NEWTON, NJ - The Honorable Edward V. Gannon, made his decision on Friday, April 5, at the Sussex County Courthouse, regarding a lawsuit filed by Vernon Township against four individuals over an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request.
Former mayor Sally Rinker, Jesse Wolosky, Lynn Van Gorder, Sandra Ooms, and an anonymous defendant by the name of “Curious George” sent a request to municipal clerk, Susan Nelson.
The document contained confidential information of 119 employees within the township.
The defendants claim the information was blacked out by Nelson, but appeared as they adjusted settings to print the document.
After an article
from The New Jersey Herald was released on the morning of March 22, Vernon Township Attorney Kevin Kelly proceeded with a suit against the individuals, and the newspaper. According to the article, Wolosky opened up the document from his own email account, on a staff reporter's computer, and showed it to the reporter.
Kelly and township representatives, were present in the courtroom on April 5, exactly two weeks since the lawsuit was put into effect.
Prior to the hearing, The New Jersey Herald signed a document stating they did not receive any confidential information, and were dropped from the case.
“Today is not about assessing any blame,” stated Kelly to Gannon. “It is about the protection of 119 employees and their families.”
Kelly claimed that the lawsuit is based on “identity theft,” as he later read a document stating, “Identity theft is an act of violation.”
Kelly also told Gannon that identity theft has been recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court, Identity Theft Protection Act, Constitution, and other statutes.
Wolosky, later defending himself stated, “Mr. Kelly keeps talking about identity theft. None of us went and put on black outfits, and went and got documents from the municipal building. I just wanted the payroll salaries of the employees.”
Wolosky mentioned that he had a similar situation about two years when requesting a document from the Sparta Board of Education, that was also improperly distributed, releasing employees Social Security numbers.
Wolosky stated that the solution in the end was himself deleting the file from his computer, and signing a document indicating that he had done so.
“It is truly unfortunate that Ms. Nelson is not present today,” said Gannon. "Her past shows that she has taken great lengths to avoid a situation like this. I didn’t find any faults in what she is trying to accomplish. My problem is the amount of information that can be stored in computers. The result of this was human error. None of the defendants acted improperly once retrieving the document. I have no fault with whoever disseminated that publicly with free speech or free press.”
In regard to Vernon Township, Gannon stated, “Once the government was made aware, the government had a responsibility to act. I am satisfied that there was a good faith aspect with Mr. Kelly. However, this is a matter through the legal process.”
Gannon then explained that Vernon does not have the authority under OPRA to issue a lawsuit to protect the rights of individuals.
“Those employees have individual rights,” as Gannon expressed that the municipality cannot sue on behalf of 119 employees.
Gannon also signified that read in the newspapers, “The township took immediate steps to protect their citizens.”
After the information was leaked, Vernon Township mayor Victor Marotta had reassured the public that “every employee is being provided with LifeLock Security and being educated,” at the most recent township council meeting.
Gannon stated that over the next 60 days, Vernon Township is to draft and implement a corrective action plan to prevent computer errors from occurring in the future, to look into anonymous OPRA requests and for the public to know that these steps are being taken.
The township was ordered to pay the court fee of Wolosky and defending attorney, Richard Gutman, who represented the other defendants, but was not awarded a fee under OPRA.
Gannon also ordered that defendants may not disseminate the information to any third parties with the exclusion of their lawyers. The defendants are to delete the document from their email, and sign a certification at court indicating they have properly done so.
“I am sure the last thing that the defendants, who are community activists and looking for transparency in the township want is for the town to spend $200,000 on computer protection," Gannon concluded.
Gannon dismissed court while stating that the situation really needs to be put into closure.
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