Friday, May 22, 2015

NJ records council: Home addresses of school board members should be private

Should the public have the right to know where public officials live? This is an argument I just lost with the New Jersey Government Records Council. A recent state analysis of my case against the New Jersey Department of Education showed that public officials should have "reasonable expectation of privacy." Except that the state uses "citizens," not "public officials" in the "reasonable expectation of privacy" decision.

NJ records council: Home addresses of school board members should be private

Should the public have the right to know where public officials live?

This is an argument I just lost with the New Jersey Government Records Council.

A recent state analysis of my case against the New Jersey Department of Education showed that public officials should have “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Except that the state Government Records Council executive director Brandon D. Minde uses “citizens,” not “public officials” in his “reasonable expectation of privacy” decision.

Should there be a distinction?

Here is my argument and account:

Last spring, I was hearing rumors about a Camden Board of Education member living in public housing.

Given that Kathryn Blackshear earns more than $80,000 as an employee at the Housing Authority of the City of Camden, I was surprised by the rumors and wondered about rules for residents.

So, as any journalist would, I researched where she lived.

Because Blackshear is a public official, I figured it would be easy to check her address. And while I was at it, I decided to verify the residences of all the board members.

In New Jersey, all elected public officials must list their addresses on the petitions they submit to run for office. For example, if you go to Department of State website right now, you’ll find home addresses all state candidates, including Gov. Christie, running in the June primary.

But Camden school board members are appointed by the mayor, so they have no election petitions.

So, on April 2, 2012, I requested copies of the most recent New Jersey Department of Education conflict of interest disclosure forms, also called “Ethics Forms,” filed by Camden City school board members. These forms also contain addresses.

The Department of Education provided me those disclosure forms but redacted the street addresses for each board member.

I appealed, saying the full address should be listed.

“The complainant contends that without the home addresses, the public cannot confirm that the Camden City Board of Education members live in the City of Camden, a requirement for the position of Board Member.”

All true.

By this point, I had confirmed by other means that Ms. Blackshear did, indeed, live in public housing and had since she was on public assistance two decades ago. She, like others in her situation, was allowed to stay, as long as she paid a certain percentage of her income, which I confirmed she was doing. No rules broken; no story.

I continued the appeal with the Department of Education, however, on the principle that citizens should be able to verify that public officials do, indeed, live in the communities they represent.

During the appeals process, I was asked a series of questions, which are quoted in the decision (See attachment) on why I needed street addresses for school board members and the importance of it.

The department answered its own set of questions in defense of their redactions.

A year later, the records council ruled in favor of the department. (The tend to do that

“The Complainant is currently in possession of the information she seeks, namely, whether the school board members reside in the City of Camden,” the decision states.  “The Custodian has lawfully denied access to the street addresses contained on the requested records pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1, on the basis that the disclosure of the street addresses would violate the citizens’ reasonable expectation of privacy.”

I wonder if the records council would have changed its decision if it had seen my recent story on Camden Mayor Redd’s appointment of a Winslow Township resident to the Camden school board?

As I reported last month, Jennifer Martinez was one of three people appointed to the Camden school board. As I normally do, I asked for all three resumes.

The street addresses were redacted on the resumes, but the city and zip codes were not.

Martinez’s resume had “Camden, 08105” showing next to the redacted street address.

If it wasn’t for a little inkling I got when I looked the 2012 Hispanic Summit Leadership website, which said Martinez lived in Winslow, who knows how long Martinez would have served on the board?

She could have moved to Camden within the year since the summit, which would have made her appointment in compliance with state law. So, after a week of unreturned phone calls from Martinez and City Council president Frank Moran, who recommended her to the mayor, I took a drive down to her listed Winslow Township home to see if she still lived there.

She did live there and informed me that she had since withdrawn her appointment.

Should the public be expected to go on what seemed like a scavenger hunt to figure out whether elected officials are who they say they are? 

The state seems to think so. 

(My colleague Matt Katz wrote about his own experience with GRC last year. It's worth the read.)

About this blog

Allison Steele writes about Camden’s schools, government and businesses. Most importantly, she writes about the city’s residents. She is a former crime reporter who covered the Camden and Philadelphia police departments for the Inquirer. A Philly native, she has been with the Inquirer since 2008.

Send comments, tips and story ideas to asteele@philly.com, call 856-779-3876, or reach out on Twitter @AESteele.

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