Three Public Transparency Resources to Help You Become a More Informed New Jersey Resident

Many public transparency resources are easily accessible online, free of charge.

  • Posted on - 08/23/2021
  • Author - Gina Pusloski, Special Investigator, Investigations Division

Being an informed New Jersey resident is a civic duty that helps to hold elected officials accountable and implement changes in your community. New Jersey government has a number of public laws, databases, and other resources that are designed to increase transparency and help the public become more informed about government decisions and operations. Here are three ways to take advantage of these tools.

1. Understand the Sunshine Law

The Open Public Meetings Act,[1] more commonly known as New Jersey’s Sunshine Law, was enacted in 1975 to bring more transparency to public meetings and civic engagement. The law was enacted in response to “growing public cynicism about politics and distrust of government in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate,” according to the statute.

The Sunshine Law requires that public bodies give a notice of public meetings and release minutes of meetings. While public bodies do have the ability to hold closed sessions, there are penalties for violations of the law. Further information on the Law from the New Jersey League of Municipalities can be found here.  

By attending and participating in public meetings, you can make your voice heard in local government. If you are not able to attend public meetings in person, municipalities will often post meeting minutes on their websites so you can stay informed on the decisions your elected officials are making on your behalf.  

2. Use Open Public Sources of Information to Your Advantage

You generally do not need special tools or access to find out more information about your town or elected officials. Many transparency resources, such as databases with government salaries, property records, and election donations, are easily accessible online and free of charge.

Here are just some of the many resources available for free:

  • Government Salaries – Search through public databases to see the salaries of all public employees in New Jersey.
  • Property Records – Look up addresses to see information about the property, including tax data, zoning, and assessments.
  • Election Donations – Ever wondered who or what entities are donating to your elected officials’ campaigns? Follow the money by searching for campaign contributions to candidates and committees in New Jersey.
  • NJ Open Data Portal – Peruse New Jersey’s online open data portal to find data sets from various agencies across New Jersey government.

3. File an Open Public Records Act Request

The Open Public Records Act (OPRA)[2] was created to expand the public’s right of access to government records, define what those records are, and put in place an appeals process for if access to government records is denied.

The philosophy behind OPRA is that if government records are created in the public interest by public employees, then the general public has a right to view those records. There are certain exceptions to OPRA to protect sensitive information, trade secrets, and personal privacy.

Regulated access to government records allows residents to be informed on how government entities are working (or not working) in their best interests. More information on OPRA from the New Jersey Government Records Council (GRC) is available here.

In March 2020, due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, OPRA was amended to modify how long government entities have to respond to OPRA requests. The Legislature partially lifted the relaxation of deadlines earlier this year, and June 10, 2021, the GRC issued a special statement that discussed a return to normal operations, with the exception of those records related directly to a responding entity’s COVID-19 response.

Being an informed resident of New Jersey may help you identify public employees who are doing something wrong or programs that are wasting taxpayer funds.  The Office of State Comptroller welcomes your tips.  To report government fraud, waste, mismanagement or corruption, file a complaint online with OSC or call 1-855-OSC-TIPS.

[1]              N.J.S.A 10:4-6, et seq.

[2]              N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1, et seq.

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