Thursday, February 8, 2007

Democracy Flourishes In The Sunshine

Governing bodies throughout New Jersey, particularly on the municipal level, are abusing The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The purpose of these Acts is to enhance democracy by allowing the public to see government in action rather than permitting the government to operate behind closed doors. While some municipalities televise their meetings or otherwise record them, many do neither so there is no true record of what occurs at most public sessions. In addition, while minutes of these meetings are public documents under the law and must be available to its citizens, there is no requirement that the minutes be thorough or that they accurately reflect the meeting they are supposed to memorialize. Too often a citizen who requests documents, including resolutions and ordinances, is routinely given the runaround until he rescinds his request. In addition, there are few vehicles for the public to use when an OPRA request is denied by a governing body. Fortunately, change may be in the air.

Senators Robert Martin, a Republican, and Ellen Karcher, a Democrat, have proposed S1219 in the New Jersey State Senate, while Democrats Upendra Chivukula and Reed Gusciora are sponsoring A2762 in the State Assembly. These bills will modernize OPRA and OPMA and allow the sun to finally shine at all levels of New Jersey government. The bills will help restore the citizen’s trust in the political process.

Under the proposed legislation, all public bodies will be required to record both their private and open meetings. Comprehensive minutes will be required and draft minutes and the audio recordings must be made available to the public within five business days. Governing bodies will need to make readily available over the Internet meeting notices, agendas, minutes, resolutions, and ordinances. All non-emergency meetings of public bodies will allow for public comment and before any body takes final action on an item, each citizen who wishes to comment will have up to three minutes to do so.

There are also many new vehicles for citizens to use to enforce OPRA and OPMA under the proposed legislation. The burden will be on the governmental agency to prove compliance with OPRA and OPMA. People who “substantially violate” either Act, including public officials and attorneys, will be personally liable for monetary penalties of up to $5,000, which cannot be paid for with taxpayer money. Finally, members of the public will be able to recover attorney fees from a public body if they prevail.

The residents of New Jersey and our politicians throughout the State should embrace the proposed legislation. Senators Karcher and Martin and Assemblymen Chivukula and Gusciora are to be commended for acting in the public’s best interest. Their fellow Legislators should do likewise.

Michael M. Shapiro, Publisher and Managing Editor of, graduated from Rutgers College and Stanford Law School. Mike currently serves as the Chairman of the New Providence Democratic Party and Editor of The Alternative Press. Contact Mike at