Here's why we needed OPRA

Here's why we needed OPRA

07/05/2007  Asbury Park Press

TRENTON — Carl Golden knew there was trouble when the request came in.

Reporters wanted to see phone bills from lawmakers' offices, and Golden could easily surmise what would happen if the media got ahold of the records.

"There were some very interesting calls on some of the lines," Golden said in a recent interview, recalling a story from the mid-1970s, when he was a staffer for the Assembly Republicans.

The bills would show lawmakers making long distance calls to relatives, ringing up "Dial-A-Joke," even touching base with local bookies, all at taxpayers' expense. At the time, however, New Jersey was under a weak law governing access to public records, and lawmakers fought the request for months, buying time as they kept the information secret.

Golden, who would later serve as press secretary for Govs. Thomas Kean and Christie Whitman, and who still advises politicians on handling the media, said officials today could not duck such a request because of the tougher Open Public Records Act approved five years ago this week.

"Reporters, ... as well as opponents in an election, are now able to find out almost in real time virtually the entire public record of someone," Golden said.

Longtime reporters and editors said the state law, often called OPRA and pronounced "Oprah," has led to more uniform standards of openness in state and local governments but also created some delays and new ways to shield information.

"It really opens up the door and sheds so much sunlight onto the process that I think every reporter uses it now just as a matter of routine to get the information that they want and that they need to do a robust and informative story," said Paul D'Ambrosio, investigations editor for the Asbury Park Press.

The access law has played a key role in investigative reports such as a Gannett New Jersey series on government ethics and The Star-Ledger's reporting on wasteful spending at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

But in some cases the law threw up new barriers as well. Ledger Statehouse reporter Dunstan McNichol said public agencies now require reporters to fill out OPRA paperwork for even routine information requests. And the seven-day maximum waiting period for most records is sometimes treated as a minimum. In other instances, he said, officials seek to shield information by saying it falls under one of the law's exceptions.

"The more aggressive media outlets are, the better OPRA will sift out, especially given this tendency on the part of the bureaucracy to use OPRA as at least a stall and often a shelter rather than an enhancement of open records," McNichol said.

Before OPRA, when New Jersey's open records law was considered one of the weakest in the nation, D'Ambrosio received complaints from both reporters and readers denied access to basic pieces of government information, such as lists of employees and local budgets.

New Jersey Press Association attorney Thomas Cafferty said OPRA changed that.

"It certainly has been a success in terms of making accessible far more information than was available under the old right-to-know law," said Thomas Cafferty, an attorney for Gannett and the press association.

McNichol, however, said his newspaper and others should be more willing to take legal action to help set the boundaries of the law. Some disputes, he said, simply never make it to court.

"We weren't particularly aggressive with lawyers before OPRA. We haven't been particularly aggressive post-OPRA," McNichol said.

The law imposes new penalties that Cafferty said increase its effectiveness. Recordskeepers that violate the law can now be forced to pay attorneys' fees when they are sued. The old law carried a maximum penalty of $500, which to some officials may have been worth paying in order to delay disclosing embarrassing information, Cafferty said.

In one example of the change under OPRA, the Neptune Township Sewerage Authority had to repay the Asbury Park Press' $8,000 legal fees after the agency was sued for refusing to release an embarrassing report on abuses by a former executive director, D'Ambrosio said.

According to local officials, reporters at times can overwhelm them with requests. Barbara Hawk, borough clerk in Laurel Springs and president of the Municipal Clerks Association of New Jersey, said her organization supports open government, but notes that many towns have sparsely staffed clerks' offices responsible for records requests, meeting agendas, marriage licenses and a host of other responsibilities. She said one recent request required her to compile seven years' worth of meeeting minutes.

"The larger municipalities sometimes are hit, and sometimes it's a negative for them mainly because of the amounts of the requests and the manpower is not there," Hawk said.

William Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said when the law first went into effect he remembers reporters making voluminous requests, only to never pick up and pay for the documents. In recent years, however, he said there have been few problems.

"This is something that can be useful and can help keeping the public informed, but it can be a double-edged sword," Dressel said. "It can also be a nuisance and be abused."

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