Public records requests rejected by Murphy administration during pandemic. GOP wants to stop that.

Posted Jun 11, 2020

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has faced criticism for using a sweeping but previously little-known 2005 law to reject requests from media outlets seeking public information about how New Jersey prepared for and responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, a Republican state lawmaker wants to alter a portion of that law to prevent government agencies from citing it to deny documents.

The bill from state Sen. Joe Pennachio, R-Morris, comes a few weeks after NJ Advance Media, the USA Today Network, and the Associated Press published similar stories about how agencies in Murphy’s administration have pointed to a one-sentence provision in the 2005 Emergency Health Powers Act to reject requests for information related to the state’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

“The act was never intended to conceal data and decisions that impacts public health and fiscal stability from public and legislative scrutiny, but that has been the reality,” Pennachio said in a statement.

“This bill would lift the curtain of secrecy and provide insight into the administration’s decision-making, the functionality of the chain of command, and communication and cooperation within and between various departments and agencies in the state,” he added.

Murphy, a Democrat, was asked during his daily coronavirus briefing Thursday in Trenton why his administration would “hide this information from the public."

“I love the premise of the question: ‘Why hide this information?’ Thank you,” Murphy responded with a smile. “I think we’ve addressed (open public records) before. ... Nothing new on that.”

The 2005 law gives governors broad powers to help protect New Jersey during a health crisis. Murphy has cited it frequently to impose sweeping lockdown orders the last three months to help halt the virus’ spread.

One provision says “any correspondence, records, reports and medical information made, maintained, received or filed pursuant to this act shall not be considered a public or government record.”

Sponsors of the original law said it wasn’t designed to be used to deny requests through the Open Public Records Act and that the statute might need to be changed.

“People in our government should be more anxious to share information than keep it," state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, told NJ Advance Media last month.

Pennachio’s new bill (S2575) seeks to remove that exception and mandate that “any item pertaining to that act that is accessible under OPRA may be obtained under current OPRA procedures.”

It’s unclear whether the measure will become law. Both houses of the Democratic-controlled state Legislature — the Senate and Assembly — would have to pass it and Murphy would then have to sign it for that to happen.

In March, as the virus was spreading quickly through New Jersey, the Legislature passed a separate bill that relaxes the requirement that state and local government agencies must respond to a records request within seven days. Murphy then signed it into law.

The governor defended that move at the time, saying “it’s nothing against the journalists (or) the media community."

“We just have to deal with the reality of manpower, the ability to turn things around," Murphy said. "There’s no thematic association with that other than we’re at war with a virus.”

But CJ Griffin, an attorney who runs a public-records blog in New Jersey, argued that transparency is even more essential “during a war and during a public health crisis."

“And the public is starving for information now," Griffin said. “They want to have confidence in government."

New Jersey, a densely populated state of 9 million residents, has reported 12,443 known deaths attributed to COVID-19, with 165,816 known cases, in the 100 days since the outbreak here started March 4. Only New York has more deaths and cases among U.S. states.

Meanwhile, more than 1.2 million residents have filed for unemployment since mid-March, when Murphy started instituting lockdown orders and business closings to combat the virus.

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