Pair of bills would strengthen public’s right to know in NJ

Long-awaited legislation to strengthen and modernize the state’s Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act to increase government transparency is being considered by the New Jersey Legislature.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), has been pushing for reform for several years and has been blocked at the committee level. But in August, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee finally advanced two bills that would modernize the state’s public records and public meetings laws.

New Jersey Senate Bill S1046 would extend public record obligations to quasi-governmental organizations engaged in service to the public, such as the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the New Jersey School Boards Association. Citizens would also be allowed to send public records requests via email, which is commonly done now, but the law would affirm the practice.  Public records custodians — the public employees at all levels of government who fill records requests — would be required to explain in more detail what information they’ve redacted and why it can’t be disclosed under OPRA.

The bill would also overhaul the Government Records Council, expanding the council from five to seven members. The Government Records Council reviews public records disputes and rules on whether denials of requests for public records were appropriate or not. Citizens can also file lawsuits in Superior Court if they are wrongfully denied public records.

A new state public finance website would also be created as part of the bill. The state would also be required to establish the New Jersey Local Public Finance Internet Website Development Program, which would provide advice and technical assistance to local government agencies that create searchable local public finance Internet websites.

The second bill, S1045, would provide the public with greater access to meetings and information about meetings. The bill clarifies when meetings must be open to the public, improves agenda notice requirements, and limits last-minute items.

Some municipalities are expressing opposition to this legislation by passing resolutions that claim that the bills create a financial burden for municipalities, that they do not protect taxpayers and municipal clerks from abusive and harassing OPRA requests, and that they create more work for municipal clerks without providing additional resources.

George White, director of the New Jersey Press Association, said he is concerned that the bills might not pass before the end of the current legislative session. A new one begins in January 2018. He said that if it doesn’t pass, “it’s going back to square one.” He and other open government advocates hope the legislation will pass now that the November election is over.

The New Jersey Press Association the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, and several other groups say there are misconceptions about the bills. In a memo published in October, the NJPA addresses misinformation about the bills.

“One of the fears expressed by municipalities in resolutions around the state is that S1046, the OPRA bill, ‘would not adequately protect taxpayers, municipalities and municipal clerks from abusive, harassing and purposefully confrontational individuals who submit voluminous requests for no legitimate reason’,” reads the memo. “However, the NJPA notes that there is a section of S1046 that aims to prevent these kinds of situations, allowing a public agency to file a verified petition with the municipal court. The court may issue a protective order limiting the number and scope of requests an individual can make.”

Another concern was that the bills would create more work for municipal clerks, but the NJPA memo argues that by adding more public records to an online database, processing OPRA requests may become easier, since some requests would only require the clerks to direct the requestor to the website.

The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government has created a list of misconceptions about the two bills and facts about the bills you can view online here.

Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville) has emphasized that the bills will be good for government transparency.

“The more people know about their government, the better government they’ll get,” Pennacchio said in a phone interview. “The public has a right to know what their governments are doing that will affect them. Senator Weinberg and I will continue to work with stakeholders to develop a solid piece of legislation that will shine transparency on the business of government.”

He added that with improved access to public records and government meetings, “you can get something on a website in nanoseconds. This makes for better government all around.”

More details about the two bills:

S1046 (amends Open Public Records Act):

  • requires posted notice of the name and contact information for the agency’s custodian of records
  • clarifies which records are public as well as private
  • provides immediate access to certain records and defines when access must be granted
  • spells out the redaction process to prevent inappropriate obscuring of information or pages
  • requires adjudication of complaints by the GRC within 150 days
  • allows a requestor to file a court action in place of a GRC complaint that is open more than 150 days
  • creates an online searchable index of GRC opinions
  • strengthens the provision addressing a denial of access that is willful or due to gross negligence and clarifies that penalties shall not be paid with public monies

S1045 (amends Open Public Meetings Act):

  • clarifies when meetings must be open to the public
  • improves agenda notice requirements and limits last-minute items
  • provides better access to supplementary agenda materials
  • requires that all public meetings have a public comment period
  • establishes a timeframe for release of meeting minutes
  • clarifies the window for challenging action taken at a meeting
  • improves disclosure of subcommittee activities

Staff writer Krystal Knapp contributed to this story.