HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — A failed lawsuit over an Open Public Records Act could end up costing Hamilton taxpayers more than $75,000 in legal bills.
The township filed the lawsuit in April after a “monumental” public records request from Harry Scheeler Jr., of Concordville, North Carolina.
Scheeler, originally from Hamilton Township, had asked for video surveillance footage from all building cameras for the township hall and police department for a 30-day time period, according to township attorney Robert Sandman.
“The size, scope and effect of that OPRA request were extraordinary. It was detrimental to the safety of the police department and people,” Sandman said.
Instead of denying Scheeler’s request, the township filed a lawsuit, asking the court to intervene and relieve it from any obligation to respond to the request and stop Scheeler from making similar requests in the future.
“This lawsuit was ridiculous. It’s either “A”, the township trying to harass me, or “B,” the solicitor is incompetent,” said Scheeler.“It’s completely frivolous litigation.”
Scheeler described the lawsuit filed by the township as a Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuit, but Sandman disagreed.
A SLAPP lawsuit is a legal strategy designed to silence public opposition. Sandman said the lawsuit was filed to give the township relief and allow the court to provide guidance.
On Wednesday, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Michael Winkelstein provided that guidance when he dismissed the lawsuit and ordered the township to pay Scheeler’s legal fees.
Scheeler was awarded legal fees because he “prevailed” in the lawsuit and because denying him reimbursement of his legal fees would “essentially reward the Township for violating OPRA,” Winkelstein said.
Those legal fees could be more than $60,000, Scheeler said.
“You have elected officials who voted for this lawsuit and they’re supposed to be the watchdog of the community,” said Scheeler.
In his decision, Winkelstein ruled that filing a lawsuit against a document requester is contrary to the public policies that serve as the foundation for OPRA and the common law right to access government records.
“OPRA’s language gives the requester, not the government agency, the right to go to court or take other action if the records request is not granted,” Winkelstein wrote.
Winkelstein also found that the township’s lawsuit prevented Scheeler from simply walking away if his OPRA request was denied.
Mayor Roger Silva declined to comment about the lawsuit dismissal.
The town has already spent $17,575 in legal fees for Sandman in connection with the lawsuit.
Sandman said he couldn’t give a firm total of legal expenses connected to the lawsuit at this time; that two attorneys at Sandman, Palladino and Weintrob were involved in the case, he said.
The judge’s ruling doesn’t address Scheeler’s counterclaim that his civil rights were violated; the judge said that would require more evidence gathering and noted that the township had requested a jury trial if that claim were to proceed.
Nor did the judge’s ruling address Scheeler’s OPRA request, which Winkelstein pointed out that the township had never formally denied.
Sandman said he has to figure out what effect the dismissal has on the complaint. The case isn’t over yet, he said.
“We are not going to recommend the township release anything that would compromise public safety,” he said.