Schools Sue Over Demands for Data; Board Seeksto Limit 3 Residents Requests

August 15, 2000
Copyright 2000 The Bergen Record, Section: News; Pg. L1

Staff Writer

Contending that three members of a taxpayers group have been harassing them with a barrage of information requests, school trustees are seeking a court order limiting the requests.

In a lawsuit filed last week, township school officials say that the dozens of information requests during the past two years by the Lyndhurst residents, Stanley Kaminski, Mary Sheridan, and Elaine Stella have hampered employees ability to run the district.

The requests, the lawsuit alleges,"have tied up board personnel, services and resources to such an extent that the ability of the board to deliver a thorough and efficient education has been, and will continue to be, seriously compromised."

The suit, filed in state Superior Court in Hackensack, seeks to bar the three from requesting documents other than those required to be open under the state's Right To Know Law.

The 37-year-old law requires any document that a government agency is required to keep on file, such as budgets or campaign finance reports, to be open to the public.

"It is respectfully submitted that defendants have forfeited any right to documents other than what is absolutely required to be maintained under the Right To Know Law,"board attorneys allege in the suit.

The suit also accuses Kaminski, Sheridan, and Stella of pursuing a political agenda. Sheridan and Stella are former school board members and have run unsuccessfully in recent elections. Kaminski has run for the school board twice.

In addition to the injunction, the board wants the residents to have to pay for all labor costs, including attorney fees, related to any future information requests.

Kaminski, Sheridan, and Stella referred questions to their lawyer, who called the board's suit arrogant and absurd. "This would seem to be against the basic tenet of free speech and the right of any citizen to obtain information which is public,"said attorney Lane Biviano. "Are they saying that you need a reason to request information, and that if you have a cause that you're not entitled to it? This is totally arrogant."

The public-records dispute was ignited earlier this year when Kaminski was denied copies of school board attorney Richard DiLascio's bills to the board.

Superintendent of Schools Joseph Abate Jr., who had been keeping a log of the information requests by Kaminski, Sheridan, and Stella, told board members that his staff was spending too much time answering the questions of the three residents. And many of the requests were for documents or raw information not covered under the Right To Know Law, he said.

Board members decided to clamp down on how much information to elease to Kaminski, Sheridan, and Stella. They carved out roughly $22,000 in the school budget for legal fees to challenge the requests and hired former state Attorney General Cary Edwards to handle the matter.

In a statement, Edwards, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate who has been paid about $11,000 by the school board so far, said the residents requests have abused the law.

"It is now necessary for the board to ask a court to clarify the board's obligations, and to put an end to the harassment,"Edwards said.

The school officials alleged that the residents inquiries, which ranged from requests for construction-bid records to a breakdown of the costs to print the district newsletter, were frivolous.

They counted more than 300 questions or documents requested between the three taxpayers.

Many simply required photocopying of a state audit or a construction contract, records that the "Sunshine Law"requires trustees to maintain.

But school attorneys and officials say a large number of the requests required employees to research and compile data into new records.

Kaminski has said a majority of his requests required little more than photocopying, which he said he pays for.

Biviano said he believes that school officials are exaggerating the time spent on the information requests.

"To take and photocopy a piece of paper, how is that taking hours of time? This isn't the Middle Ages where they were doing it letter by letter in the monasteries."

The school board is seeking a temporary injunction against the residents. No court hearing had been set as of Monday.

Abate said the board is trying to have the matter resolved before classes begin next month.

Any judgment against Kaminski, Sheridan, or Stella, board attorneys have said, will not affect the information requests of other township residents.

"The board, as it has always done, will be open and forthcoming, and provide all documents not otherwise privileged or protected,"the suit states.

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