Two pieces of legislation that would bolster government transparency were killed off on November 15 when they failed to win approval from a Senate Committee. The bills, S-379 and S-380, would have strengthened the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), to make government meetings and records more accessible to the public.
Both measures were killed off in the Senate’s State Government Committee, which has five members and thus requires three votes in favor for a bill to advance. On each bill, the two Republicans, Samuel Thompson and Vincent Polistina, went first and voted “no.” They were followed by Senator Linda Greenstein, a Democrat who was substituting for Committee Vice-Chair Dawn Addiego but did not even show up, instead leaving word that she abstained on both bills. With no hope of three ‘Yes” votes, the other two Democrats on the Committee, Chairman James Beach and Shirley Turner, did not have to cast a vote either way on the bills. Following mention of Greenstein’s abstention on S-379, Beach reacted “so the bill does not come out of committee.” And on S-380, he said “Therefore, it does not come out of committee.”
It seemed a cowardly way to kill the legislation, with no Democrat having to go on record as opposed to greater transparency, while stopping the bills in their tracks and probably for the foreseeable future, given the imminent retirement of primary sponsor Loretta Weinberg.
The bills, in some form, have been kicking around the Legislature for more than a decade. As far back as 2010, Weinberg introduced S-1351 (OPMA) and S-1352 (OPRA), and some version of them has been introduced in every session since then.
I wrote about an earlier version of Weinberg’s OPRA bill on this blog in 2017. Joining her as a cosponsor of S-1046 was Republican Joseph Pennacchio. In the Assembly, Democrat Gordon Johnson and Republican Erik Peterson cosponsored counterpart bill, A-2697. On that go-round, after sitting more than 16 months in the Senate State Government committee (where open government bills apparently go to die), S-1046 was transferred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee which reported it out of committee in June 2017 without recommendation. The vote was 7 in favor, 1 against and 5 abstentions. Notably, the abstainers included Greenstein (her m.o.?) and fellow Democrat Patrick Diegnan, along with Republicans Anthony Bucco, Samuel Thompson and Jennifer beck, while the lone “no” vote came from Jeff Van Drew, back when he was a Democrat, while the “yeses” included two Republicans, Steven Oroho and Kevin O’Toole.
In all of the six legislative sessions, including this one, in which the bills have been introduced, neither has ever made it to a floor vote. Weinberg persisted, repeatedly reintroducing the bills and negotiating with the stakeholders –municipalities, school boards, county clerks, etc. – in an effort to craft a workable resolution, but to no avail. And soon she will be gone.
If Weinberg, an experienced, influential and popular lawmaker who during her last few years served as Senate Majority leader, the second most powerful position in the Senate, could not get these long-overdue transparency reforms passed during her tenure, it is hard to imagine how it will get done after she leaves.
The only person to testify regarding the bills on Nov. 15 was John Burns, Senior Legislative Counsel for the NJ School Boards Association, whose members are subject to OPMA and OPRA. Burns told the committee that he had not seen the latest draft of either bill and regarding S-380, the OPRA bill, could not support it because of its attorney fees provision.
The legislation would have furthered government transparency in multiple ways listed below. Read through the list and ask yourself why your legislators have been unable and/or unwilling to pass this legislation.
Among other improvements, the OPMA bill, S-379, would have:
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