Councilwoman’s Strategy for Open Government: Sue and Sue Again

February 26, 2008 NYTimes

Beth Mason filed her first lawsuit against the city in March 2004. She filed her second just six months later. Then she filed another, and another, and four more after that.

Even after winning a seat on the City Council here in May 2007, Ms. Mason, 47, has continued to press her cases, leading other officials here to complain that she is a one-woman litigation machine, costing the city time and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ms. Mason, a management consultant, contends that the suits she filed before her election are simply intended to better understand how this city on the Hudson River is spending its $79 million budget.

Steven W. Kleinman, the city’s corporation counsel, says Ms. Mason has made no fewer than 125 requests for records in 12 months under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, and has cost the city about $200,000 in legal fees.

He says that one request seeking every permit granted by the city’s Construction Office would have resulted in the production of about 70,000 documents. The request was denied.

“She has an addiction to lawsuits,” Mayor David Roberts said in a recent interview. “Beth can’t stop suing — she loves it.”

A spokesman for the city said that an appeals court’s decision in January compared Ms. Mason’s actions to “a fishing expedition.”

But the way Ms. Mason, a Democrat, sees it, she is simply trying to get answers from a hidebound and historically corrupt city that drags its feet when asked to provide answers.

To that end, Ms. Mason — the president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, an advocacy group — tapes meetings of the Board of Education and posts documents like the city budget on her Web sites, and

“We know corruption sits in these hidden places,” said Ms. Mason, adding that officials should be able to produce whatever information she asks for. “If I ask for all of City Hall, what’s the problem?” she said.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Jersey Press Association have filed briefs on her behalf, and supporters say that Ms. Mason’s legal odysseys could lead to significant changes in the state’s public records laws.

An affable pit bull, she tears into her targets with a smile. After a Supreme Court hearing on a records request case last Wednesday, she approached one opponent, Assistant Attorney General Lewis Scheindlin, with a grin and a handshake. “You’re a good man,” she told him.

Mayor Roberts, who appointed Ms. Mason to the Planning Board in 2001, acknowledged that she was right in at least one instance: When Ms. Mason requested the city’s general ledger (essentially all of its financial transactions) in 2004, she received a letter from the business administrator explaining that “corrections” needed to be made before the information was released.

“When you throw enough stuff against the wall, sometimes it sticks,” said Mr. Roberts, adding that the business administrator’s response was a mistake.

Ms. Mason has also successfully sued to lower the copying costs that the city charges per page: from 16 to 7 cents.

Grudgingly, Mr. Roberts conceded that Ms. Mason’s litigiousness has also done some good, and that whenever “publicity is given that makes the government more transparent, it’s good and it’s positive.”

Mr. Kleinman said that she had made the city more careful in its responses. “We’re forced to look at OPRA in a very careful light,” he said of the records act, “because we know if she’s unsatisfied, she’ll sue.”

As for the 70,000 construction documents, Ms. Mason said she had a good reason to request them. “The mayor had made statements about how many construction permits had been given during a time frame,” she said. “What, are we supposed to take someone’s word for it?”

Last week, Ms. Mason reached a settlement with the school board, in which it acknowledged violating both the Open Records and the Open Public Meetings Acts. So far, she has been successful in two of her eight cases, and has settled parts of others.

She got a hearing — and a lot of wary questions — on one of her cases before the state’s highest court last week for arguing that anyone denied records should be given a two-year statute of limitations to sue, instead of the current 45 days. Her lawyer, Jeffrey Kantowitz, also argued that lawyer’s fees should be paid by a municipality if a litigant wins a case. But the seeming skepticism of the justices does not necessarily mean that her days before the court will be over. Before leaving Trenton, Mr. Kantowitz and Mr. Kleinman talked about the possibility of a return trip on another of Ms. Mason’s cases.

“We might be back here,” Mr. Kantowitz said.

“I have a feeling we will,” Mr. Kleinman replied.

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