NEWARK, N.J. — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey’s (ACLU-NJ) Open Governance Project has won access to the building and site plans of a road salt storage barn in Bethlehem Township, Hunterdon County. The ACLU-NJ’s Open Governance Project sued the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) after it denied a resident access to the plans.
In a settlement with the state (294k PDF), the DCA has agreed to release the plans, which were submitted to its Office of Local Code Enforcement in Hunterdon County. In addition to releasing the documents, the state will pay for the ACLU-NJ’s attorney fees.
“We are pleased that the state has come to recognize that the release of these records do not compromise public safety,” said ACLU-NJ Open Governance Project Attorney Bobby Conner. “We are also pleased that the state worked with us to resolve this matter expeditiously. In the future, though we hope government entities will be more cautious before using this as a justification to unlawfully deny access to public records.”
The state had invoked an executive order that allows state agencies to deny requests for public records that could increase the risk of terrorism or heighten the impact of an attack. The barn at issue in this matter stores road salt and has plastic windows and one door. It was built by Bethlehem Township in 2007 with taxpayer dollars.
Carole Chiffarano, the resident who requested the records last fall, said she is glad she will have an opportunity to review the records.
“I’m very happy with the outcome, but I don’t think residents should have to leap through hurdles in order to get public documents,” said Chiffarano. ”I am thankful that the ACLU-NJ was here to help, but there are many residents who don’t have the ability or resources to challenge the state when it tries to keep the public in the dark. I hate to think of the taxpayer resources they spent fighting this.”
Chiaffarano had already received the building and site plans from Bethlehem Township, but she had reason to believe that the construction of the salt barn differed from the plans that Bethlehem submitted to the DCA and other state agencies for their approvals. Chiaffarano was concerned about whether the barn was constructed safely.
Chiaffarano, whose property is 38 feet away from the barn, hoped to compare the municipal documents with the DCA’s. She first requested plans in September 2010, but was denied access under both New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and her common law rights to obtain public records. In addition to written requests, she called the DCA on November 1, 2010 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. As part of the settlement that has now been reached, the requested records were released to Chiaffarano pursuant to her common law rights of access.
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 OPRA and New Jersey’s Sunshine law.