Flint’s legacy may include dramatic expansion of public records law

In October 2014, aides to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had a frank email exchange about the deteriorating water situation in Flint.

As residents complained of discolored and foul-smelling water that General Motors said was corroding auto parts at its Flint Engine facility, the aides wrote of an “urgent matter to fix.” One suggestion: reverse course and return Flint to the Detroit water system.

But the discussion within the governor’s office was limited to a handful of people. And it purposely did not include staff from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality – the regulatory state agency overseeing the Flint water situation.

The reason: In Michigan, MDEQ’s email traffic is subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, while communications within the governor’s office are exempt from public disclosure.

"P.S. Note: I have not copied DEQ on this message for FOIA reasons," Valerie Brader, deputy legal counsel and top policy advisor to the governor, wrote in one email.

Ordinarily, no one outside the governor’s office was likely to see her email because Michigan is one of only two states that exempt the executive branch from the requirements of the state’s public records law. If she had sent this policy discussion to the MDEQ, the email would have been subject to an open records request made to that agency.

The exchange, captured in more than 20,000 pages of communications involving the governor’s office, was voluntarily released by Snyder following his administration’s acknowledged failures in the Flint water crisis.

Now, in the wake of Flint, many people from across Michigan – advocacy groups on both the right and left, the media, as well as Republicans and Democrats – are clamoring for Michigan to expand the reach of state FOIA laws – considered among the most restrictive in the nation. Bills being drafted to bring the governor’s office within reach of public records laws have bipartisan support.

Michigan gets poor marks for more than shielding the governor from FOIA. The legislature is also exempt from having to release its records.

Compounding the problem, say government transparency advocates, is that many government offices across the state have been accused of charging members of the public exorbitant fees to collect government records, more than some people can afford to pay. In other cases, government offices delay the release of public documents for months citing workload pressures, an explanation that critics say is nothing more than a delay tactic intended to protect officials from embarrassing disclosures.

“There’s a crying need for major reforms of the law,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. It was the ACLU, through its investigative reporter Curt Guyette, that first brought to public attention the dangerously high lead levels in Flint’s drinking water supply.

Michael Reitz, executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, agrees with Moss.

“The Flint water crisis, as terrible as it is, has illuminated for people why the public needs access to public records.”

More debate, less secrecy

Without the voluntary release of governor's office’s emails, which ordinarily would be protected from public disclosure, few would have known that Snyder’s staff was working to get filters and bottled water to city residents while its officials were calling the water safe; that top aides advocated a switch back to Detroit water system a year before it finally happened, or that a top aide to Snyder had known of an uptick in Legionnaire’s disease in Genesee County and that a county health official suspected it was tied to the Flint River water 10 months before Snyder made that news public.

Any member of the public can request a calendar to see who meets with President of the United States in the Oval Office, but under current Michigan law there is no right to the records showing who’s meeting with the governor. Nor are the emails of staff, or other records from the governor or his staff available to the public.

That Snyder aides were concerned with keeping their discussion secret was made clear by the Brader email: When Michigan’s leaders were grappling with the biggest public health crisis in decades, some were apparently more interested in keeping the government’s response to the water crisis private than in communicating with the state’s primary environmental agency.

“That could be the difference between the right people getting the information and reacting on it sooner,” said Susan Demas, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a long-time fixture in Lansing that provides insight into state politics.

Groups pushing for more government transparency say they do not believe Snyder’s extraordinary decision to release his office’s internal communications relating to Flint, made under pressure earlier this year, will quiet the push to make records in the governor’s office and state legislature subject to FOIA. In part, that’s because the disclosed emails, coming over several weeks, have raised even more questions about the government’s response to the ongoing lead-poisoning crisis. Among them: Is this all of the relevant documents out there?

“How do we know these are all of the emails from his staff?” asked Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, a left-leaning advocacy group whose sleuthing for records led to the disclosure about how early Snyder’s office was aware of the Legionnaire’s outbreak. “How will we ever?”

Progress Michigan was also the first to reveal the state provided bottled water to state employees working in Flint at the same time the state was saying the city’s water supply was safe for the public to drink.

Longstanding frustrations

For residents, public policy researchers and government watchdog groups, including media organizations, Michigan’s open records laws have long been frustrating.

In addition to exemptions for the governor’s office and the legislature, those trying to get public records sometimes face high fees and lengthy delays, which critics of the current laws contend are often used to thwart the release of records that shed light on the inner workings of government.

Michigan recently received the worst grade in the nation for government transparency from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartison investigative news agency, in part because of its poor open records laws.

“We’d like to think there’s a culture of openness here, but I don’t think there is,” said Jeremy Steele, a communications professor at Michigan State and a former reporter.

That is beginning to change.

Just over a year ago, the legislature passed a FOIA bill, which Snyder signed, that capped how much the government can charge for copying records at 10 cents a page, and increased penalties for delayed responses. The law also allowed members of the public to sue over unreasonably high fees, with the possibility of government offices facing thousands of dollars of fines for violating the law.

State Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, in the western Upper Peninsula, called the law passed last year “incremental” yet positive – capping the amount clerks can charge for copying was needed, he said, because some public bodies were charging residents as much as $2 a page.

Now, McBroom and three other representatives, Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, and John Bizon, R-Battle Creek, say they are putting the finishing touches on a bill that will sweep away the blanket exemption for the governor as well as the legislature.

“This,” he said, “is paradigm changing.”

McBroom, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Ethics, said he’s heard repeatedly from those who have advocated for change. He said he’s come to agree on a need to improve the law and believes the package of changes, which he hopes to introduce this week, will gain support.

“I think we’re in a very good position to see the bills passed at this point,” he said. “I think the stars are aligning.”

If approved, the measure would leave Massachusetts as the only state with broad exemptions for the state executive branch.

And though many are skeptical that real reform can take place, they also say the Flint crisis has created wide ranging support for change. Multiple newspapers have called for an end to the exemptions. Added to that are Republicans and Democrats, and progressive advocates like the ACLU and Progress Michigan and free-market organizations like the Mackinac Center.

“This could be a silver lining in a horrible crisis,” Inside Michigan Politics’ Demas said. “This is a great opportunity to improve our FOIA laws, the exemptions and the prohibitive cost issue.”

Fees as a ‘weapon’

Although Michigan has now capped the cost of copying records, it still allows government bodies to charge fees for searching for them. It can charge an hourly rate equal to the pay of the lowest-paid person capable of doing the search.

Those estimates can sometimes get into the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars, despite the limits. They have upset many and, in some cases, caused the requester to walk away – something skeptics believe is the goal of the high estimates.

“Often times, you will see governmental bodies wield cost as a weapon,” Demas said.

After Progress Michigan asked the state treasurer for “all communications” with an education advisor from Louisiana – in a request unrelated to Flint – it was given an estimated charge of $52,000. Ultimately, the fee was dropped to $1,200, Scott, of Progress Michigan, said.

“I believe this information is already public,” Scott said. “I don’t think you should be charged at all for information.”

The Mackinac Center recently got a $172,000 estimate for its request of all emails of Flint utilities and water department employees that mentioned the word “lead” in 2014 and 2015.

Flint officials wrote that it would take more than 4,900 hours – paying an employee $35 an hour – to fulfill the request. In order for the city to begin, it is requiring a deposit of just over $86,000.

The Mackinac Center has said it believes the information requested will likely have to be gathered and produced for other media or the many lawsuits that have already been filed.

“We think (the estimate is) exorbitant,” Reitz said. “They need to get a hand on their records management and hand it over.”

But $172,000 is still way below the highest number Reitz has seen. He said the Mackinac Center asked the Michigan State Police for records on how the state was spending Department of Homeland Security money. The estimated cost to retrieve the records topped $6 million. Reitz said the center declined to pay and did not get the information.

Public offices make their case

Those fees may seem high and, for just about anyone, they would be a barrier to a release. But public officials note that, following the law changes last year, requesters can challenge the size of the fee in court. Before, they could only challenge a denial of requested records.

But for those who staff offices in cities, counties, townships villages and school boards – any public body in the state – they say the impact of voluminous public records requests can be extensive and take employees away from other work in their taxpayer-supported jobs, said Catherine Mullhaupt, staff attorney for the Michigan Township Association. She said some unhappy residents have been known to put dozens of requests online; requests that she said border on harassment.

Mullhaupt said provisions in the law that require an upfront deposit, or that allow clerks to recover the cost of searching for records, are meant to address the burden that some searches can impose on time-crunched employees. It’s not just the media that use the open records laws, she said, the general public as well as businesses, mortgage brokers and lawyers also request records for various reasons.

“We don’t want the fees to be an obstacle” to getting public records, she said.

Critics cite delays

But frustrated members of the public say costs aren’t the only hurdle.

Under current Michigan law, government offices have deadlines for responding to a records request. An office can, for instance, approve the release of records or, for limited reasons, deny their release. But critics note that the law does not make clear how long an office can take to turn over the records once they are approved.

When Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards became involved in Flint (his team was instrumental in first documenting elevated lead water levels in Flint homes) he began seeking documents from the state. All told, Edwards said he paid over $3,000 for state records.

It was money he said he was willing to pay – and then share through his website flintwaterstudy.org. Among his discoveries from the records: The federal EPA had previously warned the state about the potential problems with the Flint River but the state Department of Environmental Quality misinterpreted rules about what steps the state was required to take to protect the water supply.

Edwards said he readily paid the money because he didn’t want any further delay; he said he’s waited over nine years for information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But in Michigan, he was miffed when he paid a $32 bill online only to wait several more days before the state acknowledged his payment and released the records.

“I never asked for fee waiver or fee reduction in Michigan, just because I felt it was a public health emergency, and I did not want to give them ANY excuse to delay,” Edwards said in an email.

Many states charge fees for searches, though some do not, including West Virginia, where legislators eliminated the practice in 2015 after a state supreme court ruling struck down fees by school boards.

“For small news outlets with limited budgets, it’s an impediment,” the ACLU’s Guyette said.

Guyette acknowledged the ACLU has legal and financial resources to successfully file open records requests and challenge the responses when necessary. But he said that, when it comes to cost, many others simply cannot pay for information stored at taxpayer expense by public bodies. If the laws don’t change in Michigan, he hopes someone creates a nonprofit that funds FOIA requests and FOIA experts trained “to get those documents."

Attitude shift

Beyond expanding state FOIA laws to include the governor’s office and legislature, government transparency advocates say the state needs a massive change in how it thinks about public records. They are created by the government, at taxpayer expense. Why should taxpayers then have to pay again for that information?

Snyder himself has advocated for greater transparency in how the state spends money. Now, with the Flint documents revealing many of the inner workings of government, perhaps other state leaders are ready for change.

No one suggests that the changes now under consideration would have prevented the water issues in Flint. But Jane Briggs-Bunting, a former journalism professor at Michigan State and Oakland University and president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, which advocates for more transparency, said government works best when everyone – including the public – can see what’s going on.

“When the boss is looking over your shoulder, you are nervous,” she said. “Secrecy is a dreadful thing. If you know someone’s going to look, you’re going to do your job better.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Phil L.
Tue, 03/15/2016 - 11:34am
Amen! Thanks, Bridge.
Tue, 03/15/2016 - 11:55am
Thank you for the very transparent article on the reality of secrecy in state government. I am glad to hear the governor wants greater transparency, so lets see if this actually occurs. The current imbalance in state government with republicans holding all three branches is also a problem. Looking at the number of self serving bills that have been passed over the last few years is unsettling to say the least. It is good to see this issue being worked on in a non partisan way, but the only thing that will prove they are serious or are good politicians is what ultimately is done about the problem. As citizens in the state of MI we are all accountable for good government. This means educating ourselves and voting. That is what I am doing.
Fri, 03/18/2016 - 3:21pm
Repubs and transparency = oxymoron.
Tue, 03/15/2016 - 5:24pm
In addition to the executive branch and the legislature, let's make the courts subject to FOIA. And let's remove the exemption for public employee pension details.
Tue, 03/15/2016 - 7:29pm
Mr. Wilkinson paraphrases open government advocates as saying of government records, "They are created by the government, at taxpayer expense. Why should taxpayers then have to pay again for that information?" Both Mr. Wilkinson and the open government advocates should realize that information is not free. Precisely how would taxpayers avoid paying for the provision of the information stored in government records? If a government agency does not charge requestors the costs of providing the information, then the agency, and ultimately the taxpayers, must pay the costs from taxpayer funds. Either way, taxpayers must pay the costs. True, in the one case, just the requestors pay the costs. And that is appropriate because they are the ones who perceive value in obtaining the information. Ms. Millhaupt is quoted as saying, "some unhappy residents have been known to put dozens of requests online; requests that she said border on harassment." Clearly, a reasonable fee should be charged in order to discourage frivolous requests. At the same time, we don't want to discourage legitimate requests for information that will make a valuable contribution to the community. The trick is to strike the balance that best promotes the general welfare.
Thu, 03/17/2016 - 9:35am
This is another example of the Rahm Emanuel adage, "You never let a serious crisis go to waste." The Flint situations is proving to be simply a tool for advocates to get more access to old data to play public 'I Gotcha' with. It should be about understanding the decisions and actions and what can be learned and change practices so such an event doesn't happen again. The way FOIA is being used and promoted in this article as about 'fishing expeditions' ["...asked the state treasurer for “all communications...”] If people truly want to change how government performances then the need to look at how their actions such as 'transparency' through the FOIA will be put into practice. "But the discussion within the governor’s office was limited to a handful of people. And it purposely did not include staff from..." Doesn't anyone get the subtle message in this statement? No one thought about the FOIA practical impact on people and their instinctive change in behavior. For all those who see FOIA as a tool for for they how government performs they made not the least effort in seeing how to make it valuable to the people whose records they want. By not taking the people whose records will be made public they ave ensured that 'transparency' though the FOIA is nothing more than an 'I Gotcha' club to be wheeled publicly anytime the advocates get a proverbial 'hair up the a--' At least when they set the speed laws there is a value to those following the law, their personal safety. What value does FOIA 'transparency' provide to anyone in government? If you want something to improve performance than you need to look at ways to make it beneficial to all involved. All I can see the FOIA proponents care about is how they get information that they might use to play 20-20 hindsight 'I Gotcha' and spread it across the evening news. I believe in the value of transparency, but never as not as an 'I Gotche' club for public or provide floggings. There are many established transparency models in practice that change/improve practice, performances, and results. It is truly disappointing how many people ['advocates'] claim the importance of FOIA and yet all they use it for is a club. They never show any interest in the reality of how that club beats openness and honesty out of an organization and out of an individual. Is there one FOIA advocate that can describe how they think it is beneficial for the person or organization that is a target/candidate/information provider of FOIA?
Fri, 03/18/2016 - 3:29pm
Foia has certainly brought things to light in the Flint disaster. I especially like the staff member in Snyder's office who stated in an email she was not forwarding it to a certain individual because it could be subject to foia. Told me all I needed to know. Yes there are those who will misuse it just like the legislature misusing their ability to make bills referendum proof.
Fri, 03/18/2016 - 7:08pm
Mary, Of all the articles you have read about government actions based on FOIA gather information, do you recall one article that describe success, the how, the why, the who? If not, than why are you surprised and disappointed in how people react to those invoking FOIA? Have you considered how you would feel and work if you always had to be looking over your shoulder waiting to have everything you have done or talked about place under scrutiny by those advocates/media invoking FOIA? I wonder if Bridge reporters have ever considered using FOIA when writing an article about a government success. If not, I wonder why not. I wonder how the reporters feel about FOIA and then how they would feel about having to reveal every confidential source they have used. I wonder why Bridge doesn't do an article about transparency, how it is used and it benefits, how it is abused and the consequences. I believe in transparency, but using it only as a club does nothing but destroy openness, communications, collaboration, and creativity.
Fri, 03/18/2016 - 3:17pm
No government entity should be exempt from foia. Exemption allows for unaccountability of government. Get rid of the referendum proof part of the constitution. It has been there for years, but the legislature is abusing it. Even when the people said no to emergency managers the Repubs passed a bill anyway. They do not represent the voters. Vote them out.