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New Jersey adopts public records overhaul but critics say it tightens access to documents

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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation on Wednesday overhauling access to the state’s public records, likely making it harder for the public and media to access some documents, according to critics.

Murphy, a Democrat, acknowledged the disappointment of social justice, labor and other groups that vociferously objected to the bill.

“If I believed that this bill would enable corruption in any way, I would unhesitatingly veto it,” Murphy said. “After a thorough examination of the provisions of the bill, I am persuaded that the changes, viewed comprehensively, are relatively modest.”

The governor’s statement did little to convince critics of the measure.

“This is a dark day for our democracy- one that voters will not soon forget,” the League of Women Voters of New Jersey said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

The legislation alters the state’s Open Public Records Act, which the public and journalists regularly use to obtain documents from state and local governments, including budgets, agency receipts, public salaries, correspondence and other information that is not always easy to unearth.

The bill’s sponsors say they back transparency and want to help beleaguered clerks who cannot always handle a wave of requests, sometimes from commercial interests. The bill’s opponents argued that the measure will make it harder to obtain documents and that it comes at a time when Americans’ faith in institutions has been sliding. In a May 2023 survey from AP-NORC and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a majority of respondents said news stories reporting the facts facing the country or that include in-depth background and analysis are extremely or very helpful in understanding issues important to them.

Murphy nodded to this distrust in his statement, but ultimately said he thought the measure was an appropriate update to the legislation since its inception more than two decades ago.

“Perhaps the most troubling concern that I have heard is that signing this bill will both enable corruption and erode trust in our democracy,” he said. “I understand we are living in a moment where our democracy feels more fragile than ever.”

One provision in the legislation permits officials to charge commercial interests as much as twice the cost of producing records. Other language authorizes agencies to sue requesters they accuse of interrupting “government function.” The new law also ends a requirement for towns to pay attorneys’ fees in court cases they lose over records requests.

The last provision could make it prohibitively expensive for members of the public and news reporters to challenge local and state governments in court, according to the bill’s opponents, including civil rights groups, the state’s press association and dozens of others who testified at committee hearings this year.

Murphy pointed to a provision in the new law that such a fee structure could still occur, though only if a court finds the public entity acted in bad faith, or willfully or unreasonably denied records. Critics of the measure questioned whether judges would be reluctant to declare a public entity as having acted in bad faith.

The Associated Press signed onto a letter by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists urging politicians to reject the legislation.

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