Sunday, December 28, 2014

Responses to government records requests in NJ can be random, odd

A recent request to the state School Development Authority had quite a shocking response, or well, price tag.

Responses to government records requests in NJ can be random, odd

As the Camden City reporter, I file requests for government records almost as a weekly routine.  Government officials here aren’t the most chatty, and sometimes it’s quicker to get questions answered through documents than wait for the right person to call back. So, the New Jersey Open Public Records Act has become a close friend of mine. 

OPRA is by no means a savior for journalists, though. (You might have read my colleague Matt Katz’s horrid tale with his long fight to get documents.) Depending how an agency interprets the law and a request, all sorts of answers can be expected: from full disclosure to complete denial and everything in between, such as the time I requested salaries for all employees of the Camden City Housing Authority. Guess what I got back? A list of salaries… without any names to match. I wish I was kidding. (Of course I called and complained and eventually did get the names of employees and corresponding salaries.) Also, when I broke the story on Camden Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young’s extended absences and leave, it was only after weeks of back and forth with the district and then the state Government Records Council that the district complied and gave me her attendance record. The district had initially denied me by claiming attendance isn’t part of payroll… ummm, yeah. 

But a recent request to the state School Development Authority had quite a shocking response. I had heard a rumor that some consulting firms working with Cooper University Hospital had acquired copies of the architecture plans and bid package for the Lanning Square School. So I figured if someone wanted copies of plans held by the government, an OPRA request would most likely be filed. OPRA requests are OPRA-able, so I requested “All School Development Authority Government Records Request Forms, which have been turned in to the authority, requesting Lanning Square School Project documents, including, but not limited to, bidding document, construction document and design package,” as well as all replies to those requests. 

Someone from the SDA did call me this time and said that processing my request would take awhile. In the meantime, she thought she knew what I was looking for and would send it to me. If I wanted or need more, I could follow through with the OPRA process. I agreed. 

I got what I needed (at least the bare minimum of what I was looking for) and was able to write my story on Cooper Foundation pushing for Lanning Square School as a renaissance school. 

On Monday, I received the actual response to my request: If I wanted SDA to search for all OPRA requests dealing with Lanning Square, it would have to be done manually. The bill to proceed with transparency? $726.95

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Julia Terruso
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