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Committees Advance Bill That Changes Open Records Law

Committees Advance Bill That Changes Open Records Law

By Vince Conti

In the face of strong opposition, committees of the New Jersey Senate and Assembly have overwhelmingly advanced a bill (S2930/A4045) that would make substantial changes to the state’s Open Public Records Act.

A vote on the fast-track bill by the full Legislature is likely this week. Gov. Phil Murphy has not indicated whether he will sign the bill if it passes, but he has given no public indication that there are aspects of the bill he is uncomfortable with.

The sponsors of the bill, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman Joseph Donaldson (D-Somerset), tried and failed to get an OPRA overhaul bill passed in March. Widespread public opposition at that time led to the bill’s being pulled prior to a final vote. Since then the Senate version picked up an important co-sponsor in Anthony Bucco (R-Morris).

The bill’s supporters argue that the OPRA statute signed into law in 2002 is now 20 years old and badly in need of an overhaul. They pointed to personal security vulnerabilities in today’s high-tech environment and spoke of the burdens placed on public record holders by commercial entities who then sell public information for profit.

Among the major supporters of the bill are the majority of the state’s more than 560 municipalities, which have depended on the New Jersey League of Municipalities to further their interests.

Some of those who are resisting passage of the OPRA revision go so far as to say many legislators are doing the bidding of municipalities, where they have appointments and professional services contracts that pay them or their firms outside of the Legislature. That was one message at a recent panel discussion held by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists at Ryder University.

Numerous citizen opposition groups, including the League of Women Voters and the New Jersey ACLU, argue that the real intent of the OPRA amendments is to make access to public records more difficult for citizens, activist groups and journalists.

In both the Senate and Assembly, the committees reporting on the bill had new members on their rosters, which the ACLU claims was a move to replace members who were “understandably skeptical” of the amendments.

In March, for example, Republican Douglas Steinhardt (R-Warren) voted against the bill in committee. By the May vote, Steinhardt was not on the committee, but Republican Robert Singer (R-Ocean) was, and he voted yes. In each house of the Legislature the committee vote in May included three individuals who voted for the revised bill who were not on the committees in March.

The revised bill was reported out of the Budget and Appropriations Committee in the Senate by a vote of 10 to 3 on May 9. One Democrat and two Republican committee members voted against the bill. One of the Republican “no” votes came from Sen. Michael Testa of Cape May County’s District 1.

In the Assembly the bill was voted out of the Appropriations Committee 10 to 1 on May 10, with the one “no” vote coming from Republican Robert Auth (R-Bergen). District 1 Assemblyman Antwan McClellan did not vote. District 1 Assemblyman Erik Simonsen is not a member of the committee.

A key element in the debate over the bill is a change to the enforcement mechanism in the original statute that forced public agencies to pay legal fees if the courts determined that they denied OPRA requests wrongfully.

The amended bill leaves the payment of fees up to the judge, a move that those who oppose the bill say increases the risk for any citizen who may want to pursue a request that has been denied by the record holders, even where the citizen believes it was a wrongful denial.

Opposition groups also point to the fast-track nature of the bill as telling. They argue that there is nothing in the bill that warrants a fast track other than an attempt to gain passage before opposition groups can fully mobilize.

New Jersey ACLU policy director Sarah Fajardo put it bluntly: “New Jersey legislators and legislative leadership are continuing to fast-track their attempt to decimate the Open Public Records Act.”

The vote to pass the bill in both houses seems likely to succeed. Opposition groups will then turn to the governor and seek to convince Murphy to reject it.

Contact the reporter, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

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

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