The public’s ability to continually nudge government toward better performance and greater accountability depends on seeing what government and its officials are doing. The need for open government rather than officials acting in secret is so essential to democracy that strong basic laws protect the people’s right to know what their public servants are up to. Yet, incredibly, the most important of those laws is under serious threat in New Jersey.
The trouble began when Galloway Township fought a simple request under the Open Public Records Act (or OPRA) for information on official emails sent to or received by the township clerk and police chief during a two-week period in 2013. The request, by the chairman of the state Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy project, was just for the recipients, senders and subjects, not the email messages.
The township absurdly claimed that “mere information stored in electronic form does not constitute a government record” under OPRA. Apparently township officials don’t understand that records consist entirely of information, and records everywhere are moving to electronic storage instead of paper for much greater efficiency. One convincing example among millions: The banking system, at the direction of federal regulators, no longer keeps the checks people write, destroying them after making digital copies.
The township’s position is also directly the opposite of OPRA law, which explicitly states that a government record, besides those on paper and such, is “information stored or maintained electronically.”
The Galloway clerk said she didn’t have the resources to fulfill the request, suggesting that doing so would burden the public. But the township’s information technology officer told the court it would take just two to three minutes to produce the information requested.
Galloway’s challenge seemed to meet its deserved end when Superior Court Judge Nelson C. Johnson in 2014 ordered that the requested information be released. But then the Appellate Division overturned his ruling, mentioning testimony that the release might be detrimental to the Police Department’s ability to protect confidential information.
That’s a red herring. Any sensitive information — such as the name of a crime witness — can be censored from what’s released. It doesn’t mean all information about police operations must always remain secret.
At the end of August, the N.J. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The American Civil Liberties Union of N.J., the New Jersey Press Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are supporting the release of the requested information.
Media firms, such as this newspaper, depend on open-records law to provide the public with government information it needs and wants. The Press has used OPRA recently, for example, to give readers information on municipal finances, on prior complaints against police officers involved in a shooting incident, on excess overtime paid to school employees and on municipal sales of properties. In each case, the government agency had resisted releasing information that belongs to the public.
The State League of Municipalities and the State Association of Chiefs of Police are supporting the township’s effort to deny the request. That would be convenient for town governments and officials, especially when the public might oppose what they’re doing.
Allowing a broad exemption from the public’s right to know for information stored electronically would blow a giant hole in the Open Public Records Act.
The public needs the Supreme Court to uphold its access to information in the modern age, as clearly stated in the act.