Westland FOIA: Encouraging Transparency

Mackinac Updates

The Mackinac Center is continuing its long-standing commitment to promote more open and transparent government, recently filing a lawsuit in Midland County Circuit Court against the city of Westland for its illegal fee structure under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

“Michigan’s FOIA law clearly states that its purpose is to give people ‘full and complete information regarding the affairs of government’ so that they can ‘fully participate in the democratic process,’” said Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation. “The city of Westland is intentionally trying to discourage people from exercising their rights under the law.”

The Center became aware of Westland’s FOIA policies this summer after Michigan Capitol Confidential filed a request seeking budget information about the city’s municipal golf course. Westland charges a $5 gatekeeping fee simply to start the FOIA process, plus a copying fee of $1 per page. In addition, Westland demands $45.61 an hour for the actual work of assembling the requested documents.

Michigan’s FOIA law allows a public body to 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.” It also says the fee “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.” It goes on to say that a public body may require a “good faith deposit” at the time a FOIA request is made “if the fee authorized under this section exceeds $50.”

“Charging a $5 fee to simply start the process is just a roadblock,” Wright said. “If it can be $5, then why not $1,000? And while they charge $1 per page for copies, a UPS store literally across the street from city hall charges 10 cents per copy. Why does the government charge 10 times as much as the private sector? We’re not asking for calligraphy on gold-leaf parchment.”

The $45.61 per hour charge also is illegal. The statute says “a public body may not charge more than the hourly wage of the lowest paid public body employee capable of retrieving the information necessary to comply with a request under this act.” Extrapolating $45.61 an hour times 2,080 hours in a work year comes to $94,868 annually.

“That’s pretty hefty compensation for a person the city says is the lowest paid employee who can handle copying and collating,” Wright added. “If that’s true, the taxpayers of Westland might want to be asking the city council a few questions.”

The lawsuit is the latest in a long history of the Mackinac Center advocating for more open and transparent government. The Center in July and August hosted a series of town hall meetings on the issue around the state, including panelists from the ACLU of Michigan, the Michigan Press Association, The Center for Michigan and the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.