NEWARK, NJ - Local activists say accessing Mayor Ras Baraka’s executive orders would become more difficult should city council support a new measure.
City council on Wednesday deferred voting on the first reading of an ordinance that would eliminate a municipal requirement to publicly advertise the mayor’s executive orders in newspapers. Executive orders usually dictate title changes or salary adjustments, but can also set policy, personnel appointments or committee placements.
A Movement of the People (AMP), a grassroots group of Newarkers that advocates for affordable housing and transparency in decision-making, has been asking residents to call their council people and the mayor’s office to denounce the new measure.
“Now we will be unable to find that publicly,” said Victor Monterrosa, Jr., a member of AMP. “The only way we will be able to get executive orders is by going to their offices...rather than finding them published online or advertised.”
No one affiliated with AMP spoke out against the ordinance at the city council meeting today. Councilman at-Large Carlos Gonzalez said the measure was deferred because amendments are expected to be added that would perhaps have executive orders posted online.
Still, there was pushback from local residents not affiliated with AMP.
"You don’t want us to know what executive orders the mayor’s going to pass," said Newark resident Debra Salters.
Baraka’s administration has said the proposed ordinance is a cost-saving measure since it would reduce the fees the city pays to publish executive orders in newspapers. Newark Business Administrator Eric Pennington has also said the information in executive orders would not be hidden since it would still be available for inspection.
"The mayor has not sought to put anything in the closet with respect to information," said Pennington on Wednesday. "Indeed, it has always been his position that there should be an open, transparent, communication with the council and the residents. So we're not trying to hide any executive order or anything else for that matter."
The state's Sunshine Law does not require executive orders to be publicly advertised like meetings, bids or foreclosures are. The city still advertises executive orders due to a local ordinance that’s been around since 1986.
Under the proposal, all executive orders would still have to be filed with the city clerk within three business days after the mayor signs one. The public would be able to review the orders if they file a records request.
TAPinto Newark on July 24 filed a request to the city under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for all executive orders that were made within the past year. After asking multiple times if the request was received, city OPRA custodians responded the following day that an anticipated response would come on or before Aug. 13.
However, TAPinto Newark received a partial response of more than a dozen executive orders today, which included salary changes, leaves of absences and title changes. Responses from the city's Division of Personnel and Mayor's Office are still pending, according to the response received today.
Requests made under OPRA are generally required to be responded to within seven business days, according to experts who deal with the state statute.
City Clerk Kenneth Louis told TAPinto Newark that the executive orders are not stored electronically and that it would take more than seven business days to produce those documents because of the sheer volume.
"When you see the volume, you'll understand," Louis said.
Jersey City, which is second in population only to Newark, posts Mayor Steven Fulop’s executive orders online. More than 65 executive orders can be reviewed online as far back as 2004.
Camden City Clerk Luis Pastoriza said there is no municipal policy there that requires executive orders to be publicly advertised. Camden Mayor Frank Moran has made no executive orders in the past year, the city clerk there said.
Pastoriza added that seven business days “should be sufficient” to respond to an OPRA request that asks for a year’s worth of executive orders though.
New Jersey Foundation for Open Government President Walter Luers said determining if TAPinto Newark's OPRA request was a large one would be dependent on how many executive orders exist if it's stored within one place, or the city keeps only paper or electronic copies.
"It's Newark," Luers said. "I imagine they do get a lot of OPRA requests. But they probably get a lot of routine OPRA requests" like accident reports.
Luers, who is also an attorney, would consider it to be a violation of OPRA if the city reflexively gave itself an eight-business day extension to respond. But it could be justified under some circumstances too.
"If they’re completely unorganized, then yeah it could be justified," he said.
The ordinance regarding executive orders will again go up for a vote on first reading during the Sept. 5 meeting at 12:30 p.m. in the council chambers at city hall.