Lawmakers’ push to shield their home addresses is misguided

December 19, 2022 7:10 am

Assembly members voting during a session on Dec. 15, 2022. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

It’s December and people are distracted, so naturally, New Jersey lawmakers are up to something.

This time around, they are seeking to shield themselves from the kind of publicly accessible information people can get about you or me with just a few clicks.

Assembly lawmakers voted Thursday to end a requirement that government officials statewide include the addresses of properties they own in annual financial disclosure forms. A separate bill approved unanimously by an Assembly committee last week would require public records to be redacted of elected officials’ property addresses.

I’ll leave it to the state’s records custodians to gripe about what a bureaucratic nightmare it would be to scrub the addresses of every elected official in the state — current and former, plus candidates for office —from existing public records.

No, my chief issue is with legislative leaders using the attacks on public officials’ loved ones — the recent assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband and the 2020 murder of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas’ son — to make it harder for us to find out about their financial assets.

“It’s a privacy package, as I like to call it,” Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli said when discussing the bills Monday.

Yeah, privacy for him and other elected officials. If someone wants to find out what property you or I own, they will remain able to.

Far be it from me to question the motives of our lawmakers, but it just so happens that their push to keep themselves and their loved ones safe will also make it more difficult to ferret out public corruption.

Are public workers performing tasks at your mayor’s house, potentially for free? Did your assemblywoman just win a big tax break for her million-dollar home? Is your state senator a slumlord in a nearby town? If these bills become law, you may still be able to find out the answers to these questions, but it’ll be a helluva lot harder.

I talked to Loretta Weinberg, the former senator and a champion of the state Open Public Records Act, about this push to shield officials’ property addresses from the public. Weinberg, who retired from the Legislature in January, said she understands the argument that public officials can be targeted at their homes but noted such attacks are rare.

Weinberg pointed out that it will probably be impossible for every elected official in the state to keep their address secret. It’s common to know where your local council person lives, and it’s implausible that every voting record, campaign finance form, nominating petition, etc., will be fully redacted.

“Anything that reduces the transparency of government and our elected representatives is never a good idea!” she said. “You cannot really guarantee that such information will be kept secret anyway, and the loss to transparency is too big.”

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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”