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Judge Rules Against Monmouth County’s Denial of Public Records Requests

FREEHOLD, NJ – Monmouth County Assignment Judge Lisa P. Thorton ruled on Friday that the county broke the law by refusing to process certain public records requests under a new policy enacted last year, rejecting all of the county’s arguments in favor of refusing to respond to public records requests that will be automatically published online.

“This ruling makes clear what we knew from the start: Monmouth County’s unlawful attempt at tightening access to public records because of the negligence of their employees was a blatant attack on the public interest and undermined the public policy of transparency enshrined in New Jersey’s OPRA law,” said Gavin Rozzi, an Ocean County web developer & journalist who founded OPRAmachine in 2017.

OPRAmachine is a website that facilitates requests under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The site is active in all 21 counties and has processed over 5000 requests since 2017. It is also the only website that is collecting OPRA compliance statistics by county, municipality and school district. In February, 2019 it received the “Excellence in Local News” award in the “Innovate Local” category from Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media.

“Last year, the Monmouth County government made a serious error when responding to an OPRA request, and by their own admission it wasn’t this first time this happened,” Rozzi added. “We promptly took action to remove confidential personal information they accidentally made public at their request, but yet county officials chose to punish our users by extralegally adding additional hurdles to obstruct the public records request process.”
“Defendants’ position is a solution in search of a problem,” attorney Walter Luers, Esq. wrote in a legal brief filed in the case. “OPRAmachine has a notice and take-down policy. The one time Monmouth County inadvertently produced some information, OPRAmachine took it down in one day. There is no evidence that OPRA requests submitted through OPRAmachine are any more or less likely than any other type of OPRA requests and responses to involve inadvertent disclosure of information.”

Monmouth County Assignment Judge Lisa P. Thornton, A.J.S.C. rejected both of the arguments advanced by the county’s attorney, Sean Kean, Esq., who is also a member of the state General Assembly.

From her opinion:
“Defendants’ denial based on plaintiffs’ refusal to provide a personal email address was not authorized by law. Plaintiffs were well within their rights under OPRA to file a request “electronically.” Furthermore, as the court in Renna concluded, the requests provided “sufficient information to make the threshold determination as to the nature of the request and whether it falls within the scope of OPRA.” 407 N.J. Super. at 245. At no time did defendants deny the requests for any reason other than plaintiffs’ refusal to provide a personal email address. While the statute requires the agency’s form to include a place for an address and phone number, our courts have held that a requester’s failure to provide this information is not a basis to deny a request.”

“Defendants’ denial based on “privacy” concerns is also without merit. Defendants never asserted OPRA’s privacy exemption in their denial, and it is not apparent why any of the documents should be confidential. Any inadvertent disclosure of confidential records can be prevented if defendants perform an adequate review and make appropriate redactions. The County’s new policy inappropriately shifts the responsibility to protect a citizen’s privacy to the requestor, and does nothing to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of confidential records. Defendants fail to acknowledge that documents processed with a personal email address can be immediately uploaded to the internet.”

“The County’s new policy inappropriately shifts the responsibility to protect a citizen’s privacy to the requestor, and does nothing to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of confidential records. Defendants fail to acknowledge that documents processed with a personal email address can be immediately uploaded to the internet.”

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