Critics charge New Jersey's open public records law is being gutted

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:53

    The details are buried in complicated legal wording, but some say a pending move by the state would severely damage the two-year-old law that gives New Jerseyans the right to easy access to government records. Environmentalists and workers' rights group claim the change being made in the name of homeland security would shut the door on the state's Open Public Records Act, often known as the right-to-know law. ``I call this the right to N-O,'' said Jeff Tittel, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. The act, known as OPRA, received wide acclaim when it went into effect in July 2002. It allows members of the public to see any document from state, county or local governments unless the record is specifically exempted. Government agencies are required to respond to requests in a timely manner. The act is often used by reporters to gain access to data about government spending and other information. Under OPRA, a government agency that is found to have improperly withheld documents must reimburse the applicant for legal fees spent trying to obtain the information. Changes to OPRA are under review by the Attorney General's Office, which has one year to act from when the public comment period on the proposal closed Dec. 17. The office has declined to comment while the consideration process is in motion. The proposal would be aimed at protecting ``critical infrastructure,'' including buildings for services such as communications, financial, computers, transportation, military, government and utilities. Tittel and other critics claim such descriptions are too broad since they could be applied to almost any type of private development or government project. He said such language would prevent the public from getting information on things such as gas pipelines, emergency plans like the one being used to clean up the recent oil spill on the Delaware River, and the locations of hazardous chemicals or facilities in local communities. ``Government agencies don't want the public to have access to records,'' Tittel said. ``It's a way of closing the door. Rick Engler, director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, said his group was also concerned that safeguards in place to protect communities and workplaces from toxic waste were being trampled unnecessarily in the pursuit of homeland security. ``Replacing the right to know with the need to know does nothing to minimize the risk of accidents and may well make us less safe,'' Engler said. Engler said the move would be a step backward for New Jersey. ``The proposed rule would result in dramatic expansion of secrecy in a state which pioneered development of chemical right-to-know laws and other public health policies,'' he said.