Controversial bill to revamp NJ public records law yanked

Bloustein Local Government | News

New Jersey Assembly leaders pumped the brakes on the steamroller seeking to amend the state’s Open Public Records Act, acknowledging the widespread opposition to a host of changes that would make it more difficult for the public to gain access to public documents.

The bill (A-4045) was to have gotten a final committee hearing on Thursday but was pulled from the Assembly Appropriations Committee’s agenda less than an hour before the meeting was scheduled to start.

A few minutes later, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) tweeted a statement that there was not enough time to draft amendments and “have further meetings with members of the public” prior to the meeting.

“We will take the time needed to meet with various stakeholders to modernize OPRA in a way that protects the public from having their personal information, drivers’ license numbers, and other sensitive information available for anyone to see,” he tweeted. “We are working on various amendments to ensure we get the bill right.”

The new legislation would provide for the redaction of personal information from documents, but it would also go much further in making it more difficult for individuals to get public records in the first place.

Urging lawmakers to take a step back

Marc Pfeiffer was the first director of the Government Records Council, which hears certain appeals of record denials. He sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to step back, take more time and get more input before changing the law. “To do this right, you need to gather some real data, you need to talk to a lot of people and give lots of people an opportunity to be heard,” said Pfeiffer, associate director of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

“Consider alternatives,” he said in an interview. “Run them by all those people to see in the real world how they will work and if they are workable. Understand the costs of change. And then proceed … [The Office of Legislative Services] doesn’t have the resources to do all of that in a short period of time.”

Why the rush?

No one has yet explained what the rush is; most bills move more slowly through the Legislature, with ones that involve spending money typically getting at least two committee hearings in each house over the course of several months or more before final consideration.

Referring to Sarlo’s statement, Pfeiffer said moving too fast would be harmful.

“I would suggest there’s no pressing reason to rush anything through in a few months,” Pfeiffer told NJ Spotlight News. “The attention that’s been placed on this has given the Legislature and the governor the opportunity to really rethink how we manage public records in the state of New Jersey in an era of increasing public expectations, of access to information, declining trust in government, increasing technology that provides lots of opportunities as well as challenges. Those are all reasons why you need to do this right and take some time.”

NJ Spotlight News, March 15, 2024