N.J. Sen. Loretta Weinberg proposes expanded access to public records

N.J. Sen. Loretta Weinberg proposes expanded access to public records

February 4, 2010  Star Ledger

New Jerseyans would gain greater access to public records and more awareness of government meetings under two bills introduced today by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

"We want to change the culture of those people who are custodians of records, of public officials, who think it is their responsibility and duty to keep these things from the public," Weinberg (D-Bergen) said at a news conference in Trenton. "The public owns everything we do."

One measure would update the 2001 Open Public Records Act and rename it in honor of Martin O’Shea, a retired newspaper reporter and editor who bedeviled government officials with detailed requests and a willingness to take denials to court. O’Shea died in December.

The other measure, involving the Sen. Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act, would affect how officials publicize upcoming meetings, and require they list the precise time when the meeting will be open to public comment. It also would add provisions involving electronic communication.

The open-records law, or OPRA, was designed to give citizens clear rights to examine such state and local government documents as contracts, payrolls, meeting minutes, budgets and correspondence, and it set a response time of seven days. But requesters often don’t get what they seek, experts said.

Weinberg’s amendment would order that records requests be given "prompt and immediate attention" — perhaps, she said, in as little as three hours.

It would set copy fees of 10 cents and 15 cents a page; compel employees who oversee records to disclose why any information has been withheld; and do away with a standardized form.

Weinberg’s proposed meetings-law measure takes into account the technology that did not exist in 1975, when the initial measure was signed. It would prohibit public officials from communicating with one another by text, mobile e-mail or similar means as they are meeting. Officials who "gather" and do public business electronically — by e-mail, for example — would have to disclose their actions just as they would for an in-person meeting.

Also, the meetings law would apply to all state boards, independent authorities, redevelopment bodies and other quasi-governmental groups. It would disallow any rule preventing the public from taping, photographing or otherwise recording meetings; require Internet posting of minutes, agendas and schedules for bodies that maintain web sites; and require 72 hours’ advance notice rather than 48 hours.

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