Originally posted on Philly.com by Jan Hefler, Inquirer Staff Writer on 10/11/14.
Edgewater Park Township has agreed to pay $1,900 in legal fees incurred by a paid political researcher who sued over a delayed open-records request.
Jim Logue, a Medford resident who works for the Burlington County Republican Committee, requested 15 years of public records – 21,500 pages – and filed suit when the township failed to provide them within 14 days.
Looking for information on Edgewater Park Mayor Tom Pullion, a Democrat running this fall for the Burlington County Board of Freeholders, Logue asked for electronic copies of meeting minutes, ordinances, resolutions, bills, permits, cellphone records, payroll, property taxes, and grant applications, among other documents dating to 1999, when Pullion was first elected to the council.
Under state law, a town has seven days to provide public documents and may request extensions if the records are voluminous.
Logue agreed to wait two weeks, but when Township Clerk Linda Dougherty said the compilation would take 60 days, he sued her, the township committee, and the township.
Solicitor William Kearns Jr. said the township acknowledged during a settlement conference with Superior Court Judge Ronald Bookbinder that all the materials had not been provided by the legal deadline, and agreed to make them available and pay a portion of the legal fees.
Kearns said the town of 8,000 residents could not comply with the request within two weeks because it has a small staff and the job was “a tremendous burden.”
Kearns said the town agreed to pay $1,923 of Logue’s $3,300 legal bill to settle the matter and prevent the fees from escalating.
Logue was then charged slightly more than $1,000, or a nickel a page, for the documents.
Logue declined to comment. His lawyer, Richard Nocella, did not return a call for comment.
Bruce Garganio and Mary Ann O’Brien, Republicans running for the two freeholder seats, viewed the court order as a finding against Pullion, one of their opponents.
Pullion “should reimburse local property taxpayers in Edgewater Park for the costs associated with dragging this into court when it was clear that his township clerk and he were violating the state’s open public records law,” the Republicans said in a news release.
Party control of the freeholder board, which is split, 3-2, with a Republican majority, is at stake in the hotly contested race.
Pullion, who is running with Mike Schmidt, said his job as mayor does not include complying with open public records requests. He defended Dougherty, who serves as the town administrator, clerk, and custodian of records, saying she did her best to gather the documents and scan them to make them accessible electronically.
“Our office was dedicated to getting out this information as quickly as possible. We only have four or five clerks,” he said.
Garganio, an incumbent and the board’s director, alleged in a joint statement with O’Brien that the documents were withheld because Pullion wanted “to block access to public records that could be damaging” to his candidacy.
The Republicans’ news release noted that Logue also had complained in his lawsuit that Dougherty attempted to charge him “an exorbitant fee” of more than $2,000, besides the five-cents-per-page charge, to discourage him from pursuing the requests.
Pullion discounted the claims. “I have nothing to hide,” he said, adding that he was curious to learn what Republicans had discovered about him among the reams of unearthed documents.
Chris Russell, a spokesman for the county Republican Party, said they found that taxes “nearly tripled” during Pullion’s 15-year council tenure. Russell said they arrived at this conclusion by taking the total amount of taxes collected during Pullion’s first year of office, subtracted that from the current levy, and calculated the increase.
When asked, he said the number did not take into consideration inflation, possible population changes, special financial challenges, or any other factors.
“It’s just the straight levy,” he said.
Play the Burlington County Survey at www.TaxpayersLose.com.