Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

November 20, 2013

Another View: FOIA fixes will benefit Michiganders

A committee in the Michigan House has sent a bill making essential improvements to the state’s Freedom of Information Act to the full chamber for consideration, likely later this year.

That is good news for media organizations that fight battles to get public information on a regular basis. But it’s even better news for citizens, who are entitled to see records that let them evaluate the quality of their government.

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act was passed in the 1970s and has been amended and updated many times. But its core purpose remains the same: The act protects citizens’ rights to request and review any government document that is not specifically exempted.

Over the decades, too many government officials have come to view the law not as a matter of citizens’ access, but as a matter of protecting information from disclosure. Some jurisdictions have blatantly attempted to turn it into a revenue source by charging large fees to prepare documents for review or to copy them.

In some cases the FOIA coordinators assigned to manage contact with the public and the media are so badly informed about their obligations or their agency operations that they declined to release information that later was discovered to be on a government website.

House Bill 4001, sponsored by Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, strives to end to the worst abuses. It prevents charging copying fees to those who merely wish to look at records. It limits copying charges to 10 cents per page and allows labor charges up to triple the state’s minimum wage, currently $7.40 per hour. It also reduces an agency’s fees for each day that it is late in providing information and increases punitive damages for violations from $500 to $5,000.

Another key provision would alter the current law that says citizens who lose a court appeal after an agency denied their request then have to pay the agency’s legal fees. People ought not be punished for attempting to hold government accountable. Government should be accountable to the citizens it serves.

Media and better government groups support these changes. Related bills also are being considered. They would create an Open Government Commission to hear FOIA appeals (HB 4314) and to expand FOIA coverage for the legislative branch (HB 4302 and SB 202). There is bipartisan support for these changes, as there should be.

All will benefit when bills are passed and signed.

Lansing State Journal

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