Scott: FOIA means freedom from overcharging

Lonnie Scott

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. In arguably Lincoln’s most memorable speech, the Gettysburg Address, he uttered the words, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Government is designed to protect our communities, educate our children, and keep our air and water clean.

But when citizens are unable to keep tabs on how those in power are using government, this tool quickly begins to slip from the grasp of the citizenry.

Access to public records is one of the best ways citizens, reporters and watchdog organizations can ensure that our government is being used to benefit all of us — not just the wealthy and well-connected.

Unfortunately in Michigan, our public records laws, known as the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA, are woefully broken and need to be fixed.

Fees for FOIA requests from state departments vary wildly. Some departments charge little or nothing to produce information, while others charge exorbitant fees in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Take for example our recent FOIA request to state departments asking for emails from one of Gov. Rick Snyder’s out-of-state education advisors. Both the Education Achievement Authority and Michigan Department of Education provided us with documents free of charge, but the Department of Treasury wanted to charge — wait for it — over $52,000 dollars.

To put that in perspective, the average salary in Michigan is $45,410.

If we truly want a government that is of the people and by the people, public records should be available at little or no charge. Our tax dollars pay for the servers where this information is stored and for the salaries of the people who gather and produce the information we request. We’re already paying for this information. We shouldn’t need to fork over five-figure fees just to look at what rightly belongs to all of us.

Without reasonable access to public records, we would have never known about the numerous problems with the state’s Aramark contract. The cancellation of the state’s $98,000 fine and the fact that Aramark employees served inmates food that had been eaten by rodents and taken out of the trash would have never come to light had it not been for FOIA. Our tax dollars pay for that contract, so we have the right to know what’s going on with that — and any other government function.

Whether it’s FOIA fee discrepancies across departments, or the fact that our state lawmakers and governor are exempt from public records requests, Michigan has a lot of work to do to fix our FOIA system.

We have freedom in this state and country because we can hold those in power accountable for their actions and decisions. It becomes much more difficult to do that when our freedom to access public records is buried under onerous fees and departmental discrepancies.

Over the years, bills have been introduced to make the FOIA process more complete and uniform across the state, but more needs to be done. It’s time lawmakers — especially Gov. Snyder — owned up to their promises of transparency. No more games and exorbitant fees, no more stalling and hiding behind loopholes in the law. It’s past time for Michigan to fix our broken FOIA system. It’s up to us to make sure lawmakers do so.

Lonnie Scott is executive director of Progress Michigan, a progressive communications hub and watchdog organization.