"it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness"
So let’s talk about the OPRA a little bit. OPRA is shorthand for the Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law. It was first enacted in 1975 in response to the cynicism of the people when it comes to politics and the government. Clearly, OPRA is necessary because people simply don’t trust the government anymore. At any level.
Under OPRA It’s clear the people have the right to know. Lots. It’s been challenged many times by government folks who don’t want the public to know everything that’s going on for whatever reason. Those denials by people in charge have been met with Supreme Court decisions that in actuality have broadened the scope of information JohnQ Public is entitled to look at for whatever reason he wants.
This isn’t to say the people have the right to know EVERYTHING! In fact, OPRA laws include 26 exemptions for government employees to cite for not giving information. For instance, they can’t give out personal e-mail addresses. Nor can they give criminal records of people. Or some things that are in litigation and have not yet been settled.
But if they don’t meet one of these 26 exemptions, then like it or not, the government employees, be it at the Presidential level or the municipal level, have to give them up.
Some towns don’t mind spending money to have their attorney look over every OPRA request and decide if he can find any one of the 26 reasons not to give out the information. Some towns also have the attorney look, or at least somebody in the office make the decision, that while they have to give out some information, they can do “redactions.” Redactions means they give out the information requested, but blank out certain parts of it. Like names. E-mails. Addresses. Information. Stuff. But in doing this, if they’re following the law, the governmental body also has to give the Vaughan Index, the reason why that particular piece of information is being redacted.
Now, some of these can be downright funny if they didn’t involve serious stuff, government time, and taxpayer money. Some are plain ridiculous. For instance, in a recent OPRA I filed in Highlands, and actually got!....I don’t get them all…….I was questioning some bills that were paid. One of them on the list was to Guaranteed Plants and Florist, a great business, well known in the area for a century or so, a big advertiser in local papers, a generous donor to so many great causes, and owners and employees who are not only efficient and charming, but darn good horticulturists. Yet the powers that be in the Highlands borough office said it was essential that I not know Guaranteed Plants e-mail address. Hence, it was ‘redacted.” A phone call, a business card, a look at one of their ads, popping in Guaranteed Plants and Florists on the computer all gave me the info. Yet Highlands thought it was so vitally important it had to be redacted.
Naturally, I questioned why the redactions. Highlands Borough Clerk Michelle Hutchinson…and I’m happy to say Borough Clerk, not ACTING, since she was officially entitled at the last Council meeting…. Is good at acknowledging and usually responding to my letter. So she wrote back and told me “All redactions were explained in the initial response to you, and the Borough maintains its reliance on that response.” She went on to tell me why the Vaughn Index I wanted included wasn’t required, and furthermore, “WE” and I can only assume that means the entire Borough of Highlands, “also reject the interpretation urged by the North Jersey Media Group Inc. that the submission of a Vaughn index is required in all cases in which the agency does not comply with a request. Neither OPRA nor FOIA calls for the production of a Vaughn index in every case in which access is denied.” I never asked what the Media Group’s lawsuit was about. I simply wanted the law as enacted in the state of New Jersey to be followed. Though on the other hand, the media probably gets more rejections for information than any other single entity. Don’t you ever wonder why the people whose business it is to tell the news can’t get the news from the real source so they can give the people the news? Doesn’t that make you a little suspicious when the “we” of the Highlands letter reject what the media group took to court in their fight that the people have the right to know?
More seriously, a few years ago a Highlands resident was apparently in an altercation at borough hall with a person well known and loved in the borough. Police were called, it was her position the nice man had lost his cool and struck her. Police were there, took a statement from her, asked some questions, and talked to her at some time again after that. When no complaint was ever filed on her behalf and she wanted to find out why, she filed an OPRA to get the police report. Never got it. At some point she was told she couldn’t have it since the matter had not yet been heard. Are you understanding that? The person who was filing a complaint did not have the right to see a police report that she had given to a Highlands police officer on her belief she had been assaulted. Not only was nothing done about it, but she couldn’t even see the record made of her own report!
Same thing appears to be happening again. Another woman, another incident, another case where a woman was personally involved. So she asked for the police report. They never got an answer to her first request. So she asked a second time. Then she got a response that said she wasn’t specific enough and wasn’t entitled to see it. There was no quoting of which of the 26 exemptions applied, there was no list of the number of the Vaughan Index; simply she wasn’t entitled.
So she tried again. This time Highlands is telling her, the complainant, she needs to first tell them what charges she wants filed.
Now, I don’t know how much time or money this is taking, but all she asked for was the police report. She isn’t a lawyer, though now she has retained a couple. But with or without a lawyer, the reason Highlands gave for the denial is not listed among those 26 exemptions that Highlands is required to give, bud did not. If there is a law that states one must know specifically what the statute says those charges should be, nobody told her that either. She wasn’t asking for any of that anyway. She simply wanted to see the report.
The lady’s answer from Highlands was simply: “Your OPRA request has been completed and closed today 7/12/21 at 1515. Please see the attached file in response to your request. If you have any questions, please feel free to email.”
As of now, I believe the court clerk is involved. She said the lady should e-mail her and tell her which harassment statute she wants to charge her complaint under. Once she provides that, then they would proceed with a probable cause hearing.
But still, nobody told anything about why her OPRA request was denied. It’s been going on for a few months now. Don’t know how much time or money has been involved over those months. But it’s still ongoing with not much end in sight.
It’s stories like this, and more that I’ve heard since last week’s first installment of this series began, that made me wonder how many OPRA requests to Highlands and Atlantic Highlands get?
So I e-mailed the exact same e-mail to Atlantic Highlands Administrator Adam Hubeny and Highlands Administrator Michael Muscillo. Wasn’t sure if they were the right persons to contact, but knew, or expected, they would refer me to the right contacts in their respective municipality.
Mr. Hubeny responded within an hour. Before lunch. For the year from June 2020 to the present, the time frame I requested, Mr. Hubeny responded Atlantic Highlands received 622 requests for information under OPRA. Total cost to the borough was less than $1,000, apparently because whoever handles OPRAs knew they could simply send out the requested information. Who knows, maybe they figured that if they erred, at least they erred on the side of the citizen. The precise intent of the OPRA law. Not every OPRA request in Atlantic Highlands is referred to the borough attorney for review. But every single one of them is answered.
When I didn’t hear from Mr. Muscillo within 48 hours, I sent a second e-mail, this one asking at least for an acknowledgement that my original request had been received.
I did get an answer to that one. Not the information on how many OPRAs had been filed, or how much money had been spent No answers at all to the questions I asked in that first e-mail identical to the one I sent Mr. Hubeny, the one asking for the same information from Highlands.
The e-mail that two e-mails from a concerned citizen got back from the Highlands borough administrator, in response to “did you get the first e-mail requesting information” was “Received.”
So there you have it. Does this give you any idea why people don’t trust the government? Does it give you any idea why people feel their rights are being trampled on? Do you wonder In your own life when you ask a friend a question and he kind of waffles with the answer or spins it around and changes the subject rather than give you a response that maybe, just maybe, it makes you wonder what more he’s hiding? And he’s your friend. So when the government does it, gives you all kinds of reasons for not telling you all the facts, doesn’t that make you “curiouser and curiouser”?
Is that it? Simply hiding the facts the people have the right to know? Or exactly what is the difference between the two communities, the two towns where the people fight with each other but love each other? Where the people in both towns defend their own community to the death?
Is it because the Atlantic Highlands employees take more pride in their work? Care more for their community? Know more? Think the people have the right to know? Are more efficient? Like to get every job done and done well before quitting for the day? IS it because Highlands has a governing body that almost always unites on every issue, since apparently things are decided in advance to talking to the people? Is it because the governing body and many employees in Highlands don’t have the many years of experience as their neighbor, or don’t know their town as well or haven’t been here very long? It is because one town is simply better organized than the other and nobody cares?
All I can do is point out the differences. It’s up to you to ask the questions, get the answers, and make the judgment calls for yourselves.