Russ Zimmer Asbury Park Press
Published 3:12 PM EDT Oct 17, 2018
On July 10, Middletown received an emailed public records request seeking all the names and email addresses of people who had voluntarily turned over this contact information to the town in order to receive emergency alerts and updates on local happenings
Ten days later, Middletown gave “[email protected]” — the requesting party — all of those email addresses.
That might have been where the story ended, except that on Sept. 29 an email, purporting to be from an grassroots organization that doesn’t appear to actually exist, landed in the inboxes of seemingly everyone who was on the township email list.
The email attacked a Democratic candidate for township committee for allegedly benefiting politically in 2007 from the landowners behind the controversial “town center” development, also known as the Village 35 project, and for being beholden to out-of-county donors.
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A series of hyperlinks in the email lead back to committeeman Tony Perry’s Twitter account. You can see how exactly by watching the short video at the top of the page.
Perry is one of three Republicans protecting their seats against Sean Byrnes, the subject of the attack email, and his running mates in the Nov. 6 election.
Perry didn’t claim authorship of the email, when asked by the Asbury Park Press on Oct. 4, but he also wouldn’t categorically deny that it was connected to his campaign.
The committeeman, who is running for public office for the first time, previously told the Press, “We’re looking into it.” He did not respond to messages seeking an update on Wednesday.
The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission says that political communications, in whatever form, must include language that identifies who paid to create or distribute that message. Failure to do so could be a violation of election law.
Nothing in Perry’s latest report on campaign contributions and expenditures identifies any purchase of email lists or messaging services.
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Easy and free access to residents’ emails
Reacting to the outcry of some residents who felt their personal information had been misappropriated for political reasons, the Asbury Park Press made an Open Public Records Act request for the email list to see if the township would release it.
Within 10 days, the Press received “EmailSubscriptions.pdf” and the 11,095 email addresses that file contained. The names attached to each email were stripped out.
The APP also asked for everyone who had made that same request in 2018. It turns out we weren’t the first.
“Please provide all names and corresponding email addresses of individuals that receive the ‘Middletown Minute’ from Middletown Township in electronic form. Thank you,” reads the request from [email protected]
Who typed that message — the only other request for the township email list this year — is unclear.
An email from a reporter was not returned and Internet searches for “[email protected]” turn up no results.
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Township defends release of emails
Two experts with the New Jersey Foundation For Open Government, an organization that advocates for greater accessibility to public records, told the Press earlier this month that township-curated email address lists are “a gray area” when it comes to the state’s public records laws.
In fact, the Government Records Council, a state government appendage that handles all things OPRA, says that “a public agency has a responsibility and an obligation to protect a citizen’s personal information … when disclosure of that information would violate the citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Telephone numbers and home addresses are provided as examples by the GRC of information that has been withheld for privacy reasons.
Township attorney Brian Nelson (pictured above), however, said that the issue has been fought over time and again with municipalities on the losing end.
“This issue is very cut and dry and one which I have personally litigated about a decade ago on two instances, once in Tinton Falls and once in Middletown,” Nelson told the Press. “There are numerous decisions spanning a decade right on point, and of course, if the municipality loses, we’re on the hook for legal fees, so we always air on the side of releasing information, which is exactly what OPRA requires.”
Nelson provided the Press with four recent case citations in which municipalities had refused to release emails, or similar information, and lost in court. The judge in two of those cases required the town to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees, according to judicial orders.
The League of Municipalities had asked for certain changes to OPRA in 2012, including adding exemptions for email addresses and other forms of personal information as well as not forcing towns to pay legal fees when a denial to release public records was made in “good faith.”
These suggestions were not adopted by the Legislature.
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Russ Zimmer: 732-557-5748, [email protected], @russzimmer
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