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Open Records Overhaul Bill Heads for Murphy’s Desk

Open Records Overhaul Bill Heads for Murphy’s Desk

By Vince Conti

The Open Public Records Act bill that legislative leaders have been trying to pass since March made it through both houses Monday and is on its way to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.

The Senate passed the controversial bill on May 13 by a vote of 21 to 10, with nine members not voting. In the Assembly the bill passed with 42 to 27, with 10 not voting and with one abstaining.

The bill moved rapidly through the Legislature even in the face of polling that showed 81% of the public was against the measure. Numerous citizen groups spoke against it, with Dena Mottola Jaborska, New Jersey Citizen Action’s executive director, saying that the bill demonstrates “what is wrong with our democracy.”

Jaborska claimed that the bill “will chill requests from the media, advocates and community activists, shielding the actions and decisions of local officials from public view.”

In the Assembly, bill sponsor Joe Danielsen (D-Somerset) defended the vote to pass the bill because, he said, it costs municipalities too much in legal fees when they lose records disputes in court. Danielsen ignored the fact that public entities lose in court only when they have wrongfully denied an OPRA request.

Danielsen spoke of an “army of abusers” while never mentioning the case in Franklin Township where a citizen prevailed in obtaining documents on spending records related to work done for the fire commission by Danielsen’s company. The commissioner and the fire district were fined $17,500, $15,000 of which was in attorney fees.

Among the features of the OPRA bill that engendered the greatest opposition is its ending of mandatory fee shifting. The bill makes it harder for those requesting records to have attorney fees paid if the public agencies have been found to have withheld records wrongfully.

For the many groups opposed to the bill’s passage, transparency was up for a vote Monday. Now these groups will turn to Murphy in the hope of convincing him to veto the bill.

Even if Murphy agrees that it goes too far in its curtailing of transparency, and there is no evidence that he does believe so, he may be reluctant to veto the bill and anger legislative leaders who could retaliate against one of his priority pieces of legislation.

The Cape May County delegation in Trenton split on its voting on the bill.

In the Senate, Michael Testa consistently voted no on the bill in its various forms since it first appeared in March. He voted against its final passage as well.

In the Assembly both Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen voted for the bill. Both McClellan and Simonsen served on municipal governing bodies before being sent to Trenton.

The New Jersey League of Municipalities has staunchly represented the municipal interest in seeing the bill pass on its fast track through the Legislature. In a statement issued following the vote the League’s executive director, Michael Cerra, said, “The League is grateful to the Senate and Assembly for passing bipartisan Open Public Records Act modernization today. We thank the Senate president, speaker, Senator Sarlo, Senator Bucco, Assemblyman Danielsen and Assemblywoman Flynn for their sponsorship and tireless efforts to get to this point.”

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, an opponent of the bill, said on X (formerly Twitter), “There are so many legislators that have never had a competitive race in their lives + today they placed a nice + easy to see target on themselves.”

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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