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Local Democratic government sues 82-year-old resident for filing too many public records requests. She says it’s a political move to silence her.

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Officials are also going after the news outlet that broke the story.

Image Source: WNBC-TV screenshot

A heavily Democratic township in New Jersey has sued an elderly resident, claiming her "frivolous" and "voluminous" public records requests amount to abuse and harassment against government officials.

But retired schoolteacher Elouise McDaniel, 82, a longtime critic of Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss and his administration, says she has a right to know how her tax dollars are being spent. She claims the lawsuit is nothing but a political attempt to silence her.

What are the details?

"I was slapped with a lawsuit," McDaniel told WNBC-TV last week. Her comments were in reference to the complaint filed against her by Irvington Township accusing her of harassment and defamation, in part because she filed 75 requests through New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act in the span of three years.

"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," said McDaniel, who once ran against Vauss for mayor and also leads a local nonprofit called the Irvington Block Association Coalition.

The township, however, sees things differently.

In the lawsuit, the government body claims McDaniel's persistent filings "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."

Adding to the intrigue, township officials have so far stayed mum about who exactly filed the suit.

Though he is listed as a victim of alleged harassment, Vauss told WNBC he's not behind the lawsuit. Instead, he referred reporters to the township's municipal clerk, Harold Wiener. But Wiener, too, has declined to take responsibility for the legal action.

"I haven’t requested a lawsuit against Elouise McDaniel," Wiener told the outlet. "She does file a lot of OPRAs. That comes with the territory, my territory. I know Ms. McDaniel. I don’t have a problem with her."

What else?

Despite being a hyper-localized issue, news of the quarrel has reportedly garnered attention far outside the township's borders, as First Amendment lawyers warn a ruling against McDaniel could set a dangerous precedent.

One attorney, CJ Griffin of Hackensack, noted McDaniel's 75 requests over three years may seem like a lot, but actually is "the equivalent of two a month."

"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," he told NJ Advance Media. "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."

Besides, under New Jersey law, there is no limit to the number of OPRA requests an individual can file.

Walter Luers, an attorney who specializes in public records battles, told WNBC, "The officials in Irvington need to have thicker skin."

He classified the complaint as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or a SLAPP lawsuit.

Anything else?

McDaniel told NJ Advance Media she was struck with some fear after hearing that a lawsuit was filed against her.

"I think that in some ways [this suit] is political," she said. "This has been going on for a long time and I’m just tired at this point. I’m tired, this is ridiculous. I want to live out my final years in peace."

Interestingly, an attorney for Vauss said that the township's complaint against McDaniel is not a SLAPP lawsuit but a lawsuit alleging actual harassment.

WNBC said last week that in the course of its reporting on the controversy, Irvington Township has sent two cease and desist letters to the outlet, alleging harassment.

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