Saturday, July 22, 2006

State Budget - Bergen Record - 6b - Editorial: Open secrets

Published in the Bergen Record, Friday, July 21, 2006

Open secrets


FOUR years after the state's landmark Open Public Records Act took effect, government documents can still be hard to obtain.

That's inexcusable.

Understanding why New Jersey's property taxes are so high requires information about the salaries and benefits of local public employees, including police and teachers.

But as reported today on Page One, when The Record tried to obtain that information for the current series, "Runaway pay," most North Jersey towns involved had trouble complying with the request. The Record sued one town, Leonia, in state court.

If our reporters met such resistance -- and they were backed up by knowledge of the law and potential legal action -- what kind of trouble does the average citizen have?

That's inexcusable as well.

The law, for all its value, is only as good as the municipal clerk who serves as the gatekeeper. Mayors and administrators must ensure that their clerks are clear on the law and its requirements, that they welcome inquiries and that they process them quickly.

Delays, unnecessary fees and giving the public the runaround are not acceptable.

The Open Public Records Act was a major victory for transparency and government accountability. It said that basically all government documents -- state, county and municipal -- are public information, except for the few that are specifically exempted. In fact, the salaries of a town's public employees should be readily available to anyone who requests them.

For local public information, the person to see is the municipal clerk or the school board secretary. But even now, with the law in place four years, problems can arise when electronic records, such as payrolls, are requested.

Under the law, municipal clerks can be fined steeply for not complying with public information requests. Hundreds of complaints have been made to the state's Government Records Council since 2002. Most have been resolved, and no clerk has ever been fined.

Nevertheless, some towns are actually lobbying for legislation that would protect their clerks from being penalized for violating the Open Public Records Act in some instances. That could make it even harder for the public to get the information that the law has made available.

Information is a powerful tool. Finding out exactly what police and teachers earn -- in terms of base salary, overtime (for police), health and pension benefits and the "horizontal increases" that automatically increase pay -- enables taxpayers to see where their money is going.

It's the first essential step in pursuing reform.

Link to online story.
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About Me

Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.