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Monday, June 24, 2024

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Review & Opinion

The Public Be Damned

The Public Be Damned

Paul Brady Photography/Shutterstock.com

OPRA vote reveals how little state and local politicians fear citizen anger

A bill which 81% of New Jersey voters said they opposed passed both houses of the Legislature in record time and with strong margins of affirmation. The bill contained a number of amendments to the Open Public Records Act, a statute that has stood the test of over 20 years as a means for citizens to learn more about what their government is doing in their name and with their dollars.

The arrogance displayed by the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-Somerset), led them to brazenly change their stories on what gave rise to the bill while doing the bidding of the local government units that wield a great deal of hidden power in the Legislature. Many of the state’s part-time legislators pull in extra public funds through professional services contracts with local governments, many of which they served in as elected officials. 

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A bill which 81% of New Jersey voters said they opposed passed both houses of the Legislature in record time.

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Make no mistake, this bill and the effort to amend OPRA emerged from the municipalities with the help of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, which, while commending the Legislature on the vote, went so far as to indicate that further reforms of the OPRA statute are necessary. In a May 17 statement the League said, “There remains work to do on other reforms and we look forward to working with the Legislature on additional reforms going forward.”

So much for public opinion. The League praised the fact that the Legislature passed a hugely unpopular bill and then openly said they will work to make more changes. This was not about commercial interests taking advantage of OPRA. It was not about protecting individual security. It was certainly not about saving taxpayer money on legal fees. This was and remains about making local government more opaque and less transparent.

The backroom deals on this one were set after the March fiasco when a version of the same bill had to be pulled before a final vote. Suddenly a Democratic bill in the Senate gained a Republican sponsor, Republican leader Anthony Bucco (R-Morris), who after using his name to make clear that Republicans who felt pressure to vote for this bill could do so, did not himself bother to show up or to vote on legislation he supposedly co-sponsored.

What the backroom deal was, we may never know. That it exists, we have no doubt.

For citizens who have complained about transparency in local government, this action, taken brazenly in the face of public opposition, needs to be avenged. Citizens who care about transparency need to use the ballot box to show their anger at being lied to about the bill.

If OPRA reform were about the reasons supporters gave to the public, there would have been no need for a fast track through the Legislature. The legislators did the bidding of the municipalities they have strong ties to. Now the public needs to tell them and the municipal leaders who pushed for these changes that we have had enough of their attacks on transparent government.

The problem is clear. Many of these legislators feel immune from the impact of public displeasure. They in many cases have not faced serious challenges to their incumbency. For members of the Senate there will not be a need to face the voters again until 2027. Holders of seats in the Assembly will next be up for reelection in 2025.

The challenge to the county line voting process, if it holds up for both parties in a less temporary way, could make 2025 an interesting year.

Here at home in the 1st District, Sen. Michael Testa was against the bill, a position he took consistently as the bill moved through committee to the full vote. He was one of three no votes in the budget committee and then cast the same negative vote when the bill came to the full Senate.

Our Assemblymen saw the bill differently. Both Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen voted yes on the bill in the full Assembly ballot. Both individuals have strong ties to local governing bodies they served on immediately prior to moving to the Assembly in 2020. Both also hold public employment in the county, which may have led to a different view of the OPRA reforms.

In the end local governments got what they wanted from the Legislature. Now all eyes turn to Gov. Phil Murphy who over two weeks after the bill hit his desk has not even hinted at how he will decide its fate.

Murphy can sign the bill, veto it, or request certain changes in exchange for his agreeing to sign it. More is at play here than the bill itself since legislative leaders could seek their pound of flesh if Murphy vetoes the bill. They have the power to delay or kill some bill the governor wants, making him more of a lame duck executive than he already is. 

We will be watching what Murphy does, but we cannot depend on him to do our work for us. The public did not want this bill. The Legislature did the bidding of the municipalities regardless of public opinion. If the legislators and the local officials who push for these changes see no consequences, then we have become complicit in making government less transparent.

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From the Bible: It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. Psalm 118:8

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