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Government transparency / Two needed bills

Government transparency / Two needed bills

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As many of you know all too well, the state laws on open public records and open public meetings are far from perfect.

The laws allow, and crafty politicians have learned to exploit, various strategies to deny or delay the release of public documents and to block the ability of the public to see and hear public business being conducted.

But now, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, has proposed that the Open Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act be revised to eliminate the possibility of many of these abuses. The Legislature should act quickly on these changes. Weinberg's proposals are simple, straightforward - and overdue.

First, regarding OPRA, Weinberg's bill would eliminate the need to make a request for public documents on an official form. "The back of a cocktail napkin" should suffice, Weinberg said.

Her bill would require immediate access - within three hours if the request is received before 2 p.m. - for all budgets, bills, vouchers, contracts, salary and overtime information. Why not?

The measure would also standardize copying costs - 10 cents per page for letter-sized documents and 15 cents per page for legal size. And it says documents should be e-mailed for free, if that's what the requester wants.

The bill says that public bodies must honor OPRA requests from anyone - not just New Jersey residents.

And it explicitly says personnel records containing disciplinary actions or information on lawsuit settlements are not exempt from OPRA requests.

Regarding the Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law, Weinberg's bill forces the law to catch up with modern technology. Her changes would prohibit members of a public body from communicating privately during a meeting via text messages or e-mail. And the bill clarifies that a gathering of a public body via e-mail, instant messaging or similar technology is, in fact, a public meeting subject to the same requirements of any other meeting.

Furthermore, Weinberg's bill clarifes that the Sunshine Law applies to all state boards, authorities, redevelopment agencies and other quasi-governmental bodies.

And, our favorite change, because it comes up so often: The bill explicitly says that no member of the public can be denied the right to record, videotape, photograph or broadcast any public meeting. All you municipal officials hear that?

The Legislature's natural inclination will be to hem and haw, nitpick and mull these proposals to a quiet death. But there really is no "other side" to the transparency-in-government issue. Truly confidential material will remain protected, under these proposals. Weinberg deserves praise for writing two sensible, needed bills. And her fellow lawmakers should approve them - immediately.

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