Government Joins Media Outlets In Raising Concern Over OPRA Changes

The bill was quickly moved through the state house.

A New Jersey government OPRA request form. File photo. has joined a coalition of news outlets that cover New Jersey raising alarm over recent proposed changes to the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

The legislation swiftly passed through both chambers in Trenton with narrow margins and now awaits action from Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy. If Murphy takes no action by June 27, the bill will automatically become law.

The proposed changes have drawn criticism from government watchdogs, good-government groups, the state’s comptroller, several mayors, and journalists.

Critics argue the bill represents a regression that threatens transparency in a state with a notorious history of government corruption, according to the New Jersey Monitor.

Key provisions include ending the requirement for governments that lose records disputes in court to pay the legal fees of requestors, allowing municipalities to sue requestors they believe are using records requests to disrupt government functions, and shifting the burden to requestors to prove that fees charged for complex requests are reasonable, the New Jersey Monitor reported.

The legislation would also create new exemptions to bar the release of information related to a broader range of electronic devices, security systems, and metadata. Additionally, it would mandate that custodians redact a wider range of information.

Supporters of the bill argue that the law needs modernization.

A recent Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll revealed that 81 percent of New Jersey registered voters prefer to keep the OPRA law intact and oppose tightening access to public records., which covers two municipalities in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and the City of Lambertville, New Jersey, signed onto a letter from the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists to urge Murphy to reject the changes.

The letter was endorsed by more than 20 signatories, including The Jersey Vindicator, NJ Advance Media, Axios, the Associated Press, and The Trentonian.

“We’re concerned that state lawmakers who have a tenuous grasp of many aspects of OPRA are leading an orchestrated crackdown of our public records law,” said Isaac Avilucea, New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists board member and former Trentonian reporter. “They’ve seemingly had in ear plugs at public hearings, tuning out dozens of stakeholders who told them what’ll happen if OPRA is repealed. We’re hoping Gov. Murphy actually listens to voters who don’t want changes to the ‘people’s law.’”

Public records are crucial for reporters uncovering stories about political corruption, government waste, development, and police misconduct.

“In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, our publications have used public records laws to uncover records that have led to important information becoming public. Without those laws, that information may not have become public and stayed out of taxpayers’ sights,” said Publisher Tom Sofield, who also publishes and in Bucks County. “We have serious concerns that these changes in New Jersey would make government less transparent.”

Journalists have raised concerns that the bill could further shroud emails in secrecy and give records custodians greater power to deny access to many documents, including record logs that help reporters identify specific correspondence of interest.

There is also unease by reporters about the rapid advancement of the bill and the lack of consideration for all concerns.

“Signing this 20 years ago was one of Gov. [Jim] McGreevey’s biggest accomplishments,” Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said at panel recently. “And signing this bill 20 years later will be one of the most notorious things that Gov. Murphy does.”

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