South Orange OPRA Requests Posted on Town Website

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In what Village President Alex Torpey hailed as a step towards greater transparency in local government, requests made under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) in South Orange are to be posted on the township’s website.

Torpey made the announcement at Monday’s South Orange Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting.

A partial list of OPRA requests and documents supplied can be found on the township’s website.

The link “makes it much easier for the information to be gotten…and saves us time and money,” said Torpey in an email to The Village Green. Torpey said it is a “widely held belief” that providing the public access to OPRA requests and responses may reduce costs from duplicate requests and let taxpayers know the costs to the township of filling the requests.

“For instance, if some people cost the town a large number of man hours to fill OPRA requests, the public has a right to know,” said Torpey.

The Village President said that if towns put such information online, citizens would be better informed. “If something is particularly controversial and exposes a problem in the government that was previously unknown, citizens and the media should be able to find that information easily, and if a request is particularly silly or wasteful, they should have that information as well,” Torpey said.

OPRA is intended to expand the public’s right to access government records. According to the law, requestors may file OPRA requests anonymously without providing any personal contact information. (For more information on OPRA, see the Citizen’s Guide to OPRA).

At Monday night’s meeting, Trustee Sheena Collum questioned whether the initiative had been properly vetted by the Legal and Personnel Committee, on which she serves. She also wondered if the move might “hinder people from trying to request information….”

In an email to The Village Green, Collum said that while she favored greater transparency and public access to OPRA requests, she is concerned about the township posting personal information including requesters’ names, home and email addresses and telephone numbers online.

“Additionally, I’m not really sure what the purpose is of listing someone’s name, how many hours it took to process the request and the overall cost [to the Clerk’s office] associated with the hours it took,” said Collum. “Each of our departments and staff serve our residents on a whole host of issues…. If a resident calls the police department, the Village doesn’t post that individual’s name, the time it took the officer to respond, and what that call cost the community. I don’t see how this proposal is really any different.”

Collum said she would support a more modest proposal to post the subject of the request and the documentation the town clerk produced in response.

“We are not trying to expose anyone,” said Trustee Howard Levison, who is also on the Legal and Personnel Committee. “We are trying to make it convenient for the public to find information” and see what township employees are spending time on, he said.

“We do have dialogue,” Levison said. “People want open government and we are attempting to do that.” He noted that Legal and Personnel Committee meetings were open to the public and agendas are posted online; the next meeting is June 23. Levison also said the township is in the process of updating search functions on its website to make it easier for the public to access information.

Former trustee Michael Goldberg, a frequent critic of Torpey whose OPRA requests are among those posted, agrees with the Village President that publicly sharing the requests is a positive step. “However, I’m just skeptical that this [initiative] is more about casting a ‘chilling effect’ on OPRA requests by ‘shaming’ people into how much their request ‘cost,'” said Goldberg in an email.

He added that it doesn’t seem as though the initiative was vetted by any Committee.

“The only conclusion I can draw is that is simply another ‘soundbite’ opportunity – like posting the budget in Excel, the line graphing tool, the ‘new’ website and of course, bitcoin, which is more about PR value than actual substance,” Goldberg said.

The township’s legal counsel has been involved with the discussions involving the decision, Torpey said. “[W]e’re trying to do something that’s frankly so new and innovative, some aspects of what we’re discussing actually haven’t been really explored by the state or the courts yet, and we may actually be setting some new best practices,” he said.

Torpey noted that since technically all OPRA requests already are a matter of public record, this step doesn’t represent a real change but just makes information easier to find.

“I don’t think there would be any disincentive for people to request information,” said Torpey. He continued, “All members of the public have a right to know where their tax dollars are going, which has been a priority of all of us for a long time, making our budget more accessible and understandable, and helping explain and show simply where peoples’ tax dollars get spent.”

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