Hoboken council narrowly OKs expressing support of appeal in Nixle subscriber email case


The Hoboken City Council narrowly okayed a measure expressing support of an appeal in a court case where a judge ruled in the plaintiff’s favor to release the list of Nixle subscriber emails at last night’s meeting.

Screenshot via Facebook Live.

By John Heinis/Hudson County View

“A court just gave a ruling on this and it basically said that they believe that emails just aren’t as identifiable as many other sources of data that is publicly available and falls under OPRA,” said 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher.

“And so that was the court ruling and I just think that we need more transparency, unfortunate or not, an email address doesn’t seem to be as identifiable as a million other types of data that is already readily available.”

She continued that the city is already in the habit of giving out email correspondence in response to public records requests.

Carmine Sodora sued the city for all of the email addresses subscribed to their Nixle service and a Camden County Superior Court judge ruled in his favor when addressing two similar but unrelated cases at the same time last month, as HCV first reported.

Last week, after the city released a survey asking residents if they had privacy concerns and if they felt the matter should be appealed, Mayor Ravi Bhalla indicated that they would challenge the decision.

In response, Sodora said that his OPRA request and corresponding lawsuit was because the city had been abusing the Nixle system and using it for political purposes as opposed to emergency alerts, citing the one about his court case as an example.

Back at the council meeting, Councilman-at-Large Jim Doyle said that he works for the federal government and often deals with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and said that the expectation of privacy is built into the law and this scenario should be no different.

“When you sign up for Nixle, the privacy interest of not having every telemarketer submit an OPRA request to the city to get this information so that everyone whose on Nixle will get car warranty messages three times a day and lawyers running after ambulances seeing if you’ve slipped and falled (sic) recently, so there is a privacy interest,” he said.

“If the parties all checked the box that said ‘you know by signing up for Nixle that your information will be readily released to the public upon request,’ that would be a different story.”

Councilman-at-Large Joe Quintero concurred with Doyle, noting that he was concerned about the amount of spam residents could receive if the email addresses were released, along with more sinister applications.

“What she [the judge] didn’t address is the potential around hacking and phishing, which especially with our senior population, is a significant challenge and area of fraud,” he stated, noting this decision would have implications across the state, not just Hoboken.

1st Ward Councilman Mike DeFusco said that the Nixle system was regularly used for political attacks, as opposed to emergency alerts, and noted that was evident in the fact that Sodora filed his records request and subsequent lawsuit.

“So you’re asking me if I can support a challenge to a system that I know is being misused, but on the flip side, would this individual misuse the email addresses himself: that’s a conundrum we find ourselves in. I can’t support this because I don’t believe either side is entitled to the information.”

6th Ward Councilwoman Jen Giattino said the city should have done a survey asking if Nixle could be used for “political propaganda” and “bashing certain council people,” indicating that the current one is skewed.

“The administration has no respect for them [the emails] and the whole approach of this appeal is ridiculous to me so I will be voting no,” she explained.

“It seems like there’s some rationale here that two wrongs make a right, which I think is overly simplistic: I think the answer is that the administration should not misuse the Nixle, it should strictly be for important information and I do think asking a survey if the people want to spend resources on an appeal is a legitimate question,” said 5th Ward Councilman Phil Cohen.

Ultimately, the measure just squeaked by on a 4-3(2) vote. Councilwoman-at-Large Emily Jabbour, who sponsored the measure, Doyle, Cohen, and Quintero, voted yes.

Council President Mike Russo, 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos, and Giattino voted no, while DeFusco and Fisher abstained.

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  1. I don’t understand the aim. If I followed Trump on Twitter, does that make me an insurrectionist? If I subscribe to Nixle…. what?

    Why should my email address be released in the public domain? In particular, a politically-motivated piece of litigation with two sides using my personal information as potential evidence? This is not what I signed up for when I subscribe to receive alerts from various subscription services… mostly related to public transportation: PATH, Port Authority, bridges, tunnels, etc. Do these subscriptions make me a malevolent actor?

    Hoboken politics has really gone cuckoo. The private emails of users of a public information service for a whole range of purposes- my Nixles provided critical data on Hoboken response to Covid-19–aren’t fodder for political lawsuits. This is terrible.

    • While the filing of the OPRA request and the lawsuit were undoubtedly political, the Judge’s decision was not. While the decision obviously has political implications in Hoboken since it would negatively affect one of the existing advantages of mayoral incumbency, the legal and policy issues raised by the decision are unrelated to Hoboken’s political fray.

      I think it’s important that the decision be appealed so a higher court can weigh in on the application of existing law.

      IMHO, no matter how the courts ultimately rule, the State should consider a legislative solution that protects the privacy of subscribers, who should be able to get important public safety and other public service information without having their contact info made publicly available, while also creating an enforceable mechanism with real teeth to ensure that services like nixle are used only for clearly legitimate politically neutral public service announcements.

      The playing field should be level. Nobody should have access to public service subscription lists for political or commercial use, and those boundaries should be created and enforced by State law, not by private contract.

  2. What people dont understand is that this is not the first case in the State with this ruling. There have been several cases in different counties in NJ where all the judges found that it is a government record and subject to OPRA.

    As always, Hoboken is in their own bubble and believes the world revolves around them but with some basic research you can see that this has been decided not once but several times already.

  3. Abestensions are supposed to only be when there’s a direct conflict.

    One is elected to vote yes or no

    This council needs some spine implants