Lyndhurst Trustees Under Fire Over Suit; Group of Residents Demands Apology

August 17,2000
Copyright 2000 The Bergen Record, Section: News; Pg. L1

Staff Writer

Outraged by a lawsuit the Board of Education filed last week to limit access to information for three government watchdogs, a group of residents chided the board, calling for it to drop the suit and apologize.

"We are protesting your audacity in suing three dedicated citizens in town for harassment,"said Lee Pacifico, president of the Lyndhurst Taxpayers Association, who was cheered on by about 50 others during the board's regular meeting Tuesday night."You're the ones liable for harassment."

The protests came four days after Lyndhurst residents Stanley Kaminski, Mary Sheridan, and Elaine Stella, all members of the taxpayers group, were notified of the lawsuit, which accused the three of harassing school officials by demanding hundreds of documents and reports during the past two years.

The suit contends that their information requests were trivial and were made for political reasons. Sheridan and Stella are former school board members and have run unsuccessfully during recent elections. Kaminski, a retired operations manager at a home decorations company, has run for the board twice.

Saying that the trio has demanded more than 300 documents or reports during the past two years, school administrators say that they and their secretaries have been tied up for "hundreds of 1 hours" searching for documents, making photocopies, and writing reports. The extra work has hampered school board employees ability to operate district offices, the suit contends.

The board, which hired former state Attorney General Cary Edwards to litigate the suit, is seeking an injunction that would bar Kaminski, Sheridan, and Stella from requesting information other than that specifically deemed public by the state's Right To Know Law. That law, which hasn't been significantly updated since 1963, says the public is entitled to inspect or photocopy documents that a government agency is required to keep on file, such as budgets and campaign-finance reports.

The board, which listened in silence to the criticism Tuesday, also wants the three residents to have to pay for labor and attorney fees related to any future requests.

The attorney representing the three watchdogs, Lane Biviano, hascalled the lawsuit arrogant and absurd, and said it is meant to intimidate residents from scrutinizing the board.

And the head of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday that a judge's ruling in favor of the school board could have a chilling effect statewide on public access to government information.

"The access to public records is a cherished right in this country, and it helps us to make the government accountable,"said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, who just learned about the suit and had not had a chance to read it.

"If by some miraculous lapse in the judiciary the suit were to prevail, there would be very widespread consequences that could have the potential of severely limiting all kinds of records that the public often requests and utilizes in our democracy,"she said.

A school trustee from another town also spoke out against the suit at Tuesday's meeting.

"If we can't understand what our elected officials are doing and question what they are doing, our system will surely fail,"said Jeff Matfus, a member of the River Vale board who criticized his board's decision to file a defamation suit in May against a township resident who wrote a scathing letter to the editor that was published in a weekly newspaper.

The River Vale board ultimately dropped the suit 1 and voted to pay the legal fees of the resident, land-use attorney and district parent Stanley Morrow.

In addition to the criicism, the Lyndhurst board was handed another hefty information request from a Hillsdale-based taxpayers group that said it was"auditing"the board's spending.

The group, Taxpayer Alliance Examining Excess Spending, demanded what is likely to be several hundred pages of school board documents, including copies of all employment and professional service contracts and a class-size report for each class in the district.

Attorney Thomas G. Griggs, co-counsel in the school board's lawsuit, said the board will review the information request and respond as quickly as possible.

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