Assemblyman: Late OPRA responses shouldn’t cost taxpayers money
New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act is good public policy said Assembly GOP Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), but he doesn’t like that the law forces courts to require towns to use citizens’ tax dollars to pay attorneys’ fees for OPRA filers if the municipality is just a day late in responding.
He said sometimes a town may have made a mistake or had reasonable explanation for a delay.
“The current seven-day response rule may create a situation where if someone’s one hour late or one day late towns are going to pay significant attorney’s fees. I think there has to be a reasonable standard,” said Bramnick, who is also a lawyer. “OPRA is a very good law and we want transparency in government but there is that technical issue with the law that I’d like to change.”
A bill to give judges discretion in awarding lawyers’ fees has already been written and Bramnick said he would formally introduce it when the General Assembly returns to session after the November elections.
“My change to the law would simply give courts some discretion if the municipality did diligent work in finding and producing those records, but were a day or two late. Attorneys’ fees in those cases would not be mandatory,” the assemblyman said.
If it takes two months for a government entity to respond, Bramnick said that would be unreasonable and the lawyers’ fees should absolutely be awarded. He explained that his pending legislation is a taxpayer protection measure.
“Right now even if the city or towns make a good faith effort to respond to an OPRA request, but is a day late, taxpayers pay for that. These can be substantial attorneys’ fees that the taxpayers have to pay,” he said.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities provided the following examples of municipalities being required to pay attorney fees as a result of a denial of an OPRA request being overturned:
- Hoboken, NJ – Councilwoman Beth Mason obtained attorney fees after her OPRA requests were determined to be wrongfully denied. The Supreme Court held that the statute mandates attorney fees for any wrongfully denied OPRA request.
- Longport, NJ – A small shore town in Atlantic County, received 75 OPRA requests from one person at the same time. They complied with 74 of the requests, but inadvertently missed one in the middle and did not reply in time, thus constituting a wrongful denial. The requester immediately went to Superior Court and then received attorney fees for the wrongful denial.
- Raritan, NJ – Contested the format of records requested by a media outlet and denied electronic format of the information, but provided a different format. The media outlet sued and won, and Raritan was required to pay $590,000 in attorney fees.
Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.