New Jersey's Open Public Records Act is one of the most important laws ever passed in the state. By making (most) government records readily available, the law can be a powerful tool for ensuring that the public's business is done in public. Citizens are entitled to know what their government is up to.
The 2002 law applies to the Executive Branch of state government, county and local governments and independent commissions and authorities - but an overly broad exemption for communication with constituents has effectively kept the law from applying to the state Legislature.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities has long called on state lawmakers to eliminate the broad exemption they carved out for themselves. And so have an increasing number of government bodies in Atlantic County, which, at the request of County Executive Dennis Levinson, have been passing resolutions calling on the state Assembly and Senate to include themselves under the open-records law.
This may just be a case of misery loving company - many local officials complain that fulfilling OPRA requests is a burdensome chore - but the reasoning is valid. If openness is good for local governments, why wouldn't it be good for state lawmakers?
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, has reintroduced a bill that would narrow the exemption for communications from or about a "constituent," which had been defined as any state resident or other person communicating with a legislator.
Brown's bill would keep intact the OPRA exemption regarding correspondence or information from or about any individual residing in a lawmaker's district. But under the proposal, all communications between legislators and "persons, groups, and associations" from outside the lawmaker's district would be public records.
The bill died in committee in 2012, but the current version is now before the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
OPRA already provides 24 exemptions. And some public officials spend a disturbing amount of time trying to create their own OPRA exemptions.
Last month, for instance, Raritan officials were assessed one of the highest penalties ever in an OPRA case - $542,000 - for an especially contorted bit of rationalization. City officials had denied the release of public payroll information, arguing that since it was kept as a computer database, it wasn't a government record because it could not be read without software.
By including under OPRA communications with people from outside their districts, legislators would be sensibly narrowing an overly broad exemption that was intended to protect the confidentiality of individual constituents but ended up shielding way too much from the public eye.