Measures Will Ensure More Transparency and Openness from All Levels of Government in New Jersey
TRENTON – Senator Loretta Weinberg, a leading proponent in the State Legislature of top-to-bottom ethics reform for all levels of government in New Jersey, announced today the introduction of two bills designed to increase the public’s access to government records and meetings.
“It may sound trite and cliché at this point, but it’s been proven true time and time again – the best disinfectant for government impropriety is the cleansing light of public scrutiny,” said Senator Weinberg, D-Bergen. “When members of the public have full, unfettered access to their elected leaders and to public documents and records, there’s fewer opportunities for the few unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of the public trust. These bills are intended to close down some loopholes in the public records law, and bring the Open Public Meetings Act into the 21st Century.”
The first bill in the transparency package would name the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) the “Martin O’Shea Open Public Records Act” in honor of the former reporter and editor with the New York Times and longtime public records advocate who passed away in December of last year. The bill makes various reforms to close loopholes in the law that have allowed records custodians throughout New Jersey to ignore the transparency intent of the original legislation since OPRA was adopted in 2001.
“Martin devoted his entire life to creating more access to records and openness into the inner workings of government,” said Senator Weinberg. “He worked side by side with good government advocates to help draft the reforms in the State’s OPRA law that are contained in this bill. It’s absolutely fitting and proper that we recognize his life’s mission, and pay respect to a giant in the area of government transparency.”
Senator Weinberg’s bill would establish Statewide copy fee standards for letter-sized documents (10 cents per page) and legal-sized documents (15 cents per page), to avoid exorbitant copy fees which create a disincentive for records requests. The bill would require prompt and immediate attention to requests for records from the public, and would allow members of the public to request records in the name of OPRA without having to rely on specific forms or other bureaucratic hurdles. Public records custodians also would have to give a reason when information is redacted from a public record, in order to ensure that the redacted information falls into the exempted category of the open public records law.
“There are cases when government records have to be kept from public view, especially when issues of national security or personal confidentiality are concerned,” said Senator Weinberg. “But by and large, the public has an overwhelming right to access government records, and this bill clarifies that right. Public records custodians are as accountable to the people as any other elected or appointed public figure, and it’s time that they serve the public, not their own interests.”
The second bill in the package would make various changes to the Senator Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act to update the law and account for new modes of communication made possible by the technology boom. The bill would prohibit members of a public body from communicating privately with other members or agency staff via electronic means during the course of a public meeting, and would clarify that any gathering of the members of a public body, whether in person or via e-mail, instant messaging or similar technology, is subject to the same reporting and access requirements as any other public meeting. It would require that all State boards, independent authorities, redevelopment entities and other quasi-governmental organizations adhere to the Sunshine Law and would prohibits public agencies and organizations from denying any member of the public the right to record, videotape, photograph or broadcast any public meeting. The bill also would require that the meeting’s minutes, agendas, and schedules be posted on the Internet when a public body has an Internet Web site.
“The Open Public Meetings Act was groundbreaking in its time, but provisions of the law have not stood the test of time,” said Senator Weinberg. “In the era of mobile communications and the Internet, the meetings access and notification rules that worked in the 1970s and 1980s no longer apply. This bill provides a much-needed update to our State’s Sunshine Law, and ensures the intent of the bill – government accountable to the people it represents – will be realized in the Garden State.”
Both bills will be referred to the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee. Senator Weinberg expressed her hope that the Committee would act quickly to bring OPRA and the Sunshine Law into conformity with legislative intent and modern methods of communication.
“The people of New Jersey have waiting long enough for real, meaningful access to the inner workings of government,” said Senator Weinberg. “It’s time that we make open, accountable government a reality in the Garden State.”