Friday, August 26, 2016
When it comes to government transparency, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson wants the State Legislature to be held to the same standards as 565 municipalities, 21 counties, the governor and the executive branch.
As it now stands the State Legislature has entitled itself to several exemptions from the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) it does not afford the other government entities.
“The transparency standards that all other governing bodies in New Jersey are held to do not apply to our Legislature; the same Legislature that made the rules does not have to abide by the rules,” stated Levinson.
Most notable is the State Legislature’s exclusion from review by the Government Records Council.
According to Levinson, citizens typically choose the Government Records Council to hear their challenges as a way to save themselves time and money. The Government Records Council requires the government agencies to act within five business days to present their cases.
“The Legislature, on the other hand, forces citizens to go through the Superior Court to challenge its own OPRA denials with no option of using the Government Records Council. This results in the Legislature being subjected to far fewer challenges,” he said.
“The number of OPRA requests we receive is quite voluminous and demands increasing time and resources,” noted Levinson. “One of our attorneys typically spends up to 15 hours a week responding to and processing OPRA requests. That number can double when responding to denial of access complaints. Other agencies have had to hire additional personnel just for this purpose.”
Levinson said he can find no legitimate or legal basis for the Legislature to be held to different standards than the other governing bodies.
“Ask any State Senator or Assemblyman why this is the case and I doubt you’ll get a satisfactory answer. Either provide all agencies with the same exemptions as the Legislature or remove them. If government transparency is the goal, let it be uniform and consistent across the board.”
The county executive also takes issue with the misuse of OPRA by political operatives.
“The intent of the legislation is commendable in providing citizens with access to their government. But when it becomes routine practice for some to flood the system with obscure requests just because they can, it generates an inefficient use of resources and taxpayer dollars.”
Levinson is urging state legislators to amend the provisions of OPRA to better serve all citizens.