Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 4, 2013

Another View: Keeping spirit of FOIA strong

Another view
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act will be 40 years old in 2016. That would seem long enough to assure that it is well understood and equally well followed by the public officials who entertain requests to review public records from citizens and the media.

Yet, exactly how the FOIA is followed can vary wildly from state department to state department. A Lansing State Journal reporter exposed the contrasts in special reports this summer:

n The state Department of Technology, Management and Budget manages $32 billion in contracts with outside vendors and makes all available online for the public to review for free at any time.

n The Department of Transportation wanted “tens of thousands” to collect and prepare its contracts for a reporter’s review.

n The Michigan Economic Development Corp. wanted $1,700 to prepare its contracts for review.

But, as it was meant to do, FOIA urges discussion of transparency and access. And after those reports, officials at MEDC changed their thinking. Now they are working to make the material easy to review — for reporters or any other citizen. Despite the initial problems raised in response to the newspaper’s requests, the FOIA arguably served its purpose: state officials are responding to requests that hold them accountable for their work.

The Lansing State Journal’s pursuit of state contracts began after MEDC was criticized for hiring an Iowa firm to prepare a “Pure Michigan” travel guide, a story initially reported by the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Daum set out to review all state contracts to see how much was spent in state. Her initial report found that 78 percent of spending managed by DTMB go to Michigan companies.

MEDC is working to set its records into a system similar to DTMB. So far this year, it reports $16 million in payments on outside contracts, about 73 percent to Michigan companies.

MDOT, which had about $1 billion in contracts, walked through part of its website with LSJ staff, who are now compiling basic details about its contract spending using those online resources. Some of that detail apparently was online at the time of the LSJ’s request, although MDOT officials did not say that in their written response to the State Journal’s FOIA request.

Officials who are willing to revisit these questions with an emphasis on transparency demonstrate a commitment to the letter and the spirit of FOIA.

The Lansing State Journal