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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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Changes to Open Records Law Move Closer to Full Legislative Vote

PUBLIC RECORDS STOCK IMAGE
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By Vince Conti

State Senate and Assembly committees have advanced identical bills that would overhaul the Open Public Records Act in ways that opponents say would decrease government transparency.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman Joe Danielson (D-Middlesex), makes more than 20 changes to the OPRA statute. The 29-page bill, introduced on March 4, cleared the committees with identical amendments on March 11 despite seven hours of public testimony, almost all of it opposing the measure.

The bill’s sponsors say OPRA needed an overhaul since it has not been changed since 2002. They argue that technology changes in the last 20 years have made it necessary to align the statute with new privacy issues.

Sarlo also says that the Legislature was driven to the changes by commercial enterprises that use the OPRA access law in ways no one anticipated in 2002.

Many of the proposed changes have to do with privacy concerns and limiting the abuse of the access rules by data brokers and commercial enterprises.

But many of the changes have nothing to do with these issues. Among other things, the bill would allow greater use of redacting and potentially expand the time frame within which OPRA requests must be answered.

It also creates less certainty that those who file suit in Superior Court due to what they feel is an illegal denial of information will get their legal fees paid by the government agency that lost the case. In addition, the bill removes certain types of documents from OPRA requests, including draft documents.

Transparency advocates accuse the bill’s supporters of trying to further limit the ability of the public to shine a light on government actions.

The fast-track nature of the bill’s movement through the Legislature, going from introduction to committee votes in one week, is not the norm in Trenton. The bill’s opponents argue that it is being pushed through to limit the ability of any opposition to fully analyze its potential impact.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee moved the bill on a 9 to 4 vote, with First District Sen. Michael Testa voting no.

The Assembly State and Local Government Committee moved the bill on a 5 to 2 vote, with First District Assemblyman Eric Simonsen voting no.

Reporter

Vince Conti is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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