Lawmakers to push for improved public access to government

Lawmakers to push for improved public access to government

3/17/2008 AP

Two New Jersey lawmakers want to make it easier for citizens to learn what their elected officials are up to.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan on Tuesday plan to discuss proposed legislation to improve public access to government.

The legislation is being touted in conjunction with Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort by media organizations to draw attention to the public's right to know.

The measures will be discussed at a Statehouse event sponsored by The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.

"New Jersey has an exceptional number of issues around open government and open meetings," said Beth Mason, the foundation's president. "Sunshine Week offers a tremendous opportunity for New Jerseyans to learn about what works, what doesn't and solutions on the horizon."

Weinberg has introduced legislation that would require public bodies to post on the Internet meeting schedules, agendas and minutes, resolutions adopted to close meetings to the public and the text of the state's Open Public Meetings Act.

The bill would clarify that public bodies must keep detailed minutes of closed meetings and review such minutes quarterly to see whether they can be made public.

It also would require the state attorney general to establish a toll-free telephone number and Internet e-mail address for members of the public to file complaints regarding noncompliance.

Another Weinberg proposal would require state and county public bodies to record closed meetings and make the recordings available to the public when proper, force public bodies to pay the legal bills to anyone who wins an Open Public Meetings Act complaint and allow for fines for public officials who violate the act.

Weinberg said her proposals will "bring open public meetings into the 21st century and will make sure they are uniformly conducted across the state."

"Since the original 1975 act, the advancement of new technologies has raised questions not envisioned when the Legislature adopted the measure three decades ago," said Weinberg, D-Bergen.

Cryan, D-Union, will discuss legislation to limit copying fees for public documents to no more than 10 cents per letter-size page and 15 cents per legal-size page, prices the foundation said are much closer to actual costs of copying.

State law currently has no uniform cost for public document copies.

Cryan said the issue came to his attention when he observed a couple about to lose their home being forced to pay $1 per page at a county office for copies of documents they needed to try to halt foreclosure.

"This bill represents a fair and equitable solution that would ensure all citizens have access to public records regardless of their financial ability to access them," Cryan said.

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