Today the State Government Committee will take up the new Open Public Records Act (now named the Martin O’Shea Act) and the Open Public Meetings Act named after the late Senator Byron Baer.
Martin O’Shea, a retired reporter was a tremendous help to me in updating OPRA and OPMA and bringing them into the 21st Century. Though Martin passed away before we could finish our work, his fingerprints are all over it. He was a kind of curmudgeon who sometimes drove public officials a little crazy. He was always reminding elected folks that the work they did was and should be open for the public to see.
Senator Byron Baer, my predecessor in the Senate, was the brilliant architect of what became known as the “Sunshine Act”. He knew the importance of the public shining of sunlight on all official actions as the proverbial disinfectant in the public arena.
Today’s public hearing will be the next important step in this process. When these bills were first written, there was no email, no municipal web pages, and no blackberries or cell phones. These updates cover the new technologies, and allow municipalities to provide requested records using such electronic procedures.
I’ll bet one of the most controversial items will be the one prohibiting elected officials from using texting or email between and among themselves during a public meeting. One local official will not be able to email or text another to suggest “you vote one way and I’ll vote the other way”. This of course does not prevent audience members from using their own electronic devices if permitted in the public meeting room.
The ACLU, the Municipal Clerks, Foundation for Open Government, the Press Association and various other groups have all had input. I still have one thorny issue to work out with some employee union input, concerning what part of personnel files should be considered a public record. If an employee is disciplined for a serious offense, suspended or terminated, does the public have a right to view the details of that or is the employee entitled to privacy?
There is also a section enlarging the membership of the Government Records Council and setting time limits for their decisions.
Along with my OPMA co-sponsor, Senator Steve Sweeney and my OPRA co-sponsor Senator Barbara Buono, we’ve tried to weave the idea that public actions should always be done in the open unless there is a very specific reason to do otherwise. And public records should also always be available in a reasonable amount of time with only those very specific exceptions that are appropriate.
And now it’s time to say good bye to the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission as we know it. This is one where I agree with Governor Christie. This Commission needed a dramatic makeover and the Governor helped do just that. Now let’s see if we can find commissioners who knew it was wrong to hire their wives and children even before it was deemed illegal. It would be nice to see the new Commission reign in legal fees, do away with unneeded lobbyists and government relations types. What a refreshing change!
Thanks also to Ted Sherman and the Star Ledger for keeping after these bad boys. He’s been writing about them since at least 2003, and I’ve been trying to get my legislative colleagues to take some action for nearly as long.
P.S. Bergen County Democrats get to pick a new Chair as of March 8th. Let’s choose wisely. Someone who has a clear vision, a strong sense of government and political ethics, and the desire to be inclusive as we rebuild our organization!
Keep your voices heard!