In the 18 years that New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act has been in effect, people and businesses have become more aware of the opportunities it creates. Concerned citizens can use it to better understand what their government is doing and why. Businesses can get valuable information for marketing products and services.
The Press of Atlantic City frequently submits OPRA requests for government documents to keep the public informed and able to exercise its oversight of officials who are supposed to be working for the citizens.
In this age of internet access to so much information, it’s only natural that people want more of what’s available from governments. Online sources also make them aware of many more government documents and of how they can create or help a small business with public records.
For a few years, this increasing demand for public records has been experienced by municipal officials as a growing and unfunded burden. Clerks spend hours fulfilling requests, at the expense of local taxpayers and sometimes in neglect of other duties.
Individual attempts to reduce this burden often run afoul of the act. For example Galloway Township, supported by the state League of Municipalities, tried to declare that some electronic records were not government records and therefore not accessible under OPRA. A unanimous N.J. Supreme Court in 2017 declared that information stored electronically is a record under the law.
Last year, towns started calling for a state commission to study how they are affected by OPRA and possibly find legislative relief. Among the first locally to support the campaign led by the League of Municipalities were Avalon and Atlantic City. The borough clerk in Avalon recently said her office last year provided 40,279 pages, an average of almost 200 per each records request and nearly all of them at no cost to the recipient.
More towns have joined the campaign, which is also led by the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey. And recently the effort got crucial support from the state Department of Community Affairs.
A reevaluation may be likely now, given growing municipal support and a bill in the Legislature to create such a commission.
Clearly municipal officials need help putting more documents online in a way that allows easy and free public access, and help funding the large requests — especially from home services businesses — that they currently must shoulder themselves.
But before a commission is even set up, everyone involved must understand that OPRA’s principle — “Government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying or examination by the citizens of this state” — must not be diminished in any way. If anything, the trend in the public’s awareness and mood is toward much greater openness in government, and officials should find fair and cost-efficient ways to accommodate that.