Sunday, April 19, 2009

Holding the line on indefinite OPRA due dates

I frequently get responses from custodians that tell me that I'll get my records at some later, unspecified date. Here is my response to one such custodian. I thought I'd share it in case others want to use it.

John Paff
Somerset, New Jersey

I am in receipt of your April 13, 2009 letter and the 2008 Local Government Officer Roster. As you know, you did not either grant or deny access to the records responsive to paragraphs 1 through 4 of my request. Rather, you informed me that you sent my request to the Ethical Standards Board and that “as soon as their reply is received [you] will forward it to [me].”

A records custodian cannot unilaterally extend the seven business-day response period mandated by N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(i) simply by passing the request off to another official or board within the agency. Rather, if a custodian needs additional time to fulfill a request because adhering to the seven-day period “would substantially disrupt agency operations,” he or she needs to attempt “to reach a reasonable solution with the requestor that accommodates the interests of the requestor and the agency.” N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(g).

I mean no disrespect by the above reminder, but I’ve been in the record-requesting business for a long time and remember the frustrating days when the Right to Know Law—OPRA’s predecessor—was the law. It didn’t have any time period within which a custodian needed to response to a request and requests were often simply ignored. OPRA’s enactment—with its mandatory seven business-day response period—was a hard-fought battle, and I’m not inclined to let the fruits won in that battle slip away.

So, if you need an extension, that’s fine—I’m flexible. But I want to establish a definite due-date. Your response, which basically says that I’ll get the records whenever the Ethical Standards Board gets around to giving them to you, is simply unacceptable. I suggest establishing a deadline of Friday, April 24, 2009. Is that date OK with you? Please let me know via e-mail or fax.

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