March 15-21 is National Sunshine Week, a yearly event that highlights the importance of open government and our “right to know” as citizens engaged in our own governance.
Established in 2001, the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG) is the only organization in New Jersey dedicated solely to improving public access to government records and meetings. NJFOG works to educate residents about the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and also works to strengthen these laws and increase compliance.
Amendments to OPMA and OPRA now in the Legislature – bills S781/A2900 and S782/A2763, respectively – are intended to modernize and reform the existing laws. Proposed reforms include, but are not limited to, stronger public notice requirements, a requirement that minutes be approved within 60 days, an increase in the minimum time allotted for public comment, application of the laws to many quasi-governmental entities that are substantially controlled by a governmental agency, and mandatory reimbursement of costs to successful plaintiffs (now only under OPRA).
There are some other New Jersey bills that will also affect your “right to know”.
S1236, sponsored by Senator Peter Barnes, addresses the need for greater transparency in police internal affairs investigations. S1236 would establish a 2-year pilot program in Edison Township whereby the New Jersey Attorney General’s office would assume the police internal affairs function for the township. NJFOG supports S1236 with an amendment that provides for public disclosure of the internal affairs records at the end of the 2-year pilot.
A841 provides that, for law enforcement incident reports, the address of a person would be considered confidential. NJFOG strongly opposes this bill for the simple reason that there is often a need by journalists, researchers and other citizens to contact persons who have been involved in a particular incident. Redaction of address from incident reports would prevent necessary communication that may benefit the general public or the person involved.
S2181 (A3417) and S2183 (A3350) are perhaps the most well publicized pieces of legislation. These bills provide for broad reform of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The bills passed the New Jersey legislature in 2014 with unanimous support, as did sister bills in New York. S2181 includes public meetings provisions, among other reforms, while access to public records is addressed by S2183, which brings the Port Authority under both New Jersey’s OPRA law and New York’s freedom of information law. S2183 was conditionally vetoed and is awaiting amendment, while S2181 was vetoed outright.
It’s particularly noteworthy that an override vote on S2181 is scheduled by the New Jersey Senate during Sunshine Week, on March 16.
Click here for a longer press release with additional information on the above topics and NJFOG activities.
The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government welcomes invitations to speak throughout the state and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those who would like to learn more can join the NJFOG Q&A Forum on Facebook and find a host of resources on the Foundation’s website (www.NJFOG.org) and main Facebook page (www.facebook.com/NJFOG).
Asbury Park Press editorial: “Open government elusive in N.J.”
NJTV News video and post: “Sunshine Week Highlights Importance of Government Transparency”