Debunking 5 common misconceptions about OPRAmachine

Debunking 5 common misconceptions about OPRAmachine
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

As the OPRAmachine platform celebrates its 5th anniversary, we want to take a moment to address some of the common misconceptions that local officials still have about our platform. Despite the widespread recognition and success of our platform, there are still some officials who are unsure about what we do and how we do it. In this blog post, we will debunk the top 5 misconceptions that local officials still have about the OPRAmachine platform and explain why they are simply not true.

1. OPRAmachine does not create an added burden to public entities

OPRAmachine is often blamed for increasing the volume of requests that public entities receive because we make it easier for people to seek out public records. However, many of the bottlenecks seen in responding to OPRA requests stem from a lack of resources or antiquated paper-based processes in government. It is fair to say that OPRA is an "unfunded mandate" from the state to local government because the law was passed mandating compliance from local authorities without the provision of state resources for the same. But OPRAmachine's role is to simply facilitate

Furthermore, many municipalities fail to adequately provide clerks with the resources they need to effectively respond to records requests. This can include inadequate staffing, training, and technology, which can make it difficult for clerks to keep up with the demands of their job. In these cases, using a tool like OPRAmachine can actually help clerks overcome these challenges and more easily fulfill requests in a timely and efficient manner. In short, OPRAmachine can be a valuable resource for both individuals submitting public records requests as well as public entities, making the process of requesting and fulfilling records requests more efficient and effective.

Lastly, as responsible platform operators, since OPRAmachine was first developed the platform has included rate limits that limit how many requests free users can submit per day. This limit is currently 3 requests per day. This prevents abuse of the platform by vexatious requesters.

2. No "machine" is automatically generating OPRA requests sent to public entities from OPRAmachine

Some records custodians, particularly a subset of municipal clerks, have complained that "they don't want to respond to a machine," wrongfully believing that the OPRAmachine platform is generating automatic requests from robots and not humans. This is simply untrue. The platform has not, and will never support the automated generation of OPRA requests without human approval. All users must manually select the public authorities they'd like to request records from and they complete the act of filling out our easy to use online form and affirmatively complete the act of confirming their submission of the request. Then, OPRAmachine generates a special email address that uniquely tracks all correspondence related to the OPRA request and enables its automatic publication online.

3. We don't represent users who submit OPRA requests using the platform or tell them what to do itself does not, and has not submitted requests on behalf of third parties nor do we act as their agent and / or attorney in connection with the OPRA request process. We simply operate a platform that hosts user-generated content that users voluntarily choose to use for the submission of their OPRA requests for added convenience, ease of use, and ready access to public information.

All individuals who submit requests via OPRAmachine do so at their own behest, and with full knowledge that the resulting response may be published on the internet and archived in perpetuity. So long as they are compliant with the platform's terms of service, we allow them to speak freely via the content of their requests and resulting responses.

Requests generated via the platform also contain a disclaimer that all responses will be published online, so clerks are well aware of the public nature of the platform. Still, some municipalities inaccurately log all OPRA requests submitted by third parties who choose to utilize OPRAmachine as if they were submitted by the platform itself, which doesn't tell the full story.

4. We don't operate on behalf of state & local government is unique in the sense that we provide insight into the process of making an OPRA request and responses to requests from the state's municipalities, counties and state agencies by acting as a "middleman" between requesters and public entities when requesters choose to utilize the OPRAmachine service. We don't have any contracts with any of the state, local or county governmental agencies whose records appear on OPRAmachine and have never acted as an agent on behalf of public authorities. We are an independent entity and not a governmental organization or vendor.

We don't have a vendor booth at the annual state League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City and we're not out to get public contracts. We exist to serve the needs of individuals and organizations who seek public information released under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act in fulfillment of our public service mission and benefit the public by making access to public information easy.

5. We don't need special "approval" or a contract with public entities to operate the OPRAmachine service

Another problematic response that we've heard from some records custodians is that they should not have to respond to requests generated by OPRAmachine users because it's "not approved by the state." This argument also fails.

As long as a particular public entity accepts electronically submitted requests via email, they legally must respond to requests submitted by OPRAmachine users like any other OPRA request sent via email and they cannot refuse to release records solely because an individual chose to make use of OPRAmachine. Unfortunately, some public authorities still resist this without any justification.

Furthermore, in at least one county, we've learned of misleading OPRA responses where secretaries have been told to respond that "the county does not have a contract with OPRAmachine" as a basis for not responding to requests submitted through the platform. This also doesn't hold muster, for the reasons discussed above.