Clerks Bogged Down By Commercial OPRA Requests

NJ Spotlight News | January 21, 2015 | Politics
Companies are using New Jersey's Open Public Records Act to gather information about citizens.

By Briana Vannozzi

Municipal clerks are calling it data mining — commercial companies using the state’s Open Public Records Act to collect information that helps them target you for their solicitations.

“A pet supply company where we’ll get a request asking for a list of all property owners who have a licensed dog or cat in their home. Generally speaking, they’re going to be mailed literature or something from a business or store to buy those supplies,” said Woodbridge Township Municipal Clerk John Mitch.

OPRA was enacted in 2001. It’s the state statute governing the public’s right to access government records. It doesn’t restrict or put a limit on the amount of requests by commercial outfits. By law municipalities have seven days to fill it or show evidence for need of an extension.

“We have seen in the last couple of years an increase in commercial businesses that are reaching out to us to do their work and that’s how, you know, we see it,” Mitch said.

Mitch, the Woodbridge clerk and president of the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey, says it’s their job and the law to respond.

“But when we see our time is now being taken up to respond to commercial requests, I don’t see why the taxpayers should be paying for us to do that for a private industry,” he said.

In 2013, Woodbridge received 587 requests. A slight increase in 2014 with 605. Just this morning, Mitch received one of their largest yet.

“From a company out of Seattle, Washington and they’re looking for a copy of all building permits from Jan. 1, 2000 to date,” he said.

A quick search shows the request is from a home improvement company. Mitch says collecting data on 30,000 homes for 15 years means your requests — for something like a property you’re looking to buy — get backlogged.

Mitch said, “I might not be able to respond to someone from Woodbridge today because I’m working on info for Seattle, Washington today.”

We reached several municipal clerks around the state today by phone who either declined or were unavailable to go on camera for our story. But they were all in agreement filing OPRA requests has become a main source of work within their offices. The municipal clerk in Old Bridge tells me they’ve even hired an employee just to help meet the demand.

Even if citizens don’t want that information shared, it must be provided.

“It is a public record. In fact that’s been already challenged at the GRC — the Government Records Council — a number of years ago. In fact at one point it was determined not to be a public record, a determination to be a public record,” said Mitch.

Democratic legislators in the state Senate are reviewing the current law and looking to exempt certain personal information. The status of those bills are still pending.