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Municipal clerk fined for open records delay

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Municipal clerk fined for open records delay

  • A state records council levied the first mandatory fine under New Jersey’s new Open Public Records Act.

Oct. 27, 2003 — The New Jersey Government Records Council sanctioned an Ocean County municipal clerk $1,000 earlier this month for “knowing and willful” violation of the Open Public Records Act. It was the first sanction issued under OPRA, which replaced the previous open records law in July 2002.

Rabbi Yehuda Shain brought a complaint against Lakewood Township Clerk Bernadette Standowski for taking five months to respond to his requests for contracts between the town and its attorney. OPRA requires records to be provided within seven days.

On Oct. 9, the Government Records Council found Standowski in “knowing and willful” violation of the act, and imposed the mandatory $1,000 fine for a first violation. The council was created along with the new open records law to resolve disputes under OPRA.

The council’s decision was not undisputed.. E.J. Miranda, press officer for the state Attorney General’s Office, said Deputy Attorney General Barbara Conklin advised the council that it should grant Standowski a hearing before finding her in violation of the act. Conklin told the council that, as a matter of due process, Standowski should be given an opportunity to defend herself before being penalized. She also advised that OPRA required a finding of an intent to violate the statute before a fine could be imposed, and that intent could not be inferred from documents filed with the council.

The council decided to levy the fine in spite of Conklin’s advice. “We need to set a tone and show we are serious about enforcing the law,” Council Chairman Vincent Maltese told The (Trenton) Times Oct. 10. “Where a mandate is clear, explicit and unequivocal in the law, a hearing should not be required for us to determine if a fine should be issued.”

“It’s like pornography,” Council member Joseph Monzo told The Times. “You know it when you see it.”

Standowski saw the council’s decision differently. Her attorney, Guy Ryan, told The (Newark) Star-Ledger that an appeal is likely.

The minutes and transcript of the GRC meeting in which Conklin advised the council and the fine was imposed were not available as of Oct. 27.

(GRC Complaint: Shain v. Township of Lakewood) GP

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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