Montclair, NJ – Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller made his way into South Jersey homes this week, with a mailer from the organization he leads “Protecting Our Democracy.” InsiderNJ, who reported on the mailer, sees it as more evidence of Spiller’s plans to run for governor of New Jersey.
“Protecting our Democracy is dedicated to fighting back against extremist attempts to subvert our basic rights, personal freedoms and institutions. In light of the dangerous rhetoric coming from politicians both here in New Jersey and nationally, the work of safeguarding our democracy has never been more important. Those of us who value self-governance are coming together to ensure our rights are protected,” said Spiller.
Locally, Montclair residents are looking to Spiller, as well as other members of the Township Council, to protect their democracy, by filling long-neglected Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests.
Baristanet is in receipt of emails from Montclair residents who are experiencing repeated OPRA delays.
Deirdre Birmingham, in an email to the mayor, council members as well as state officials, said she has been waiting nearly two months for a simple OPRA request.
On November 15, Deputy Town Clerk Bridget Barney emailed Birmingham stating that her request “requires additional time to fulfill due to staff shortage” and “requires an extension of time until December 19, 2022.”
Today Birmingham received an email that an extension has been requested for her October 28th OPRA request until January 20, 2023.
“I assume on January 20th, the town will request another extension until February 20th,” said Birmingham. “This is absolutely unacceptable. The Montclair/Glen Ridge fire contract can not be signed when critical details are being withheld from the public. I am so disappointed in the leadership of Montclair. Residents deserve better than this. What are you hiding?”
Mary Birmingham is also waiting on a request dated October 24, where the Township request for an extension has since passed.
Under OPRA, the custodian of a government record must respond to request “as soon as possible,” but requesters must receive a response within seven business days after the custodian receives a complete request.
In New Jersey, a public official, officer, employee, or custodian who knowingly and willfully violates OPRA and is found to have unreasonably denied access under the totality of the circumstances shall be subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 for an initial violation, $2,500 for a second violation, and $5,000 for a third violation.
The OPRA delays come weeks after Montclair residents have expressed frustration with the Township government at council meetings, especially at a contentious October meeting, where residents carried signs calling for transparency as well as for Spiller to resign.
Baristanet reached out to Mayor Spiller and Acting Township Manager Brian Scantlebury as well Deputy Clerk Barney, who were all copied on emails from Birmingham, for an explanation for the continued OPRA delays.
Councilor at Large Peter Yacobellis, who was also copied on the emails, replied to Birmingham, Scantlebury, and representatives from the clerk’s office and township attorneys, stating the following:
Madame Clerk, would you please be prepared to discuss this matter at tonight’s Council Meeting? I’d like to understand the delay. Might information be turned over incrementally if it’s not all ready?
Law Department, might you be able to support the Clerk with additional resources if possible and helpful?
I feel strongly we should not just meet, but exceed constituent expectations when it comes to releasing information the public is entitled to review and try to get things out before deadlines.
Let’s have an internal discussion about staffing levels other options to ensure we’re responding promptly and thoroughly to OPRA requests going forward.
Scantlebury, in an email to Baristanet late Tuesday afternoon, wrote: “As I have just been made aware of the situation this afternoon I need to speak with staff to get further details before responding.”
Eileen Birmingham emailed the Township council members on November 7 regarding the OPRA delays and also notified acting town attorney Paul Burr. She mentioned the delay in fulfilling OPRA requests during public comment at this November 14 council meeting where Scantlebury was in attendance.
“Transparency fuels democracy. Getting the documents that show what elected officials and public employees are doing is the first step in holding government accountable,” said Acting State Comptroller Kevin Walsh in a July 2022 report on OPRA disputes that found the majority of complaints involve access to local government records.