By ACLU-NJ Transparency Fellow Iris Bromberg
Last week was Sunshine Week, an annual observance of the fundamental role of transparency in a free society. But transparency is arguably even more important to talk about when it’s ¬not¬ Sunshine Week.
The ACLU-NJ has been on a roll filing, arguing, and appealing cases for transparency. And we see a disturbing trend: despite the mandate under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to err on the side of openness, government agencies seem almost by default to deny the public access to government’s inner workings.
Here are three important open government cases the ACLU-NJ is working on:
A city tries to exempt most records related to police, with huge implications
North Jersey Media Group requested records — including audio and video — related to a car chase and the fatal shooting by police of driver Kashad Ashford. Agencies incorrectly cited several OPRA exemptions that do not apply, the ACLU-NJ argued in a March 1 appeal. Our state’s access to all police records hangs in the balance.
School records denied based on out-of-state address – even though anonymous requests are fine
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit that has long advocated for New Jersey students’ rights, requested records about Atlantic City Public Schools’ enrollment and discipline, including police involvement. Because Lawyers’ Committee’s offices are in Washington, D.C., Atlantic City refused in a misinterpretation of the New Jersey Open Public Records Act, the ACLU-NJ argued in its March 11 brief.
Records denied because they had already been denied for more than two years
Jeffrey Carter wanted access to records related to the Franklin Fire District’s financial software, but was denied. The agency simply ignored him. Incredibly, the Franklin Fire District first acknowledged the request more than two years after it was made, long after Carter began challenging the denial. The ACLU-NJ is now challenging the Government Records Council, which sided with the district to shield information about its financial software.
There are far too many open government cases, big and small, to list them here.
It’s hard to know which is more disturbing: a society that openly scorns transparency, or one that purports to embrace it while officials seem to do all they can to subvert it.
Open government is a cornerstone of democracy. Public access to the inner workings of government is essential to evaluating our representatives’ performance and holding them accountable. Such oversight weeds out corruption and supports efficient government.
These needless denials have an immeasurable cost — to transparency, public trust, public participation, and government accountability.
You can take a stand for transparency. This is a conversation that needs to continue well beyond Sunshine Week. Tell your elected officials to support S1046, a bill to modernize the Open Public Records Act. Maybe by next Sunshine Week, we can celebrate its passage.