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Special Report: University charges high fees for public records

Graphic by Zach Bergson
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By Stephanie Steinberg, Editor in Chief
Published December 7, 2011

Under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, a public body like the University may give requested records to the media at no cost or a reduced charge if the information benefits the general public. Yet several records requests from The Michigan Daily to the University’s FOIA Office have resulted in fees of hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of dollars to obtain records to be used in news articles that benefit the public.

The requests included information about University employees who use purchasing cards, or PCards, to pay for University-related expenses and information regarding number of parking tickets given each day for one year by the University’s Department of Public safety. The FOIA Office responded that PCard information would cost thousands of dollars — no definitive amount was named — and the parking ticket information would total $1,240. But when the Daily requested similar data from other Big Ten universities, the majority of schools sent the data free of charge.

When a university charges thousands of dollars to retrieve a public records request, it raises questions about how the school is managing its information, says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center — a non-profit that advocates for student journalists’ First Amendment rights.

“When we see these jackpot prices quoted … either the school just doesn’t want the records seeing the light of day, or the school’s record-keeping is a disaster,” LoMonte said.

Chief FOIA Officer Lee Doyle and FOIA Coordinator Pat Sellinger have run the University’s FOIA Office, located in the Fleming Administration Building, since 2004. Sellinger’s full-time job includes responding to FOIA requests within five business days as required by law. Doyle, who also serves as the University’s director of communications administration and policy, dedicates about a quarter of her time helping Sellinger devise cost estimates for FOIA requests and hunting down information.

Since 2007, the FOIA Office has received more than 400 requests each year, according to a 2010 FOIA Office report. Of the 436 requests received in 2010, the office granted 45 percent in full, 35 percent in part and denied 11 percent — either because the record didn’t exist or the information was exempt under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. Nine percent, or 41 requests, were withdrawn after the requester didn’t pay a deposit fee.

In an interview Tuesday, Doyle explained that since the University is a public body, the FOIA Office plays an important role in ensuring the University’s spending and decision-making remain transparent.

“The whole ethos of the University of Michigan is to share knowledge and to share information, and it’s something that we take very seriously here,” she said.

REQUEST FOR PCARD TRANSACTIONS

In April, the Daily submitted a FOIA request for records of PCard transactions of all University of Michigan-Ann Arbor employees during fiscal year 2010.

Out of roughly 42,000 University faculty and staff, about 6,100 possess a PCard, according to Rowan Miranda, associate vice president for finance. The cards can be used like credit cards, and employees use them to pay for travel, research expenses or supplies for departments.


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