Mason on Open Public Records
2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason was asked by The Bergen Record to respond to their recent series of articles about the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). When the news media has trouble getting public information, imagine how difficult it is for a regular resident?
Sunday, December 2, 2007
By BETH MASON
IT IS NOT NEWS that it’s a problem to get information out of city hall.
Whether it is The Record’s attempt to obtain salaries and benefits of public employees, a bill you pay, or neighbors’ struggle to acquire information on a redevelopment proposal that seeks to condemn their homes, accessing information on our government has become an arduous task. Since when did critical payroll data, from which checks are cut on a regular basis, become so difficult to produce? Last I looked, this was the information age, but our government seems to be stuck in a time warp.
It seems we have reached a time when our American ideals of a government by and for the people have been turned completely upside down. It is a time when government service has become more about “them” and less about “us.” It is a time when the government knows more about you than you know about your government. It is a time when government officials and employees have more right to privacy than you do. It is a time when government officials complain that replying to the public takes too long, and so they don’t bother to reply at all. And we have freely given them the permission to usurp our rights.
We are giving up our basic right to access public documents and to view public meetings, held by public officials and conducted with public money. We have permitted government officials to justify shielding themselves and their agencies from needed public scrutiny and accountability.
What is the result? New Jersey finds itself neck-deep in debt. This debt burden, one of the worst in the country, was accumulated during one of the longest periods of economic expansion in our history. We have government institutions that have failed our children and left communities holding the bag. The lack of progress is leaving us with high levels of civic apathy that in turn only compounds the problem.
Read the rest of her article after the jump.
The Rutgers Ethics Initiative released a report last week calling on business leaders and the public to push for change. At the report’s core is the need for oversight and transparency. The state’s laws on open public records, meetings and record retention are critical tools for ensuring public access to government information.
But the laws alone are not enough. Government agencies need to make enforcement a priority. We need Attorney General Anne Milgram to move beyond protecting government entities to championing the public’s right of access. She should consider joining with other attorneys general around the nation to make transparency central to our efforts to increase accountability and reduce corruption.
It is curious to hear elected officials’ concerns over pay-to-play legislation and its potential limitation of free speech; yet, in the same breath, they fail to express concerns about the people’s right in a democracy to attend public meetings and to acquire records and information. The charade of providing access to public records, but then charging excessive fees to review and obtain copies of documents, is punitive to those who seek to exercise their rights. This is illustrated by the Housing Authority in my town charging $314 for one year’s worth of minutes and a copy of the budget. This far exceeds the financial resources of most residents who just want to know what happened last year. Public information is the property of the citizens, not the government.
We have much to do to protect our rights. We cannot expect our officials to be omnipresent. We can no longer leave our civic responsibility at our representatives’ door in hopes that they will take care of us. Just ask the residents of New Orleans following Katrina. Ask the families of the firemen who perished in the Deutsche Bank building fire.
The worst thing that could happen is for us to remain apathetic. It has been said many times that an entity’s greatest asset is its people. New Jersey is no exception. Let us all work to put “service” back in “public service” and bring back public trust in our government. Pick up the phone or go down to city hall and exercise your right to know more about what goes on in your neighborhood, town, county and state. Encourage your elected officials to support strengthening the open public records and meetings laws.
Our state and our communities need each and every one of us working together to ensure our safety and quality of life. The governor needs our assistance to change the course of our state. This change begins at home. With 566 municipalities and 610 school districts, it is within our ability and ultimate responsibility to know what our government is doing. Step by step, we can take one of our weaknesses and make it one of our greatest assets.
Beth Mason, a Hoboken city councilwoman, is president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.