Senate panel should pass records law that serves the public

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]

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Comments

Drew Paterson
Thu, 09/25/2014 - 9:28am
The bill is a step in the right direction. Hopefully it will become law. However, the legislature is missing an opportunity to push all local units of government into the digital age. If everything were already online FOIA compliance would not be a big deal. Also, putting everything online would make transparency helpful to local government. Every local area's citizens have expertise in all aspects of government issues. Whether it is a construction issue, a vehicle fleet maintenance issue, a school district's educational issue, etc. Having theses matters online will encourage participation by citizens and will lead to better decision making. Look at how many citizens take the time to respond online to news articles of the day. Give those same citizens the opportunity to comment on what the local unit of government is doing and they will. Sure, it won't all be positive feedback, but at least the discussion will be brought up in a context where it can be thoroughly addressed ahead of time and thus without having to - after the fact - FOIA all the documents and carp about the decision that had already been made.
Charles Richards
Thu, 09/25/2014 - 1:07pm
This seems like reasonable, "good government" legislation, but I would have liked to hear why Senator Richardville objects to it, and Ms. Briggs-Bunting's response to them. Does the legislation include provisions that would chill discussions among the governor and his staff or among legislators and their staffs? She mentions that "Admittedly, some citizens abuse the law, but they are a minority." Could the legislation be amended to deal with this?
dick b
Fri, 09/26/2014 - 12:23pm
Good comments both. I would also like to hear why the opposition. Might it be that with all of the cuts in staff in most local government, they can hardly keep up with the day to day work, let alone adding a lot of new work with the FOA requests? Until we taxpayers are willing to pay for additional staff to digitize these records, it seems that those that request should be the ones to pay, albeit reasonable fees. There might also be a "limit" of some kind for those that abuse the law, after which they pay much higher fees.
sam melvin
Sun, 09/28/2014 - 11:29am
UNTIL we taxpayer are willing to pay for more staff?Hmmh I wasnot ASK or had the pleasrue of Voting for the EXTRA HELP/Hire! like the guy from out of state at $ 157 000 to $ 330 000 .