OPRA and Your Right to Know

The Open Public Records Act, commonly known as OPRA, spells out your rights regarding obtaining the public records of any public agency in the State of New Jersey. The Open Public Meetings Act, more commonly known as OPMA or the Sunshine Law, establishes the right of all citizens to have adequate advance notice of all public meetings and the right to attend meetings at which any issue affecting the public is discussed or acted upon.

On Saturday, about 30 people attended Planet Princeton’s workshop on OPRA and OPMA. Residents from various parts of town

OPRA expert Walter Luers

attended and asked lots of questions. The Town Topics and the Daily Princeton also sent reporters. A special thanks to the Princeton Public Library and the Citizens’ Campaign for being co-sponsors with the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) and to lawyer Walter Luers for donating his time to speak at the event.

Some tips from Luers, president of NJFOG, on getting information through the Open Public Records Law (OPRA):

– Make your request in writing. mention the Open Public Records Act and your rights under the common law.

– You should be requesting a public record or data set. Don’t just ask for general information like “how many employees are in the police department.” Ask for specific documents (letters, reports, rosters, vouchers, etc.) or data sets such as Excel spreadsheets.

– Every government agency in New Jersey is required to have an OPRA form (towns, school boards, county and state agencies), but you are not required to use it. A letter will do.

– The municipal clerk is the official records custodian of a municipality. Other public agencies have an assigned records custodian (there can be more than one). The state has a central website for OPRA requests and provides you with a tracking number if you are filing a request for information from a state agency.

– If an OPRA request goes to the wrong employee, that person has a legal obligation to direct it to the right person or tell who you the right person is.

– The agency can’t be unreasonable in terms of how requests for records are received. You should have the ability to mail, hand deliver, or remotely transmit your request.

– An agency has 7 business days to respond to your request. If they are busy or the documents or date require digging, give them more time. A week is very reasonable. A month is about the limit.

– E-mails between members of public bodies and e-mails received by them regarding public business are subject to OPRA. It does not matter if an official is using his personal e-mail address to discuss public business. Those e-mails are still subject to OPRA. Officials can not hold meetings via e-mail, i.e. deliberate with the rest of the governing body about business the governing body will make a decision on via e-mail. Officials can’t purposely avoid a quorum by sending the e-mails out individually. If discussion by the governing body is occurring via e-mail on a decision,  it is subject to OPRA.

– Crafting a good request means being specific. If you ask for any or all documents it can be too broad. Specify a time period, for example, or list specific documents, such as “e-mails received on subject xx between Jan 1 and June 30.”

– You can ask to inspect the documents instead of wanting and paying for copies of everything. Some documents like contracts and vouchers should be available for inspection within a day under OPRA.

– A meeting of the governing body must be open to the public if it is attended by a majority of the governing body.  If less than a majority of the governing body meet, it does not have to be open to the public.  The governing body cannot circumvent this requirement by engaging in “musicial chairs,” in other words the governing body cannot shuttle its members in and out of the meeting.

– Talking with the clerk or another official to figure out how to word your request can often help, though not always. This shows you want to save them time and you care about their work load. It might also save you time and get you your documents sooner.

– Closed meeting minutes are public after the issue has been resolved.

– Some documents are excluded from OPRA such as those giving legal advice.

– If you are denied documents and you feel the denial was wrong, you can do several things. You can state your objection in a letter/e-mail, have a lawyer write to the municipality challenging the rejection, or you can take formal steps to challenge the refusal. You have two avenues to so so, Superior Court and the state’s Government Records Council (GRC).

The GRC is backlogged with cases, and it could take 12-18 months for a decision. https://www.nj.gov/grc/about/

Superior Court is much faster but you must pay a court filing fee of $200 and follow court procedures. The GRC and the Courts treat some categories of information differently.  Luers said that the GRC tends to interpret some privacy and criminal records exemptions more broadly than the Courts.  Court cases must be filed within 45 days after a denial, but there is no time limit on GRC decisions.

Important Note: Legislation is currently pending that would potentially expand OPRA and limit exclusions.  You should check to see if those changes have taken effect.

Open government resources:

The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government is a great resource. On their website you can sign up to be on their e-mail list to stay up to date on the latest public access developments. They will not bombard you with e-mails and people on the listserv are very generous about offering tips and advice.

The ACLU-NJ Open Government Project

Public access blog by NJ resident John Paff

If you have suggestions for future Planet Princeton workshops, questions about government transparency issues, or ideas for community projects on government transparency, please contact editor Krystal Knapp at editor@planetprinceton.com.