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New Jersey lawmakers approve an overhaul of the state’s open records law

Amid cheers of “shame” shouted from the gallery, New Jersey lawmakers passed legislation to overhaul the state’s public records law

TRENTON, NJ – To cheers of “shame” shouted from the stands, New Jersey lawmakers on Monday passed legislation to overhaul the state’s open public records law, despite objections from civil rights groups and the state’s press association.

The Democratic-led Assembly and Senate passed the legislation that now goes to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, whose spokesman declined to comment on the measure.

The legislation addresses the state’s Open Public Records Act, which the public and journalists regularly use to obtain state and local government documents, including budgets, agency receipts, public salaries, correspondence and other information that is not always easy to obtain. can be found out.

The bill’s sponsors say they support transparency and want to help beleaguered clerks who can’t always handle a wave of requests, sometimes driven by commercial interests. Opponents of the bill argued that the measures in the legislation would make documents more difficult to obtain, and that this comes at a time when public confidence in government is uncertain.

There was no debate in the Senate, but Assembly members sparred back and forth before the measure finally passed.

“The bill suppresses the public,” Republican Assemblymember Brian Bergen said from the floor.

Democratic lawmaker Joe Danielsen said the Open Public Records Act, commonly called OPRA, was in dire need of updating. He pointed to companies that “benefit” from requests to local governments.

“I see the vast majority of OPRA requests being approved,” he said. “This bill doesn’t change that.”

New Jersey’s Open Public Records were last significantly updated more than two decades ago, prompting a legislative overhaul.

Among the changes included in the legislation is a provision allowing commercial interests to pay up to twice the cost of producing records; language authorizing agencies to bring a case in state court against petitioners determined to interrupt the “function of government”; and the end of cities’ obligation to pay attorneys’ fees in lawsuits they lose due to records requests.

The latter provision could make it difficult for members of the public and news reporters to challenge local and state governments in court because filing lawsuits can be costly, the bill’s opponents say.

The Associated Press signed a letter from the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists urging the legislation to be rejected.

Passed into the Senate without any debate, some people in the gallery shouted “shame” and booed as Senate President Nicholas Scutari closed the vote.

“They voted for more secrecy and corruption in government,” said CJ Griffin, an attorney who regularly advocates on behalf of those seeking data and an opponent of the legislation.

The proposed legislation emerged earlier this year and initially aimed to end commercial data requests, but after protests from opponents, legislative leaders held closed-door meetings with stakeholders and unveiled an amended bill. Gone was the ban on commercial solicitations, and in its place a provision was added that allowed them to pay for record releases.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo said one sticking point was the issue of attorneys’ fees, which lawmakers had considered limiting instead of requiring them to be paid by cities when documents are found to have been improperly withheld . But he said stakeholders could not agree on the size of a limit.