Fair Haven Asks State to Review Open Records Law

first_imgFAIR HAVEN – The borough is joining other public entities around the state in the coming weeks in a call to reexamine and reform the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), claiming that excessive requests are tying up town hall. The borough council took action by resolution Monday, Nov. 25, encouraging the state Legislature to form a commission of stakeholders to review the demands of OPRA on local governments. The resolution, distributed by the Municipal Clerks’ Association with the support of the League of Municipalities, states that OPRA, as it approaches its 20th anniversary, “has outgrown its original intended use and has become ripe for comprehensive review and reform.” The association distributed 700 sample resolutions to its members to urge support for the initiative about a month ago. To date, Popkin said 200 have been endorsed by local governments around the state. “I’m betting we get 500 of these by Christmas,” he said. Fair Haven received 241 requests in 2019 as of Oct. 31, compared to the 244 received in 2017, and 202 in 2018. Some are more complex than others. The staff has collectively spent about 400 hours responding to OPRA requests this year as of Oct. 31, Fair Haven stated in the resolution. OPRA was established in 2001 to make government records accessible to the public unless permitted otherwise or deemed confidential. “We are as open and as transparent as we can be,” Cinquegrana said. OPRA requests must be responded to within seven days. “We have no problem with the average person coming in, requesting a copy of a budget or ordinance,” said Joel Popkin, executive director of the Municipal Clerks’ Association of NJ. But, he said, businesses are using OPRA to prospect potential customers, and gadflies are using OPRA to demand historical records. Some clerks in small towns can’t keep up. “A couple of weeks ago, someone wanted all the emails from the mayor from last eight years,” Popkin said. Some requests are short and simple; others require the clerk to request a time extension to complete them. Some examples of requests include: information from 1996 to February 2019, such as emails, voicemails, letters, etc.; the histories of ordinances, like copies of the first Land Use Ordinance through current times; multiple requests from the same person for the same information provided numerous times; past and current Land Use applications such as resolutions and exhibits; businesses and solicitors looking for vendor information; requests for borough employees’ email history; media requests for police internal affairs reports or settlements; vendor contracts; and much more. “It’s constant,” Allyson M. Cinquegrana, the municipal clerk in Fair Haven, said of OPRA requests. As the custodian of government records in the borough, she has completed 20 OPRA requests this month alone, as of Nov. 26. Most requests come in electronically through the borough’s website, but some people also make them by fax or in person. Electronic requests are easier to respond to in general, she said. Fair Haven is not the only municipality experiencing an uptick in OPRA requests. In 2018 a public school in Spring Lake considered hiring a part-time assistant solely to handle OPRA requests. The school’s superintendent at the time said the influx of requests was keeping administrators and secretaries from their day-to-day tasks. Salary and property information are among the more popular requests for information, Cinquegrana said. Requests are free of charge unless the information is more than 20 pages. After that, it’s 5 cents per page. If the office sends out plans for an OPRA request, it’s about $1 per sheet. Suggested members of the commission would be mayors, municipal clerks, municipal managers, attorneys, police chiefs, open government advocates, privacy experts, media members, citizens and other stakeholders, the resolution states. Copies of the resolution were sent to Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-13); Assemblymembers Amy Handlin (R-13) and Serena DiMaso (R-13); Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin; Senate President Stephen Sweeney; Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Senate majority leader; the executive director of the Government Records Council; and Gov. Phil Murphy. Sea Bright clerks have seen similar increases over the years as well. According to Christine Pfeiffer, municipal clerk, she has seen a slight increase in OPRA requests over the years. The types of requests “run the gamut,” she said.last_img read more