N.J. government: Now with less transparency

N.J. government: Now with less transparency

Good Tuesday morning!

I was wondering what big, controversial legislative push we’d see as we enter late budget season, and late last week it seemed we found our answer: An overhaul of the state’s public record laws.

On the surface, this is an attempt to combat abuse of the law by for-profit entities. But, intentionally or not, many of these changes would significantly decrease transparency in New Jersey government and have a chilling effect on challenging denials to records requests.

Top Democratic and Republican lawmakers have hinted that they want OPRA reform. But here’s some good news: While the bill was just introduced and its prime sponsor, Assemblymember Joe Danielsen (D-Somerset) hopes to have a committee hearing on it soon, I don’t believe leadership is going to try to rush these bills through before the budget break. That will give advocates and the press a lot of time to fight some of the most egregious provisions. For instance, those that:

  • Exempt from disclosure records related to how an individual’s “interactions with the public agency with regard to applications for and receipt of contracts.” It’s hard to think of anything more fundamental to government transparency and anti-corruption efforts than public information how people obtain contracts.
  • Eliminate challenging records denials at the Superior Court level in favor of the notoriously-slow Government Records Council. While the council would get a funding boost, do you really think it would speed up that much?
  • Remove the mandate for courts to award lawyers’ fees to successful plaintiffs who challenged records denials, and in the case that fees are awarded, limit them to the fees the governments pays their own attorneys. While perhaps this might counter some bad commercial actors, it would likely have a chilling effect on media organizations or individuals hiring skilled lawyers to challenge unwarranted denials.
  • Exempt metadata from disclosure. Dustin Racioppi used metadata to help uncover the SDA scandal he wrote about for The Record.

There’s lots more. You’ve read me in this space ranting about the slow chipping away at transparency by elected officials. Now, it seems, they’re ditching the chisel in favor of a sledgehammer.

Read about it from Daniel Han.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I think it’s all ridiculous. They did a senior prank — honestly, it was stupid. It wasn’t very creative at all … But that’s it. It was a bunch of kids, they do this every year.” — Lori Eckhart, mother of one of an estimated 50 or so West Milford students who were punished with in school suspension for a senior prank.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY — Pearl Gabel, Zach McCue

WHERE’S MURPHY? — Media: “Ask Governor Murphy” at 7 p.m. on your local NPR affiliate

MATT FRIEDMAN’S JULY 4 HOLIDAY SAVED — Murphy and Democratic leaders reach deal on senior property tax relief, sources say, by POLITICO’s Daniel Han and Matt Friedman: The governor’s office and Democratic legislative leadership have reached a deal on property tax relief for seniors over the weekend, according to two administration officials and a legislative source. The deal is a compromise on the “StayNJ” property tax relief plan pushed by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and supported by Senate President Nick Scutari. The “StayNJ” plan had been the most contentious part of the budget, with a deal in place minimizing the odds of a government shutdown. The deal would cut property tax bills in half for seniors with a benefit of up to $6,500 with income caps of $500,000. The benefits would start to go out in January 2026, with future benefits indexed on prior years average property increases — meaning the benefit could go beyond a maximum $6,500 benefit in future years.

—Stile: ”As StayNJ looms, some ask: Where are ‘smarter’ property taxes savings in NJ?

State spent $151.4 million on McKinsey contract, by POLITICO’s Daniel Han

[REDACTED] [REDACTED] THAT’S THE COST OF THE POLICE — “What are NJ taxpayers spending to protect their state officials? Here’s what we found,” by The Record’s Katie Sobko: “Whether they are cutting ribbons, delivering speeches or meeting with New Jersey residents, when they conduct official business, state officials are often escorted by protection details provided by the New Jersey State Police. Specifics on how much those details cost, however, are harder to come by. In fact, except records maintained about the expenses incurred in protecting Gov. Phil Murphy, there doesn’t seem to be any information available. A quick public records request will tell you taxpayers shelled out about $461,997.32 for the executive protection unit to escort Murphy everywhere from Trenton to Tel Aviv in 2022 … A handful of state officials, including the leader of each legislative chamber — Senate President Nick Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin — are afforded protective details. Requests to the New Jersey State Police and the Senate Majority Office and the Assembly Majority Office revealed that none of those offices has responsive records.”

CAR COLLECTORS TO PAY ECLECTIC CAR TAX — “NJ’s fund to fix roads gets money from a gas tax. How should electric vehicle owners pay?” by The Record’s Colleen Wilson: “New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund — which is funded through a gas tax, like many similar funds in states across the country — may start to feel the effects of missing out on revenue with more cars on the road that have better gas mileage or pay no gas tax because they are battery-powered. The owners of such cars are already paying less — or nothing — into the TTF. And some say gas taxes alone are not sufficient to keep the fund solvent in the long term, because it requires more money to pay off old debt and take on new debt for a growing list of projects. The Transportation Trust Fund’s borrowing power expires in 2024. Despite this, the state Legislature and the governor have yet to address the looming issue. Meanwhile, other states have begun adopting new programs to shore up their road repair accounts, creating user-based fees and electric vehicle surcharges to generate more revenue and ensure that EVs are paying for their use of the roads.”

THE BIG PAYBACK — “NJ Transit fired head of engineers union for refusing to write letter, he says,” by NJ Advance Media’s Larry Higgs: “James P. Brown, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and a veteran engineer, was fired by NJ Transit, officials said. “Mr. Brown was dismissed and currently has an appeal pending, awaiting arbitration,” said Jim Smith, an NJ Transit spokesperson. No other details were provided. Brown, who has worked as an NJ Transit locomotive engineer since 2002, told NJ Advance Media he was dismissed for ‘insubordination’ late last year. He said he was deemed insubordinate because he refused NJ Transit’s request to write a letter in June 2022 to union members advising them to come to work on the Juneteenth holiday. ‘They dismissed me and are forcing me to arbitration,’ Brown said. ‘The reason was insubordination. They asked me to put out a letter as (union) general chairman asking people to go to work. It’s their job to tell people to come to work.’”

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THE ALTMANERNATIVE CANDIDATE — “Signorello mulling switch from Senate race to NJ-7 congressional bid,” by New Jersey Globe’s David Wildstein: “Roselle Park Mayor Joseph Signorello may drop his bid for U.S. Senate and instead get in the race to take on Rep. Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) in New Jersey’s 7th district. Signorello announced in February that he would challenge Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez in the Democratic primary, but is now taking a closer look at a congressional run. ‘We will make a decision this week,’ Signorello told the New Jersey Globe. That would move him into a contest with Sue Altman, the Working Families state director who entered the race against Kean last month. Signorello said he began thinking seriously about a House run after attending a rally slamming Kean for his support of the comprise to raise the debt limit ceiling. “People want to see me fight against Republicans, not other Democrats,” he said.”

HOW’D THEY CRACK THIS CASE? — “Sewell farmer admits role in U.S. Capitol riot,” by The Courier-Post’s Jim Walsh: “A South Jersey farmer has admitted his role in the U.S. Capitol riot. Ezekiel “Zeke” Stecher, 48, of Mantua, who was accused of pushing against a line of police officers at a Capitol entrance, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of civil disorder, a court record shows … Stecher was recorded ‘pushing against the line of … officers who are blocking the second set of metal-and-glass double doors,’ according to a March 2021 criminal complaint … ‘On the video, the man is asked by someone, ‘What is your name? Where are you from?’ says an affidavit filed with a March 2021 criminal complaint. The man, wearing a hat with the name of a farm-supply business, answered, ‘Zeke Stecher from New Jersey,’ the affidavit continues.”

—Snowflack: “Gottheimer targets ‘moocher states’

BOOKS ABOUT ANCIENT SPARTA WILL BE THE FIRST TO GO — “Sparta school board takes aim at ‘lewd’ library materials, critics call policy ‘dangerous’,” by The New Jersey Herald’s Kyle Morel: “The Sparta Board of Education advanced two policy revisions on the reading material allowed in district libraries and the protocol for challenging ‘sexualized content.’ But the move brought warnings from some parents and even the assistant superintendent about the potential ramifications … The [6-1] vote came after comments by two dozen speakers, most of whom warned about censorship or complained the move was motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ bias … The proposed changes to 2530 prioritize educational works for elementary school students that do not contain ‘sexualized content,’ defined as ‘the actual or implied depictions or descriptions of sexual acts or simulations of such acts.’ The revisions also recommend no sexualized content in middle and high schools ‘unless there is a legitimate pedagogical reason for such content in the context of the resource material.’”

CLEARLY THE PROBLEM HERE IS PUBLIC RECORDS REQUESTS — “Authorities probing Ventnor code enforcement records,” by The Press of Atlantic City’s Eric Conklin: “The city code enforcement office is closed Monday while investigators probe “discrepancies” in its records, city officials said. The issues were found over the past several days by the city’s Finance Department, city officials said in a news release. The nature of the discrepancies was not released Monday. City officials said they’re not commenting on the matter further because of the ongoing probe.”

WELL WE’RE TOKIN’ HERE IN EATONTOWN. THEY’RE NOT CLOSING THE DISPENSARIES DOWN — “Eatontown got more money from weed taxes than court fines. So why not add more stores?” by The Asbury Park Press’ Dan Radel: “In the first year of recreational cannabis sales, the borough raked in a quarter of a million dollars from sales tax revenue. That’s $225,534.38 to be precise, according to the borough’s chief financial officer, and more than what the town took in from municipal court fines and liquor licenses combined last year, according to budget documents. Now, the borough’s elected officials are looking to bring in even more tax revenue by increasing the number of cannabis retail, cultivator, manufacture, distributor and wholesale licenses it will permit in town.”

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—“Newark will fine landlords for ‘unconscionable’ rent increases over 5%

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—“‘Stupid’ senior prank leads to suspensions for dozens of [West Milford] students

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THE HIGH LANDS — “The hidden cost of legal weed in N.J.— big electric bills, diverted water and plastic trash,” by NJ Advance Media’s Jackie Roman: “Smrita Choubey left her corporate job to follow in the footsteps of her family in India by bringing together farming and traditional healing. So, she jumped into New Jersey’s budding cannabis industry. But, she didn’t want to be one of the big indoor growers who ‘use as much electricity as a whole town.’ She wanted to grow her weed outside on a Warren County farm, using the sun and rain. That was five years ago. Choubey has been held up fighting for local and state permits to grow cannabis outdoors — a method of weed production that farmers and researchers say creates less environmental pollution and uses significantly less energy. One year into the legal cannabis industry, there are still no outdoor cannabis farms in New Jersey. In an industry where barriers to entry are already notoriously high, Choubey said there are few people willing to spend the time and money to try to get permission to cultivate outdoors, despite its sustainability and benefits to the environment.”

I HAVE A GUESS FOR THE REGION OF THE STATE WITH THE MOST FERTILITY DOCTORS — “This Bergen County high school has an astounding 11 sets of twins graduating this year,” by The Record’s Marsha A. Stoltz: “Blame it on the water or an alignment of the planets — no one can say what is responsible for the record 11 sets of twins in this year’s Northern Highlands graduating class of 340 students. Principal Joe Occhino thinks it’s unique in the history of the regional high school, which serves students in Allendale, Upper Saddle River, Saddle River and Ho-Ho-Kus. ‘This group of twins is certainly a record-breaker for Highlands,’ Occhino said Wednesday”

THOSE ALLEGED ATTEMPTS TO SEXUALIZE CHILDREN SEEM TO BE FAILING — “Fewer N.J. teens are having sex, study says. The reasons are complicated,” by NJ Advance Media’s Katie Kausch: “The number of teenagers who say they’re sexually active has plummeted in New Jersey in the past 12 years, mirroring a nationwide trend that experts say isn’t easy to explain. Less than 18% of high school students in New Jersey reported that they were sexually active in 2021, down from a high of 33.6% in 2009, according to recently released Center for Disease Control and Prevention data. This is the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that the CDC has conducted it’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, an assessment of the nation’s high schoolers taken every few years that asks about things like drugs, eating habits, and sexual practices.”

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