Weinberg-Vitale Bill to Increase Government Transparency During COVID-19 Crisis Advances
TRENTON – In an effort to increase transparency and encourage greater public trust amidst the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, the Senate’s State Government Committee advanced a bill today that would make certain government records created during the crisis accessible through the existing Open Public Records Act.
The bill, S-2751, was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Chair of the Senate Health Committee, Senator Joseph Vitale.
“It is in times of uncertainty that we need transparency the most,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Since March, journalists, advocacy groups and concerned citizens have had their OPRA requests stonewalled by the administration using the emergency as grounds for denial and leaving the public in the dark on very basic issues. We wrote the open public records act to build faith and trust in our state government and elected officials, this is the time to uphold that integrity, not discard it.”
Under current law, any correspondence, record, report and medical information made, maintained, received, or filed pursuant to the Emergency Health Powers Act is not considered a public or government record, and therefore not accessible under an open public records request.
“Everyone understands that these are unprecedented times but we can’t let the anxiety over uncertainty deny our residents their right to know what their government is doing and why they are doing it,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex). “This is a fundamental democratic principle and if we don’t hold on to our principles in times of crisis, than we don’t hold them at all.”
The legislation would specify that any personal identifying information will not be considered a public or government record and will authorize the Local Information Network and Communications (LINCS) agency to deny access to any portion of a record related to bioterrorism.
“For 6 months, the people of our state have come together and made immense sacrifices to keep themselves, their families and their neighbors safe,” Senator Weinberg concluded. “It is essential that we give them the opportunity to understand the rationale behind the decisions if we are going to maintain their trust and their patience as we reopen.”
A LINCS agency is the lead public health agency in each county or identified city. The agency is responsible for central planning, coordination and delivery of specialized services within the designated county or city.
The bill passed the committee with a vote of 5-0.