BERKELEY – The Open Public Records Act provides for transparency in government by allowing people to see official documents. However, municipal clerks from around the state say it’s time to amend the law.
The Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey is calling for a study commission to review the law. The Association noted that while the law does a lot of good, it can be abused and misused. It has had unintended consequences, soaking up a lot of time for employees, and incurring additional costs for taxpayers.
Berkeley Township Clerk Beverly Carle said that the township employees get “overburdened with requests” through the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
By way of background, Berkeley officials received and responded to 629 OPRA requests in 2017, 927 in 2018, and 1,100 requests as of Dec. 1, 2019. This has resulted in approximately 275 hours of work by township staff, and a yearly average of 190 hours for the previous two years, Carle said.
The Township Council passed a resolution asking for the 18-year-old law to be studied so that it can be amended to modern standards.
“Due to the often conflicting case law and Government Record Council decisions, as well as the unique characteristics of OPRA requests, the Township must often rely on the municipal attorney to review certain OPRA requests, resulting in additional fees of approximately $26,856 in response to OPRA requests in 2017 and 2018 and currently has spent $62,937 in response to OPRA requests in 2019,” Berkeley’s resolution read.
The Clerks Association provided a model resolution to its members, asking governing bodies throughout the state to pass this resolution. Jackson is another local town that has done so.
The resolution states, in part: “with limited exceptions OPRA has not been amended to address the clear and apparent advancement in technology that has changed the way government records are created, stored, and/or transmitted; the various interpretive decisions; privacy concerns; abuse for commercial gain; and/or the ever increasing cost to taxpayers.”
The state’s clerks are asking for a study by a commission comprised of mayors, clerks, department heads, citizens, members of the media, and experts on privacy and open government. At the end of the study, this commission would make recommendations on changes to the law.
The sample resolution also states that towns have “labored under a well-intended law that has spiraled out of control, due to the volume and nature of requests, the cost to taxpayers in responding to the requests, and the potential liability in having to pay disproportionate prevailing party attorney’s fees should the requests turn into litigated matters, as well as the liability in determining which documents shall be released, with or without redaction, while attempting to maintain individual privacy.”