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.…