How Easy Is It To Get Public Records?

By Christie Duffy

You’ve got a right to see what is inside your government’s filing drawer.

“We should be able to get information about what our government is doing. You know the government is meant to serve, not to rule,” said Open Public Records Act law attorney Michael Witt.

But the average citizen can face roadblocks when submitting an open public records request. So can news organizations.

NJTV News was recently denied when we requested a state database with information on your child’s school. What are we after? The readiness ratings of New Jersey schools ahead of the standard test in March.

We have a legal team fighting for it. We know you don’t. So we decided to gauge governments’ level of response. We filed an identical request under the law with all 21 counties.

Witt fights for the government’s side and he says it’s become a big business.

“There is a lot of OPRA work out there. It’s one of the most common things that governments face. One of the most common requests is for employee information — name, salary, date of hire,” he said.

That’s exactly what we asked for. Sounds like a simple request. But here is how your county answered.

Warren wanted us to pay outside county contractors $75 an hour — or at least $900 up front.

Burlington County never responded to our request.

Cape May, Hunterdon, Gloucester and Salem were slow to respond. Middlesex came in one or two days past deadline. Some of these counties did ask for extensions, which is OK under the law. But OPRA does set a deadline of seven business days to fill it from the day they receive the request.

The remaining counties filled our request on time. Atlantic and Morris were the fastest, taking only a day or two.

Not all the counties, state, federal or municipal government agencies are working with the same resources.

“How long it takes to search for records where the records are stored,” said former Government Records Council Executive Director Marc Pfeiffer.

The Open Public Records Act was enacted in 2002. That year, Pfeiffer sat at the helm of the new agency created to handle record request disputes. But Pfeiffer says as text messages, emails and big data have mushroomed through the mechanics of government, agencies are crushed trying to keep up.

“As technology has advanced, our ability to manage our records has not kept up with that. I think one of the biggest challenges we have is for government agencies to develop the capacity, the technology and the spending authority to meet the needs that the public has and to start putting data online on a regular basis. For example, employee information should be readily available,” Pfeiffer said.

Recent years’ budget constraints are also rattling the cage, impacting requests for government transparency. Inescapable even at the state record council over which Pfeiffer used to preside.

“My understanding of their current situation is they have lost staff and they haven’t replaced them. But more importantly, the staff that they have doesn’t have as much experience as prior staff did,” Pfeiffer said.

The government records council hasn’t published a performance report to their website in two years. In 2012, the GRC reported that on average it took them 2.5 months to close a complaint.

Complaints can also get settled in the courtroom where it’s faster. And the deck is stacked in your corner.

Witt says education of how the law works has room for improvement on both sides of the fence. He says requesters need to know that the law is not meant to answer questions. It’s a tool to get data, documents and answer your own questions.