When Frances Holland, a resident of West Orange, read about an Open Space Committee in the town newsletter, she decided to attend its next meeting as a concerned citizen. But when she showed up, the Open Space Committee showed her the door.
Told there was not a quorum for a public meeting, Holland was asked to sit in the hallway while committee members met behind closed doors. Holland turned to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which sued West Orange for violating the Open Public Meetings Act, or “Sunshine Law.” In October, West Orange settled the suit, apologized to Holland and adopted an ordinance that requires the Open Space Committee to adhere to the Sunshine Law.
This week, as we mark Sunshine Week, a time set aside to annually recognize the importance of transparent government, we must remind lawmakers that the public’s business belongs in the public – not behind closed doors. And what better way to recognize Sunshine Week than to support a measure to update the Sunshine Law to bring citizen access to government meetings into the 21st century.
The Sunshine Law – adopted in the wake of Watergate – has not received an update since it originally signed into law by Gov. Brendan Byrne in 1975. Since then, the Sunshine Law has provided citizens with an avenue to democratic participation through access to meetings of government officials.
But transparency is one of those principles that politicians often support in theory yet rarely uphold in reality. Holland is one of countless citizens forced to fight for access to meetings. Now, with most people using electronic communications, including lawmakers, some officials exploit loopholes in the Sunshine Law, opening the doors to corruption and cronyism. The Sunshine Law needs an overhaul that reflects the manner in which government communications take place today, protecting citizens from politicians who might follow the letter but not the spirit of the law.
Blue Jersey staple Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (both D-Bergen) have introduced a bill that would bring letter and spirit closer together. S1451/A2426 requires public bodies to conduct the public’s business more openly, as well as provide members of their communities more details about the issues considered at their meetings.