NEWARK, N.J. — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey's Open Governance Project (ACLU-NJ) and the Newark-based Secondary Parent Council (SPC) filed suit today against the City of Newark for refusing to release records concerning the $100 million gift that Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg pledged last September to transform the city's public school system.
"As parents, as taxpayers and as citizens, we have a need and right to know how the money pledged to Newark's public schools will ultimately serve Newark's public school students," said Laura Baker, who filed the open records request as a representative of the SPC and has a granddaughter in Newark public schools.
On April 1, SPC, an organization made up of parents and grandparents of Newark public school students, filed a request under the state's Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to review correspondence between Zuckerberg, Newark employees, including Mayor Cory Booker, and the New Jersey state government, among other affiliated foundations and corporations related to the Zuckerberg gift. The community-based organization was interested in learning more details about how the highly-publicized $100 million gift, announced on the Oprah Winfrey Show on Sept. 24, 2010, would be spent. After the money was pledged, Gov. Chris Christie instructed Mayor Booker to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for Newark schools.
"When Mayor Booker accepted this donation, he stressed the importance of getting input from the community members it affected most. If this is truly an investment in our city's future, we need to see the transparency we've been promised," said Baker.
After requesting several extensions in order to locate the responsive documents, Newark denied the request on July 19, 2011. In its rejection, the city claimed, among other things, that the communications between Mayor Booker and Zuckerberg "were not made in the court of the mayor's official duties." The letter also stated, to the extent Mayor Booker was exercising his official duties, the documents were subject to executive and deliberative privileges.
The ACLU-NJ's lawsuit states the city has failed to provide a lawful basis for denying access to the records. Newark also failed to produce a list of the responsive documents that the public was not entitled to see, as required by OPRA.
"By invoking executive privilege, the City of Newark has waded into unchartered territory in an attempt to make sure these records never see the light of day," said Frank Corrado, an attorney with Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson as well as the president of the ACLU-NJ Board of Trustees, who represents SPC on the ACLU-NJ's behalf. "Executive privilege is the province of the Governor; it has never been accepted at the mayoral level in New Jersey."
Executive privilege protects the Governor from disclosing records that contain advice to him on matters related to his executive functions as Governor of New Jersey; it does not apply to other elected officials in New Jersey. The assertion that Booker was not acting in his official capacity as Mayor is obviously inaccurate, considering that the money is dedicated to the Newark Public Schools and its distribution is coordinated through the Governor and other state offices.
The complaint, captioned Secondary Parent Council v. City of Newark was filed in Superior Court in Essex County.
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.