New Raritan mayor wants resolution of Gannett lawsuit

Not only is the new Mayor of Raritan making noises (and rightly so) that they need to settle the Gannett v. Raritan appeal over the payroll data, but Raritan has also sued its payroll provider because ADS allegedly provided Raritan with “inaccurate information.” -NJFOG

Asbury Park Press
January 5, 2016
by Mike Deak

RARITAN BOROUGH – Less than a half-hour after he took the oath of office, Mayor Charles McMullin said he wants a quick resolution of the borough’s five-year legal battle with Gannett, owner of the Courier News.

“The Gannett lawsuit should have never happened,” McMullin said in his State of the Borough address on Sunday after he was sworn into a four-year term as mayor.

The litigation, which arose from a request for public information about the borough’s payroll, “serves no purpose for the people of Raritan,” the mayor said.

“This situation should not have been allowed to escalate into hundreds of thousands of dollars just to prove a point,” McMullin said. “We as a community did not have any strategic interest, yet are left to pay the bill.”

The Borough Council later in Sunday’s meeting voted to hire the Warren law firm of DiFrancesco, Bateman, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum as a special counsel with instructions to resolve the litigation.

“We as elected officials have a higher standard when spending taxpayer money,” the mayor said, adding that in his door-to-door campaign this fall, no resident spoke in favor of the litigation.

Unfortunately, McMullin said, the money spent in the litigation is no longer in the borough’s treasury. That money, he said, could have been used to fund infrastructure improvements.

Gannett, which also owns Asbury Park Press among other newspapers and websites in the state, sued the borough more than five years ago after officials denied a reporter’s Open Public Records Act request for employee salary and overtime information in an electronic, non-PDF format, such as an Excel file.

Gannett won the lawsuit in Superior Court in 2012 after the judge concluded that borough officials had access to the electronic information and should have provided it as the reporter had requested.

But the litigation continues to drag on, at a cost to both the media company and borough taxpayers, as a result of the borough’s decision to continue fighting.

The borough is appealing a judge’s decision last year to award Gannett $590,000 — just part of the legal fees the company has incurred since 2009.

OPRA allows plaintiffs who win their cases against public agencies to recover legal expenses. Open-government advocates say this provision is what gives the law its teeth.

In a complaint filed in August in state Superior Court in Somerville, the borough seeks to hold the former payroll company, Action Data Services in Fairfield, responsible should the borough lose its appeal and be forced to pay what could be the largest-ever OPRA award.

The borough’s lawsuit says the company had told officials the requested format was not available unless the borough paid a fee of $1,100, which officials tried to charge Gannett. But Gannett balked at paying what it considered an exorbitant fee.

“To the extent that Raritan relied upon inaccurate information supplied to it by ADS, Raritan has sustained damages in defense of the Gannett (lawsuit) through no fault of its own but instead through the fault of ADS,” says the complaint filed by Borough Attorney Richard Wenner.

After the 2012 trial, ADS waived the fee and provided the data to the borough, which turned it over to the Courier News.

In response, the company at the time said that the borough’s strategy was “ill-advised” and that “for the last three years, defendant Borough of Raritan has recklessly gambled with taxpayer dollars.”

(APP article available online HERE and re-posted above.)