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Study: municipal clerks confused about records laws

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  1. Freedom of Information
Municipal clerks in New Jersey reported a lack of understanding of their legal obligations under the state Open Public Records…

Municipal clerks in New Jersey reported a lack of understanding of their legal obligations under the state Open Public Records Act, a study from Monmouth University published Jan. 31 found. The study also found that clerks have seen an increase in records requests in recent years.

The study focused solely on municipal governments and municipal clerks who are the custodians of records for local governments. Clerks from 260 municipalities in New Jersey participated — 46% of the state's municipalities. Responses came from a wide range of areas in terms of population, location and urbanization. The study was designed to determine what impact, if any, the Open Public Records Act has had "on workload, finances, training needs, and attitudes."

The study was conducted because Howell Township, N.J., Manager Helene Shlegel wanted to know how municipal clerks were affected by the law. Shlegel, who co-authored the study, was at the time also working on her master's degree at the university.

The study found a lack of understanding by clerks of their legal obligations under the act. Not only did less than half of the clerks surveyed say they fully understand their legal obligations — and that number dropped significantly as the municipalities got smaller — but only 36% said they understand what kinds of information can be kept confidential and what information must be released upon request. When a request gets forwarded to another agency to be processed, only 17% of clerks report confidence that those staff members understand the Open Public Records Act.

The survey also found that 40% of clerks feel it is important to know how the information will be used before responding to an Open Public Records Act request. "It shows that the clerks aren't really understanding the purpose of [the act]," Shlegel said. "Maybe they're not understanding the actual intent of the law."

Study co-author Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the survey showed a clear need to educate city clerks better. "There's clearly an issue on varying knowledge of what the law requires."

The study also looked to other aspects of a clerk's job under the law. The study found that workload numbers varied by population size. Larger municipalities often got more than 100 requests per year, and those with more than 25,000 residents had a median of 250 requests, whereas the smallest areas had a median of 13 requests per year.

The majority of requesters were unique and residents of the particular municipality, according to the survey. The most requested records were permits and construction information, council minutes or agendas, and local ordinances. The bigger the municipality, the more likely a requester was to want to know construction or environmental information, and the more likely the requester was to be an attorney.

While 71% of clerks said that responding to Open Public Records Act requests impeded their ability to perform other responsibilities, 62% of clerks reported that they have the resources they need to handle the load. However, that number dropped to 43% in the areas with the most requests. The survey found that most clerks' offices have few fulltime staff members to help answer requests and those offices that receive more than 100 requests per year average less than three fulltime staff members.

The survey found that most clerks feel that the Open Public Records Act has helped to achieve more government transparency and the fear of being overwhelmed by requesters with political motives has not materialized. Municipal clerks also recognize the need for better education on the act because while the vast majority are aware of the time limits for responding to requests, there is a significant understanding gap on the other aspects of act.

The study was undertaken because the authors sought to obtain a different point of view on access issues, Murray said. The main stories about open records cases have been anecdotal tales of roadblocks, he said. He and his co-authors wanted to show another side.

"I felt there was a gap in the research," Shlegel added.