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Governor to lift most records law exemptions

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    NMU         NEW JERSEY         Freedom of Information         Aug 13, 2002    

Governor to lift most records law exemptions

  • After a month of criticism by media and other watchdog groups, Gov. James McGreevey rescinded many public records restrictions he ordered in July.

New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey today issued an order that he said “addresses the concerns” of media and civic groups who complained about hundreds of exemptions the governor authorized only a day after a new state open records law went into effect.

A compromise agreement was put into place early this afternoon by an executive order that reduces exemptions to the state’s open records law from 400 to fewer than 80.

Several hotly debated exceptions, including those relating to endangered species and the location of farms, have been removed, reported the Associated Press.

The debacle began July 7, one day after the state’s new open records law took effect.After a dozen years of attempts to improve that law, once considered among the worst in the nation, the New Jersey General Assembly gave it an extensive makeover in January to become effective in July.

Among other changes, the law set up a board to mediate open records disputes and educate public employees about the law; it allowed requesters to obtain records not only on paper but in electronic form; and it established time limits for offices to respond to requesters and fines for those who did not do so in a timely manner.

But as soon as the law became effective McGreevey issued an executive order that exempted many records — some from his own office. He cited fear of terrorism and sabotage as reasons to keep the records secret..

Included in those 483 records restrictions were charter school applications, building permits and applications for farmland acquisitions.

Besides angering various watchdog groups, the governor’s action also confounded officials in state office and police agencies. Some police departments said the order prevented them from releasing information they had been releasing for years, such as names of people injured in car wrecks.

The Bergen County prosecutor, for example, told all police departments in his jurisdiction to stop letting reporters see arrest reports.

“Without an assurance that their confidences will be protected to the fullest extent of the law, citizens will be reluctant to trust police with sensitive information,” according to the prosecutor’s July memo reported by the Associated Press. “Victims could be further traumatized if confidential information about their cases is disseminated.”

A memo last week from the state attorney general’s office cleared up that confusion, telling police chiefs such information still should be released.

Today’s order was greeted with praise from advocacy groups.

“The system works,” said John O’Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association.

(Executive orders No. 21, 26) JE

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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