New Jersey Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton) is the sponsor of a bill that would substantially weaken the state’s Open Public Records Act.
DeAngelo wants the key element that gives power to citizens removed from the law as mandatory — the collection of legal fees if a private citizen is the winning party in a public records case.
The bill would give judges latitude to not award attorney fees even if citizens and journalists win cases against public agencies that wrongfully denied their records requests. DeAngelo wants the law to be changed to say that citizens and journalists would not be entitled to attorney’s fees if a court or agency head finds that the decision to deny access “was reasonable and made in good faith after due diligence.” The clause is buried at the bottom of a bill that would also make personal information contained in pet and home alarm system license records exempt from public access.
Not only is this clause subjective, but it also gives government agency heads the right to decide whether a government agency should be required to pay for the legal fees.
The right to legal fees not only adds teeth to the law, it also allows citizens and journalists to be represented by lawyers in public records cases in court even if they can’t afford to pay for the lawyers themselves. Lawyers accept good cases knowing that a win in court means they will get paid. They reject cases without merit unless the private party is paying them, because they know that they will not get paid anything if they lose the case.
The bill, Assembly Bill A4532, is being heard by the state and local government committee of the New Jersey Assembly today. DeAngelo claims the bill would help reduce government costs and strengthen privacy rights.
Members of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government are urging citizens to call their elected representatives and the members of the state and local government committee to voice their opposition to the bill.
DeAngelo’s office phone number in Hamilton is (609) 631-7501 and his email is AsmDeAngelo@njleg.org. The full list of the Assembly’s state and local government committee and their contacts can be found here.