Government Becomes More Transparent

April 28, 2012
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By Senator Jennifer Beck, 13th District

On January 5, 2012, Governor Chris Christie signed S-2765/A-3908 into law. This legislation requires state, regional, and local authorities, boards, and commissions to establish an Internet website and post information related to each entity’s mission, finances, meetings, and employees. I sponsored this bill in the Senate along with Senator Barbara Buono in response to the overwhelming outcry for increased
governmental transparency.

The bills were developed with recommendations from the Office of the State Comptroller in its report entitled, “An Analysis of the On-Line Transparency of New Jersey’s Local Authorities and Commissions.” This bi-partisan legislation requires all local and regional authorities and commissions to maintain an Internet website for the purpose of providing increased public access to each entity’s operations, finances and activities.

According to the comptroller, the report found that many of New Jersey’s local agencies fail to take basic steps to keep the public informed of their operations and finances. For example, 36 percent do not operate a website. Of the local agencies that do operate a website, the report found many failed to include basic and significant information. Only 8 percent of those local agencies post the minutes, schedule and agendas of their public meetings on the web. Only 3 percent of local agencies post their comprehensive annual financial report or a similar fiscal report.

New Jersey got a “C+” when it comes to openness about government spending, according to “Following the Money 2011: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the second annual report of its kind by the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG).

According to NJPIRG, following last year’s Money report, there has been remarkable progress across the country with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access. The 2011 report found that 40 states now provide an online database of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail. The states with the most transparent spending also include data on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies. New Jersey’s new law requires all state, regional, environmental, and local authorities, boards and commissions to maintain an Internet website for the purpose of providing increased public access to each entity’s operations and activities.

The following information must be posted on each website if it is compiled by the authority, board or commission:

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1. A description of the entity’s mission and responsibilities;

2. The adopted budget for the current, immediately prior, and all future fiscal years;

3. The most recent comprehensive annual financial report or other similar financial information;

4. The annual audit for the current, immediately prior, and all future fiscal years;

5. The entity’s rules, regulations, and official policy statements;

6. Notice, posted pursuant to the Open Public Meetings Act of a meeting of the entity’s governing body or any of its committees, setting forth the time, date, location, and agenda of the meeting;

7. The approved minutes of each meeting of the governing body and its committees for the current, immediately prior, and all future fiscal years;

8. The name and phone number of a principal executive officer having overall responsibility for the operations of the entity; and

9. A list of all full-time and part-time employees of the entity.

The people of New Jersey have been calling for increased transparency in government for years; this law is long overdue. With the ubiquitous status of the Internet, transparency is not only much easier to provide, but eliminates excuses against it. Before this bill was signed into law, only 8 percent of the agencies that were subjected to the Comp­troller’s review post the schedule, agendas, and minutes of their public meetings. In an age when so much information is so readily accessible on the Web, there is no reason public authorities should not provide this basic information.

The comptroller’s report made apparent some serious problems in public access to vital financial information. There are 587 local authorities and commissions, and of those, 36 percent do not have a website, and 34 percent do not provide basic contact information. Only 4 percent of those that do post financial information. If one includes entities with no online presence, only 3 percent of all local agencies provide financial information.

Local and regional authorities and commissions combined spending and debt exceeds $5 billion annually, and too often it is all but impossible to find out where and when they meet, who serves on the boards, and even information as simple as phone numbers and basic budget information. It is time that the local and regional authorities within New Jersey step into the 21st century and make this information publicly available and easily accessible.

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Technology is part of the daily lives and it is not acceptable for information of public agencies to not be readily accessible, especially when, according to an estimate my office requested from a web development business, it would cost approximately $900 for a single office to develop such a website. New Jersey Institute of Tech­nology (NJIT) has also stepped forward to offer its expertise assistance.

This law will increase accountability at agencies where roughly $5 billion of taxpayer and ratepayer money is at stake. In this day and age, there is no reason why a publicly funded organization should not provide basic public information on the Internet. If we can pay our tax bills and utility bills online, we should be able to go online and view how those dollars are being spent by the myriad of independent boards, commissions, and authorities across the state.

Under the N.J.S.A.40A:11-3 of the Local Public Contracts Law, in general, contracts exceeding $17,500 per year must be publicly advertised and bid. An exception to this general rule is in subsection a. of N.J.S.A.40A:11-5 regarding contracts for professional services. Because these professional service contracts for large sums ($17,500) are not publicly bid, they should be disclosed on the Web page for the public in the interest of transparency. Furthermore, the posting was for amounts paid in the previous year because in some cases it is unknown if the $17,500 threshold was exceeded until the end of the year.

The new law specifically names several regional authorities that would be affected by the legislation, including the Passaic Valley Water Commission, which has recently come under fire for excessive overtime pay and other pay perks for its employees. In addition to the specific authorities named, the law calls for all local and regional authorities including “any environmental authority, board, or commission” to adhere to the new provisions.

I am proud to have been involved in the development and passage of this historic law. Government transparency at all levels is not only necessary, it is essential.

I look forward to seeing the eye-opening affect this law will have in the coming years and hope it will promote more accountability and fairness in government.

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