League of Municipalities called “a bad partner,” blamed for halting OPMA and OPRA reform

Disappointingly, OPMA and OPRA reform bills S781 and S782, which were scheduled for a 6/23 vote by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, were pulled from the Committee’s agenda.  This follows multiple revisions and intense negotiations by many interested parties.  NJFOG, the ACLU-NJ, NJPA and SPJ-NJ all supported the bills with Senator Weinberg’s amendments, which we feel represent an improvement over existing law as well as a compromise of the interests of all parties.  -NJFOG

Weinberg blames lobbying group for tanking N.J. public records legislation

By Matt Friedman
June 23, 2015
NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
(The full article is posted below.)

TRENTON — The sponsor of legislation to update and expand the state’s public records laws on Tuesday blamed an organization that lobbies on behalf of municipalities for tanking it.

The two bills that would broaden the Open Public Records Act (S782) and the Open Public Meetings Act (S781) had been scheduled for a hearing in the state Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday — two weeks after the bills initially stalled there.

But the votes weren’t there to approve them.

“The League of Municipalities was a bad partner,” state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said of the organization, which represents the state’s 565 towns and cities. “Every time we made another compromise, they moved the goal post.”

The New Jersey Press Association, which represents the state’s newspapers, supported the legislation. Weinberg said it took years to put together.

“To have certain people in both caucuses undermining this effort was very disappointing, but I can count,” Weinberg said, declining to name the lawmakers who opposed it.

Weinberg said that she believes the League of Municipalities opposed the bill because it subjected them to the Open Public Records Act. The state Supreme Court in 2011, however, ruled that the League is subject to the law, requiring them to turn over many documents upon request.

“Not under our law they’re not,” Weinberg said. “A court case, not under the law.”

But the League’s outgoing executive director, Bill Dressel, disputed Weinberg’s characterization of his group’s opposition.

“That’s very unfair, because we’re already subject to the open public records act, have been for the last several years,” he said.

In a position paper, the League singled out several other parts of the bills, including their exemptions of the Legislature from many requirements imposed on other governing bodies.

The League also wanted the law to be changed so that judges would no longer be required to award attorneys’ fees to successful plaintiffs in Open Public Records Act appeals. Instead, Weinberg wanted to expand that requirement to Open Public Meetings Act. And the League wanted to allow governing bodies to recoup attorneys’ fees if they prevailed.

“It may be convenient for her to make those kinds of comments, but it’s not factually true and we have repeatedly given her our list,” Dressel said. “We’ve been very flexible and very consistent from day one.”

The far-reaching bill would, among other things, expand the definition of a “public body” subject to the laws to include independent authorities, redevelopment entities, improvement authorities and quasi-governmental agencies.

The government agencies would have to record audio of their meetings and make them available unedited to the public within five days of the meeting. They would not be allowed to restrict videotaping by attendees.

And they would have to include brief summaries of agenda items before the meetings, including how much money is at stake in proposed contracts. In records requests, they’d have to explain in more detail what information they’ve redacted and why they redacted it.

Chances that the bill will eventually get a full vote in the state Senate appear slim.

“I see other permeations of this that I’ll be working on,” Weinberg said. “But I am very disappointed on behalf of the residents in the state of New Jersey, that particularly locally they’re represented by a lobbying group that’s dedicated to keeping as much closed as they possibly can.”