Trenton Police’s Facebook status is nonexistent.
The department removed its Facebook page sometime Thursday amid allegations that negativity hurled at the department, partially over the arrest of a lightning rod marijuana activist, was being scrubbed from its social media page.
That led some activists — working in concert with Ed Forchion, also known as NJ Weedman – to paper the city with public records requests regarding the social media page.
One is Steven Wronko, a Spotswood man who earned the national spotlight after being escorted out of Helmetta town hall by police while filing a records request about animal abuses at the borough’s beleaguered animal shelter.
“This is a group of supporters who have waged war on my behalf,” Forchion said in a phone interview Friday.
One government accountability guru said social media pages run by city departments are governed by state law that requires the retention of public records and prevents those records from being destroyed.
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, said he was also concerned city police may have removed unfavorable public comments that appeared on its page. He called it a form of censorship.
“For example, you can’t tell people at a town meeting, ‘As long as we like your comments, you can have three minutes to speak,” Paff said. “It’s core First Amendment stuff.”
Forchion said that instead of complying with the Open Public Records Act, the city took a different route.
City clerk Richard Kachmar reportedly sent a memo instructing the department to shut down the Facebook page.
“It was an internal memo,” the city clerk told The Trentonian. “If you have a copy of it or someone released it, they’re in violation of the law.”
Kachmar claimed the memo is not public record.
“I cannot divulge anything that was in that memo and I have no further comment on this issue,” he said.
Trenton Police spokesman Lt. Stephen Varn declined to say if the Facebook page’s disappearance was due to issues with OPRA.
“We have deactivated our Facebook page until such time as our social media policy can be reviewed and updated,” he said.
Some of the online vitriol directed toward the Trenton Police department stemmed from an April raid on Forchion’s city businesses.
Police arrested 11 people, including Forchion, and seized $19,000 worth of marijuana.
The prominent marijuana legalization activist says he has been under siege since he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the city about whether his businesses must close at a certain time.
He claims the city infringed on his religious rights by shutting down the Liberty Bell Temple for operating late at night.
Since the raid, Forchion was also arrested and charged with cyber-bullying for calling Trenton Police officer Herbert Flowers a “pedophile” in an encounter captured on video outside of his establishment.
Forchion pointed to other instances of police harassment. He was issued summonses for sparking up a joint at City Hall months after the incident.
Forchion says his associates have also been targeted for petty offenses, such as spitting on sidewalks and tossing cigarette butts on the ground.
The always-outspoken Forchion has fought back in a number of ways. He personally challenged Angelo Onofri, acting prosecutor of Mercer County, to try his drug case.
He also claimed responsibility for distributing jury nullification leaflets to jurors in a murder trial outside of Mercer County criminal courthouse.
Forchion’s plight in Trenton has drawn attention from activists around the state.
That includes Wronko, a former Marine with a penchant for producing productive public trouble.
He has successfully sued municipalities for records in the past. And he and his wife, Collene, are currently litigating a lawsuit that alleges former Helmetta Mayor Nancy Martin conspired with a Middlesex prosecutor and two municipal judges to influence the outcome of their criminal cases in New Brunswick municipal court.
He says he and his wife were targeted by Helmetta police and hit with charges because of their activism.
Collene appealed one of her convictions when a municipal judge sentenced her to 10 days in jail for calling a cop a “douchebag” and not complying with orders to leave the Helmetta animal shelter.
Wronko said Forchion’s spat with Flowers is similar to his wife’s case.
That prompted him to send numerous record requests to the city of Trenton over Forchion’s arrests, asking for surveillance footage of the raid captured by a camera mounted on a telephone pole near City Hall.
He also asked for emails exchanged between city officials mentioning Forchion.
Wronko said the city denied the requests or claimed they didn’t have responsive documents. In one instance, the city required him to pay $157 for documents he asked to be scanned and sent by email.
Public record laws allow municipalities to charge for copies but not scanned documents, Wronko said.
Wronko is building a case against Trenton and plans to sue.
“They’re playing a crazy game over there,” he said. “I don’t like when government goes after the little guy. The same thing happened to me. Ed’s doing a legitimate business that they’re trying to wreck. They’re trying to throw him under the bus, trying to get some stuff to stick, trying to make him look like a kook. When it’s in their favor, they go right to the media. When it’s not in their favor, ‘no comment.’”
Trentonian staff writer David Foster contributed to this report.