Comptroller says officials take too long to adjudicate public records disputes

report by the Office of the State Comptroller found that the Government Records Council (GRC) is taking too long – an average of 21 months – to adjudicate Open Public Records Act (OPRA) disputes.   

The GRC is an entity within the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) that accepts complaints from members of the public when local governments or state agencies deny access to public records.

Decisions about which records should be turned over are made by a five-member council.  

OPRA requires the council to decide these matters “as expeditiously as possible.”  

But instead, OSC’s review found that it takes an average of 21 months, or almost two years, for a complaint to be adjudicated. That means the council won’t decide a complaint filed today until the end of July 2024.  

OSC found that GRC takes on average three times longer than the New Jersey judiciary to adjudicate complaints, resulting in unequal access to public records.  

Although faster, filing a complaint with the judiciary requires a party to engage in litigation, possibly hire an attorney, and pay a filing fee. GRC was intended to be a free and fast alternative to litigation.  

OSC also found that  GRC regularly maintains a backlog of 300 to 500 open complaints, due in large part to understaffing.

Since 2006, GRC’s budget has decreased approximately 37 percent—from $771,000 in 2006 to $489,000 in 2022.  

GRC also has its lowest staff total since its inception with just one attorney and three other staff members. With as many as ten employees in 2007, GRC’s staffing numbers have steadily declined since then. 

DCA, the state department that oversees GRC, is authorized to hire two additional employees for GRC, but has not done so.  Failing to hire for all positions has had a substantial, negative impact on GRC’s ability to adjudicate complaints, exacerbating delays.   

OSC found that GRC’s delays have a disproportionate impact on New Jersey residents seeking public records from local governments.

Complaints involving municipalities, including police departments, totaled nearly half of GRC’s caseload.  K-12 schools and counties each made up another 10 percent, while complaints against universities and colleges comprised 5 percent.

One-quarter of the cases filed with GRC involved state agencies. 

“Transparency fuels democracy. Getting the documents that show what elected officials and public employees are doing is the first step in holding government accountable, “said State Comptroller Kevin Walsh.  “The Open Public Records Act promised New Jerseyans quick access to public records.  Taking almost two years to decide disputes over public records undermines our commitment to transparency.  GRC can do better.” 

OSC recommends that GRC hire additional attorneys, utilizing its full budget allocation for staff to do so. If more staff are needed than its budget allows, GRC should notify the Legislature. OSC also recommends that GRC consider using staff attorneys as hearing officers.  

In the interest of transparency, OSC recommends that GRC announce how long it should take to adjudicate complaints, and publish on its website how long it is actually taking. 

Lastly, OSC recommends that the Legislature consider amending OPRA to increase efficiency. Allowing staff attorneys to make final decisions regarding access to public records, making members of the Council responsible only for appeals, and allowing oral decisions would all speed up the adjudication process. 

“The good news is that these are easily solvable problems,” said Walsh.  “GRC can move quickly to help New Jerseyans get access to public records.  With quicker access to public records, New Jerseyans will have the information they need to ask questions, get answers, and make our democracy stronger.” 

To report government fraud, waste, mismanagement or corruption, file a complaint with OSC or call 1-855-OSC-TIPS. 

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