Westland charges $1 per page, $45 per hour to gather public information
The city of Westland is charging an illegal fee to people seeking public information, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
In June, Michigan Capitol Confidential, which is the news service of the Mackinac Center, sent Freedom of Information Act requests seeking financial information from every municipality in the state that operates a golf course. Westland responded that the city requires a $5 fee before it will provide any information.
Westland also said it would cost $1 per page for copying costs and $45.61 per hour for the person gathering the information.
According to Michigan's FOIA law, public entities may only charge, "a fee for a public record search, the necessary copying of a public record for inspection, or for providing a copy of a public record." This money, the act says, "shall be limited to actual mailing costs, and to the actual incremental cost of duplication or publication including labor, the cost of search, examination, review and the deletion and separation of exempt from nonexempt information."
Mackinac Center attorney Patrick Wright said the fees Westland wanted to charge are illegal.
"Charging a $5 fee to simply start the process is just a roadblock the city has put up to try and discourage people from participating in the democratic process," Wright said. "If it can be $5, then why not $1,000?"
Wright also said that the fees for copying and processing are unreasonable, noting that a UPS store right across the street charges 10 cents per copy.
"Why does the government charge 10 times as much as the private sector?" Wright said. "We're not asking for calligraphy on gold-leaf parchment."
By comparison, Ann Arbor City Clerk Jacqueline Beaudry said Thursday her department charges 5 cents for each copy in FOIA requests.
The FOIA statute also says: "A public body may not charge more than the hourly wage of the lowest paid public body employee capable of retrieving the information necessary to comply with a request under this act." This means that the city believes the lowest paid person who can supply the records earns about $95,000 a year in total compensation.
Westland City Clerk Eileen DeHart told Mackinac Center reporter Anne Schieber that the bill was "part of our fee schedule."
"I have a FOIA file about that big of people who filed FOIA's who never come back to pay for them before we instituted the fee," DeHart said in a video interview. "Now they come back and get them."
But Westland's rules violate FOIA, Wright said.
"This law is supposed to be fast and efficient for the public so that we can participate in the democratic process," he said.
House Bill 4001, sponsored by Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, was recently introduced in the Legislature. It would help cap the costs on filed FOIA requests by limiting the charges for copying to 10 cents per page, among other reforms.