Agency handles bulk of public records requests

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell released a report on the agency’s second year implementing New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

The DEP has received the vast majority of state records requests, handling more than 17,500 requests in OPRA’s first two years — more than 55 percent of the combined requests for public records received by all state agencies.

“The number of OPRA requests we have processed and granted reflects DEP’s unwavering commitment to expand public access to information,” said Campbell. “We take very seriously the responsibility to remain open, accountable and accessible — the more information the public has, the more effectively government operates.”

In OPRA’s second year, DEP’s records custodians and file officers spent more than 50,000 hours tracking down records and preparing them for the public at a cost of almost $1.4 million.

“Despite excessive demands from some legal and consulting firms attempting to dredge up business and to use the system to shift their workloads onto the state, we are fully complying with the law — even as it diverts limited resources away from environmental protection,” Campbell said. “With an almost 30 percent increase in the number of requests this year, our costs for managing the OPRA program remain high, but per request, have declined due to our efficient and streamlined program.”

To facilitate public access to information and to reduce staff costs, DEP provides frequently requested reports at the OPRA portion of its Web site. These continually updated and expanded reports include compliance and enforcement results for facilities, information on air quality permits, and pollution discharge permits. In addition, DEP is continually improving Internet access to real-time data through its i-Map NJ mapping database and its Data Miner program, according to a press release.

Of the 9,849 requests received by DEP in the OPRA program’s second year, more than 9,750, or more than 99 percent, successfully gained access to the requested records. Less than 1 percent, or 92 requests, were denied.

Many denials were due to improperly submitted or incomplete requests, according to DEP. To date, DEP’s decisions to deny a request have been appealed only twice — once to the Government Records Council and once to the state Supreme Court. DEP prevailed in both cases.

In all, the state’s executive departments and agencies received 19,522 public record requests from July 7, 2003, to July 6, 2004. DEP’s 9,849 requests represented an increase of 2,185 requests over the number received during the first year of the agency’s OPRA program. DEP currently averages 27 requests a day, seven days a week.

According to the agency, much of the credit for the smooth implementation of the OPRA requirements is due to its centralized Office of the Records Custodian that facilitates the voluminous OPRA requests received, providing a single point of contact for the public.

New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act took effect July 7, 2002. OPRA establishes a strict, seven-business-day timeframe for providing access to state and local documents. Certain information is exempt from the policy for reasons of domestic security or the legal need for confidentiality. The act covers all agencies of the executive branch of state government, while exempting the Legislature from its provisions.