Sarlo’s OPRA stink bomb needs to be defused

Bloustein Local Government | News

Just when taxpayers got used to the notion that public records actually belong to the public, our most powerful lawmakers have decided that it’s time to choke off access.

In a state notorious for government corruption and poor transparency, New Jersey’s Legislature will attempt to gut the venerable but dated Open Public Records Act, which is a ludicrous idea if you only consider the treacheries that were revealed by the OPRA law.

It is a cortex-snapping litany: Because of OPRA, reporters were able to shake free internal emails and other documents that exposed the causes of the meltdown of our veterans’ homes during the pandemic. Because of OPRA, law enforcement was fundamentally changed in our state, after records showed major disparities in how police use excessive force. Because of OPRA, inspection records for a group home led to a state investigation of the alleged abuse of a severely disabled woman. Because of OPRA, the Office of the Medical Examiner was found to be a dysfunctional joke — bungling crime investigations, mangling corpses, and misplacing body parts.

These are just a few recent examples of how one news organization – this news organization – uses OPRA. But it is used every day by reporters, activists, and citizens who seek information from various departments and agencies about taxpayer funds, pollution levels, public safety, and countless other government functions that would otherwise never see the light of day.

Sarlo didn’t even bother to consult Marc Pfeiffer of the Rutgers-Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, who ran the GRC when the law was enacted in 2002. Pfeiffer’s take is blunt: “Bludgeons create a mess, and rapiers are surgical. This bill uses a bludgeon to try to deal with outliers that exist within OPRA.”

The reason for this overkill: Our elected officials seek to give government departments and agencies more freedom to stonewall public requests for information, which makes a state with a lousy reputation for transparency even more opaque., March 10, 2024