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Sarlo's Wild Claim About OPRA

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Sen. Paul Sarlo, who seeks to take a hatchet to the state Open Public Records Act, claims creeps have used the law to try to obtain video of children on playgrounds. (Sarlo photo by Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

by Terrence T. McDonald, New Jersey Monitor
March 13, 2024

I’m on the hunt for some OPRA perverts.

Allow me to explain: Sen. Paul Sarlo made an alarming claim last Monday in Trenton, where lawmakers were set to advance a bill of his that would revamp — critics say gut — the Open Public Records Act. That’s the law that details which types of government records are allowed to be released to the public and which can be withheld.

Sarlo said OPRA allows people to obtain hours and hours of video footage of children playing at playgrounds, footage he implied they want for impure reasons.

“I don’t know if it’s in the best interests to provide the security cameras that run 24 hours a day of a playground, where there’s kids who are playing perhaps unattended,” said Sarlo, a Democrat and the mayor of Wood-Ridge, adding that an unidentified reporter confirmed to him that reporters “want to sit there and watch hours and hours of kids playing.”

This was shocking news, and I felt like it merited further investigation. So I filed a request with Wood-Ridge to find out who exactly is using OPRA to obtain video footage of children at playgrounds. And wouldn’t you know it? The clerk told me they had no such requests.

This can’t be, I thought. The powerful chair of the Senate budget committee and Bergen bigwig Paul A. Sarlo said very specifically during a legislative hearing that “sometimes there’s a request that we would like to get the cameras of a playground at a park.” This wasn’t some hypothetical — Sen. Sarlo said it had happened.

I emailed him to see if maybe he meant a different town in his legislative district, or maybe it didn’t happen in the years I specified in my own OPRA request.

Sarlo’s chief of staff returned my email, telling me that Sarlo was not talking about his own town of Wood-Ridge.

“He was referring to other towns as well as the potential under current law for such OPRA requests to be made and granted,” they said.

I asked what towns Sarlo meant because I’d love to find out where this disturbing behavior is occurring. I have not heard back. Nor do I expect to, since Sarlo’s claim is almost certainly utter horsecrap.

CJ Griffin thinks so, too. Griffin is a lawyer who regularly sues public entities for not handing over public documents, and wins a lot (she has represented us in court numerous times).

“Video footage like that is exempt,” she told Sarlo Monday.

How does she know this? Because Griffin once represented a woman who was denied security footage from Bloomfield’s town hall.

“It went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, and we lost,” Griffin said.

The state’s high court in that case, Gilleran v. Township of Bloomfield, ruled that compelling the wholesale release of security camera footage would reveal information about a system’s operation and also its vulnerabilities.

“Once OPRA is interpreted to require unfettered access to the work product of any camera that is part of a governmental facility’s security system, then footage from security cameras in all governmental facilities — police stations, court houses, correctional institutions — would be subject to release on demand. It takes no stretch of the imagination to realize that that would make it possible for any person to gather the information necessary to dismantle the protection provided by such security systems,” the court said.

I’ve already written about why I think Sarlo’s bill is bad. But his comments on Monday hit on another reason: He has either been misled about what kinds of records the Open Public Records Act allows people to obtain, or he is the one doing the misleading. Either way, one of the alleged authors of the bill should probably read up a bit more on the law he wants to destroy before he takes an ax to it.

In the meantime, I’ll keep filing requests looking for Sarlo’s OPRA perverts. I do not expect to find any.

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New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence T. McDonald for questions: [email protected]. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Sarlo's Wild Claim About NJ’s Public Record Law

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