We sympathize, to a degree, with public officials who are having trouble dealing with what can sometimes seem like the burdensome requirements of New Jersey's Open Public Records Act.

Specifically, we sympathize with the problems faced by hard-working municipal clerks, the unsung heroes of local government.

In some towns, OPRA requests have become so numerous that responding to them can be overwhelming. Tiny Longport, for instance, with 800 residents, has handled 1,539 OPRA requests in the past three years - that's almost two per resident - and acting clerk Emilia Strawder can spend half her day dealing with the resulting paperwork.

It is disturbing to learn that nearly 65 percent of those requests were from the same few people.

We've said before that frivolous, never-ending and overly broad OPRA requests endanger this very important law by drumming up opposition to it. Indeed, some municipal officials are asking the state Legislature to give them relief from having to fill so many requests.

But the most likely changes to OPRA are in a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, that would instead expand the law. The bill would broaden the definition of public records and increase the number of governmental and quasi-governmental agencies subject to OPRA.

The bill would also allow anyone, not just a New Jersey resident, to make an OPRA request and allow those requests to be made by email. It would require an explanation for any part of a public document that is redacted.

The trend toward more transparency in government is as clear as it is welcome. Eventually it may even extend to the Legislature itself, which is exempt from the provisions of the 2002 open records law.

Local officials need to accept that OPRA is not going away, which may mean adjusting their staffs and budgets accordingly.

Of course, when state lawmakers re-examine OPRA, they should certainly look for ways to reduce frivolous information requests, perhaps by developing guidelines that make it easier to identify and take action against the few who may use OPRA to harass a governing body.

In the meantime, local governments can reduce the burden of OPRA by putting as many public records as possible online.

They might learn from the judiciary, which has always had an open system, where, even before the Internet, judges' decisions were available for the asking.

In some towns, public officials have made things harder on themselves by requiring everyone seeking any information to file an OPRA request. Information that used to be available with a phone call to a clerk now requires a formal request. Towns have done that to themselves - and they can stop doing it.


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