Baraka strongly urges Murphy to veto bill that would gut OPRA

Newark mayor: ‘Accountability and access is essential for safeguarding working families, strengthening communities, and preserving our democracy’

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, in what he called a “support for democracy,” urged Gov. Phil Murphy to veto the Open Public Records Act bill that recently passed both houses of the New Jersey Legislature.

“As Democrats, we must stand firm in our commitment to the people,” he said in a lengthy statement. “Accountability and access is essential for safeguarding working families, strengthening communities and preserving our democracy. Without transparency, faith in our institutions wanes, and democracy falters.

“This OPRA bill does not reflect who we are, not as Democrats and not as the state of New Jersey.”

He also said: “This legislation threatens the very essence of transparency and accountability that our democracy relies upon.”

Since Baraka is running for governor — and, since this bill seemingly only has the support of politicians, not the electorate — it’s easy to say Baraka is making his statement as part of his campaign.

But, as the mayor of the state’s largest city — one that Baraka said receives hundreds of OPRA requests a day — his plea carries a lot of weight.

Simply put, Baraka said the bill is not the way to fight OPRA abuse.

“I recognize the challenges of handling OPRA requests,” he said. “Newark receives more requests than most, and I echo my fellow mayors’ concerns about the commercialization of OPRA. This is a real problem, one tackled by former Sen. (Loretta) Weinberg’s reform bill, a bill that would fix the practice of using public time and public servants for private business, but also leaves democracy intact. We cannot sacrifice transparency for convenience.”

Baraka addressed specifics.

“While the issues in this bill are vast, the most controversial provision of this bill eliminates mandatory fee shifting, which guarantees that legal fees are covered for residents who successfully challenge public records denials in court,” he said. “We know, for a fact, that this change will lower the rate of compliance with OPRA requests across the board.

“National studies have concluded unequivocally that the fee shifting system we have in place today makes us more open, more transparent and more accountable than the system that would be in place the day after you sign this bill.

“It is proven, there is no way to spin it. By removing this safeguard, we diminish transparency, weaken our democratic institutions and cause issues of inequity for people who do not have resources for representation.”

Baraka said the bill has many faults — and creates serious issues.

“Unfortunately, mandatory fee shifting is only the beginning of the anti-democratic measures in this bill,” he said. “As written, the legislation leaves the term ‘interfering with government operations’ undefined and allows lawsuits against requestors. This is reckless and dangerous and opens the door even wider for abuses of power by threatening financial peril for citizens and organizations seeking records, particularly when they seek records held by an entity who is not operating in good faith.

“This isn’t hypothetical, this is real — and it jeopardizes this fundamental pillar of a free society.”