This is the 11th in our series of interviews with Sunshine Activists from around the country.
Our goal is to interview ordinary citizens who use open records at the state and local level to promote greater awareness of and insight into the local governance.
Today, we’re pleased to present an interview with John Paff, a sunshine activist in New Jersey.
You may contact John by email.
- What year did you file your first open records request?
In the 90’s.
- What documents were you looking for?
I can’t recall.
- Did you get those documents?
I can’t recall. Probably not.
- Charles Davis of the National Freedom of Information Coalition has talked about having “a FOI moment”. Have you had “a FOI moment” and can you describe it?
When NJ passed the Open Public Records Act in 2002. This law, for the first time, established a seven business day period within which record custodian must either grant or deny access. Prior to that (see my answers above about my 90’s request) it was very difficult to get records. Since no time period was required for a response, most requests were simply ignored.
- What is the worst (or funniest or most obstructionist or most outrageous) reply you’ve ever received?
When I requested to see a traffic ticket issued in Manville, New Jersey, the municipal judge wrote me a letter summoning me to appear in open court to publicly explain my request. I didn’t attend–I sued the town and won.
- How quickly do you generally receive replies to a request?
The towns usually adhere to the seven business day limit imposed by OPRA, but there are exceptions.
- About how many open records requests have you filed?
I’d guess about 250.
- How do you let your friends, neighbors or the local media know about the documents you get?
I have an email list of local activists that I send announcements to. I also send releases to local media when I file a lawsuit or to alert them to some other development.
- Have you run into any trouble as the result of filing open records requests?
- What’s the most significant political outcome that has resulted from the work you do?
Some of the litigation I’ve filed has resulted in published court decisions that guide other courts. Also, several towns have changed their procedures due to the threat of being sued.
- Has your local newspaper ever commented on the work you do? Favorably or unfavorably?
Often. All favorable.
- What’s your best advice for other “Sunshine Activists”?
Keep good notes and stay organized and focused. Some of the projects end up taking years, so having a long attention span is critical.
- What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
That sending letters to local governments asking them better comply with the sunshine acts is largely a waste of time. Lawsuits and threats of lawsuits are the only things that get their attention.
- If you could change your state’s open records law just one way, what would that change be?
In order to be fined $1000, a record custodian in New Jersey presently has to “knowingly and willfully” deny access in an unreasonable manner. That’s a very difficult standard to meet and very few custodians are being fined. I’d like to lower the standard to make it easier to fine recalcitrant custodians.
- Do you participate in any formal way in organizations that promote the freedom of information cause?
I represent the New Jersey Libertarian Party on open government issues. I also am a member of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.
- Are you willing to have other “sunshine activists” from your state get in touch with you?
Yes, via email.
Thank you, John!
If you would like to be a part of a future feature, or would like to nominate a fellow blogger or Sunshine Activist, just drop me a line at lbgraves at aol dot com.
Note: Our series of Sunshine Activist interviews will resume on January 7, 2008.