An assault on transparency in Trenton
Lawmakers want to limit residents’ access to public records
The Open Public Records Act has been a vital tool for uncovering abuse and corruption by government officials. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
Assemblyman Joe Danielsen is right about one thing: Access to public records is probably not an issue that comes up on the campaign trail a lot.
Danielsen, a Somerset County Democrat, is behind four bills introduced last week that he says would reform the state Open Public Records Act, the law that governs what documents created by state, county, and local governments are open to public inspection. In reality, the bills would gut OPRA and allow government officials at all levels in New Jersey to hide what they’re doing.
Danielsen told our Nikita Biryukov this is not an issue important to the public.
“I’ve knocked on tens of thousands of doors over the last 25 years. Never once did anyone have a concern with public records access,” he said. “That’s not in the top 100 of their concerns, but what is in their concerns is the tens of millions of dollars that are being wasted on abuse of the system.”
I’m sure many New Jerseyans do not profess to worry about access to public records when their elected officials come to their door asking for their vote. But I bet they care about the kinds of corruption, malfeasance, and just plain dumb behavior that access to public records has uncovered.
What if you asked them if they’re concerned that prosecutors can secretly get their hands on their child’s DNA during criminal investigations? We only know about that practice largely because we at the New Jersey Monitor partnered with the state Office of the Public Defender to sue the state to obtain records on the matter.
What if you asked them if they’re concerned about how many police officers in their town are using force against people in their custody? If it weren’t for a team of reporters from NJ Advance Media who spent 16 months using OPRA to compile use-of-force records, we would not have that kind of information at our fingertips.
What if you asked them if they’re concerned that managers at New Jersey’s veterans homes planned to penalize staff during the early months of the pandemic if they wore masks around their elderly and at-risk patients, and that Gov. Phil Murphy’s office helped them with this effort? We have OPRA to thank for this, and NorthJersey.com’s Scott Fallon, who fought for the emails exposing this scandal.
And those are just the OPRA success stories. In the months following the COVID-19 outbreak — when Gov. Phil Murphy forced the closure of countless businesses and all schools — his administration decided the public did not have the right to see the records made when his administration was making those decisions. If Danielsen went door-knocking and asked his constituents whether that concerns them, what do you think most of them would say?
Danielsen says the bills he’s introduced are part of an effort to limit how commercial operators use OPRA to further their business interests, like the invisible fence installer who wanted public dog registration records so he could target customers and had to fight Jersey City all the way up to the New Jersey Supreme Court to get them (Jersey City lost that long fight, one its taxpayers paid for).
But they would also limit the use of the law by residents with legitimate concerns about how government operates in a state where, per a recent poll, most people think their elected officials are crooks. The bills would allow clerks to take longer to respond to requests, limit when people who are denied records can ask a judge to intervene, let government officials bar residents from filing too many requests, and even (if I’m reading this correctly, and I truly hope I’m not) require people to go to their town hall to get records that could easily be emailed.
This much is obvious: These bills are an assault on the Open Public Records Act, and on the residents of New Jersey who use the law to get their hands on records that often make government officials look bad.
And — considering some moves the Legislature has made recently, like voting to allow government officials to shield their home addresses from their constituents — they are undoubtedly part of a movement in the Statehouse to curb transparency, to limit what we know about public officials and their actions. Shame on anyone who supports these bills.
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