Mayor says ‘abusive’ OPRA requests are a costly witch hunt

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WILDWOOD — Mayor Ernie Troiano said the city has nothing to hide, but that hasn’t stopped a resident from filing three complaints with the state after she was denied an open public records request.

Troiano said the requests, filed by Mary Ann Giblin, were looking for information regarding the purchase of a Pacific Avenue property through the county open space fund and creation of a beach utility, was an example of one of the many requests the city clerk’s office fields almost every day.

The mayor said he doesn’t have an issue with the open public records act (OPRA) requests, but he does get annoyed at what he sees as “abuse of the system.”

Troiano said that the majority of requests are filed by two residents that frequently file requests that range from requests for specific information to what he sees as vague or overly wide searches. Most requests, he said, include the phrase “any and all.”

“For example they’ll ask for all signed ordinances and resolutions from the last two years and then any and all information regarding a commissioner. It’s that any and all stuff that is nearly impossible to fill,” he said. “That’s stacks of paperwork almost a foot high for a single OPRA request.”

In Giblin’s case, she requested any and all documents concerning the beach utility, an employee list with a description of duties for each and payroll, a list of utility management members and advisory board members. She also requested all bills, invoices and payments regarding the purchase of the Pacific Avenue property, on which the city had wanted to build a year-round ice skating rink. Giblin also requested all documents that referenced Commissioner Pete Byron in his official capacity or any other capacity.

Giblin said she received some of the information she requested but for others was either denied or told there was no information.

When she was denied the requests, Giblin filed a denial of access compliant with the Government Records Council.

According to the state, these complaints are still being reviewed and have not yet been scheduled for adjudication.

Troiano said that when the city can’t complete those open ended requests it’s either because the request was too vague or the information didn’t exist in the first place.
“We can’t give them something that we don’t have or never existed. But they don’t see it that way. They think we are hiding something,” he said.

The “they” Troiano said he is referring to is a group of residents that backed former Mayor Gary DeMarzo.

“This has nothing to do with bring a watch dog,” Troiano said. “These are people that are just trying to create turmoil.”

According to City Administrator Chris Wood, the city receives about one open public records request a work day, sometimes with enough paperwork to keep a full time employee busy for days.

Currently, the city has filled more than 150 OPRA requests, some with over 250 pages of copied paperwork.

“Some are just no brainers. With others we can’t help them and with some they take time. We do our best and we try and fill them,” Wood said.

Wood said the city has an administrative assistant in the clerk’s office whose day is 95 percent filled with filling OPRA requests.

“We are literally spending an entire salary on what amounts to a witch hunt,” Troiano said.

During a special meeting Nov. 19, the city commissioners discussed what is appropriate when it comes to the public’s request for documents that are available to them under the state’s open public records act.

Under state law, the cost for records is 5 cents a page, or 7 cents for legal-size pages.

According to the law, the cost of making copies of the record include the cost of materials and supplies, but do not include the cost of labor or other overhead expenses associated with making the copy. The law also says that whenever the nature, format, manner of collation or volume of a government record takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort, the agency may charge an additional fee.

However, the city is looking into if additional costs can be applied to requests that would fall into that extraordinary amount of time or effort category.

“The taxpayers should not be paying for a witch hunt,” Troiano said.

Troiano said the commissioners do have transparency in the government and noted that the city’s website has past and current budgets, financial statements and audits on its website, . The site also has a system for looking up and downloading city ordinances.

Giblin could not be contacted for comment by presstime. An email from the group opposing the ice rink stated:

“Recent comments by the elected officials of Wildwood regarding the request for documents under the OPRA Act (sic) are simply just one more effort to hide the inappropriate actions of three elected officials,” according a an email from a group of Wildwood citizens opposing the proposed ice rink on Pacific Avenue. 

“The residents and taxpayers have a right to know how our elected officials are spending their hard earned money. Stop resisting and do the right thing, open city hall to the public, and stop trying to run the city behind everyone’s back,” reads the email, identified as from a “watchdog group.” There were no names connected to the email.

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