News Story

School District Delays, Partly Denies FOIA Request About Mayor’s Misconduct

Cites privacy concerns

A Berrien County school district continues to withhold details about a 2021 incident that resulted in a local mayor's being banned from school grounds.  

New Buffalo Mayor John Humphrey, who has a student at New Buffalo Area Schools, was involved in an incident on school property on August 9 of last year. Humphrey entered a school gym and was “loud and upset,” according to redacted documents provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. 

Humphrey may have been angry at school officials because his child was unable to participate in a sport after having missed the deadline to submit some paperwork, according to a local resident knowledgeable about the incident.

Michigan Capitol Confidential submitted a FOIA request to the school district March 7. The district did not respond within the time required by state law. After Capitol Confidential sent a follow-up, district officials replied that they had overlooked the request but would process it. They then took an extension, which is allowed under state law.

District officials then denied the request, saying they could not release the information because doing so “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”

The district did produce some documents after Capitol Confidential filed an appeal. Though the documents the district sent on May 24 are heavily redacted, they confirm that Humphrey acted out toward members of the district’s athletic department, enough so that he was barred from district property. The district told Humphrey he was allowed on the property only to attend a public meeting of the school board or to vote. He was warned that under other circumstances, “you will be considered an unlawful trespasser and subject to any and all criminal civil liabilities arising therefrom.”

Humphrey was also ordered to surrender keys he had to school buildings. The documents do not provide any detail about the nature of the episode. 

The district's reticence contrasts with how other entities in Michigan have responded to requests for information about incidents potentially embarrassing to public figures. Media outlets have used the open records law to obtain information about officials who were accused of inappropriate or unlawful behavior. Concerns about privacy were not an obstacle.

Rep. Jewell Jones, D-Inkster, was arrested by Michigan State Police for drunk driving April 6, 2021. The Detroit Free Press submitted a FOIA request for the police report, which revealed that Jones used his position as an elected official to threaten law enforcement, according to the Free Press. The publication added that Jones told police he was in charge of the state police budget and threatened to call Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Gongwer News Service reported that it used a FOIA request to obtain information on the Feb. 25 arrest of Rep. Mary Cavanaugh, D-Redford Township, for drunk driving. It noted Cavanaugh’s blood alcohol level was 0.176, over twice the legal limit, qualifying her as “super drunk.” The news service noted that Paul Bernier, Livonia city attorney, should have charged her as such. “I messed up,” Bernier said when asked about not bringing the appropriate charge, claiming it was an oversight.

One local resident says the public needs to know what happened at the New Buffalo school.

“I think the residents have a right to know about the mayor’s explosive anger to completely understand the kind of person in charge of our City government,” John Taylor wrote in an email to Capitol Confidential. Taylor, who provided some detail about the incident to Capitol Confidential, said he is leading an effort to recall Humphrey in order to “stop this train wreck from destroying our city.”

In an email from Humphrey's official account obtained by Capitol Confidential from a second New Buffalo resident, the mayor apologized to Tina Brewster, a school district employee. “I wanted to sincerely apologize for my outburst last week,” he said.

Humphrey did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Steve Delie, an open records specialist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, filed the appeal for the Mackinac Center.

“It’s disappointing that this information, which relates to a public official’s conduct, wasn’t produced until after a formal legal appeal,” Delie said. “Citizens have a right to access public records that inform them about how their government is working. It shouldn’t be necessary for individuals to have to take legal action just to see these records.”

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.