How to Dig Dirt from Big Government: Part 3
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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.
In Part 1 of this series of articles about submitting FOIA and OPRA requests, I began my plan to submit 3 requests for staff directories to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance, and the New Jersey Department and Children and Families. This basic request would be a litmus test for public records access in New Jersey... if you can't even get a staff directory to help contact the people who work for the taxpayers, what hope is there?
In Part 2 of this series, I noted that I had only a single positive response to these 3 requests: the Department of Agriculture, who provided me in short order a staff directory, though it was not to the specifications I requested. At that time, the Department of Banking and Insurance denied my request under the claim of confidential personal information (despite communications with the Government Records Custodian that this information was a part of the public record). Since that writing, the Department of Children and Families has denied my request on the basis that they do not have a central staff directory, but they have worked with me via email to help provide some of the information that I was requesting in different forms.
So, what follows is some talk about the various departments' responses, filing a complaint with the New Jersey Government Records Council about the NJ DOBI denial, and some resources that I discovered through the process which are not well known, but might even have saved the trouble of these OPRA requests to begin with.
Filing a Denial Complaint With the New Jersey Government Records Council
I'm not listing the names of individuals I corresponded with here in this article. I do believe in government transparency, but I don't believe it's necessary to publicly shame state workers by name, whose time we pay for, when they acted in good faith to perform their job duties... even if I believe they may not full understand the regulations they were hired to uphold. (Ed.'s note)
So, as noted in Part 2, the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance denied my OPRA request for "Most recent staff directory, including at the least name, email, direct phone number, and title, for the NJ Department of Banking and Insurance."
The reasons given for denial? First, "Denial: 02.Inter/Intra-Agency Advisory, Consultative or Deliberative Material --- Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1." Well, I read NJSA 47:A-1. and it does not list staff directories and indicates that primarily records which are draft (not finalized) or contain personal information about a private citizen's personal life may not be released (though in practice, if you push they can be released with information redacted, as in the example of correspondence from you or me to a government official about a public matter). In other words, this didn't even feel like a particularly good effort to deny an OPRA request, let along a correct or legal one.
Several polite emails back and forth and the Government Records Custodian at NJ DOBI declined to reply further, at which point I did inform him I'd be taking it up with the Government Records Council (seems like fair play to me and I'll have to notify him anyway when I file the paperwork).
I headed over to the GRC website and downloaded the Denial of Access Complaint form. The website said to call or email first in case it could be resolved over the phone (for example, if I was wrong and had no case, why bother filing?). An email conversation with the GRC seemed to strongly indicate that a staff directory is in fact public record.
Filling out the paperwork: when you print out the form, it's 9 pages, but you only need 3 if you decline mediation. I would like mediation, but I declined it because I don't make any money off of this and I'm not looking to drive down to Trenton (which is probably where they would want to have the mediation) to argue my case. -- You can also, for a $200 filing fee, simply take the Government Records Custodian that denied your request to court... which I found was implied to be much faster and potentially more successful than a denial complaint, but I opted for the complaint for time, travel, and monetary reasons once again.
I was also able to fax the paperwork, which made things easier, though it'd be great if they let me submit it over the web or via email. I had to include my email conversations with the person who denied my request as well, no big deal.
So now I wait and see what happens. I expect that the least that will happen is that the individual in question will be more hesitant to deny OPRA requests in the future, as this probably causes a bit of paperwork. Hopefully, my request will be fulfilled.
The Department of Agriculture sent over what looks to be a PDF from a website (more on that in a second). It didn't include email addresses. I didn't complain because this is a test to see how FOIA / OPRA works in New Jersey, not an opportunity to dig up every detail (though I did request the email addresses).*
*Worth noting: New Jersey residents have a right to email New Jersey State Staff at their professional email addresses. You do pay for both that service and the staff time to answer those emails, after all. I'd say probably any American citizen has the right to email, though I can see staff ignoring citizens clearly outside of their representation. At any rate, refusing to provide the public with email addresses for state staff does little good as a simple Excel formula can generate an accurate list of email addresses for any state employee in a matter of seconds, as long as you have their first name, last name, and department. In other words, anyone trying to hide state staff email addresses from the public is only fooling themselves.
...but I digress. So, good response from the Department of Agriculture.
The Department of Children and Families responded to my request with a denial, citing a long stretch of legalese copy and pasted from the same place the guy at the Department of Banking and Insurance got the information. Undaunted, I fired back a round of 4 or 5 questions asking for clarification: do the records not exist? do they exist but I can't have them? etc.
I received in response a note that the department I sent my request to does not have a directory for all the staff for all of the divisions of the NJ Department of Children and Families. Eventually, I got them to send me part of what they did have, thanked them, and took note of some other resources they recommended (which I will also discuss in minute).
You may not need to file an OPRA / FOIA to get the information that you need. More and more state governments are becoming aware of the need for transparency and the benefits that everyone reaps when they put the data that they use every day directly onto a website for citizens to search. Wider availability of data ensures less queries from the public (and less staff time answering them), more eyes finding occasional cases of corruption more quickly, and the opportunity for researchers to uncover mathematical truths about our daily lives in America in new and exciting ways.
The Government Records Council and the New Jersey Department of Children and Families recommended that I check out the following resources, which frankly I did not know or had forgotten existed:
- State of New Jersey Transparency Center - Featuring in depth budget reports, downloadable data, and the holy grail of OPRA-dom, public payroll records even down to the individual staff member: http://nj.gov/transparency
- State of New Jersey Phone Directory - Fairly complete, does not include email addresses: http://www.state.nj.us/nj/gov/direct/
- Asbury Park Press' Data Universe - Looks like a lot of OPRA / FOIA on behalf of the APP, includes tons of salary data for individual state employees that I couldn't find on the state website: http://www.app.com/section/DATA/DataUniverse
- Morris County Tax Records - Lots of historic deeds data as well as most recent assessment and property taxes. Great if you're looking for a home and don't want to be added to a real estate agent's contact list just to find out the tax data on a listing (full disclosure: I'm a real estate agent) http://mcweb1.co.morris.nj.us/TaxBoard/SearchTR.jsp
- Food Safety Reports Online - ...from the Pequannock Township Health Department, actual retail food inspection reports online covering 5 local towns, a great example of how governments can work to be more transparent without adding huge overhead costs to their budget. http://www.peqtwp.org/Cit-e-Access/webpage.cfm?TID=60&TPID=7555