An ongoing battle between a local resident and his attorney against North Bergen township has reached a boiling point, following a contentious lawsuit over the resident’s request for public information.
Luis Gutierrez recently received a $42,000 bill after filing a total of 175 OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests to access information from the township and other affiliated agencies, including the municipal Utilities Authority, the Board of Education, and the Housing Authority.
In response to the bill, Gutierrez’ attorney, Mario Blanch, filed a lawsuit contesting the $42,000 charge. In the suit’s complaint, Blanch contends that “[The administration’s] tactics are designed to intimidate and chill [Gutierrez’s] and public’s right to access government records….”
“[Without OPRA regulation], somebody like Mr. Blanch could almost shut down the government.” – Town Spokesman Phil Swibinski
“The town is saying that the public’s right to retain public records is frivolous,” said Blanch.
Blanch, a frequent meeting attendee and outspoken opponent against the current administration’s policies, represented the “Citizens for Change” mayor/commissioner ticket in their unsuccessful election bid against Mayor Nicholas Sacco’s team last year. He also represents a former town employee who filed a state ethics complaint against Sacco in December.
Gutierrez is a member of the North Bergen Concerned Citizens Group (NBCCG), a vocal opponent of the current administration. A spokesman for the NBCCG said that Blanch also assisted with some of Gutierrez’ requests in order to ensure they were in compliance with the law.
“What is the town so afraid of, that they have to resort to these heavy handed measures?” asked Blanch in a release sent on behalf of the NBCCG. “What are they hiding and what don’t they want us to find out?”
“North Bergen has nothing to hide,” said Town Spokesman Phil Swibinski.
Swibinski said that the OPRA requests were “completely excessive.”
“Carrying [these requests] out would excessively hold up all other operations by several employees of various township agencies,” said Swibinski, “as well as necessitating hundreds of hours of excess legal work. North Bergen taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for a politically motivated wild goose chase. The total cost [$42,000] is totally compliant with provision to the Open Public Records Act.”
Swibinski said that the total cost includes hourly pay for the individuals tasked with responding to the OPRA requests. He also said that certain requests required handling by an attorney, which carried a higher hourly rate than the township clerk.
“In all cases we used the lowest salary employee that can answer each request,” said Swibinski.
Swibinski also said that the requests were too general and categorical. He added that the township attempted to offer Gutierrez the opportunity to narrow the focus of the requests in order to reduce the cost.
“Instead of asking for specific materials, they [Blanch and Gutierrez] asked for any and all materials related to a given subject,” said Swibinski. “The township offered the petitioner the opportunity to narrow the focus to reduce the cost, and never received any response to the inquiries.”
“They’re essentially asking for every record in the building,” added Swibinski. “[A major] reason why the Open Public Records Act allows municipalities to charge fees for this is [because] somebody like Mr. Blanch could almost shut down the government.”
In the release, Blanch contested that he and Gutierrez attempted to work with the town to conserve manpower.
“We offered to give the town ample time to retrieve the records we requested,” said Blanch in the release. “We offered to make adjustments so as not to burden municipal personnel.”
Several different deposits were requested from Gutierrez before the corresponding agencies would begin work, according to a letter Blanch sent to The Reporter from Michael D. Witt, an attorney on behalf of the township. Witt explains in the letter that the deposit is required due to the volume of the request and hourly rate of the employees handling each request.
“The balance of the escrow account, if any, will be returned to you upon completion of you requests,” Witt added in the letter.
In the letter, which was sent Feb. 2, Witt also asks that Blanch meet with the township in an effort to refine their requests.
“The Township would likely be able to respond to your requests in a much more cost-effective and time-effective manner,” said Witt in the letter, “if it can provide a specific document reflecting the information you seek, as opposed to being required to search all documents in its possession to see if any of them contain the information for which you are looking.”
Sanctions threatened against Blanch
Blanch sent a letter to The Reporter that he received from Witt on April 20. In the letter, Witt requests that Blanch “withdraw [the] complaint.” Witt says in the letter that the allegations that the township violated OPRA laws are “completely devoid of any factual [or legal] basis.”
“[The township demands] that plaintiff withdraw his Complaint in its entirety against the Township,” said Witt in the letter, adding that if the complaint is not drawn within 28 days, the town will move for sanctions against both signatories to the complaint and will demand “reasonable attorney fees and cost of suit.”
Blanch charged that the sanctions were another move to conceal records on behalf of the administration.
“Now the township, the mayor, and its administration are threatening us,” said Blanch, “and saying they’re entitled to legal fees.”
“This is completely ridiculous and off the wall that they’re threatening me to get public documents,” added Blanch.
Blanch has until May 18 before the town will apparently move to impose sanctions.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.