Hamilton Township recently blundered in suing someone who had made a request for video surveillance footage under the Open Public Records Act.
Fulfilling the request by a guy in North Carolina, for all footage shot during 30 days by all cameras covering the police department and township hall buildings, would be "detrimental to the safety of the police department and people," the township attorney said.
But instead of simply denying the request and letting the requester sue if he wished, the township filed a lawsuit seeking a determination of whether it could legally not respond.
That's a rare but not unheard-of response to a request for public information, the Columbia Journalism Review has found. The magazine added the Hamilton Township case to its files, which already included five such lawsuits against records requesters since 1993.
At the end of June, a Superior Court judge ruled that only the records requester has a right to sue, presumably when the request is denied, as a way to continue pursuit of the records involved. The township should simply deny the request if it has problems with it and give the requester the chance to sue or walk away. The judge also invited the requester to seek legal fees in this case.
We sympathize with government officials burdened by potentially costly requests, especially since in some cases the cost to taxpayers is arguably not worth the benefit to the requester or the public. And the township's error wasn't as obvious as it might appear in hindsight - another judge had first temporarily relieved the township of the obligation to respond to the request, and in one of those cases from the Columbia Journalism Review files, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that a government agency may indeed sue a requester to determine if a record must be disclosed.
But this is New Jersey, where there is pressure to strengthen the state's Open Public Records Act. A Senate bill to do that was moving along until opposition by the League of Municipalities last month derailed the effort.
The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, would have included independent authorities, redevelopment entities and improvement authorities under OPRA coverage, a good thing.
Its many other provisions, though, included things such as $1,000 to $5,000 fines for "willfull" OPRA violations to be paid out of the government worker's "personal funds" - so there is probably plenty that towns might not like.
The state and local levels in New Jersey need to work together to craft rules that make government more transparent while making open-records compliance relatively painless.
All parts of government need to develop information systems that simplify putting nearly all public records online - accessible to all, no request needed. For other records, governmental entities can charge reasonable fees to cover their costs.
Two things are sure about this digital age: All parts of government are generating more records and able to keep them more easily, so the state needs to be proactive about what should be kept for how long and the conditions of its availability (for just one future bone of contention, think about all the video recorded by police wearable and car-mounted cameras).
Meanwhile, the interest of individuals and groups in government information and the expectation that it should be as readily available as so much else online will grow more intense.
This may make for a rough transition as government adapts to a networked world in which convenient secrecy becomes less and less possible, but the result should be better engagement of citizens and better government.