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Profile: The Man Who Makes Sure Government Works -- Right Out in the Open

Filing as many as 700 requests for public documents annually, ensuring transparency is a full-time job for John Paff

John Paff
John Paff

Name: John Paff

Hometown: Franklin Township, Somerset County

Family: Wife Diane, children Alex, 16, and Katie, 12

Age: 56

Best known as: New Jersey's busiest open-government activist

How he got started: "I guess I've always been interested in how things work, how the system works." But it's not just how things work. A lifelong New Jerseyan -- he grew up in Cumberland County and moved to the Middlesex/Somerset area when he went to college at Rutgers University -- he wants to make sure that state government works as well as possible.

Paff started working with the Forfeiture Endangers American Rights, a group looking to reform federal and state asset forfeiture laws, in 1992, and then moved to trying to improve attorney ethics before landing on open government issues. He now chairs the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project and is a member of the board of directors of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.

What he does: Paff, who has been pursuing transparency for the past two decades, estimates he makes as many as 700 requests for public documents a year, or one or two every day.

"I try to do it consistently throughout the state," he said. "I probably have no more than five going on in any town at one time."

While the average person who files a request for documents usually has some vested interest in the information he is seeking, that is typically not the case for Paff, who says he often has "no particular reason" for making requests, other than to see that officials will follow the law and fulfill them. Having become well-known, though, he does sometimes get anonymous tips from people suggesting he ask for specific information from a specific place because there may be something amiss, and he follows up on those, as well.

He then blogs about what he has found, or what officials have denied him, at NJ Open Government Notes. And even if there seems to be no great secrets revealed, he posts the information because "at least it's available to anyone."

Proof he doesn't discriminate: Paff sought public records from the New Jersey State Firemen's Association in 2011, was denied access to some pension data, and sued the association. The firemen won in Superior Court, but Paff appealed and the Appellate Division agreed with him, judging the association a public agency subject to the Open Public Records Act. Because Paff is not only a volunteer fireman, but also president of the Middlebush Fire Department, many of his fellow firefighters were not happy. "Half the people in the fire service are not talking to me," he said. "But it uses public money, so it ought to be publicly accountable."

His secret for juggling requests: Given the large number of municipalities, school boards, sewerage authorities, fire districts, and other agencies in the state, Paff conceded "it's a daunting task to try to go after all of them." A friend wrote a computer program that helps generate requests and tracks them so he knows when an organization has missed a deadline. Still, even his system is not perfect. "There is a limit on the amount of organizational skills I have," Paff said. "I write myself notes. I'll be reading them in a year from now and not remember why it was important."

How he grades New Jersey's transparency: "I don't think very many (public bodies) get an A," Paff said. "Most are running around from the C level to the F level."

Paff is proud that he can sometimes bring about changes in policy and actions. For instance, he recently challenged the Spotswood Board of Education's policy of simply stating its intention to go into closed session to discuss a matter without giving any real specifics about the matter, the time and place of the meeting, or the members present, as required by state law. His letter to the board brought a response from the board attorney that it will be more specific in stating what matters would be discussed and try to "provide somewhat more detail in its private session minutes" as consistent with prevailing case law.

But doesn't it cost a lot?: Because most items are emailed to him, and those that aren't are short and don't cost much to copy, Paff said the cost to him is minimal. "As far as hobbies go, this is a very inexpensive one." Unless he decides to go to court to challenge a denial. The filing fee is $230, and if an attorney represents him, that can get expensive.

But if he wins, Paff gets all his costs paid. And "I usually do win," he said. "If I lose two cases a year, I've spent $500. That's not deal-breaking money."

Paff often chooses the courts over a free appeal through the state Government Records Council because a judge will hear his appeal much quicker than the GRC. That only holds true for violations of OPRA, when a public body refuses to turn over records. If he is contending a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, he would not receive court costs if he wins, so he is more careful with those appeals.

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