Elouise McDaniel is 82 years old. She’s a retired schoolteacher and involved in local politics, in this case the location being Irvington township in New Jersey. She attends meetings, files public records requests, and she even tried to run for mayor in 2018 against the current mayor, Tony Vauss. But, according to NJ Advance Media, there was a clerical issue regarding her petitions. Back in my local government reporting days, she’s someone a person at city hall would call a gadfly, not as a compliment.
Except what all those whispering “gadfly” often ignored was that these were sometimes the only people keeping an eye on local government. Cable news is not covering your city commission meeting, and your local TV station likely isn’t either. The last time your local paper probably sent a reporter to a commission meeting that wasn’t for the area’s one big city was, uh, well, don’t ask—because figuring out the answer to that requires remembering how many rounds of layoffs have happened in the past couple of decades. Local independent outlets have started popping up across the country, but there still aren’t nearly enough to fill all the growing news deserts around the country. Gadflies annoy the holy heck out of local government officials. They also do a lot of the watchdog work that, otherwise, would not get done.
And yet, I was still surprised when I read that Irvington had filed a civil lawsuit against McDaniel for, I kid you not, filing too many public records requests. There are other claims in the lawsuit, but this is the part that’s getting a lot of attention and understandably so. According to the lawsuit, in the past three years McDaniel filed 75 public records requests, which are called OPRA requests in New Jersey. That would work out to about two or three requests a month. As one attorney told NJ Advance Media, that’s a really reasonable number:
“It’s especially ludicrous that they’re saying she filed 75 OPRA requests in three years,” said CJ Griffin, a Hackensack attorney who focuses on public records access. “That’s the equivalent of two a month. You could file two OPRA requests a month just for the meeting minutes, so it’s in no way harassing.
“It would be a dangerous precedent if towns are allowed to start suing people because they file two requests a month, or even if they file 10. Reporters might need to file 20 a month, right? There’s nothing in the statute that authorizes them to do that and it’s retaliatory.”
The lawsuit was filed in September of last year in Essex County civil court, but it just recently made news, first reported by NBC New York. When asked why she filed those OPRA requests, McDaniel said she did so for the same reason a lot of people do: “I’m a homeowner. I pay tax dollars. So I think I am entitled to know how my hard earned tax dollars are being spent.”
There are other claims in the lawsuit. Among them: sometimes McDaniel’s OPRA requests were deemed invalid; McDaniel has disturbed the peace at city council meetings “in a confrontational and harassing manner” (no examples are given); once she pointed at a council person and said “I’m going to get you and you’re going to pay” (which, the lawsuit said, did lead to a criminal charge against her); she organized meetings with the mayor that she used to “engaged in unauthorized and related political disturbance” (no details are given about this either); she has filed about 20 “frivolous” complaints to the state attorney general, the governor, the Essex County prosecutor, municipal prosecutor, the U.S. attorney’s office, U.S. Senate, and the education department; and it claims her Irvington Block Association Coalition is a “sham” and serves as McDaniel’s “alter ego,” which, even if it were true, feels like a very small and petty complaint given how just one rich person can bankroll an entire Super PAC.
I suspect what this is really about is tucked inside this one claim in the lawsuit: McDaniel has “bullied and annoyed township administration.” In other words, she’s bothering them, and they would like her to stop bothering them. As another public records attorney, Walter Luers, told NBC New York, “The officials in Irvington need to have thicker skin.”
In her defense filed in court, which she wrote herself by hand, McDaniel said: “This is a direct attempt to use the court to stop me from exercising my constitutional right to dissent, critique and protest against the actions of my local government.” She also denies many of the city’s claims, says that it is the mayor who has been harassing her, and says she pleaded guilty to the one criminal charge because fighting it would have required a drawn-out and costly legal process while she lives on a fixed income. Per NJ Advance Media, McDaniel doesn’t have the money to secure a lawyer for herself.
Why did the township do this? One answer could be money; the suit claims Irvington has been “forced to incur unnecessary legal fees” as well as “loss of municipal personnel time” responding to McDaniel’s queries. Just one problem: Township officials wouldn’t tell NJ Advance Media how much money they spent responding to McDaniel’s records requests.
So if it’s not about the money, what’s this suit really about? It’s a good question that nobody there wants to answer. The mayor, Vauss, told NBC New York that he was not behind the lawsuit, even though he’s the mayor. The town’s clerk, who is listed as a plaintiff, also insisted to NBC New York that he was not behind it. The town’s attorney declined to comment to NBC New York and NJ Advance Media.
That’s a lot of people claiming to know nothing, and municipal lawsuits don’t appear out of nowhere. Maybe it was the community development office, or an ongoing grudge with recreation department? One thing we do know is that because town government is so layered and deeply bureaucratic, it requires a constant stream of information between the people running things. There is a how and a why behind this story which could be sorted out. But doing that would probably require filing a public records request.