Acting State Comptroller Testifies Before Legislature on OPRA Bill

Read the testimony by Acting State Comptroller Kevin D. Walsh about how bill S2930 A4045 would impact transparency in New Jersey.

  • Posted on - 03/13/2024

On Monday, March 11, 2024, Acting State Comptroller Kevin Walsh testified before the NJ Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee about Bill S2930, which would revise the state’s Open Public Records Act, known as OPRA.  

Walsh is among those who are concerned that the bill would diminish transparency and make it harder for residents to seek and receive government records.  

Below is a lightly edited transcript of his remarks. 

I'm not speaking for the administration today. Although I'm a member of the Governor's Cabinet, I am independent. I'm here today to talk about my four years as the Acting State Comptroller.

I'm concerned about the bill in general and specifically, as it relates to a report we issued [about OPRA and the Government Records Council] and how [the bill] impacts the work that we do in attempting to protect taxpayer funds

For 20 years, I worked as a civil rights lawyer and have a million stories about ways in which we helped keep the state and local government accountable through the Open Public Records Act. And I know the New Jersey Press Association [offered] what an astute set of concerns about the bill and ways in which it may reduce the incentive to comply with the requirement of transparency.

The bill that I read does have a provision in it that permits the government to sue residents. I’ve been with the Office of the State Comptroller for about four years now and some of the best tips we get come from New Jersey residents who file OPRA requests, get those documents, especially from local government entities, and share those with us with a tip where they think that something has gone wrong. They don't know who else to go to, but they know that the Office of the State Comptroller receives their tips, and answers the phone whenever they call. Residents see something that concerns them, and they come to us for an independent and objective look. Some of our most impactful reports started with an OPRA request not from us.

I fear that if documents are harder to get, we will get less transparency and that will lead to more corruption, fraud, waste, and abuse.

If your goal was to save money, be careful. A less transparent government is very likely a more expensive one, I fear.

My job is to protect the interests of taxpayers and taxpayer funds. And I welcome that help. I have 70 employees who focus on Medicaid and (another) 70 employees who focus on 2,000 entities. We need all the help we can get to help keep the government honest.

Our policy as a state has been to welcome New Jersey residents and journalists to be involved and to help hold government accountable. This bill appears to retreat from that commitment in ways that I think may be unintended.

My office issued a report on July 2022 that looked at the Government Records Council. What we found is that the Government Records Council took three times longer than the court process to decide Open Public Records Act cases. Based on that report, I think that the time frames written in this bill may be meaningless because the delay will not come in the 90 days when somebody picks it up and gets it to the GRC. The delays will come when it gets sent to the Office of Administrative Law and when it goes to mediation.

Another issue is not changing the way the GRC makes decisions. Having a 12-member council be the first entity that decides the matter is akin to having the New Jersey Supreme Court be the first court to decide landlord-tenant cases. What we recommended in our July 2022 report is that decisions be made earlier in the process and that the council function more like an appellate level so that some of these things can be decided within 30-60 days (by hearing officers) and then they can decide whether the issues should be addressed by the council. It may be that both parties are happy with the initial adjudication. That would keep fees down as well.

I believe it is possible to address the important issues articulated here without undermining the important transparency that the Open Public Records Act provides. And I commit myself and my office to help you in any way you can.


Watch the full testimony starting at 2:07:40.

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