Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Westland sued over access to documents

Michigan taxpayers should be grateful to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy for taking up a battle on its behalf.

The center claims in a lawsuit that the city of Westland is charging an illegal fee to people seeking public information.

In June, Michigan Capitol Confidential, which is the news service of the Mackinac Center, sent Freedom of Information Act requests seeking financial information from every municipality in the state that operates a golf course. Westland responded that the city requires a $5 fee before it will provide any information.

Westland also said it would cost $1 per page for copying costs and $45.61 per hour for the person gathering the information.

This is a problem common to media outlets in Michigan. FOIA should not be seen merely as a freedom-of-the-press type of law, however, since all citizens are empowered by it. After all, the public documents sought are produced at the expense of taxpayers who own them.

Michigan has a good FOIA law, but poor enforcement procedures. The only way to get enforcement is to do what the center is doing — filing a lawsuit. News entities increasingly lack the resources to seek justice in a system seemingly tailored for the rich. 

 According to Michigan's FOIA law, public entities may only charge, "a fee for a public record search, the necessary copying of a public record for inspection, or for providing a copy of a public record." This money, the act says, "shall be limited to actual mailing costs, and to the actual incremental cost of duplication or publication including labor, the cost of search, examination, review and the deletion and separation of exempt from nonexempt information."

Mackinac Center attorney Patrick Wright said the fees Westland wanted to charge are illegal.

"Charging a $5 fee to simply start the process is just a roadblock the city has put up to try and discourage people from participating in the democratic process," Wright said. "If it can be $5, then why not $1,000?"

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