Journalists, watchdogs and open public records advocates won a small victory for OPRA law earlier this month when the Township of Bloomfield released some municipal camera surveillance video as the result of an OPRA request — apparently backing down on a legal position that surveillance video should be exempted from public records law.
At stake is a case currently before the Supreme Court of New Jersey, which pits a particularly tenacious local watchdog, Patricia Gilleran, against the Township of Bloomfield.
In 2014, Gilleran asked for a week of security tape footage of Bloomfield’s municipal parking lot. She had been looking into how the town issued parking placards, which she says are valuable because they can be used anywhere in town, and suspected that politically connected people using the municipal parking lot had received the special placards. Gilleran asked for footage from that camera in order to test her hypothesis. “It’s a machine,” Gilleran said. “There’s an awful lot of behind-the-scenes power.”
When Bloomfield denied the request, saying it was burdensome and a potential security threat, Gilleran litigated the case using Pashman Stein attorney C.J. Griffin.
Griffin won in Essex County Superior Court in June 2014. The decision was upheld, after appeal by Bloomfield, in appellate court. Bloomfield has since appealed the case to the state Supreme Court.
Gilleran has been joined by 18 journalism organizations including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society for Professional Journalists, Advance Publications and North Jersey Media Group, who together have filed an amicus brief arguing that a blanket exemption for security video would compromise the press’s ability to cover police misconduct.
Bloomfield was joined by the New Jersey Attorney General.
The state’s amicus brief raised the following objections to releasing the footage: that surveillance footage doesn’t constitute public records; that even if surveillance footage was part of the public record it would be exempt due to security exemptions in OPRA, that the municipal building’s proximity to the police station would compromise both police informants and crime victims, and that Gilleran’s original request, for a week of video, was overly broad and would take too long for officials to monitor. Gilleran later reduced her request to 24 hours, but the township said that was still too long a period to vet.
Then, this January, something else in the municipal parking lot drew Gilleran’s attention. Right after after the township’s January reorganization meeting, a parking lot fight broke out between Bloomfield councilman Joseph Lopez and the nephew of another councilman, Eli Chalet.
Chalet, who is alleged to have taken a $15,000 bribe, has since been indicted. At the Jan. 4 meeting, Lopez called for Chalet’s resignation. Lopez and Chalet’s nephew paint starkly different pictures of that scuffle.
Gilleran wanted to see if pole-cam video would throw some light on what actually happened. But she was pretty sure an OPRA request for parking lot video would be denied out of hand if it had her name on it, and looked to see if any journalists she knew had already submitted one. When she couldn’t find a journalist who’d made the request, she asked me. On Feb. 1, I filed an OPRA request for an hour of municipal pole-cam video, covering the period between 7:30 pm and 8:30 pm on Jan. 4, 2016 from the camera at the rear of the municipal building that points near the building’s exit.
In addition to trying to find out more about the fight, Gilleran wanted to test two things: whether Bloomfield would grant a video request to somebody besides herself, and whether a narrower time window would be accommodated.
In the video, you can see police officers running from their headquarters to a part of the parking lot that is off camera. A police car with lights on is seen in the distance, and a few minutes later, several of the policemen return to headquarters.
Actually, the township did not fulfill my OPRA request to the letter. It supplied footage for 15 minutes, covering the time between 7:37 pm and 7:52 pm, and from a different camera from the one Gilleran intended.
Adam Marshall, attorney and legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called the fact that Bloomfield released any pole-cam video “a victory.”
“I certainly can’t speak for everyone who joined the brief. I can speak for the Reporters Committee,” Marshall said. “I think it’s great they released the video to you. It shows that there’s absolutely zero need for a blanket exemption.”
“Reporters and the public both have a right to and deserve access to pole-cam video,” he added. “It’s contrary to OPRA to use all this new technology and to create all these new records and then just use them as surveillance tools.”
Steve Martino, assistant attorney for the township of Bloomfield, citing attorney-client privilege, declined to explain Bloomfield’s reason for granting my request.
But asked whether the release of parking lot tape means Bloomfield is no longer seeking a “blanket exemption” for pole-cam video of the municipal building, Martino maintained that’s never what he asked for. However, according to a transcript quoted in Griffin’s July 2015 brief to the state Supreme Court, Martino used that exact phrase in court in 2014.
The Bloomfield Township Clerk’s Office also declined an opportunity to talk about my OPRA request.
A resident of Bloomfield, Gilleran has filed hundreds of OPRA requests — recently asking for details on official town contracts in order to see if campaign contributors are being rewarded. “A donation is given and a contract is given,” she said. “Whether it’s illegal or unethical, I don’t know.”
Gilleran says she keeps up with these requests, while working a full-time job and taking care of a disabled husband, by sleeping only four hours a night.
Debbie Galant is associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State and a member of SPJ.