UPDATE: NJ lawmakers backtrack on restricting right to know

TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers voted Monday to advance a measure that could make it easier for government agencies to withhold documents under the state's open records law, casting it as a modernizing bill that would cut back on profiteering businesses.

Committees in the Democratic-led Senate and Assembly approved the fast-tracked legislation that comes months after members were up for election and amid a swirl of protest from transparency advocates who say the bill will make getting information from government more difficult.

Those opposed included two leading Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, first lady Tammy Murphy and Rep. Andy Kim, along with the state's office of the public defender, the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Testimony in the Senate Budget Committee went on for hours on Monday, overwhelmingly from those opposed to the measure, though there were supporters.

“This is an attack on transparency and part of a disturbing trend in the New Jersey Legislature, where lawmakers decrease public access to information under the guise of ‘transparency,’” according to a letter from the League of Women Voters, the ACLU and the Working Families Party to legislative leaders.

The measure makes a number of changes to New Jersey's Open Public Records Act, which dates from 1975 and aims to make records created and maintained by state and local agencies available to the public.

A major thrust of the bill is the prohibition of disclosure of any records to so-called data brokers, or commercial interests that collect and sell information provided by government agencies. Examples supporters of the bill gave included those seeking dog licensees or real estate information.

⚫ Among the changes are a requirement that custodians of records redact identifying information that they believe may result in “harassment," a requirement that critics say is vague and could provide for unnecessary redactions.

⚫ It explicitly relieves agencies of any obligation to convert records to an electronic medium; removes immediate access to records if they're older than one year, where under current law custodians “must ordinarily” grant immediate access to budgets, contracts and payment vouchers showing how public funds were used.

⚫ It requires that requesters use a form created by the agency they're seeking documents from, compared with the current situation in which agencies routinely acknowledge emailed requests for documents.

⚫ And it limits the disclosure of public officials' emails and correspondence unless a specific subject and time frame are delineated.

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The bill's sponsors pushed back at the notion that it was aimed at limiting access to public records.

They said the legislation is a necessary update to the law that hasn't been overhauled in more than two decades. It's also aimed at reducing a wave of requests inundating local governments, particularly by commercial interests, according to the sponsors.

“I look at this as a modernization of OPRA,” state Sen. Paul Sarlo, the bill's sponsor and budget committee chairman, said. “We want to stop people from profiteering from OPRA on the backs of of the taxpayers.”

In some cases, town officials get overwhelmed by the number of records requests they face, taking over their entire shifts, according to Lori Buckelew, the director of government affairs for the influential League of Municipalities, which represents the state's towns. Processing and redacting one hour of police body cam footage, for instance, could take three hours, she said.

The bill's passage comes during Sunshine Week, a time when journalism, civic and other groups spotlight the importance of public records and open government, and just a year after Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and the Democratic-controlled Legislature upended state campaign finance laws to allow for higher contribution and spending limits.

Former state Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg called the bill an embarrassment and urged lawmakers to oppose it.

“This is a complete gut of OPRA,” she said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “It should be stopped! Please do not turn NJ backwards.”

Access to officials' emails and other public records regularly results in news stories aimed at shedding light on how the government works.

In 2018, for instance, the records law resulted in the disclosure of emails showing the then-governor's administration working with the executives of a utility company lobbying lawmakers for a $300 million bailout for its nuclear plants.

The measure also includes $8 million to provide for making records available electronically and for the state's Government Records Council, which hears disputes over publicizing records.

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Gallery Credit: Diana Tyler

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