TRENTON – Two bills sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg that would expand the public’s right to transparent local and state government were passed out of the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee today.
“The Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) are vital to a functioning, representative democracy,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “At the heart of both these bills is transparency. So-called ‘sunshine laws’ require public bodies to make available to the public documents that detail government actions.
“I am aware ‘sunshine laws’ laws present challenges to both government and the public. We need to establish policies that give custodians of records legal options when faced with someone who is only interested in harassing a public agency. But we also need to ensure that custodians of records respond in the appropriate timeframe to OPRA and OPMA requests.
“Time and again in New Jersey, we have seen where backroom deals lead when shadow governments work not for the people who elect officials to serve the public, but for the select few who operate in the shadows. We need transparency in government.
“Additionally, we need to take these laws into the 21st century and acknowledge that the internet makes producing records easier and less costly, but also requires us to ensure that the integrity of public documents is never compromised.”
The “Senator Byron M. Baer Open Meetings Act” – S-106 – provides greater access to the meetings of public bodies. The bill would expand the number of public entities required to comply with OPMA to include independent authorities, redevelopment entities, improvement authorities and quasi-governmental agencies. It would explicitly include, among others, the New Jersey Association of Municipalities, the New Jersey Association of Counties, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Public bodies would be required to determine whether a formally constituted subcommittee should be open to the public. All subcommittees would be required to report quarterly, while all subcommittees open to the public would have to provide adequate notice of their meetings and allow the public to attend those meetings.
The bill also would expand the public notification process to include electronic notification on request. And it would put increased restrictions on public bodies voting on an item not previously listed on the public agenda. All public information pertaining to public meetings – minutes, decisions, ordinances and resolutions – would be required to remain online for a period of at least five years after the posting.
The “Martin O’Shea Open Public Records Act” – S-107 – would update, clarify and expand definitions of the type of records that are accessible under OPRA, adding quasi-governmental agencies to the list, as does the “Senator Byron M. Baer Open Meetings Act.”
The bill would exclude some materials from disclosure, including location of private alarm systems and surveillance cameras, personal debit card numbers, personal bank account information, cell phone numbers and the email addresses given for contact information purposes.
The bill would require the custodian of records to provide a certified statement for why any redactions were made and update the process to respond to requests for documents electronically available or available online. And make it easier for custodians to send public records via email rather than by paper.
Currently, custodians can charge a “special service charge” for voluminous requests; the charge has to be reasonable and directly linked to the costs of providing the records. Under this bill, a “special administrative charge” would be created to apply to commercial records requestors.
The bill would also make changes to the membership of the Government Records Council and the dispute resolution process of OPRA. The council’s current size of five members would be increased to seven.
Custodians would be allowed under exceptional circumstances to petition the Superior Court to protect them from a requestor asking for records for the purpose of harassing the public agency.
The State Treasurer would be required to post on the Open Data Initiative website all the financial information of the State and its agencies. And the bill would establish the “New Jersey Local Finance Internet Website Development Program,” which would require the Office of Information Technology to create a searchable website for local government custodians to post their public records and to provide advice and technical assistance to local units of government that want to put their financial information on their own websites.
Additionally, the State would conduct a data practices survey every five years to review the collection, processing, use and dissemination of information by public agencies.
Both bills were released from committee by votes of 4-0-1, and next heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.