Photo credit: Vincent Arel
In simple terms, government is a group of people using resources that belonged to the public before they were taken away through taxes. Since these funds were earned by taxpayers, they have a right to know exactly how their government is using their money.
Sometimes governmental entities do things that conflict with what’s in the best interest of the public, and many times, that happens in secret. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, there was an increased interest in making governments more transparent. In response, politicians created the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, as it’s commonly called. FOIA is perhaps the most important tool that journalists and members of the public have to keep governments accountable. The FOIA laws in each state are different from each other in various ways, but they all give citizens the right to request and receive information from public entities.
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation ensures public entities — big and small — stay under scrutiny.
In Michigan, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation has filed several lawsuits to ensure that governments follow FOIA law.
The city of Westland was illegally charging people money up front plus a dollar per page for documents. Westland, a city in Wayne County, was illegally charging people a fee just to start the process of responding to an information request. It also charged a flat hourly fee, regardless of the actual costs of gathering the information. The Legal Foundation sued, and in response, the city restructured its fees and change how it handled public requests.
The Flint water crisis rocked the state in 2015 and 2016. It was hard for anyone to know who was responsible and how much blame-shifting was going on. In an attempt to find out what happened to the employees alleged to have committed wrongdoing, the Mackinac Center sent a simple FOIA request to the state of Michigan. The state delayed its response for four months, but ultimately gave in after the MCLF filed suit against it — and established new policies for disclosure as well.
Shortly after the 2016 general election, the president of the University of Michigan made disparaging remarks about supporters of President Donald Trump. Michigan Capitol Confidential, a news site of the Mackinac Center, requested documents from U-M, seeking to understand why a university president would make withering comments about some of his students. The university took more than 100 days to provide the documents, but it denied others related to the request. Eventually, after the MCLF filed suit against U-M, it released all of the documents, added new staff to its transparency department and paid legal fees to the MCLF.
Professor Marc Edwards, as part of his work related to the Flint water crisis, submitted several FOIA requests to Wayne State University in 2017. At first, the university chose to ignore the FOIA law. But public universities, like other units of government, are subject to open records laws. After the Legal Foundation filed suit, the university turned over the documents Edwards asked for.
In another situation, the Mackinac Center requested files related to an individual licensed by the state. The licensing department said it would respond appropriately, and then ignored the request for months. Within hours of the department being hit with a MCLF lawsuit, it released the information.
In short, government transparency laws are vital. Without them, it would be very difficult for reporters to do their jobs. And thanks to tools like FOIA, citizens can help hold public officials accountable. The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation ensures public entities — big and small — stay under scrutiny.