When Hamilton Township last year sued over an out-of-state guy seeking thousands of hours of video surveillance footage of police and township buildings, we suggested it should have simply denied the request and let the requester sue if he wished.
As a result of its lawsuit, the township was ordered to pay nearly $43,000 in legal fees to the requester.
Cape May let this same person in North Carolina sue, and Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson ruled recently he wasn't authorized to make requests under the Open Public Records Act because he wasn't a New Jersey citizen.
The act grants access to public records to any "citizen of this State."
Johnson went further in his ruling, declaring that "a non-taxpaying, noncitizen with an oversized interest in New Jersey local politics wishes to assert equal claim to the statutory rights of New Jersey citizens to engage in the political processes of our state, without coming to our state, nor assuming any of the responsibilities or incurring the obligations of a citizen of New Jersey."
Cape May Solicitor Anthony Monzo suggested a monetary motive, saying the requester "had turned OPRA into a cottage industry and has made a career out of badgering records custodians statewide while sitting in his home in North Carolina."
The requester got a favorable ruling and money recently out of another Superior Court judge, Ronald Bookbinder. He denied the Atlantic County Joint Insurance Fund's argument that noncitizens weren't given access under OPRA and ordered it to pay the requester $18,000 in legal fees.
In a ruling subsequent to his original one on the matter, Johnson ruled that a District of Columbia lawyers group isn't entitled to access Atlantic City Board of Education records.
As a newspaper, we favor public access to government information and would like to see more, with independent authorities and redevelopment agencies subject to the law and much more basic information put online for everyone.
But we're concerned about the cost of abusive records requests to citizens and taxpayers.
Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas also restrict records requests to state citizens. Delaware and Georgia statutes do as well, but they have been interpreted to allow requests from residents of other states.
With conflicting court rulings, the New Jersey act apparently is open to interpretation.
Whether the practice gets there by judicial ruling or legislation, the state needs to allow openness while discouraging abusive and excessive requests.
Perhaps a significant fee per record should be charged to out-of-state requesters. New Jersey citizens could get records free or at a steep discount, only fair considering the taxes they pay.