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Getting Records from New Jersey Local Gov Could Take 2 Years

While the state’s Government Records Council is supposed to help resolve requests as quickly as possible, a report from a watchdog group found that it takes an average of 21 months to handle cases.

(TNS) — If you’re trying to get your town’s budget, your county’s payroll or contracts from a state agency but you’re hitting roadblocks, the Government Records Council in New Jersey is supposed to help resolve the issue “as expeditiously as possible.”

Just don’t hold your breath.

A new report from a state government watchdog finds the GRC, designed to be a fast and efficient advocate for government transparency, is instead taking an average of 21 months to handle cases, with a running backlog of between 300 and 500 complaints.

Enacted two decades ago, the Open Public Records Act, or OPRA, is the state’s primary public records law, defining a host of local, county and state records as subject to public disclosure. The law also created the GRC, which is supposed to play referee when a public entity and a records requester disagree on how the law applies.

“Transparency fuels democracy,” acting state Comptroller Kevin Walsh, whose agency released the report, said in an interview Tuesday, July 26.

“This is a promise the state has made to the people of New Jersey, that you can help hold the government responsible. So this is a process that should not take years.”

In the report, the comptroller notes that the agency “has acknowledged that it could amend its rules to improve its processes. Until recently, however, it has not initiated such action.”

The comptroller’s report paints a dire picture of the state of the GRC, but also says the issues they identified “are easily solvable problems.”

For one, the GRC’s budget — a tiny fraction of state government costs — has fallen about 37 percent, from $771,000 in 2006 to $489,000 in 2022. It currently only has one attorney and three staff members, the lowest staffing total it’s ever had.

The state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the council, is supposed to appoint two more employees, but has failed to do so.

In an email, a spokeswoman for DCA, LIsa Ryan, said that her agency and the GRC agree “that expeditious review and adjudication of OPRA complaints is critical to public transparency of how our government operates.

“It is why GRC has started the process of updating regulations to reduce the time it takes to resolve complaints and why GRC has actively recruited staff for several years,” she said.

Marc Pfeiffer, a senior policy fellow at Rutgers University and the first director of the GRC, said it was time to revisit how the council is structured.

“The law was written with an appreciation for the technology at the time, for the procedures at the time,” Pfeiffer said. “Over 20 years, that drove changes in how government does its business, and there are changes for the government disclosure process. No one has stepped back, until now, to say maybe the processes we made 20 years ago are now ready for the 21st century.”

John Paff, a the chair of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, said New Jersey officials have long shielded important records from public view and that most requesters use other avenues to obtain information.

“Most serious requesters, if they really want the records, go to Superior Court,” he said.

The report found that the dysfunction in New Jersey’s records system has largely affected people seeking documents from their own towns. On average, it takes three times longer to resolve a records request than it takes to sue through Superior Court, the report found.

The report “recommends that GRC hire additional attorneys, utilizing its full budget allocation for staff to do so, and to notify the Legislature if it needs more money.

Paff said the report makes clear that the GRC is not doing its job.

“This is a statutory mandate, and they’re not doing it,” he said.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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