A growing number of local towns are asking: If the state's Open Public Records Act is a good idea, why not expand it to cover state lawmakers?
Towns across Atlantic County have passed resolutions calling on state lawmakers to remove some of OPRA's exemptions for the legislative branch, ever since County Executive Dennis Levinson asked them to last month.
"This measure is long overdue," Levinson told municipalities in a Jan. 23 letter. "There does not appear to be any rational reason why the state Legislature should have exempted itself from complying with the same requirements for openness and accountability with which they require others to comply."
Egg Harbor Township Mayor James "Sonny" McCullough served as a state senator between February 2007 and January 2008. He said at a Feb. 12 township meeting that the exemption struck him as strange when he sat in the Legislature.
Township Committeeman Paul Hodson added, "They enact laws they don't want to abide by."
Hamilton Township passed its resolution Feb. 18. "We thought that the Legislature should be abiding by the same requirements that the municipalities have to," Mayor Roger Silva said. "After all, they passed the law."
Margate enacted theirs Feb. 20, noting that the Legislature's functions are no more important than those of the executive branch or local governmental entities, which are covered by the act.
"The exceptions which the Legislature created for itself weaken transparency and create inequality, for which there is no rational basis," Margate's resolution states.
The Legislature has long been exempt from the Open Public Records Act, which then-Gov. Donald DiFrancesco signed into law in January 2002. The law, with some exceptions, generally made all local-government and executive-branch records open to disclosure.
One local lawmaker recently proposed a bill to partially close the legislators' loophole. Assemblyman Chris Brown's bill makes much of the material received by lawmakers open to the public.
It specifies that information legislators receive from individuals in their district would continue to remain confidential. It also keeps in place existing public-information limits that apply to all local governments, including veterans' service records, communications by or for other legislators, and criminal investigative records.
But bill 926 would allow the public to see information that a legislator "receives from or possesses regarding other persons, groups, and associations" from outside his district.
Brown, R-Atlantic, and former Assemblyman John Amodeo first proposed the law in May 2012, only to see it die in committee. With Amodeo out of the Legislature, Brown alone proposed it again in January, and it is currently before the Assembly Judiciary Committee, with no other sponsors.
Brown wrote in an email that he proposed the bill because he believes "the Legislature should be held to the same standards as other levels and branches of government. The legislature should not exempt itself from laws that it expects others to follow."
"The intent of OPRA, for any level of government, is to grant wider access of government documents to the public while guarding personal privacy," Brown wrote. "My bill remains faithful to both of these goals."
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities has long supported closing the legislative branch loophole, Executive Director William Dressel said. He said he hadn't seen Brown's bill but said, "If it makes sense (for) one level of government to comply with open public records standards, then it makes sense for the state Legislature, because their decision-making has such an impact on local residents."
Staff Writer Elisa Lala contributed to this report.
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