LAWNSIDE – A government overseer has won an 18-month battle to obtain public documents here, defeating district officials and Supreme Court justices against the opposition.
Erwin Mears began his battle in July 2019 when he requested invoices submitted by attorneys held in the area for inquiries made under the Open Public Records Act.
“I wanted to find out how much money they were spending so I wouldn’t get the records,” said Mears, a founding member of the Lawnside Homeowners Association, a group that seeks more control over local authorities.
But Marshal Wright, a district clerk, approved attorney and client privileges and presented heavily edited invoices, said Lloyd Henderson, a Cherry Hill attorney representing Mears.
“You couldn’t get anything out of it,” said Henderson, who noted that the blackened invoices did not contain details of the work done by the district’s OPRA attorney.
Mears then sued the district, calling his claim on the privileges of a lawyer and a client a “fake.”
But the trial only led to a second failure.
Supreme Court Justice Deborah Silverman Katz ruled that the invoices “absolutely contain lawyer and client information.” She considered Lowside’s version to be “correct” and dismissed Mircea’s lawsuit in March 2020.
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Mears tried again, challenging that decision in the Court of Appeals.
And that led to Mircea’s victory earlier this month, when a panel of three judges ruled Lonside’s position was “unfounded”.
“The record simply does not confirm the conclusion (lower courts),” – said in the decision of the appellate court.
He ordered Silverman Katz to find Lowside in violation of the State’s Public Open Records Act (OPRA) and to demand the district issue Mircea unedited invoices “by a date to be determined by a court.”
He also noted that Myrs, having won the fight against OPRA, has the right to recover his court costs from the district.
“We are very pleased with this decision,” Henderson said.
“Without the OPRA law, we would never have been able to find out how money is being spent lightly,” said Mears, who has not yet received unedited invoices and has not presented his court costs.
OPRA Lawnside’s lawyer, Daryl Ron, declined to comment on the decision.
Mears won a separate OPRA dispute in December when Silverman Katz found that the Lonside School Board fulfilled two record-breaking requests only after the activist sued.
In this case, as noted in the judge’s ruling, OPRA’s requests filed by Mirs on April 16 and 22, 2021, were not granted until June 4, more than two weeks after Mirs filed a lawsuit on the matter.
Silverman Katz believed that Mircea’s costume “was a catalyst that prompted (the district) to take action and correct its illegal practices.”
Judge Camden ordered the school board to cover Mircea’s legal costs of more than $ 8,500.
OPRA requires custodians to respond to requests “as soon as possible” and within seven business days of receiving a complete request, the state government board said.
“This does not mean that a record in storage or a record that is difficult to find will be available during this time,” the council added.
In a ruling of 8 February, the Court of Appeal recognized that the right to receive records under the OPRA was not absolute and that materials covered by the privilege of a lawyer and a client were prohibited.
But it was also found that the privilege of a lawyer and a client “does not normally extend to a lawyer’s account for the services of a public institution”.
And there was a “legitimate interest of the population” in the invoices provided to government agencies, “because they are paid for by public funds.”
The ordinance notes that Clownside Loneside “edited every word of each line describing the services rendered in all 11 invoices.”
But the Board of Appeal said its review found that “the vast majority of descriptions of services provided are general, single-line records that do not contain any confidential information, trial strategy, or work product.”
“These and similar records clearly do not fall under the privileges of a lawyer and a client,” the statement said.
The ruling “helps not only Lawnside. It helps residents in every municipality, ”Henderson said.
He added that Mircea and his group “are still knocking on doors to make sure the area is accountable.”
Jim Walsh covers state security, economic development and other articles for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal.
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