Haddon Heights Council member uses public comment to criticize colleague seeking municipal records

In March, NJFOG reported that a Clementon Housing Authority board member left the dais during a meeting to speak “as a member of the public.”

Apparently, there’s a growing trend. Haddon Heights Borough Councilman Stephen Berryhill did the same thing at the Council’s May 5 meeting. His “public” comments were critical of fellow Councilman Richard DiRenzo, who in his official capacity sought financial records for many of the municipality’s appointed boards via an April 22 email to the Borough Clerk. DiRenzo wrote:

“In accordance with my duties as an elected official under NJSA:40A:60-1, I am requesting the following information:   All detailed financial reports and financial audits completed for the following Borough Committees which have the power to raise and expend funds under the banner of the Borough of Haddon Heights for the fiscal years 2013 and 2014. This shall include and not be limited to by-laws, bank statements, cancelled checks, deposits, donor lists and amounts donated, list of all expenditures, copies of all audits conducted.”

The list includes ten municipal boards, committees or commissions. DiRenzo further wrote that since the Borough Solicitor serves on several of the committees, questions regarding the validity of supplying the documents should be directed instead to either the Borough’s conflict counsel, the Department of Community Affairs or the Attorney General’s Office.

In lieu of using the Borough’s existing conflict attorney, the Council adopted at its May 5 meeting Resolution # 2015:91 hiring special conflict counsel to oversee what the resolution refers to as DiRenzo’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request. However, DiRenzo specifically wrote in his email that the request was made in his official capacity. He never cited OPRA, which means it would not be a valid OPRA request even if he intended it to be.

“As an elected official, I have the right to ask for information…,” DiRenzo said at the May 5 meeting. Borough Clerk Kelly Santosusso is quoted in the press as saying to him, “Had you come in to the office and asked me for the information, I would have given it to you.”

Councilman Stephen Berryhill, presumably wearing his taxpayer hat, got up during the public comment portion of the meeting and criticized DiRenzo, whom he blamed for the Borough’s incurring the cost of hiring conflict counsel. Berryhill, who sits on some of the committees as do other Council members, implied that the expenditure could have been avoided by an informal sit-down and review of committee finances in lieu of a request for the records.

All of this raises some questions:  One, why is the request being handled differently simply because it was put in writing? Two, why is there need to hire an attorney to assess a sitting councilman’s right to records pertaining to operations of the municipality’s own boards and committees?

It’s also hard to overlook the irony of a public official – speaking as a member of the public, no less – taking issue with another official’s interest in accountability.

There’s a lot to scratch your head at here. It certainly demonstrates that elected officials can encounter the same difficulty getting information as the rest of us. And it once again raises the question, “Who is the public when it comes to public comments?” The question may need to be addressed by legislation.