A Bergen County municipality violated statutory and common-law rights of access to public documents when it rejected a request for names and addresses of residents owning pets, a state judge ruled on Wednesday.
The borough of Fair Lawn had cited privacy and security consideration, namely that disclosing the identities of pet-license applicants might expose them to pet theft. But Bergen County Assignment Judge Peter Doyne deemed that concern “minimal at best” and outweighed by the disclosure goals of the Open Public Records Act.
Perry Bolkin, a borough resident, sought the information so that the New Jersey chapter of the League of Humane Voters could mail postcards to Fair Lawn pet owners before the November elections, endorsing certain candidates in the hope they would support legislation favorable to animals. Bolkin is a member of the league, whose motto is, “We Love Animals and We Vote.”
The group sought similar information from other municipalities, but only Fair Lawn said no, according to Bolkin’s lawyer, Walter Luers.
The idea of targeting mailings to pet owners was meant to reduce mailing costs.
As Doyne noted, Fair Lawn has about 40,000 residents, with 7,600 registered voters, compared with about 2,250 applicants for dog and cat licenses. Mailing postcards with endorsements only to pet owners rather than all voters would save the nonprofit league about $1,335.
Bolkin will not get all the information on the license applications, just the names and addresses, which is what he sought in Bolkin v. Borough of Fair Lawn, BER-L-6547-12.
Any additional information the applications might contain — pet breeds, Social Security numbers, whether the pet is used for protection/disability, the owner’s age and other descriptive data about the owner or pet — will be redacted, Doyne held.
In addition, he prohibited Bolkin from passing on the names and addresses to the league without further court approval predicated on an agreement by the league, which was not a party to the case, to abide by Bolkin’s consent to limit use of the data.
The judge said that during oral argument on Nov. 30, Luers agreed that Bolkin would not let anyone, including the league, use the names and addresses for any purpose but political distribution.
Fair Lawn had expressed concern that Angie Mettler, the league’s state director, would use the data beyond the limits agreed to by Bolkin. The town pointed to her zealous promotion of animal rights and a YouTube video in which she admitted removing bears from snare traps despite knowing it was illegal.
Bolkin filed a certification by Mettler indicating her intent to use the data to further the league’s mission of promoting “animal-friendly legislation.”
Doyne concluded that regardless of Mettler’s past actions, he would “not presume that an organization will break the law in the future, particularly where there are sufficient deterrents in place should the order be violated.”
He rejected Fair Lawn’s view that cat and dog owners would be negatively impacted by unsolicited mail at every election, stating that the interest in open political disclosure favored disclosure.
Doyne saw little potential for injury beyond “some possible nuisance due to unwanted solicitation” because no extremely private or personal information, such as Social Security numbers, was at issue.
Names and addresses are “available to essentially anyone with an available internet connection, phone book, or disposable income” and have historically been available to the public, he stated.
Fair Lawn’s argument that giving out pet owners’ names and addresses would deter people from licensing their pets was unsupported, in his view.
He called it “unreasonable to suggest that the mere receipt of potentially unwanted information is enough to encourage law abiding citizens to ignore other deterrents to illegal actions, and thus begin ignoring laws as they deem appropriate.”
The legal authorities Fair Lawn relied on in denying Bolkin’s June 28 records request included Executive Order 21 issued by Gov. James McGreevey in July 2002, three days before OPRA took effect, which exempted home addresses from disclosure, and decisions from the Government Records Council denying access to lists of names and addresses of dog license owners.
McGreevey’s order was rescinded after a month, while the GRC matters involved a valid concern that the information would be used for “unsolicited commercial enterprises,” said Doyne.
Further, the GRC cases were not binding, said Doyne. He added that the same was true of a 2009 appeals court ruling, Atlantic County ASPCA v. City of Absecon, A-3047-07, that required the city to provide dog license data to the Atlantic County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to aid in enforcement of animal-protection laws.
Nevertheless, he said he would consider the GRC decisions and ASPCA case in fairness to the parties.
The defendant’s attorney, Fair Lawn solo Ronald Mondello, says the disparate decisions of the GRC and the courts on pet license information highlight the problems with OPRA’s dual forum setup. He questions how releasing licensee data furthers OPRA’s purpose of government transparency.
Luers, a Clinton solo and the president of N.J. Foundation for Open Government, says names and addresses are “not that big a deal” if not linked to other personal identifiers and can be readily found on the Internet. He is not aware of any other case where restrictions were placed on OPRA disclosure and says he might cross-appeal if Fair Lawn seeks review.