Board Fined in Records Lawsuit

Sunday, May 27, 2001
Copyright 2001 The Record Online, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

By SHANNON D. HARRINGTON
Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge Friday ordered the Lyndhurst Board of Education to pay $500 to three government watchdogs it unsuccessfully sued last year in a public records dispute. While school officials said the amount was insignificant, an attorney for the three called it a symbolic victory.

The ruling came in response to arguments from the critics' attorney that the board filed the lawsuit merely as an attempt to silence the critics, Stanley Kaminski, Elaine Stella, and Mary Sheridan, all of Lyndhurst.

Attorney Lane Biviano said the lawsuit fit the definition of a so-called SLAPP suit - strategic ligitation against public participation. The board's suit, which Judge Isabel B. Stark dismissed in March, accused the critics of harassing school officials with information requests and sought to bar them from asking for certain kinds of information.

Stark dismissed Biviano's claim, noting that no state statute gives legal remedy to such cases. She also denied a claim that the board's lawsuit was frivolous.

But, citing the state's Right to Know Law, which requires government agencies to make public records accessible, Stark did order the board to pay the critics $500.

School board President Frank Benedetto called the sum insignificant, and an attorney for the board said the fact that Stark dismissed the frivolous lawsuit and SLAPP suit claims proved that the board did no wrong in bringing the civil action.

"It's unfortunate the taxpayers have to pay this $500 for these defendants that forced us to bring this suit," said Douglas Doyle, the board attorney. But, he added, "the court never said we did anything wrong."

Biviano disagreed.

Though the money is little compared to the roughly $25,000 Biviano estimated it will cost the three residents in legal bills, he called the award a symbolic victory.

"The judge did what she felt she could under the law," Biviano said. "So we're grateful for that.

Biviano said he hopes the lawsuit offers incentive for state lawmakers to pass legislation that would prevent civil actions being brought in order to chill public participation.

"We don't want this to happen to anyone else in the future," said Biviano, who is seeking the Republican nomination in November's 36th District state Senate race. "Clearly, the actions of the board were not in the public interest."

The school board sued Kaminski, Stella, and Sheridan -- all members of a local taxpayers group - in August, accusing them of tying up school administrators and secretaries by asking for more than 300 documents or reports during the past two years.

Doyle argued that the school board was simply looking for guidance from the court on what type of information it was required to give to the three residents.

Stark dismissed the suit in March, saying residents have "an absolute right" to public records under the Right to Know Law, and that governing bodies cannot question one's motives for seeking those records.

While Kaminski, Stella, and Sheridan praised that ruling, they were disappointed with the $500 awarded Friday.

Though the residents, dubbed the Lyndhurst Three in the wake of the lawsuit, have raised some money through a legal defense fund they set up, they're still about $9,000 shy of paying off their bills, Stella said.

"It's nowhere near what we spent, said Stella, who like Sheridan, is a former school trustee. "There's got to be some kind of consequence for what [the board] did."


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