Not easing demands for city's records

2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason

Not easing demands for city's records
Wednesday, February 13, 2008  Jersey Journal

 HOBOKEN - A recent loss in court puts Councilwoman Beth Mason two up and four down in her lawsuits against the city over the public's right to municipal records.

Since 2004, Mason has sued Hoboken six times under the Open Public Records act, or OPRA. She has won two cases and has three appeals pending, one of which will be heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court this month. Another suit, against the Hoboken Municipal Hospital Authority, is close to a settlement, Mason spokesman Thom Ammirato said.

City officials say Mason burdens the city with "many hundreds" of OPRA requests that are vague and that she wastes taxpayer dollars with unnecessary lawsuits. Mason contends the public has a right to the records, and that the OPRA requests and lawsuits wouldn't be necessary if the city released the records.

The most recent decision, by the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division on Jan. 29, involved four 2005 OPRA requests. Included in her requests were information on the mayor's park initiative in 2005, URSA Development's role in that park plan and an agreement to build an ice skating rink on top of a planned parking garage at Stevens Institute of Technology, Mason said.

Mason had argued the city did not give her all the documents it had on the requested topics and did not respond within the required seven days to three requests. The appellate court agreed with the lower court that although the city did not respond in time, the error was "inconsequential" because Mason's requests for "all correspondence" were not specific enough.

"It is likely here that the Hoboken City clerk would have to search through all the municipal records to locate responsive documents. . OPRA is not intended to be used as a fishing expedition," the decision reads.

But Mason said her requests were clear. "They were for specific topics," she said, adding that "unless a city is going to make a list of every single document it produces," how is someone outside the government going to know exactly what to ask for?

Hoboken Corporation Counsel Steven Kleinman said that the city hopes this latest decision will convince Mason to stop filing lawsuits. "We hope she'll recognize that enough is enough," he said, saying that the city has spent nearly $200,000 on the lawsuits so far.

"A significant number of those requests were for minutes, agendas and tapes of City Council meetings," said Mason, who made most of the requests before she was elected to the council last year. "Why should I have to fill out an OPRA request to get minutes?"

She added, "A government shouldn't be complaining that people are asking for documents, they should be thrilled."

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