Loretta Weinberg used to work in a hospital. At trying moments, when other employees complained about the workload and the more demanding patients, Weinberg had a response ready.
“I used to say, ‘You know, it would be a lot easier around here if we didn’t have these patients around here, needing food and medicine the way that they do,’” Weinberg said.
Weinberg’s tongue-in-cheek line was a gentle reminder of the people the hospital was actually meant to serve. Now, as the New Jersey Senate Majority Leader, Weinberg (D-Bergen) often finds herself making the same point to her fellow legislators and public servants. Only, instead of patients needing food and medicine, she’s reminding her colleagues about taxpaying citizens who need access to information and accountability.
That’s why Weinberg is pushing for a revised and improved version of the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meetings Act, or “sunshine” laws.
“Government officials, a lot of them, they consider it annoying,” Weinberg said, referring generally to citizen’s demands for access to information and meetings. “And you know what? From time to time it is annoying — but it’s the price we pay.”
Bill S-1452, Weinberg’s update of the OPRA law, would allow for state agencies or officials to e-mail requested records as opposed to the more tedious and expensive method of printing out and mailing hard copies. Another aspect of Weinberg’s open records bill would grant access to New Jersey’s public documents to non-New Jersey residents.
Despite the bill’s potential benefit to a national audience, Weinberg (pictured, right) said it’s inspired by things she hears locally, saying she fields complaints about public records access from her constituents “all the time.”
The bill would create penalties for “gross negligence” on behalf of public employees who have failed to honor a records request. But the measure is not meant to be punitive: After consulting with municipal-level clerks, who often handle requests, Weinberg loosened the timelines that would constitute a violation.
Having sought input from civil servants and open government advocates, Weinberg thinks her bill strikes a balance, upgrading the state’s openness while protecting the state from frivolous or excessive requests, like the recent inquiry for all e-mails that contained the word “the.”
For the meetings law, Weinberg’s proposed upgrade (S-1451) would require public bodies to post advance notice of meetings online, and, after the fact, publish meeting minute and any actions taken to the body’s website. Weinberg says the move would help bring New Jersey into the digital age, pointing out that when the laws were originally written, “the word Internet had not been coined yet.” Another example of Weinberg’s attempt to bring the law up to speed with technology would prohibit two members of a public body from communicating with each other privately by e-mail or text message during the course of a public meeting.
If the proposed improvements make it to an up-or-down vote on the floor, Weinberg is confident the bills will pass.
“Once you get it before the legislature,” she said, “very few people have the nerve to vote no on an open public records or an open public meetings act.”