Open Governance Project Sues for Emergency Health Information

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
September 2, 2009 12:00 am

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HACKENSACK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey’s Open Governance Project filed a lawsuit Monday (3mb PDF) against the City of Hackensack to uncover information the city has concealed from residents concerning the financial situation of the town’s emergency medical services (EMS).

“Our government should never hide public information, especially when the well-being and public safety of citizens are at stake,” said Hackensack resident Patrick Finley, whom the ACLU-NJ is representing for access to the documents. “The public has a right to know the true costs of our emergency services.”

Last year, Hackensack eliminated its emergency medical corps and contracted emergency medical services from Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC). Under the agreement, the hospital would be responsible for EMS services, and provide up to $140,000 in services for uninsured patients. Hackensack would shoulder any additional expenses. Finley filed two public record requests this year concerning how much of the $140,000 in services had been used, and both were denied. The ACLU-NJ Open Government Project stepped in to obtain his access to documents rightfully available to him under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act.

The City of Hackensack, which revealed in July that it had received documents concerning the costs incurred, explained initially only that the “city manager refused to release information to requestor.” The city has since revised its response, now claiming the documents are exempt from release because they are “consultative” and “deliberative.” Yet the requested documents – communications between the city and HUMC, which includes correspondence and bills – are not consultative or deliberative, but rather public records directly tied to an existing contract.

“Public documents don’t get an exemption from our open records laws on a municipal employee’s say-so,” said Bobby Conner, ACLU-NJ Open Governance Staff Attorney. “The law is clear that our government must disclose its contracts.”

Finley’s case is only the latest of several advocacy matters the Open Government Project has taken on since its June inception. Last month, the project successfully advocated on behalf of Garwood resident Bruce Paterson, who had been silenced by the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders. The Freeholders apologized and recognized his First Amendment rights after the ACLU-NJ intervened.

The case is captioned Patrick Finley v. City of Hackensack et al. and was filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Bergen Vicinage.

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