Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said Tuesday she has reintroduced two bills designed to overhaul and modernize New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act and Open Public Records Act, in an effort to improve government transparency.
The first bill in the package, (S-1452), would broaden access to government records, by allowing anyone to make an OPRA request, not just New Jersey residents, and by allowing records requests to be made on documents other than the adopted form, so long as it contains notice that it is an OPRA request and contains the information required on the adopted form.
The bill would also extend OPRA obligations to quasi-governmental organizations engaged in service to the public, such as the New Jersey League of Municipalities, the New Jersey School Boards Association, and joint insurance groups or funds for political subdivisions of the state.
The bill would allow for the option of e-mailing records requests to the requestor without charge, and would limit the application of special service charges by the records custodian.
Finally, the bill would change the standard for violations of OPRA from “knowingly and willfully” violating the law to “gross negligence,” defined as conduct marked by a gross deviation from the law or duties imposed by the position of custodian of a government record.
“The public has a reasonable expectation to transparency from government, and while New Jersey has, in the past, led the charge nationally in adopting public records and meeting laws, it’s time that we update and expand those laws to stay ahead of new trends in technology,” Weinberg said. “In the Digital Age, our current laws governing public meetings and records requests have fallen behind the times, and have created large gaps in transparency. It’s time to correct the deficiencies in the law, and bring OPRA and the Sunshine Law into the 21st Century.
“In this day and age, if I submit an OPRA request on a cocktail napkin, so long as it contains the necessary information, that should be enough,” Weinberg said. “The guarantee of transparency under OPRA shouldn’t stop at our borders, nor should it be dependent on pro forma mechanics.
“While many records custodians are living up to their responsibilities under OPRA, there are some who feel they need to be the gatekeepers of public information,” Weinberg said. “By simply failing to produce documents in a timely and appropriate manner, these officials are shirking one of the most important responsibilities of government – to be accountable to the governed. In those instances when a records custodian is defying the spirit of the law and the goal of transparency, it’s my sincere hope that their misconception about the role of government be corrected, or the person be removed from the post.”