Slow FOIA Response in Flint Crisis Shows Needs for More Open Government

The dominant news story of the year has been the Flint water crisis, where drinking water was contaminated by lead after anti-corrosion chemicals weren’t applied to the system. This has resulted in the declaration of a state emergency as well as a federal one, hundreds of millions of dollars being sent to Flint, several investigations and lawsuits, a series of resignations and firings and nine criminal indictments.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality monitors water quality in the state. Early this year, even before the attorney general filed criminal charges against some state workers, Michiganders found out that several employees in the department were transferred. It was clear that the department had determined some of its employees were at least partially responsible or had acted wrongly.

The Mackinac Center was interested in finding out what happened. Nobody knew much about the employees. What had they done and what was their punishment? Was the state going through the difficult process of trying to fire the workers? Or was it merely transferring them to another area in state government?

On March 30, we sent a Freedom of Information Act request to ask for certain email messages from two employees — those that mentioned the word “lead.” We also asked for documentation of any workers who were transferred, reassigned, or suspended because of the Flint water issue.

The department took the maximum extension allowed by law, 15 business days, and then requested payment of $114. After we paid that amount, the department told us — though the document search would only take a few hours — the request would not be fulfilled until July 29. So a request that would typically take a few weeks took a full four months.

We realize that this crisis is a huge burden on the department and that it is responding to many requests for information. But people have a right to transparency, even if it inconveniences a government agency. And if the decision to wait an arbitrary amount of time can stand, nothing stops public entities across the state from doing the same.  

Michigan law says citizens “are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees.” We send out hundreds of FOIA requests each year, and in most cases, agencies respond within 15 business days. Even so, the court should establish a hard, reasonable deadline for government entities to hand over public information. And if the court doesn’t do so, the Legislature should clarify the law.

This is just one of several areas where legislators should enhance government transparency. Other bills in the Legislature subject Michigan’s executive and legislative branches to the state’s FOIA law. Michigan’s official agency in charge of economic development programs has handed out billions of dollars in select tax credits. But for the past few years, it has not released the names of the companies receiving the funds.

Transparency is often a partisan issue for politicians. Most presidents, governors and even local township officials promise that they’ll be transparent. President George W. Bush said that the federal government would “reinforce fundamental values like transparency and rule of law.” President Barack Obama called for “an unprecedented level of openness in government.” When both men were seen as failing to live up to these slogans, they were criticized extensively by their political opponents and typically defended by their allies. 

But for us, transparency in government is not a partisan issue. Regardless of which political party is in office, the Mackinac Center will continue to push for a more open government.