More on Open Public Records…
Didn’t catch this one three weeks ago, but The Star Ledger published an opinion article about how ridiculous it is to have to go to such lengths to get public documents we’re entitled to see:
Put teeth in open records law
February 25, 2008 22:30PM
State lawmakers recognize that if the civil law is going to have teeth, those who violate it must face financial consequences. That’s why consumer fraud, sexual harassment, age, race, religious and gender discrimination laws allow those who bring successful lawsuits to seek legal fees.
Hoboken Councilwoman Elizabeth Mason is asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to award counsel fees in cases involving violations of the Open Public Records Act and to extend the deadline to sue for failing to turn over documents from 45 days to two years. It’s a fine idea.
Mason, an independent, is a founder of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government. She has requested a copy of every city financial transaction for 2003 and 2004 as well as other documents. She is still waiting for some of the records, which is why she brought her case to the Supreme Court.
The court should accept Mason’s argument that government entities that fail to comply with OPRA should pay the legal fees of people who must hire lawyers to force compliance.
While certain sensitive documents are excluded, OPRA requires public agencies to turn over documents within seven days following a request. Often government agencies do not live up to the letter or the spirit of the law, dragging their feet, hoping the person making the request will simply disappear.
If records are important enough, newspapers like this one may hire lawyers to go to court to get the documents. But for most people, hiring a lawyer to dislodge public documents is simply too costly. Knowing that, many government agencies do not comply with OPRA. Awarding legal fees would provide an economic incentive for greater compliance.
That Mason, a councilwoman, had to go to court to get public records illustrates just how unresponsive public officials can be. The threat of having to pay a financial penalty might help convince Hoboken and other communities to be more cooperative.