The Michigan House in a bipartisan vote last March approved changes to tighten and toughen the state's Freedom of Information law in House Bill 4001.
Introduced by Republican Rep. Mike Shirkey and carefully shepherded through the House Oversight Committee by its Republican chair, Rep. Tom McMillin, HB 4001 went to the State Senate on March 25, and there it remains in the legislative version of DOA (dead on arrival).
The bill was assigned to the Senate Government Operations Committee chaired by Republican Randy Richardville, who is also the Senate Majority leader. His district covers Monroe, southern Washtenaw and eastern Jackson counties. If the committee chair doesn't like a bill the chair can, in effect, veto it by never bringing it up to a vote.
Richardville doesn't like the bill and neither do many local and county governments around the state. They say their overworked staffs would be inconvenienced by these changes. They also object to the legislature limiting what they can charge for copies and searches.
The Michigan Coalition for Open Government receives complaints and inquiries on an almost daily basis from citizens frustrated in their efforts to obtain records by no or slow responses to records requests or unjustifiably high fees for even simple requests for records that, as taxpayers, they have already paid for. Their only option is to file a lawsuit, something most people can't afford. Instead, they give up, which is just what some public officials hope. Admittedly, some citizens abuse the law, but they are a minority.
HB 4001 tackles several weaknesses in the current FOI law. It standardizes copying charges to 10 cents a page; mandates that a public body create specific fees and guidelines for charges and procedures; posts that information on its website (if it has one) or provides it for free to a requester if it does not, and reduces by 10 percent per day (up to 50 percent) fees that are assessed if the public body does not respond within the time allotted under the FOIA (five business days maximum with an additional 10 business days, if necessary). A fee reduction would only occur if the delay is willful or intentional or if the requestor communicated near the beginning of the request that this is a FOIA matter.
And, importantly, the charge for labor costs would exclude fringe benefits -- a significant step in helping reduce costs for requesters facing steep charges for public records.
HB 4001 would enhance transparency and accountability and improve access for everyone. Let Senator Richardville and the other committee members know that supporting and approving HB 4001 is what's best for Michigan now and for its future.
Government Affairs Committee Members are:
- Randy Richardville (R) Committee Chair, 17th District, 517-373-3543
- Dave Hildenbrand (R) Majority Vice Chair, 29th District,517-373-1801
- Arlan B Meekhof (R) 30th District, 517-373-6920
- Gretchen Whitmer (D) Minority Vice Chair, 23rd District, 517-373-1734
- Tupac A Hunter (D) 5th District, 517-373-0994
Jane Briggs-Bunting is a journalism professor at Oakland University, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame and board member of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. [Disclosure: Center for Michigan CEO John Bebow also serves on the coalition’s board]