“The experience [of trying to make use of OPRA] seems to reveal a cultural resistance to the law, almost as if bureaucrats feel they need to protect public records – from the public. … Failure to fully comply with OPRA laws is undermining the public’s right to know what their government is doing.” -The Jersey Journal. Reporter Terrence T. McDonald interviewed NJFOG president Walter Luers for this editorial, found here and also posted below.
Editorial by The Jersey Journal
Posted on NJ.com
March 25, 2015
The New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) is intended to give the people the right to know what is happening in their local, county and state governments and to better take part in the democratic process. In Hudson County, it is obvious that the law is not functioning as it was intended.
Jersey Journal reporter Terrence T. McDonald detailed the difficulty encountered in trying to make use of OPRA. The experience seems to reveal a cultural resistance to the law, almost as if bureaucrats feel they need to protect public records – from the public. It is a common complaint of journalists and activists since the law was enacted in 2001, so one can only imagine what the average citizen faces on occasion.
To commemorate Sunshine Week, The Jersey Journal asked for a list of every public employee in Hudson County, including the workers’ titles, hire dates and pay information. The newspaper wanted the data emailed in spreadsheet format, which is considered the easiest way to send the information in this advanced age of technology and it makes comparing the material effortless. The requests were made of about 60 public entities within Hudson County’s 12 municipalities.
Among the hurdles is the insistence by public entities that OPRA requests be made on their own specific public records forms — although standardized forms are not required. Many agencies do not have OPRA forms on their websites, if they have websites, notes McDonald, who adds that some officials seemed unwilling or unable to email the information. There are also those public information managers who would not honor the request for data on a spreadsheet but instead use pdf files, which does not allow for a meaningful analysis of information, according to data experts.
Perhaps the most inexcusable roadblock is foot dragging by record keepers. OPRA requires a response to a request within seven business days. It took The Jersey Journal about two months to complete its mission. OPRA requires public entities to respond to requests within seven business days, but 18 of the 60 Hudson County entities contacted by the newspaper were late, with the Harrison school district taking 84 days.
Honoring an OPRA request can also prove costly to taxpayers as in the cases of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue and the North Bergen Housing Authority who chose to use outside law firms to handle Journal requests. A spokesperson for the agencies said they have no clerks available to handle specific public records requests and offered that the law firms had reasonable rates.
It is also seems a total waste of money. OPRA is specific about what salary information can be given to the public. Even if there is no clerk available, it doesn’t take much to have documents readily available to hand out.
While there are complaints about private firms mining municipalities for data or fear by some elected officials that OPRA requests maybe politically motivated, unless there are legislative remedies, the law is in effect for everyone.
This newspaper agrees with Walter Luers, president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, who was interviewed by McDonald, that most of the problems with obtaining public records would be solved by providing the information online – in the Journal’s case, public salaries.
“I think it should be total compensation on an annual basis,” Luers said. “I think that should include bonuses, the premium of the employer-paid health care, longevity pay … That would save people a lot of time and money.”
Failure to fully comply with OPRA laws is undermining the public’s right to know what their government is doing. It is for everyone, not just journalists. It would also help if those entities that have no websites, or those that have not been updated to include OPRA forms, join the rest of us in the 21st century.