2018-03-11 / Insight


FOIA, it’s your right to know
810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com

Lapeer County Controller/Administrator John Biscoe and his administrative assistant Doreen Clark, look over a FOIA request. 
Photo by Phil Foley Lapeer County Controller/Administrator John Biscoe and his administrative assistant Doreen Clark, look over a FOIA request. Photo by Phil Foley LAPEER COUNTY — People have been quoting and paraphrasing Sir Francis Bacon’s aphorism that “knowledge is power,” since the 16th century, but it wasn’t until 1966 that Americans got the power of knowledge at the federal level.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Freedom of Information Act, commonly known as FOIA, on Independence Day 1966. The act requires executive branch agencies to provide the public with information upon request, with some notable exceptions including national defense secrets, trade secrets and employee medical records.

Michigan followed suit with its own FOIA law in 1976.

However, Michigan’s FOIA has more than 20 exemptions.

According to the Michigan Press Association those exemptions fall into four broad categories including (1.) records of a personal nature, the release of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy; (2.) records, the release of which would impair the safety or security of a public institution or the safe and efficient operation of a police or military authority; (3.) records exempt on the basis of public policy; (4) records exempted by other statutes.

With the exception of the governor, lieutenant governor, the executive office of the governor, the judiciary and the legislature just about every public body in the state is covered by FOIA and every township, village and city and police agency is required to have a FOIA coordinator.

While many people think FOIA is something just reporters use, everyone is entitled to public information.

Whether it’s a public employee’s salary, how much is spent on road salt or the minutes of a meeting to decide how long to keep a park open, if it is public information, you’re entitled to it.

The first step in obtaining information is to write a FOIA request to the proper agency. It can be made in writing or email.

“We always try to be as responsive as possible,” said Lapeer County Controller/Administrator John Biscoe.

The state FOIA statute gives municipalities and agencies up to five days to make an initial response and additional 10 days if the response is going to be time consuming or complex to complete.

Deputy Linda Schell, who is the FOIA coordinator for the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept., said about 90 percent of the more than 200 FOIA requests she gets each year are for drug and drunken driving arrests.

She said those usually take a day or two to complete and cost the attorneys who ask for them $3 or $4. She the lawyers could get the same information through the Lapeer County Prosecutor’s Office through the discovery process, but it would take longer.

Last year, Schell said, a Southfield lawyer asked for a copy of every marijuana case Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Det./Lt. Gary Parks had ever worked on. She said it took two clerks two weeks to assemble the paperwork and redact personal information like Social Security numbers and birth dates.

Schell said the sheriff’s department shipped the lawyer an eight-pound package of documents and then had to take him to small claims court to get paid.

Although the public is entitled to information, public bodies are allowed to cover the cost of researching and copying that information.

“We don’t mind answering FOIA requests,” said Lapeer City Manager Dale Kerbyson. “We just want to be able to charge the appropriate cost.” The state’s FOIA law requires public bodies to charge no more than the lowest hourly rate for a person qualified to do the search.

At the county, said Doreen Clark, assistant to the administrator, that means the public is charged the rate for a part-time clerk, regardless of who does the actual search.

Biscoe said the county receives about a dozen FOIA requests a year, mostly from vendors seeking commercial information. Clark said if people bring their own electronic media to her office, they’re only charged for the research time.

Kerbyson’s administrative assistant, Tracey Russell, said about four years ago the city ran into a problem with people making FOIA requests and then not paying for the material. She said that prompted the city to change its policy and now FOIA packages have to be paid for before they’re released.

Russell said about 70 percent of the FOIA requests are for police reports and another 10 percent are about building issues. The rest are all over the board. Kerbyson noted that 95 percent of the requests come from non-city residents.

Russell said it’s rare for her to deny a FOIA request and when she does it’s almost always because it’s an open police investigation.

Schell said along with open investigations FOIA requests for reports involving minors and criminal sexual conduct are denied. She said requests are denied in writing and people are told they can file an appeal with the Sheriff.

However, she noted, during her four years as the FOIA coordinator, no one has ever filed a formal appeal with the Sheriff.

If someone did file an appeal and was rejected, they would still have the ability to file a lawsuit with the Lapeer County Circuit Court and if they won could be awarded up to $500 and attorney’s fees.

Biscoe said the best way to get a FOIA request answered quickly is to be as specific as possible. He noted his office recently got a request for a video of an incident outside Judge Justice Scott’s courtroom. “We didn’t know how to respond to that,” he said, but when the person making the request provided a specific time and date, the county was able to provide the video.

The number of FOIA requests sought vary widely from eight in Elba Township to 124 for Lapeer County Central Dispatch last year. Size of the organization does seem to impact request volume. While Lapeer Township responded to 17 FOIA requests last year, Lapeer County government outside the Sheriff and Central Dispatch received only 12.

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