The New Jersey Government Records Council (GRC) on Tuesday has ordered the Lacey Township Board of Education to refund an $85 special service fee they charged for public records in response to a 2015 request made under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) that sought copies of checks submitted by the school board attorney to purchase health benefits through the school district.
$85 Charge For Public Documents “Unwarranted and Unreasonable,” GRC Rules
It took me nearly two years of waiting for the wheels of justice to turn, but I am very pleased to announce that I have prevailed in my case against the Lacey Township Board of Education before the New Jersey Government Records Council.
I filed my pro se complaint in the summer of 2015 following the school board’s imposition of an $85 special service fee in order for me to obtain copies of checks submitted by then-school board attorney Arthur Stein, a contracted professional, who was using the checks to obtain health benefits through the school district.
Following my request for the copies of the checks, then-Lacey BOE Business Administrator Jim Savage claimed that I would have to pay an $85 special service fee in addition to the statutory 5 cents per page copy fee if I wanted to obtain copies of the checks.
It became apparent to me at the time that the imposition of the fee was without basis in law, and rather, an attempt to chill my right to access to public records by imposing the fee, presumably in the hope that I would go away and stop filing public records requests.
That wasn’t going to happen.
Following the imposition of the fee, open government activist Harry Scheeler, who has litigated numerous OPRA cases, contacted the entire school board and their attorney on my behalf and advised them to refund the fee, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Instead, the school board chose to spend thousands of dollars worth of legal fees to fight my complaint, all for nothing.
“The special service charge is unreasonable and unwarranted,” the council ruled at their January 31st, 2017 meeting. “The custodian must therefore refund the Complainant’s $85.19 payment and provide certified confirmation of compliance to the GRC.”
Two Strikes For The Lacey School Board
My complaint is not the first in which the school board’s response to Open Public Records Act requests has drawn scrutiny. We previously reported on the complaint filed by one of the school board’s own members, Regina Discenza. Her complaint currently awaits adjudication.
I make use of both state and federal open records laws in order to bring to light many of the stories here on Ocean County Politics. When records custodians play games with those who seek public records (or play favorites with who they give documents to), they only end up hurting the very public they are supposed to serve.
I encourage anybody that is denied access to public records not to give up. File your complaint with the GRC or take it to Superior Court – don’t let them get away with it.