Obtaining Public Records
Citizens have the right to know how government works and how decisions are made by public officials. New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) is one of the top tools the public has to obtain information about what government at all levels is doing.
OPRA requests must be in writing. While many agencies have a form for this purpose, you are not required to use it. Legally you can send an email request in most cases, with the description of the records you are seeking in the body of the email itself. The email must clearly state “OPRA request”. Also, you should include your name, address, phone number and email address so the records custodian can contact you. There is no legal requirement to identify yourself when making an OPRA request, however. Also cite the common law in your request. Some records are not public under OPRA but are available under common law. Use the phrase “I am requesting the following records under the State’s Open Public Records and an New Jersey Common Law.”
Specify how you want to receive your records – via fax, hard copy, or electronic file sent via email or on CD. CD and paper materials can be mailed or picked up. Also, if you request an electronic file, you can specify a particular file format, such as PDF or Excel. Governmental offices must supply you the record in the file format requested if it’s readily available. For example, for a document typically created in Excel, like a budget, you should be able to get the Excel worksheet. You can also request to inspect records during business hours. Then you can pay for photocopies of the individual pages you want (or use a scanner app like Genius Scan to scan the pages using your smart phone!)
Fees for paper copies are 5 cents per page for letter size and 7 cents for legal size pages, except for requests that require a substantial amount of time and effort to fill. The fees apply only to paper copies. There may also be a charge for a CD and a charge for postage if you request that materials be mailed. There is no charge for email delivery of electronic documents.There is also no charge to have materials faxed. The delivery method is your choice and should be clearly stated in your request.
You should mention the maximum amount you are willing to pay for documents when you submit the request. If the records custodian wants to charge you a fee above the amount you authorized, he or she must articulate the fee both in advance and in writing. For someone who typically requests paper copies, this protocol is important for two reasons. One, it will help you avoid an unexpected bill. Two, it will give you an opportunity to clarify or streamline what you’re looking for to bring down the cost.
You can request that your fees be waived because the issue is a matter in the public’s interest. The agency is not under any obligation to honor the request, but many do.
Submitting your request
You can submit your OPRA request in person at the appropriate office, mail it, fax it, or email it. If you email your OPRA request, it’s a good idea to request a read receipt for your records.
New Jersey state offices have an online portal for submissions. We recommend you use your own letter and email it to the records custodian listed on the department’s website though. Sometimes the online forms don’t go through properly.
An office has 7 business days to respond to your request, but may ask for additional time to do so before the 7 days have elapsed. Day 1 is the first business day following the business day when your request is received. If you send an email request on Saturday, for example, Tuesday is day 1 assuming Monday is a work day and not a holiday. Responses must be in writing.
You can use our online sample OPRA request template and customize it for your request
Tips for making successful requests:
You must be requesting documents (electronic or paper) that are on file. Agencies are not required to create a document or file that doesn’t exist. Don’t request information, request documents.
Don’t go on a fishing expedition. Ask for specific documents, emails or text messages, spreadsheets, databases, electronic records, or other files.
List the subject or keywords.
Ask for documents for a specific date range.
Try not to be so broad that your request will bring back either a denial or thousands of pages of documents that may be irrelevant.
Don’t be so focused that you are missing out on other documents. For example a reader recently requested “feasibility studies” about a proposed construction project. The agency may have other documents related to the proposed construction project, but might not call those documents a “feasibility study.” A better wording for the request would be “any feasibility studies, documents, proposals, correspondence, or reports regarding the construction of the X school” from xxx date to xxx date.
Emails and messages
When requesting emails, ask for emails sent or received by a specific official or members of a board from the officials’ professional accounts and any personal accounts. Some officials use their personal accounts for professional business these days when there is really no reason to do so, except in an attempt to shield them from public scrutiny. They are still subject to OPRA. We have heard of some officials even using a spouse’s email address to keep communications under the radar. These emails should be turned over if they are relevant to the topic of a a public records request.
In addition to email, many public officials, including officials in Princeton, now communicate about official business via text messages. Make sure to request all text messages on the topic and their social media private messages. These are also public records.
What to do if your request is denied
If you feel your request has been improperly denied, you can do one of two things. Within 45 days after the denial, you can file a lawsuit in NJ Superior Court. You pay a $250 filing fee, mailing and copying costs, and other applicable court fees. Alternatively, you can file a written “denial of access” complaint with the New Jersey Government Records Council for free.
If the matter is decided in your favor, the entity that denied your OPRA request is generally required to reimburse your filing expenses, including your legal fees if you hired a lawyer. Several lawyers in New Jersey will represent you pro bono if they think you have a legitimate case. Lawsuits are typically decided in a few months, while a decision from the GRC could take a year or two given the backlog of claims under review and the complexity of your claim.
Filers with the GRC have the option to request mediation in lieu of a formal decision. There is a significantly shorter wait for mediation, which usually includes the filer and his or her attorney, the mediator, and representatives for the governmental entity, such as municipal attorney and municipal clerk. To enter mediation, both sides must consent to it. The GRC only has jurisdiction over OPRA, not common law, the Open Public Meetings Act, or any other law. Complaints with respect to your rights under these other laws are not heard by the GRC.
Please share your experiences requesting records from local, county and state public agencies in New Jersey by completing our public records requestor survey here. When using the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA), citizens face various challenges in terms of accessing public information from local, county and state government. To address the needs of residents, Planet Princeton has created a clearinghouse project that will compile information from citizens who file public records requests, and track the performance of local, county, and state agencies in filling OPRA requests.