New Jersey Legislators Advance a Bill Overhauling the State's Open Records Law

New Jersey lawmakers are moving forward with a bill to change the state’s public records access law. This has sparked a new round of debate, as similar changes were previously halted due to strong opposition from civil rights and other groups.

The budget committee of the state Senate, which is led by Democrats, approved the changed legislation on Thursday. The Assembly counterpart is scheduled to discuss the bill on Friday.

The bill is being brought back after Republican minority leader Anthony Bucco agreed to support it. This decision was made after an influential group representing over 500 towns and cities in the state agreed to some changes in the legislation.

One of the proposed changes is to allow real estate developers and others to request commercial records, which is currently prohibited. Instead, under the new measure, government clerks would have up to 14 days to respond to requests for records. Additionally, commercial interests would be allowed to pay up to twice the cost of producing the records.

“When both sides are not happy, a good compromise is achieved,” stated Paul Sarlo, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

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Civil rights groups, citizens, and media organisations spoke out against the measure on Thursday. They were particularly concerned about the removal of attorney fee shifting, which is a crucial part of the current law. This provision ensures that government agencies only have to pay legal fees if they are found to have wrongly denied access to records.

According to attorney CJ Gryphon, who testified against it on Thursday, that provision is important because journalists and the public often don’t have enough money to pay for expensive legal cases to get records.

“According to Gryphon, if you want to handle commercial requests, this bill is not effective.” “This bill greatly reduces transparency.” The sponsors of the bill argued that if a government records custodian acted in bad faith, a court could decide that attorneys’ fees were justified.

Another new part of the proposed measure that faced opposition on Thursday was the permission to file lawsuits in state Superior Court for records that requesters have found to be disrupting “government function.”

Sarlo said he believed the criticism was not correct, but he did not provide any details. Lori Buckelew, a high-ranking member of The League of Municipalities, advocated for the legislation. She believes that the changes are important in order to safeguard taxpayer money from excessive and burdensome records requests.

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Paul Mordany, who is the mayor of Deptford, New Jersey, mentioned that his town currently has 200 requests that are waiting to be addressed. However, only three of these requests are from residents of the town. The remaining individuals are lawyers, real estate developers, and other commercial interests. The town clerk responsible for handling requests under the Open Public Records Act, or OPRA, said that the stress takes a toll on him.

“He said that he sat in her office multiple times while she cried over OPRA requests,” When people can see emails and other public records from officials, it often leads to news stories that explain how the government operates.

In 2018, the records law led to the release of emails that revealed the former governor’s administration collaborating with utility company executives to persuade lawmakers to provide a $300 million bailout for their nuclear plants.

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