In his legal work, attorney Tony Sorios has made hundreds of requests for public information from townships, villages and cities – dozens of them in Macomb, Oakland or Wayne counties.
The Farmington-based lawyer uses the state Freedom of Information Act, laws that guarantee the public’s right to ask for and receive documents, reports, e-mail messages and other public records.
“It’s interesting stuff when you file FOIAs,” Sorios says, using the common abbreviation for requests made using the law.
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Anyone can file a FOIA request, not just attorneys, journalists or public officials. Approved in 1976, Michigan’s Freedom of Information law has made available police reports, building inspections, environmental analyses and other public records that have helped the public understand what government is doing.
The law specifies that governments must provide the information in five business days and charge reasonable fees. But loopholes and the complexity of some FOIA requests can prolong the process by weeks and rapidly multiply costs, even for seemingly innocuous information.
Here are five tips to make the process less frustrating.
1. Narrow your request.
“It’s difficult to just go into City Hall and say, ‘I want to see everything you’ve got on the transit system.’ That’s a little broad and they probably won’t be able to do that for you,” says Dave Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism. “It does take a little leg work and running around and finding out what’s available.”
Specify by address, date, or time. Describe the record you want as accurately as possible.
2. Be prepared to fill out a form for an official record of your request.
“They’ve got to keep a record of who’s asking for what and how to get back to you,” Cuillier says.
3. Be specific – and cheap.
Before you file a FOIA, speak to clerks or other officials and know exactly what you are requesting. Governments often use their own vernacular for certain types of records, so doing homework beforehand and tailoring request using their language can help
Specify how much money you are willing to send and ask officials to notify you if the request will exceed that amount. Ask for records to be sent by email or, better yet, to inspect them visually to cut down on costs.
4. If you filed a request in one municipality, the process may not be quite the same in another.
From where information is on a website, to how much your request costs, to what the form looks like, there are likely to be differences between the municipalities.
5. Be prepared for redacted information.
Michigan’s law allows for dozens of types of information to be withheld: personal details, trade secrets, ongoing investigations…But read the law, know what might be exempt from your request, and, if information isn’t there that you think should be, there is an appeal process.