Irvington Township has dropped its lawsuit against a senior citizen who had been accused of harassing town employees by filing too many requests under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
The I-Team was first to report on the unusual legal complaint, in which Irvington’s municipal government accused Elouise McDaniel, 82, of seeking a “burdensome” number of records and writing “frivolous letters and complaints” to state and federal agencies. In court documents, Irvington argued McDaniel’s requests and letters were sent “without reasonable basis or cause, were otherwise meritless or frivolous and were done maliciously and with the sole purpose and intent to harass, abuse and harm Plaintiffs and the employees of the Township, including its Mayor”
Though the complaint lists Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss as a victim of the alleged “harassment,” last month Vauss said he did not order the lawsuit and wasn’t sure who in his administration was behind it. Neither Vauss nor Township Attorney Ramon Rivera responded to the I-Team’s inquires about why the lawsuit was dropped.
McDaniel, a longtime critic of Vauss, believes the lawsuit was an attempt to silence her and to thwart her attempts to hold public officials accountable by seeking documentation of and investigations into their use of public funds.
After the I-Team story was published, other media outlets picked it up and McDaniel said she began fielding a slew of calls from supporters.
“I received calls from attorneys all over the United States,” she said.
Ultimately the New Jersey Chapter of the ACLU and CJ Griffin, a Partner at Pashman Stein who specializes in public records law, agreed to represent McDaniel pro bono.
“They were trying to intimidate Ms. McDaniel,” said Amol Sinha, Executive Director of ACLU New Jersey, “The question I have for a city like Irvington that may be using this tactic is – what is it that they are trying to hide?”
Griffin said the complaint, which accused McDaniel of harassment, was actually backward.
“They accused her of being a bully, but they rather bullied her,” said Griffin.
Though Vauss said he was unaware of the lawsuit’s origin, he did express agreement with the complaint’s contention that McDaniel’s record requests and complaints to state agencies have been malicious in nature.
“To insinuate the Mayor is using public resources to stifle transparency is false,” wrote Michael DeCotiss, an attorney for Vauss and for Irvington Township. “Ms. McDaniels [sic] brought over 75 OPRA requests placing an undue burden on the Custodian of Records of the Township.”
Now that the lawsuit has been dropped, McDaniel said she plans to continue using New Jersey’s OPRA law to keep tabs on Vauss and other Irvington leaders. She expressed gratitude to her pro bono attorneys, and to the I-Team for first telling her story.
“I thank you for coming to my rescue because I had been trying for so long to get someone to listen to me,” McDaniel said. “Thanks NBC.”