Township Says It's Overwhelmed with OPRA Requests
Township officials called a meeting with local media to discuss OPRA requests. Blogger Harry Scheeler calls it an intimidation tactic. "I will be suing them," he vows.
Galloway Township has received 539 information requests since Oct. 4 of this year, compared with 242 received by the township all of last year, representatives of township council said during a meeting with members of the media at the municipal complex on Thursday morning, Dec. 22.
According to Mayor Don Purdy, that’s four times the number of requests Hamilton Township has received this year. The number of requests is tracked since Oct. 4, which was Kimberly Hodsdon's first day as township clerk.
Purdy, Deputy Mayor Tony Coppola, Councilman Brian Tyrrell and Hodsdon were present at the meeting with representatives from Galloway Patch, The Current and The Press of Atlantic City. The meeting was called after a request for information about OPRA requests, according to Purdy.
In addition to the fees related to processing requests, Hodsdon said many of her duties as clerk are falling by the wayside.
“Ninety percent of my time most days is spent on OPRA requests,” said Hodsdon, who added she has had to sacrifice time working on bonds and a new liquor license to fill the requests.
The township is not allowed to charge labor costs to fulfill requests unless it undergoes a 14-point analysis justifying its need to do so, Hodsdon said.
“We could’ve hired two new police officers for the legal and labor costs of these requests,” Purdy said. “We have issues that need to be taken care of.”
According to township officials, 223 separate requests have been filed by former clerk Lisa Tilton on 28 total information requests, and Harry Scheeler, publisher of the online blog site, gallowaytwpnews.com, has filed 229 separate requests on 15 different submissions through the state's Open Public Records Act.
Officials explained the discrepancy by stating that submissions may include multiple requests, and that each topic must be evaluated as it pertains to each individual named in the request.
Township officials passed around a log of what they said were all requests made since Oct. 4. Requests made by Patch and The Press were included, as were requests by other individuals and organizations. According to those numbers, The Press has filed five OPRA submissions, Patch has filed four and all others filing submissions amounted to 33.
An estimated $35,000-$40,000 has been spent by the township on the requests, according to officials:
- $39.94 an hour for the township’s IT employee;
- $120 an hour for the services of Township Solicitor Michael Blee; and
- $56.86 an hour for the police representative who oversees OPRA requests for the department.
“The way the OPRA law was designed is for the public to know township business,” Purdy said.
The state's OPRA law does not limit the number of requests an individual can submit.
In an interview Thursday evening, Scheeler characterized the meeting called by township officials Thursday morning as an intimidation tactic directed at him and Tilton.
“I will be suing them, and I’m more adamant than ever before about it,” Scheeler said. “Their conduct is unbelievable.”
Tilton didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Scheeler referenced a recent case involving the Sparta Board of Education, but Purdy stated he believes the incidents bear no resemblance.
Purdy stated the meeting wasn't an intimidation tactic. He characterized it as an informational meeting.
"The media had questions, and we thought the best way to get the information out there was to get the three groups together at once," Purdy said. " ... It wasn't meant to intimidate anyone in any way."
Scheeler said it was the decision of the township officials to spend money to have attorneys to review the OPRA requests.
Tilton, the former township clerk who was suspended in June and reached an agreement to resign in July, has filed two tort claim notices totaling $6 million with the township since her resignation, and one with against Atlantic County and the County Board of Elections for $3 million.
Scheeler has stressed there is no connection between himself and Tilton.
Bonanni said not every submission is sent through the solicitor's office, but it will send submissions through the office if there is any reference to litigation.
Township officials said requests submitted by Scheeler are worded too broadly, and although they said they are willing to work with requesters who file unclear OPRA requests, Scheeler said no one from the township has ever contacted him to clarify one of his requests.
On Thursday, both the township and Scheeler stated there have been some changes made due to findings made as a result of Scheeler's requests. Each pointed to the fact that the township manager now has his own private cell phone after Scheeler raised the issue of his usage of a township cell phone for private calls.
He also discovered Hodsdon never took the Oath of Office before beginning her job as township clerk. She has since taken the oath.
Officials said they didn’t want to stop the OPRA requests, either; they just want them to be more specific.
"They have the right to deny my requests if they were overly broad but they haven't because they are not. If there was any way they could deny me they would. Instead they are complaining in public that they are overly broad,” Scheeler said, referencing an appearance he made in front of council at a public meeting to discuss this issue last month. “They are bent on stopping me because I am airing their dirty laundry and if they had any possible way to deny me, they would.”