Two bills that seek to update the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act and the Open Public Records Act were approved June 21 by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
The changes to S-1451 would mandate that subcommittees of a public body, including subcommittees of school boards, must publish an agenda and keep minutes of their proceedings. The bill would preserve the exception for portions of public meetings that are deemed confidential, such as the executive session of school boards when a board may be discussing personnel or legal matters. Records of those proceedings would not have to be made public "until such time as the justification for holding a closed meeting no longer exists."
Texting Ban The bill would also prohibit members of a public body from texting during a meeting on matters that are on the agenda for that meeting.
Specifically, S-1451 notes that "except for communications that are purely administrative in nature, no member of a public body … shall communicate privately by any means of communication equipment, including electronic mail, instant messaging or other technologies with any other member of the public body, or with any other person." In published newspaper interviews, Senate President Steve Sweeney noted that the goal was to prevent "meetings within meetings," where officials may be communicating with each other through cell phones on how they are going to vote or on other matters.
The bill would also allow the public to record meetings, and it would require public bodies to post more information online.
Public Records Changes The other bill, S-1452, would make changes to the Open Public Records Act, allowing anyone to make an OPRA request, not just New Jersey residents, and allowing records requests to be made through documents other than an official form, as long as the document contains the information requested on the form. It also narrows the definition of "advisory, consultative or deliberative material," which can be used to exclude documents from disclosure. The bill also requires the disclosure of the names of people who review charter school applications.
S-1452 also incorporates provisions that were formerly included in other bills, including measures authorizing public access to records through an entity's website; and a measure which excludes from the public record email addresses provided to government entities to receive emergency notices.
Both S-1451 and S-1452 contain provisions extending the Sunshine Law and OPRA, respectively, to NJSBA, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and similar groups. In fact, the Association, as a publicly funded organization, has complied with OPRA since its enactment and has followed the provisions of the Sunshine Law for decades.
NJSBA supports the intent of both bills but has concerns about the potential costs and increased administrative burdens that the legislation could place on school districts. The Association has communicated those concerns to legislators.
S-1451 and S-1452 are now poised for a vote by the full Senate. The Assembly versions of the bills, A 2426 and A- 2425, were introduced in February and are both awaiting a hearing in the Assembly State Government Committee.