FOIA documents show city talked at length with MLive reporter; shut out Acton Institute, Michigan Capitol Confidential
Grand Rapids city officials gave detailed information about a tax dispute involving the Acton Institute to a select reporter, but not to the nonprofit fighting to prove it is a charitable organization, according to documents received through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In fact, an Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty official complained that the organization was struggling to get information about the appeal of its rejection of an application for tax exemption just two business days before a scheduled hearing.
Acton Institute Director of Finance Tom Vogt sent an email to City Commissioner Dave Shaffer complaining about the lack of response from the city, saying the city was being "rather hostile" or "strongly uncooperative," according to the FOIA.
In the email sent at 5:26 p.m. on March 7, Vogt says that MLive was reporting details of Acton's case while the city was not sharing that information with Acton.
"This is unfair and not transparent," Vogt said in his email to Shaffer. "On Tuesday morning, we'll go before the board of review having received nothing but the two paragraph denial letter. … At least the City Attorney and City Assessor did respond with some details to the MLive reporter eventually. But this process feels rather hostile, or at least strongly uncooperative, to Acton."
On March 6, Grand Rapids City Attorney Catherine Mish exchanged several emails with an MLive reporter. In one 280-plus word response to the reporter, Mish cited the state law the city was going to use against Acton and then laid out three examples of case law describing what they believe a "charitable institution" is for purposes of property tax exemption. The emails to the reporter also added the city's concerns with Acton's application.
"While the City agrees that the Acton Institute is a non-profit entity, the City was unable to verify that the Acton Institute qualified as a 'charitable institution,' " Mish wrote in one of the emails. "I am left to question, what does the Acton Institute provide that would qualify as a charitable gift for the benefit of the general public?"
Mish had a completely different response when Michigan Capitol Confidential asked her a similar question. City officials ignored multiple requests from Capitol Confidential sent on March 10. Then, at the board of review hearing on March 11, a Michigan Capitol Confidential reporter was told that electronic recording equipment was not permitted.
The city couldn't provide any written documentation of its policy banning recording devices, nor could it verify whether the decision was subject to public comment. An attorney for the city later said the ban was no longer in force and was due to a "misunderstanding" and "miscommunication."
Mish sent an email to a group of reporters, including Michigan Capitol Confidential, on March 12 with some procedural information about the Acton case. But that was the last correspondence until April 3 when the city decided it would completely shut out Michigan Capitol Confidential.
Last week, Mish sent an email to Michigan Capitol Confidential stating that "the City will not be responding to your questions, but only to your FOIA records requests, and only in the manner required by the FOIA statute."
She continued: "… the City does not serve as the legal counsel for the Mackinac Center. The Freedom of Information Act does not require the City to perform legal research for you, and we will not do so. If you want to understand 'the written definition of what constitutes a property-tax-exempt charity', as you stated in your FOIA … I suggest that you consult an attorney to provide you with that legal advice."
Mish did cite the law and give examples of case law to the MLive reporter. She did not respond to a request for comment about the disparity in treatment.
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said he doesn't comment on matters pending before the Michigan Tax Tribunal.
Manny Lopez, managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential, said the news service files a number of FOIA requests each year, and some are denied.
"But the terse, and I'd say somewhat angry, response we got from Grand Rapids was over the top," Lopez said. "I'm not sure why Grand Rapids thinks it's OK to respond openly with some reporters but to purposefully shut out others, especially when we're talking about public information and the use of public tax dollars."
Acton is still waiting for a response from the board of review. If its application for a tax exemption is denied, it can take the case to the Michigan Tax Tribunal.