Gov. Murphy's New Law: A Major Setback for Transparency and Democracy

By Dena Mottola Jaborska

On June 5th, Governor Murphy quietly signed S2930/A4045 into the law – gutting the Open Public Records Act, one of NJ’s most important pro-democracy laws. The OPRA law was signed over 20 years ago so that the public and media could access information about what government officials are doing with our taxpayers’ dollars.

Much has been said by the Governor, Legislators and Mayors to justify their actions that led to this new law, touting the need to modernize OPRA and reduce overuse of the law by commercial interests. But we find their justification totally meritless.

A review of the bill they passed and signed into law makes clear that it expedites commercial requests and makes them a priority. The modernization measures they tout, were all together scant, effectively missing.

Instead the bill makes major changes to how the public, media and advocates can access public records, making it much harder to access them. This is extremely worrisome that the most important actors in our democracy – media, advocates and the public -- will face greater difficulty in accessing vital information under this new law, while public officials garner a lot less public scrutiny.

Over the twenty years that OPRA has been the law, public records have surfaced information that has led to countless examples of necessary justice, public safety, and good government reforms that have rooted out corruption, mismanagement and provided the data needed to sound the alarm on serious injustices that have supported the need to act on important civil and social justice reforms.

As we have heard often repeated in reference to former President Trump, no one is above the law. Similarly, no public official is above public scrutiny and accountability for their actions. We, the public, have every right to know what they are doing.

The concern is not only that corruption will be harder to see and address but that we will all be less likely now to know about mismanagement, fiscal irresponsibility and neglectful inaction by government officials. These are all deeply important matters for public attention, and we decry the Governor and all legislators and local officials who advanced this attack on OPRA. This was a shameful action, pursued most aggressively at the behest of the League of municipalities and mayors who were acting in own, selfish interests -- to darken the transparency and shield them from public scrutiny their actions received.

As our supporters know, New Jersey Citizen Action endorsed Governor Murphy, twice, in 2017 and 2021, and worked with him to advance social and economic justice reforms, many which had long been stalled under Gov. Christie. We don’t begrudge the Governor these components of his legacy any more than we would trounce upon our organization’s own track record of accomplishments. But we want to be clear that gutting the OPRA law in tandem with the Election Transparency Act passed recently, constitutes a multi-pronged, fundamental attack against our democracy, and one that stains all else accomplished by the Governor.

In fact, the gutting of OPRA could prevent future reforms such as the ones NJCA fight hard for these past 7 years. It is unreasonable to expect that social, racial and economic justice reforms could easily advance while our democracy is hobbled by a gutted OPRA law and an Election Transparency Act, which pours more special interest money in politics and will disrupt public interest policymaking.

So where does this leave us? The pro-democracy movement in our state, is strong and growing. Ignited by Trump’s 2016 election, our movement drew strength in the effort to oppose policies that would hurt immigrants and their families and that would repeal the ACA.

Our movement grew in strength and was capable of defeating three very powerful Republican congress members who were not listening and willing to be accountable to their districts. Bolstered by our successful blue wave in NJ, our pro-democracy movement turned to the state political leadership, questioning why they, like these Members of Congress, were not listening and willing to be accountable to the people. This disillusionment fed the effort to defeat the county line, which only grew the movement, and led to the rise of pro-democracy leaders like Andy Kim and Sue Altman.

The powers that be in NJ politics must understand that the pro-democracy movement in NJ will take this set back on OPRA and our leaders' unwillingness to hear and heed our concerns as a challenge to continue to fight for a healthy democracy. We will work to support and elect leaders who support a better, more inclusive democracy and work against candidates including incumbents who are willing to undermine our democracy as they have with this gutting of the OPRA law.

NJ’s democracy is worth fighting for. A vital part of restoring NJ’s democracy is electing leaders who believe in democracy and will stand up for it and showing these who work against our democracy the door. Private life awaits all who would pursue elected office for any other reason besides serving the public, and serving the greater good