TRENTON – In an effort to increase transparency and encourage greater public trust amidst the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Chair of Senate Health Committee Senator Joseph Vitale, announced a bill proposed for introduction today that would make certain government records created during the crisis accessible through the existing Open Public Records Act.
“The idea is simple, if the record can be OPRAed in normal times, it should basically be accessible during a public health crisis,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Instead, journalists and advocacy groups are having their OPRA requests for straight forward records be denied based on the ’emergency’. This runs counter, fundamentally, to the intent of the Act.”
Under current law, any correspondence, record, report and medical information made, maintained, received, or filed pursuant to the Emergency Health Powers Act is not considered a public or government record, and therefore not accessible under an open public records request.
“It is in uncertain times when transparency is most important,” Senator Weinberg continued. “When the public is frightened, unsure and wondering why the people in power have decided on a particular course of action, open records and transparency builds faith in our institutions and public trust in our choices. Emergencies are not the time for darkness because darkness breeds skepticism, suspicion and mistrust – the very last things New Jersey needs as we navigate these unchartered waters.”
“Everyone understands that these are unprecedented times but we can’t let the anxiety over uncertainty deny our residents their right to know what their government is doing and why they are doing it,” said Senate Vitale (D-Middlesex). “This is a fundamental democratic principle and if we don’t hold on to our principles in times of crisis, than we don’t hold them at all.”
The legislation, S-2751, specifies that any personal identifying information will not be considered a public or government record and will authorize the Local Information Network and Communications (LINCS) agency, to determine the accessibility of any record related to bioterrorism.
“The public has done an incredible job, working together for months to keep this virus at bay in New Jersey. If we are going to maintain their trust and patience through the reopening phase, it is vital that we give them the ability to fully understand the process,” Senator Weinberg concluded.
A LINCS agency is the lead public health agency in each county or identified city. The agency is responsible for central planning, coordination and delivery of specialized services within the designated county or city.