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North Jersey Newspaper Co. v. Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders

Decided: December 28, 1990.

NORTH JERSEY NEWSPAPER CO., PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
PASSAIC COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Passaic County.

Pressler, Deighan and Arnold M. Stein. The majority opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, P.J.A.D. Arnold M. Stein, J.A.D., dissenting.

Pressler

Plaintiff, the publisher of the Herald and News, a newspaper widely circulated in Passaic County, instituted this action pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -4, The Right to Know Law, seeking access to the toll billing records of the office and automobile telephones of the freeholders of Passaic County for March, April and May, 1990. The Passaic County Board of Freeholders appeals from the order entered requiring it to permit inspection and copying of the records. We reverse.

The bills which are the subject of the order are a part of the toll billing records submitted monthly to the county by the telephone company, listing the date, time, length and telephone number of each toll call made from county offices. A certification filed by the county's finance director, Robert G. Calise, asserts that:

The telephone bills paid by the County of Passaic also include telephone numbers set up by the County Prosecutor's Office which are confidential in nature and may or may not include informant's numbers. Since the building's telephone bills are all packaged together, it would be extremely difficult and time consuming to discriminate Freeholders' calls from calls made by the Prosecutor's Office.

At oral argument before us, the monthly telephone bill of Passaic County was described as approximating the size of a full file drawer. Nevertheless, we understand that the bills are already being presented to the freeholders, in some form, in order for them to identify and reimburse the county for personal calls since Calise's certification also states:

The policy with regard to Department Heads and Members of the Board of Freeholders is to the effect that they are given their bills for review and they review same to determine which of the calls are personal in nature. Reimbursement to the County is made for personal calls, however, there is no methodology on the actual bill which strikes out or determines which of the calls are personal.

The first issue before us is whether the detailed bills, not just the total amount of the bills or the total amount charged to each telephone extension, are public records. We agree with the trial judge that they are. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-2 defines public records as "all records which are required by law to be made, maintained or kept on file by any . . . political subdivision . . ." of the state, such as the county. The Local Fiscal Affairs Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:5-16a, prohibits payment of any money by a county governing body

unless the person claiming or receiving the same shall first present a detailed bill of items or demand, specifying particularly how the bill or demand is made up, with the certification of the party claiming payment that it is correct.

The detailed telephone bill presented to a governing body in support of a claim for payment is clearly encompassed by this provision. As the Supreme Court pointed out in O'Donnell v. Morris County Freeholder Board, 31 N.J. 434, 158 A.2d 1 (1960):

[The statute's] obvious purpose is to provide the county disbursing officer with a detailed statement of the claim presented to him, and to insure an adequate public record of county expenditures.

Id. at 443, 158 A.2d 1.

Nor do we conclude that difficulty in isolating the requested material is by itself grounds for denying access to records encompassed by the law. Presumably there are techniques by which the individual freeholder's calls alone can be segregated. We do not, however, consider the practicality and expense of those techniques because we are satisfied that while the requested records are ...


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