Gov. Murphy Signs New Open Public Records Bill, Preempting Maplewood Discussion of Veto Request

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After Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new Open Public Records Act [OPRA] Modernization bill into law late Wednesday afternoon, the Maplewood Township Committee dropped a discussion item from its agenda described as “Request of Gov. Murphy to Veto Open Public Records Act bill”.

The discussion was to be led by TC member Victor De Luca.

De Luca had spoken out about the bill at a TC meeting earlier this year. “I know we have had difficult experiences with OPRA,” said De Luca at the March 19 TC meeting. “But a lot of our allies out there in the labor community and the advocacy community, civil rights community, housing community, they’re very concerned about the thrust here,” added De Luca.

De Luca said that the “thrust” of the new bill was not transparency.

“It is to close the system, to shift fees, shift responsibility, make it more difficult,” said De Luca. “There’s some questions about interpretation, who’s included in what gets defined as commercial use. So I think everybody agrees that there can be some changes because this … statute that hasn’t kept up with modern times.”

State lawmakers have argued that OPRA needs changes to address abuse by commercial requestors, such as real estate companies, which are using OPRA to obtain information to further their business interests. However, journalists such as Terrence McDonald of New Jersey Monitor, have reported that the bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarlo, “doesn’t stop at adding hurdles for commercial requestors … It would give the state and local governments more leeway to deny more requests from the public, which means less transparency in a state that needs more.”

Watch David Cruz of New Jersey Spotlight discuss the impacts of the proposed changes with an advocate of open public records access here.  Conversely, the bill has been supported the NJ League of Municipalities

In a lengthy statement released upon signing the bill, Murphy defended his action, noting “this decision will disappoint many members of the advocacy community, including a number of social justice, labor, and environmental organizations, among others,” but pushed back against claims that the bill would enable corruption through a lack of transparency: “If I believed that this bill would enable corruption in any way, I would unhesitatingly veto it.” Murphy also cited bipartisan support for the bill in the legislature.

Read Murphy’s full statement here.

The signing was swiftly denounced by many open government advocates.

According to NJ Spotlight, the head of the state League Women Voters called the signing of the bill “a dark day for our democracy and one that voters will not soon forget.”

ACLU of New Jersey policy director Sarah Fajardo cited polling which showed overwhelming public opposition to the bill, writing that “advocates, stakeholders, and 81% of voters from across the ideological spectrum made it clear that New Jersey should be strengthening government transparency, not undermining it in backroom deals. It’s shameful that despite overwhelming concerns from their constituents, lawmakers fast-tracked, and the governor signed, a bill that severely restricts access to government records and limits the public’s ability to hold elected officials accountable.”

Asked to comment after the discussion item was dropped, Mayor Nancy Adams said that the Township Committee had not yet read the statement by the governor “so I think it’s premature for us to say anything, but if the Township Committee decides that they would like to respond and release a statement, we’ll do so — in due time.”

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