The Michigan Freedom of Information Act was created to guarantee public access to state-level government records. However, based on the law, the public bodies holding documents can unilaterally control information through delays, unreasonably high prices and dubious denial of requests. In response to these problems, the recently proposed House Bill No. 4001 marks the latest attempt at FOIA reform. Journalists have a lot at stake with FOIA, but the bill deserves attention from anyone even moderately concerned with Michigan’s governance. Passing the bill would provide Michigan’s citizens with realistic access to FOIA documents, upholding the expectation of government transparency and accountability.
Michigan’s FOIA, enacted in 1977, hardly delivers the “free” information it promises. In reality, public bodies can maneuver around FOIA requests with relative ease. Officials can withhold requested information up to five days — sometimes longer when granted extension — and don’t necessarily have an incentive to speed up the process. While this might appear reasonable, it allows significant conflicts of interest to develop. Freezing information when the need is urgent, such as during elections or policy votes, has the potential to distort the democratic process. But most people don’t even reach that point, lacking the robust finances necessary for fees. Joe Sontag of the National Federation for the Blind was charged $2,400 for a request in regards to a cafeteria’s closing. Sontag called the fee “outrageous,” and couldn’t appeal a case without a legal staff to support him. Public bodies also can contrive reasons to deny the process outright, often without much explanation. Fulfilled FOIA requests can make an important difference in public issues, but the current statute does little in accomplishing its duty.
The prosed policy would rectify current FOIA issues by imposing new rules and lowering fees. Officials would be required to present information free of charge, and if individuals require copies of the documents, the charges couldn’t be more than 10 cents per page. Requests delayed past the five-day deadline would be deducted 20 percent of their total cost every day; after five days. And repercussions for arbitrary delay or denial, as judged by a circuit court, would result in higher damages, now $5,000 instead of the original $500 penalty. These changes would shift the current legislation toward a more public-oriented policy that counteracts bureaucratic attempts to circumvent FOIA. Legitimate concerns would gain traction, and the paralysis caused by the current system would be eliminated.
FOIA’s premise of open information uses the agency of proactive residents to maintain a transparent, responsible state. But under the current law, faulty protocol precludes most inquiries’ success before a request is even made. This undermines not only the freedom of information but the justice and protection of citizens.