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KIYC: Lawmaker introduces bills that could make it more difficult to request public records

Citizens across the state rely on the Open Public Record Act to learn how governmental decisions are made and how tax dollars are spent.

Walt Kane

Jun 28, 2023, 2:36 AM

Updated 361 days ago


A package of bills in Trenton could dramatically reduce the public’s ability to learn what the government is doing, causing transparency experts to sound the alarm. Kane In Your Corner dug into what’s at stake.
From exposing unreported accidents at New Jersey amusement parks, to showing how some school districts mishandled bullying investigations, many of Kane In Your Corner’s most impactful investigations have been built on information obtained in public records. But the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) isn’t used only by journalists. Citizens across the state rely on it to learn how governmental decisions are made and how tax dollars are spent.
But that could soon get much harder if Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D - Somerset) has his way. Danielsen has written a package of four bills that would take some information that’s currently public and shield it from view. And, for now at least, Danielsen is declining to talk about the issue. His office failed to return messages for three days, and when Kane In Your Corner spoke to Danielsen at a legislative hearing he chaired last week, Danielsen said “I’m not discussing (OPRA) today,” then responded to questions by sitting in silence.
Attorney and transparency advocate C.J. Griffin says if the legislation passes, “We're going to be less transparent and more corrupt as a state.”
Danielsen’s legislation would mean people whose OPRA requests are denied would no longer be able to appeal in court. Instead, they’d have to rely on the state’s Government Records Council. The GRC typically takes over two years to render decisions. Another provision allows agencies to essentially “blacklist” people they think make too many OPRA requests, by seeking a court order stating it never has to provide records to that person again.
Griffin says people in that situation would likely have no one to advocate for them because another provision would eliminate the current provision, in which agencies found to have broken the law have to pay the requestor’s attorney fees. Danielsen’s legislation would leave that to the discretion of the judge. Griffin says attorneys would be less likely to take on OPRA cases as a result.
The bill also seeks to make a laundry list of current public records exempt from scrutiny. Among them: information about sexual harassment complaints against public employers and communication with a government agency in connection with public contracts.
“How can we possibly keep people's communications to get a public contract confidential?” Griffin asks rhetorically. “That's an open door to corruption.”
Others contend OPRA needs to change. John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, says the law puts too much of a burden on overworked clerks. “There are county governments that receive 3,000 to 4,000 requests a year and have very small staffs. Some requests take 10 to 15 hours to complete,” he says.
But New Jersey is already one of the least transparent states in the country. A University of Arizona study found New Jersey agencies comply with just 25% of records requests. Only Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama had lower compliance rates.
In a written statement, Danielsen said, “The current OPRA laws are about 20 years old and it’s time we revisit and modernize them,” adding, “I want to bring everyone to the table and hear from both sides.”
Some transparency experts find that explanation hard to swallow. “I wonder why you would enter this atrocity of a bill into the record without first talking to people if that's your ultimate goal,” Griffin says.
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