Public wins one in state Legislature

The state has finally passed the Open Public Records Act, which will give the public greater access to government records.

The act overhauls New Jersey’s "Right to Know" law, something the New Jersey Press Association and others have been pushing for for many years.

Under the old law, only records that are required by law to be kept were automatically considered open for inspection, frequently forcing members of the public to hire a lawyer and go to court to gain access to information that in most other states is readily available.

The overhaul changes the presumption regarding the majority of municipal and county government records from being beyond the public’s purview to being squarely in the public domain. That includes internal memos, policy drafts and countless other documents, unless they are specifically excluded by executive order or legislative resolution.

The bill, at the behest of outgoing Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, exempts the Legislature, but an effort is under way to throw out that exemption.

For anyone who has been stonewalled while trying to get access to public information at the local and county levels, this is a true victory.

Public officials and others who knowingly violate the law will be subject to penalties of up to $5,000.

In a compromise, current law that seals criminal investigation files and individual files kept by victims’ rights agencies will remain in effect. As part of the agreement, a 13-member Privacy Study Commission will study privacy issues and make recommendations to the Legislature within 18 months.

Also, a Government Records Council will be created within the Department of Community Affairs to mediate disputes regarding access to government records.

All too often, government employees and elected officials have turned away residents seeking the most basic information, leading them to believe erroneously that many public records were supposed to be "top secret."

The passage of this landmark legislation is a victory for everyone — especially John Q. Public.