Irvington takes another stab at limiting access to public records

January 9, 2023 7:05 am

After taking an 82-year-old woman to court for filing too many records requests, Irvington is again trying to limit transparency. (Courtesy of the state of New Jersey)

Irvington is at it again.

The Essex County township, which last year sued an 82-year-old resident for filing too many public records requests, is now trying to stop another transparency advocate from filing records requests. And this time they’re threatening prosecution.

I suppose the township’s leaders weren’t sufficiently embarrassed by their legal crusade against the 82-year-old, Elouise McDaniel, which fizzled when the media found out and Irvington became a national laughingstock.

Adam Steinbaugh, the lawyer who is the new focus of Irvington’s anti-transparency crusade, said he’s not threatened by its threats against him — though he worries that someone less savvy about the law would be.

“Who else are they issuing these kinds of saber-rattling statements to?” he told me.

Here’s the backstory on this one:

After Irvington went after McDaniel — who the township accused of filing burdensome and voluminous Open Public Records Act requests — Steinbaugh filed his own requests seeking documents that would show how much in legal fees the township spent harassing McDaniel. Steinbaugh got the impression that the township didn’t even look for those records, so he filed a second OPRA request to see if they had.

After that second request, Irvington — in Steinbaugh’s words — “went nuclear.” The township filed a document with the Government Records Council falsely claiming that OPRA requests must be filed by New Jersey citizens and accusing Steinbaugh, who lives in Pennsylvania, of perjury. The Government Records Council is the government body tasked with adjudicating records disputes.

Steinbaugh’s complaint “and all future complaints filed by the requestor must be dismissed on their face and/or requestor’s perjury must be reported to law enforcement for prosecution under [New Jersey’s perjury statute]. The township should also be absolved from responding to any of requestor’s OPRA requests,” the township wrote in its filing.

Steinbaugh told me he finds this response from Irvington “befuddling.”

“Because what they’re saying is almost incomprehensible,” he said. “It’s either that I am not a New Jersey resident, so by sending a public records request, I am implicitly saying that I am a New Jersey resident. Or it’s that I am a New Jersey resident, but for some unknown reason, I’m lying and saying that I live in Pennsylvania.”

He added: “But it doesn’t matter, because I could be in New Jersey, I could be in Pennsylvania, I could be a citizen of Hawaii. Anyone can request records, and they know that.”

That is correct. In 2018, an appellate panel ruled in Wheeler v. Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund that the right to request records under OPRA is not limited to citizens of New Jersey.

This is an absolute farce, just as Irvington’s boneheaded legal action against McDaniel was. The township’s clerk and custodian of records, Harold Wiener, did not get back to me, nor did its mayor, Tony Vauss.

I talked to CJ Griffin, an attorney and transparency advocate who has won numerous cases involving public records disputes. Griffin has represented the New Jersey Monitor in its own records disputes, and she handled McDaniel’s case with Irvington, too, on a pro-bono basis.

“Some public agencies think that public records belong to them, and they get aggressive against requestors who dare ask to see them. OPRA permits anyone to gain access to records, not just citizens. This clerk should know that,” Griffin said.

I also had a brief chat with McDaniel, who said Irvington has not harassed her since it dropped its lawsuit against her — but mostly because she’s only filed one OPRA request since then (one she said they did not respond to). She laughed when she heard about the town’s latest fight over public records.

“It must be something they try to hide, and they don’t want the public to know about it,” she said. “Now, I’m an old lady. I’m 83 years old now, but I’m not a dummy.”

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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”