- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey lawmakers have been working to expand the state’s open records law, but when it comes to using it to get information out of the Legislature, people requesting records are mostly out of luck.

Ahead of Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information being marked this week, The Associated Press sent open-records requests to the top lawmakers and governors in all 50 states, seeking copies of their daily schedules and emails from the government accounts for the week of Feb. 1-7. The AP received more denials than approvals from lawmakers, including from legislative leaders in both parties in New Jersey.

In New Jersey, lawmakers denied the requests as an attempt at an “unbridled search,” which the law doesn’t authorize.

Gov. Chris Christie denied a request for emails under an exemption for deliberative documents. His office released statements on his schedule that had been made public, although they included no detailed information about his agenda.

Lawmakers are covered by the state’s Open Public Records Act, but the law effectively keeps the Legislature from turning over most documents. Any correspondence, records, and emails to constituents are exempt from public disclosure.

“Those are a lot of records,” said Iris Bromberg, a transparency law fellow for the ACLU of New Jersey. “There’s no reason that the Legislature should be held to different transparency standards than what we subject local councils to and the standards that we also submit the executive branches to.”

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Bergen County Democrat who has long pushed for changes to strengthen OPRA, said that the Legislature streams committee hearings and sessions in real time on its website and regularly updates information about bills.

“We do more things than the law requires the Legislature to do,” Weinberg said. “That’s just the reality of the situation.”

Republican state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, who co-sponsored the open records and meetings overhaul legislation with Weinberg, said he supports changing the law to remove some of the exemptions. But he said there’s no legislation in the pipeline to do that, which comes down to recognizing the “political reality” of passing a bill like that.

“When you want to provide for extra scrutiny I think more than anything else there’s push back,” Pennacchio said.

Just what records the public is missing out on his hard to pinpoint, but advocates for requiring lawmakers to release their records say it would include emails sent from official legislative addresses.

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, said that the Legislature has exempted itself from the same requirements it puts on others.

Roberts said that the administration in 2010 proposed requiring the Legislature to follow the financial disclosure and conflict of interest laws as the executive branch, but those measures were never voted on.

“There’s no valid excuse for a separate but equal branch of government to be exempted from the same public disclosure requirements,” Roberts said.

Legislative leaders and the administration have often been at odds over transparency issues. Lawmakers and media advocates have also knocked the Christie administration for its regular denials of record requests.

Michael Darcy, the executive director of the State League of Municipalities, which has opposed attempts by Weinberg and Pennacchio to change OPRA, says that the exemptions mean the Legislature doesn’t understand the strain imposed on county and local governments.

“When a mayor sends a letter to a legislator, the fact the mayor has it in his file, that’s an open public record. But when a legislator has it in their file it’s not? Makes no sense,” Darcy said. “(The Legislature) doesn’t understand what it means to live under these laws.”

But submitting lawmakers to the records requirement could have a chilling effect on legislative deliberations, others say.

“The Legislature’s entire job is to be a deliberative body, to discuss things and to come up with new laws. If you allow people to get access that shows them deliberations, then the Legislature would stop deliberating,” said attorney Michael Witt, who regularly represents local, county and state government in open records cases.

Weinberg and Pennacchio’s bill includes provisions to require local government subcommittees to provide regular updates to the full town council on their meetings. Local government is already covered under the law, but the legislators want to specifically capture records from subcommittees where they say key decisions are sometimes made.

The legislation failed to get enough support to move beyond committee last year and a similar bill introduced this year has not yet advanced.

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Associated Press writer Josh Cornfield contributed to this report.

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