Monday, March 21, 2011

My OPRA Request - Answered! (well, not quite)

A recent blog post I wrote, "The Wall of Separation?", which raised questions about the First Amendment implications of Chris Christie holding a "town hall" meeting at a Catholic church, on Ash Wednesday, a Catholic holiday, sparked an interesting comment thread about the appropriateness of holding such an event at such a place on such a date.

Some commenters were interested in how much was paid for the hall rental and by whom. So on March 9th I submitted OPRA request #W56799:

Requesting information as to how the $300.00 rental fee was paid to to Jude's Church for use of the parish hall for Governor Christie's town hall meeting on Wednesday, March 9, 2011. Please provide a copy of the rental agreement, which should identify who were the parties to the agreement, and proof of payment, identifying who paid the $300.00.

I did not expect a timely response, actually I did not expect a response at all. So imagine my surprise when, less than two weeks later, I saw an email from the Governor's office on my cell phone. I could hardly wait to get back to my laptop and read the pdf, which I could not open on the phone.

Here is the non-response, from Assistant Counsel Raymond Brandes:

Please be advised that the first portion of your request is a request for information and not for a specific identifiable government record, and therefor is an invalid OPRA request, OPRA is a records law, not an "information" law. OPRA does not countenance "(w)holesale requests for general information" {..then some legalese..}

This was not a "two-portion" request. It was a request for documents; the first portion was simply the what-and-where, so the OPRA responder would know what documents I was requesting. Now, the response to the second portion:

Please be further advised that this office has reviewed its records in response to the second portion or your request, for a copy of a rental agreement and proof of payment. That search has not identified any documents responsive to your request. Accordingly this request is hereby closed.

Uh, no, Mr. Brandes, the request is not closed. You have not answered the question.
Is there no purchase order?
No agreement?
No receipt?
No cancelled check?

This is either poor fiscal housekeeping or the hall was provided free of charge to the Governor.

If it's the former, and the Governor's office cannot account for a simple $300.00 hall rental payment, how can he be trusted with a $29.4 billion state budget?

If it's the latter, we have a Catholic church providing a free venue for a Catholic Governor to hold a political event on church property. What about that wall of separation?

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