TRENTON - The Christie administration announced changes Monday to the operations of an agency that handles requests for government documents, six weeks after The Inquirer detailed the agency's lack of transparency.
The Government Records Council (GRC) adjudicates appeals when local and state government officials deny requests for public information. Although it is supposed to be the state's final arbiter on what is public information - from political information to police reports - it has acted in a manner far less public than other governmental bodies.
In 2010, Gov. Christie's office rejected a request from The Inquirer about the governor's e-mails and travel records. The newspaper appealed to the GRC, and the case was heard in spring 2012. As documented in a first-person article last month, an Inquirer reporter wasn't given advance notice about the hearing.
Even if the reporter had attended, he wouldn't have learned much. GRC board members voted on cases in public, but didn't say which way members were voting - either granting the records or rejecting the request.
Another complainant did witness the vote on his case, but GRC board members refused to say which way they had voted. All he knew was that the vote was unanimous.
Several new policies, announced Monday by the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the GRC, address some of these issues:
All parties whose cases are scheduled for adjudication will be notified beforehand.
Because GRC attorneys make recommendations to council members about how to vote on each case, printed copies of those recommendations will be available at each meeting, so the public knows what is being voted on. Recommendations also will be available online the morning of the meeting.
Before each vote, the GRC chairman will read the name of the case and ask: "Is there any discussion regarding this matter?"
The next GRC meeting is at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at department headquarters in Trenton.
The changes may not quell all concerns. The current board is still made up of four gubernatorial appointees, including two cabinet members and one political contributor to Christie. There is one long-standing vacancy. As of May, it has ruled 44 times in favor of state departments under Christie's control and zero times against them.
Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) said Monday that she would continue to push a bill to remake the GRC, in part by adding new members to balance the governor's influence. She also wants to expedite the time it takes to finalize cases, which can be as long as a couple of years.
Regardless, Weinberg was pleased with Monday's changes. "It certainly looks like a tiny victory for the public," she said.
Weinberg said she privately interviewed acting Community Affairs Commissioner Richard E. Constable III in the lead-up to his confirmation hearing last month. He told her he was appalled by her description of GRC.
Constable said "he was going to take charge of this immediately," Weinberg said.
William Scott Jr., a Montclair resident who witnessed the GRC vote on his case but left without being told what the vote was, said Monday that there were lessons to be learned from the GRC's changes.
"I guess if you're persistent and committed, there is a possibility of standing up to big government," he said. "As a little resident in this big state and country, I think there is a possibility that we do stand a chance."
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