Mackinac Center files FOIA lawsuit against Westland

Kudos to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and its Michigan Capitol Confidential for pursuing a Freedom of Information complaint against the City of Westland, expected to be filed Friday, Sept. 20.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news service of the public policy group. CapCon is doing a public records audit to collect financial information from municipalities across the state with public golf courses. Westland responded requiring a $5 fee before providing any information and advised the news service that it would cost $1 a page for copying costs and $45.61 an hour for the person retrieving the information.

Fees charged by public bodies for public records are among the most frequent complaints of citizens using the state freedom of information law. Taxpayers already pay the salaries, fringes, facilities, equipment and operational costs of their communities.

Mackinac Center attorney Patrick Wright says the $5 fee to get the process going “is just a roadblock the city has put up to try and discourage people from participating in the democratic process.” He also noted the $1 per page copy charge is 10 times the amount charged by a UPS store nearby. CapCon reports Ann Arbor charges just 5 cents a page for copying costs.

Michigan’s FOIA also limits costs for search of records to be “not more than the hourly wage of the lowest paid … employee capable of retrieving the information…” By Cap Con’s computation that means in Westland the person is pulling in a $95,000 annual salary.

In previous versions of the FOIA, costs were limited to the lowest paid person within the public body. When the law changed, almost overnight, instead of a desk clerk at the police department, it became the chief who was the only person capable of retrieving records. In some communities, at least three different people have to review the files, increasing the charges significantly. In addition, these charges are not mandatory under the law.

The state House is set to tackle revisions to the FOIA law this session. House Bill 4001 was introduced by Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. The bill would reduce the amount public bodies could charge for copies to 10 cents a page, limit the ability to charge for separating exempt from non-exempt information, and generally reduce costs a public body can charge by 20 percent every day past the time allowed by statute to respond (another sore point with Michigan’s citizens).

The bill is currently in the Oversight, Reform and Ethics Committee chaired by Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, who is determined to get this bill to the House floor. McMillin also introduced additional FOIA legislation, House Bill 4314, that would create a state Open Government Commission to watchdog public bodies’ compliance with the law and hear citizens’ complaints about compliance.

The Michigan Coalition for Open Government supports both of these bills and believe these are good first steps in improving transparency and accountability at all levels of Michigan government.

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