Bill that would ‘gut OPRA’ pulled from Assembly committee by Coughlin

Victory for transparency — or just delay of legislation that has been panned by large majority?

Trenton, New Jersey

In what ultimately may be a win for transparency in government, something all elected officials steadfastly insist they want, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin announced Thursday that he is pulling a bill aimed at changing the way government responds to public records requests — a bill that has been almost universally described as one that guts the state’s Open Public Records Act, better known as OPRA.

Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) said he is pulling bill S2930 and A4045 from the Assembly Appropriations Committee agenda following days of public outcry.

The bill not only has been ripped by journalists and news organizations (including the one that broke the Bridgegate scandal), but labor leaders (18 unions signed a letter against it), state officials (Comptroller Kevin Walsh) and a former key legislator, Loretta Weinberg, who posted on social media that: “This bill would move New Jersey back into the dark ages when it comes to government accountability.”

Coughlin said he was “inspired” by the opposition in a statement released Thursday.

“We have an open and transparent process where anyone can walk into the State House and have an open and honest discussion with their elected representatives on any legislation being considered,” he wrote. “I am inspired that so many people have taken an interest and engaged in this legislation.

“Understanding how important it is to maintain transparency and the right of the public to know what their government is doing, I appreciate the concerns raised about A4045. Right now, we are working on various amendments to ensure we get the bill right.”

The bill, sponsored by Paul Sarlo (D-Ridge-Wood) and supported by the New Jersey League of Municipalities, was aimed at stopping abuses — such as commercial entities filing seemingly endless requests that cost an untold amount of time and money. There also is concern about personal information being released.

Michael Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, told the New Jersey Monitor: “We are not opposed to transparency or public access. But no one should stick their head in the sand and say that there haven’t been abuses, which impact the municipal operations, impact privacy concerns, and, ultimately, the costs are borne by the taxpayers.”

Those opposed were in greater numbers.

Walsh, in testimony Monday, said his office often gets many tips from citizens — after they have received information from OPRA requests.

“Residents see something that concerns them, and they come to us for an independent and objective look,” he said. “Some of our most impactful reports started with an OPRA request not from us.

“I fear that, if documents are harder to get, we will get less transparency and that will lead to more corruption, fraud, waste and abuse.

“If your goal was to save money, be careful. A less transparent government is very likely a more expensive one, I fear.”

Jennifer Borg, former chief counsel for the (Bergen) Record, which broke much of the Bridgegate scandal through open records requests, said those stories may not have been revealed without OPRA.

Labor unions, in an open letter to Coughlin as well as state Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Clark) and Gov. Phil Murphy, said their members benefit from transparency. They also expressed concern about the speed with which the bill was moving.

“We are seriously concerned about the rushed nature of the process,” they wrote. “These extensive reforms require a thoughtful and deliberate process that provides labor unions and other stakeholders with appropriate time to review and give input.”

Coughlin appears to have gotten the memo. He noted the time element in delaying the bill.

“There will not be enough time to compose the amendments, review them and have further meetings with members of the public prior to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, and, so, the bill will not be heard for consideration today,” he wrote. “We will take the time needed to meet with various stakeholders to modernize OPRA in a way that protects the public from having their personal information, driver’s license numbers and other sensitive information available for anyone to see.”