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New Jersey lawmakers pause open records bill overhaul to consider amendments

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey legislative leaders hit the brakes Thursday on a fast-moving bill that would have overhauled the state's open records law, following an outpouring of opposition from civil rights groups, unions and others.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo, both Democrats, said they will work on amending the proposed legislation that came before committees earlier this week.

While advocates who opposed the measure cheered the news, the legislation isn't dead and just what the amendments are is not yet clear.

“Understanding how important it is to maintain transparency and the right of the public to know what their government is doing, I appreciate the concerns raised about (the bill),” Coughlin said in a statement posted to X, formerly Twitter.

The bill, which lawmakers approved out of committee on Monday, was up for a second, different committee vote Thursday. But then Coughlin said such consideration wouldn't happen while changes to the bill are being considered.

New Jersey's Open Public Records Act, which hasn't been updated in more than two decades, provides the public, including news reporters and commercial interests, the ability to obtain government documents at the state and local levels. The measure under consideration was necessary, the sponsors said, to update the bill but also to block commercial businesses seeking records from towns across the state, clogging clerk's workloads and costing taxpayers.

The sponsors disputed suggestions that the measure would curtail the public or journalists' ability to obtain records.

Opponents of the bill queued up for hours' worth of testimony on Monday, arguing the measure would make government less transparent. One key way that could happen under the measure, they argued was by eliminating a requirement for agencies that lose legal battles over records in court to pay for attorneys' fees. Without that dynamic, it could be difficult for ordinary citizens to afford attorneys to press their claims for public records, according to CJ Griffin, a prominent records attorney in the state.

Other changes in the bill included a requirement that records custodians redact identifying information they believe could result in “harassment,” a requirement that critics say could lead to unnecessary redactions.

It explicitly relieves agencies of any obligation to convert records to an electronic medium and removes immediate access to records if they’re older than one year. Under current law custodians “must ordinarily” grant immediate access to budgets, contracts and payment vouchers showing how public funds were used.

The bill called for requesters to use a form created by the agency they’re seeking documents from, compared with the current practice of agencies routinely acknowledging emailed requests for documents. It also seeks to limit the disclosure of public officials’ emails and correspondence unless a specific subject and time frame are delineated.

Sarlo said he hopes to get stakeholders involved in recasting the bill before the state budget process supersedes lawmakers' agendas in April.

He said the amendments would not only foster greater transparency but effectively modernize the 20-year-old law wile both protecting the information of private citizens and reducing what he called “profiteering” at the expense of municipalities and taxpayers.

Critics of the initial legislation praised the pause.

“Taking the time needed to consult with stakeholders and experts is the right approach,” said Amol Sinha, the executive director of the state's American Civil Liberties Union, in a post on X.