The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is proud to join with journalists, government watchdogs and transparency advocates across the country in celebrating Sunshine Week 2014, which runs March 16-22.
As I wrote in Impact last year, the Center has always been committed to promoting open government, but has recently decided to increase our efforts in that area. That’s why we teamed with a diverse group of partners last year — including the ACLU of Michigan, the Michigan Press Association and The Center for Michigan — to host a series of townhall meetings across the state focusing on transparency laws. That’s why we sued the city of Westland — and won — over its illegal fee structure under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. And it is why the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation doggedly fought to stop forced unionization schemes involving home-based daycare owners, graduate student research assistants and home-based caregivers. We’ve also dedicated a lot of time and effort into helping taxpayers understand film subsidies, corporate welfare and school spending.
Even with those accomplishments, Michigan’s government transparency laws need updating for the 21st century.
One of the most common complaints about the state’s public records law is the cost imposed on residents who seek records from a public agency. Public records are created with taxpayer dollars and belong to the public, but too many agencies treat access to records as a privilege to be purchased. The Mackinac Center, for example, received a whopping $6.8 million bill from the State Police several years ago. It doesn’t take a seven-figure bill to serve as a deterrent to those who seek records; the city of Westland charged a $5 gatekeeping fee for records requests — a requirement the city has since eliminated.
A bill introduced by Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, would rectify some of these problems. For starters, House Bill 4001 would cap at 10 cents the amount per page that a government entity could charge for copying documents under a FOIA request. Part of our complaint against Westland was that the city was charging $1 per page for copies, when a UPS store literally across the street from city hall charges 10 cents.
The bill also would reduce the amount charged by a government entity for administrative and copying costs by 10 percent for each day its response exceeds the statutory deadline (up to a 50 percent reduction), and would increase the punitive awards to a person who successfully challenges an improper FOIA denial from $500 to $2,000.
HB4001 was introduced more than a year ago and was forwarded out of committee to the full House of Representatives last November with the recommendation that it be adopted. What better time for legislators to vote on it than during Sunshine Week?