CNN gets FOI fee waiver from Michigan Health Dept.

The Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services wanted to charge CNN a hefty Freedom of Information fee of $11,071 to locate and review emails and documents from state officials on the Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak in Flint likely linked to the water issues there.

CNN had been negotiating for a fee reduction, which the Health Department officials steadfastly refused.

Then CNN producers decided to see how transparent FOIA was in Michigan. For that, they called the Michigan Coalition for Open Government for comment.

What did they learn? High fees are the largest single complaint that MiCOG hears about from citizens. This occurs despite the amendments to the FOI law that went into effect July 1 that did address, somewhat, fees.

A day after the story ran on CNN.com, the health department reversed itself and waived the fee.

Kudos to CNN for pursuing both the story on that Legionnaire’s outbreak in Flint and the anti-disclosure bias of some in state government.

Also kudos to whoever made the decision to, at last, waive the $11,071 fee.

Michigan’s FOIA encourages a waiver of fees in Section 4 (1): “…A search for a public record may be conducted or copies of public records may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge if the public body determines that a waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because searching for or furnishing copies of the public record can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public…”

When FOIA became Michigan law in 1976, the intent was to guarantee access to the public to observe how effectively governments at the local, county and state levels were doing their jobs. Now more than ever, as evidenced by the water crisis in Flint, FOIA is a vital tool for citizens and the news media to do exactly that.

But FOIA also has a second benefit–accountability. If public officials know their bosses, the citizens, can (and do) check up on how well or not they are performing their public jobs and that they will be held accountable for how good that job performance is, then fewer corners will be cut and employees will be more conscientious about doing their jobs well. That kind of citizen oversight could have made a vital difference to the children of Flint.

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