RESOUNDING WIN FOR GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY

A unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court has overturned a lower court holding that would have allowed the government to deny access to vast swathes of information kept on its computers. Click here to read the decision.

The lower court had interpreted the state Open Public Records Act, aka OPRA, as mandating public access only to discrete records and not to information per se.

Continue reading RESOUNDING WIN FOR GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY

FIRST GORSUCH OPINION OPENS DOOR TO DEBT COLLECTION ABUSES

Justice Neil Gorsuch, the newest addition to the U.S. Supreme Court, recently authored his first opinion and it is one likely to have negative repercussions for large numbers of people who find themselves unable to pay their bills.

Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, decided on June 12, concerns the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or FDCPA, a federal law that is meant to protect against abusive, unfair, and deceptive practices in the collection of consumer debt– debt incurred primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.

Continue reading FIRST GORSUCH OPINION OPENS DOOR TO DEBT COLLECTION ABUSES

A Healthcare Coalition

By Renee Steinhagen

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NJ Appleseed’s Role in the New Jersey and Greater Newark Coalitions

Since our inception, NJ Appleseed has focused its efforts on health care issues, providing a legal voice to communities and organizations seeking to establish health care as a social right by preserving hospitals as charitable community assets, improving access to quality, affordable health care services, and diminishing racial disparities in the health status of Newark residents. Our work in this area can be characterized as three distinct projects: The Community Health Assets Protection Project (representing the community in administrative and court procedures to ensure that hospital boards satisfy their fiduciary duties to the public when seeking to merge or sell their charitable health assets to a for-profit entity or another nonprofit with a different mission); a Consumer Advocacy Project and a Transforming Healthcare Delivery Project.

Under the rubric of our Consumer Advocacy Project, NJ Appleseed has participated on the leadership team of the NJ Healthcare Coalition since its founding in 2006. As the only legal organization participating in the Coalition (Legal Services of NJ informally participates but is not a member), NJ Appleseed services the Coalition, its individual members and the public generally with respect to legal policy issues, including drafting and analyzing legislation, preparing regulatory comments, and preparing white papers and consumer manuals with respect to legal rights, such as the right to appeal insurance denials of benefits. We are now considering whether to convert the New Jersey Sentinel website (which was product of a joint project between NJ Appleseed and Seton Hall Law School, funded by RWJ Foundation to evaluate essential benefits) into a comprehensive consumer health care website that provides information directly to New Jersey consumers on how to navigate the insurance, health care (providers), and public health systems in the State, and perhaps the website could deal with occupational health and safety as well as environmental health issues.

Since the closure of St. James and Columbus hospitals in Newark, NJ Appleseed’s Executive Director has been a board member of the Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition (consisting of a wide array of providers, including hospitals, physicians, federally qualified health centers, nurses, etc.), which was established as the Hospital CEO Working Group as a result of those closures. The Coalition is a planning organization that oversees various projects that seek to transform the healthcare system so it is more equitable, socially and racially just, and effective in improving the health status of Newark residents. NJ Appleseed is the Chair of the Legal and Advocacy Subcommittee, which is the one Board committee that draws mainly from persons who are not represented on the board. As one of three non providers on the board –- representatives from NJIT and Seton Hall Law School are the other two –- NJ Appleseed is trying to bring the consumer perspective to the Board’s decision making, and to encourage community participation in the organization’s activities.

We are seeking resources to support our activities in these two coalitions.

Advisors

CHIPPING AWAY AT OPRA

A bill moving through the New Jersey Legislature threatens to undermine the Open Public Records Act, known as OPRA.

OPRA’s defining characteristic and its great strength are its presumption of public access to all government records and the information they contain, except for 24 expressly exempted categories, and the ability to recover legal fees when access is wrongfully denied. The exemptions encompass such areas as personnel records; advisory, consultative or deliberative material; criminal investigation and victims’ records; trade secrets; security measures and procedures whose disclosure would jeopardize safety; and records subject to attorney -client privilege. A specific “Personal Identifying Information” exemption already exists for four kinds of crucial identifiers: Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, drivers’ license numbers and unlisted phone numbers.

Continue reading CHIPPING AWAY AT OPRA

WHY IS THE PORT AUTHORITY SO SCREWED UP?

It is hard to believe now but in the decades following its creation in 1921, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was considered a prime example of an effective and efficient public agency that truly operated in the public interest.

That reputation has been sullied in recent years and not just by the Bridgegate lane-closing scandal and the ensuing criminal convictions of some of those involved. There is also former Port Authority chairman David Samson, who was convicted of misusing his position to shake down United Airlines so that it would reinstate direct flights from Newark to his weekend home. On a broader scale are revelations of how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie used the agency’s resources to reward political allies, while tolls at Port Authority crossings and fares hikes on PATH trains have been repeatedly hiked.

Continue reading WHY IS THE PORT AUTHORITY SO SCREWED UP?

LEGISLATION TARGETS $1 BILLION SURPRISE MEDICAL BILL PROBLEM

Surprise medical bills for out-of-network health care cost New Jersey residents nearly $1 billion per year, according to a report released last June by New Jersey Policy Perspective.

An estimated 168,000 people in the state receive out-of-network (OON) bills totaling $420 million per year but the actual cost is much higher because OON charges drive up the cost of the health insurance premiums paid by roughly 5 million New Jerseyans, for an estimated total cost of $956 million.

Continue reading LEGISLATION TARGETS $1 BILLION SURPRISE MEDICAL BILL PROBLEM

As investors buy struggling hospitals, big change comes to New Jersey health care

Re-post from NorthJersey.com | Written by Lindy Washburn

Bayonne Medical Center wasn’t just bragging about efficiency when it posted a big digital clock on a highway billboard a few years ago to show the real-time waits in its emergency room. It wanted patients to come to its ER. Lots of patients.

It didn’t matter if the hospital was in the patient’s insurance network. On the contrary, to the businessmen who had recently purchased the medical center, those “out-of-network” patients held the key to reversing Bayonne’s fortunes.

These owners, who bought the hospital in bankruptcy, had found an unintended — and very profitable — consequence to a state regulation that was designed to protect patients with urgent medical needs. While the regulation required insurance companies to pay for emergency treatment at hospitals where their coverage wasn’t normally accepted, it did nothing to control the size of the bills the hospitals could submit to those insurers.

Read rest of article here and how this topic relates to NJ Appleseed’s work.

Do surface parking lots detract from a city’s stability and sustainability efforts?

Written by Cheryl Fallick
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Comparative views of Downtown Newark in 1871 and 2016, showing the destruction of viable neighborhoods for use as parking. Image via Newark Metamorphosis.

Our recent policy articles have asked this question.  New Jersey Appleseed is currently involved in a case that is working it’s way through the NJ Court System whereby the answer to this question from a group of concerned citizens in Newark is a decided “no.”

To read the appeal of City of Newark’s Zoning Board of Adjustment’s 13th d(l) use variance for a parking lot at 28 McWhorter Street, filed by Renee Steinhagen on behalf of group of concerned citizens click here.

Paving paradise and putting up a parking lot

Re-post from Al Jazerra America | Written by Sharon Adarlo

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The skyscrapers of downtown Newark are surrounded by surface parking lots. Image via Newark Metamorphosis.

During the day, parking lots in downtown Newark are jammed with cars belonging to government and corporate office workers. To some observers, the full lots might seem a useful facet of urban life and a sign of a healthy city economy.

 

But not to everyone. At night and during the weekends, the surface lots are desolate, quiet stretches of black and cracked asphalt.  Repeat this scene in other parts of this city’s downtown and you end up with many residents and urban planners complaining they are a form of urban blight. They sap the vitality of an area on the cusp of major gentrification, critics say.

There is also an economic cost: The dead spaces that cars take up don’t generate nearly enough in taxes for Newark’s coffers, and most of all, they might encourage crime. Some residents don’t feel safe around the empty lots late at night.

“I have been here for more than 20 years, and [crime] has been increasing. The synergy there is that with the crime increasing, so are the surface parking lots,” said Madeline Ruiz, an architect. “I used to feel safe.”

Nor are Newark residents alone. Many cities across the U.S. are also confronted by landscapes filled with similar ugliness, posing problems with stormwater runoff and acting as heat sinks.

Miami and Detroit suffer the same problem, says Streetblogs, a website devoted to transportation issues. This year, Rochester, New York, won the blog’s Golden Crater award, which recognizes the city with the most excessive surface parking. An aerial view of Rochester’s core shows a patchwork of blacktop and islands of buildings.

A study from the University of Connecticut compared three U.S. cities with modest parking lot growth and three with triple-digit percentage increases. It found that lot-dominated cities suffered economically. One example was Hartford, Connecticut, which loses $50 million a year thanks to its lots.

“Surface parking lots are holes in the urban fabric,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and an expert on parking issues in cities. “They don’t produce as much for the economy. The parking lot barely employs a few people compared to a restaurant. A parking lot doesn’t draw anybody to downtown.”

The result is a less healthy city, argue Ruiz and her husband, Dave Robinson, also an architect. They say the spaces are the opposite of what should go there: lively shops and apartments. And having fewer eyes on the street creates more crime-ridden areas.

Newark was a nominee for the Golden Crater this year, and it’s not hard to see why. In the vicinity of Newark’s Penn Station, “there are more than 20 acres of underutilized sites primarily being used as surface parking,” according to the city master plan.

In the latest flashpoint of the parking wars in Newark, a proposed lot has residents up in arms because it already has other parking lots on all four sides. It is on Bruen Street in the Ironbound area, a densely packed neighborhood known for its large population of Brazilian immigrants and Portuguese cafes.

The owners of the property and the person contracted to run the future lot need a variance from the city zoning board. A building on the property was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and was subsequently demolished.

“If you do any other business, it won’t work,” said Makram Demian, who owns the property with his brother Maher Demian. They argue it is logical to put in the 73-space lot because it’s surrounded by other parking. “It’s already decided by the neighborhood.” The zoning board has repeatedly delayed hearing their application, but a decision may be reached next month.

A request to talk to members of the zoning board was denied. Angelo Cifelli Jr., the board’s attorney, said members will not comment on a case that is pending. Repeated requests to the city press office were not met. Nor were queries to the planning and the housing and economic development departments.

When asked about parking lots at an unrelated event earlier this month, Mayor Ras Baraka said, “We are going to build up and not across. We are going to look at stormwater runoff.” During his election campaign earlier this year, he told concerned Ironbound residents that he sympathized with their concerns.

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Parking lot owned by J&L Corporation that faces toward Newark’s Prudential Center hockey arena.

Newark’s 2012 master plan calls for redevelopment of surface parking lots. New construction projects should get structured parking underground or aboveground, with stacked garages and ground-floor retail. A Whole Foods is slated for Broad Street in a few years. At Broad and Market Streets, the busiest intersection in the city, a mixed-use retail, residential and hotel development is imminent.

Rather than merely serve suburban commuters, Shoup said, the city can encourage landowners to redevelop wasted spaces by putting a hefty tax on them. “It’s just a nudge. It tells landlords it’s probably time to build,” he said.

Eran Ben-Joseph, the head of MIT’s department of urban studies and planning, said improved aesthetics could help surface parking lots. “They are not going away too soon,” he said. “If we design them the right way, they can be an asset.” He has proposed green parking, lots that use innovative ways of managing stormwater and adding vegetation.

Meanwhile, residents like Robinson are committed to fighting the scourge. “These parking lots are a cancer,” he said. “And they are spreading very quickly.”

Click here to view original article.

Union Criticizes Handling of Hospital’s Finances

Re-post from NJSpotlight | Written by Andrew Kitchenman

Hospital leader defends approach, while health commissioner is asked to appoint temporary manager of facility

A labor union representing workers at Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center is demanding that the state step up its fiscal oversight of the for-profit hospital after it eliminated more than 100 jobs.

The Health Professionals and Allied Employees and the New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center sent a letter to state Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd on Friday reiterating their request for appointment of a temporary manager for the Secaucus hospital.

Continue reading Union Criticizes Handling of Hospital’s Finances