Government Entities Stymie FOIA Requests To Hide Information
Michigan Legislators pushing for change
The Michigan Department of Education said the least expensive employee able to fulfill a specific Freedom of Information Act request has a total compensation of $116,917 a year.
In 2009, the Michigan State Police said in a FOIA response to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy that materials related to the spending of Homeland Security grants would cost $6.8 million.
Whether it's $337.26 for school district deficit elimination plans from the state department of education, or an outrageous FOIA bill of $6.8 million, reformers pushing for more government transparency find that costs can serve as an effective barrier to the release of information, particularly for materials that some other public institutions post free online.
That could all change if House Bill 4001 is passed and signed into law. The bill, which was introduced by State Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, would cap the costs on filling FOIA requests by doing such things as limiting the costs of copying to 10 cents per page.
The bill has widespread support of organizations including the Michigan Press Association and the liberal Progress Michigan, which credited Rep. Shirkey for his effort.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy also supports FOIA reform and has had numerous issues with FOIA requests over the years.
For example, a request for the salaries of professors at all the state universities for 2012-13 was provided free from all schools except for Wayne State University. Wayne State wanted $112.
The University of Michigan provides that information free on its website.
"That is a lot of money for information that should exist with the touch of a button," Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association, said of the fees Wayne State wanted.
Matt Lockwood, spokesman for Wayne State, emailed his response for the charge:
Michigan's Freedom of Information Act permits a public body to charge a fee for the cost of [duplication, mailing, search, examination, review, and the deletion and separation of the requested records] [or: complying with a request for records] if those costs are unreasonably high given the nature of the request. Under WSU's Freedom of Information Act Policy, a charge will be assessed if the cost is $50 or more. FOIA recognizes that an indigent person requesting the records may be unable to pay the complete fee. The statute and WSU's policy exempts that individual from the first $20 of the fee if they submit an affidavit stating that he or she is receiving public assistance, or stating other facts showing indigence. Otherwise, the statute mandates that fees are to be uniform and not dependent on the identity of the requesting person.
In another instance, the Mackinac Center put in a FOIA request to Michigan State University in 2011 regarding an ongoing plagiarism investigation of a professor. One of the numerous redactions made by MSU was a Michigan Capitol Confidential article. MSU said records that contained information not responsive to the request were redacted.
Progress Michigan also had a recent issue with a FOIA request. The group was trying to find out what taxpayer resources were used for a flier about the state's right-to-work law, but said it was denied the request without detail.
The Michigan Press Association has numerous other examples of news organizations facing FOIA obstacles.
Kalamazoo Public Schools wanted to charge $5,000 for a FOIA request for 12 categories of information. That charge included labor costs. The school admitted it never had established and published procedures and guidelines governing FOIA costs, said Robin Luce-Herrmann, general counsel for the MPA.
"On a weekly basis, I deal with citizens and reporters who are unable to get basic information about the functioning of their government," Luce-Herrmann said in a letter.
Many government entities have simply ignored, or delayed for months, requests from Michigan Capitol Confidential.
Other times, public officials responding to FOIA requests apparently think they should be the judge of what should be made public.
In April 2011, an administrator from a public school told staff members at the Mackinac Center that local teachers' unions were not paying their FOIA bills for information they had requested from the district. In an attempt to see how widespread the practice was, Michigan Capitol Confidential sent FOIA requests to the numerous school districts asking if there were unpaid FOIA bills from unions.
"Please stop bothering our school district (and others in the state) with time consuming and petty requests such as these," wrote William Disch, the assistant superintendent for business services at Mattawan Consolidated School. "You are keeping us from our mission which is to educate the students of our community. These requests serve no other purpose than to further your own political agenda."
The FOIA requests uncovered that about a dozen districts had unions with unpaid FOIA bills.
In the past few years, Michigan Capitol Confidential has used FOIA requests to break the following stories.
- Exposing the SEIU “dues skim,” where the Service Employees International Union created a scheme during the administration of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm to take more than $34 million from home-based caregivers, most of whom are taking care of their friends and relatives;
- The multi-million dollar forced unionization of up to 60,000 day care providers who were put into a union for accepting state money to look after children;
- The film credit scandal involving the owners of “Hangar 42,” who misled state officials about the price of a studio to garner taxpayer money leading to a felony charge;
- Taxpayers paying millions for school union heads who are paid by districts but do not teach any classes or contribute toward the education of students;
- The Michigan public school system that fires less than 0.001 percent of all tenured teachers, including those who committed criminal acts;
- Some teachers caught kissing and assaulting students and using drugs that were bought out with severance packages because they could not be immediately removed;
- 31 gym teachers in Utica who earn more than the town police chief; and
- An illegal teacher union strike being pushed by the state's largest school employee union.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.