ACLU-NJ Offers “Sunshine Week” Ideas for Strengthening OPRA and OPMA Laws, and for Holding Government and Elected Officials Accountable to the Public
In a remarkable bit of timing this week, the New Jersey state Senate failed in a vote to over-ride a veto by Governor Christie of legislation that would have imposed for the first time strict legal requirements for more transparent governance at the scandal-plagued Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
What was so remarkable about the timing?
Republicans in the Senate went jelly-legged during Sunshine Week, a seven-day celebration of openness and transparency in government that began after the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in 2002 beat back attempts by the Florida Legislature to create some 300 exemptions to its open meetings laws. Its name, however, comes from an idea voiced a century ago by U. S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In describing the need for public oversight of elected officials, Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” And the point is to draw public attention to the necessity of laws that require government officials and elected leaders to conduct business in full view of the public.
The PA veto over-ride in New Jersey failed even though the bill, sponsored by open government champions Sens. Bob Gordon and Loretta Weinberg, had previously won unanimous approval of both the Senate and the Assembly. The failure of the bill to win approval “means the port authority is still vulnerable to abuse and commuters remain at risk of schemes that take more of their hard-earned money out of their pockets,” Gordon said.
The response to the governor’s veto doesn’t necessarily mean everything is rotten in Trenton, but it does demonstrate quite clearly that not all elected officials put a premium on the need to be held publicly accountable for their actions.
As a bi-state agency, the PANYNJ is not subject to the governmental transparency laws of New Jersey or New York, even though it has a budget larger than many states. Indeed, it was only through dogged reporting, led by The Record of Bergen County, that the notorious “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email from a Christie aide to a PA official was discovered and launched the political scandal over the closure of traffic lanes onto the George Washington Bridge.
The PA is but one example of the need for greater transparency and accountability in government.
In recognition of Sunshine Week, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is offering up its own ideas for bringing New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act into the 21st Century.
“Open government is a cornerstone of democracy that enables advocates, activists and the press to monitor government performance and expose corruption,” ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg said. “The transparency of government activities enables access to critical information needed to shine a light on government performance and expose corruption."
In addition to the ideas for strengthening accountability – including adopting policies to ensure proper retention of government emails and texts that are made on private systems , creating websites where individuals can find publically-available information regarding their municipality, and strengthening the existing language of NJ’s transparency laws – the ACLU-NJ is highlighting five important government transparency cases that established the right to videotape public meetings, create privacy safeguards for automated license plate readers and closed loopholes in the existing open meetings and records law.
- A Sampling of Key ACLU-NJ Victories on Government Access and Transparency (PDF)
- It’s Time to Bring Open Government Laws into the 21st Century (PDF)
- ACLU-NJ Disappointed in NJ Senate’s Failure to Secure Port Authority Transparency
- Legislature Acts to Make Port Authority More Transparent, Accountable
- Testimony in Support of S2181, September 18, 2014 (PDF)
- Testimony in Support of A3350 and A3417, October 27, 2014 (PDF)
- ACLU-NJ Sues Christie Administration for Denying Open Records Requests