Mason will get cell phone records, including police

Mason will get cell phone records, including police

City must pay $10K for lawyers in lawsuit settlement

08/25/2008  Hoboken Reporter 

A lawsuit by Councilwoman Beth Mason seeking information about city cell phone records was settled two weeks ago after two court appearances.

Now, Mason will get to comb through a year's worth of city cell phone records from July 1, 2004 to June 30, 2005.

The agreement even includes the phone records of police officers, with the only exception being any calls placed in connection with ongoing criminal investigations.

According to the settlement, the city is not required to provide the phone numbers of the cell phones in use.

However, the city must provide the names of the cell phone users unless it offers a detailed explanation as to why they cannot. They are also allowed by law to withhold the incoming and outgoing numbers.

The city originally won the case at the lower court level, but an appeals court disagreed with the lower court on some aspects, and sent it back for further review.

The city will have to reimburse Mason for $10,000 in legal fees.

The phone ranger

Mason filed the lawsuit when she was still a citizen, before winning her 2nd Ward council seat last spring. It is one of several suits she has filed to get public information out of city entities. Some she has won, some she has lost, and some are still pending.

Mason said she believes personal calls were being made excessively and on occasion to places like Hawaii. She believes some city workers were grossly abusing phone privileges and has since created an ad hoc Cell Phone Committee on the City Council.

The settlement was executed on Aug. 15.

When the city gives Mason the cell phone information, they will be allowed to redact the actually numbers of the phones and the numbers from the incoming and outgoing calls.

Mason will get to see the area codes dialed and the geographical locations from which the calls were made. She also will get to see the length of the calls.

During the time period in question, the city was using three or four different cell phone providers, including Nextel, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

The city has from 15 to 30 days from Aug. 15 to provide the information. Edward Florio of Florio & Kenny, LLP, the city's legal representation, said last week that the city is "marshaling together" the information.

His associate, attorney Christopher Harriot, who tried the case, said the 15 to 30-day time frame requires a "considerable effort on the part of the city."

He also said that the lawsuit focused on the availability of the records, not the issue of using the phones to make personal calls.

Setting a precedent

Mason said that her latest settlement is part of a theme of mismanagement in the city that includes the current budget crisis.

She also said that she "expects the [terms of the] settlement will not only apply to the period covered by the litigation," but also to anyone's future attempts to get city cell phone records.

Florio said it provides a "general template" for future cases, but that there always "could be issues."

Mayor David Roberts said last week that he was glad to "settle all these lawsuits" and "just get on with the [city's] reforms."

He restated that he believes Mason is using the litigation as a publicity tool when she finds "the slightest technicality."

Mason is widely rumored to be a candidate for mayor next May, although she said recently that she is too busy dealing with the city's financial crisis to make a decision right now. She currently employs at least three public relations professionals to get her information to the public.

Roberts pleaded last week for Mason to stop using "the court system as a first resort."

He said that in many of the settlements with Mason, Mason held up settlement proceedings by demanding legal fees.

Florio said the settlement talks for this case began early, but he added, "I won't say that they were ever very close."

Mason was not available for followup comment on those remarks last week.

Second time around

Mason's suit was at first defeated in court. Mason appealed the ruling. The appellate court agreed that while the city could keep the numbers private, they should provide the other information to best of their ability.

Attorney Jeffrey Kantowitz said in a press release from Mason that the outcome gives the "community more transparency" and allows them to "determine how taxpayer money is being spent."

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