GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Officials continue to struggle with not only the cost and work connected to an ever-increasing influx of public records requests, but also the fines associated with not completing them on time.
Over the past two and a half years, township officials have worked to pull Galloway out of the red concerning the cost of violations for failing to deliver public records upon request. But the struggle continues to cost money and manpower.
When Thalia C. "T.C." Kay was hired in March 2012 as the township clerk, her first task from the administration was to complete outstanding Open Public Records Act requests to remove the municipality from its violation status, Kay said.
During the last five months of 2011 and the start of 2012, the township experienced an influx of public records requests the staff was ill-equipped to handle, she said.
Ed Purcell, staff attorney for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said there has been an uptick in OPRA requests across the state. And although a broad study hasn't been conducted, officials have expressed frustration that the OPRA process can easily be abused, particularly during a time of severe fiscal constraint for municipalities.
"Municipalities are getting better at filling OPRA requests more efficiently. But still, the municipalities are operating under a hard 2 percent cap, and they can't really hire more people to do all of this work. And you have a clerk who is responsible for the requests along with a lot of other things, and it can be very time-consuming. So it's a difficult situation," Purcell said.
The township began facing a litany of OPRA requests in 2011, shortly after the resignation of former township Clerk Lisa Tilton. The requests were predominantly from Tilton, Kay said.
"Lisa Tilton's first OPRA request came at the end of August in 2011, almost immediately after she left the position," Kay said.
In December 2012, Tilton purchased the Galloway Township News blog from former publisher Harry Scheeler, who launched the site in 2011. So far this year, Tilton has submitted 116 public records requests under her name and as the publisher of Galloway Township News.
In 2012, township records show Scheeler and his wife, Amy, submitted 190 public records requests between them. Tilton submitted three, and when she assumed ownership of the blog in late December, she put in five requests under the title of publisher.
Scheeler said this week that the OPRA requests were not filed by him or his wife, but by Tilton.
"Out of the 190, about 10 of them were me. Lisa Tilton was using my identity and email to file the OPRA requests. I consented to it. She had my password," Scheeler said.
Tilton declined to comment Tuesday on Scheeler's comments.
She said the requests filed this year were to collect information and township documents to build the Galloway Township News website and provide documents to the public that were not readily available on the township website. Other requests were for background information for investigative news stories, she said.
Scheeler filed a lawsuit against Galloway Township in 2012 after he did not receive OPRA requests on time during the period when there were problems staffing the clerk position.
Mayor Don Purdy said employees left their positions with the township because of the overwhelming number of OPRA requests and the stress that went along with filling them.
Also in 2012, the township paid out two settlements totaling $12,167, one of them as a result of a complaint from Scheeler lodged with the state Government Records Council.
Tilton said that since she took over the website last year, she has not filed any Government Records Council complaints against the township.
Kay said that when she took over as township clerk, she was faced with 21 open complaints for OPRA violations filed with the records council.
She said she was well aware that a clerk also can face fines personally from the records council for OPRA violations.
"You're looking at $1,000 for the initial violation, $2,500 for the second and $5,000 for a third violation if it occurs in the same 10-year period," she said.
In addition to violations, the township continues to struggle with mounting legal fees for OPRA requests that require attorney research.
Since 2011, Galloway has paid nearly $60,000 to attorneys for their work on OPRA requests, although the numbers for legal bills connected to OPRA in 2013 have shrunk.
Township officials say they are hopeful the new municipal website, unveiled last month, will slow the barrage of OPRA requests.
Municipalities across the state have had success posting documents to their websites, thereby making the information public so it does not have be requested through the OPRA process, Purcell said.
The new website, which cost $7,000 to build, features a library with access to documents that are typically requested through OPRA. The library includes forms, permits and licenses, along with the township code book, master plan, public bids, agendas and meeting minutes.
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