and make any township
officials who have been remiss in their duties accountable,” Walsh said.

But beyond accountability for the past, Walsh said permanently opening up taxpayer-access
to E-mails by the administration is just “good government.”

Walsh admitted there are some E-mails that, by law, would not be able to be open for
public review. However, she said those would amount to a relatively small percentage of
the whole.

“This township has been governed by people who are comfortable in secrecy and executive
privilege for too long. They have lost their way and have forgotten that the Town Hall
they wield power from is the property of the taxpayers of Middletown and is not their
private domain,” Walsh concluded. “It is my intention to offer the Middletown
Committee’s majority a fresh lesson in government, which has always been intended to be
by the consent of the governed, and not instead of it.”

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Filed under Middletown Democrats, OPRA, Patricia Walsh

Walsh back Emails being open through OPRA

I recieved the following Press release from Democratic Candidate for Middletown Township Committee, Partica Walsh and thought I would pass it along.

PRESS RELEASE

For Immediate Publication

July 28, 2008

POC: Patricia A. Walsh
Democrat for Township Committee
Tel: (908) 601-1252
Email: awalsh386@aol.com

Walsh back Emails being open through OPRA

MIDDLETOWN TOWNSHIP (MONMOUTH COUNTY, NJ): Middletown Democrat for Township Committee
Patricia A. Walsh said she would lobby to make E-mails written from township-owned
computers accessible to the public through OPRA.

“I believe it is the public’s right to know what happens on the machines they buy,”
Walsh said. “A public servant should always be mindful that the taxpayers are the boss,
and it is to them they are accountable.”

Walsh said it is her intention to lobby to create a more transparent government in town
because it is what is right. “There can be excuses for not doing what is right, which
is what this Township Committee is giving the public, but that can never live up to being
as good as just doing the right thing.”

Walsh said she is seeking the Township Committee’s support in a program of backing up
all existing Emails, to ensure that any potentially unauthorized correspondences by
members of the administration are not destroyed.

Specifically, Walsh said she wants correspondences preserved where it involved
communications between department heads, attorneys, members of the governing body, and
historical information where it involves E-mail discussions about sensitive issues such
as COAH and the recent aborted tax assessment of Middletown.

In addition, Walsh said she wants to preserve all existing files on administration
desktops, to review these and ensure that unauthorized programs and actions have not been
taken by the administration in the performance of their duties in town.

“I do intend to clean house, with the help of the committee, and make any township
officials who have been remiss in their duties accountable,” Walsh said.

But beyond accountability for the past, Walsh said permanently opening up taxpayer-access
to E-mails by the administration is just “good government.”

Walsh admitted there are some E-mails that, by law, would not be able to be open for
public review. However, she said those would amount to a relatively small percentage of
the whole.

“This township has been governed by people who are comfortable in secrecy and executive
privilege for too long. They have lost their way and have forgotten that the Town Hall
they wield power from is the property of the taxpayers of Middletown and is not their
private domain,” Walsh concluded. “It is my intention to offer the Middletown
Committee’s majority a fresh lesson in government, which has always been intended to be
by the consent of the governed, and not instead of it.”

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Filed under Middletown Democrats, OPRA, Patricia Walsh