News Story

State Agencies And Local Governments Get Creative Dodging Open Records Requests

‘Freedom Of Information' law? ... Make Sure You Bring A Lawyer And Checkbook

Over the last several years, many municipalities in Michigan have adopted policies and stances that raise barriers to people who seek public records. Across the state and at every level of government, officials are attempting to thwart the release of public records as required by Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

Some of the barriers are minor and appear to be intended to make acquiring records more inconvenient. A recent example comes from the Jackson Area Transportation Authority. Its executive director, Michael D. Brown Sr., demanded that a FOIA request for information on his employees' annual salaries be delivered through the United States Postal Service rather than electronically. Brown did not press the issue, though, after being informed that the law specifically states that document requests sent electronically are allowed by law.

In many other cases, acquiring documents to which the public is entitled by law has required requestors to challenge an agency or municipality in court. In the past year, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has been involved in six different legal cases regarding governments’ failures to abide by Michigan’s open records law.

The week of March 14-20 is Sunshine Week, an annual event was started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to promote open government.

It’s common for municipal governments to ignore the legal deadlines for responding to requests. The law gives government entities five business days to respond, with an extension of 10 business days permitted.

But many government agencies go much longer than the 15 days allowed when responding.

For example, the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs acknowledged that on July 7 it received a $1,327 payment for documents requested in a FOIA.

But the department did not produce the public records requested for five months, despite having cashed the check. In November, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation sued.

An even larger obstacle to transparency is the fee demanded by units of government as a condition of gaining access to public records.

In 2019, the Mackinac Center requested documents from Tuscola County related to wind turbine developers and projects. The county refused to release the information unless it received a payment of $3,224. Officials claimed the county had to pay a law firm for 50 hours of staff time at $56.70 per hour to review these public records.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy also tracks the compensation rates of public school employees. To do so, it submits a FOIA request each year to the Michigan Office of Retirement Services.

That information doesn’t come cheap. The state has charged the Mackinac Center $14,273 for five years’ worth of salary data. Charges of this magnitude deny most people access to important information about the actions and performance of their government.

Moreover, the amount of information provided by the Office of Retirement Services has grown more sparse over time. For example, the state no longer provides job titles when it releases the names of public school employees, as it had previously. Nothing in state law requires withholding such information

This week, Michigan Capitol Confidential and the Mackinac Center are publishing reports documenting their experiences in obtaining government records that under the law are supposed to be open.

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.