Following the lead of the state Attorney General Peter Harvey, who in March said that the state's municipalities could legally request fees when a resident asks for documents that cut into the general business of the workday, North Bergen adopted its ordinance at the June 25 meeting.
However, there are some residents who feel that this is a violation of their civil rights and an infringement on the state's Open Public Records Act.
"Citizens already pay a fee for those services," said Frank Landrigan, a former long-time North Bergen resident who ran for public office several times during the 35 years he resided in the township. "It's called property taxes."
But township attorney Herb Klitzner believes that the whole thing is much ado about nothing.
"We copied the language that the attorney general used," Klitzner said. "When I saw the opinion offered by the attorney general, I thought we should have the ordinance in place, but hopefully, we'll never have to need it." Klitzner said that the fees will only be charged in "extraordinary circumstances."
"It will only be used when the cost of obtaining the records cuts into the daily workforce," Klitzner said. "If you have to put five people to work to look for the records and collate them, then the way you compute the fee is take the salary of the people doing the work and multiply the amount of hours spent collecting the documents."
The fee is separate from the fees that the town can charge for photocopying public documents like a budget. Those can be as high as 75 cents for the first few pages.
Klitzner said, "Most people come into Town Hall looking for one document, like a copy of an accident report or a birth certificate. That is not a problem. If they want the copy of one document, it's 75 cents per page like it always has been. Even if you want the copies of 10 ordinances, I can't see a problem. But if someone comes into Town Hall and wants to tie up a bunch of people to look for records, then there has to be a fee."
Klitzner reiterated that the ordinance covers extensive requests, not the simple ones.
"Anyone with a reasonable request for a record is not affected," Klitzner said. "No one should be worried about this. If you come into Town Hall and are requesting records, then we will tell you up front what is extraordinary."
Landrigan is not pleased in spite of Klitzner's assurances.
"When Mr. Klitzner says this, he's disingenuous," said Landrigan, who moved to East Rutherford three years ago, but still regularly monitors the actions of his former home. "The word 'extraordinary' is up to Mr. Klitzner to decide. It's too discretionary and too judgmental. There has to be specifics about what is subject to be charged. It's deceptive to say the least."
Klitzner said there hasn't been an "extraordinary" request in the seven weeks since the ordinance was passed. "It's not something that we're looking to use or anticipate using," Klitzner said.
The Record newspaper recently wrote an editorial on its opinion page criticizing North Bergen's new plan.
Klitzner responded in a letter, telling the paper that the criticism was unfounded.
"They wrote the opinion without ever contacting me," Klitzner said. "I could have told them differently if they asked."
Klitzner gave an example of a circumstance where the township would have to charge a document fee.
"If there's a lawsuit and in the interrogatory, there's a request for every violation on every property in the town," Klitzner said. "So then, we'd have to go through 10,000 property files to look for violations. That's extraordinary."
Klitzner said that he will also give the option of allowing the person to look through the documents themselves at no cost, provided employees don't do the research.
"We don't have the staff on our payroll that can simply handle public records," Klitzner said. "If there's a request, we have to take someone from their normal duties in order to do it. We're just following the exact language provided by the state attorney general - no more, no less."
When Klitzner was asked why so many people have concerns, he replied, "Either they don't understand or don't want to understand."
Landrigan still doesn't buy it.
"I go to other towns, like Teaneck or East Rutherford, where I live, and I never have a problem," Landrigan said.
Landrigan said that most records and information in other towns are provided on compact disks.
"Those disks hold tremendous amounts of information," Landrigan said. "I just bring in a disk and they copy the information for me. I still have an emotional interest in North Bergen. I don't understand what they're trying to hide."
Landrigan also suggested that the records be listed on the Internet, but it would take time to compile the information and then program it.
"If the information was available on the Internet, then everyone could have access," Landrigan said. "But if you don't know what they're doing, and it raises questions. The worst part of it is that if they succeed, then all access to public records will be practically denied. And that's wrong."
Klitzner said that the true test of the ordinance will occur once the first extraordinary request comes in.
"Nothing has changed," Klitzner said. "Access has not been denied and never will be."