Old OPRA request denied by GRC is granted

Photo by Chris Sykes
Orange resident Katalin Gordon, center, stands at the podium and speaks on Thursday, July 6, during the City Council’s reorganization meeting as North Ward Councilwoman Tency Eason, seated right, and the rest of the council members and audience listen. Gordon also recently won her appeal of an earlier Government Records Council decision regarding the Open Public Records Act request for information she originally filed in 2013. The appellate court ruled the GRC had been wrong when it determined Gordon had not been the victim of obstruction by city officials and the Clerk’s Office.

ORANGE, NJ — Katalin Gordon is an Orange resident and taxpayer who uncovered the fact that former Chief Financial Officer Jack Kelly overbilled taxpayers by $2 million during former Mayor Eldridge Hawkins Jr.’s administration.

Gordon filed an Open Public Records Act request in 2013, when former city clerk Dwight Mitchell was out for an extended amount of time on medical leave, but appeared to be collecting his regular salary. Back then, she wanted to know exactly what Mitchell’s employment and salary status were, but when she asked members of Mayor Dwayne Warren’s administration, including Deputy Business Director Willis Edwards, she said she never got a straight answer.

Gordon’s OPRA request was filed with the city Clerk’s Office run by deputy clerk Madeline Smith, hired after Warren was sworn into office in 2012. But Gordon’s request was never answered so she proceeded followed established protocol for unanswered OPRA requests by filing a complaint with the Government Records Council.

The GRC sided with the city against Gordon and denied her appeal. Gordon then filed another OPRA request, which was denied so she filed a second appeal with the GRC, which ruled against her again.

Gordon then took the GRC to court and appealed both its decisions of her two OPRA requests with the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division. She recently won one of those appeals. The NJSC Appellate Division ruled Friday, June 23, that the GRC erred in finding the Warren administration and Clerk’s Office did not “willfully and deliberately” deny Gordon’s second OPRA request, meaning the Clerk’s Office refused to give Gordon the public information she requested just because it didn’t want to do so.

The Appellate Division upheld the Government Records Council’s decision in regard to the first OPRA request for information related to Mitchell’s that Gordon filed.

The Appellate Division also ruled the city and the Orange Legal Department didn’t tell the truth when they told Gordon it couldn’t give her the information she wanted because it was related to an ongoing lawsuit, because a lawsuit did not exist at that time. And even if there had been a lawsuit going on when she requested the information, all the city had to do was simply redact certain information from the documents she requested.

“Although we generally defer to the GRC’s findings, we conclude there was insufficient evidence in the record to support its finding that the city’s denial of Gordon’s OPRA request was not willful and deliberate,” Appellate Judges Rothstadt and Sumner said in their ruling on Friday, June 23. “In denying Gordon’s request, the city claimed that the records could not be released because of an ‘ongoing and pending litigation. The records requested involve issues regarding the ongoing litigation.’ However, there was no litigation. The city now contends that there was an investigation involving Mitchell, which it mistakenly mischaracterized as litigation. We find this explanation unconvincing and belies the credibility of its denial.”