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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

State of Emergency: A New Jersey Snow Job

As I write this the New Jersey Governor has declared a state of emergency for the state for Thursday.

The stated reason is an expected six inches of snow.

The real reason may be more nefarious: to buy time under the state's equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act (which is the Open Public Records Act) to answer and formally deny various requests for public records.

Under OPRA, the state (or any local or county government or agency) must respond to the request for records within seven business days. Failure to meet this deadline means the request is deemed to be denied, and this gives the requestor standing to bring a lawsuit. Various government agencies routinely deny records requests and then end up paying legal fees when reporters or citizen watchdogs actually win in court. (I've brought and won cases against both the Governor's Office and City of Newark.)

So where does a snowstorm state of emergency come into play? The state of emergency shuts down state offices and any closed days do not count against the seven day period. It's a way to use the cover of a snowstorm to buy time to figure out what to do about those pesky OPRA requests.

And with Governor Christie getting ready to run for President, those records requests might just accelerate a little bit more.

Eric Dixon is a New York-based corporate and investigative lawyer who also handles New Jersey matters.

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