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Weinberg-Van Drew Bill To Improve Government Transparency, Accessibility Approved

Bills Would Lower Copy Fees, Require Internet Posting of Public Reports

TRENTON – Two bills sponsored by Senators Loretta Weinberg and Jeff Van Drew to increase government transparency and access in New Jersey by reducing copy fees for open public records requests and other government documents and requiring public reports and publications produced by the State be made available primarily on the Internet were approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee today.

“Any government which acts outside the light of public scrutiny is vulnerable to spiral into corruption, despotism and tyranny,” said Senator Weinberg, D-Bergen, and a long-time advocate for more openness in New Jersey government. “Public scrutiny is the great disinfectant which preserves the will of the people over the corrupting influences of greed and arrogance which seem to be standard in every case of official misconduct brought to trial in New Jersey and throughout the country. These bills would go a long way to make government more accessible, more transparent, and hopefully, more honest.”

“We’ve reached a point where the technology has far out-paced common sense when it comes to publishing government reports and publications,” said Senator Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic, who has fought for several years for the Internet posting bill. “There’s absolutely no need to produce glossy, expensive brochures and pamphlets that largely go unread by legislators, the Governor and the general public. If we can use the Internet to distribute the same information at a fraction of the cost, there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t bring this process into the 21st Century.”

The first bill in the package, S-1212, sponsored by Senator Weinberg, would decrease the fees set for copies of documents from government entities. The bill would reduce copy fees to five cents per page of documents printed on letter-sized paper, and seven cents per page of documents printed on legal-sized paper. The new fees would represent a decrease, as the original statute authorized government entities to charge up to 75 cents per page for all documents.

The bill is in response to an Appellate Court decision in Smith v. Hudson County Register which urged the Legislature to adopt a flat rate for copying fees under OPRA. The bill was approved by the budget committee by a vote of 9-0, with 3 abstentions.

“The Open Public Records Act is only effective if the average person can afford the copy fees charged for government documents,” said Senator Weinberg. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen incidents in which records keepers hide behind exorbitant copy fees to skirt their responsibility to be open and transparent with New Jersey’s taxpayers. This bill would standardize copying fees under OPRA and ensure that New Jerseyans seeking information are charged no more than five cents per page for documents printed on 8 ½ X 11 paper, and no more than seven cents per page for documents printed on 8 ½ X 14 paper. Of course, the cost would be zero for electronic copies of public documents.”

The second bill in the package, S-1217, sponsored by Senators Weinberg and Van Drew, would require that reports and publications produced by State Commissions, authorities and agencies, which are intended to be submitted to the Governor, the Legislature or the public would be made available on the Internet, as opposed to providing printed copies. Individuals without access to the Internet would still be permitted to request a printed copy. Under the bill, six paper copies of all State reports and publications would be made for archival purposes at the State Library, and the report originator would be required to make the State Librarian aware that a report is available on the Internet.

The bill was approved by the Committee by a vote of 13-0.

“By posting these public reports and publications on the Internet, we can give New Jerseyans better access to their government,” said Senator Weinberg. “Whenever taxpayer funds are used to compile a report or generate an official government publication, the taxpayers have a right to review that material. This bill affirms taxpayers’ rights to review government work product, and will give New Jerseyans a closer view of their government in action.”

“Many times, the reports and publications generated by publicly-funded agencies serve as inspiration for new laws and regulations,” said Senator Van Drew. “However, there’s no reason for officials at the Department of Corrections to receive Agriculture reports, or legislators to receive every publication generated by State agencies in printed form. Through this legislation, we’ll be able to save taxpayer dollars, and allow public officials to focus on the issues that matter most to their constituents, rather than wade through piles and piles of unread pamphlets and brochures produced by the State of New Jersey.”

Both bills now head to the full Senate for consideration.

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