Measures Would Revamp Open Meetings, Records Laws
TRENTON – Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg yesterday reintroduced bills she had sponsored in the last legislative session to overhaul and modernize New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act and Open Public Records Act, in order to improve government transparency in the Garden State.
“The public has a reasonable expectation to transparency from government, and while New Jersey has, in the past, led the charge nationally in adopting public records and meeting laws, it’s time that we update and expand those laws to stay ahead of new trends in technology,” said Senator Weinberg, D-Bergen. “In the Digital Age, our current laws governing public meetings and records requests have fallen behind the times, and have created large gaps in transparency. It’s time to correct the deficiencies in the law, and bring OPRA and the Sunshine Law into the 21st Century.”
The first bill in the package, S-1452, would rename the State’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) as the “Martin O’Shea Open Public Records Act” after the late journalist and longtime public records advocate. The bill would broaden access to government records, by allowing anyone to make an OPRA request, not just New Jersey residents, and by allowing records requests to be made on documents other than the adopted form, so long as it contains notice that it is an OPRA request and contains the information required on the adopted form.
“In this day and age, if I submit an OPRA request on a cocktail napkin, so long as it contains the necessary information, that should be enough,” said Senator Weinberg. “The guarantee of transparency under OPRA shouldn’t stop at our borders, nor should it be dependent on pro forma mechanics.”
The bill would also extend OPRA obligations to quasi-governmental organizations engaged in service to the public, such as the New Jersey League of Municipalities, the New Jersey School Boards Association, and joint insurance groups or funds for political subdivisions of the State. The bill would allow for the option of e-mailing records requests to the requestor without charge, and would limit the application of special service charges by the records custodian. Finally, the bill would change the standard for violations of OPRA from “knowingly and willfully” violating the law to “gross negligence,” defined as conduct marked by a gross deviation from the law or duties imposed by the position of custodian of a government record.
“While many records custodians are living up to their responsibilities under OPRA, there are some who feel they need to be the gatekeepers of public information,” said Senator Weinberg. “By simply failing to produce documents in a timely and appropriate manner, these officials are shirking one of the most important responsibilities of government – to be accountable to the governed. In those instances when a records custodian is defying the spirit of the law and the goal of transparency, it’s my sincere hope that their misconception about the role of government be corrected, or the person be removed from the post.”
The second bill in the package, S-1451, would update and modernize the “Senator Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act,” also known as the “Sunshine Law,” in order to address changes to the operating procedure of public meetings since the enactment of the law in the 1970s. The bill would include quasi-governmental organizations – as well as independent authorities, redevelopment entities and improvement authorities – under the provisions of the law, and would require a public body to provide electronic notice of a meeting on its Internet site, as well as access to meeting minutes, agendas, resolutions and ordinances, if it maintains an Internet site.
The bill would also limit when a public body can go into closed session, and would require public entities to permit the recording, audio-recording, photographing, videotaping, broadcast or recording for broadcast of public proceedings, by news media or any member of the public. During a public meeting, the bill would prohibit the members of a public body from privately communicating between each other regarding issues before the public body, by any means, including e-mail, instant message, or similar technologies. And finally, the bill would provide that an appointed member of a public body may be removed for two or more violations of the open public meetings law.
“When the Sunshine Law was written, the term ‘Internet’ hadn’t even been coined yet,” said Senator Weinberg. “The way we communicate with the world has changed so much since the original Open Public Meetings Act was enacted, and while the law may have been revolutionary for its time, the letter of the law doesn’t match the spirit of the law. Through this bill, we would be bringing the 20th Century’s most important government transparency legislation into the 21st Century, and would be able to realize the promise of open government for a new generation of New Jersey residents.”
Senator Weinberg noted that both bills are the result of input from a wide variety of stakeholders, including municipal clerks, government officials and open government advocates. The bills are likely to be considered by the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee.