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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A secret city plan in place for at least six months will soon have to be released to New Brunswick Today, after Superior Court Judge Alberto Rivas ruled in favor of our lawsuit against the government.
The city’s “pandemic continuity plan” may be one of the most important policies in all of City Hall right now, but it has been kept secret from the public as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged New Jersey.
So far, nearly four percent of city residents caught the virus that causes COVID-19, and it has killed 80 New Brunswickers. City Hall has been closed to the public since March 16 in an unprecedented lockdown.
The plan, which NBToday only learned about through a request for the email logs of the Mayor’s spokesperson, conceivably outlines how the city would manage its response to pandemics and how they would continue to deliver essential services during periods like the one we are living through.
After learning about the existence of the plan, we requested a copy of it on July 4, but the City Clerk’s Office ultimately denied that request.
Nine days after receiving our official request under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA), the Clerk’s Office responded by delaying.
“In order for the City of New Brunswick to fulfill your request, we will
need an extension,” wrote Deputy Clerk Shalon Bennett. “We anticipate a completed response on or before Friday, July 24, 2020.”
Then, on that date, the city turned around and rejected the request, providing a one-page letter from Assistant City Attorney Joseph Catanese, who said the document requested was “a confidential plan that is part of the city’s Emergency Management Plan, which is not subject to disclosure.”
After New Brunswick Today challenged the decision with the help of an attorney, the city took the unusual step of hiring outside lawyers at a prominent law firm to fight against the case.
In previous OPRA cases brought by this reporter, the city government has either backed down or handled it in-house” with Catanese or his boss TK Shamy, representing the city in court. In the three cases we brought against the city, all involving police matters, the city settled or lost in court.
On September 2, the City Council agreed to spend up to $15,000 on outside lawyers at the city-based firm Hoagland, Longo, Moran, Dunst, and Doukas.
“In my tender years, I’m not handling litigation in house here in the City of New Brunswick,” said Shamy. “So, I feel it’s in the best interests of the city to retain special counsel.”
In a separate resolution, they authorized another $15,000 for the same firm to represent the city in another OPRA case brought by this reporter.
According to public records, the Hoagland firm has donated generously to politicians and Democratic Party organizations over the past several decades, including several donations to an organization led by Shamy.
Shamy leads the New Brunswick Democratic Organization, which received $1,700 from the firm in 2009, another $2,300 in 2010, and $2,500 in 2012.
Those donations came on top of tens of thousands of dollars given by the Hoagland firm to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization and state-level party organizations.
But the Hoagland firm was paid more than a quarter-million dollars to represent the city government in property tax appeals last year, a lucrative business that became even more lucrative after a citywide re-valuation led to a deluge of appeals from taxpayers.
After being hired to handle the OPRA cases, the lawyers relied upon statements from the city’s Fire Director and Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Rawls.
Rawls certified that “The disclosure of the information contained within the Pandemic Continuity Plan will risk jeopardizing the safety of the City and its employees, residents, visitors, and businesses, by making them vulnerable to attack.”
“If this information were made publically available, it may enable individuals with ill motives to assess targets within the City, attack the City by means of terrorism or otherwise, or hinder the City’s response to emergencies and catastrophic events.”
“If disclosed, it would create a risk to the City’s persons, property, and facilities, increase the risk of terrorism and sabotage, and impair the City’s ability to protect against same,” wrote Hoagland attorney Nicole M. Grzeskowiak on behalf of the city.
But after a brief hearing on October 8, Judge Alberto Rivas ordered the City of New Brunswick to share the pandemic plan with him so he could decide what portions of the document, if any, needed to remain confidential.
One week later, Rivas issued the ruling that forces the city to release the entire six-page plan, rejecting the city’s arguments.
“Nothing in the current plan, if disclosed, substantially interferes with the
City of New Brunswick’s ability to protect and defend the city and its citizens against acts of sabotage or terrorism, or which, if disclosed, would materially increase the risk or consequences of potential acts of sabatoge or terrorism,” wrote Rivas.
“The plan is pandemic specific and focuses on the techniques and procedures broadly publicized and utilized by employers and government entities to maintain operations and provide services during the pendency of the pandemic.”
This is just the latest legal win for New Brunswick Today, which has previously sued the city’s Housing Authority to force them to release legal bills under OPRA.
“The residents of New Brunswick have a right to know what the City’s plan is to ensure that local government functions smoothly during this pandemic and they have a right to ensure it is being followed,” said CJ Griffin, who represents New Brunswick Today in the matter.
“I’m pleased to help New Brunswick Today secure access to the continuity plan so that it can keep its readers well-informed.”
Rivas ordered the pandemic plan to be released to New Brunswick Today within seven days, so the city has until October 22 to appeal the ruling or release the record.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.