Mason on public records in Hoboken
I still want to know why the city is playing hard to get.
Can you hear me now?
APPELLATE COURT HANDS VICTORY TO MASON IN CELL PHONE RECORDS CASE
Burden of Proof For Denying Records is On the City
A New Jersey Appellate court today handed a victory to the people of Hoboken by agreeing with Councilwoman Beth Mason in her pursuit of city cell phone records, saying the city failed at trial to justify its actions to withhold public cell phone records and its claim of confidentiality. The appeals court remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether the City could meet the burden of proof under the Open Public Records Act and the common law to justify its actions to withhold public records.
Mason had sought records since August 2005 on the monthly use of cell phones by city employees. After filing an OPRA request, the city eventually provided records that did not include information about individual employees or phone numbers called by the public employees. The city, according to the Appellate Court, failed to explain to Mason why any information besides the telephone numbers called was redacted. The Appeals Court also said the trial court erred in dismissing the complaint.
Read the rest of the story after the jump.
(Mason Cell phones continues…)
The Appeals Court noted that the OPRA law requires the custodian of public records to “state the specific basis for the denial of access.” The burden for proving that denying access for information is on the public agency, added the court.
In remanding the case to the Superior Court, the Appeals Court said the city must attempt to meet its burden of establishing that their redactions of the bills are authorized by both OPRA and the common law.
Mason said she was happy with the decision, but that she is concerned that the effort by the city to withhold cell phone information will continue.
“I am not trying to damage any legitimate confidentiality by the administration. I am just trying to find out where the taxpayers’ money is going,” said Mason.
Mason originally sought the records prior to being elected to the council in 2007. She was then and remains concerned about the cost to taxpayers of cell phone use. Since she has been a member of the council Mason has learned that the city has at least three different cell phone service providers and has issued scores of cell phones to employees without an apparent and identifiable city cell phone policy.
Bills, Bills, Bills
She says each month the council is presented with bills totaling thousands of dollars for cell phone usage with no explanation of what the bills are for.
“I have examples of individuals using city-owned cell phones for calls to Las Vegas, Hawaii and West Palm Beach, Florida, I don’t know that the city is doing business with anyone in Las Vegas or Hawaii or why the calls are made during work hours and why taxpayers should be paying for such calls,” said Mason
In one case, said Mason, one employee racked up more than 11,000 minutes in cell phone usage in a single month,
“My concern is that there may be city employees abusing cell phones paid for by city taxpayers,” said Mason. “I think it is important that we – the taxpayers – know that the phones are being used for city business and not to make long distance personal calls.”
Since 2005, said Mason her concern has grown to include the lack of a clear city policy about cell phones. “What’s the policy that determines which employees get cell phones and why? Why do we have four different cell phone providers? Wouldn’t it be less expensive if we had one provider so that employee to employee call would be free?” asked Mason.
The councilwoman also said she is concerned about the reimbursement policy that city uses to collect money from employees that use their city cell phone for private purposes.
“I am told that city employees are supposed to reimburse the city for the unofficial use of their cell phones. Yet, I have no evidence that such a reimbursement policy truly exists or that anyone in city hall is assigned to make sure that city employees actually reimburse the taxpayers for their personal use of the cell phone,” said Mason.
“I’m not even sure there is a method to check cell phone records of employees or an account designated for the reimbursement funds,” added the councilwoman.
Mason said her request for cell phone records boils down to a matter of accountability. “Whether it is city cell phones or E-Z Pass records or travel expenses – someone has to be held accountable for how the taxpayers’ money is spent,” said Mason.
“There seems to be a very lax attitude at city hall about using public money to pay for expenses rung up by employees and government officials. These things, like cell phones, are not entitlements,” she added.
SEE PREVIOUS UPDATES BELOW…
Getting more exposure
What some call “unnecessary” lawsuits by Councilwoman Beth Mason, are now getting ever more coverage from outlets such as The New York Times (who check out Hoboken411 every day, thanks guys!)
Some excerpts: As for the 70,000 construction documents, Ms. Mason said she had a good reason to request them. “The mayor had made statements about how many construction permits had been given during a time frame,” she said. “What, are we supposed to take someone’s word for it?”
And “We know corruption sits in these hidden places,” said Ms. Mason, adding that officials should be able to produce whatever information she asks for. “If I ask for all of City Hall, what’s the problem?”
Additionally, local paper The Star Ledger also ran a brief editorial today as well, saying what 411 has been saying all along: “That Mason had to go to court to get public records illustrates just how unresponsive public officials can be.”
Uh, hello, you’re talking about Hoboken!
What does it take to get the city to cooperate with reasonable requests and stop playing hard to get?
Hoboken Councilwoman Beth Mason gets a writeup in The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
City records battle reaches New Jersey Supreme Court
A city councilwoman in New Jersey has taken her records fight against the Hoboken City Hall to the state Supreme Court.
Councilwoman Beth Mason’s suit raises two questions regarding New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act: how long a person has to wait to file a lawsuit if a records request is not fulfilled, and whether a plaintiff should be awarded attorney’s fees if requested documents are provided after a lawsuit is filed, but before a court decision is made.
The case stems from two lawsuits Mason filed in 2004 relating to the city hall’s failure to respond to municipal records requests either at all or within the required seven-day time period. These cases were joined at the appellate court level and the three-judge panel ruled against Mason on both counts in January. She then appealed to the state’s high court.
The city handed over one set of a documents, a financial ledger from 2003, after Mason filed suit, but before a decision was made. The other complaint involves more than 10 other records requests related to plans to build a city park that Mason alleges she never received. The appellate court ruled, however, that she waited too long – more than 45 days – to file suit.
John J. O’Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, said that if the court upholds the lower decision, it could further permit the government to take records fights to the brink of a trial, and then cough up the information before any actual court action occurs. And, according to the current state records law, attorney’s fees are not awarded until a suit goes to trial.
“We’re trying to overturn the appellate decision in this case because we would feel it could create a loophole for agencies that would stymie the public’s right to access,” said O’Brien, whose organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.
Steven Kleinman, an attorney for the city of Hoboken, said the appellate court’s ruling adequately weighs the government’s duty to respond in a timely fashion with the requester’s responsibility in not filing unnecessary lawsuits or overly-broad records requests. He also noted these are two of seven open record lawsuits Mason has filed against the city in the past several years. The councilwoman had lost the others in lower courts and chose not to appeal, he said.
“The [New Jersey records law] balances the rights of requesters of records and the taxpayers the government services,” Kleinman said.
O’Brien stressed the fact, though, that individual requesters cannot typically afford attorney’s fees, and so if this case stands, the financial intimidation factor for those people will only escalate, decreasing the amount of records requests the government sees in general.
This writeup is now 5 times more popular, thanks to Hoboken411.
Read the rest of this debacle after the jump.
Last week’s article in the Reporter about how Councilwoman Beth Mason “lost” lawsuits regarding public records in Hoboken was so frustrating, I found it hard to create an article that didn’t properly convey my thoughts without getting vulgar.
Here’s what Mason has say about the situation:
Dear Hoboken411 Editor,
I want to take this opportunity to clarify the issues presented in a recent article in the Hudson reporter and to offer some perspective about the ongoing tug of war between myself and the City Of Hoboken over the matter of access to public documents.
My intention as a private citizen and now as a city council member is to acquire documents so I can determine how best to help taxpayers save money and how to effect changes in city policy that will create more efficient and responsive government. My intention is not to embroil the city in litigation. After all, I have to pay the legal costs from my own pocket; and as a taxpayer, I also pay taxes to the city that is using my own money to thwart my requests on behalf of the public.
The basic problem is simply this: Under the direction of Mayor Roberts the city has chosen to litigate rather than cooperate when it comes to citizen requests for documents. Mayor Roberts says I should repay the city for his decision to be uncooperative. May I propose an alternate idea: Mayor Roberts should reimburse the city for the legal fees encumbered by his unwillingness to make documents available to the public and for his failure to have instituted a system to respond to citizen requests for information.
Nothing I have asked for has been ruled illegal. Of the six lawsuits (not seven as was reported) I have been engaged in with the city, I have won three of them. Two of them are going to the state Supreme Court next week and obviously have merit or the court would not have taken the cases. Incidentally, the New Jersey Press Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union are on my side in the case. Who has taken the city’s side?
As a result of one of the cases I brought, the cost to citizens for getting copies of official documents dropped from a prohibitively high 75 cents per page, to 6 cents and other settlements are in the offing.
What have I asked for that is so disagreeable or threatening to Mayor Roberts? I have asked for payroll records and health benefits records, so I can find out who is on the city payroll, who gets health benefits and what the cost of salaries and benefits are to taxpayers.
I have asked for cell phone records because I would like to know which city employees have cell phones, why and how are they being used? In the course of this inquiry I have learned that the city has at least four separate cell phone provider contracts. I think that is wasteful.
I also asked for documents regarding what firms were hired to create and publicize the mayor’s park program. I want to know who paid for the full page ads that ran in local newspapers and who paid for the glossy brochures and posters touting the plan. Whose decision was it to launch this advertising program during the mayor’s re-election campaign? For months the city was unable to tell me that information. Strangely, the city eagerly told Mike Mullins of the Hudson Reporter the precise amount and he didn’t have to file an OPRA request. So now we know that the city says it costs $11,920 to pay for all that work and it was done in house. I find it unlikely that all that work was done in house, unless the city is now employing a full-time advertising and design agency; and it is equally unlikely that the ads, posters and brochures cost only $11,920. Of course if we had documentation on this project we could be sure, couldn’t we?
The bottom line is simply this: To be an effective representative of the people who elected me, I need information about how the city spends money; what policies it follows and what agreements it has made with developers and vendors. We can’t change Hoboken for the better if we remain in the dark about how the city operates.
My only goal is to let the sunshine into city hall and to let the facts speak for themselves.
Councilwoman, Second Ward
The resistance from the city makes one believe that they are trying to hide something.
Rather than allowing this request for public information to even come to litigation is disgusting. The city, their lawyers, and connected public officials fell back on ridiculous technicalities and loopholes because they didn’t want to provide the information Mason was seeking. By willingly participating in the court case, they were “defending” their choice NOT to provide a citizen with records that legally should be easily attainable.
Other council members have even told Mason to “drop the case” and “let it go.” By stalling and permitting these cases to drag on, the city has more time to doctor the records, make others “disappear” and other fraudulent ways to hide the data.
It’s embarrassing, and thankfully someone with the resources is attempting to put an end to this sham by standing up to the city.