Tucked in desk drawers and filed away in email inboxes in every local and county office in New Jersey are government secrets.
To find them, news reporters, attorneys and even local gadflies, using access laws like the Open Public Records Act, sift through the contracts, permits and memos piled atop desks or stashed on hard drives.
But some state lawmakers say local governments are being swamped with frivolous and time-consuming requests and want to put a stop to it.
Enacted more than two decades ago, OPRA was intended to give members of the public — particularly the news media — timely access to government records, from local budgets to police reports and state government contracts, said Marc Pfeiffer, a senior fellow at the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University, who helped draft the law.
At the time, “records” mostly meant reams of paper.
“We didn’t have a lot of digital stuff back then,” Pfeiffer said. “Email was something new. Text messaging was non-existent.”
It has since become a popular tool of journalists and activists, who use the law to obtain and examine emails, memos and contracts, providing insight into the functions of government. Recent investigations by the news media into police overtime, COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and even Jersey Shore boardwalk scams relied on documents obtained through OPRA.
Pfeiffer said changes to OPRA are “long overdue.” He said he hoped the new legislation would spark debate in Trenton over problems with the law that its creators never anticipated.
“We need to turn down the volume of critics and advocates on either side and have a more informed conversation,” he said.
Himself a former records custodian, Pfeiffer said a small government’s operations can be derailed by a single request from a law firm seeking accident victim information or even a pet care company trying to ferret out the town’s dog owners.
“The office now has to figure out how to deploy people who already have jobs they’re doing, with deadlines to meet,” Pfeiffer said. “How do they prioritize their daily activities and some unknown number of hours to fulfill this request?”
Whatever changes are made to OPRA, he said, should closely balance the public’s right to know with disrupting the functions of government.