2018-03-11 / Insight

FOIA helps shape local storylines

BY ANDREW DIETDERICH
810-452-2609 • adietderich@mihomepaper.com


More than 100 people packed into Mayfield Township hall Jan. 31 for an “informational forum” about the township’s new fire department. Many complained about a lack of detail provided. Some of information later became public through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. 
Photo by Andrew Dietderich More than 100 people packed into Mayfield Township hall Jan. 31 for an “informational forum” about the township’s new fire department. Many complained about a lack of detail provided. Some of information later became public through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. Photo by Andrew Dietderich LAPEER COUNTY — When it comes to talk of being transparent, elected and public officials have no problem throwing the word around.

When it comes to acting transparent, however, things can be a bit different.

The proof is in some of the biggest stories covered by The County Press within the last year.

Specifically, stories that were unearthed and/or more thoroughly flushed out through use of Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

“It adds an element of transparency to the government, which nobody in their right mind could argue with,” said John Biscoe, controller/administrator, Lapeer County.


Kolby Miller, CEO, Medstar Inc., said last September that Medstar became involved in a lawsuit filed against Lapeer County and Lapeer County EMS after people asked the company to help “initiate actions to resolve the issue.” The extent of Medstar’s involvement was revealed through emails obtained via Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. 
Photos by Andrew Dietderich Kolby Miller, CEO, Medstar Inc., said last September that Medstar became involved in a lawsuit filed against Lapeer County and Lapeer County EMS after people asked the company to help “initiate actions to resolve the issue.” The extent of Medstar’s involvement was revealed through emails obtained via Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. Photos by Andrew Dietderich A list of stories brought to you through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act:

• Estimated $3.5 million start-up costs of the Mayfield Township Fire Dept.

• Original $1.5 million start-up costs were estimated by Mayfield Township Fire Dept. Acting Chief Tom Mitchell

• That no public record exists (other than a few sentences in the official minutes) about the extent of the conversation held during special meetings in Mayfield Township in November and December to discuss forming the Mayfield Township Fire Dept.


Fred Moorhouse, supervisor of Marathon Township, said the township was “ready to go it alone” in battling the EMS millage. Emails obtained via Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act indicated township officials had plenty of help. Fred Moorhouse, supervisor of Marathon Township, said the township was “ready to go it alone” in battling the EMS millage. Emails obtained via Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act indicated township officials had plenty of help. • That publication of those same public meetings was limited only to postcards being posted near the entrance of Mayfield Township Hall (meaning a person would have to physically go to the hall — or call the hall every day — to be aware of the meetings)

• The extent of how close Mayfield Township Supervisor Dianna Ireland has been working with a private company interested in establishing a medical marijuana grow and processing operation at the former Durakon site along M-24.

• How officials from Sterling Heights-based GFL Environmental USA requested copies of complaints made about the location where their composting operation now operates in Lapeer Township

• How GFL officials requested a private meeting with “community leaders” prior to resubmitting an application for special land use to Lapeer Township’s planning commission.

• Video from a July 2017 police chase involving the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. that lasted 44 minutes and was spread throughout Lapeer County

• That the Lapeer Downtown Development Authority billed Lapeer County EMS for about $6,000 after it failed to capture property taxes from 2016 winter tax bills.

• How involved a private company — Medstar Inc. — was behind the scenes in a lawsuit brought by three townships (Marathon, Deerfield, and Almont) against Lapeer County and Lapeer County EMS with regard to a voter-approved millage in 2016.

Featuring the stories is especially timely in light of Sunshine Week, an annual national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors that aims to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of “excessive and unnecessary secrecy.”

In 2018, Sunshine Weeks begins today and runs through March 16, which is National Freedom of Information Day.

In each of the FOIA-based stories reported by The County Press, documents obtained showed that officials involved knew a lot more than they were discussing or letting on during regular or special public meetings.

“I think that a lot of our ‘elected officials’ are feeding people lines, they’re giving us lip service,” said Bernie Jocuns, a Lapeer-based attorney. He also hosts a weekly talk show called “Holy Happy Hour” that includes discussion and opinion on local issues (more information can be found at solidstateradio.net).

Jocuns said he uses FOIA “all the time” in the course of his work as an attorney, such as when he has clients who have had blood draws in connection with alleged drunken driving or operating under the influence charges.

“Because you don’t know what’s going on procedurally,” he said.

He said FOIA provides for a tool to not just complete a story, but often reveals the actual story.

“I wouldn’t say fill-in-the-blanks – it’s given the story quite a few times,” Jocuns said. “Within the last couple of months in The County Press…there would not have been a story if the information wasn’t FOIA’ed.”

Per Detroit-based law firm Butzel Long – the firm behind the Michigan Press Association’s legal hotline – “there are over 10,000 public bodies in the state of Michigan subject to FOIA. The FOIA provides that a ‘public body’ means any of the following:

A state officer, employee, agency, department, division, bureau, board, commission, council, authority, or other body in the executive branch of the state government, but does not include the governor, lieutenant governor, or employees thereof

An agency, board, commission, or council in the legislative branch of the state government.

A county, city, township, village, inter-county, intercity, or regional governing body, council, school district, special district, or municipal corporation, or a board, department, commission, council, or agency thereof.

Any other body which is created by state or local authority or which is primarily funded by or through state or local authority.

Just about the only public officials not covered by FOIA is the judiciary, including the office of the county clerk and employees thereof when acting in the capacity of clerk to the circuit court.

Jocuns said its useful to point out who FOIA applies to because it serves as a reminder that public officials are actually supposed to be working for the public – and aren’t operating in the private sector space.

“Look at Mayfield Township,” Jocuns said. “Some of the stuff they’ve been avoiding…it’s like they’ve been taking their own personal, jaded views and disregarding the public.

“They were elected for a reason,” Jocuns said. “Granted they’re not paid, but that doesn’t change the fact they have a job to do.”

Despite the usefulness of FOIA for the general public, it can throw a wrench into operations for officials. Biscoe said that’s largely due to the fact that FOIA has specific deadlines that must be followed.

“Does it sometimes offer some challenges to small and local governments? It does because we don’t have a FOIA person waiting just to deal with FOIAs.”

Biscoe said an increasing amount of information can be found on government websites. Additionally, he said, a request through FOIA isn’t always required – sometimes all it takes is a simple phone call or in-person visit.

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