Should the public have the right to know where public officials live?
This is an argument I just lost with the New Jersey Government Records Council.
A recent state analysis of my case against the New Jersey Department of Education showed that public officials should have a "reasonable expectation of privacy." Except that Brandon D. Minde, executive director of the Government Records Council, used citizens, not public officials, in his decision.
Should there be a distinction?
Here is my argument and account:
Last spring, I was hearing rumors about a Camden Board of Education member living in public housing.
Given that Kathryn Blackshear earns more than $80,000 as an employee at the Housing Authority of the City of Camden, I was surprised by the rumors and wondered about rules for residents.
So, as any journalist would, I researched where she lived.
Because Blackshear is a public official, I figured it would be easy to check her address. And while I was at it, I decided to verify the residences of all the board members.
In New Jersey, all elected public officials must list their addresses on the petitions they submit to run for office. For example, if you go to the Department of State website, you'll find home addresses of all state candidates, including Gov. Christie, running in the June primary.
But Blackshear and her colleagues on the Camden school board are appointed by the mayor, so they have no election petitions. (Camden is one of 50 Type 1 districts in the state that have appointed school boards; 553 Type 2 districts have elected boards.)
So, on April 2, 2012, I requested copies of the most recent state Department of Education conflict-of-interest disclosure forms, also called "Ethics Forms," filed by Camden school board members. These forms also contain addresses.
The Department of Education provided the forms but redacted the street address of each board member. I appealed, saying the full address should be listed.
"The complainant contends that without the home addresses, the public cannot confirm that the Camden City Board of Education members live in the City of Camden, a requirement for the position of Board Member," the Government Records Council wrote in its April 30 recommendation.
By this point, I had confirmed by other means that Blackshear did, indeed, live in public housing and had since she was on public assistance two decades ago. She, like others in her situation, was allowed to stay, as long as she paid a certain percentage of her income on rent, which I confirmed she was doing. No rules broken; no story.
I continued the appeal with the Department of Education, however, on the principle that citizens should be able to verify that public officials do, indeed, live in the communities they represent.
A year later, the records council ruled in favor of the department. (They tend to do that.)
"The Complainant is currently in possession of the information she seeks, namely, whether the school board members reside in the City of Camden," the decision states. "The Custodian has lawfully denied access to the street addresses ... on the basis that the disclosure of the street addresses would violate the citizens' reasonable expectation of privacy." Note he used citizens here, not public officials.
In districts that elect school boards, candidates fill out a petition with their home address - and these petitions are public. Why should appointed school board members be treated differently?
Would the records council have changed its decision if it had seen my recent story on Mayor Dana L. Redd's appointment of a Winslow Township resident to the Camden school board?
Jennifer Martinez was one of three people appointed to the Camden school board. After receiving their resumés, I saw that street addresses were redacted, but not the city and zip codes.
Martinez's resumé said, "Camden, 08105."
But the 2012 Hispanic Summit Leadership website said Martinez lived in Winslow.
She could have moved to Camden within the year since the summit, which would have made her appointment in compliance with state law. So, after a week of unreturned phone calls to Martinez and City Council President Frank Moran, who recommended her to the mayor, I took a drive down to Martinez's listed Winslow Township address.
She did live there, and informed me that she had withdrawn her school board appointment.
Should citizens be expected to go on what seemed like a scavenger hunt to figure out whether public officials are who they say they are?
The state seems to think so.