Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Three Watchdogs

Saturday March 17, 2001 Copyright 2001 The Record Online, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge on Friday dismissed the Lyndhurst school board's lawsuit against three government watchdogs accused of harassing school officials with requests for public information.

Judge Isabel B. Stark said residents have "an absolute right" to public records under the state's right-to-know law, and that governing bodies cannot question one's motives for seeking those records.

The school board had wanted Stark to restrict the kind of information residents Stanley Kaminski, Mary Sheridan, and Elaine Stella could request. The board said the trio, who have become known around town as "The Lyndhurst Three," had hampered school operations by asking for more than 300 documents or reports during the past two years.

Because Stella and Sheridan are former board members and Kaminski is a two-time board candidate, school officials said the residents were seeking political retribution by asking so many questions.

Stark said that rather than seek court intervention, the district needed to develop guidelines to better manage requests for information.

"Three hundred requests cannot possibly be considered so extreme as to cause havoc," Stark said from the bench in Hackensack. "If it is, it is because the Board of Education never developed the aforementioned procedures."

Speaking on behalf of Kaminski and Sheridan, who were present for Stark's ruling but didn't want to comment, attorney Lane Biviano said his clients were gratified that the case was dismissed without a costly trial.

"It's a victory for the citizens," Biviano said. "You can't treat people like this."

Stella, who was at home with a cold, learned of the ruling later.

"It's nice to know that people's rights still prevail," she said. "We have a right to ask where our money's going. It's called accountability of our elected officials. If they don't like it, don't run."

While the residents were claiming victory, the school board's attorney said the district got what it was looking for: guidance from the court on how to handle the large number of information requests.

"We got hit with 300 requests, which we believe to be fundamentally unfair and potentially adversely affecting our ability to provide a thorough and efficient education." Doyle said.

"We were looking to the court to give us some guidance. And it did. [Stark] was saying, 'Board, go back and adopt your own guidelines and policy.' "

Doyle said Stark offered several suggestions for such a policy.

Stark echoed some of the suggestions Biviano laid out in a court brief, including making records available on a Web site and in the public library.

The judge also suggested that the district maintain a list of records open to the public and times that they would be available for review.

"A public body has to be open," Stark said. "It has to conduct its business in an open manner."

Although Stark dismissed the board's suit, she left open a claim by the residents that the school board was merely trying to silence them by filing the lawsuit. Stark said she wanted to hear more arguments regarding that claim before ruling on it.

Earlier, Biviano had called the board's action a classic "strategic litigation against public participation" or SLAPP suit. In that claim, the residents asked that the court order the school board to pay for their legal costs and other damages.

"We held all along the purpose of the suit was not so much to prevail for any good purpose," Biviano said. "It was just to prevent people from asking for information in the future. You can't have people sued into silence."

School officials have said that was never their intent. And Doyle said he is confident Stark will dismiss the SLAPP suit claim.

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