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Tom Meagher

News nerd.

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Documents every gov't reporter needs

The way to keep your politicians honest, or even better to prove when they’re being dishonest, is to have the right paper (and electronic) documents. As you approach your beat, and learn it inside and out, try to compile as many of these documents and statistics as you can. Keep them on hand. They will prove to be immensely useful countless times in the future.

  1. Personnel list and payrolls - You need to get this in an electronic file. I don’t care if they tell you they only keep it in cuneiform. Make them show it to you. Ask them to see the screen. Ask for the column headings. OPRA it, and OPRA it again. You need this in an electronic form, preferably in an “ASCII text, delimited file, burned to a CD”. Any software should be able to save this to a text file relatively easily. Paterson and Passaic County, N.J. do this at a cost of $10 for the disc. Browbeat your town with that and make them do it too. You need from their personnel list, each and every employee’s first and last names, city of residence, date of hire, title, department, salary, overtime and total compensation. Get this every six months. You can and will use it again and again.
  2. Property list - You get this from your town’s tax assessor’s office. Pretty much everything in the rant for #1 applies here. This is a vital resource in covering a beat. Get it in an electronic format. Make sure you ask in your OPRA request for the list of every and all properties in the town, including the property’s address, block and lot number, owner’s name, owner’s address, size, zoning classification, assessed value of the land, assessed value of improvements and total assessed value.
  3. Vendor lists - This is another great thing to have. It shows every person who did business with the city (or got paid or reimbursed in anyway). You want to get this list for each of the last five years. It should have the city-issued vendor number, vendor name, and address; and the voucher number, check number, amount and date of each payment that vendor received.
  4. Campaign contributions - How do you know who the power players (and the wannabes) are in your town if you don’t know who’s giving money to the elected officials? You want to spend a good amount of time familiarizing yourself with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission’s website, ELEC. Once you get used to reading the PDF files of the paper reports, then you can start to database them and really dig into it.
  5. Lists of boards and committees - This is something the town ought to have. You need to know the names of all of the appointed and elected officials on every board in town. If the town doesn’t keep this list, then you need to make it. Learn their names and phone numbers and call them.
  6. List of car and cell phone assignments - Every town keeps a list of its cars and cell phones (if it doesn’t, that’s a good story). Get this with an OPRA request and see who has a car or a phone and how they use them.
  7. Internal phone directories - You don’t want the phone directory that the city publicizes for residents. You have to plead and cajole the city to get the listing for every extension in town. The clerk or main phone operator often has this. Beg for them for a copy.
  8. Tax delinquents - At least once a year, the tax collector compiles a list of all the unpaid taxes in town. Ask her to give you the names (and amounts owed) of the 10 or 20 biggest delinquents.
  9. Financial disclosure reports - Every April 30, every elected official and department head in the state must file a financial disclosure form with the state’s Department of Community Affairs’ Local Government Services division. Generally the municipal clerk will handle the collection of the forms to forward to the state. These contain information about properties owned, other employment, spouses and business interests.
  10. Demographics - You need to know the basic demographic profile of your towns. For more in-depth statistics, visit the U.S. Census’ American Factfinder or Fannie Mae’s Dataplace.
  11. Budgets - Try your best to get this in the electronic format in which the towns fill this out. If you can’t, at least get copies of the adopted budgets for the last five years. Familiarize yourself with what your town is spending money on and how expenses change over time.
  12. Brownfields list - The state’s Department of Environmental Protection maintains lists of all the polluted brownfields sites statewide. This list will help you figure out what companies left a mess behind and what lots local leaders might try to hawk to developers at a cut rate.
  13. Tax-exempt organizations - By looking at the IRS’s “Master File” of tax-exempt groups, you can see what organizations have legitimate 501C-3 charity status. If you have a group calling itself non-profit in your community, it should probably be on this list (unless it’s brand new and still getting it’s paperwork filed). This list also includes great data on how much money charities are raising. It will point you toward which groups file 990 tax forms that you can look to for more information.
  14. Audits - Every year, your town must have its financial records audited by an outside agency. Get a copy of the volumnious reports the auditor files.
  15. Requests For Proposals - Any time a city wants to spend a lot of money or something, buy something or put land up for development, it issues an RFP. Then a group of potential bidders, contractors or developers will submit their proposals in response to the city’s needs. You want to go through the RFPs your town issues each years. This is usually handled by different people depending on the city agency who wants the work done. You can OPRA a list of the RFPs from the custodian of records. For ones that catch your eye, OPRA the actual RFP, the list of those who picked up a copy from the city, any addenda and each and every response.
  16. Biggest employers - The county’s office of economic development keeps a list of the top hundred employers in the county. Your town should also have such a list. Look for correlations between the big employers and the big campaign donors.
  17. Crime data - Visit the Bureau of Justice Statistics site to look for the crime stats for your town. Every jurisdiction in the country is required to file a Uniform Crime Report each year to the state and federal governments. The problem with the data is that it is self-reported. So police departments could distort their crime problem by mis-reporting it. Still, it’s one of the best sources you have for this information.
  18. Voting records - The county’s Superintendent of Elections can give you much of what you need. You want to get the number of registered voters, by party and by district, ward or polling place. Then you want to get the election results by district, ward or polling place for the last five elections. You can compare these registrations and results to the demographics of those neighborhoods where the polling places are. Finally, get the addresses of each of the polling places in your town. Your municipal clerk may also have this information.
  19. Lawsuits - You need to know the nature and status of all lawsuits in which your towns are involved. Start by first looking for federal suits at PACER. Search all suits, and in the party name enter “City of Paterson” or whatever town you cover. Then go to the Superior Court and look for state cases.
  20. Lawyers - Compile a list of all the lawyers who work for and with your towns. Also keep track of other major lawyers in the area. The County Bar Association is a good place to start.
  21. Annual reports - Many towns file annual reports. This may be done by individual agencies and submitted to the city manager, or it may be condensed in a State of the City address given by the mayor. Find out how your town keeps these reports and get copies of them.
  22. Purchasing rules - Start by going to the purchasing agent and finding out how your city puts contracts up for bid. There is a statuatory threshhold below which a town may give contracts without having to put it up to public bidding. Ask your town how it does it.
  23. Grants - This is often summarized in the city budget as state or federal revenue. Your city must apply for each and every one of these grants before receiving them. OPRA the grant applications. They are chock full of background information that can prove useful.
  24. Capital Improvements - What projects are your city spending a lot of money on? Keep an eye on these.
  25. Master plan - This plan will govern zoning and development in your municipalities. Get a copy and check to see that the development that’s actually happening is following this plan.
  26. Federal programs - What federal agencies are spending money on programs in your town? A visit to the Government Accountability Office’s web site at www.gao.gov can help you find who’s spending money locally.
  27. OPRA - Learn what documents the Open Public Records Act allows you to get, and use it.
  28. OPMA - Similarly, learn how the state’s Open Public Meetings Act works and how you can ensure access to public meetings. This can help you know when your town is breaking the law by closing meetings.
  29. Reporter’s privilege - The reporter’s privilege protects you from having to disclose information you’ve learned in the course of your news gathering.
  30. Lobbyist data - ELEC also compiles required lobbyist disclosure reports. See what firms that work with your city are lobbying in New Jersey and what issues they’re spending money on.