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New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, who has been pursuing a strict policy of “message management” since taking office, has come under increased criticism for moving to limit application of the state’s newly effective Open Public Records Act. McGreevey’s July 8 executive order, shielding 483 categories of public records to protect the state from terrorists and to ensure the protection of citizens’ privacy, drew the ire of those who long had lobbied for its passage. “This is too much, too soon,” says the law’s sponsor, state Assemblyman George Geist, R-Gloucester. The exemptions, he says, are inconsistent with the law’s intent, which was to open up what had been considered one of the most difficult systems in the country for obtaining information from government agencies. Harry Pozycki, the head of Common Cause of New Jersey, agrees, saying that the order, in effect, takes the state back to the old standard, which deemed most records confidential. On July 15, two other organizations joined the fracas. Spokesmen for the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government and the Society of Professional Journalists attacked McGreevey, pointing out that during his campaign he had heartily endorsed the law, even after Sept. 11. “Now that we have a good law, we find out our problem is [the governor],” says NJFOG President Joe Tyrrell, of The Star-Ledger‘s Somerset, N.J., bureau. “During the campaign, he publicly endorsed the law. Once he was elected, ‘Gov. Secrecy’ quietly, and of course secretly, prepared this executive order to gut it.” Society of Professional Journalists President Al Cross wrote in a letter to the law’s supporters, “Gov. McGreevey has stepped well beyond what other governors, even other legislatures, have done in response to the fear of terrorism following Sept. 11. No other state has thrown such a large veil over such a large amount of public information. Worse, the governor has done this without the kind of thoughtful public discussion that characterized the passage” of the act. McGreevey administration officials insist that he supports the intent of the bill, but needs time to review the recommendations for exemptions made by his cabinet officers and comments from the public. Still, one administration official says the order is in keeping with McGreevey’s micro-management style of governing. “The key is to manage the message,” the official says, adding that it is easier to do that when you control what information is released to the public, and when. The dispute will likely end up being decided by the courts. A suit challenging the exemptions, Tyrrell says, “is the next step.”

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