The goal of governmental transparency has never been more possible. The Internet lets any citizen keep an eye on how public money is being spent - provided officials make that information available.
But a check to see how well area municipalities, counties, school boards and other public agencies are following a requirement that they submit all public employment contracts to the state Public Employment Relations Commission, which then posts them online, revealed some disappointing information.
Press staff writer Diane D'Amico found that many public bodies have not submitted those contracts for years, or even decades. There are expired contracts posted for Atlantic City, Ocean City, Galloway Township, area community colleges and many other public bodies. The last contract posted for the Avalon Board of Education is a teachers' contract covering 1985 to 1987.
This is in spite of the fact that governmental bodies have been required to send employee contracts to PERC since 1968.
In June, state Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, introduced a bill to put some teeth into that requirement by making custodians of contracts liable for a $1,000 fine if they fail to file a contract with PERC within 15 days of its execution.
Beck cited a State Commission of Investigation report that showed $30 million in waste in public contracts over a five-year period - much of it for employees on paid leave to conduct union business.
When contracts are not made public and readily available, the effect is to hide from taxpayers the extent of the benefits they are paying for. Citizens trying to keep an eye on contracts - and a handle on property taxes - are left in the dark.
Beck's bill has not been acted on, perhaps because lawmakers are reluctant to financially penalize overworked municipal clerks. But surely something can be done to increase compliance with this important requirement.
Sending out reminders, as both the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey League of Municipalities have, doesn't seem to have much of an effect.
How about a law that says no public contract is valid until it is filed with PERC? Or withholding state aid from bodies that cannot show they have complied?
Lawmakers should get busy figuring this out. And public officials at every level must realize that there simply is no excuse for not following the law. Furthermore, all public agencies should be posting these contracts on their own websites simply as a matter of course.