Archive: June, 2012
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.
Volunteers of America Delaware Valley received a $60,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation last week to renovate a North Camden community center for low-income and homeless veterans.
The VOA intends to create seven to nine single-occupancy units at the Leavenhouse Community, a center that has been a beacon on State Street for more than three decades. Leavenhouse used to house homeless and low-income residents under prior ownership. Once VOA acquired the property from the North Camden Land Trust about five years ago, it stopped housing residents because of building infrastructure issues (needed major renovations). Since then, the VOA has used Leavenhouse for office space and for its kitchen, from which it serves breakfast to clients on the weekends, said VOA spokeswoman Rebecca Fuller.
The local grant comes from $1.37 million awarded by the Home Depot Foundation to more than a dozen VOA homeless-veterans programs nationwide. In each case, the money will be used to refurbish or build housing for the vets and family members. For years, the Leavenhouse Community has helped its clients find affordable housing, provided case management, taught life skills, and provided mental-health and substance-abuse counseling.
ICYMI: Cooper Foundation looking to build Renaissance School by using existing Lanning Square School plans
In case you missed it, my story Saturday talked about some of the behind-the-scenes of the Renaissance School (Urban Hope Act) project proposals. Cooper Foundation has been leading the way by getting a head start on plans...
Six weeks after Gov. Christie came to Camden to sign the Urban Hope Act - opening the doors for nonprofits to build and run mostly publicly funded schools in the state's poorest and lowest-performing districts - one Philadelphia development company had already started to dig for documents.
KMS Development Partners - a construction consultant working with the Cooper Foundation, the charitable arm of Cooper University Hospital - filed an Open Public Records request to the state Schools Development Authority on Feb. 27 asking for drawings and specifications for the "proposed Lanning Square School," whose construction the state pushed off its priority list after Christie came into office in 2010.
The Young Urban Leaders, founded by Camden School Board member Sean Brown, will be hosting a networking event Friday.
As a young city activist, Brown founded his group a few years ago as a way to connect with other young activists in the area.
"The purpose of YUL is to empower young people," to address issues plaguing urban areas like Camden, Brown said. Though most of the current 25 members have some connection to Camden, not all live in the city.