News Story

Four Months and Counting for Records from Agency at Center of Flint Water Crisis

State law calls for 15-day response

The state agency that has been criticized the most for mistakes and alleged deception in the Flint water crisis says it will take four months before it releases public records requested under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

Generally, government agencies have no more than 15 days to respond to a FOIA request and release the relevant information. They may also require a reasonable fee to cover the cost of retrieving data and processing the request.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality received a FOIA request from Michigan Capitol Confidential on March 30, took the maximum extension, requested a deposit, and cashed the check paying the document retrieval charge on May 4. The request was for emails from DEQ employees involved in the Flint water crisis.

But the DEQ says it will be another 60 days – that is, until July 29 – before it will release the requested information, even though it has received payment.

Robin Luce-Herrmann, the general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, said the FOIA law does not specify how many days a state agency has to actually release documents to requesting parties.

“I think you could consider it a loophole,” she said.

Luce-Herrmann said the FOIA law was changed last year to include a nonbinding “good faith” requirement by the government agency to release the documents.

The law states:

“The response shall also contain a best efforts estimate by the public body regarding the time frame it will take the public body to comply with the law in providing the public records to the requester. The time frame estimate is nonbinding upon the public body, but the public body shall provide the estimate in good faith and strive to be reasonably accurate and to provide the public records in a manner based on this state's public policy under section 1 and the nature of the request in the particular instance. ...”

Ari Adler, Gov. Rick Snyder’s spokesman, said the state has been hit by a lot of information requests regarding Flint.

“Due to the vast number of inquiries coming into the state for FOIA requests, legal proceedings, etc., the time to process documents has been significantly longer as of late,” Adler said in an email. “While the state tries to respond in a timely manner — and always provides some response within the 15 days required by state law — actual production and delivery of documents requested may take much longer than usual right now. The state is trying to accommodate many requesters by providing documents voluntarily online, as well.”

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.