Saturday, April 13, 2024

Frelinghuysen Committee Endorses OPRA Change, More or Less

A controversial proposal in the state legislature to overhaul New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, better known as OPRA, got a tepid endorsement by the Frelinghuysen township committee, March 20.

The bill, which supporters say will streamline the process and protect residents from profiteers making salacious requests, was pulled at the last minute after concerns about government transparency were voiced. 

Mayor Keith Ramos and committee members Todd McPeak and Robert Stock voted in favor while Deputy Mayor Christopher Stracco voted against it and committee member Debra Natyzak voted to abstain. 

After the meeting, Natyzak said she supports OPRA, while acknowledging it needs some tweaking and she voted to abstain because she did not want to take a position on something that for the moment does not exist.  

“I am an advocate for OPRA and realize it has to be more efficient,” Natyzak said after the meeting. “When I read the changes proposed, it was more than modernizing OPRA.”

She said that while the bill might have helped make the process more efficient, she felt that the revisions reduced government transparency. 

“Hopefully the next revision will be more focused on efficiency,” she added. 

OPRA legislation was enacted in 2002 to provide the public with access to local, county and state government records in New Jersey. 

Proponents of the reform bill have said the law has not kept up with technology. As an example, Assemblyman Paul Sarno, one of the sponsors, said “profiteers” have been requestioning police body cam recordings of arrests involving young women to post and monetize on their social media channels. 

They also point to beleaguered town clerks who are often besieged by local gadflies with lots of time on their hands requesting mountains of documents, which have to be retrieved and copied. 

Critics, however, contend that along with the purported efficiencies are a number of changes buried in the fine print of the legislation that would reduce government transparency.

The legislation would eliminate most access to records that are now public—including contracts, permits and registrations used by public agencies. It would also remove what many open government advocates consider a vital tool for the public to open public records: the ability to sue government officials who refuse to turn over public documents and recoup their legal costs from that government agency should they win. 

Joe Phalon
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.

Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.

Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.