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The New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) is a major factor in how citizens across the state, including the members of the media, learn how governmental decisions are made and how our tax dollars are spent.

Our knowledge of what's going on in Town Hall is what keeps government transparent in their decision making and taxpayer dollar spending.

In an extremely controversial move, and a blow to transparency and accountability for New Jersey residents, Democrat Governor Phil Murphy today signed into law legislation that will take some information that’s currently public and shield it from view.

The bill, S-2930 - which was extremely fast tracked through the Legislature - is the most substantial overhaul of OPRA since it came into being 22 years ago. The new law will effectively gut access to public records.

While most Republicans voted adamantly against the bill, Senator Robert Singer and Assemblyman Sean Kean who represent Lakewood, voted in Committee and on the floor in favor of the bill. Democrat Assemblyman Avi Schnall also voted strongly in favor of the bill.

The legislation curtails the public's access to government documents and data. Specifically, it would:

• Continue to limit access to government email and text messages.

• Allow public agencies acting as records custodians to charge heavy fees to release information — without the burden of demonstrating that the released information is complete.

• Render it nearly impossible for New Jersey attorneys to combat instances when records requests are denied by public entities. As proposed, the law disables a current feature of OPRA that allows attorneys to recoup fees from agencies that wrongly deny requests.

The updated bill includes the renewed ability to make anonymous requests and will continue to allow requesters to seek call and email logs and digital calendars.

It implements stricter requirements on how to request things like texts and emails, including specific accounts, times, topics and titles.

There are modifications to the provision limiting access to metadata to allow for access only to the "portion that identifies authorship, identity of editor, and time of change."

One of the most controversial portions of the bill is known as the fee-shifting provision. This provision previously required public record custodians that had not, according to a judge, properly provided records to pay the requesters' attorney fees.

The bill initially changed that to say winners of OPRA lawsuits "may" be entitled to legal fees if the public agency is found to have knowingly violated the law or unreasonably denied access. In its amended form, the bill still eliminates the attorney fee requirement but does allow for judges to decide that fees are warranted if the denial was unreasonable, if the agency “acted in bad faith, or knowingly and willfully violated” the law.

The amendments also include language that would allow for a court to “issue a protective order limiting the number and scope of requests the requester may make” if they “sought records with the intent to substantially interrupt the performance of government function.”

The bill was introduced to the Legislature in March. While it sped through the state Senate budget committee, chaired by its sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Bergen County Democrat, it was pulled from consideration by the Assembly Appropriations Committee for amendments just minutes before it was scheduled to be heard.

The bill reappeared in mid-May in committee in both chambers where it was met with hours of testimony in opposition. Ultimately, it cleared both committees and passed by both full chambers within five days.

The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sarlo, D-Bergen, and state Sen. Anthony Bucco Jr., R-Morris, and by Assemblyman Joseph Danielsen, D-Somerset, and Assemblymember Victoria Flynn, R-Monmouth. While Danielsen and Flynn defended the bill on the chamber floor before the vote, Sarlo did not and Bucco was not present.

In drafting the bill, the legislation's sponsors are listening to the concerns of small-town New Jersey mayors, according to State Senate President Nick Scutari.

The Senate vote was 21-10. Oddly, Republican leader, Anthony M. Bucco, a co-sponsor in the Senate, was not in the chamber for the big vote.

The Assembly vote was 44-25.

There were plenty of boos and jeers from the gallery.

While most Republicans voted adamantly against the bill, Senator Robert Singer and Assemblyman Sean Kean who represent Lakewood, voted in Committee and on the floor in favor of the bill. Democrat Assemblyman Avi Schnall also voted strongly in favor of the bill.

Advocates have said that Murphy's signature erases decades of progress in gaining access to documents and information paid for by New Jersey taxpayers.

“The public opposition to S2930/A4045 was a powerful display of democracy at its best – advocates, stakeholders, and 81% of voters from across the ideological spectrum made it clear that New Jersey should be strengthening government transparency, not undermining it in backroom deals," said Sarah Fajardo, policy director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "It’s shameful that despite overwhelming concerns from their constituents, lawmakers fast-tracked, and the governor signed, a bill that severely restricts access to government records and limits the public’s ability to hold elected officials accountable. But we know that voters will have the last word at the ballot box next year — and maybe then Legislators will remember who they are meant to serve.”

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Anonymous said...

They were asked or instead instructed by the Lakewood VAAD to close OPRA, so they can keep everything under cover like a diaper does.

Anonymous said...

When in doubt to the intention follow the money.