Township council says added rules will 'unduly burden municipalities’ Sparta The Sparta township council opposes a new senate bill that would make it tougher for municipalities to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act. The council is also urging local legislators to draft a bill that would lessen some requirements of the Open Public Records Act. Sparta has joined with other Sussex County municipalities in opposing the bill, which was proposed by Senator Stephen Sweeney (D-3rd District) and Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-37th District). The council passed a resolution last week stating that the bill’s “many new requirements...are unnecessary to protect the public’s interest in open and transparent government.” It would “unduly burden municipalities” and “impose new procedural requirements on municipalities which will be time consuming and costly...and which would result in longer meetings and less efficient governance.” (The full text of the resolution can be read as part of the council’s June 14 meeting agenda, available at www.spartanj.org/uppages/6-14-11.pdf.) The resolution describes 12 proposed new requirements in the bill, calling them “time consuming, costly, impractical, and wasteful.” Bill seeks more detailed minutes One of the new requirements calls for more extensive minutes of public meetings. Open government activist John Paff, who works with the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said the original open meetings law calls for “reasonably comprehensible minutes,” but that many public bodies take advantage of this ambiguous wording and provide only minimal information, especially in the public comment section. “If municipalities had honored the original intent of the law over the years, we wouldn’t be in this position today,” Paff said. The new bill would require that minutes include the name of each person from the public who spoke and a summary of what was said. “The public should be able to get the whole gist of what happens at a public meeting,” Paff said. The Sparta township clerk, Mary Coe, said the council minutes already include this information. Although verbatim public comments are not included in the minutes, she said, each speaker is identified and his or her comments are summarized. Mayor Scott Seelagy said the council wants to make a statement to the legislature that they do not support further requirements in the open meetings law that would interfere with the township clerk’s performance of her duties and reduce the efficiency and increase the costs of running the town. “By opposing this bill, council is saying we’re not in favor of these additional burdens on municipalities,” Seelagy said. “The status quo in the existing [law] is sufficient.” Paff said there’s been a lot of confusion about open government laws since their inception in 1975. “There has also been a lot of non-compliance and no meaningful enforcement mechanism,” he said. But Seelagy said that if enforcement has been weak, “then perhaps these should be strengthened and amended, and municipalities that have been compliant should not be penalized with additional procedures.” It’s about balance, Seelagy added. “There should be a balance between the right of the requester to get access to the information they need and the right of public bodies to perform their duties without the unnecessary burdens of these additional requirements,” he said. The next step Senator Weinberg said Tuesday she is still working on some revisions to the bill before it goes to the Senate Budget Committee for hearings. Eventually the bill will go before the full senate, she said, but probably not for several months. Paff said there is much work to be done before the bill can go to the floor for a vote. But “the battle lines have now been drawn,” he said, “and both sides will likely come out swinging in committee hearings.” “This is the political process,” he said. Council wants to amend the records act The council also wants local legislators to amend the Open Public Records Act to allow public bodies to refer citizens seeking public records to free government Web sites, rather than reproduce the documents at taxpayers’ expense. “Since the adoption of [the Open Public Records Act], there has been an escalating series of requests by private sector firms from all over the nation for voluminous public records, already freely available to the general public through government websites, with the intent of selling the information to the general public for profit,” the council’s resolution states. It also says that “in the new renaissance of fiscal responsibility, unnecessary expenses by government should be strictly curtailed.” Clerk Mary Coe said the township will always provide documents to citizens without access to a computer or the Internet, as long as their requests comply with the open records act. The resolution aims to curtail private sector profit at taxpayers’ expense, and to preserve the original intent of the law, she said.
If municipalities had honored the original intent of the law over the years, we wouldn’t be in this position today.” John Paff, New Jersey Foundation for Open Government