NJ lawmakers want to weaken public’s right to records. Gov. Murphy says he’s open to the bill.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy says he’s open to legislative changes to the state’s public records laws — if they don’t ultimately undermine transparency.

Murphy’s comments Wednesday night on WNYC’s monthly “Ask Governor Murphy”’ show come as lawmakers in Trenton are considering legislation journalists and good government groups describe as gutting the state’s Open Public Records Act, known as OPRA.

For more than two decades, the law has allowed anyone to request documents that are in the public record from a government agency and sets timeframes for providing the documents. Journalists use it routinely to get insights into police use of force; to investigate the Chris Christie-era Bridgegate scandal; to expose connections between powerful political figures and tax breaks that benefited their companies; to demonstrate there was lead in some Newark schools’ drinking water even after officials have said there wasn’t.

Activists and members of the public use it as well — for instance, to show when governments pay out big settlements to resolve claims of police misconduct, sexual harassment, or bullying in schools.

Legislation sponsored Sen. Paul Sarlo and Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, both Democrats, would make several changes to the law. It would let agencies deny requests made by residents who submit so many officials deem them nuisances — recalling the case of an 82-year-old woman who Irvington sued for submitting 75 requests over three years, claiming she was doing so to intimidate and harass public officials. Irvington ultimately dropped that case last year.

The bill would bar data brokers from obtaining public records, make “draft” documents produced by government agencies private, and let governments redact more information before releasing it to the public.

It would also do away with a requirement that the losing party pay attorneys’ fees in any lawsuit over documents a government agency failed to provide. The fee-shifting provision of OPRA has been a powerful tool for residents and small news publications who can’t otherwise afford to take government agencies to court.

On Tuesday’s episode of WNYC’s “Ask Governor Murphy” call-in show, Murphy said he’s “all in on transparency.” He said he’s sympathetic to arguments about excessive requests that inundated records clerks, or data brokerages scooping up personal data. He said that “you hear a lot of anecdotal evidence” of companies that do this but conceded that he wasn’t aware of empirical evidence about it.

Murphy said he’d be open to a version of the law being considered in the legislature, and said he believed the legislators behind it have “their hearts in the right place.”

“So I would think if you get something that can address some of the things I just mentioned in a fair way … that doesn’t undermine transparency, that’s something that I’m open minded to,” Murphy said. But he didn’t say what if any aspects of the current bill he’d change.

On Monday, two state committees advanced the bill. In the Assembly, the local government committee passed the bill by a 5-2 vote. The Senate’s budget committee approved it by a 9-4 vote. Those votes happened after seven hours of incendiary testimony at the state house on the legislation, where journalists and policy organizations told legislators the bill would hurt transparency and open New Jersey to more corruption.

“We’re getting less transparent. It’s a joke, isn’t it?” New Jersey Monitor quoted Assemblyman Brian Bergen, a Republican from Morris County, saying after he listened to Monday’s hearing. “Like legitimately, if you wrote this down and read it to me, I’d think it was a joke. But this is actually how we’re doing things.”

The committees advanced the bill at the start of Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and encourages journalists to seek out information the public has a right to know through records laws like OPRA.

Sarlo has defended the bill as a way to keep data brokerages from profiting off public records, and avoiding “creepy” requests. NJ.com reported earlier this month on a YouTube channel featuring body camera footage of people — mostly women — accused of drunken driving and other offenses. They included names such as “19-Year-Old Girl Keeps Crying and Lying during DWI Arrest” and “Pregnant Housekeeper Arrested After Stealing Breast Pump and Baby Clothes,” according to the report.

“This bill is a collaborative effort among members of the Assembly, the Senate as well as representatives from the governor’s office, the governor’s counsel who had input on this,” the Bergen Record quoted Sarlo saying Monday.

The New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Broadcasters Association submitted joint testimony Monday in opposition to the bill. They noted the bill says that attorneys fees “may” be awarded to a winning party in an OPRA lawsuit — but doesn’t require it, as OPRA does now.

The two New Jersey journalism organizations said this change “would unfairly penalize media outlets, small and large.”

“There is little incentive for attorneys to file frivolous OPRA lawsuits. Rather, the fee-shifting provision protects smaller news outlets from having their rights trampled by deep-pocketed agencies that unlawfully deny requests and force those outlets to prove them wrong in court,” they wrote.

The bill would also make it harder for people to request emails from government agencies, saying a request must include a “specific subject matter” during a “discrete and limited time period,” and wouldn’t require governments to provide the logs of emails often used to identify emails of interest — even though the state Supreme Court has already ruled such logs are public records themselves.

“Anecdotally, emails logs have helped some of our reporters expose a former city clerk who was spending hours on city time writing frivolous ethics complaints and criminal referrals to law enforcement agencies rather than his duties,” the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Broadcasters Association wrote.

The OPRA bill has been put on a fast track by the lawmakers pushing the legislation, after being introduced last week. On Monday, Sarlo, who chairs the budget committee, said during the hearing that the “final product” of the bill will be different.

The no votes on the bill in the senate committee included three Republicans and one Democrat. Sen. Andrew Zwicker, the sole Democrat who voted no, said during the hearing that there are “serious problems” with the bill.

The full legislature is set to meet Monday but it’s unclear if the bill will be put up for a full vote then.

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