Government transparency laws clear committee

Two bills designed to make government more transparent cleared committee Monday.

The new “Martin O’Shea Open Public Records Act,” designed to increase public access to government records, and a law designed to improve public access to meetings of elected officials were approved by the Senate Government, Wagering, Tourism, and Historic Preservation Committee.

In each case, the bills were approved in committee 4-0 with Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego (R-Evesham) abstaining pending review of substitutions she said she had not had time to go over. She said she was likely to support the bills. State Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Boonton) voted for each bill, but also said he wanted time to digest proposed changes.

The amended Open Public Records Act law, S1352, is named for O’Shea, a former newsman and open government advocate who passed away just over a year ago.

Among the changes to the OPRA law: records requesters no longer need to be citizens of New Jersey, criminal investigation records are expedited, and requests and responses can now be done more easily via email.

The meetings law, S1351, would do such things as ban the practice of public officials exchanging private messages via texting during meetings; severely limit closed sessions; extend the required period for adequate notice of a meeting from 48 hours to three business days and require such posting on an internet site if the organization in question maintains one; and provide that any gathering of a public body conducted by “new” technology such as instant messaging or electronic mail will constitute a public meeting.

State Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) and Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) sponsored the OPRA law, and Weinberg and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) sponsored the meetings law.

Weinberg told the committee, “I believe these two bills will make great strides in heading off what some people think are excesses in our political parties.’’

She said that the 40-year-old Sunshine Law and the 10-year-old OPRA law are in need of updating in light of how information is gathered, stored, and transmitted in the computer age.

“These two measures will drag the process out of the back room and into the cleansing light of public scrutiny,” she said.

Both measures were supported in testimony by diverse groups, including the citizens group N.J. Foundation for Open Government, the American Civil Liberties Union, the N.J. League of Municipalities, and the N.J. Press Association and North Jersey Media Group.

Some of those who testified recommended wording changes or suggested amendments to cover specific concerns.

For example, Seth Hahn, representing the Communications Workers of America, raised the issue of public employee disciplinary actions being a public record.  He posed the examples of tardiness or absenteeism related to custody battles, depression, or some life-changing event possibly becoming public information with the potential to cause harm to an employee.

The school boards association requested that the changes to the open meetings law not take effect until a year after adoption due to budgetary concerns.

Weinberg said she is aware of the concerns, in particular the issue concerning records of public workers, and will continue to work on them.

Government transparency laws clear committee