If you care even a little bit about whether government officials have to answer to citizens who elect them, you must read the astonishing piece by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Katz about his experiences with the New Jersey board that deals with citizen and media requests for public information.
Turns out the board, all appointees of the governor, include a campaign contributor of current Gov. Chris Christie and two of his current government appointees. And what a surprise – in 44 appeals of cases where state agencies rejected requests for information, the board ruled in favor of the agencies 44 times.
That’s not all.
Katz describes going to meetings in which the board takes public votes on cases, but only the board members know what they’re voting on. There’s no public discussion of the issue and no one attending the meeting has any idea what’s been decided.
And these aren’t trivial matters. Katz writes:
The Department of Treasury recently wouldn’t provide me a copy of a completed $335,000 report that may have prompted Christie to pursue privatizing the $2.6 billion state lottery. And when the Department of Community Affairs recently sent out a news release announcing new rules for affordable housing, it didn’t attach the actual rules. Turns out those won’t be public until July. We’ll see.
In another case, the board wouldn’t let a guy from Essex County see documents detailing how a politically connected nonprofit got a six-figure grant, even though it had applied months after the deadline.
A lot of us worry these days about whether struggling media organizations will have the horses to cover what goes in statehouses, city halls and school boards across the country.
But their jobs are that much harder if the governments they cover hide what they’re doing.
Access to public information is a basic building block of democracy, and it’s clear changes are needed in the Garden State. That’s up to the legislature.