An Ocean County journalist has created a powerful tool to simplify the process of requesting government records. At Gavin Rozzi’s “OPRAMachine” website (opramachine.com), users can pick a government entity or public authority, write a few paragraphs describing the public records they want, and hit send, and the website automatically files the request. No government forms to fill out, no phone calls, no visiting offices in person, no sending paper mail. Then the website automatically tracks the agency’s response to see if it responds within seven days, as required by the Open Public Records Act.
Anyone who has ever tried to request government records in New Jersey knows that authorities and bureaucracies make the information request process intentionally difficult and inconvenient, to discourage the public from seeking information that is required by law to be public. The OPRAMachine bypasses some of this hassle.
This new tool is clearly a godsend for journalists, and has already been used to good effect. For example, Charlie Kratovil of New Brunswick Today used the OPRAMachine to request payroll records from every town in New Jersey and audited each one to find where towns were violating labor laws.
But Rozzi says the OPRAMachine is also useful for other groups. Average citizens, law firms, and businesspeople have been using the site to file thousands of requests since it launched last year.
Rozzi says people in the real estate, property management, and construction have been using it to research properties they are interested in. “They usually look for open permits or liens on a particular property,” he says. “They will say there’s nothing on this property, or maybe there is something, and they’ll take that information and use it in whatever they end up doing for their clients. They prepare a report making sure it’s clear of liens, almost similar to a title search,” he says.
OPRA can also provide other forms of business intelligence. For instance, if a business loses a bid for a government contract, it can request the details of bids by the competing companies.
Rozzi says he began creating the OPRAMachine in 2016. “I write about local politics in Ocean County and I tend to file a certain amount of OPRA requests in the course of doing that,” he says. Inevitably, these requests led to legal disputes. A local school board charged him $85 in copying fees, which he had to go to court to get refunded.
“Filing OPRA requests led me to see the challenges inherent in the traditional paper process,” he says. “A lot of times people would get the runaround or wouldn’t know where to look. I realized there has to be a solution.” Rozzi, who has a background in IT, realized that writing dozens of emails with some of the same boilerplate language would be straightforward to automate. “I figured there has to be a simpler way of managing OPRAs,” he says.
The platform is based on open source public records request software, but much had to be done to customize it for use in New Jersey. One of the biggest tasks was creating a database of contact information for all 565 municipal governments in the state. “Since then we’ve constantly been working to update the database with school boards, independent authorities, and state agencies,” Rozzi says.
With the OPRAMachine website, applicants can request information using pseudonymous email addresses. By default, all requests and responses on the site are published, so the public can look at what’s being requested and how different entities are responding to the requests, and whether they do so within the required seven-day window.
Going through the thousands of requests and responses already on the site, some patterns become evident. There are a few common tactics that record-keepers employ to discourage information requests. One is to tell the requestor that they will be charged fees for retrieving e-mails, redacting sensitive information, or copying documents. (Rozzi advises users to ignore these warnings as most of they time the actual fees are never charged.)
“Some of it is knowing how to play the game,” Rozzi says. Experienced record seekers know, for instance, not to include the phrase “any and all” in their requests because that phrase is an invitation to deny the request for being too broad. Another is the nebulous “personal privacy” exemption.
By default, users can submit three free requests per day. There is a “pro tier” paid version of the site for $12 a month that allows unlimited requests a day and allows users to keep the OPRA requests private. (For instance, a reporter might not want to let competitors know about a story they are working on, or have someone beat them to a story using the documents they requested.)
Rozzi, 22, operates a political news website called Ocean County Politics. He grew up in Lacey Township, where his mother worked for J.P. Morgan Chase and his father is a special agent with the National Background Investigations Bureau. He graduated from Stockton with a degree in political science in 2018. Before he became a journalist, Rozzi had an IT consulting business.
The OPRAMachine is not the first time he has used his IT skills to supplement journalism. He also set up a subscription-based website called OCRadioLive that functions like a “DVR of police scanners,” simultaneously monitoring and recording every emergency communications frequency in Ocean County.
The OPRAMachine is the result of Rozzi’s dual skillset. “I was able to merge my passion for politics with my passion for technology to create something greater than the sum of its parts,” he says.
Rozzi says he started OPRAMachine while living in a dorm and from his home. His ventures make a small profit so far, but not enough to support himself. Most of his income is from computer consulting and IT jobs, and he is also employed by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, where he is providing assistance for an upcoming research report.
“I am not getting rich by any means,” he says. “Carrying on these projects has largely been a labor of love as a result of my passion for technology and public affairs. It has been an incredible experience, and the connections and impact these projects have made have a value beyond dollars alone.”
Rozzi says he plans to ramp up marketing in the coming year. “My goal is for my services to sustain themselves so that they can continue to make an impact throughout New Jersey,” he says.