Suit accuses DEQ of not complying with open records law

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has failed to adequately respond to an open records request linked with Flint’s water crisis, according to a new lawsuit.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy Legal Foundation filed the suit Wednesday. It stems from the nonprofit’s request in late March for emails linked to a pair of DEQ officials who have figured prominently in Flint’s two-year struggle with water quality.

On March 30, the Center officially requested emails centering on Flint — between 2013 through 2015 — sent and received by Lianne Shekter Smith and Stephen Busch. Shekter Smith headed DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, while Busch served as the division’s district supervisor.

Shekter Smith was fired in February and Busch has been suspended. Busch face charges stemming from an investigation by Michigan’s Attorney General’s Office. Shekter Smith has been subpoenaed in the probe but asserted through counsel her Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.

In its lawsuit, the Mackinac Center contends its records request has not been properly fulfilled despite Gov. Rick Snyder’s office releasing hundreds of thousands of emails related to Flint late last month.

“Accountable government requires transparency, especially during times of crisis,”said Foundation Director Patrick Wright in a press release Wednesday. “Thousands of pages of MDEQ emails were posted online last month in the name of openness, yet the department is still balking at Michigan’s transparency laws.”

Following the March 30 records request, DEQ issued a 10-day extension notification on April 4, and then billed the Mackinac Center for its request on April 21.

For four-and-a-half hours of total staff time and processing, the bill was $114.35, which the center stated it paid. Despite the check having been cashed on May 6, the Mackinac Center states its request still has not been fulfilled.

“The fact that the state is claiming to be transparent in public yet still ignoring open records law highlights the need for the legislature to reform FOIA to create hard, enforceable response deadlines,” Wright stated in the release.

A DEQ spokesperson declined to comment Wednesday, saying the department’s policy is not to address pending litigation.

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