City refused to release public records sought by a local parents organization
NEWARK – A Superior Court judge has ordered the City of Newark to release emails that were exchanged about the $100 million pledge that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made to Newark schools in September 2010.
The ruling was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) on behalf of the Secondary Parent Council (SPC), a group of Newark parents and grandparents seeking more transparency about the donation.
"The City of Newark posed as many legal objections as it could to releasing these emails, which were exchanged by public officials," said Frank Corrado, an attorney with Barry, Corrado & Grassi, who represents SPC on the ACLU-NJ's behalf. "The judge's ruling repudiated all of their arguments."
The city originally stated it did not have any documents about the donation. It later admitted in a January court hearing that emails existed, but argued they did not have to release them because they were shielded by mayoral executive privilege, contain personal information and are deliberative in nature. The city also argued Newark Mayor Cory Booker was not acting in his official capacity as mayor when he accepted Zuckerberg's pledge on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Judge Rachel N. Davidson rejected all those arguments, noting for instance that a press release on the City of Newark's own website touts Booker's involvement in the donation as mayor and that all of the emails in dispute are maintained by Booker's executive assistant in Newark City Hall. The judge also noted that Booker's role as mayor is repeated in statements about the donation that are mentioned on his campaign website, as well as in some of the emails that are being sought.
"The fact that some of the emails were sent to the mayor using a personal, or perhaps, a campaign-related email address does not exempt them from being considered a public record," the judge stated in her ruling.
The judge also said it is not clear if executive privilege applies to mayors at all, but assuming that it does, "it does not apply here."
"The executive privilege would apply, for example, to deliberations within Newark about whether to accept the $100 million donation," Davidson said. "Such deliberations are completely absent from the emails."
Davidson also held that, with the exception of email addresses and a portion of one email, the contents of the emails do not contain any personal information that should be safeguarded from the public, nor were they deliberative in nature.
The judge did not set a deadline for the release of the 36 emails that were exchanged between public officials including Booker, Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Cami Anderson, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education Christopher Cerf and other individuals or officials.
The emails that Newark identified in response to SPC's request were sent between Sept. 13, 2010 through June 27, 2011.
SPC is a group of parents and grandparents with children in Newark public schools. The organization filed its open records request after Zuckerberg's pledge because it wanted more insight on how the gift would affect public education.
The case is captioned Secondary Parent Council v. Newark.