Fast-tracked bill would gut N.J.’s open public records law, experts warn

March 8, 2024

As officials squabbled over a controversial $500,000 consulting contract to deal with the coronavirus crisis inside state-run nursing homes, New Jersey’s top health official made a prediction.

“This is going to be OPRAed,” former state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said in a secretly recorded 2020 conversation, before nursing home deaths exploded into a scandal for Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration. “It will hit the light of day.”

She was referring to the Open Public Records Act, the preferred tool of government watchdogs. Now, top Democrats in the state Legislature are fast-tracking legislation to overhaul OPRA for the first time in more than two decades, giving local, county and state government more resources, time and leeway to fulfill records requests.

Transparency advocates are raising the alarm, saying the proposal would gut OPRA and make it harder for the press, activists and everyday citizens to shine light on government functions.

……..

Marc Pfeiffer, a senior fellow at the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University who helped draft the current law in the early 2000s, said reform was “long overdue” but that the bill as written doesn’t solve many of OPRA’s shortcomings.

“While the bill creates some streamlining, it complicates many issues,” he said.

Pfeiffer said the current bill doesn’t address OPRA’s biggest problem: the Government Records Council. Created along with OPRA to play referee between citizens and their government in records fights, the GRC takes more than two years on average to settle a dispute, a 2022 report from the state comptroller found.

NJ.com, March 8, 2024

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