Watchdog or Pitbull? School Board Says Taxpayer Asks Too Many Questions

July 19, 2000
Copyright 2000 The Bergen Record, Section: News; Pg. L1

Staff Writer

For the past three years, Stanley Kaminski has been asking questions about how the Lyndhurst Board of Education spends his tax money. He has been known to pore over 100-page audits just to find a few minor errors. "I see things going on that need improvement,"said Kaminski, 64, an active member of the Lyndhurst Taxpayers Association and a retired operations manager of a home decorations import company.

For the most part, Kaminski says, his requests for information were granted.

But that began to change last year, after Kaminski asked for copies of school board attorney Richard DiLascio's bills to the board, documents that school administrators had regularly handed over in the past.

Saying that Kaminski and others from the taxpayers group have been harassing them with an unreasonable number of questions, school officials began clamping down on what they release.

When Kaminski challenged their refusal to release the board's legalbills, trustees hired a former state attorney general to quash the complaint.

As open records advocates and government officials in New Jersey continue the battle over how much information the public is entitled to, Kaminski and the school board are battling over this issue: Can a resident ask too many questions of its government officials?

Cary Edwards, the former New Jersey attorney general whom the board hired at $ 185 an hour to fight Kaminski's and others requests, says he believes so.

The requests by Kaminski and others in the taxpayers group, he said,"are not all germane and necessary. There is no question it's excessive and repetitive.

"We're just trying to allow the board to function," Edwards said.

But Kaminski, his attorney, and advocates for access to government records say that idea is absurd.

"If they resent being held accountable, the answer is not to say these people are harassers,"said Renee Steinhagen, director of the Public Interest Law Center of New Jersey, a non-profit advocacy group that has been involved in the state's most recent legislative battle over access to government records. A bill passed by the Assembly and pending before a Senate committee would open all government records to the public unless specifically exempted.

There is no disputing that Kaminski asks the school board a lot of questions. His basement file cabinet is filled with copies of school reports and contracts that he has received over the years from the school board or other members of the taxpayers association.

Some of his questions arise from his own instincts, the awarding of a construction contract that didn't 1 seem quite right to him, or a spending plan he believed could be trimmed. Other questions come from members of the taxpayers group, which he then poses at school board meetings.

Through their inquisitiveness, Kaminski says, he and his fellow tax watchdogs are doing a service to residents and, ultimately, to government leaders.

There was the time, for instance, he compared two consecutive school audits and found a few record-keeping errors that the auditing firm later acknowledged. And the time he stood up at a meeting and asked what struck the school board as a pointless question about a summer painting project: What color paint was being used?

Kaminski says he asked about the paint only because he had come upon several hundred gallons of off-white paint that he thought he could donate.

"They looked at me like it was a ridiculous question," Kaminski said."I had hundreds of gallons of paint that I could have given them for free."

As for his request for DiLascio's bills, Kaminski says it has been a long-standing practice for members of the Lyndhurst Taxpayers Association to monitor the attorney's fees. Elaine Stella, an association member who served on the Board of Education in the mid-1990s, says she began getting the bills while on the board. When she had trouble getting the bills in April 1999, Kaminski made the request for her.

But school officials haven't been impressed with the taxpayers group's probing.

They say the questions are costing them too much time in researching and preparing documents. And they question whether Kaminski, who has twice run for the school board, and Stella are politically motivated.

"It's harassment of the board,"DiLascio said."It has nothing to do with asking for information. They're trying to gain a foothold on electability.

"Unfortunately, it's costing us a fortune," DiLascio added.

He said he had to turn over the Kaminski case to Edwards when his name was mentioned in the complaint Kaminski filed with the state Department of Education.

That complaint was dismissed by Education Commissioner David C. Hespe, who said the department was the wrong venue for what he called a right-to-know issue.

Schools Superintendent Joseph Abate says he started to grow weary of the taxpayer group's requests about two years ago. To keep tabs on the questions, he jotted down the dates of the group's requests and tallied the research and photocopying time it took him or staff members to respond.

He recently ticked off the dates and hours spent on the requests during two months in 1998."7/1/98, two hours,"Abate said."7/2, two hours; 8/5, three hours; 8/17, two hours, 8/19, half an hour. This goes on and on and on."

He added:"It's an inordinate amount of time given to a small amount of people. There's certainly an issue of the public needing to know. But it can't impede on the efficient operation of this office."

DiLascio says many of Kaminski's information requests require school administrators to create reports that don't exist. 

"There is no law on the books that says that we have to create a report for him," the attorney said.

Kaminski, who keeps detailed records of his requests, says about 25 percent of them have required some research by administrators. The rest, he says, were only for copies of documents, for which the district charges a fee.

Kaminski says he is not trying to harass the board or gain politically. School administrators rarely answer his questions completely the first time, so he follows up with more questions, he says.

"I ask the questions they don't want to answer,"he said, adding that about half of his questions are from others in the taxpayers group.

It's unclear where the dispute between Kaminski and the board is heading. Kaminski still hasn't received the legal bills he asked for a year ago, even in the redacted form in which DiLascio said they could be released.

After Kaminski's complaint to the Department of Education was dismissed, he hired an attorney and is now considering a lawsuit in Superior Court to get access to the district's legal bills.

Edwards, who was paid $ 10,900 for his services on the Kaminski case, is still reviewing the matter and says he will make a recommendation to the board about how to handle future requests for information.

He says the recommendation could include some type of action against Kaminski and others to get a legal determination of how many and what type of requests the board is obligated to comply with.

Kaminski's lawyer, Lane Biviano, says that although he hasn't researched the case extensively, the officials claim that Kaminski has harassed them seems ridiculous.

"If a citizen asks too many questions, that is justification for not providing them information?"asked Biviano, who has represented several school boards in North Jersey."What level of arrogance is this?"

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