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Murphy Slammed After Approving Changes to Open Records Act

Murphy Slammed After Approving Changes to Open Records Act

By Vince Conti

Gov. Phil Murphy has signed the controversial bill overhauling the state’s Open Public Records Act, a bill that had been fast-tracked through the Legislature in the face of broad opposition from across the state.

Calling the changes to OPRA “relatively modest,” Murphy said he would have “unhesitatingly vetoed it” if he thought it would “enable corruption in any way.”

According to its critics, the bill’s changes to OPRA, especially in the critical area of fee-shifting, means the changes were not to enable corruption but to hide it. With mandatory fee-shifting gutted, opponents of the bill say there will be fewer challenges to OPRA denials, even when the citizen is convinced the denial was wrong.

Where the statute had previously forced an agency that wrongfully denied a records request to pay legal fees if a court ruled the request legitimate, the revised bill says the citizen must now prove “bad faith” in the wrongful denial to recover attorney fees.

While advocates of the changes to OPRA say they were “modernizing” a statute that was originally passed in 2002, good government advocates, government transparency groups, media organizations and, according to polling results, 81% of the state’s residents said it was a move to increase the opaqueness of local government, a move done at the behest of the state’s municipalities.

Those who opposed the changes claimed that the bill was fast-tracked to prevent organized public opposition. Now, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop is accusing the governor of waiting until the day after the primary elections to sign the bill. Fulop says it is proof Murphy knew what he was signing was wrong.

According to former state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County, “It seems they just did it because they could.” The ACLU of New Jersey called the signing “shameful.”

Jesse Burns, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, said lawmakers who supported the bill “have turned their backs on one of our essential rights.” Nicole Rodriguez, president of New Jersey Policy Perspectives, called the new law “bad policy, bad politics, and bad for anyone who believes that government should work for the people and not for special interests.”

Opponents of the new measure have consistently said the whole purpose of the original OPRA legislation was to enable access to government records so the public would not have to trust the word of its elected officials.

In his statement accompanying his signing of the bill, Murphy said he takes “corruption and trust in our democracy very seriously.”

“While I do not believe the concerns raised about some of the provisions of the bill are irrational, I am persuaded that the safeguards in the bill and the protections provided by the GRC (state Government Records Council) and the courts are sufficient to mitigate them,” he said.

Critics of the bill and of the governor’s approval say the public will have the final say — at the polls — with many groups advocating a backlash at those who supported the bill when Assembly members come up for reelection in 2025. Members of the state Senate have until 2027 before they must face the voters.

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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