FOI Daily Dose: NJ Senate votes on transparency protections; Philadelphia reporters hit hurdles over building collapse records

New Jersey Senate votes on open records, open meetings protections

The New Jersey Press Association is supporting two measures for a state Senate vote this week that would offer greater protections for government transparency, according to the Times of Trenton.

Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris) sponsored a measure that offers three amendments to the Open Public Records Act and another measure that updates provisions in the Open Public Meetings Law.

Under new amendments to the Open Public Records Act, state government workers will no longer be able to redact, or blot out, information in public documents unless they can cite a “specific and lawful basis” for each redaction, the Times said.

Government workers must also alert those requesting information when they can access it for free online instead of paying for copies, and government agencies must post contact information for their custodian of records on their websites to simplify the requesting process.

Updates to the Open Public Meetings Law require agencies and organizations to post meeting schedules online and prohibit officials from communicating privately during the meeting via text messages or other means that the public cannot witness.

The Times notes the amendments allow a special surcharge to help local governments regain costs for “voluminous” requests and offer mechanisms to prevent those requesting information from abusing the system for commercial data mining.

 Philadelphia reporters hit hurdles in public records race

Philadelphia journalists seeking records and information in the wake of a deadly building collapse are hitting procedural and legal hurdles in the city’s public records system, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

After part of a Salvation Army thrift shop wall collapsed June 5, killing six people, after which a city building inspector committed suicide, reporters have requested information related to the incident, and their requests have been met with notoriously long “pending” processes that sometimes take six weeks.

The Inquirer said some delays stem from City Solicitor Shelly R. Smith’s “unpublicized decision” in February to restrict access to detailed explanations for millions of dollars in city legal settlements that have been considered public information for at least 30 years.

Smith’s decision limits access to memos and similar evaluations written by city attorneys describing the “factual circumstances and the reasons for paying tax dollars to resolve all sorts of legal claims against the city,” according to the Inquirer.

The Law Department allegedly ruled such memos are privileged communication between lawyers and clients, and public records experts interviewed by the Inquirer agreed that the memos could be exempt from the state’s right-to-know law as legal advice.

Even so, Melissa Melewsky, a media law counsel with the Pennsylvania News Media Association, questioned why the state’s policy would suddenly change when this information was subject to public access for decades.

“If it’s always been public in the past, it should remain public,” Melewsky told the Inquirer. “But I can’t say you’ll win that battle in court.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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