KIYC: Does the Open Public Record Act Reform Bill damage democracy?

A New Jersey state Senate committee has approved the latest version of a bill that opponents say would gut the public’s right to know.

Walt Kane

May 10, 2024, 2:21 AM

Updated 19 days ago


A New Jersey state Senate committee has approved the latest version of a controversial bill that opponents say would gut the public’s right to public records and allow the government to operate in greater secrecy.
The bill, which would amend the state’s Open Public Records Act, passed the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee by a vote of 9-4. Some Democrats and Republicans voted for the bill and members of both parties also voted against it.
Lawmakers added amendments to the bill after the initial version sparked a public outcry earlier this year. “You know when both sides are not totally thrilled, you may have a good compromise,” says the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D) Wood-Ridge, who also chairs the committee.
But opponents say the worst parts of the bill are still there. Those parts include a provision that would end a practice known as fee-shifting, in which agencies found to have violated OPRA must pay the attorney fees of requestors who sue them and win. Those fees would now only be paid if the agency is found to have acted in “bad faith,” something advocates say is nearly impossible to prove.
“All the bill does is have provision after provision that makes it difficult to get records, to request them, and then if you get a denial, then you can’t really sue to enforce it,” says CJ Griffin, a media & public interest lawyer who has represented numerous news organizations, including News 12, in public records disputes with state and local agencies. “It guts OPRA. They gutted OPRA.”
In the past two decades, Kane In Your Corner has used government records, obtained under OPRA, to produce an array of investigations, including one that exposed New Jersey’s huge backlog of untested rape kits. Until Kane In Your Corner obtained the data, the state had insisted there was no backlog.
But supporters of the new bill say New Jersey’s current records law overburdens municipalities. “We had to hire somebody in the township clerk’s office, just to process OPRA requests,” says Deptford Mayor Paul Medany.
Transparency advocates accuse towns and counties of just wanting to act in secret. “Anyone who votes for this bill is voting to diminish democracy, and we’ll remember that,” Rebecca Givan, associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University.
The bill could be brought up for a vote as early as next week. Gov. Phil Murphy has still not said if he plans to sign or veto the bill.

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