Harrison Township favors law to overhaul parts of OPRA

Courtesy of Harrison Township.

The Harrison Township committee voiced its support at a May 20 meeting for a new law that will overhaul parts of the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

The measure – which awaits Gov. Phil Murphy’s signing – makes changes to the OPRA process of accessing government records by allowing clerks and record custodians 14 days to fill requests before seeking an extension, rather then the current seven days. The bill was approved by legislators on May 13.

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“One of the biggest things is that the clerk will no longer be held accountable,” said Deputy Mayor Lawrence Moore, “Before, the clerk would essentially be given a violation and would have to go before a government of records council to essentially investigate, and, if fined, they could have their license be at risk.”

The OPRA law will also enable clerks and records custodians to approve or deny duplicate or anonymous requests.

“It revamps and kind of restricts the OPRA stuff,” explained Mayor Louis Manzo. “For the League of Municipalities, which represents us, and the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, of which I’m a member of the executive board, it has been a long road to get some legislation, and I personally feel it doesn’t go far enough.”

The OPRA measure’s changes have drawn a mixed reaction from state residents. While some feel the law will stem the tide of constant commercial requests, others believe it significantly limits access to records.

“I think we’re all in favor of open public records, and that’s important, that the public can see everything we’re doing,” Manzo noted. “Requesting records is the right of every American, but what we’ve seen is the abuse of the law over the last decade … No one can speak better of this than our clerk’s office, because this puts a burden on our clerks when they are researching every email, text message, in reference to whatever.

“That’s great and fine, but when you have repeated and continual examples, then it becomes a burden.”

The township committee has indicated its full support for the measure.

“Although (the bill) does not have all the reforms local officials sought, it is a much-needed step in reform and the result of compromise,” Manzo pointed out. “The legislation preserves access to public records, addresses privacy concerns first recommended two decades ago and helps level the playing field regarding attorney fees.”

The next Harrison Township Committee meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday.

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