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New Jersey Goes Full 1984, Eviscerating Transparency

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The NJ State Assembly chambers.
The NJ State Assembly chambers where the public was betrayed by those who voted in favor of A4045.

New Jersey continues to carry the torch as one of the most corrupt states in the union. With help from three Republican votes in the Senate and seven in the Assembly, both houses of the New Jersey Legislature, on May 13th, passed a bill that would effectively neuter the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and eviscerate transparency into New Jersey governmental functions, if signed into law by Governor Murphy.

NJ S2930/A4045, passed in the Senate with a 21-10 vote, and in the Assembly with a 42-27 vote, was sold by Democrats as a way to save taxpayer money; however, the bill makes it harder to request public records already paid for by taxpayers and even includes possible penalties for doing so.

The bill is not surprisingly stacked with additional costs to New Jersey taxpayers. It appropriates an astounding $10,000,000 out of the General Fund to execute various aspects of the new law. For example, $4,000,000 of the fund will go “to the Department of Community Affairs to provide grants to political subdivisions of the State for the purpose of making government records that are accessible.” This is ostensibly for the purpose of digitizing records, but when that amount is split over 564 New Jersey municipalities it equates to about $7,000 per town.

It also appoints eight new paid positions (Section 8 of P.L.2001, c.404 (C.47:1A-7)) on the Government Records Council. The salary is obfuscated with complex language: “A public member shall receive a salary equivalent to that provided by law for a public member of the Local Finance Board of the Division of Local Government Services in the Department of Community Affairs.” According to a NJ State Assemblyman familiar with the bill, these salaries amount to $12,000 per year, and include pension benefits for life. It should be noted that currently only three people sit on the council and it is not currently a paid position.

Joe Danielsen, a Democrat who has been notoriously anti-civil liberties, made the following unbelievable statement: “This is a good bill that continues to protect transparency, continues to protect citizens rights and continues to protect the taxpayers’ resources and money.” In a forthcoming article we will expose how Danielsen’s private company, and those of other legislators, stand to financially benefit from this bill, if signed into law.

Other supporters of the bill include: the League of Municipalities, the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Association of Counties.

Even the proceedings were suspect, as Politico reported: “Before the vote, the cameras that normally broadcast the Senate’s proceedings did not turn back on in time after the Senate’s pause to catch the vote, leaving the public outside of the Senate chambers with no way to observe the vote.”

Senator Andrew Zwicker, a Democrat, voted against the bill. “My office has received hundreds of emails and phone calls from constituents, 100 percent opposed to the legislation, to the point that the staff couldn’t handle the volume of calls and let them go to voicemail,” said Zwicker.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen, a Republican, made clear his opposition: “Every yes vote that you’re going to get today is either threatened to be that way or bought to be that way, and it’s disgusting, Mr. Speaker,” Bergen said, later adding that “If you vote for this bill today… you are the exact person that people don’t trust.” 

Among the many controversial elements of the bill are the following:

  • Fee shifting allegedly time-consuming OPRA requests from government agencies to the requesters themselves.
  • Allowing government agencies to get protective court orders to limit the number of requests a person can make by citing an “intent to substantially impair” government operations.
  • Requiring requesters to be hyper-specific when searching for emails and other communications, by excluding requests that don’t include, “specific individuals or accounts to be searched and is not confined to a discrete and limited time period and a specific subject matter”
  • Doubling the deadline to respond to commercial OPRA requests from 7 to 14 days (unless the requestor pays additional fees)
  • Barring access to most metadata in electronic government files
  • Barring those who have received photos or video footage through a public records request from disseminating “any indecent or graphic images of the subject’s intimate part” without their consent (think Hunter Biden’s laptop)

As the bill heads to Governor Murphy’s desk to be considered for signing, jury selection is taking place in the corruption trial of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The New York Times described the pending case as some of the “gravest charges ever leveled against a sitting federal lawmaker.”

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Awaiting opinion from 3rd Circuit of Appeals

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