Weinberg pulls transparency bills

Legislative alert_158x57Bad news for open government.

Noting there were not enough votes to get the two bills that would update the state’s sunshine laws out of committee, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) took both bills off the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee agenda today.

Weinberg, who said she had spent  “a long two years” working with parties on both sides of the issue to come up with proposed language to update the state Open Records Act (OPRA) and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), took the NJ League of Municipalities to task for constantly moving the goal posts during negotiations. “I want to say very publicly they have been bad partners in this endeavor,” she said.

Weinberg thanked her co-sponsor state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville),  the NJ Press Association, the ACLU of NJ, the Municipal Clerks Association, NJ Foundation for Open Government, the League of Women Voters and the editorial staffs of The Star-Ledger and The Record for their support.

The upshot is that the OPRA and OPMA bills are off the table for this year.

Maybe next year?…

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Red Alert: Trouble in Trenton

Legislative alert_158x57This Tuesday, June 23, an important committee meeting will take place in Trenton, one that could greatly affect open government in New Jersey. We are urging you to write to the legislators in your district and have created a format that we hope will make this relatively quick and easy.

The NJ Society of Professional Journalists rarely gets involved in politics.  When it comes to open government, however, it is our obligation to be heard. To summarize the issue, two bills, S781 and S782, are being debated in the senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. They would strengthen the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) by closing loopholes and addressing the realities of today’s technology.

However, we are concerned about the introduction of potential amendments at Tuesday’s committee meeting that could substantially weaken these bills. The worrisome amendments seem to be coming from the League of Municipalities and other organizations that want to maintain the status quo.

Fortunately, we are not in this fight alone.  The ACLU, the NJ Press Association, the NJ Foundation for Open Government and others also see the danger. But we need your help.

If you’re interested in attending Tuesday’s session of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, the legislators are meeting at 10 a.m. in Committee Room 4 on the first floor of the State House Annex in Trenton. It’s unlikely the senators will be taking testimony, but your presence alone can be very powerful.

If you want to know more, you will find some helpful links at the end of this post.

About that letter. Here’s what we’d like you to do:

  • Cut & paste the text we have prepared below.  You will see that it only says that you are watching and you care, nothing more.  If you wish to customize the text, great. We welcome that.

Dear _____ ,
My name is (name), and I am a journalist who lives in your district in (town).
The NJ Society of Professional Journalists (NJ-SPJ) is alerting us to attempts to water-down bills S781 and S782, having to do with open public records and open meetings. I hope that you will support these bills in their strongest possible forms. I will be looking at updates from NJ-SPJ as these bills progress through hearings; your vote on these issues is very important to me.
I am a journalist because I believe that an informed public is essential to our democracy. I see very few instances where municipalities and other authorities should conduct business in the shadows. I cannot do my job if government openness is compromised. I hope that you share these concerns.
Yours truly,

  • Email it to your two assembly people and your state senator.
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NJ-SPJ supports bills amending state transparency laws

unnamedNJ-SPJ officers Ron Miskoff and Miriam Ascarelli were at a state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing in Trenton yesterday supporting proposed legislation to update and modernize NJ’s Open Public Meetings Act (OMPA) and Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Also supporting the bill were representatives from the NJ Press Association, the ACLU of NJ and the NJ Foundation for Open Government.

The next step will be a committee vote, at a date yet to be announced.

Background

State Senator Loretta Weinberg has been working in earnest with the advocates on all sides of the issue on this for about a year. At the heart of all these discussions is an acknowledgement that OPRA and OMPA need to be updated for the digital age. So the OPRA bill, for example, makes it possible to submit OPRA requests via email, and it requires governmental bodies to post their notices, agendas and meeting minutes on their own websites, and, if they don’t have a site of their own, to post them on a statewide website. The idea here is that this take advantage of technology in such a way that clerks and other records custodians won’t need to spend as much time processing routine requests.

What’s in the bills:

  • Fee shifting in the Open Public Meetings Act:  We see this is a huge positive because it would allow citizens and journalists who win a court case involving a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act (OMPA) to be reimbursed for their attorney’s fees. Without fee shifting, each party is responsible for paying their respective attorneys’ fees, meaning someone without the money to pay for an attorney would be less likely to sue a governmental agency, even when those rights are plainly violated. Such a mechanism already exists for Open Public Records Act violations, which is why you see many more attorneys taking on OPRA cases than OMPA cases.
Based on yesterday’s testimony from representatives of the NJ School Boards Association and the NJ Association of Counties as well as questions from the committee members, fee shifting is obviously     going to be a  major battleground issue.

 

  • Redactions of public records: This provision would require records custodians, when redacting public documents, to explain the reasoning behind their actions. To illustrate the importance of this provision, Jennifer Borg, NJPA representative and in-house counsel for northjersey.com, showed a copy of the 3 ½ pages of blank pages that a clerk provided in response to an OPRA request that a reporter from The Record made about Hurricane Sandy. When Jennifer sued, suddenly the clerk provided the information, un-redacted. This provision would force records custodians to explain why the documents were redacted in the first place.
Expect this to be another battleground issue.…
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Celebrate our winners on June 27

We’ll be honoring the winners of this year’s NJ-SPJ Excellence in Journalism Awards on June 27 in a two-part celebration in Newark. The festivities begin with a reception at the Robert Treat Hotel, 50 Park Pl., followed by a 3 p.m. reception next door at the New Jersey Historical Society. The reception costs $10 per person, but the ceremony itself is free. R.S.V.P. is required, so please click here to connect to our event registration page.…

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The best of New Jersey journalism

Editor’s note: Several categories were inadvertently left off of our original winners list. The list has since been corrected, and it can be found here as well as in the link embedded in the text below.

PRESS RELEASE
For more information, contact NJ-SPJ contest chair David Levitt; email: dmlevitt125@yahoo.com, or NJ-SPJ treasurer Ron Miskoff, email: iamfine@optonline.net; cell: 732-278-1868

The unfolding drama of a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge that lead to the indictment of three of the governor’s former allies. A five-month investigation into the mysterious 2008 death of a young man walking along I-287. A Loch-Ness monster-like snake in Lake Hopatcong that ended up going viral among late-night comedians.

Those are among the stories to emerge from this year’s New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Excellence in Journalism contest, where winners tackled the wild, the strange and the controversial, and pushed to compute things that just refused to add up.

The work represents the most important news in the Garden State for the year 2014, the year the stories were produced. The complete list of winners can be found here.

Many of this year’s stories boldly sought truth from those in power. “It goes well beyond Bridgegate,’’ said NJ-SPJ president Bob Schapiro. “In 2014, the sustained attention of professional journalists uncovered danger from the very people who are supposed to protect us. Whether it was an animal shelter suspected of cruelty, a strange death in police custody or a massive traffic jam caused by the agency that is supposed to relieve traffic, full-time journalists were the ones who informed the public of important matters that may otherwise have never come to light.”

Added David M. Levitt, NJ-SPJ contest chairman: “As the allegedly declining state of journalism is bemoaned both in New Jersey and seemingly everywhere, these 100+ winners scream to the world: it ain’t quite so. Great writing and editing remain abundant in the Garden State.”

Our winners represent the gamut of New Jersey journalism, from legacy print, broadcast and radio outlets to small hyperlocal publishers. They will be honored at a reception June 27 at the Maize Restaurant at the Robert Treat Hotel, 50 Park Pl., Newark, followed by a 3 p.m. program next door in the auditorium of the New Jersey Historical Society, 52, Park Place. For more information and to RSVP, click here.

Highlights from this year’s winning entries include:

CHRISTOPHER BAXTER of The Star-Ledger/NJ.com is the first place winner of our Tim O’ Brien award for daily newspapers, for the THIRD straight year. The O’Brien, which honors the late Tim O’Brien, honors the best work utilizing the state’s Open Public Records Act, a law for which NJ-SPJ and the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government fought for many years, which turned the state’s public records law from one of the nation’s weakest to one if its strongest.…

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