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OPRAmachine revolutionized transparency in New Jersey — now it’s under new leadership

Gavin Rozzi’s OPRAmachine opened a window into New Jersey government

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For the last seven years, Gavin Rozzi has spearheaded OPRAmachine, a pioneering platform that streamlines public records requests across New Jersey.

Rozzi, motivated by a passion for open governance, created OPRAmachine as a college student in 2017 to enhance transparency and empower citizens by removing barriers to accessing state and local data.

OPRAMachine is an online portal that lets people create and submit public records requests, as well as see previous requests from other users.

A screenshot from the OPRAmachine website.

OPRAmachine has served as an indispensable resource for oversight since its launch. By centralizing and publishing records requests and responses, the platform offered a window into the inner workings of government bodies while broadly educating New Jerseyans on exercising their rights under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to hold officials accountable.

OPRAmachine has facilitated 49,000 public requests to date.

However, its emergence did not come easy.

Rozzi said running the platform over the years has exposed him to “ceaseless legal and political attacks” from special interests invested in limiting scrutiny of the public sector. Rozzi often found himself unexpectedly centerstage, battling proposals aimed at curtailing the very policies his platform champions.

And the challenges for OPRAmachine and government transparency advocates like Rozzi are far from over.

OPRA laws under attack in New Jersey

Recently, New Jersey journalists and transparency advocates have raised the alarm about mounting efforts to erode or weaken New Jersey’s public records laws, with lawmakers introducing legislation to exempt government records from disclosure and make the request process more arduous.

Measures include expanding response deadlines from 7 to 20 days, limiting the volume of requests, and forcing requesters to first appeal denials through the backlogged Government Records Council before going to court.

According to advocates like attorney CJ Griffin, these bills would “gut OPRA” and usher in a “more secretive” era in New Jersey government.

“A dangerous bill introduced 2 weeks ago: A5759,” Griffin wrote in a tweet. “It requires notification to the police union prior to releasing names or videos of officers who use deadly force. This will delay the public’s access to important info b/c the unions notoriously sue to stop transparency.”

“The New Jersey Legislature is considering a bill that would dramatically scale back the Open Public Records Act,” said Anastasia Mann, founding director of the School of Public and International Affairs in New Jersey at Princeton, at an SPIA event last year.

The ACLU of New Jersey has also criticized the new bill.

“We’re hearing rumors that a bill making changes to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) may be introduced and rammed through during lame duck,” ACLU-NJ tweeted. “Any changes made to OPRA this session threaten to make all levels of NJ government less transparent!”

A new chapter for OPRAmachine

In the midst of the uncertainty over the future of OPRA laws and public records access in New Jersey, OPRAmachine is going through some changes of its own.

On January 1, 2024, Charlie Kratovil, editor and founder of New Brunswick Today (and a longtime member of the NJ News Commons), assumed leadership of OPRAmachine’s operations.

This transition comes after Rozzi’s recent decision to step back from managing the platform’s day-to-day activities, although he remains strongly supportive of its mission.

In assessing candidates for succession, Rozzi said he ultimately found Kratovil’s “tenacious approach to investigative journalism and activism for open governance” made him the ideal successor to carry OPRAmachine into the future.

“Charlie has kind of helped behind the scenes,” Rozzi said. “He was one of our administrators for a few years [and] he’s been an avid user of the platform himself.”

Rozzi hopes Kratovil will use his robust understanding of New Jersey’s landscape — and his long history of accountability reporting and public service journalism — to enhance public access even further.

“I think he will have staying power in taking the platform to its next level,” Rozzi continued. “Make no mistake about it, there’s going to be some really ugly fights with OPRA reform. And I think, based on his track record of advocacy, he’s the right person to carry us forward in that regard.”

The impact of OPRAmachine on transparency and access

Rozzi said OPRAmachine’s greatest impact under his stewardship has been in “creating baselines to measure what is actually happening inside New Jersey’s public bodies” and exposing overlooked issues. Relying on hard data derived from user requests, the tool has uncovered substantial barriers impeding transparency across municipalities big and small.

From widespread technical inefficiencies slowing agencies’ responses to outright obstructionism, OPRAmachine opened a window enabling anyone to witness firsthand the challenges of securing public information. By aggregating and publishing these requests in a centralized database, previously invisible impediments now stand revealed in stark clarity.

While no longer steering operations, Rozzi is proud to have created a tool that could impact civic life in New Jersey for years to come.

As Rozzi told me, he believes there is no greater honor than “being able to build something that kind of outlasts you as an individual.”

Joe Amditis is assistant director of products and events at the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact him at amditisj@montclair.edu or on Twitter at @jsamditis.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with operational and project funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, NJ Civic Information Consortium, Rita Allen Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and the Independence Public Media Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.

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Joe Amditis
Center for Cooperative Media

Associate director of products + events, Center for Cooperative Media; host + producer, WTF Just Happened Today podcast.