There are a couple of ways to look at New Jersey's Open Public Meetings Act.
You can be proud that the state has one of the strongest laws in the nation to ensure that the public's business in done in public.
Or you can consider that New Jersey's Sunshine Law wasn't drafted because of an imaginary problem. It is necessary because, unfortunately, there have been far too many instances of public officials being less than open about their actions.
In the latest potential update of the law, a bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, would extend open meeting requirements to independent authorities and government associations, such as the New Jersey League of Municipalities and the state School Boards Association.
The bill also would require that municipalities advertise subcommittee meetings that are open to the public. Those subcommittees would have to file at least one report that includes basic information such as the number of meetings it has held, names of members and an overview of what was discussed.
This requirement is one of the main points of contention municipal officials have with the bill. A handful of towns have passed resolutions objecting to the changes, saying that the subcommittee requirements will be a strain on finances and manpower at a time when local governments have neither to spare.
But Weinberg is right that a single report from each subcommittee is not onerous. And, she says, "We have reports of towns who do a lot of business by subcommittee and the public is never aware that there is even the existence of the subcommittee."
Unfortunately, the bill also contains a provision that gives us pause - and gives opponents a good argument against it.
Weinberg's bill requires that members of the public be given a chance to speak for at least three minutes at the beginning of a meeting - so far so good - but it prohibits governing bodies from setting an overall time limit on public comment. While well-intentioned, this provision is impractical, as anyone who has attended a meeting where a controversial issue was being discussed can tell you. There is something to be said for holding discussions to a reasonable length.
A marathon public comment session can keep any work from getting done. What's more common, however, is that very long public comment portions undermine the spirit of the open meetings law in the same way that long executive sessions do. Eventually, most members of the public give up and go home. Then the real decisions are made out of public view.
The state Senate and Assembly should amend Weinberg's bill to allow reasonable limits on public discussion and then pass this legislation.
New Jersey needs a strong Sunshine Law, but there's a difference between an open meeting and an open-ended free-for-all.