Electronic Access to Records, Part 1: Databases and Other Electronic Stored Information

A “public record” under OPRA includes “information stored or maintained electronically.”  N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1.  This includes documents and data that public agencies store in databases, spreadsheets, and similar platforms.  Because the definition of a public record includes “information stored or maintained electronically,” public agencies are required to retrieve even large volumes of data on request.

Can I request that the public agency run a specific report?

Yes.  If a public agency has the technological capability to produce a report, such as a vendor detail report, it must produce run the report, even if the public agency does not ordinarily use or make those  reports.  If the software has the capability to prepare a report, it must be  prepared on request.

What if a public agency changes its vendor or software and says they no longer have  the ability to prepare the report I want?

The New Jersey Appellate Division has held that public agencies cannot change or modify their programs and systems so as to reduce access to records.  Technology must be used to increase access, not lessen it.

Am I entitled to electronic documents in native format?

Generally, yes.  OPRA requires a public agency to provide documents in the medium requested.  Thus, if you request data as an Excel spreadsheet, the public agency cannot give you the  data as a non-searchable PDF.

Can data be redacted or withheld?

Yes.  The rules regarding redaction or withholding data are the same as with traditional paper documents:  all OPRA exceptions regarding withholding or redacting documents apply.

What if the data is being managed by a third-party vendor?

If a public agency contracts with a third party to manage or maintain electronic records, the  public agency must honor those requests.  Increasingly, contracts between third-party vendors and public agencies address OPRA and require the vendor to comply with a public agency’s request for data.

Can a public agency charge me for access to electronic records?

That depends on how much work and manipulation of information technology that the public agency has to perform to retrieve the records.  If a public agency believes a special service charge is warranted, then they must provide the requestor with an estimate of the charge in advance.  Such charges must be reasonable.  Whether any particular charge is reasonable depends on the facts of each individual request.