In New Jersey, we're fortunate to have two fantastic tools to help maintain open government at all levels - the Open Public Records Act and the Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act. When enacted, these two laws were revolutionary concepts that redefined elected officials' relationship to the people who elected them to office in the first place.
However, these laws - enacted almost four decades ago in the case of the Open Public Meetings Act and a little over a decade ago in the case of the Open Public Records Act - need to be updated if we are going to continue to be responsive to the needs and demands of an increasingly technologically proficient citizenry.
Increased reliance on ever-developing technologies such as the Internet, email, texting, cellphones and smartphones represent new opportunities and potential pitfalls in how government includes the people it is intended to represent.
Over the past four years, I have developed legislation that proposes changes to our government transparency laws that account for new technologies while reducing opportunities for violations of the public trust. These changes take advantage of the Internet while also preserving open access for those who are less technologically inclined. They also clarify instances of law that New Jersey courts have upheld.
The changes have not come to me in a vacuum. I am fortunate to have met with elected officials and their clerks from across the state. Their recommendations to reduce abuse associated with the Open Public Records Act have been incorporated. These changes make it easier for municipalities to recover costs associated with large-volume commercial requests. The changes also help save money by providing legal remedies to public bodies that protect them against abusive requests and frivolous lawsuits.
While the majority of municipalities operate in a very transparent manner, the changes to the Open Public Meetings Act target the bad behavior of the few. It is not enough for certain elected officials to point to their compliance while not demanding the same from their peers. The requirements in this bill codify the best practices of the majority. The language was designed to improve transparency of public meetings while giving public bodies new tools to conduct efficient meetings.
Some people have criticized these bills. Some say that open government will cost too much; we already have a greater responsibility to safeguard the privacy of others; or open government simply is not as important as other policy initiatives. That is just not true. The baseline for any government in a democracy has to be open government.
I believe that open government is essential for good government. The residents of New Jersey deserve to know how their money is being spent and with whom their elected officials meet, in order to make the best decisions possible for the future of their democracy. Additionally, governing bodies should not be prevented from doing their work because of the actions of a few. These bills carefully reflect both principles and deserve bipartisan support.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, is the Senate majority leader.