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How John Paff relentlessly pursues public's right to know

How John Paff relentlessly pursues public's right to know


You may not have ever heard of John Paff. But if you’ve ever read a story about a large settlement payout from your town or tried to access public records from your local clerk, Paff may have helped you.

“Very often when you see media stories about something that happened in New Jersey with settlements, those originate from John Paff blogging about it,” said CJ Griffin, an attorney from Hackensack who specializes in public-records cases.

Paff’s work stretches into South Jersey, including a case the state Supreme Court will hear as he fights Galloway Township for access to a log of the police chief’s emails.

The fervent public-records requester and Cumberland County native said he isn’t looking for money or fame. He said he is simply looking to mark out the boundaries of the law intended to keep government transparent.

“There are still ambiguities in the law,” Paff said from his retirement home in Pompano Beach, Florida.

The Open Public Records Act, which replaced the state’s Right to Know Law, was signed into law in 2002 and guarantees the public’s right to government records, with some exceptions.

“Prior to that, there really wasn’t anything to do, you just didn’t get records,” Paff said.

Paff, 59, grew up in Upper Deerfield Township, graduating from Bridgeton High School in 1975 and Rutgers University in 1979 with an economics degree. After college, he decided to stay in North Jersey, where he opened an insurance agency he operated for nearly 10 years. He also began buying and renting properties.

Then, around 1995, Paff became interested in asset-forfeiture laws in Somerset County, particularly with regard to the actions of then-County Prosecutor Nicholas Bissell.

Bissell was later convicted of embezzlement, tax fraud and abuse of power but fled to Las Vegas, where he killed himself prior to sentencing.

For several years, Paff, a Libertarian and member of the party Libertarians for Transparent Government, has operated two blogs about open government, revealing settlement agreements and news on open public records requests.

“I’ve always been interested in transparency,” Paff said. “You need to have the whole picture so that people can decide if the things government is doing are good or bad.”{p class=”MsoNormal”}Griffin has represented Paff in more than a dozen cases related to OPRA. She said his work in settlement agreements is particularly beneficial since the agreements amount to the payout of millions of taxpayer dollars every year.{p class=”MsoNormal”}“He’s built a substantial number of litigated cases that have defined what records are available to the public,” Griffin said.

Griffin has also represented North Carolina resident Harry Scheeler in his records case against Cape May, in which Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson ruled the former Woodbine resident is not entitled to his requests.

Scheeler, who has never met Paff in person, said he has spoken to him on the phone. He praised Paff’s work and said lack of transparency “is kind of a cancer.”

“If you don’t keep attacking it, it keeps growing and growing. Unfortunately, there’s not enough people like John Paff,” he said.

Scheeler is appealing his case.

Paff has been directly involved in several important rulings regarding OPRA, including the 2010 state Supreme Court ruling that found settlement agreements involving government agencies are not exempt as public records even if they have a confidentiality clause.

“That was a big deal because that established the rule that settlement agreements are public records,” said Walter Luers, the current vice president on the board of directors for the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, on which Paff serves as treasurer. Luers also has served as one of Paff’s attorneys since 2007 and represented him in the Monmouth County case.

“Knowing him as I do, his heart’s in the right place and he does what he does not because there’s money or for business, but he does it solely because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. And it is the right thing to do,” Luers said.

Over the summer, the state Supreme Court decided to hear arguments in another case involving Paff against Galloway, in which Paff argued the township unfairly denied his records request for a log of emails from the police chief. The township clerk, in denying Paff’s 2013 request, said the record doesn’t exist and to fulfill it would be to create a new document.

A trial court ruled in favor of Paff in 2014, and an appeals court overturned that ruling, finding for the township.

“If that’s the law of the land, I think most people are going to say that’s backwards and in the 1990s, not in 2016,” Paff said of the appellate ruling.

He said he intends to petition the Legislature to overturn the decision if he loses in the Supreme Court.

Paff said he is unsure when the Supreme Court will hear the case.

He said what he does “gives people information to ask cogent questions.” He also finds it therapeutic, he said.

“It’s kind of nice to figure something out and report it,” he said.

Paff said his ultimate goal is to teach others how to access government records.

His next quest will be to have the Open Public Meetings Act clearly defined.

“The Open Public Meetings Act just doesn’t work,” Paff said, noting the Foundation for Open Government has filed a lawsuit against the Spotswood Board of Education in Middlesex County over its meeting minutes and executive session resolutions.

Griffin, a member of the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said government officials seem to recognize the importance of Paff’s work, too.

“No one attacks John Paff. Adversaries are always very complimentary about having worked with him and the work that he does. I think everyone on both sides of the aisle recognizes that he provides an important public service,” she said.

Contact: 609-272-7251

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Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. After seven years at The Current and Gazette newspapers, I joined The Press in 2015. I currently cover education.

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