OPRA request delayed by Warren administration until after election

ORANGE, NJ — The Record-Transcript filed an Open Public Records Act request on Monday, March 7, for a complete list of all the city of Orange Township employees that have been hired since Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren took office in 2012, as well as their corresponding job titles and salaries.

Since Warren became mayor of Orange in 2012, there have been allegations of nepotism in his administration. Warren’s brother, Todd Warren, was hired as police director and his cousin, Raymond Wingfield, was promoted to deputy director of the Public Works Department. Raymond Wingfield’s brother, Jeffrey Wingfield, ran for a seat on the City Council on the election Tuesday, May 10, just as Warren himself ran for re-election. When he first took office, Warren put close friend Willis Edwards on the city payroll as deputy business administrator. Edwards no longer works in that position and Superior Court Judge Christine Farrington ruled Thursday, Feb. 18, that Edwards must repay the city of Orange Township the $268,750 he earned while working as a city employee. According to the Warren administration, Edwards is appealing that decision.

On Tuesday, May 3, the Orange City Clerk’s Office responded to this newspaper’s OPRA request by emailing a list of all city employees and their salaries, but aside from the crossing guard, council and library positions, there was no breakdown by hire date, job title and salary, as per the request. According to City Clerk Joyce Lanier, there is a reason for that.

“We have not received the information that was requested,” said Lanier on Tuesday, May 3. “We just received a request for a two-week extension from the administration. The only thing I control is the information I have within the clerk’s office. We can’t provide documents that we don’t control.”

Lanier went on to state the established protocol in the clerk’s office for handling and responding to OPRA requests is seven days.

But, according to the clerk, “To date, we have not received a written response,” from the administration. “However, we received a verbal request for a two-week extension to retrieve the salary and wage information from 2012 to present. A response to your request should be available no later than May 16, 2016.”

Attempts to get a comment from the Warren administration about why there have been delays in responding to the Record-Transcript were not successful by press time this week.

“Welcome to the city’s tricks to avoid producing the response to OPRA requests, or producing them beyond the time frame of their usefulness,” said Katalin Gordon on Thursday, May 5. The Orange homeowner uncovered the fact the city had over-billed taxpayers by more than a million dollars during former Mayor Eldridge Hawkins Jr.’s administration. “We can exchange stories about that. I have at least eight formal decisions by the New Jersey Government Records Council against the city so far.”

Bruce Meyer, a member of the Orange Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, said he shares Gordon’s frustration regarding OPRA requests since Warren became mayor in 2012.

“The administration lied to the state in their best practices submission, saying that the information about new hires, employee salaries and job titles was published, in full, on the city website,” alleged Meyer on Thursday, May 5. “The first judge in the Willis Edwards case fined the city $1,000 a day – reaching $700,000 – to get the employment and salary information without success. All you can do for any information out of this administration is file an OPRA, wait the legal seven days and file a complaint with the state. Then nothing comes of the complaint.”

West Ward Councilman Harold J. Johnson said he too understands Lanier’s frustration, when it comes to processing OPRA requests from the public that require her office to obtain information or documents from the Warren administration, because he has experienced similar difficulties.

Johnson said he had to file an OPRA request with the City Clerk’s Office to obtain information about the deal to lease and purchase the old YWCA building on Main Street so it can be converted into a new Senior Citizen and Youth Recreation Center. He said a councilman is not supposed to have to resort to filing OPRA requests for public information or documentation that should be readily accessible to an elected official.

“Ordinance 1-2015, which I sponsored, mandates that the administration post all employees’ salaries for three years on the city website,” said Johnson on Friday, Jan. 15. “The administration never posted the 2015 salaries, so the residents can view and compare the last two years. They stonewalled the council the whole year.”

Irvington Municipal Clerk Harold Weiner, who is certified as a master clerk by the state, said the clerk’s office can only respond to OPRA requests with the information available at the time.

“You’re supposed to get a response within seven business days,” said Weiner on Tuesday, May 3. … If you’re not satisfied with the response or you’re not provided with the records, you can file a denial of access complaint with New Jersey Government Records Council and they take it from there. They’ll intercede; they’ll contact the town or they could just rule that your request is not appropriate. But normally, they intercede with the town to try to get you the information and records that you requested.”

Weiner said clerks take their jobs seriously, because local politics don’t factor into their behavior or conduct, as they ultimately answer to state officials in Trenton, not the towns or cities where they work.

“If we don’t have the documents being requested, we can’t provide them,” said Weiner. “If there is a problem within the building or within the administration, where the clerk can’t get access to the desired documents or information, then you go back to the denial of access complaint.”