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Sunshine Week: FOIA in Michigan

Every state has its own version of a “sunshine” law, or law that encourages government transparency. Michigan passed two such laws called the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act in 1976 (Public Acts 267 and 442, respectively).

According to the Legislature’s guideline publication regarding these two Acts, the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, “establishes procedures to ensure every citizen’s right of access to government documents. The Act establishes the right to inspect and receive copies of records of state and local government bodies.”

The Open Meetings Act “protects your right to know what’s going on in government by opening to full public view the processes by which elected and nonelected officials make decisions on your behalf,” according to the same document.

A “public body” under FOIA means a state officer, employee, agency, department, division, bureau, board, commission, council, authority or other body in the executive branch, apart from the governor or lieutenant governor and their respective offices. It could also mean legislative and local governments, covering everything from a legislative agency to a county or school district. It’s fundamental purpose is to make public records available from any body primarily funded through the state or local authority.

If any citizen requests a public record via FOIA, the government agency must respond within five days, and may charge only fees related to clerical and mailing costs. Penalties for violation are $500 awarded to the person seeking the information.

The law has posed problems for government programs since its implementation, precisely because many do not wish the public to be aware of waste, fraud and abuse. In October 2012, a simple FOIA request was made to Willow Run Community Schools for the one principal rated “ineffective.” As MichiganCapitolConfidential.com reported at the time, “The state denied the request because the information was ‘of a personal nature’ and disclosing it would constitute an ‘unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.’” Michigan State University blacked out pages of innocuous information responding to a request as another egregious example of circumventing Michigan’s transparency law.

Then again, there are instances where the privacy of citizens might be protected by a less sunshiny attitude towards public records. In Mid-January 2013, no doubt in response to the gun control debates circulating after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, proposed that state databases containing information on issued licenses be kept private, so as to protect the privacy of gun owners.

While there is no doubt that there can be drawbacks to publicizing citizen’s personal information, the FOIA law in Michigan has served as an added protection against government behaving badly, revealing everything from former mayor of Detroit Kwame Kilpatrick’s misconduct to universities repeated misallocation of public funds. To celebrate Sunshine Week, it is necessary to continue its defense against those public servants who wish to conduct their affairs away from taxpayers’ watch.

If you have any story ideas, tips or questions, please contact us at Michigan@WatchdogWire.com. Check out our transparency watchdog tip sheet to get started. Interested in reporting for Watchdog Wire – Michigan?  Sign up here!

Lindsey Dodge

Lindsey Dodge is a graduate of Columbia University and the University of Michigan. She has been published in the Huffington Post, the Detroit News and Heartlander online.

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