NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey's (ACLU-NJ) Open Governance Project sued the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) Office of Local Code Enforcement today for denying access to plans concerning a road salt storage barn in Bethlehem Township, Hunterdon County. The barn, which stores road salt, was built in 2007 using taxpayer dollars.
Although Carole Chiaffarano, the resident who requested the documents, has already received the building and site plans from Bethlehem Township, she had reason to believe that the construction of the salt barns differed from the plans the township submitted to the DCA and other state agencies for their approval.
Chiaffarano, whose property is 38 feet away from the barn, hoped to compare the municipal documents with the DCA's, but her request was denied. The DCA cited an executive order that allows state agencies to reject requests for public records that could raise the likelihood of terrorism or heighten the impact of an attack.
"I was shocked that my requests were denied because of security reasons," stated Chiaffarano, the plaintiff in the case. "The state's actions leave the Bethlehem community in the dark about whether the barn was built safely and correctly. Since the township's plans are out in the open already, I don't see how comparing two sets of documents poses a risk to anyone."
Chiaffarano, a resident of Bethlehem Township, first requested plans from the DCA in September 2010 hoping to uncover whether the township submitted different versions of the building and site plans for the approval of the DCA and other agencies. In addition to written requests, she called the DCA on Nov. 1 to schedule an office visit to review the plans. She was told that such a review is "prohibited by state law" and that "only the engineer or the owner of the plans" could access records. The agency also denied her requests for the information under the common-law rights that also grant access to public records for New Jersey citizens. Chiaffarano fears that the plans used in the actual construction of the salt barns were not approved by one or more of the appropriate governmental agencies.
"It borders on absurdity that the DCA believes access to records about a barn with plastic windows and one door could put the public at risk," said ACLU-NJ Open Governance Attorney Bobby Conner. "This is an example of a state agency using a ludicrous justification to withhold information from the public."
The ACLU-NJ's Open Governance Project, founded in 2009 through a grant from the Pratt Bequest Fund of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, is dedicated to ensuring that government agencies uphold and enforce the Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act throughout New Jersey.
The case, captioned Carole Chiaffarano v. DCA, is pending in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Hunterdon County.