Mayor’s accident points up problem with public access

The problems with New Jersey’s weak law regarding the obligation to provide public information came into sharp focus in our effort to get details regarding charges lodged against Red Bank Mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr. this week.

McKenna was charged with leaving the scene of an accident after allegedly being involved in a hit-and-run on the Garden State Parkway on Saturday.

Despite two full days spent in the effort, we were unable to get a copy of the police report or anything but the sketchiest details on what was a minor incident.

When contacted, the N.J. State Police said such a request would have to be made to officials at the N.J. Highway Authority.

A Highway Authority employee said to get a copy of the report from her office would require a written request and a $10 check or money order. A response would come within 10 days of the office’s receipt of the request.

She did say that the report could be viewed at the state police barracks in Holmdel and gave the number of the report.

On Tuesday afternoon, nearly three full days after the accident, an officer at the barracks said the report was not available.

He said just because there was a number on file at the highway authority did not automatically mean the report was in his office.

Not until Wednesday morning was such basic information as the full name of the other person involved and the full circumstances of the accident provided.

Why this back and forth between the state police and the highway authority is required is anybody’s guess, but this system clearly acts to deny the public access to accurate information in a timely manner and should not be permitted.

The resulting delay in disclosure is potentially damaging both to those involved and to the public at large.

In this case, McKenna was faced with speculation of serious violations of the law as the lack of information allowed rumors to start and spread.

The general public is hurt because the state police’s failure to provide basic information it assuredly has — and has no clearly compelling reason to conceal — can create distrust of an organization that the public should trust implicitly.

The state Legislature is currently considering a bill that would go a long way toward preventing situations like this.

It can’t become law soon enough.