A Superior Court judge has ordered the Christie administration to turn over documents requested by an activist who wanted to review requests made under the state’s Open Public Records Act related to the Bridgegate scandal.
Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ordered the Christie Administration to turn over copies of records to open government advocate Harry Scheeler of Cape May County by August 15.
Scheeler has been auditing local, county and state agencies for years to see if they are compliant with the Open Public Records Act. He conducts his audits by requesting records of all Open Public Records Act requests submitted to various government agencies.The request is a standard request made to agencies at all levels of government in the state.
Earlier this year, Scheeler requested copies of all public records requests filed in relation to the closure of the George Washington Bridge, as well as all requests for particular periods. In a departure from previous years, several state agencies said they could not turn over these records, despite having turned over the same kinds of records in previous years. The Christie administration claimed the records were exempt from the law due to privacy concerns.
Scheeler is not the first person to have such a request rejected by the state this year. The Christie administration has been rejecting similar requests seeking information about public records requests by claiming that supplying such information would be giving away “information which, if disclosed, would give an advantage to competitors or bidders.”
The Christie administration’s position, if it had been upheld, would have meant there would have been no way for the public to scrutinize requests to see how state government is handling them, and examine whether the requests are being handled in a timely manner.
“Today, the court rejected the state’s attempts to block New Jerseyans from examining indisputably public records,” said attorney Bruce S. Rosen, who argued the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “The court correctly found that there is no legal basis to keep information about requests for public records secret. Just as they did last year, state agencies must again produce OPRA request forms for the public to examine.”
The lawsuit, filed May 5, challenged the denial of records from nine state agencies, including the Office of the Governor. Scheeler’s request to the governor’s office asked for a copy of “all OPRA requests submitted to this office in January 2014” and all “OPRA requests submitted to this office concerning the closure of the George Washington Bridge.”
Scheeler also requested all OPRA requests made in the previous 90 days at various points from the state Motor Vehicle Commission, Alcoholic Beverage Control, Military and Veterans Affairs, New Jersey Treasury, Department of Law and Public Safety, Department of Education and New Jersey State Police, all of which claimed the records were exempt from OPRA.
The judge, in rejecting the State’s claim that people should have an expectation of privacy in making public records requests, pointed out that many agencies notify the requester on the request form itself that the form may be considered a public record.
“We’re pleased that transparency prevailed today,” said Jeanne LoCicero, the ACLU’s deputy legal director. “In a democracy, the public’s interest in examining and understanding the workings of government is paramount. The public has a right to basic information about how the government carries out its obligations. We hope that the state will renew its commitment to open government and take steps to ensure that it meets its obligations under state law, regardless of the political climate.”