Bipartisan legislation in the state Senate and Assembly would expand New Jersey’s laws governing access to government meetings and records, but local government groups say some changes would be too costly and burdensome.
Lawmakers have postponed the first test of the bills’ chances — a Senate vote — while they negotiate with the groups.
The bills’ sponsors want to extend the scope of the open meetings law to include subcommittees, quasi-governmental entities, independent authorities, redevelopment or improvement authorities, and local government associations. The bills also would expand the definition of a public record.
The sponsors say that among other things, they are aiming to close loopholes that are byproducts of advances in technology. The sponsors hope the legislation can clarify the law and prevent litigation.
The proposed legislation also increases the fines for violating the open meetings and records laws. Violators would have to pay with personal funds, not public money.
The open meetings law already states that secrecy in public affairs undermines public trust and the public’s ability to participate in democracy. Lawmakers want to add that secrecy “fosters the risk of corruption and official misconduct.”
While the state has updated the open records and open meetings laws over the years, neither “has been meaningfully updated since the widespread adoption of the internet, leaving the courts to fill in the gaps,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), who is sponsoring the legislation, said in a statement Tuesday.
The bills would allow government bodies "to take full advantage of the technological improvements of the past two decades,” she added.
The proposed legislation would require that notice of meetings be prominently posted on the government body’s website (called “Internet site” in the legislation) and faxed or emailed to at least two newspapers — new choices beyond phone, mail, telegram, and hand delivery. Meeting schedules and minutes would have to be posted online if the public body has a web presence.
Members of a public body during a public meeting could not communicate privately with each other about agenda items, including by email and instant messaging, except to discuss administrative issues.
Legislation also would require the state to create an open financial data website.
The changes to the records law would expressly state that entities have to make government records available to the public, with certain exceptions, not just citizens of the state, as the law now says.
The legislation would expand the public-disclosure exemptions to include information about alarm systems and surveillance cameras, personal email addresses, and cell phone numbers, unless they are listed as home phone numbers.
Someone who does not disclose that a records request is for commercial purposes would be fined.
The legislation would amend the open meetings law to say expressly that the public can record, photograph, and broadcast public meetings.
Public entities also would need to create and disseminate written policies “intended to maximize public participation” stating how much time they will devote to public comment.
They must make meeting minutes available no later than 15 business days after the next meeting. Municipalities with 5,000 or fewer residents, school boards with 500 or fewer students in the district, and public authorities with less than $10 million in assets get an extra five days.
Government entities must keep “comprehensive” minutes — an upgrade from “reasonably comprehensible” — that would now also include all motions made, each member’s stated reasons for votes, and the identities of members of the public who made comments, as well as summaries of what they said.
The New Jersey Association of Counties said the addition of information that must be included in meeting minutes “may force counties to hire a transcribing service to make sure that accurate meeting minutes are taken,” an added expense, according to a newsletter sent to members.
Local officials have hired attorneys and additional staff to handle records requests, said Lori Buckelew, senior legislative analyst for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. According to a survey of 318 members of the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey, municipalities received more than 125,000 requests in 2018, up from 20 percent from the year before.
The legislation would require governing bodies to pay attorney fees if a judge finds they violated the open meetings law, a provision that already is in effect for violations of the open records law. The league opposes the mandatory fees, which Buckelew called "an added burden on taxpayers” and advocates for judges to use discretion if, for example, a municipality did not intentionally violate the open meetings law.