Lawmakers approve controversial bill to limit public access to government records

Sen. Paul Sarlo chairs the Senate budget committee and is prime sponsor on a controversial bill that would restrict public access to government records. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)Sen. Paul Sarlo chairs the Senate budget committee and is prime sponsor on a controversial bill that would restrict public access to government records. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

By Dana DiFilippo
New Jersey Monitor

TRENTON, NJ (New Jersey Monitor) — The activists, voting watchdogs, lawyers, state comptroller, and state public defender’s office hate it. Journalists, civil liberties advocates, the data-reporting firm LexisNexis, regular residents, and even a few politicians detest it too.

But after more than seven hours of incendiary testimony, state lawmakers in two committees agreed to advance a controversial, fast-tracked bill that watchdogs warn would gut the public’s access to government records in New Jersey.

By the time the Senate’s budget committee recorded their votes Monday night, half the committee members were long gone after instructing their colleagues to record them as “yes” votes, leaving critics even more convinced that the gig was rigged from the start.

“Boos” and colorful language erupted in the packed room after the Assembly’s local government committee passed the bill by a 5-2 vote earlier Monday. By the time the Senate budget committee approved it by a 9-4 vote after 6 p.m., the room had largely emptied, with just a few weary, cynical stalwarts still there.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) wasn’t on the committees that heard the bill but popped into both committees to listen to testimony.

“We’re getting less transparent. It’s a joke, isn’t it?” Bergen said. “Like, legitimately, if you wrote this down and read it to me, I’d think it was a joke. But this is actually how we’re doing things.”

Multiple people who testified against the bill Monday chastised bill sponsors Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-Middlesex) for failing to respond to their calls and emails.

Sarlo fled a gaggle of reporters after Monday’s Senate panel vote and Danielsen told a New Jersey Monitor reporter that news coverage of the bill has mischaracterized the changes in the bill.

“Over half of them are increasing, creating, or improving access to documents. None of you have the courage to print that, right? It’s fake news. As far as I can tell, it’s disingenuous, and it speaks to the integrity of every one of those journalists,” he said.

That’s not how most of those who testified Monday see it.

They warned the bill would hurt transparency, make records harder for everyone to get, increase corruption, and reduce accountability. Several people outright told the committees that no amendments would save the legislation and urged lawmakers to “kill the bill.”

“The proposal you’re considering to eliminate many elements for OPRA and create new restrictions is tantamount to limiting and restricting democracy that is provided in our own Constitution,” said Joe Strupp, an Asbury Park Press journalist who shared stories he’s uncovered through public records requests.

The bill would revamp the New Jersey Open Public Records Act, known as OPRA, which guarantees the public’s right to some government records. Under the 29-page bill, “draft” documents would become private; agencies would be able to exempt records and seek court orders against requestors who are deemed to be nuisances; data brokers would be barred from acquiring public documents; and governments could redact more information from records.

Lawmakers say the law hasn’t been updated since it was enacted in 2002, and blamed commercial requesters for abusing the law in ways that couldn’t be imagined when the bill was first passed.

Sarlo also has blamed an uptick in “creepy” requests by people requesting police body camera footage and similar things to exploit vulnerable women and children, although he couldn’t cite specifics nor quantify that.

Lori Buckelew of the New Jersey League of Municipalities was one of just a handful of people who testified in support of the bill. Privacy concerns require a law update, she said.

“OPRA was enacted at a time when dial-up internet was cutting edge, Google was in its infancy, and identity theft was your sibling borrowing your driver’s license to get into the college bar,” Buckelew said. “Fast forward 20 years, and not a week goes by that you do not hear of a data breach and calls for protection of personal identifying information. Under these bills, those protections are given.”

John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, supports the bill too, especially its effort to restrict records requests by businesses and data brokers.

He told lawmakers his group surveyed county officials, who reported their counties fielded about 250 to 3,000 OPRA requests a year, with more rural counties like Salem getting fewer requests and denser counties like Bergen getting more. More than half were commercial requesters, he added.

Sen. Paul Sarlo chairs the Senate budget committee and is prime sponsor on a controversial bill that would restrict public access to government records. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, pushed back on that testimony.

“You asked about the number of requests that we have in the state as if that’s a bad thing,” Rasmussen said. “I think that that’s indicative of the number of citizens in the state who are interested in their government. And I respectfully say that that’s a good thing.”

Critics challenged claims that modernization and cost concerns prompted the legislation, accusing lawmakers of fast-tracking the bill to shroud themselves in secrecy.

“Corruption does not always come in the form of gold bars or muscling your way into a Senate primary candidacy. It’s when bodies like this act against the public interest,” said Scott Gawrych, a Woodbridge resident. “It’s very telling and borderline coordinated that both bodies are doing this at the same time. Let’s get something straight: The people in this room own the data.”

James Walters, a retired Hamilton police officer and frequent OPRA filer, seconded that sentiment, telling lawmakers: “If you suppress transparency, you will also suppress accountability.”

Several critics complained that lawmakers failed to include their input when crafting the bill, pushing back on Sarlo’s and Danielsen’s claims that they consulted stakeholders.

“It’s great that you’ve met with the League and others, but this process here did not include people who actually file OPRA requests,” said Charlie Kratovil, a Food and Water Watch organizer, journalist, and frequent OPRA filer. “They were not at the table, and this is being rushed through. So I think that the only appropriate course of action is to put the brakes on, to vote no, and to gather input before you take any action.”

Krystal Knapp, editor of Planet Princeton, testified on behalf of the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists

Krystal Knapp, editor of Planet Princeton, testified on behalf of the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists

Critics were especially irked by lawmakers who expressed reservations about the bill — but then approved it anyway. Assemblyman John Allen (D-Hudson) voted in favor of the bill even though he said he won’t support it on the floor without major amendments.

Asked if he believes the people who testified against the bill felt heard, he said to ask those people.

“No,” shouted one critic as she walked past.

“OK, there you go,” Allen responded.

The bill will go before lawmakers again on Thursday, when the Assembly’s appropriations committee will consider it. The full Legislature is scheduled to meet Monday, but Sarlo declined to say whether the bill would be up for a vote then — and the bill list has yet to be posted online.

 

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About the Author

Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo writes for the New Jersey Monitor, which permits its content to be republished on sites like StateBroadcastNews.com. She previously reported for WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Before that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.