Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Testing transparency under Christie

Every day, on every level of government, gadfly citizens and newspaper reporters are trying to understand what's happening with your tax dollars. Often, all they find out is how opaque New Jersey is.

Testing transparency under Christie

Christie takes off his jacket halfway into his town hall meeting in the filled-to-capacity gym of Haddonfield Middle School last week. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )
Christie takes off his jacket halfway into his town hall meeting in the filled-to-capacity gym of Haddonfield Middle School last week. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

In case you missed it, I've written two stories this past week about government transparency in the state of New Jersey under Gov. Christie. 

Boring topic? Maybe. Still an important topic.

Every day, on every level of government, gadfly citizens and newspaper reporters are trying to understand what's happening with your tax dollars. Often, all they find out is how opaque New Jersey is.

Last week, I wrote about two bills intended to increase the transparency of government records and meetings. That story is here.

More coverage
 
Katz: Transparency is a murky affair in N.J.

And in today's paper, I have a first-person account of my experience dealing with the Government Records Council, the arbiter of public record complaints in New Jersey, as I attempted to get Christie's press release recipient list. It's a tale of government secrecy and bureaucracy:

TRENTON — I didn't know a hearing had been scheduled on my 18-month-old request for records from Gov. Christie's office until eight days after the hearing happened.

Turns out I lost. I was not surprised.

The entity that handles appeals of rejected requests for public information meets once a month in a first-floor office in Trenton. Windows offer a view of an atrium outside, but it's difficult — literally and otherwise — to look from the outside in. 

Called the Government Records Council, this agency adjudicates appeals from all levels of New Jersey government, from your school board on up to Christie's office. I reviewed its records, excluded obviously frivolous complaints, and found that under Christie, the GRC has ruled on 44 cases involving state departments.

And all 44 times, the GRC sided with the Christie administration.

The GRC is supposed to have five members appointed by the governor, but Christie has left it with three for most of his term. There are now four, including a Christie campaign donor, Christie's education commissioner, and Christie's community affairs commissioner.

And though the 44-0 record compiled by the short-staffed GRC is interesting, if you were to show up at a GRC meeting, you wouldn't be able to keep score yourself.

You might hear cases involving, say, the Department of Environmental Protection or the Camden City school board. And you would hear votes tallied by council members. But in a novel approach to governing that only Kafka could appreciate, you would not know what those votes meant. Who won? Who lost?

Who knows?

(Read the rest of the story, here.)

Those of us who seek information in New Jersey often find ourselves stymied by:

Redactions - I write about how documents dealing with travel expenses for Christie's aides exclude almost everything: Where the person was going, whom (s)he met with, and why.

I'm not alone. At a press conference last week dealing with this issue, the attorney for The Record newspaper in Bergen County held up a piece of paper. It was the initial response she got when she requested contact information for the employee in each state department who is, by law, mandated to respond to requests for open records. Names were listed...but each of their phone numbers were blacked out. Their publicly-funded phone lines are secret.

Inconsistency - Some towns release detailed minutes of meetings. Some towns won't say when their committees are meeting. And as Christie's office will tell you -- legislators are exempted from many of the rules. The weak records rules that they've imposed on the governor do not apply to them.

Bureaucracy - Want to appeal a Christie administration decision to deny you government records? Cases can get take nearly two years to be heard. You won't have an opportunity to present your case at a hearing. And if you attend the hearing anyway, they won't tell you if you won or not.

DENIED - The public has little idea of what we're not allowed to know. In addition to the records I've been denied by this administration, reporters from the Star-Ledger have been prevented from knowing how much overtime state troopers make and the official policies that troopers are trained with.

Got a story about dealing with public documents? Let us know in the comments.

And I'll be chatting about all of this, and anything else Christie-related, tomorrow at 1 p.m. on Philly.com. Tune in.

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