Measures Would Modernize and Fortify New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings and Records Acts
TRENTON – A bill package sponsored by Senator Loretta Weinberg which would modernize and strengthen New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings and Records Acts and increase public transparency and accountability was approved by the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee today.
“In President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, he identified open government as necessary to restore and rebuild people’s faith in the institution of government,” said Senator Weinberg, D-Bergen. “A just and fair government cannot exist in a vacuum of accessible information, and government waste, fraud and abuse are bred in the closed-door meetings and backroom conferences which have constituted business as usual in New Jersey for far too long. These bills would bring New Jersey’s open government laws into the 21st century, and ensure that we’re on the cutting edge of transparency and technology in the Garden State.”
The first bill in the package, S-1351, would make various changes to the Senator Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act, known as the Sunshine Law, that governs government proceedings in New Jersey. The bill would modernize the Sunshine Law to account for new modes of communication, prohibiting members of a public body from communicating with each other about official business through mobile device while convening a public hearing, and ensuring that any gathering of the effective majority of a public body, whether in person or via electronic means over conference-call or teleconference, is considered a public meeting.
The bill would also extend notification requirements for public meetings from the current 48 hours to 3 business days, and would require that public notice, as well as the organization’s agenda and minutes from past hearings be posted on the Internet, a modern convenience which had not even been named until 1974, a full year after the original Open Public Meetings Act was approved. Under the bill, public agencies or organizations would be prohibited from denying any member of the public from videotaping, photographing or broadcasting any public meeting.
Finally the bill would ensure that independent authorities, redevelopment entities, improvement authorities and quasi-governmental organizations like the New Jersey League of Municipalities, Association of Counties and the State Interscholastic Athletic Association, would be subject to the same public meeting standards as any other public agency or organization.
“When the open public meetings law was signed in 1973, it fundamentally changed the relationship between government officials and their constituents, and forced official government hearings into the light of public scrutiny,” said Senator Weinberg. “However, with the advances in technology over the last forty years, the Sunshine Law has lost a little bit of its luster. This bill would make sure that the spirit and intent of open government lives on, and that we have open government policies which are responsive to an increasingly technologically-proficient constituency.”
The second bill in the package, S-1352, would rename the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) the “Martin O’Shea Open Public Records Act” after the late journalist and longtime public records access champion Martin O’Shea.
The bill would close down some of the loopholes that public officials have used in the past to deny requests for access to public records. Under the bill, anyone would be able to request public records under the Open Public Records Act – not just New Jersey residents. The bill would also allow for public records requests to be submitted in any form, rather than require that public records requests be submitted via the official public records request form.
The bill would ensure that when information is redacted from a public record, that the requestor be provided with a reason why such information was redacted, and would ensure that contact information for the records custodian of a public agency be posted on the organization’s Web site.
The bill would reduce the turnaround time for document requests, and would clarify when the seven-day period for response to a records request actually begins. Under the bill, records custodians would be able to fulfill their transparency responsibilities by directing a member of the public to the Web location of information, if it’s already been posted on the World Wide Web. Finally, the bill would allow records custodians to e-mail requested records to constituents, rather than printing and mailing them, at no cost to the requestor.
“The Open Public Records Act is a vital tool for New Jersey residents to track how their tax dollars are being spent, but the existing OPRA law relies too heavily on bureaucracy and red tape to deny taxpayers access to the records they paid for,” said Senator Weinberg. “We want to make sure that anyone can request records and that we narrowly limit the exceptions to public access. When in doubt, our public records custodians should lean in the direction of openness rather than obfuscation.
“Access to the product and process of government is essential to make sure that government is acting in the best interests of the public, as opposed to the best interests of the political elite,” said Senator Weinberg. “These bills would go a long ways to modernize and strengthen our State’s open government laws, and ensure that the promise of open, transparent and accountable government is realized in the Garden State.”
Both bills were approved by a vote of 4-0 with one abstention, and now head to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, before going to the full Senate for review.