Friday, January 18, 2013

How to Dig Dirt from Big Government: Part 2

Environ. Records
Environ. Records (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Christopher Lotito

How to Dig Dirt from Big Government is a sporadic series covering the topic of researching information from governmental groups, who often are not quick to respond to requests.  This can include FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and OPRA (NJ Open Public Records Act) requests, as well as other legal means of obtaining information.  It is hoped that providing this series of articles will help others to become more informed citizens and to ensure their representation in a system which may not always notice the "little guy" even when it's making it's good faith best effort.  Consider FOIA & OPRA interchangeable in this series unless specifically noted.

Testing OPRA and Public Records in New Jersey

I've run for Pequannock Township Council in Morris County in NJ.  I've been on our Flood Committee in a flood community after Hurricane Irene and several other commissions besides.  As Corresponding Secretary of the local Historic District Commission, I took it upon myself to dig up hundreds of pages of government records on the Morris Canal, secure them, and donate them to our township library as a special collection.  Needless to say, I deal with regional, state, and federal governments on a regular basis.

Following January 2013's media blitz over the release of New York State's handgun permit-holder's list, I decided it was time to get more ambitious about the positive aspects of FOIA (in contrast to that farce, wherein personal information, including addresses, about private citizens should never have been released, regardless of the letter of that law.  If it's a bad law, rewrite it, don't let a newspaper ruin a couple thousand people's privacy... but I digress).  I realize that one of the biggest bars to public engagement in New Jersey is the non-responsiveness of government.  My township is blessed to have a Mayor and Council whose cellphone numbers are publicized (and frequently answered!), but almost anyone in New Jersey who has tried to get an address changed for a child who moved out of state for college, tried to replace a license lost in flood or fire, or tried to find out how their tax return ended up so messed up has found out that New Jersey State Employees have a tendency to hid behind a single office number which often does not provide voicemail or a phone extension directory.  It's nearly impossible to get ahold of an individual staff member in New Jersey, they just won't release their direct lines.

The OPRA Request

To remedy this, I would submit a series of test OPRA requests (3 to start) and see how far it got me.  I would request, "Most recent staff directory, including at the least name, email, direct phone number, and title, for the NJ Department of [DEPARTMENT HERE].  Excel, Access, or CSV format preferred.  Thanks for your assistance!"

Depending on the results, I might release the records online so that anyone searching for contact information for a NJ State Employee on Google would be able to find them, I might use the experience to advise others on how to get better information on the same topic, or I might just learn a bit about OPRA in NJ.

The Results

So here are the results less than 2 days later*,**:
  • New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance flat out denied the OPRA request and claimed it fell under the Government Records Council's 24 exemptions from OPRA.  I contacted the GRC and they said it doesn't, so I'll be filing a complaint with them to get this information freed up.  (I'm not identifying the individual here, unless I post the records later, because really he's just trying to do his job the way he thinks is best and who wouldn't want to NOT give out their boss' direct line if asked?)
  • New Jersey Department of Agriculture emailed the information right over, sans email addresses.  Given the negative response I got from the Department of Banking and Insurance, I'll call that a success.
  • New Jersey State Department of Children and Families has not responded to the OPRA request yet, which is fine since they still have time (7 days total) under the law.
  • *I selected these 3 departments semi-randomly, as they were the first 3 (alphabetically) in the online OPRA form.
  • **The GRC helpfully pointed out that this information is ACTUALLY available on this website: http://www.state.nj.us/cgi-bin/phoneform3.pl  -- Though actually I can see already it doesn't include the staff directory for some state universities.


Lessons Learned


  • You can file OPRA requests for free, easily, online here and the departments you contact are obligated by law to reply within 7 days: http://www.state.nj.us/opra/
  • If you are dealing with the NJ State Government, direct phone numbers for all their staff are on this website in a searchable format: http://www.state.nj.us/cgi-bin/phoneform3.pl  -- The only way this would be better is if it came up in a regular way on Google and Bing.
  • Sometimes Government Records Custodians deny you and are just plain wrong... if you think this has happened, you can submit a complaint via: http://www.state.nj.us/grc/register/appeal/  -- Government Records Custodians hate receiving complaints and it will not make them any easier to deal with in the future, so it's not really a great solution.
  • It's important to note that some people, like those at the Department of Agriculture, are happy to help and promptly.  Even the individual at the Department of Banking and Insurance responded personally and promptly.
  • None of this cost any money, though obviously it did take some time.  Not much time though considering it was all done via email and a webform in between other todo items.

More updates at some point, possibly, when I see how the appeal with the NJ Department of Banking and Insurance goes.

  Christopher Lotito is a member of the Pequannock Historic District and Open Space Commissions.  As an expert on local flooding he is also the author of  "Torrent," a book about flooding in the region.  Lotito's personal mission is to reduce new taxes, drastically reduce flooding, and preserve more green spaces for our children.  Christopher Lotito Profile

Search This Blog