Growing number of municipalities oppose state effort to expand public records laws

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Several municipalities throughout the state, including Union and Linden, have been approving resolutions to oppose a pair of bills sponsored by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County, which seek to expand public meetings and records laws.

The bills would expand both the Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act, creating an an online database of records and, the towns say, increase the requirements for municipalities to notify and record discussions at meetings, even at the more informal subcommittee level.

In addition to the cost of compliance, the towns are concerned they could easily run afoul of the law, resulting in attorney’s fee awards to those who prevail when suing a municipality in violation of OPMA.

At a recent township meeting, Berkeley Heights Mayor Robert Woodruff called for the rejection of the bill, saying the OPRA and OPMA laws have “have gotten out-of-skew and out-of-balance.”

Weinberg said she is negotiating new language in the legislation after meeting with the state League of Municipalities and the Municipal Clerk’s Association, which highlighted the extra burdens on municipalities and clerks.

The League of Municipalities, which lobbies for all municipalities in the state, met with Weinberg on Sept. 26, and in June Weinberg met with the Municipal Clerk’s Association, which represents all municipal clerks in the state. Municipal clerks handle OPRA requests and record meeting minutes.

Weinberg said she has received opposition resolutions from about 15 municipalities in the state, drafted by the Municipal Clerk’s Association, even after she met with them to negotiate new language.

The Union resolution said the new legislation would fail to protect clerks from “abusive” and “harassing” people who submit multiple OPRA requests for “no legitimate reason.”

“The responsibilities of municipal clerks, who the legislature has already loaded with responsibilities beyond the scope of their office, would be stretched even further than current law requires without a single dollar of additional resources to provide to, or authorize to be collected by, municipalities,” the Union resolution read.

Weinberg said the resolutions were filled with “misstatements,” and that she plans to update the bills after listening to the concerns of both organizations.

“I am dismayed and I must say, shocked,” Weinberg said in a Sept. 28 interview, referring to the resolutions. “We met with the municipal clerks some months ago in the senate president’s office and we agreed to work on some wording.”
The Municipal Clerk’s Association was invited to the Sept. 26 meeting with Weinberg, but did not attend.

Municipal Clerks’ Association President Dina Zawadski said they didn’t attend because they’re “getting frustrated.”
“We had discussions, but as far as getting everything across and getting what we liked, I’d say not 100 percent, no,” said Zawadski, who is the municipal clerk in Deptford Township. “We have been making statements to Sen. Weinberg to come up with a better solution that’s going to help the clerks and the governing bodies.”

Weinberg sponsored similar bills in 2015, and blamed the state League of Municipalities for scuttling them then.
The League of Municipalities conitnues to oppose the language in Weinberg’s current bills.

“[We’re] not in opposition to public transparency,” said Lori Buckelew, a senior legislative analyst with the league. “[We’re] in opposition to new requirements the bills would be placing on the municipalities.”

The New Jersey Press Association was supportive of the 2015 bills and is supportive of the new efforts.
“There’s nothing in Sen. Weinberg’s bill that provides a time burden or financial burden,” New Jersey Press Association Executive Director George White said. “The New Jersey Press Association is concerned that the league may be fundamentally opposed to OPMA and may be intending to create artificial problems in an attempt to thwart these bills, which ensure greater public transparency.”

The bills make several changes to OPRA and OPMA.
As introduced, Weinberg’s bill would create an online, state-funded database of a state agency’s finances, including salaries, contracts and donations. A municipal clerk may direct a person to that database if they file an OPRA request.
“This bill hasn’t been updated since the advent of the internet,” Weinberg said. “So we were trying to bring all of this into the 21st century so that if automatically you do a new contract for a new lawyer, you put it online.”

But the Municipal Clerk’s Association says such a database requires someone from the municipal clerks’ offices to enter it.
The league also contends that simply directing a person to the online database when an OPRA request is received may not satisfy the language of the bill.

The person making the request could ask for printed copies after being directed to the website, adding another task for the clerks.

According to the League of Municipalities, the current language isn’t clear on the time allotted for a municipal clerk to respond to a request for printed copies after directing the person to the database.

Moreover, the league claims that the bills expose municipalities to pricey litigation if they’re ever in violation of the new requirements.

The OPMA bill awards attorney’s fees to those who prevail in suing a municipality in violation of OPMA.
While the OPRA bill adds two exceptions for when an attorney’s fee award would be denied, these are not included in the OPMA version.

On top of this, the League of Municipalities and the Municipal Clerks’ Association claim the revamped bills would place requirements on municipalities that the state Legislature would not require of itself.

Weinberg said smaller municipal governmental bodies require “different sets of rules” than a larger state legislative body.
“Everything is owned by the taxpayers, and I started out from that psychology,” Weinberg said. “Many local mayors, they hate it even if you just say ‘OPRA’ or ‘OPMA.’”

After changing the language, Weinberg said she plans to put the bill up for a vote during lame-duck session in the Legislature, or sometime between November and January.