Every so often, sleepy old Fair Haven stirs itself to controversy. It happened this week when resident Art Kamin, longtime editor of the now-vanished Red Bank Register and a past president of the New Jersey Press Association, aimed a broadside at Mayor Mike Halfacre over access to public information.
Kamin’s op-ed piece, which first appeared in the Asbury Park Press, follows, and Halfacre’s counterpoint is published here. Kamin declined to be photographed by redbankgreen; the headshot of him below is several decades old.
Here’s another story on the use, misuse and abuse of New Jersey’s flawed Open Public Records Act. This one involves my hometown of Fair Haven. It’s a wonderful little town. But in recent months, a governmental arrogance has developed as one problem after another beset the borough.
Sometimes you have to ask if anyone is watching the municipal store. And when the tough questions are asked about what is going on, you get banished to OPRA, that stalling tactic for delaying the release of public information with the hope you’ll just go away.
The situation hit a flash point in November when the all-Republican governing body unceremoniously and unjustly ousted public works department director Thomas Curcio, used police to escort him off municipal property and replaced him with an in-house engineer, Richard Gardella. The Borough Council has not disclosed his complete credentials or identified the other candidates for the job.
Was Curcio the fall guy for the River Road streetscape project that has been a visual and construction bust from the start? What responsibility did then-borough engineer, T&M Associates of Middletown, have in the oversight of the business district’s faulty paving and repaving efforts that drew strong complaints from store owners and residents?
As a taxpayer, I started asking questions of Mayor Michael I. Halfacre, who said the action would save the borough money. First, he provided some information. Then, he clammed up.
After that, I wanted to know about the borough attorney’s fees and total legal costs; about the various Requests For Proposals and salary scales for professional positions; information about state pensions and health benefits for the professionals; whether some of those jobs were considered political plums, and a rundown of the municipalities where the mayor, a lawyer, holds paid positions.
My questions were fueled by the knowledge that even Fair Haven’s Borough Hall is not immune to the political pressures that go hand-in-hand with the appointment of governmental professional posts. That’s part of the costly quid-pro-quo game being played by the Monmouth County Republican and Democratic organizations. They take care of their own. And the taxpayer winds up footing the bill.
“All of the information you request continues to be available to all who complete the OPRA request as mandated by state law,” Halfacre said.
Borough Administrator Mary Howell had the same advice. OPRA “was enacted by the state to make the process of obtaining any public record simplified and hold the municipality accountable,” she said.
Halfacre and Howell said they could not access immediately Borough Attorney Salvatore Alfieri’s earnings for 2006 as well as his hourly rate. Alfieri stated he was unable to “compile my billing for Fair Haven from my accounting records.” It didn’t make any difference. He advised making an OPRA request, “as per the instructions from the mayor and Mary Howell.”
A check with other municipalities illustrated an inconsistency in applying OPRA rules. Rumson Administrator Thomas S. Rogers easily came up with the salaries and hourly rates of that borough’s professionals, including the $13,179 that Halfacre earns there yearly as municipal prosecutor. Red Bank Administrator Stanley J. Sickels also was quick to come up with the information on what all the professionals make in that borough. There was no mention of OPRA.
The same with Michael D. Biehl, Little Silver’s administrator. He had all the figures right at his fingertips, including the $9,554 paid last year to Halfacre as municipal prosecutor. Again, there was no mention of OPRA.
Eatontown Mayor Gerald J. Tarantolo, chairman of the Two Rivers Council of Mayors and a director of the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, is a believer in getting answers to the public quickly. “Maybe I’m different,” he said, “but when you’re dealing with the public on public information issues, and especially issues that relate to taxpayers, they have every right to have that information as rapidly as possible.”
The trailblazer in Monmouth County to ensure the public’s right to know is Larry S. Loigman, the Middletown lawyer who has done battle with that municipality, Monmouth County and other governmental entities in the cause of achieving governmental transparency.
OPRA “is still woefully inadequate,” he said. “The exceptions are ill-defined and often interpreted by public records custodians in the broadest possible manner, leading to restrictions on access. The appeals process is cumbersome and protracted. Sanctions are almost never imposed on the custodians.”
Loigman believes “almost all government records (except for active criminal investigations and certain litigation files) should be available to the public promptly. I will continue to request documents in matters that I find of public interest and to file appeals when they are not provided. I encourage others to do the same and to support revisions to OPRA that will remove the current barriers to free access.”
That makes such good sense that Tarantolo may want to consider engaging Loigman to give an OPRA seminar at an upcoming Two Rivers Council of Mayors meeting. For the good of an informed public, it’s time the book is closed on OPRA horror stories.
Arthur Z. Kamin