I read with some intrigue (or was it puzzleness or sadness) about the legal fight over public records Gannett sought from Raritan Township. In New Jersey, we have the “Open Public Records Act” (OPRA) that specifies which records are available for inspection. If eligible records are not produced, the Act provides for a cause of action in Superior Court. If the petitioner prevails, OPRA requires that the legal costs of the petitioner are paid by the municipality.
Gannett publishes a number of newspapers, including the Asbury Park Press, Home News Tribune, Courrier News and USA Today. In 2009, Gannett wanted public employee records from a multitude of municipalities and filed OPRA requests to that end. Raritan Township provided the records in PDF format, which is not easily turned into data tables that can be crunched in a program like Microsoft Excel or entered into Gannett’s Datauniverse. Gannett wanted the records in a more analyzable format, but the town said it couldn’t easily produce them. The town’s position is that it produced the records requested. Long story short, Gannett sued, won and was awarded $590,000 in attorneys fees. That is not a typo. Plus Raritan Township also has a few hundred thousand in its own legal fees.
Here’s the kicker: It would have cost $1,100 to produce the records in the format Gannett sought. Couldn’t someone OCR the PDF? Couldn’t data entry clerks be engaged to convert the information? So to avoid $1,100, the parties collectively spent over $800,000 on legal fees. To prove what?
How does this happen? It’s called Escalation of Conflict. It’s like being in quicksand. You don’t realize it until too late.
Is there a better way? Yes. Mediation. A mediator should have been engaged early to address the interests of the parties to seek a resolution. This could have been resolved for pennies on the dollar. Instead, it appears the taxpayers of Raritan Township will be on the hook for this. Perhaps we need a public policy mediation team in NJ to help resolve these issues before they turn into a small fortune.
If you have a business dispute you need help with, contact me to discuss. Certainly do it before it escalates.