Newspapers release surveys of open government law compliance
NEW JERSEY–Just because records are public does not guarantee public access, two news organizations concluded after surveying New Jersey’s government agencies’ compliance with state records law.
The Press of Atlantic City released the results of its survey in late March. Three days later a second survey was released by a group of seven New Jersey newspapers owned by Gannett Co. Inc.
In each survey, requesters sought records designated as public but did not identify themselves as newspaper employees.
In its survey lasting four months, The Press of Atlantic City requested public records from police departments, municipalities and school boards in four counties in southern New Jersey, reporter John Froonjian said. The project required The Press to make approximately 300 requests at more than 180 agencies, and to utilize virtually all of its news staff, he said.
The Gannett survey sent 87 requesters to 600 town halls, police departments and school boards in 213 municipalities across the state, Paul D’Ambrosio, database editor at the Asbury Park Press, said.
The Press concluded that although the records its staff requested were clearly public, compliance was far from assured. Despite an executive order requiring the release of basic arrest data, police departments surveyed refused to release the information 92 percent of the time, it found. Additionally, it discovered that school boards denied one in five requests for public records.
“New Jersey’s records laws are notoriously bad; some say they are the worst in the country,” Froonjian said. “We wanted to test them.”
Although city halls and school boards usually complied with the law, the newspaper found that requesters often faced an uphill battle, often having to return multiple times and face a barrage of questions.
Several police departments “acted like [requesters] were from Mars,” reporter Michael Diamond said. He added that police departments seemed to believe they could only release information to the press and not the public.
The Gannett group reported that 69 percent of requests for school superintendent contracts were denied, as were 52 percent of requests for salaries of school district employees. Both are public records under New Jersey law. Municipalities complied with only 57 percent of requests to view overtime records.
Police departments denied more than three-quarters of all requests to see police logs, the Gannett group found.
Gannett reporter Jason Method said that government officials often see themselves as the protectors of the public’s privacy. “On the surface, they say that records should be open, but underneath you don’t see support for unfettered access,” he said, adding that government officials often expressed concerns that requests would lead to unwanted solicitation or invasions of privacy.
Efforts are underway to change the state’s records law. The Gannett group reported that legislation may be introduced that would radically rewrite the law and create a presumption of openness.
The New Jersey surveys follows surveys by Indiana and Virginia newspapers which produced similarly disappointing results. A recent Florida survey showed greater compliance.