Sunshine Week Highlights Importance of Government Transparency

By Michael Hill

It’s National Sunshine Week — nothing to do with the weather, but everything to do with government transparency.

Walter Luers says New Jersey is operating in the dark in some ways. Luers is the president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.

“There’s still a trend against Transparency. Transparency and complying with the Open Public Records Act is still considered a burden and there’s still in New Jersey a culture of withholding documents, especially sensitive information,” he said.

Luers says case in point is John Paff who requested the Ocean County Prosecutor’s investigation report and videotaped interview of a school principal accused of exposing himself to a boy. The prosecutor denied the request citing confidentiality and later closed the case, no charges filed.

“It’s extremely disturbing. This is one of the core reasons why we need transparency. One of the core reasons we have transparency so that the issue of child safety can be addressed,” Luers said.

Luers says the prosecutor can redact the material so he’s sued in superior court as opposed to appealing to the state Government Records Council which can take a year to mediate.

“I believe OPRA needs to be tweaked,” said Woodbridge Township Municipal Clerk John Mitch.

President of the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey, Mitch says typically, superior court is expensive and unnecessary.

“We have to take the superior court out of the equation because the problem is that’s an increased cost to the municipality,” he said.

Some of the frequent complaints of requestors of public information is that those receiving the requests in government will not release the information because they think they don’t have to or they don’t want the public to see what’s in the documents or even worse.

“Sometimes they do treat them as if they’re their personal records because they can show things about them that they don’t like,” Luers said.

The League of Municipalities holds several sell-out seminars a year on the Open Public Records Act and it supports putting many government records online to reduce OPRA requests.

“We do encourage transparency. I don’t think it’s a bad practice but the fact of the matter is by putting it up doesn’t mean it’s going to reduce your involvement or costs,” said League of Municipalities Executive Director Bill Dressel.

The Records Council says, “Custodians should try to maintain, to the extent possible, documents in a readily searchable electronic form.”

“We want to support the transparency but you need to understand where we’re coming from and work with us and we’ll work with you and will do what we need to do to have everybody get the records they’re entitled to,” Mitch said.

When asked what’s at stake, Luers said, “It’s democracy really. The New Jersey Supreme Court has said that transparency is key to democracy because you need an informed public.”

Every day in New Jersey there’s a tug of war over access to public meetings and disclosure of records, documents that show the function or dysfunction, the spending or misspending, the actions or inactions of government at all levels. And from Trenton to Washington, you can find criticism about governments’ lack of transparency. Fodder for every National Sunshine Week.