In March, the Mackinac Center sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the department, asking for all emails from department employees Liane Shekter-Smith and Stephen Bush from 2013 through 2015 containing the word “Flint.” The Center also requested the names of “any employees transferred, reassigned, or suspended as a result of the Flint water issues.” Finally, the request sought the current job titles of Shekter-Smith and Busch.
Though the department said it would only need 4.5 hours of staff time to respond to the request, it took four months to provide the information. The Mackinac Center’s $114.35 check to cover the MDEQ’s costs for fulfilling the request was cashed months before the department provided the information. Generally, government agencies have 15 days to respond to a records request and the department’s own guidelines indicated it would respond in a timely manner.
An accountable government must be transparent, especially during times of crisis. The MDEQ’s disregard of open-records laws demonstrates the need for the Legislature to reform FOIA and create unambiguous, enforceable response deadlines.
“Our FOIA laws must guarantee people of all views access to timely information to fully participate in the democratic process,” said Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation. “People and the press have a right to transparency even if it’s inconvenient to the government agency.”
The case, in which the Center is seeking the records and over $2,500 in damages due to the willful conduct of the department, was filed in the State of Michigan Court of Claims.
The documents were eventually provided to the Mackinac Center, and the case was settled. Soon after the case ended, Attorney General Schuette entered an opinion that limited the ability of state agencies to delay providing FOIA material.