Her own inability to get information from New Jersey convinced Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) of the need to change the state’s open meetings and records laws.
“I was blocked time and time again in the OPRA [Open Public Records Act] process,” said Buono, who 18 months ago had trouble getting the state Department of Education to provide information about how NJ lost out on a $400 million federal grant. “In the end I had to go to some very extensive lengths to get the information … It was a painful process of subpoenaing the fired education commissioner before the committee.”
Buono recalled the difficulty getting facts on New Jersey’s failed Race to the Top application for the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee during a hearing Monday on bills to clarify and strengthen the open meetings and records laws. The bills cleared the committee and were sent to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
“We were able to obtain much of the information but we don’t really know what we didn’t see,” continued Buono, who once worked as a stringer for the Star-Ledger. “Unfortunately for the average citizen the barriers that I managed to work around, they wouldn’t have access to the avenues that I had. And this piece of legislation seeks to change that. It shouldn’t be that difficult to obtain public records from public entities.”
Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), prime sponsor of both bills, said it’s time to update: the Open Public Meeting Act, commonly called the Sunshine Law, first passed 40 years ago; and the Open Public Records Act or OPRA, revised a decade ago. Buono is co-sponsoring the OPRA bill. Some of the changes seek to address the role of technology in government, including email and text communications and audio or visual recordings of meetings.
Both measures went through significant revisions — groups in favor and against finished a meeting last Friday at 5 p.m. — and final versions were not made available on the Office of Legislative Services website at the time of the vote.
As introduced, the bill amending the Sunshine Law (S1451) would make numerous changes to the law. These include requiring that such independent authorities as sewerage commissions and quasi-public agencies would have to hold open meetings, mandating that agendas include brief descriptions of items that include the parties to and costs of contracts, and narrowing the reasons for which bodies could go into closed session and exclude the public.
The other bill combines three separate measures (S1452, S465, S546). It would rename OPRA after Martin O’Shea, who was a staunch advocate of the public’s right to access government information, and further clarify what records are public, as well as require that records be available on government websites. Finally, it would restrict access to one type of record: email addresses provided to governments to receive emergency notices would not be considered public records.
Weinberg said the bills are the result of compromises among those on both sides of the issue, most often members of the public and news organizations seeking information and the government officials who keep that information.
“I think these two bills reach the right balance between the public’s right to know and the ability to get the public’s business done,” she said. “In a democracy, the people deserve to know how their money is being spent … A just and fair government cannot exist in a vacuum.”
The New Jersey Press Association (NJPA), the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club all spoke in favor of the changes.
“Times have changed,” said Thomas Cafferty, general counsel to the NJPA. “We believe these are terrific advances.”
Several municipal, county and school officials said the bills would wind up costing governments more.
“The workload on municipal clerks creates an unfunded mandate,” said James Doherty, the Wantage township administrator.
Doherty said he has heard estimates as high as $50,000 per governmental agency to comply, although he would put that figure at closer to $7,000 in his municipality, and there are more than 1,400 such bodies throughout the state.
Any potential costs are expected to be vetted before the budget committee. But Weinberg said the bills do not require governments to buy any new equipment and any additional costs should be offset by some savings. Posting records online, for example, should mean officials have to make fewer copies.
“When we talk about costs, I think we have to realize that transparency, accountability and developing the public trust, that’s priceless,” said Jeff Tittel, head of the Sierra Club in New Jersey.
Legislators who support the measures say it is their duty to make sure government is as open as it can be.
“So much of this legislation is common sense,” said Buono. “New Jersey citizens deserve honestness and openness in government. Anything less means we, as elected officials, have failed.”