Report Released on Failures of Open Government Meetings in N.J.

On March 14, 2007, The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government released Partly Cloudy: A Report on the New Jersey Sunshine Law (188k PDF) which highlights the weaknesses and strengths of the state Open Public Meetings Act, and some common-sense recommendations on how to change a "culture of secrecy."

"Our report takes a penetrating look at where New Jersey stands on government transparency and public participation," said NJFOG President Elizabeth Mason.

Fondly known as the "Sunshine Law," the 1975 act conveys a spirit of transparent government, with public participation at the heart of the process. Over the years, though, poor practices have gained footholds because of limited enforcement of the current statue. Moreover, the advance of new technologies has raised questions not envisioned when the Legislature adopted the law three decades ago. The need for reform grows more pressing by the day.

Simply reworking old legislation will not be enough to create positive change. Along with re-evaluating the law, NJFOG calls for all levels of government to begin more systematic training for public employees and public officials concerning their obligations under the law. A plain-language guide would help public officials as well as the public.

"There is currently a wide variation in open public meetings practices in New Jersey," said Suzanne Piotrowski, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public affairs and administration at Rutgers University-Newark. Piotrowski and Erin Borry, a candidate for a Master in Public Administration, wrote the report after studying the history of the act, comparing it to those in other states, and examining how it works in practice.

"To truly make meetings more accessible to the public, the culture of secrecy surrounding public meetings needs to be changed," Piotrowski said. "This culture will not be changed with a new law alone. Training officials in their responsibilities and educating the public are absoluetly necessary steps."

Among other things, Partly Cloudy: A Report on the New Jersey Sunshine Law (188k PDF) recommends:

  • Minutes should completely and accurately reflect what transpired at a meeting, and be released within an explicit time limit.
  • Closed sessions should not be used for routine matters, and discussions must be limited to announced subjects.
  • Notices and agendas should be timely and provide sufficient information for the public to know what will occur at a meeting.
  • Regular allowance must be made for public comment during a meeting.
  • In keeping with recent court decisions, the public must be allowed to video- or audio-tape meetings.
  • Procedures for electronic meetings must be clear.
  • Where violations occur, stricter sanctions should be imposed. When the public is forced to take legal action, the attorney fees should be recoverable.

NJFOG believes training should apply to anyone who serves on a public body, and to employees who deal with public requests for information. Additionally, NJFOG recommends the creation and distribution throughout the state of a plain-language guide to the Sunshine Law. The Legislature and Administration also should consider the creation of an oversight body or office with the power to enforce the law.

"Our hope is that our report will be helpful for municipalities when they examine their own meeting procedures," Piotrowski said.

"As a next step, NJFOG will work with the Legislature and Administration to improve the law and ensure its enforcement," Mason said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is a founding and active member of NJFOG.

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