Sunshine Week: Know your rights, protect your right to know

It’s crucial for citizens to be aware of how decisions are made and money is spent in their communities. After all, government at all levels is supposed to be working for you, and you are the ones who fund it.

Our government belongs to the people – the people who pay taxes and elect officials to represent them at all levels of government – from school boards all the way to the people we send to Washington. Democracy at all levels of government demands transparency. People who want to know what’s going on in their towns, counties, and the state deserve access to public information.

This week is Sunshine Week, a celebration of that transparency that is so vital to our democracy. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to educate the public about the importance of open government, the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy, and tools citizens can use to promote transparency and obtain public information.

In New Jersey, two major laws protect your right to know – The state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Both laws place significant compliance obligations on municipalities in terms of accessibility, record keeping, and responding to requests. Litigation involving both is common, and the increased use of email, social media, and text messaging by government bodies, government employees, and elected officials continues to add new twists to what is considered a meeting or a record.

The Open Public Meetings Act, commonly known as the Sunshine Law, ensures the right of all citizens to have advance notice of and attend all meetings of public bodies at which any business affecting the public is discussed or acted upon, with certain limited exceptions to protect the public interest and to preserve personal privacy.

The Open Public Records Law, enacted in 2001, was created to give the public greater access to government records that are maintained by public agencies in New Jersey at all levels of government. The public has the right under OPRA to examine or obtain copies of those public records that are not subject to exceptions from disclosure. Under OPRA, all levels of New Jersey government are required to produce records when those records are properly requested. Certain records are considered exceptions. OPRA expanded the intent of the state’s Right to Know law by re-defining what records are available to the public, by setting standards for accessing those records, and creating penalties for failing to disclose them.

Over the course of this week, we will be providing overviews of the laws, along with tips and resouces our readers can use to exercise their right to know in an effective manner. We will also highlight issues regarding public meetings and public records at all levels of government in the state, including local issues.

If you have questions about your right to know or need help writing a public records request, don’t hesitate to send us an email.

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