Asbury Park Press Named 25th Annual Brechner Award Winner

Newspaper uses public records to expose inflated salaries and loophole in access laws
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Asbury Park Press has been named the winner of the 2010 Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Award for exposing questionable use of taxpayer dollars in New Jersey and how that state’s property tax system harms the economy.  In addition, the Asbury Park Press raised awareness of a gap in the public records law that allows cities to delegate duties to private vendors, who in turn charge high fees for public information.
“The Asbury Park Press’sseries demonstrates the indispensible role investigative reporting and open government laws play in exposing potential misuse of taxpayer dollars,” Sandra F. Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said.
The series will be recognized with a $3,000 prize, which will be presented to Asbury Park Press Regional Editor Paul D’Ambrosio at an awards ceremony on Friday, March 25, 2011 at 8:30 a.m. at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.  During his visit to UF, D’Ambrosio will also be a guest speaker in classes at the college.  The Asbury Park Press was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its “Tax Crush” series.  
The Asbury Park Press’ parent company, Gannett, sued a municipality in New Jersey based on the series results, questioning whether a private vendor’s ability to set its own fees for data obtained while performing a public function stifled the public records law.
“What the eight-day series reflects about the Swiss-cheese loopholes in basic public recordkeeping  in New Jersey was more than embarrassing and infuriating,” one of the judges for this year’s Brechner FOI Award said.  “The resulting litigation may even bring about some much-needed reform.  Terrific journalism.”
The Asbury Park Press, along with five other daily newspapers—Courier-Post, Home New Tribune, Courier News, Daily Record and the Daily Journal—teamed up to request salary records from 150 municipalities in their collective coverage areas.  The results shocked readers, especially when it was revealed that leaders in some of the smallest towns were paid more than similar officials in metropolitan areas.  The police chief of the one town of mostly elderly residents earned $223,900 per year—more than the police chief in Philadelphia.  And patrolmen in some smaller towns made twice as much as patrolmen in Philadelphia, where violent crimes are prevalent.
However, some municipalities did not respond to the request for salary data of public employees at all, instead requesting anywhere from hundreds of dollars to $1,100 in “processing fees” so that private vendors could produce the data.
“Our quest for the data has helped push the envelope for better access in the state, and our partial results so far have given the public a critical look at the inner workings of how their tax dollars are being used—or misused,” Asbury Park Press Executive Editor Hollis R. Towns said.