ROXBURY, NJ – Mayor Jim Rilee insists Roxbury does its best to make public records accessible, and he described as “very frustrating” a recent victory by a tenacious open records activist who, according to reports, won a case that cost Roxbury more than $21,000.
“What you get are these individuals who run around to towns trying to catch a clerk or some employee that didn’t handle the (Open Public Records Act) request correctly or give over everything,” said the mayor. “In this particular case, we won the first go-round in court but then he appealed it.”
As documented by the Daily Record, the man in question, Jesse Wolosky of Sparta, began his ultimately successful pursuit of records in 2014. That’s when Roxbury police issued him a ticket for driving with illegally tinted windows, an offense that carried with it a $54 penalty.
Although he lost in Roxbury Municipal Court, Wolosky successfully appealed former judge Carl Wronko’s decision. An appeals court judge sided with Wolosky, finding police had no way to measure the opacity of the window tint to determine whether it caused the “undue or unsafe distortion of visibility” defined by the law.
Wolosky, who has fought a number of municipalities for open access to public records, embarked on a quest to obtain records of other Roxbury police documents and recordings. According to reports, his initial attempt yielded only a 3-page response that Wolosky found unacceptable.
He got more documents, but not the material he wanted, and the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) battle escalated, eventually landing in Superior Court. In August, a judge in Morristown sided with Roxbury, but Wolosky appealed and won.
"It took (Wolosky) an original OPRA request, numerous follow-up emails, two amended answers from the custodian and a separate informal request to another public agency in order to obtain the dispatch audio recording that (the township) should have produced within seven business days but denied all along that it even existed," Wolosky's attorney wrote in the motion for reconsideration, according to NJ.com. "In doing so, (the township) unlawfully place(d) the burden upon (Wolosky) to press them into compliance with OPRA)."
The court ordered Roxbury to pay Wolosky’s $21,502 lawyer bill.
“We actually won the first case because we tried, in good faith, to give him what he wanted,” said Rilee. “Then he appealed it, which we were a little surprised at. The (appeals court) judge said we could have done a little better job.” He said the township is working with the police on creating a CD that details its policies and procedures, something that would have been easy to give to Wolosky.
“It’s very frustrating and it’s sad,” said the mayor. “Nobody here wants to keep information from the public. We’re getting better and better at it all the time.”
Former Roxbury School Board Member Chris Rogers, who now heads the Roxbury Taxpayer Education Association, is not convinced. He said putting up roadblocks to easy access often seems the default stand taken by local officials, at least when it pertains to documents relating to controversial topics.
Rogers said OPRA requests are often rebuffed with a response that they are “too broad” in nature, forcing records seekers to decide whether they should spend money to fight in a fashion similar to Wolosky, a route that can cost thousands of dollars.
He said he’s heard Rilee assert that open records activists are in it for the money they can win by suing clerks unable to comply with voluminous OPRA requests. “I agree to a certain extent that there are people who go from town to town,” Rogers said. “I know quite a few of them. But one thing that’s misrepresented is that they make money at it. They often lose money while their attorneys win big in this whole thing.”