New Jersey lawmakers pass overhaul of state’s open records law

The move came despite objections from civil rights groups, the state’s press association and The Associated Press. The legislation now heads to Gov. Phil Murphy.

The New Jersey legislature

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, in the central chair on the dais, moderates debate over legislation overhauling the state’s open records in Trenton, N.J., Monday, May 13, 2024. Over jeers of “shame” shouted from the gallery, state lawmakers passed legislation to overhaul the state's open public records law despite objections from civil rights groups and the state's press association. The Associated Press signed onto a letter by the state's press association urging the bill to be rejected. (AP Photo/Mike Catalini)

Over jeers of “shame” shouted from the gallery, New Jersey lawmakers on Monday passed legislation to overhaul the state’s open public records law despite objections from civil rights groups and the state’s press association.

The Democrat-led Assembly and Senate passed the legislation that heads now to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, whose spokesperson declined to comment on the measure.

The legislation covers the state’s Open Public Records Act, which the public and journalists regularly use to get documents from state and local governments, including budgets, agency receipts, public salaries, correspondence and other information not always easy to unearth.

The bill’s sponsors say they back transparency and want to help beleaguered clerks who cannot always handle a wave of requests, sometimes from commercial interests. The bill’s opponents argued that the measures in the legislation would make it harder to get documents and comes at a time when public trust in government is uncertain.

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There was no debate in the Senate, but Assembly members sparred back and forth before the measure ultimately passed.

“The bill oppresses the public” Republican Assemblymember Brian Bergen said from the floor.

Democratic Assemblyman Joe Danielsen said the Open Public Records Act, commonly called OPRA, was in significant need of updating. He pointed to businesses that are “profiteering” from requests made to local governments.

“I see the vast majority of OPRA requests being approved,” he said. “This bill does nothing to change that.”

New Jersey’s Open Public Records was last significantly updated more than two decades ago, the impetus for revisiting the legislation.

Among the changes included in the legislation is a provision that permits commercial interests to pay up to twice the cost of producing records; language that authorizes agencies to bring a case to state court against requesters determined to be interrupting “government function”; and the end of the requirement for towns to pay attorneys’ fees in court cases they lose over records requests.

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The last provision could make it hard for members of the public and news reporters to afford to challenge local and state governments in court because of how costly engaging in litigation can be, according to the bill’s opponents.

The Associated Press signed onto a letter by New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists urging the rejection of the legislation.

Passing without any debate in the Senate, some people in the gallery shouted “shame” and booed when Senate President Nicholas Scutari closed the vote.

“They voted for more secrecy and government corruption,” said CJ Griffin, an attorney who frequently argues on behalf of those seeking records and an opponent of the legislation.

The proposed legislation emerged earlier this year and initially sought to end commercial records requests, but after an outcry from opponents, legislative leaders held closed-door meetings with stakeholders and unveiled an amended bill. Gone was the prohibition on commercial requests, and instead a provision allowing them to pay for the release of records was added.

Senate Budget Committee chairman Paul Sarlo said a sticking point was the issue of attorneys fees, which lawmakers had considered capping rather than mandating they be paid by towns when records are determined to be improperly withheld. But he said stakeholders couldn’t agree on the amount of a cap.

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