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Changes Coming Soon to Process for Port Authority Records Requests

Efforts to Make Bi-State Agency Subject to Public Records Requests Conditionally Vetoed by NJ Governor Chris Christie, Signed Into Law by NY Governor
Port Elizabeth Wikipedia

NEW YORK, NY—With a complete overhaul of the administration of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey underway, the bi-state authority is set to see an update to its policies regarding the access of public records.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, along with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, vetoed bills meant to reform the agency and improve transparency.  The measures had garnered overwhelming support from both state legislatures.

Among the package was a bill to change the means by which members of the public can acquire public records from the Port Authority.

"Following the revelations that emerged from the George Washington Bridge closure in 2013, extending open records laws to the PANYNJ is an important component of reform," said the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a press release. 

Under the legislation, titled S2183/A3350, the Port Authority would have been subject to all provisions within New Jersey's Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), as well as New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

While the New Jersey version of this bill was conditionally vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, the New York version was signed and passed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Christie wrote that the bill "seeks to legislate what the Port Authority has already accomplished by a resolution passed on October 22, 2014" and "would result in unnecessary conflicts of law that would only frustrate disclosure without enhancing transparency," recommending the legislature amend it.

The new policy would make it so the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would be required to follow the rules of whichever state has the more open and accessible policy when it comes to public records. 

A joint press release, sent out by both the New York and New Jersey governors, does not specify the criteria for which public records policies could be considered more open. 

The administrative reforms made by the two governors would not subject the Port Authority to the Open Public Meetings Act, but instead encourage the bi-state authority to adopt such policy. 

Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), pointed out that New Jersey's Open Public Meetings Act still only applies to state and local agencies, excluding bi-state agencies like the Port Authority.

"Those agencies can voluntarily adopt transparency regulations," Barocas stated in a September 14 testimony at the New Jersey Senate State Government Committee, "but they are, in effect, left to self-govern, and often institute regulations that provide far less public oversight than those that apply state agencies, municipalities and school boards". 

The changes also call for a two-level appeals system if public records requests are denied.

The first phase would be in the form of a three-member, Freedom of Information Review Board, with the members being appointed by the Port Authority Chairs. 

Beyond this, a member of the public request the records can acquire the assistance of a "third-party alternative dispute resolution provider," or sue the authority for withholding the records.

Port Authority Chairman John Degnan told NJ.com, "If you want to go to court, have at it."