Orlich (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Belding— Kim Orlich often sits in her cluttered dining room, banging the keys of a computer, launching a stream of emails full of capital letters and boldface type.
Surrounded by thick binders and mounds of documents, she’s on the hunt for more.
In the past two years she has filed 2,000 formal requests for information from city, county and state agencies in Michigan, according to an informal survey by The Detroit News.
“It makes me sound like I’m a maniac or something,” a chagrined Orlich said about the number. “I’m not crazy. I’m driven.”
At first she was trying to get information about her drunken driving arrest and related loss of her job as a state prison teacher.
That has grown into a investigation of what she calls widespread corruption at all levels of government.
The searches have yielded more grief than satisfaction.
The latest grief occurred while she was locked in an increasingly contentious battle with Belding over attempts to obtain city records.
In October, Orlich was arrested in this western Michigan community on a misdemeanor warrant out of Mackinac County in the Upper Peninsula for failure to show up in court in a dispute with a credit union.
The Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office declined to pick her up, saying it was too far to travel for such a minor offense. In most cases, the arrested person would then be released, law enforcement officials say.
But the eight-officer Belding Police Department volunteered to drive Orlich 236 miles to the Mackinac County Jail in St. Ignace.
Then, during the 13 hours she was incarcerated, Belding City Manager Meg Mullendore rejected 16 requests of city records Orlich had made under the state Freedom of Information Act. Mullendore’s reasoning: FOIA isn’t available to inmates.
None of the requests was made while Orlich was locked up. One was made two months before her arrest.
Mullendore denied she used the jailing as an expedient way to deal with the FOIA requests. She said decisions on several of the requests were due so she decided to handle all 16 at the same time.
“The volume is excessive,” Mullendore said. “It has created a backlog in my workload. There are better things I could be doing.”
Orlich — with her sometimes wild hair, endless FOIAs and hectoring emails to government workers — is seen by some as a quack.
But she isn’t so easily dismissed.
With a master’s degree in educational administration from Northern Michigan University, she is smart and articulate, friends said.
The loss of her job in 2006 has afforded her a lot of time to learn about law, government and FOIA, which allows the public to obtain government records for a nominal fee.
An avid reader, she’s well versed in the minutiae of city charters, the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct and the Michigan Appellate Digest.
“Sometimes she pushes the issue kind of hard,” said Kevin Fortney, 52, a friend and neighbor with whom Orlich often discusses her findings. “She’s on a mission and is emotional about it.”
Orlich said no one would hire her after she was fired. She receives food stamps and lives in a HUD-subsidized apartment complex. Her indigence allows her to receive most FOIAs for free and she refuses to pay for the rest.
She said her seven years of filing FOIAs has uncovered wrongdoing.
But the many targets of her jeremiads said they haven’t led to any changes. They said Orlich tends to see conspiracy everywhere.
'Look at the issues'
Orlich, 47, a divorced mother with a grown son, began using FOIAs when her life imploded after she lost her job.
She was fired from her position teaching adult education to inmates at the Carson City Correctional Facility northeast of Belding. She was accused of receiving legal help from an inmate in her drunken driving case.
Orlich said the prison was retaliating against her for complaining to federal officials about the quality of education given to inmates with disabilities.
She filed FOIAs with government agencies about her arrest, job loss and other things that happened in her life. Believing the agencies weren’t supportive enough, she began investigating them, filing FOIA requests about their policies and procedures.
“Everyone cares about my number of FOIAs,” she said. “I know I was overindulgent but look at the issues.”
Diane Earls, who recently retired as FOIA coordinator of the state Civil Service Commission, said the emails from Orlich were so numerous and aggressive that Earls feared for her safety.
She kept a photo of Orlich in her cubicle and at the front desk of her lobby so staff would know if Orlich ever appeared in person.
“Long story short, she was a pain,” Earls said. “Whether we had the record or not she never stopped, just kept coming.”
FOIA coordinators from nine of the 18 state agencies, overwhelmed by Orlich’s requests, met with the state attorney general’s office last year to see if anything could be done.
During a 29-month period ending in October, she filed 1,541 requests under the Freedom of Information Act for information from 11 state agencies, according to a survey. Besides the 400 FOIAs she filed with Belding, she had requested dozens from other cities and counties.
The state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs received 880 requests from Orlich during the 29 months. The next highest number, 80, were from a Mt. Morris man.
Orlich’s fight with Belding escalated after Mullendore became city manager in April and took over the job as city’s FOIA coordinator.
Mullendore rewrote the city’s FOIA policy to make it tougher for people such as Orlich to receive information.
'I can't give it up'
The new rules refuse to allow online requests, limit the number that can be made in a day, week and year, and don’t allow new requests until a person pays for old ones.
Orlich owes the city $621 for old requests, which Mullendore said is just a fraction of the city’s expense in providing the material.
The tighter requirements only made Orlich more determined.
After seven years of procuring records, however, she’s thinking about calling it quits.
“I’ve done it for too long. I need to stop,” she said. “It’s sort of like my baby. I can’t give it up.”
When Orlich was picked up on the warrant in October, it had to do with a debt she owed to the Upper Peninsula Credit Union.
The credit union won a judgment of $1,681 and the judge issued a bench warrant for her failure to attend the hearing.
Belding Police Chief Dale Nelson conceded it was unusual for his department to transport Orlich so far after the Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office declined to pick her up.
He said it had nothing to do with her 400 FOIA requests to Belding this year. Instead, he was just trying to help out another law enforcement agency.
After Orlich was taken to jail, the credit union declined to seek the debt, telling the court the judgment was about to expire.
Orlich was quickly released and a friend drove her back to Belding.
Now she wants to know more about the warrant. To do so she has filed FOIA requests with Belding police, Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office and Mackinac County District Court.