NEW JERSEY – Legislation sponsored by Senator Joe Pennacchio and Senator Michael Testa that would lift restrictions on access to public and government records during declared emergencies was approved today by the Senate.
During the current pandemic, the Murphy Administration has repeatedly relied on sections of the Health Powers Act, enacted in 2005, to deny Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests for information about preparations and decisions relating to the virus outbreak, they said.
“The Act was never intended to keep the public in the dark in times of crisis,” Pennacchio (R-26) said, “but today it is being used to conceal data and information on decisions impacting public health and fiscal stability from public and legislative scrutiny.”
Currently, correspondence, records, reports and medical information filed pursuant to the Act are not considered public records subject to the OPRA and they cannot be reviewed, they said.
“These restrictions are interfering with access to crucial details about the State’s response to COVID-19, a pandemic that has cost many thousands of lives and continues wreak havoc on the state economy,” Pennacchio continued. “To better understand how decisions were made how to avoid the same mistakes in the future, it is necessary to have unobstructed access to communications and paperwork that have remained hidden.”
Under the bill (S-2751/S-2575), any correspondence, records, and reports filed pursuant to the Emergency Health Powers Act will be subject to disclosure under the Open Public Records Act.
“Our entire state has witnessed the impact of the Administration’s COVID policies,” said Testa. “Our economy has been battered, one of every 10 residents of long-term care facilities have died, and decisions to re-open businesses were random,” Testa (R-1) said. “It’s vital to remove the veil of secrecy and reveal the Administration’s decision-making process. The bill will uncover the level and effectiveness of communication and cooperation between departments and agencies in the state, and the functionality of the chain of command.”