ACLU-NJ Calls Upon State Officials to Address Transparency

January 13, 2014

ACLU-NJ requests new Port Authority policies and questions the use of personal emails and texts to conduct public business

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) is asking the Christie administration (183k PDF) to take action to require public employees to use their government-issued email accounts to conduct public business and to maintain any emails or texts sent from personal accounts as government records in the event an employee leaves their position.

Additionally, the ACLU-NJ is calling for the New Jersey Legislature and Governor Chris Christie’s administration to work with New York officials to enact legislation subjecting the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) to the same open records and open meetings requirements by which all public governing bodies in New Jersey are bound.

The requests were made in a letter sent to the administration today in the wake of records released about the closure of several lanes connecting Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge in September.

“We need to shine a strong light on public officials to ensure an open, transparent government that the public can trust,” said Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ legal director. “An open, transparent government is a cornerstone of democracy. When public officials conduct business on private email accounts or via text messages, it lessens accountability and causes likely breaches of laws and regulations.”

The ACLU-NJ is calling on the state Attorney General to issue a formal opinion, as well as regulations, requiring that government employees use their government email addresses for all public business whenever possible, and clarifying that records custodians must have access to any private emails or text messages relating to public business. If any correspondence takes place on private accounts, it must be printed out or turned over to the records custodian immediately and retained as a government record. The ACLU-NJ is also raising concerns about access to personal emails and text messages once an employee leaves public office, such as the case with Gov. Chris Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly. Documents released by the legislature indicate that Kelly and former Port Authority official David Wildstein traded correspondence about the lane closures from their personal email accounts. Both Kelly and Wildstein are no longer public employees.

“No matter where one stands on the George Washington Bridge lane closure controversy, we should all agree that we cannot allow a culture of secrecy to fester in our government,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. “It is time to make the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey more transparent and accountable to the public and to prohibit the use of private emails and texts when conducting government business.”

The ACLU-NJ addressed similar concerns about private emails when, in 2012, it discovered that then-Mayor Cory Booker, Commissioner of the Department of Education Christopher Cerf and others corresponded about public business using private accounts. The ACLU-NJ successfully sued to obtain emails that then-Mayor Booker sent from his private email account.

The ACLU-NJ also calls upon the legislature and Christie administration to work with other states to bring any bi-state agency in line with open records and meetings regulations that apply to New Jersey’s municipalities and school boards. This would give the public equal access to documents they can obtain from other boards and the opportunity to seek a court review of a rejection of a document request.

“New Jersey should work with its other relevant sister states to ensure that all bi-state agencies are subject to the same robust transparency requirements,” the ACLU-NJ letter states. “Failure to do so will almost guarantee that the PANYNJ and similar multistate agencies will be permitted to operate in a culture of secrecy that is harmful to democratic governance.”

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