A New Jersey judge has ordered Hoboken to release the email distribution list for the city’s Nixle alerts system and comply with an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, which the city said that they will object to, citing privacy concerns.
Ironically enough, in a Nixle message sent on Wednesday night, the city informed residents about the judge’s order and said that they “strongly objected,” and launched a survey to seek citizen input on how to proceed.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed in January in Hudson County Superior Court by Hoboken resident Carmine Sodora, who sued the city for refusing an OPRA request he made, alleging that OPRA was violated and he had the common law right to access public records.
Sodora had sought an OPRA request for the Nixle email list, which would include all emails that are subscribed to the alerts, “to raise awareness” about the Hoboken high school referendum.
He identified himself as a member of “Hoboken For Public Schools”, a group that was formed to oppose the referendum to build a $241 million new high school, and had eventually succeeded in voting it down at the polls on Jan. 25.
He had also sought copies of all contacts between the city of Hoboken and the Board of Education, and Mount Vernon Group, the architects of the high school proposal, dating back to 2015.
The case was eventually merged with two other court cases that involved OPRA requests with third-party agencies used by local governments in the Camden County Superior Court. Superior Court Judge Deboarh Silverman Katz ruled in favor of Sodora and the other two plaintiffs that sued in their cases on May 26.
“The majority of courts in this country have extended public disclosure laws to private companies,” she wrote in her opinion. “These decisions arise from the legitimate concern that privatizing governmental duties leaves the public in the dark.”
“Because this issue cannot be solved through text alone, states have left this issue to the judiciary, recognizing the ever-evolving needs of public discourse,” she continued. “Moreover, this decision continues to uphold our state’s renowned legacy of broad transparency under OPRA and protects our citizen’s right to public access.”
In a press release issued today, Sodora said that he sought the email list because of what he argued was Nixle being used “incorrectly and against its own terms and conditions.”
“Given the continued usage to try to control the narrative about Hoboken issues, I felt obtaining the list would allow for alternate viewpoints to be provided to our citizens,” said Sodora in a statement.
“I do not want anyone’s personal information,” he continued. “My goal is for our citizens to have transparency and fairness in our municipal government. The city of Hoboken needs to cease utilizing the Nixle system for political agendas.”
When asked in a phone interview what he meant by “alternative viewpoints”, he declined to comment on it.
Mayor Ravi Bhalla said in a statement in response to the ruling that the city “has no interest in sharing our residents’ private contact information with any third party.”
“I believe the court’s decision violates the trust our residents place in us to safeguard their contact information, information we rely on to disseminate vital emergency notifications in a crisis and important government information,” he said.
Hoboken spokeswoman Marilyn Baer later told the Hudson Reporter that the city plans to file a motion to reconsider in the next few weeks.