Elouise McDaniel is an 82-year-old retired school teacher who is no fan of her mayor, Irvington’s Tony Vauss. She once tried to run against him, and each year, she files numerous record requests seeking information about Mayor Vauss and his administration under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
Now it seems someone in Irvington government has become fed up with her. But it’s not clear who.
"I was slapped with a lawsuit," McDaniel said, referring to a complaint in which Irvington Township accuses her of harassment and defamation, in part because she filed seventy-five OPRA requests over three years.
The suit alleges McDaniel also filed frivolous complaints about the Vauss administration with state agencies including the Office of the Attorney General, "with the sole purpose and intent to harass, abuse and harm Plaintiffs and employees of the Township, including its Mayor."
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McDaniel said she had every right to request records and investigations into the mayor’s administration.
"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."
Although Mayor Vauss is listed as a victim of the alleged harassment, he says he’s not the one behind the lawsuit. In a lengthy phone interview, Vauss told the I-Team he had not seen or read the lawsuit and didn’t know the details of why Irvington filed it.
"I did not file the lawsuit against Elouise McDaniel," Vauss said. "Harold Wiener is the plaintiff."
He was referring to Harold Wiener, Irvington’s Municipal Clerk, whose name is listed as a plaintiff on the suit. But when reached by the I-Team, Wiener said he has no bone to pick with the senior citizen.
"I haven’t requested a lawsuit against Elouise McDaniel," Wiener said. "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."
Shortly after speaking on the phone to the I-Team, Wiener sent an email saying he could not comment on the pending litigation.
When asked who ordered the McDaniel lawsuit, Ramon Rivera, Irvington’s Township Attorney, also declined to elaborate.
"The complaint speaks for itself. I do not comment on active litigation," Rivera said.
While the spat between Irvington and one of the mayor’s most vocal critics may seem like a hyper-local controversy, First Amendment lawyers say it could set a troubling precedent.
"The officials in Irvington need to have thicker skin," said Walter Luers, an attorney who specializes in public records battles. He calls the complaint against Elouise McDaniel a classic SLAPP lawsuit – that’s an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
"In almost all cases, when a public entity files a SLAPP lawsuit, they’re really attacking protected First Amendment activity," Luers said. "It’s not fair when taxpayer funds are used to fund a lawsuit that really seems politically motivated from the town."
New York has an anti-SLAPP statute which makes it difficult for cities and towns to sue citizens when they criticize public officials or seek government records. New Jersey has no such protection.
Michael DeCotiss, an attorney for Mayor Vauss and for Irvington Township, disputed that the lawsuit against McDaniel ought to be considered a SLAPP lawsuit.
"To insinuate the Mayor is using public resources to stifle transparency is false," DeCotiss wrote in a letter to the I-Team. "Ms. McDaniels [sic] brought over 75 OPRA requests placing an undue burden on the Custodian of Records of the Township."
He also noted that McDaniel once pleaded guilty to Disturbing the Peace at a Township Council meeting when she allegedly told a Council Member "I’m going to get you and you’re going to pay."
McDaniel says she never used those words and was simply protesting the decision to shut down the public comment segment of a meeting, in effect silencing her.
Whomever decided to initiate Irvington’s lawsuit against her, McDaniel believes that person also intended to silence her.
"I’m really a bit afraid," McDaniel said. "I want to live out my last days in peace. I don’t need this."