Requests for info swamp Brigantine
Sandy, labor disputes, budget issues blamed for volume
Brigantine employees are inundated with Open Public Records Act requests as tensions mount over a contentious budget process, labor contract negotiations and from residents making Sandy repairs.
As of Friday, the total this year – obtained through an OPRA request – reached 279, and one recent week saw 13 requests. That exceeded 2011’s count of 260 and is on pace to also exceed last year’s 333 requests.
“Any time there’s a conflict going on, you always get the requests,” said City Clerk Lynn Sweeney, who records them on a small yellow legal pad with the dates they are filled. “But we definitely have a lot more this year.”
The sheer amount of requests – a few of which required the return of hundreds of pages – has forced Sweeney and other staff members to work unpaid overtime, as their employment does not entitle them to compensation.
City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal said it’s difficult to put a figure on the costs, as Brigantine hasn’t had to pay out exorbitant legal costs or overtime pay yet. However, she said, there are definite costs associated with productivity.
“Other work is not getting done in that department, so the people directly affected are our customers,” she said.
And that extends to other areas, as well. Blumenthal said the city’s finance and personnel departments are often needed to search for invoices and timesheets. More recently, an employee from the tax assessor’s office was recruited to help the clerk handle the workload.
“We’re at the point where we’re talking about having to hire somebody to work on the OPRA requests,” she said. “There is a cost associated with that.”
So far, Blumenthal said, those discussions are still preliminary. If the requests don’t subside, the move will be necessary.
Mayor Phil Guenther said there’s a balancing act between protecting the public’s right to know and ensuring the city runs efficiently.
“It’s something that’s presented challenges at different times,” he said. “Under the present system, they just need to do the best they can to meet the requirements of the law.”
The Open Public Records Act, passed in 2001, provides public access to a wide array of government documents, with certain exceptions such as sensitive information related to ongoing litigation or public safety. Similar issues have arisen in other towns, such as Galloway Township, during contentious labor or legal battles.
Sweeney said a number of this year’s requests were for construction and flood elevation documents, typically from residents navigating the rebuilding process from Hurricane Sandy.
“We’ve had an influx of them, and a lot of towns have,” she said.
But the other requests follow the ebb and flow of various issues that have dominated City Council meetings in the last year: budget documents about salaries and wages, figures on dog park license sales, and one request for a list of information related to the police and fire departments and the beach patrol.
Guenther said some of the requests are overly broad, but the city has still worked to fulfill them. The city clerk has shown professionalism in how she’s handled the situation, he said.
“It is a lot of work and takes a tremendous amount of time,” he said. “And I know times in the past people asked for documents, and they wouldn’t pick them up.”
A note attached to a CD-Rom full of Sandy-related documents states that the requester never responded when they were informed the materials were ready.
Many of the requests stem from protracted contract negotiations between the city and its labor unions. Several unions have operated without contracts. The police, for instance, have been negotiating since last October.
In January, Brigantine PBA 204 – the police union – requested every email between the city manager, the mayor and council members Rick DeLucry, Frank Kern and Tony Pullella as well all executive session minutes from the last year. Two months later, Tige Platt, president of the firefighters union, requested “all deposits and transfers in and out of the Fire Dept. Salaries and Wages (account) for 2012.” In May, the police union requested the health insurance premiums paid by every city employee, in addition to unaudited financial statements for the years between 2009 and 2011.
Over a six-day period last month, the fire and police unions submitted six separate OPRA requests. At the same time, Pullella requested a copy of the petition to change Brigantine’s form of government – a petition that had garnered support from many public safety employees. If successful, it would lead to a referendum to return Brigantine to a commission form of government, a form that could eliminate the city manager position.
After the June announcement that the city was hiring an interim public safety director, Dan Howard, in lieu of naming chiefs for the various departments, a number of public safety employees and residents requested contract and time sheet information about both Howard and Blumenthal. The two had met when they worked in Mt. Laurel, Burlington County.
Blumenthal said she believes the timesheet requests came as a result of one employee of the fire department being required to have their time sheet signed off by a supervisor prior to being submitted.
“Every municipality has times when people or groups of people are upset and do personal attacks,” she said.
Currently, Blumenthal said, the city is nearing the end of its discussions with the teamster’s union. The other negotiations are ongoing or on hold for various reasons.
The requests also reflect some of the paranoia surrounding the negotiations.
After a widespread rumor of layoffs in July, the city received a request for all Rice notices – which give employees the right to request a public hearing when personnel matters are being discussed – this year.
“There have been no Rice notices issued by the City of Brigantine in 2013,” Sweeney responded, in an email.
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