A couple of weeks ago, Jersey City social media was abuzz over the plans of the city to transfer 16 acres of land pretty much for free to Liberty Science Center. Long story short, the city agreed to transfer the land to the non-profit which sponsors such touring exhibits as Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition and Curious George: Let’s Get Curious! and entrust them to build some sort of state-of-the-art massive school/science center, the details of which were certainly sketchy but was occasionally likened to top Ivy League and engineering schools, and it involved the transfer of land that was worth between $20-$200 million, depending on who was updating their Facebook status at the time. It was classic mid/late-aughts JC politics: a deal that sounds confusing at best coupled with poor-to-nonexistent communication from City Hall, with the kicker of dozens of social media accounts blazing as everyone speculated and tried to make sense of it all.
It passed the council, of course:
But not before an epic council meeting that went until the next day, leaving many unanswered questions in its wake. One of the people to have questions was Ward B resident Esther Wintner, who filed an OPRA request with the city. (OPRA requests are like the better-known Freedom of Information Act requests – they allow you to ask for and receive documents that relate to your local NJ government. Most requests are returned for free*; in some cases, they charge a fee.)
They wanted to charge Esther:
The Agency’s search for records in response to your request for “all written communications; email, text and hard copy between David Donnelly and: Steven Fulop, Paul Hoffman, Jeremy Farrell, JC Atty has returned voluminous results. It will require an extraordinary expenditure of time to process these results to determine if any contain responsive records. For example, each communication must be reviewed individually to ascertain whether it is responsive to your request, and/or contains non-disclosable information that must be redacted.
We estimate it will take one staff person a minimum of five (5) to eight (8) hours to review the results. During this review, the staff person must be diverted from her other assigned duties. Because we are a small outfit, the loss of this employee for this period of time will cause a disruption in Agency functioning. Accordingly, we request a seven-day extension to complete the review.
Please be further advised that pursuant to the holding in Fisher v. Division of Law, 400 N.J. Super. 61 (App. Div. 2008), the Agency may impose a special service charge to cover the cost of labor and production. While the statute permits a charge of $32 per hour, the Agency will charge its actual labor cost of $27 per hour. That would result in a charge of $135 for five hours labor. The Agency will charge only for actual time spent, which may be less or more than five (5) hours.
(That quote is from the actual letter she received in response to her request.) $216 is a lot for an individual person just looking for information to shoulder, so I offered to make her a Gofundme page. Esther agreed.
(I’d like to point out that at this point that Esther and I are not super tight best best best friends. We are certainly friendly with one another, and I have a lot of respect for her. I know her from around the neighborhood and from social media, but I don’t know her that well. This wasn’t about “being there for your friend” or “having [someone’s] back” or whatever. The idea that the city was charging her after being so negligent with informing people in JC as to what on earth was happening with this deal just made me livid. There was no reason for her to have to make this request, had the city just pro-actively rolled out the deal with some information and Q&A sessions. So I tossed up the Gofundme and threw in my $20. It was the least I could do.)
I posted the Gofundme page, put the info on Facebook and Twitter. Esther was out when I emailed it was live, so she promised she’d post when she returned. I went and got ready to go out (it was Saturday night) – shower… clothes… makeup…. check email, and BAM. We raised the whole $216 for eight hours work, and then some!, in an hour:
We actually raised a little more afterwards, too. The total came in at just shy of $300.
The fact that so many people are paying attention and tuned in on a Saturday night, and willing to toss in some money to pay to see a little sunlight on this case should tell the Fulop admin something. The vast majority of the people I know who opposed the deal didn’t do it because we’re anti-science or we hate the science center or we hate education or anything. We wanted to understand the deal better; we wanted to see the details and see a plan for how it was going to work for all of Jersey City successfully. We didn’t object to the city giving away property for a plan that would work well; we were concerned that things weren’t properly thought out and vetted, and that the whole thing was a little too hasty. I understand that there’s no deal that will make 100% of people happy, but in this deal there were so many unanswered questions and reasonable people still confused at the end – wouldn’t just slowing it down made a little sense?
Criticality and attention to detail are good things; they’re the earmarks of an engaged population that wants what’s best for a city. That’s what we should all want – not what any honest leaders should be trying to stop. Appearances matter, and Jersey City has a long history of corruption. Even if this deal was 100% above board, it’s completely understandable why some of us were concerned – and why our concerns are valid, and should have been addressed.
Anyway. In case there was any question, all the money went straight to Esther; it didn’t even touch my bank account:
She filed for the OPRA on Monday.
Moments after I realized we raised the money, I had the following text exchange with a friend, another JC activist:
That, to me, is the lesson in all this. Yes, seemingly crazy deals can be pushed through at lightning speed – but there’s still going to be good people on the other end asking questions. We’re not going away. And we’re going to keep asking and asking, until we get somewhere.
*If they’re returned at all. Jersey City has a bad reputation among civic activists for denying OPRA requests without giving a reason. I have personally experienced this, as a friend and I OPRAed the city for all the documents, contracts, and correspondence related to Shepard Fairey’s Wave mural. According to the response we got from the city, no such documents exist. Which would mean that an artist whose work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars, who flew out from LA with a crew to paint the mural which needed a complex scaffolding, did all of this without the city either emailing him to touch base before, getting a permit, clearing insurance, being reimbursed for travel and supplies or paid a fee, or having a contract.
NOTE: Ward B Councilman Chris Gadsden voted to table the LSC deal, and when that was defeated, voted no. I thank him for this vote.