LACEY – The state Government Records Council (GRC), has ruled that the Lacey Township Board of Education has unlawfully withheld access to copies of emails requested by one of the board’s own members, both as a board member and under OPRA in 2015.
Strike two against the Lacey School Board.
For the second time in 2017, the New Jersey Government Records Council (GRC) has ruled against the Lacey Township Board of Education after a complaint filed against the board by one of the board’s own members was adjudicated by the state panel.
The GRC hears complaints from citizens who allege they have been unlawfully denied access to public records. It can issue orders municipalities and other entities subject to OPRA in accordance with the state transparency law and require them to disclose documents if it finds that a complainant’s right to access public records was violated.
Second Violation of State Transparency Law Substantiated At The GRC In 2017
The board of education’s first strike came back in January of this year when they ruled in favor of this reporter, who challenged the board’s imposition of an $85 “special service fee” in order to be provided with copies of checks requested under the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA) that were originally requested in 2015, when the complaint was initially filed with the GRC. In Rozzi v. Lacey Township Board of Education, the GRC ordered the board to refund the $85 this reporter was forced to pay by the former business administrator, Jim Savage, in order to obtain copies of checks that were used by the then-board attorney, a contracted professional, to purchase health benefits through a school district plan. In its written ruling, the GRC called the fee “unwarranted and unreasonable.”
The second strike, which came in the final decision issued in the Discenza case brought an old dispute involving the mismanagement of a multi-million dollar solar panel project back to the forefront. The district’s mismanagement of the project was previously the subject of an investigation from the New Jersey State Comptroller’s Office that highlighted the overpayment for architecture services made by the district and lack of oversight from board members as contributing factors for the disappointing financial performance of the $19.8 million project that was sold to Lacey taxpayers with “no tax increase to you” flyers.
Lacey BOE Member Asked For Records, Filed OPRA Request And Still Got Nothing
Regina Discenza, an elected member of the Lacey board of education, first informally requested the records that were the subject of her GRC complaint in her capacity of a school board member but then had to resort to filing an OPRA request like an average citizen, and was still denied by the district’s then-custodian of records, Mr. Savage.
In her request for public records, Discenza was seeking memos and email / written correspondence from the DiCara Rubino architecture firm – which was retained by the district for architecture services related to the solar panel project – and school district officials, to include email chains involving attorney Stein and Board President Tirella.
The GRC’s late July ruling ordered the school board to disclose to Discenza the public portions of the many of the emails that were the subject of Discenza’s 2015 OPRA request.
The GRC ruling was a net victory for Discenza, who was victorious on a good portion of the items she requested, but the school board’s denial of some emails was upheld in the ruling, mainly on the basis of attorney client privilege or collective bargaining / student privacy exemptions.
“The Custodian must disclose all other portions of the twenty-three (23) requested e- mails to the Complainant (i.e., sender, recipients, date, time, subject, and salutations where applicable),” the GRC ruled in a written decision. “As to those portions of the requested e-mails, the Custodian has unlawfully denied access.”
Both of the recent GRC complaints against the Lacey school board were filed in 2015 and the administration of the board has changed since then, so these transparency issues are not necessarily indicative of the current climate at the school district, but they do offer some insight into how it was run when former business administrator Jim Savage attempted to impose the fee for my request and deny the valid portions of Mrs. Discenza’s OPRA requests respectively.
Both my own complaint and Mrs. Discenza’s were prosecuted without any legal representation. The board, on the other hand, was represented before the GRC by Forked River attorney Chris Supsie, Stein’s law partner. It should be noted that Supsie has a wife employed by the very same school district he is hired to provide legal counsel to and represent the board in negotiations.