NJ Lawmakers Send Bill Overhauling Public Records Law To Governor’s Desk

The bill would change the Open Public Records Act.

By Nikita Biryukov & Sophie Nieto-Muñoz | New Jersey Monitor

A view inside New Jersey State House in Trenton. File photo.

Lawmakers in bipartisan but narrow votes approved a bill altering the Open Public Records Act in both chambers Monday, a move that critics have described as an assault on transparency.

Senate lawmakers approved the bill in a 21-10 vote that, unusually, was not live-streamed and followed no debate. Three Republicans — Sens. Bob Singer, Owen Henry, and Carmen Amato — crossed party lines to back the bill. Three Democrats, Sens. Britnee Timberlake, John McKeon, and Andrew Zwicker, voted no. Nine senators did not vote.

The Assembly backed the bill in a 42-27 vote with one abstention. Ten members did not vote.

The measure saw spirited comments from lawmakers who vehemently opposed the bill and from sponsors who insisted that overhauling the state’s public records law is needed. Bill sponsor Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-Somerset) declined to talk to reporters before and after the vote and refused to take questions during the debate on the Assembly floor.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) said the bill “isn’t just bad — it’s malicious and it’s intentional.”

“It’s this type of bill that really erodes the public’s trust,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Gov. Phil Murphy intends to sign it. A spokeswoman declined to comment.

Watchdogs and good government advocates sitting in the chambers chanted, “Shame!” and shouted their disdain to lawmakers during both voting sessions Monday.

“This is not going to be taken lightly. It’s not going to be forgotten. It is going to be top-of-mind for voters as they go to the polls now and in the future,” said Maura Collinsgru of New Jersey Citizen Action.

Critics have condemned the bill as a step backward for a state with a long history of public corruption.

One provision would end a mandate that governments that lose records disputes in court pay the legal fees of the requestors, a chance critics say would ensure that few could afford to challenge records denials.

They also worry about other language that would allow towns to sue requestors they believe are using records requests to interrupt government functions. Such power would prevent some residents from even filing records requests for fear of retaliation, critics say.

Another provision would make requestors responsible for proving that fees custodians can charge for certain complex requests are reasonable, a provision critics have charged will lead to de facto denials through exorbitant fees that few could afford to challenge in court.

Legislators have offered shifting explanations for the bill. Initially, it was billed as a means of limiting commercial records requests that local and county officials say have strained clerks’ offices to the point of breaking. But the bill approved Monday does little to address such requests.

Danielsen on Monday said the main goal of the bill is to “increase access to government” while protecting people’s privacy. Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), meanwhile, said the measure is intended to cut costs.

“This is about saving taxpayers money. This isn’t about anything other than saving taxpayers money,” Scutari told reporters Monday.

Former Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who long championed the Open Public Records Act, on Monday trashed legislative leaders who pushed the bill.

“Leadership reached across the aisle to pass this anti-democratic bill because they didn’t have enough democratic votes in their caucus. Secrecy and evading accountability, I guess, has turned bipartisan. I could not be more disappointed in the New Jersey State Legislature,” she said.

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