STATE – Last week, a state appeals court ruled that government bodies cannot require citizens to fill out a standardized form to view public records under the state’s Open Public Records Act.
Standardized forms go against the legislative intent behind the act to give the public “unfettered access to government records,” the appeals panel said. Letters, faxes and even e-mails containing a specific request are sufficient to meet the law’s requirement of a written records request.
The case marks the end of a legal battle between the Democrat-controlled government of Union County and a political watchdog group, the Union County Watchdog Association, its leader Tina Renna and the New Jersey Press Association.
The county adopted a standardized form in 2006, following the recommendation of the Government Records Council. The group, which was created to review disputes over records requests, said that standardized forms help government agencies meet large demands for records.
“Nevertheless, these legitimate policy concerns must cede to the broader policy of governmental transparency and the right of citizens to have open and virtually unfettered access to government records,” the appeals court ruled. “These policies can be harmonized. This requires a balancing of the need for specificity for the custodian (agency holding the records) and the overarching objective of OPRA to insure public access to records.”
The appeals court decision overturned a September 2007 ruling made by Superior Court Judge Kathryn Brock in Elizabeth, who upheld the use of forms.
Renna emailed a request for documents in March 2006, and Union County responded by sending its standardized form and requiring her to re-submit her request. Renna and other members of her group have charged the county with using bureaucratic procedures to delay the production of records for public scrutiny.
“I’m glad the courts have finally held that my 2006 e-mail record request was valid and shot down the stifling bureaucracy of having to obtain an official form. Citizens should have quick and easy access to public records. They belong to us,” said Renna in a prepared statement.
“This decision will mean easier access to public records. That’s what the Legislature intended when they wrote in OPRA’s first sentence that public records should be ‘readily accessible,’” said Richard Gutman, Renna’s attorney, in the statement.