KIYC: State lawmakers want to make it harder for the public to access public records

The legislation makes numerous changes to OPRA. Advocates say all of them would make information harder for the public to obtain.

Walt Kane

Mar 12, 2024, 2:20 AM

Updated 128 days ago


New Jersey lawmakers are trying to dramatically weaken the state's Open Public Records Act (OPRA), a move some say would lead to more corruption.
Government records have long been used by journalists and advocates to expose systemic injustices. A Kane In Your Corner investigation last month used public records – which took nearly a year to obtain – to discover New Jersey had a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits, even as state officials claimed there was “no backlog.” Stories like that are why many journalism, transparency and “good government” groups are lining up against the bill, which went to Assembly and Senate hearings on Monday.
“It's going to lead to more corruption at a time when New Jersey has already in the headlines for corruption every day,” says C.J. Griffin, an attorney who specializes in open records law.
The legislation makes numerous changes to OPRA. Advocates say all of them would make information harder for the public to obtain. Government agencies would be allowed to sue citizens who request records, claiming the requests amounted to “harassment.” The bill would limit the amount of emails people could obtain and would exempt metadata – the date and time a document is created – from disclosure altogether.
Griffin is especially concerned about a provision that says people who go to court to obtain records could have to pay their own attorney fees, even when an agency is found to have “willfully” violated the law. OPRA has always contained a “fee-shifting” provision stating that, in the event of a willful violation, the agency must pay court costs. Griffin says eliminating that provision could have a chilling effect.
“The average person probably doesn't have the $300 filing fee to file a lawsuit,” Griffin says, “and they certainly don't have thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer to go to court. And even if they do, they probably don't want to use their savings just to fight over a document.”
The bill has the support of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, which lobbies on behalf of local governments. The group says the law puts too much of a burden on towns and counties. But even some people who want the law to change say this legislation isn't the way to go. “Those people saying we should not touch OPRA are wrong,” says state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R – Holmdel). “But the folks saying that this is the way to do it, in this rushed manner… is not the way to do it.”
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.

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