The University administration’s transparency with public records has become a concern. Last Thursday, The Michigan Daily exposed another flaw within the administrative system, specifically with the University’s FOIA Office. The Michigan Freedom of Information Act is a state law that mandates public bodies to release requested public information at a low or no cost. The University is a public institution, so most of its records are public records. But the University’s FOIA Office has been recently charging expensive fees for requestors to receive public records. The University’s inability to provide requested information in a timely, reasonably priced manner is a failure on its part, and its process needs to change.
In recent years, the Daily has uncovered closed-door meetings held by the University’s Board of Regents and administrators trying to conceal certain decisions. Another notable investigation was the discovery in 2009 of the University Department of Public Safety Oversight Committees’ failure to hold proper elections. In the latest investigation, a Daily article from Dec. 8 revealed that the University FOIA Office does not function the same way as other Big Ten School FOIA offices. The Daily requested information on the number of parking tickets given on campus and employees’ purchasing cards transactions from the University, as well as other schools. While some schools gave the information for free or a small charge, the University asked for more than $1,000 for each request.
The purpose of FOIA is to encourage transparency among public institutions. If an organization receives taxpayer money, the public has the right to know how the organization is spending that money and how it operates. A properly functioning FOIA Office should make that process as easy and efficient as possible.
The discrepancies in estimated costs to fulfill open record requests between the University and comparable public institutions show that the University is not meeting its obligations under the Michigan open records law. The failure may simply reflect an understaffed FOIA Office, or it could be a sign that the University’s records are unorganized. An understaffed office should be given resources to hire new employees, and poorly maintained records should be made electronic and more accessible for the benefit of the public. More alarmingly, the FOIA Office could be inflating request costs to discourage outside scrutiny of the University. While that is an unlikely scenario, without the FOIA Office operating efficiently, it’s impossible to have complete transparency.
It’s clear from other universities’ quick responses and low fees that the FOIA Office at the University of Michigan is not operating properly. If it is as difficult to retrieve charge card information as the FOIA Office has claimed, then there is legitimate concern of whether the University has a handle on the more than $105 million employees spend with charge cards each year. When records are not easily accessible, there is an increased risk of faculty misuse.
Regardless of the reason for the problems with the FOIA Office, it’s an unacceptable situation. If the office is disorganized or understaffed, the University needs to invest in the FOIA Office to fix these problems. If the charges are meant to discourage requests, that violates the spirit and letter of the law and should be immediately addressed.