Socrates had the pols pegged long ago

Socrates had the pols pegged long ago

07/05/2007 Asbury Park Press

TRENTON — The political establishment, according to the Greek philosopher Socrates, is like a large horse "by its size and laziness."

And the government, he went on, needed people to arouse and annoy it, like a gadfly does to a horse.

While rabble-rousers have been around for some time, the enactment five years ago of the state Open Public Records Act, OPRA, has given New Jersey's so-called "gadflies" even more ammunition.

"It's a vital tool," said Readington Township resident Don Baldwin.

Baldwin, 58, and fellow township resident Ed Dudzinski unearthed documents which detailed Readington paying a public relations firm $100,000 to release information about the township's attempt to purchase land surrounding Solberg Airport. Dudzinski has spent over $1,500 on requested documents.

OPRA is just another way to dig deeper into an issue, said Baldwin.

"I see a red flag somewhere, and then through OPRA I'm able to flush out the details or dismiss it," Baldwin said.

Baldwin was initially denied access to some correspondence between the township and the PR firm, CN Communications, but the Government Records Council, the state agency overseeing such complaints, is reviewing the refusal.

In its first five years, the Government Records Council has handed out only two fines, both coming on May 30.

One of those fines involved a request from John Paff, 49, of Franklin Township in Somerset County, after a South Bound Brook records custodian did not comply with Paff's records request within the seven business days required by law.

Paff, chairman of the government task force for the Libertarian Party of Central New Jersey, is heralded as being the leader in making OPRA requests — usually three to four a week, by his count. Most deal with making sure municipalities comply with existing laws such as the Open Public Meetings Act.

Paff says he "was born this way" but that OPRA certainly has "energized" him to dig out important information.

"You start to learn what information is out there that you haven't been able to get or that you may have not even thought about," said Paff. "It's more than just getting records. It's more ... to get more accountability."

The aim of OPRA was to give everyday citizens access to public information, but complicated forms and the specificity on requests may cause that request to be denied.

Lisa Becker, 43, of Barnegat Township, said because typical people are not going to file requests, she founded an online community watchdog publication, Its goal, Becker said, is to give the general citizenry "an opportunity to look" at the information.

"It's made those more involved more equipped and better armed," Becker said.

OPRA may be a tool for political enthusiasts to get the information they crave, but the fight always continues.

"The war's not over," said Paff. "We're still scraping for information."

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