The Open Public Records Act, once touted as a ‘major reform,’ dies at 22

Lawmakers earlier this year axed a few critical portions of the law and rewrote others, making it virtually unrecognizable.

The Open Public Records Act, a New Jersey law that allowed journalists, good-government groups, and everyday citizens alike to uncover government corruption at the state and local level, died this week after a series of fatal blows at the hands of the Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy. It was 22.

The law, commonly known as OPRA, was hailed at the time of its passage as a “major reform” that helped citizens access documents that had previously been denied to them. It was responsible for the public knowing about glaring missteps at state-run veterans homes during the early months of the pandemic, the level at which police officers use force against citizens, the high rate of deaths in custody in New Jersey jails, and more.

But government officials soured on the law in recent years. County and municipal clerks said their offices were inundated with requests for government records, sometimes as many as one a day. Meanwhile, town leaders chafed at the legal costs associated with records disputes they lost in court, and at commercial entities that used the law to access records that, as taxpayers, they paid to create and maintain.

Fueled by this discontent, lawmakers earlier this year axed a few critical portions of the law and rewrote others, making it virtually unrecognizable. Murphy signed those revisions into law Wednesday.

Supporters of the Open Public Records Act expressed sorrow at its demise.

“Sad day for the people of New Jersey; a sad day for the party that I still believe in; and a sad day for our governor,” said former state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Bergen County Democrat and longtime OPRA champion.

Elouise McDaniel’s persistent use of the Open Public Records Act landed her in court when Irvington claimed she was using the law to harass the town. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Elouise McDaniel, an Irvington senior citizen who often used the law to obtain information about her town’s finances, expressed disappointment with Murphy. Irvington sued McDaniel in 2022, alleging she used the Open Public Records Act so much it verged on harassment (the town later dropped the suit).

The law Murphy signed Wednesday creates an incentive for towns to lodge these kinds of lawsuits against their citizens. It gives judges the power to ban some people from filing records requests entirely if a public entity accuses them of using the requests to “substantially interrupt” how the entity functions.

“It appears that rights are being given to municipalities to use public funds as they see fit with no restrictions,” McDaniel said.

The Open Public Records Act was born in Trenton on Jan. 8, 2002, when the state’s acting governor, Donald DiFrancesco, signed it on his final day in office. At the time, DiFrancesco, a Republican who was then wrapping up a 26-year career in the Legislature and nearly a year as the state’s chief executive, called the bill “truly unprecedented and historic.”

“It throws open the doors of government like we’ve never done before by affirming the public’s right to access virtually all government records,” he said.

The prior version of the law granted disclosure only of records specifically required to be filed or maintained, but OPRA allowed citizens to view and copy a host of other government documents, including electronic records, unless the law specifically barred disclosure.

A key enforcement mechanism imposed heavy fines on officeholders who purposely denied access. The law also required public entities to reimburse plaintiffs who were forced to go to court to obtain documents.

It was not without its critics from the start. A key last-minute change exempted certain legislative records, something press advocates at the time said they believed the Legislature would correct. It never did.

But over two decades, the law was key in uncovering political scandals major and minor. It helped reveal that millions in taxpayer dollars flowed to private schools and their highly-paid administrators, that Monmouth County commissioners secretly awarded themselves pay raises, and that a Jersey City councilman used a taxpayer-funded car to take joyrides while he was getting paid for a low-show public job.

But the law couldn’t survive lawmakers’ complaints that it allowed citizens to obtain too much information about their government.

The Open Public Records Act’s end was mourned on both sides of the aisle. Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) called its replacement “the epitome of terrible government.”

“A bad bill, passed with bad intention, by people who either directly benefit from it or have been bought off to vote a certain way. I’ve never been part of anything more disgusting in my life,” Bergen said.


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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.” You can reach him at [email protected].

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